BOWIE: A GOLDEN YEAR?
I can remember the excitement that I felt when I heard David Bowie’s ‘Blackstar’ album for the first time. It struck me as a great album on that first listen and it certainly proved to be. However, none of us knew that it would be his last album when it was released on his 69th birthday, January 8th 2016. The world learned of his passing just a few days later with great sadness. I never knew him but I have been a fan since seeing him on Top Of The Pops in 1972 singing ‘Starman’. I remember that moment in glorious technicolour, which is strange given that we only had a black and white TV set! Now here we are a year on from Bowie’s death and a short while after what would have been his 70th birthday. Yes, he has gone, but as the time since his death has proved he has certainly not really left us.
Along with the countless magazines and books about the Dame, there have been some excellent music releases too. But let’s start with the books; Paul Morley’s volume ‘The Age Of Bowie’ is good but perhaps tries a little too hard at times. The revised and updated ‘The Complete David Bowie’ is a magnificent Bowie reference book from Nicholas Pegg. Personally, I would avoid Lesley-Ann Jones’ ‘Hero: David Bowie’ I did read it and it has an undertone of tabloid sensationalism and is littered with inaccuracies. But for me, the book that stands out from the crowd is ‘My Life With Bowie: Spider From Mars’ which is Woody Woodmansey’s autobiography. Woody as many of you will know was the drummer in Bowie’s band throughout those peak Ziggy years. He is also the last spider standing now after we lost Mick Ronson in 1993 and Trevor Bolder in 2013. This book gives you a real feel for what life was like during the time that Bowie went from a struggling musician to Ziggy. It has highs and lows and is clearly told by someone with much affection for the man and the experiences that they shared. Also how many other books do you know that give Yorkshire Market Town, Driffield, where Woody was born and grew up, such a great write up?
Talking of Woody, he is also a member of Holy Holy along with long time Bowie producer Tony Visconti and vocalist Glenn Gregory of Heaven 17. They were touring and playing the whole of ‘The Man Who Sold The World’ album in the US when David Bowie’s death was announced. That tour was so successful that they are back for more with a complete run through of ‘The Rise And Fall Of Ziggy Stardust And The Spiders From Mars’. Only a few dates have been announced for that so far including one in Hull, the home of the Spiders, during its year as City Of Culture. Another will be at Friars in Aylesbury the site of the first ever Ziggy show.
In the months leading up to his sad demise David had been writing a musical, ‘Lazarus’, along with playwright Enda Walsh. It is a sequel to the Walter Tevis novel ‘The Man Who Fell To Earth’ in which Bowie took the leading role in 1976 when it was filmed by director Nic Roeg. The story picks up with Bowie’s character Thomas Jerome Newton, played on stage by Michael C Hall of Dexter and Six Feet Under fame, stranded on earth unable to return to his family on his dying home planet. Using some rearrangements of classic and lesser known Bowie tracks the musical takes us through Newton’s spiral into an alcohol fuelled madness. It opened in New York just a few weeks before Bowie’s passing and transferred to London later in 2016. It is among the best stage musicals that I have ever seen.
The Man Who Fell To Earth was also the subject of a remastered DVD and Blu-ray release to celebrate its 40th anniversary. On top of that, the films soundtrack finally got an official release. The soundtrack was put together by John Phillips who was perhaps best known as a member of the Mamas And Papas in the 60s and Stomu Yamashta, Japanese percussionist and composer. One time Rolling Stones guitarist Mick Taylor also helped out on some of the Phillips tracks. It is believed that Bowie had hoped to produce the soundtrack himself and various stories exist as to why that never happened. They range from contractual issues to his submission just not being good enough. It is also thought that some of what he recorded formed the basis for some parts of the ambient instrumental tracks on side two of the ‘Low’ album in 1977. To many avid Bowie fans though his soundtrack recording of the film has become a bit of a bootleg holy grail.
The reissue via box sets of all of David’s albums continued in 2016 with the release of the second box set ‘Who Can I Be Now?’ which covers the period 1974 to 1976. Including ‘Diamond Dogs’, ‘Young Americans’, ‘Station To Station’ and ‘David Live’ among others. There is also a great disc of single-only releases and rare tracks. But perhaps the best curio for me and many other Bowie fanatics is the inclusion of ‘The Gouster’. This was the album that became ‘Young Americans’. It was already in the bag when Bowie met John Lennon in Electric Lady Studios in New York and ended up recording an average version of ‘Across The Universe’ and the timeless funk classic ‘Fame’ which was a co-write between Bowie, Lennon and Carlos Alomar. Those songs replaced songs lined up for ‘The Gouster’ and gave it a very different shape along with a new title in ‘Young Americans’
The BBC documentary ‘The Last Five Years’ is a stunning film and a marvellous tribute which documents Bowie’s last years (it covers a little more than the last five though). There are some superb clips that have never been aired before, notably Bowie and band shopping in a truck-stop in the US while on tour in 2004 and chancing upon a cassette of the first Tin Machine album in the bargain bin. Bowie just looks at it and says to his colleague, “that figures!” accompanied by a wry grin. It also includes some wonderful interviews with past band members and collaborators. There have been some great tributes to the man notably at the Brit Awards and the Grammys. I for one actually enjoyed Lady Gaga’s Grammy tribute performance. Ian Hunter, who has known David for many years, recorded a heartfelt tribute on his latest album ‘Fingers Crossed’ last year entitled ‘Dandy’. It reflects the colour that David Bowie brought into our lives in what was a very drab early 1970s Britain. It tells the story from the perspective of a Ziggy fan. I was lucky enough to see David play live ten times over the years, but obviously, no one will be able to do that again. But if you do need a fix of Bowie songs played incredibly well live then you really should check out Absolute Bowie. I saw them recently in York and although I have never been a big fan of tribute bands it is abundantly clear that Absolute Bowie are exceptionally good. Shut your eyes and you can almost imagine Bowie in the room.
I am sure that 2017 will produce many wonderful new Bowie related experiences. In February there is the 40th anniversary release of the ‘Sound And Vision’ picture disc seven-inch single. Undoubtedly there will be a new box set to follow ‘Who Can I Be Now?’ my money is on that covering 1977 to 1980. This year has already seen the release of a new digital download only EP entitled No Plan which includes the three extra tracks recorded during the ‘Blackstar’ sessions; ‘No Plan’, ‘Killing A Little Time’ and ‘When I Met You’ plus ‘Lazarus’ taken from ‘Blackstar’. These were also made available on the cast recording of the ‘Lazarus’ musical which came out late last year. All three are featured in the musical too. So yes Mr Jones is no longer with us, but in many ways he still is.
Just remember, “We Can Be Heroes, Just For One Day”
CONTRIBUTOR BILL ADAMSON