Bowie, as the Thin White Duke, with Cher during an appearance on Italian TV in 1976.

Music at the Speed of Life

THE NEWS OF David Bowie’s death from cancer at the age of 69 didn’t register with me when it first flashed up on the screen. The words said “Breaking News”, but it didn’t feel like news. It felt like an intrusion from another world or another time, as if I’d been catapulted years into the future. Then it felt like a mistake or a cruel hoax. My mind went blank and I paused for a moment, thinking, “Did I know that already?” Then I wondered why the sky hadn’t fallen in.

I didn’t grow up listening to Bowie. When I first started getting into music at the end of the 70s, we didn’t have much time for anything before punk. Bowie was going through his “Berlin period”, producing music that was critically acclaimed but hardly designed to catch the attention of a young teenager buying his first records in 1979 (I didn’t even hear “Heroes” until years later, which is odd because it’s actually a very “1977” sort of record). He wasn’t on Top of the Pops much. Of course, I’d heard some of the “early stuff” – Ziggy Stardust, Space Oddity and so on – but that belonged to the era of flared trousers and long hair. Bowie was a kind of elder statesman. Whatever you were into – punk, ska, heavy metal, reggae, soul, pub rock, early synthesiser music – Bowie was someone you were supposed to respect. Unlike most of the other big stars of the early 1970s, he had carried some credibility into the era of The Jam and The Human League.

This was shown in spades a year or two later by Ashes to Ashes, a song from an LP (Scary Monsters and Super Creeps) which was so perfectly of its time that it was if the Daddy had come back to show New Romantics how it was really done. I bought Let’s Dance, of course. I liked it but I never loved it. Tonight seemed a fairly ropey LP by Bowie’s standards, but over the years I’ve come to love the title track. Sometime in the mid-80s, I bought the Berlin trilogy. Or I thought I had. I actually ended up with Station to Station instead of Lodger, which still seems like a more coherent triptych to me. I could hear this was something very special indeed, and I wondered at how it must have sounded even fresher and more startling ten years earlier.

Over the years, I kept delving back and back, into the hazardous terrain before 1976, and finding more gems – Diamond Dogs, Hunky Dory and The Man Who Sold the World. Bowie didn’t give you songs to sing in the shower. He had a fair few hit singles, but he was really an albums man. With each new LP he seemed to be announcing a rebirth (one of the reasons his death feels so shocking is that it comes just two days after his latest “renaissance”, with Blackstar) as well as telling us something new about ourselves. With Bowie LPs, you felt you were buying into a piece of art, a slice of culture, a style and a story, even if it was, at the end of the day, just a bunch of songs with a bloke from south London posing on the cover in a ridiculous costume. And that’s a very British thing – that mixing of art, high camp and blokeishness. Bowie didn’t take himself too seriously while taking his work very seriously indeed. Or perhaps it was the other way round.

I never learned to like Space Oddity and I’m too much of a product of the early synth music and pub rock of my time to rate myself as a “proper” Bowie fan. But as a cultural icon of late 20th century Britain, he is second to none. We won’t see his like again.

British culture: the mainstream is not the whole story

Sandbrook draws some political conclusions as wonky as one of Doctor Who’s early sets. If Britain’s cultural success vindicates Thatcherite individualism, why did most of the figures he celebrates emerge in precisely the kind of “collectivist” society that Thatcher despised?

My review of Dominic Sandbrook’s The Great British Dream Factory has been published in the Winter 2016 issue of Public Service Magazine.

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