27 January 2013

On Re-Writing One's Own Past

Speaking of the '70s blog, I suppose this topic could serve as something like a "prequel" to that bit I wrote a good while ago about Bowie's "Berlin years." But between his being back in the music news in recent week combined with a couple of other incidental things, I find myself revisiting the topic...

I guess you could say that, once upon a long-ago, Bowie had been a major formative musical influence -- or at least he was in my early teens, about the time Scary Monsters came out, when I was reaching that age where I was developing a bit of taste-shaping autonomy, starting to proactively take an interest in music and seeking out things that I liked or found interesting (as opposed to being a passive recipient for whatever pap spilled out of the radio). That lasted for a couple of years, and then I soon moved on, and didn't listen to Bowie at all for about 25 years or so.

When I revisited some of his '70s material several years ago, I found that the albums I favored most were still the ones that I had liked most years ago. Mainly, the better portion of Station to Station, and the first two-thirds of the "Berlin trilogy." And also Hunky Dory, mainly for the way it reveals Bowie finally finding his voice as a songwriter, via a set of mostly amounts to his most nakedly personal, honest songwriting.

But recently a friend passed along the entirety of Bowie's early discog, including some things I'd never bothered with back in the day. First, there's Pin-Ups, which I avoided back when because I knew it was an album of cover tunes. And then there's the self-titled David Bowie album of 1967, representing pre-glam portion of Bowie's career. These two make for a interesting contrast when played alongside each other, prompting one to wonder, "So, Dave -- back in the 1960s you were really grooving to Syd Barrett and The Pink Floyd, the Pretty Things, the Kinks and the Yardbirds and whatnot -- during that same time that you, as an aspiring pop artist, were jockeying to become the next Cliff Richard?"

Perviously, there were only two songs from the early days of Bowie's career that I was familiar with, neither of which turned up on the 1967 album in question...

That second one, by the way, was arranged and produced hit-making maestro Tony Hatch, the man most known for making Petula Clark a huge success at the time. (Yet even with that sort of backing, Davey was still unable to get on the charts). Hatch also did this number, in which the "sound of the Seventies" sounds like it's stuck in the '60s. I used to sometimes use it to get my old radio show off to a jaunty start, beginning things by lobbing in a curveball...

There was long radio piece pianist Glenn Gould did for the CBC back in 1967 entitled "The Search for Pet Clark." It amounted to an eccentric and meandering travelogue about driving through the mountains somewhere in Canada as the car radio signal washes in and out, which ultimately takes the form of an extended paean to the work of Tony Hatch. UBUWEB used to have the entire thing up on their site, but it seems the CBC had them delete the entire page for Gould a long time ago. But there's some discussion of it in this recent article about Gould's "contrapuntal radio" works here.

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And then of course there's the glam-era/Ziggy Stardust years, which is what most everyone thinks about when they think about Bowie -- the "career-defining" stuff. I recall John Lydon writing in his memoir about Bowie's popularity in the U.K. during those years:

"What was odd was that all of the football hooligans would be deeply into Bowie. Bowie did bring all different sorts together. A Bowie concert would be quite an event. You'd have to go because the social aspect of it all was phenomenal. In London, I don't think people took David Bowie's gay thing seriously. It didn't mean anything at all. He was very clever at it. Of course he had many years to practice his art."

Contrasted with Nick Kent writing in his own memoir Apathy for the Devil, recalling Bowie's appearance at Cobo Hall in Detroit in 1974. Kent describes the audience for the occasion being like "something out of Fellini's Satryicon"; complete with a gaggle of lesbian bikers driving around the theater lobby on their cycles, the audience in throes of some sort of "decadent chic" paroxysm. Bowie, Kent relays, couldn't help but notice all this with intrigue from the stage; making a mental note of it, filed away for future reference (with Kent claiming that it was the partial inspiration for the song "Panic in Detroit").*

Coincidentally enough, the above took place while Kent was in the U.S. doing a stint in Detroit at Creem magazine, working under the editorship of Lester Bangs. And Cobo Hall fits prominently into a Lester Bangs piece of just two years earlier -- "Bring Your Mother to the Gas Chamber," about Black Sabbath's premier tour of the States. Ironic, seeing how Bangs describes how the band's newfound fans (much like the band's critics and Moral Majority-type detractors) took the group's whole occult schtick seriously. With all of the above in mind, one has to wonder wtf was up with many Americans at the time. If -- despite the prevalence of "camp" theatrics at the time, and the early stirrings of postmodernism -- Americans were for the most part irony-impaired, and just generally prone to taking things too literally. Maybe something to do with a different relationship with pop culture? Or some naive expectation of some degree of "authenticity" therein? Dunno, but I recall it leading to some severe cultural retardation at times -- both then, and at various times since.

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* I recall years ago seeing vintage film footage of some such stuff, with a variety of "Glitter Rock Parking Lot"-type interviews with Americans attending a Bowie or Mott the Hoople show or whatever. As memory serves, it was sort of thing that made Kent's account seem very viable, very likely.


Phil Knight said...

In fairness to Cliff Richard though, he would never have recorded something as eccentric as "The Laughing Gnome", consumate professional as he was.

Early Bowie reminds me of the far-out-but-still-commercial end of late '60's British culture: "Ogden's Nut Gone Flake", "Excerpt From A Teenage Opera", Billy Nicholls etc.

The thing about this part of the scene is that as it included so many ex-stageschool types (e.g. Steve Marriott) it was relationship-wise quite close to the mainstream.

i.e. a lot of the far-out youngsters had contacts with "mentors" in the established theatre/music/TV scene. And Bowie was a great networker early in his career.

Also, the likes of Monty Python and Marty Feldman prepared the way with the visual surrealism of their mainstream comedy shows.

I'm very ambivalent about Bowie, personally. I think he's very much an inorganic "spoiler" of a previously inherently creative organic scene (compare him with a true genius like Hendrix for example), but I also think he was kind of inevitable.

As inevitable as the Pythons, really.

Greyhoos said...

Interesting, Phil...very interesting. And I think I have some idea of what you're talking about. But one thing you might be missing: That a lot of what you mention was stuff that never "crossed the pond," culturally speaking. (Despite all the blahblah about there having been a "British Invasion" at the time, said invasion was actually only a very slender sliver of a much larger pie.) So much of that contextual backstory is bound to be lost on most Americans.

> "Cliff Richard though, he would never have recorded..."

Point well taken. A poor analogy on my part, I'm sure. Mainly a reference to the end of the pop spectrum Bowie was working at the time (as opposed to later).

> "...was a great networker early..."

I deduced that. His mime year & such. Landing a role in some TV movie, if I recall. And doing some ice-cream advert. And, despite his lack of success in cracking the charts, still working the angles and getting some exposure.

As far as ambivalence goes, perhaps I've had something akin to that, myself. Never much took to the glam-era stuff -- with all its high-concept artifice and contrivances & whatnot. (Honestly, it took Seu Jorge to remind me there was some fairly alright songwriting going on at the heart of some of that stuff...before it got buried underneath all the theatrical & mixing-board bombast).

Greyhoos said...

Case in point, despite the extent of "Beatlemania" on these shores in the '60s, I have a hard time imagining your average American moviegoer of the time being to take much of anything away from How I Won the War. Probably almost as incomprehensible (in a very culturally-specif way) as the Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band.

I knew I should've slapped the "Americanisms" tag on that post. Oh well, I guess the proverbial cows have long since wandered from the barn...

Phil Knight said...

Well I think stuff like "How I Won The War" and the Bonzos would be very alien to most British people nowadays. I suppose an inspired melody transcends its cultural milieu - it's probably just the same with Glenn Miller or Sinatra.

And of course, that's what today's Bowie has lost. I was going to write a post of my own on this subject - how the ability to write a simple but memorable melody is what all great careers are based on, and is the first thing that musicians seem to lose.

Also, I think Cliff is an interesting figure in himself, in that he was the "opposition" for most of the creative period of British rock - he was the person who everybody defined themselves against; the grit that formed the pearl.

I think it's underestimated how much we need the Cliffs/Osmonds/Justin Biebers to provoke the "rebels". Perhaps we can't do that unironically nowadays, but where Cliff performed his duty admirably was in making pretty high quality records - you couldn't just hate him, you had to make a good record yourself in order to hate him.

He was probably more organic, more real than Bowie, now I come to think of it....

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