Tag Archives: music

Top 50: the best David Bowie songs of all time, ranked

22 Mar
Bowie Time Out covers

Ch-ch-changes: some of Time Out’s Bowie covers over the years (mine in the centre)

This weekend The Guardian published a list of the top 50 Bowie songs. I mostly loved Alexis Petridis’s choices, but, inevitably, started griping about the omissions. I mean – no Ziggy Stardust?! Anywhere?!?

I heard a voice say to me, “If you think you know so much, why don’t you make your own list?” So I did.

Those who know me know I’m a Bowie nut. I could sing most of his albums (the good ones!) word for word. I spent over an hour interviewing him in a hotel room (for the central Time Out cover, above). I’ve seen him playing Wembley Arena, and I’ve seen him playing to just 20 people when recording Later With Jools Holland. I bought a biography of him in my teens and then tore out the portrait pages to hang on my bedroom wall. He has visited me in dreams.

So whether or not you agree, know that this list is informed by at least dozens and in many cases hundreds of listens to these songs.

50. Various

I was left with a list of 20 “possibles”, from which to choose just one as my No. 50. It’s as random and doomed a task as pinning a tail on the Don Qui-xote at this stage, but I’ll pick… um… oh, sod it. I’ll say The London Boys, Prettiest Star, John I’m Only Dancing, Velvet Goldmine, Time, Lady Grinning Soul, Stay, Fascination, Breaking Glass, Move On, Yassassin, Because You’re Young, Blue Jean, Absolute Beginners, Slip Away, I Would Be Your Slave, Stars Come Out Tonight, 5.15 The Angels Have Gone, Seven Years in Tibet, Loving the Alien, Buddha of Suburbia and Blackstar.

49. Please Mr Gravedigger

I felt I should have something from Bowie’s early years, and chose this over sweet tunes like Love You Till Tuesday or the nearly great The London Boys because it’s a good example of Bowie’s storytelling – and his very dark streak. It starts off as a simple character study of a gravedigger: “He seems to spend all his days puffing fags and digging graves/ He hates the reverend vicar and he lives all alone.” It gets a little darker when the narrator reveals he’s seen “Mr. GD” take a locket of a girl’s hair; and darker still when the narrator reveals why the gravedigger sees him every day standing at her grave: “Mary-Ann was only 10 and full of life and oh-so gay/ And I was the wicked man who took her life away.” There’s one final dark twist I won’t spoil if you don’t know the song… Bowie was just 19 when he recorded this – and 69 when he recorded his final album.

48. Somebody Up There Likes Me

I hope so, David. I do hope so. But Somebody Up There is not in fact a religious paean, as you might think if you listened only to the chorus, rather a warning against charismatic, telegenic, autocratic leaders – “Hugging all the babies, kissing all the ladies… he’s the savage son of the TV tube.” If only US radio stations would play it before the next election. Extraordinary, soulful backing vocals from a trio that includes Luther Vandross, later a huge star in his own right.

47. Jump They Say

Bowie’s sputtering comeback after the failed experiment of Tin Machine is not one I’d play over and over, but its lyrics – “My friend don’t listen to the crowd/ They say ‘Jump’/ Gotta to believe somebody/ Got to believe” – are more affecting when you realise they are inspired by his schizophrenic half brother, who killed himself several years before.

46. Memory of a Free Festival

This song hit the news in 2013 when a fan started a campaign to save the Beckenham bandstand that inspired it. It’s some of Bowie’s best writing: essentially a poem set to music. “The Children of the summer’s end/ Gathered in the dampened grass/ We played our songs and felt the London sky/ Resting on our hands”. And the end: “And we walked back to the road… Unchained…”

45. We Are The Dead

One of the refugees on Diamond Dogs from Bowie’s failed 1984 musical project, this counterpoints garbled dystopian lyrics with some exquisitely tender verses about forbidden love. I particularly love Bowie’s breathy voice and dramatic delivery.

44. I’m Deranged

Bowie’s dreamy, siren-sinister vocals – “I’m deranged/ Deranged my love/ So cruise me cruise me cruise me baby” – sit over typically bonkers Mike Garson piano and a driving beat. The song sticks with me partly because David Lynch used it, in a tougher remix by Trent Reznor, above footage of a night-time road unfurling in the opening and closing credits of Lost Highway, Lynch’s weirdest and most baffling film – and there’s some pretty stiff competition for that title. If you’d like to read my interview with David Lynch on Lost Highway, in which I play “word association” with the director, it’s here.

43. Cat People

I remember this getting hella radio play in North America, where I lived at the time; it’s probably less well known in England. Giorgio Moroder wrote the music, Bowie the lyrics. It was originally released in a superior seven-minute version as the theme song to Paul Schrader’s 1982 horror movie of the same name, and later re-recorded, shorter, for the Let’s Dance album. It was also used over the opening credits of Atomic Blonde (really fun film, incidentally) and, thrillingly, over the arson scene of Inglourious Basterds.

42. Lazarus

Blackstar, Bowie’s last album, came out on January 8, 2016. Two days later, Bowie was dead. “Look up here, I’m in heaven/ I’ve got scars that can’t be seen” is how Lazarus begins. It ends: “Oh, I’ll be free just like that blue bird/ I’ll be free, ain’t that just like me.” I don’t know what else to say 😦

41. Fashion/ Fame/ Let’s Dance

Right, let’s get all these out of the way in one go. They’re all big and enduring hits, from successive albums (Young Americans, Scary Monsters, and Let’s Dance). They’re all brilliant in their own way. So I feel I have to include them. And I’m sure they “ought” to be higher. But tbh, after hundreds of hearings, I’ll usually skip past them if they come on. And Let’s Dance, despite the title, you can’t even dance to, despite Nile Rodgers’ best efforts, which pissed me off at the time. Despite their “classic” status, I’ve found them more and more irritating over the years. So sue me.

40. Queen Bitch

Inspired by Velvet Underground (a debt acknowledged in hand-writing on the sleeve of the album Hunky Dory), this is a precursor to glam rock, but the guitar riff also sounds thrillingly like punk – four years early. Great lyrics, too: “She’s an old-time ambassador/ of sweet-talking, night-walking games/ And she’s known in the darkest clubs/ for pushing ahead of the dames.”

39. Hallo Spaceboy

Another return to Major Tom, and to Brian Eno as producer. The album it’s from, Outside, also marked Bowie’s first real return to form since Let’s Dance. That was 12 years in the musical wilderness; 12 years treated as a figure of fun (anyone remember The Heebeegeebies parody “I think that I’m losin’ my miiiind/ I’m disappearing up my behiiiind”?), rather than a chameleonic genius. Something people gloss over, these days. But I remember vividly. I’d become Editor of Time Out, which meant I could realise a cherished dream: meeting and interviewing my teenage icon. But with a star of Bowie’s stature, it would have to be a cover. And I couldn’t in all conscience do that with the dross he’d been putting out. The experimental, baffling, often brilliant pseudo-concept album Outside was the excuse I’d been waiting for. My interview then is now enshrined in the book Bowie on Bowie, or you can read it here. Oh, and check out the Pet Shop Boys remix of Hallo Spaceboy. It’s a banger.

38. Soul Love

My favourite lyric is actually a misheard: “the bleeding hours of morning” brilliantly captures the raw sensitivity of staying up all night till the small hours, mixed with the look of the dawn sky. Years later, I looked up the lyrics and found it was the more prosaic “fleeting hours”, not “bleeding”. I told Bowie this, when I interviewed him. He laughed, agreed that would have been better, and said he’s always delighted when people read things into his songs that he didn’t intend.

37. Sweet Thing/Candidate/Sweet Thing

Absolutely not a clue what most of this apocalyptic love song is on about, mostly, but it features some of Bowie’s campest, most over-the-top vocal pyrotechnics, some wonderful imagery, and a skirling saxophone (played by Bowie himself) following the closing lines that always send a chill up my spine: “I guess we could cruise down one more time/ With you by my side, it should be fine/ We’ll buy some drugs and watch a band/ Then jump in the river holding hands.”

36. Sense of Doubt

I’ve got a soft spot for an album with an all-instrumental side, like Caravan’s gorgeous The Land of Grey and Pink, or Pink Floyd’s pretentious Atom Heart Mother or (apart from some brief singing) their lovely Echoes, whose seascape Sense of Doubt calls to mind. A repetitive series of four descending piano notes set an ominous tone, washed by simulated waves and the creak of ropes, giving away to a piping keyboard as though shafts of sunlight are breaking tentatively through the clouds. Eno’s ambient influence is clear.

35. It’s No Game

My God what an opener to the Scary Monsters album. In stark contrast to China Girl, co-written with Iggy Pop three years before, which presents Asian women as submissive victims of Western Imperialism, this starts with an assertive woman barking a string of Japanese. The usual dystopian worries follow, except this time it’s clear Bowie is talking about the present day, not some imagined future, and it all ends with a discordant guitar over which Bowie screeches, as to the voices in his head, “Shut up! SHUT UP!” It’s as ballsy as Muse starting Absolution with Apocalypse Please.

34. Quicksand

Pretentious, lui? I like to burst Bowie’s bubble by calling this “The Philosophers’ Song” – after Monty Python. I’m sure I thought it was deep in my early teens, and I got a thrill whenever I came across anything connected with the lyrics, but now I just love those blissful “aaah-aaahs” and Rick Wakeman’s swirling piano.

33. TVC15

The lyrics are hilariously preposterous: they are said to have been inspired by Iggy Pop hallucinating that his girlfriend was being eaten by the television. But it’s got the most extraordinary, tipsy-sounding boogie-woogie piano, courtesy of Roy Bittan of Springsteen’s E Street Band (so, yes: the God-like genius behind the piano on Jungleland and Thunder Road), who says Bowie asked him to play like Professor Longhair.

32. Always Crashing in the Same Car

I was tempted to include Breaking Glass, also from the album Low, but in truth this is the one I’d rather actually listen to. It’s the dreamiest evocation of alienation and isolation this side of Sound and Vision, worth it for the “yeah, oh oh ooh-ooh ooh-ooh ooooooh-oh” alone, which starts anguished and ends as an accepting croon.

31. Five Years

One of the most straightforwardly short-story-like of all Bowie’s songs, this details public reaction to the news that the end of the world is nigh. Which feels rather topical now… There are some detailed character observations and some wonderful lines: I particularly like the meta-ness of “Don’t think you knew you were in this song”, and the self-awareness of “It was cold and it rained so I felt like an actor”. But jeez – “Five years, what a surprise/ Five years, my brain hurts a lot”. Couldn’t someone have asked him for a rewrite?

30. Cygnet Committee

What a glorious mess this is: an overblown, relentlessly building, near ten minutes of pseudo-psychic-revolutionary dystopian babble. The lyrics are preposterous, pretentious, Sixth Form stuff, aspiring to Depth and Poetry and Meaning but never quite delivering, but God I love it all the same, and can sing along to every word.

29. Drive In Saturday

There are some awkward rhymes and lyrics in this evocation of a future world whose jaded inhabitants have forgotten how to have sex (“We’ll try to get it on like once before/ When people stared in Jagger’s eyes and scored”), but the massive chorus more than makes up for it. And I love the line, “She’s uncertain if she likes him/ but she knows she really loves him.”

28. China Girl

Nile Rodgers takes the credit for re-arranging this song, originally co-written by Bowie with Iggy Pop for his album The Idiot, into a commercial hit for Let’s Dance. It’s one of Bowie’s most assured vocal performances, and has some of the most coherent lyrics. The chorus is a straight love song to a man-pleasing Asian girlfriend, while the verses are a warning: “My little China girl/ You shouldn’t mess with me/ I’ll ruin everything you are/ You know it/ I’ll give you television/ I’ll give you eyes of blue/ I’ll give you a man/ who wants to rule the world.”

27. Modern Love

Bowie keeps reinventing himself. Even when dead. This time it’s as a meme that’s been circulating for the self-isolation, social-distancing age, that references Modern Love’s opening: “Bowie knows when to go out, and when to stay in. Be more like Bowie.” Gorgeous harmonies, great saxophone (not by Bowie himself this time). Side-note: I modelled my hair (and trousers) on Bowie’s at the time.

26. Jean Genie

With a blues-inspired riff nicked wholesale by labelmate Sweet on Blockbuster (though all concerned swear it was a coincidence), Jean Genie is a seemingly effortless, throwaway pop classic – the sort that would be a one-hit wonder in anyone else’s hands.

25. Slow Burn

I adore the album Heathen (his 24th studio album including Tin Machine!), and this is perhaps its most commercial song. It benefits from a virtuoso guitar part by The Who’s Pete Townshend, and lyrically returns to Bowie’s comfort zone of unspecified dystopia: “Oh, these are the days/ these are the strangest of all/ These are the nights/ these are the darkest to fall.” His voice on this album is stronger than ever: controlled, abandoning the pretentious pyrotechnics of yore, and justly nominated here for a Grammy for Best Rock Male Vocal Performance.

24. Boys Keep Swinging

A proudly silly song, all strut and swagger and mocking faux-machismo, but I love it, from the opening drum beat to the wandering bassline to a guitar solo by Adrian Belew so crazed it can still make me burst out laughing. I also love the story that, to get the garage band feel they wanted, they adopted a suggestion to swap roles from Eno’s deck of Oblique Strategies cards: guitarist Carlos Alamar played drums, and drummer Dennis Davis played bass.

23. Ashes to Ashes

Uniting ‘80s synth and a New Romantic look in the video with a crisp funk bass and off-beat percussion, the bits of the nonsense lyrics that are comprehensible (Bowie has described it as a “nursery rhyme”) are a dreamy revisit of Space Oddity’s Major Tom. Less “important” than it seemed at the time, it’s still accessibly strange and ethereally beautiful.

22. Where Are We Now?

Just when you thought Bowie had retired into a life of domestic bliss in New York, he comes back, aged 66, with his first album in ten years – crashing the internet by releasing it without any advance warning. This was the plangent, meditative, quietly beautiful single, and with hindsight it sounds like a man who’s heard he’s terminally ill – and is okay with that. The closing lines break my heart: “As long as there’s sun/ as long as there’s sun/ As long as there’s rain/ As long as there’s rain/ As long as there’s fire/ as long as there’s fire/ As long as there’s me/ As long as there’s you.”

21. Everyone Says Hi

A welcome return, on his 2002 album Heathen, to the days when Bowie was a fine short story writer, and not jumbling his lyrics with a computer programme inspired by Burroughs’ cut-up technique. This is incredibly British, with a world of repressed emotion beneath an apparently simple postcard to a friend who has gone abroad. You can see it in “Shoulda took a picture/ Something I could keep” being immediately undercut, as though realising he has been too bold, with “Buy a little frame/ Something cheap”. And, conversely, the platitude of “Hope the weather’s good/ And not too hot” is tenderly bookended by the single line, “for you”. He finally reveals himself in the doo-wop bridge, “If the money is lousy/ You can always come home/ We can do all the old things/ We can do all the bad things… We could do it, we could do it we could do it”, before retreating back into the polite, platitudinous chorus of “Everyone says hi”. <Sigh.> Only Springsteen and Dylan can match Bowie as a storyteller in song.

20. The Man Who Sold The World

Long before Kurt Cobain covered this song, helping to rescue Bowie from the remainder bin of uncool has-beens in which he was then languishing, I was obsessed by it. “We passed upon the stair, we spoke of was and when/ Although I was not there, he said I was his friend.” WTF? All with Mick Ronson’s hypnotically repetitive riff allowing the bass, unusually, to carry the tune.

19. Look Back In Anger

“‘You know who I am,’ he said/ The speaker was an angel/ He coughed and shook his crumpled wings/ Closed his eyes and moved his lips/ ‘It’s time we should be going’.” That opening line alone justifies the song’s inclusion, let alone the furious chorus and the driving percussion. I bought Lodger when it first came out, and was so baffled by the album that I assumed it was a joke, an unlistenable experiment/contractual obligation like Lou Reed’s recent Metal Machine Music. I took it back to the record shop (which was still a thing, back in the day), and swapped it for Diamond Dogs. Now that’s music, I thought. I say this because it’s hard for younger listeners to realise just how alien and experimental so many of Bowie’s albums were at the time, even to ardent fans – especially after they have influenced subsequent generations of bands and passed into the musical lexicon.

18. Oh You Pretty Things

Youth is wasted on the young, they say. I once conceived of a thriller set in two time periods – teens and middle age. I thought then, I have no idea what middle aged people are like – I’ll shelve it till I’m older. Now I have no idea how I felt back then. Bowie wrote with wry detachment about being young while he yet was, here counterpointing the deliriously beautiful chorus about pretty things driving their mamas and papas insane with the deep thoughts that are actually going through their supposedly pretty little heads.

17. Rock ‘n’ Roll Suicide

What an extraordinary opening: “Time takes a cigarette/ Puts it in your mouth.” We’re all in front of the firing squad, we just don’t know when the trigger will get pulled. This is probably a song best listened to in your troubled teens, but it stands in good company with the anti-suicide ballads of REM (Everybody Hurts) and ELO (Living Thing) – and in contrast to Blue Oyster Cult (Don’t Fear the Reaper) and The Only Ones (“Why don’t you kill yourself, you ain’t no good to no one else”). But I digress. Bowie just about teeters on the cliff-edge of ridiculousness without toppling over in the “Give me your hands” finale (not helped by the bathetic backing vocals), and that final violin note that ends the whole Ziggy Stardust album is a tribute, I like to think, to the resounding piano chord that closes The Beatles’ Sgt Pepper’s.

16. Teenage Wildlife

Absurd, camp, overblown, over-dramatic, and utterly glorious. An anthem to all the young dudes who are cut down in their prime, it has moments of real poetry amid the bombast: “You fall to the ground/ Like a leaf from a tree/ And look up one time/ at that vast blue sky/ Scream out aloud as they shoot you down/ ‘No… I’m not a piece of teenage wildlife” still has the power to affect me, with that swirling, keening guitar. Though I could never get my kids to understand why “As ugly as a teenage millionaire/ pretending it’s a whizz-kid world” was a great metaphor. “Why would that be ugly?” they asked, dollar-signs lighting up their eyes. Somehow my friend Frank Wynne and I always end up singing it at two in the morning.

15. The Bewlay Brothers

This is supposedly about Bowie’s mad brother, but really it sounds like the gayest of his songs bar John I’m Only Dancing and Queen Bitch: “I was stone and he was wax so he could scream and still relax – unbelievable. And we frightened the small children away.” “The dress is hung, the ticket pawned, the Factor Max that proved the facts is melted down.” Not to mention “the crutch-hungry dark”. It’s mysterious, tragic and haunting: “Sighing they swirl through the streets like the crust of the sun, the Bewlay Brothers.” Another favourite late-night singalonga with my friend Frank.

14. ‘Tis a Pity She Was a Whore

If Bowie proved anything over a career spanning six decades, it’s that he always has another surprise up his sleeve. But how the hell could a 69-year-old come up with this? Long-time producer Tony Visconti says they were listening to a lot of Kendrick Lamar, which perhaps accounts for the hip-hop beat; Bowie had long experimented with jazz, hence the chant of the ever-circling skeletal sax; and it’s a fantastic, expectation-defying melody. Every time you think Bowie will soar up, as he so often does, he goes down instead. As to the lyrics, the title obviously comes from the Jacobean tragedy; the second line, “‘Hold your mad hands,’ I cried”, from a 1797 sonnet by Robert Southey; and Bowie has said the song was inspired by the destruction of the Vorticist movement by World War I. Hmm, if you say so, David. I just like “Man, she punched me like a dude.”

13. All The Young Dudes

Sorry, David: Mott the Hoople’s version of your song is way better than when you recorded it yourself. So it’s that one which makes this list. The way John Travolta walks down the street at the beginning of Saturday Night Fever – that’s how Ian Hunter sings this. You can hear the swagger. I particularly love the later remix with added Bowie where, as on Lou Reed’s Satellite of Love, he proves that even as backing singer he can lift a chorus to the heavens.

12. Ziggy Stardust

It was Alexis Petridis’s wilfully perverse omission of this song from his Guardian Top 50 that inspired me to compile my own. I get that it’s “nothing more” than a great classic rock song. It doesn’t innovate musically. But I love every note, down to the loud exhale after the thundering drums of the intro. And it’s a key part of the Bowie mythos: the first time he’d invented a character to “be” (followed by Aladdin Sane, Thin White Duke etc), and one that proved strangely prophetic. “Making love with his ego/ Ziggy sucked up into his mind” is pretty much what happened to Bowie in his coke years. “When the kids had killed the man/ I had to break up the band” is just what Bowie did (minus the killing) to the Spiders on stage at the Hammersmith Odeon, much to the surprise and dismay of the drummer and bassist, who had not been informed in advance. Extra points for inspiring the Rosette of Sirius on the forehead of The Mighty Tharg, editor of the sci-fi comic 2000AD.

11. Golden Years

What a beautiful, languid, honey-voiced dreamboat of a song, from the finger-snap, doo-wop opening through the soaring “Nothing’s gonna touch you” to the casually whistled outro – with it Bowie became only the second white guy (after Elton John) to appear on Soul Train. Superficially it’s one of his happiest, most optimistic love songs: “Look at that sky, life’s begun/ Nights are warm and the days are young”… “I’ll stick with you baby for a thousand years/ nothing’s gonna touch you in these Golden Years.” But you soon realise he’s pleading, not stating, and that the object of the song is a depressed, past-it diva: “There’s my baby lost that’s all/ Once I’m begging you save her little soul”… “Don’t cry my sweet don’t break my heart/ Doing all right you gotta get smart”… “Some of these days and it won’t be long/ Gonna drive back down/ Where you once belonged/ In the back of a dream car/ Twenty foot long.”

10. Lady Stardust

I so love this song. It’s partly because I read, way back, that it was about Marc Bolan, whom I had a crush on. But also, just everything. The held note on “stare”, the soaring “ooh” in “ooh how I sighed”, the piquancy of “I smiled sadly at a love I could not obey”, the depths hinted at in “Lady Stardust sang his songs of darkness and dismay” (quite at odds with Marc Bolan’s lyrics, that description, but never mind), the top piano note following “he was alright”. Perfection.

9. Starman

I’m amazed by the number of people I speak to who don’t know what this song is really about. So let me spell it out for you. The imminent descent of beneficent aliens is a cosmic chat-up line, an excuse for a young (I hope!) boy to get his end away with a credulous young girl. He tries to convince her that “He told me let the children use it [ie their dick], let the children lose it [ie their virginity], let all the children boogie [‘boogie’, or ‘rock’, is always a synonym in songs for ‘have sex’].” Still not convinced? Try “If we can sparkle he may land tonight/ Don’t tell your papa or he’ll get us locked up in fright.” So there you have it: the most original chat-up line ever committed to music. Have sex with me now, little virgin, or the nice alien man won’t visit. Oh, and the soaring chorus was, famously, nicked from Somewhere Over The Rainbow.

8. Changes

Oh my god, what a delirious chorus, underpinned by that gloriously descending bassline. It never gets old, no matter how many thousands of times I’ve heard it. Some of the lyrics are trite – Bowie was never a good editor of his own stuff – but THIS: “So I turned myself to face me/ But I’ve never caught a glimpse/ How the others must see the faker/ I’m much too fast to take that test.” Later, when David Live came out, I enjoyed the change of lyric from “these children that you spit on” to “these children that you shit on”.

7. Station to Station

This song! This long, long, crazy song! There are fully three minutes of guitars and keyboards somehow coalescing into train noises before Bowie even starts singing. And when he does, what the hell is he on about? Mystical Kabbalah stuff, he’s said in interview. Whatevs, it sounds amazing – that repetitive, slow-building beat, his purring vocals, then suddenly leaping ecstatically into “mountains on mountains and sun birds to soar with”… to hear that for the first time, discovering it in a rented house in Aix-en-Provence not long after release, was one of the most joyful and mind-blowing moments of my life. “It’s not the side effects of the cocaine,” he sings, self-referentially. Oh, but it is, David. It most certainly is.

6. Life on Mars

I admit it. This is finally getting old for me – a few years ago I might have placed it higher. I blame the radio stations who seem to have chosen this as the only Bowie song they will play. But it’s extraordinary, of course. Rick Wakeman’s “marzipan piano”, as Charles Shaar Murray memorably called it… that sudden octave jump in the chorus… and the near-nonsense lyrics of all the crazy stuff going on on the silver screen while the poor girl tries to escape her dead-end life and parents who don’t understand, but can’t – because she’s “lived it ten times or more”… then going all meta when Bowie changes the lyric at the end to “I wrote it ten times or more”. See, it’s not just because of the “take a look at the lawman beating up the wrong guy” lyric that the TV series chose it as a title.

5. Sound and Vision

I love that Alexis Petridis put this short, perfect song at No 1. As he says, “musically it transcends time: completely original, nothing about it tethers its sound to the mid-’70s”. It’s also, as I recently had to explain to a friend, one of the most beautiful songs ever written about depression – a state the song’s protagonist has slipped into acceptingly, almost gratefully, like a warm bath. “Blue blue, electric blue/ That’s the colour of my room/ Where I will live”… “Drifting into my solitude/ Over my head”. Major Tom recurs in several Bowie songs, and here it’s in spirit: the mind-set in Sound and Vision is the same as when Major Tom is “floating in my tin can”.

4. Diamond Dogs

What. The. F. Is this song. It makes more sense when you go to the V&A exhibit, and see the lavish musical Bowie conceived this as a part of. But my God! For a sci-fi obsessed teen, to hear this absurd, overblown post-apocalyptic romp was purest heaven. “Just another future song”, he sings at one point, in a typical meta self-reference. Perhaps, but it’s one of the rockin’est.

3. Space Oddity

In one of the great examples of the squares not listening to the lyrics (see also Reagan adopting Springsteen’s Born in the USA as a “rousing” campaign song), NASA made this its theme tune. It’s so well worn that it’s hard to listen to it fresh, but try: there’s the counterpoint between the urgency of Ground Control in the verse and Major Tom’s dreamy acceptance of his imminent death in the chorus; the pathetic fallacy in “Planet Earth is blue and there’s nothing I can do”; the dig at the tabloids in “the papers want to know what shirts you wear”. The stripped-down, orchestra-less version, which I still have somewhere as a B-side, is well worth checking out.

2. Young Americans

Lyrically one of Bowie’s most coherent and mordant songs. You’ve heard it a million times, but how often do you actually listen? Just the opening lines: “They pulled in just behind the bridge/ he lays her down, he frowns/ “Gee my life’s a funny thing/ am I still too young?”/ He kissed her then and there/ She took his ring, took his babies/ It took him minutes, took her nowhere/ Heaven knows, she’d have taken anything.” It’s all that good. And with backing vocals on the chorus to swoon to. When it came up, uncut, over photos of the Great Depression in the closing credits of Lars Von Trier’s remarkable, brilliant, exhausting Dogville, I could have died of happiness.

1. Heroes

It’s hard enough to whittle Bowie’s songs down to 50 (what other artist could you say that of, except perhaps The Beatles?), let alone pick the very best. But this crowd-pleaser stands the test of time. Where Bowie mostly does intimate songs that whisper stories in your ear, or sonic experiments that assault it, this is an unashamed, fist-in-the-air stadium anthem. The fact that it was inspired by seeing two people kissing under the Berlin Wall gives it an enduring resonance. But though the Wall has since been torn down, making the song sound prophetically optimistic, it is the reverse. The ironic quote marks around “Heroes”, the naked anguish with which he sings “Nothing could drive them away”, and the codicil that they could be heroes “just for one day”, show that the singer knows their love, and their defiance, and indeed life itself, are fragile, fleeting things. Unlike this song, which, 43 years later, still has the power to drag the odd fat tear from my eye on long drives.

TalentBanq: the new home of live music takes wing

28 Jan
Coffeepot Drive Soundbanq

Who says the devil has all the best tunes? Coffeepot Drive rock the launch of TalentBanq at 229 The Venue. Photo by Brown Eyed Girl

What a night! This week saw the launch of a new live music company devoted to, as CEO Ray Jones enthusiastically put it from the stage, “discovering, nurturing, promoting and paying new and unsigned talent”. The company is called TalentBanq, and they have 50 artists on their roster already.

Some of the best were showcased at 229 The Venue in central London, and they ranged from excellent to ridiculously good. Definitely in the latter camp is Liverpudlian solo artist Joe Slater, whom I wrote about in December. The Oasis-tinged tunes were as mighty as the first time I saw him, and this time I could concentrate more on the lyrics. “Singing for my sorrow, drinking for my pain/ Close the blinds in sunshine, walk around in the rain” was one couplet from Slow Down I scribbled in my notes.

Joe Slaetr Talentbanq

Joe Slater at TalentBanq: destined for stardom. Photo by PJ Photography

With his raspy voice, perfect pitch and soulful delivery, Slater is unquestionably destined for stardom, though he fared a little less well in the second half of the night, when we were ushered from an intimate venue into a much larger space. He was still magnificent, but a portion of the audience wouldn’t know it – those at the back kept talking through the performance, and Joe hasn’t yet developed the stage presence to get them to shut the f*** up. Would acquiring two more musicians help him transition to the larger venues he’ll soon command?

Another favourite from the December gig closed the night: Coffeepot Drive, still with their guitarists’ angel wings – one pair black, one pair white – and again getting the whole audience moving. When the keyboards were foregrounded they sounded a little like Deep Purple – if Deep Purple had a frontwoman with a gospel-powered voice, afro hair and knee-high boots, and swung as much to funk as to rock. You can imagine them wowing every festival in the UK come summer.

Some other shout-outs: Hollie Rogers has an unusually low-pitched and warm voice, giving real depth and emotion to her songs. I also bloody loved Anavae, a three-piece that had no problem filling the huge space. Their intro was pure showmanship: the lights came up on three drummers, one seated at a kit, the other two – a man and an elfin woman – standing bashing at drums to make a wall of sound like those Japanese drummer monks. After a minute or so, the two broke off into their natural roles – her singing, him at the guitar – but by then the spell was cast: the audience were hooked.

I’d struggle to describe or define their sound, which means it’s original enough not to be easily pigeonholed into a genre. But let’s try this: If Björk were to do heavy rock, it might sound a bit like this. The guitarist/singer duo, Jamie Finch and Rebecca Need-Menear, have been making music since 2011, and their experience shows. But whoever the drummer is they had with them on the night, he’s great – and I speak as the father of a talented drummer. I’d happily go see again.

Ray Jones Talentbanq

Ray Jones, CEO of TalentBanq. Photo by PJ Photography

All in all, if this selection is indicative of the quality of artists on the TalentBanq roster, they’ll soon be supplying original live talent to every conceivable venue from pubs and coffee shops through corporate gigs to massive festivals. The talent behind the scenes is impressive, too. As well as CEO Ray Jones, who brings a surprising energy to the role of compere – like David Rodigan, he looks like an accountant, but can get a vast room hanging on every word – the chief investor is Sir Mervyn Davies, Chairman of the Royal Academy of Arts Board of Trustees and also of Corsair Capital. He joked: “I love fine food, fine wine, and great music, and I invest in all three – luckily two of those make money.”

TalentBanq’s Chairman is Pablo Ettinger, one of the founders of Caffè Nero and the man responsible for its promotion of live music. And TalentBanq’s Creative Director is the irrepressible Laura Westcott, a classically trained singer with a great ear for talent of whom I’ve previously written when she launched Soundcheque and then Music for Mental Wealth. She’s achieved amazing things since leaving The Times (where I have recently gone back to work), especially given her unusual handicap: she cannot recognise certain common words, namely “can’t”, “no”, and “impossible”.  🙂

George Michael’s Time Out outing

26 Dec
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George Michael. RIP

As a little George Michael footnote, I believe Time Out was the first mag to “out” George Michael, back in the early ‘90s. One of our journalists was in a taxi, and the driver said to them: “I had that George Michael in the back of my cab last week, and he was really cut up, going on about how he thought he was gay but didn’t know what to do about it.”

This was floated to me as a story for the “Sidelines” news/gossip pages. I went over several considerations before printing:

  1. Was it true? The journalist swore that the taxi conversation took place; that they believed the taxi driver; and that the driver had no vested interest in telling an untruth. It was also plausible: stories had been circulating.
  2. Was it libellous? Jason Donovan had just successfully sued The Face for saying he was gay, but the damages were not for the allegation, but for implying he was a liar – Donovan having previously denied it. There was no test case that it was libellous in itself to call someone gay. On the other hand, legal action was possible: George Michael’s management sued Time Out in the late ‘80s for reneging on a promise (by a previous editor) to put him on the cover – which is why we no longer ever guaranteed covers even to the likes of Bowie or Prince.
  3. Was it likely to cause needless harm to George Michael? Hard to know. I wasn’t a fan of the Peter Tatchell-style forced “outing” that was then in vogue – it seemed to me to be doing The Mail’s dirty work for them. At the same time, a small Sideline seemed to me a gentle push, a testing of the water for George, a controlled experiment: I didn’t think it likely to cause him damage, more to make it easier for him to come out if he was inclined to do so.

So we published. It was a small story, a “quite interesting”, not a big headline. I doubt it made a huge impact. But many years later, in 1998, when George Michael was caught propositioning an undercover police officer in an LA public lavatory, he was confident enough to “own” the resultant scandal. His riposte to the shock-horror tabloid headlines was to come out whole-heartedly, even filming a music video for Outside in a glitterball disco urinal.

As ex-Time Out music critic Peter Paphides writes in his superb appreciation of the recently deceased star, “it might have been the coolest thing any pop star did in the 1990s”.

Different times. Is Tom Daley less loved by the public for being gay? Is Sam Smith? To quote that great philosopher, Shrek: “Better out than in, I always say.” Or, in George Michael’s own greatest words: “Guilty feet have got no rhythm.”

It’s hard for young folk today to remember that, just 20 years ago, being openly gay was considered career suicide. And it’s pioneers such as George Michael they have to thank for the change.

 

Starman in the sky: Ziggy Stardust memories and David Bowie/Brian Eno interview

11 Jan
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From Gavin Evans’s Time Out cover shoot with David Bowie, 1995

The consummate showman, David Bowie even managed to make his death a surprise. When I sat down to work at the Guardian today, my colleague was staring at the homepage. “Iconic rock star David Bowie dies of cancer at 69,” it said.

“That’s a spoof, right?” was my first reaction.

“You mean you hadn’t heard?” She must have seen my face crumple. “I’m sorry,” she said, with the solicitousness reserved for deaths in the family. I headed off silently for a weep in the Gents. I haven’t cried for a rock star since Bob Marley died.

I don’t envy the task ahead of the newspaper obituarists. Bowie didn’t just pack a lot into his life, he lived several lives: young mod, would-be Anthony Newley, starry-eyed hippie, inventor of glam rock, godfather of punk, young soul rebel, big-trousered ‘80s dance colossus, washed-out corporate shill, and back to middle-aged experimentalist. More than 50 years after he began making music, he’s still pushing the frontiers with his new album Blackstar. And somehow he found time and energy for a long and successful film career, an early prescient embrace of the internet with Bowienet, floating himself on the stock market in the form of Bowie bonds, as well as painting (I bought one of his prints for my godson when he was born) and a position on the board of Modern Painters. Before he died, he was even working on a musical.

I wouldn’t know where to begin: all I can say is what he meant to me, to us. He’s the only rock star whose face I’ve hung on my wa-wa-wa-walls; the only one who’s visited me in my dreams (he picked me up in a limo; we discussed Japanese culture); for two years I played all of The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars literally every single day, like a mantra, like an article of faith. He showed every sexually confused teenager, every outsider, that freaky can be good; that there was always a place for us with a Couple of Kooks.

Paul Burston, Time Out’s erstwhile Gay Editor, put on his Facebook page that Bowie saved his life. I believe he means this literally. The song Rock ‘n’ Roll Suicide often moved me to tears in my teens: “Oh no love, you’re not alone/You’re watching yourself but you’re too unfair/You’ve got your head all tangled up/But if only I could make you care…” He ends with a repeated phrase sung with such raw emotion it’s almost a screech – “Just turn on with me and you’re not alone” – that culminates in a single note from a violin, the greatest ending to any album since the 40-second piano chord of Sergeant Pepper’s.

I did my best to return the favour, in my small way. I watched for my chance to put him on the cover of Time Out, back when Bowie’s cultural stock was low and he was considered creatively bankrupt, a laughing stock. It came with Outside, and I leaped at the chance to interview him and Brian Eno together about drugs, art and the roots of creativity. The interview was recently reprinted in a book, Bowie on Bowie. You can read it below.

I also found that Bowie never scored highly in Time Out’s polls of the greatest albums of all time, and felt that this was because he’d done so damn many brilliant albums that they split the Bowie vote. Hunky Dory, Ziggy Stardust, Young Americans, Station to Station and Low would all vie for a place in my top ten. Others might include Aladdin Sane, Heroes or Scary Monsters. These days I would want to add Heathen. And so, for Time Out’s 30th anniversary issue, I initiated a poll of the greatest music artists of all time (solo or groups), rather than the greatest albums. In this poll, at last, Bowie rightly came out on top.

Sigh. So long, Dave. It’s been quite a ride. Thanks for letting us hang on to yourself. And now there really is a Starman waiting in the sky.

[PS: As I had typed these final words, my son Sam called to check I was okay, which was sweet. He told me all his friends at university had been saying for the last few days how brilliant Blackstar was. With all due respect to my profession, sod the critics’ five-star reviews – the fact that he can still energise a new generation young enough to be his grandchildren is the best epitaph Bowie could receive.]

s-l225My Time Out cover interview with David Bowie and Brian Eno, for the release of ‘Outside’ in 1995

David Bowie: Could I just ask you first, do you mind terribly if we also tape this? Just for our own usage.

Dominic Wells: So you can sample me and stick me on your next album?

DB: Actually, it is likely. I nearly sampled Camille Paglia on this album, but she never returned my calls! She kept sending messages through her assistant saying, ‘Is this really David Bowie, and if it is, is it important?’ (laughs), and I just gave up! So I replaced her line with me.

Brian Eno: Sounds pretty much like her.

So, how did this album come about?

DB: A pivotal moment for us was actually at the wedding.

BE: It’s absolutely true, that’s where we first talked about it.

DB: I was just starting the instrumental backings for the ‘Black Tie, White Noise’ album and I had some of them, just as instrumental pieces at the wedding, because it was written half around the idea of the marriage ceremony. Brian at the time was working on ‘Nerve Net’, and we realised that we were suddenly on the same course again.

BE: That was quite interesting, because it was the wedding reception, right, everybody was there, and we started talking and Dave said, ‘You’ve got to listen to this!’ He went up to the DJ and said, ‘No, take that off, play this.’

DB: And then we both rushed off to our individual lives knowing it was almost inevitable we’d be working together again. Because we both felt excited about the fact that neither of us was excited about what was happening in popular music.

It seems strange that on your last album you went back to Nile Rodgers, with whom you had your greatest commercial succcess (‘Let’s Dance’), and now you’re going back to Brian…

BE: With whom you had your least commercial success!

…With whom you had some of your greatest critical successes.

DB: Funnily enough, the things I said to Nile were much the same things that Brian said to me: look, we’re not going to make a stereotypical follow-up to ‘Let’s Dance’. I’d just come out of the Tin Machine period, which was a real freeing exercise for me, and I wanted to experiment on ‘Black Tie’. I love doing a hybrid of Eurocentric Soul, but there were also pieces like ‘Pallas Athena’ and ‘You’ve Been Around’ which played more with ambience and funk. Then there was an interim album for me which was very important – ‘Buddha Of Suburbia’.

BE: That was the one I got really excited about. In fact I wrote you a letter saying this record has been unfairly overlooked. I felt because it was a soundtrack, as usual people were saying, ‘Well it’s not real music then, is it?’ It’s so incredible to me that the critical community is so unbelievably restricted in its terms of reference.

I went to the ‘Warchild’ exhibition at Flowers East [where Eno persuaded dozens of rockstars to auction off their art works for Bosnia], and you made a very good little speech about that. And in fact my magazine was one which had printed a snide, snipy little thing in Sidelines.

BE: Yes, I remember that. Do you, David?

DB: Which snide was this? Ha ha. I’ve had at least a couple in my life.

BE: It was, ‘If these people are so concerned why don’t they give their money over instead of just massaging their already enormous egos.’

DB: I remember that line! Yes, but it’s perfectly understandable. It’s a very British thing, isn’t it? The same’s true in America, isn’t it?

BE: No. You’re allowed to take pleasure in, enjoy and actively even benefit from the act of helping somebody else. Here, if you want to help somebody else it’s got to be directly at your own cost.

DB: It’s got to have a halo attached.

But it’s not just the charity, is it? It’s an assumption that rock musicians shouldn’t be doing art shouldn’t be acting and shouldn’t be writing books.

DB: It’s like saying journalists shouldn’t be doing television shows – which in some cases is probably very true!

BE: In England, the greatest crime is to rise above your station.

DB: There are more and more people moving into areas they’re not trained for, especially in America. I’ve just been doing this film with Julian Schnabel [‘Basquiat’, in which Bowie plays Andy Warhol], and he’s making movies, having just made an album. . . I think that’s fantastic.

What’s the album like?

DB: It’s Leonard Cohen meets Lou Reed. Lyrically, I think it’s really good.

A good dance record then?

DB: Ha ha. I think it’s as good as a lot of other records that came out that week. Not as good as others that came out that week.

BE: One of the reasons it’s possible now is that for various technical reasons, anybody can do anything, pretty much. I can, sitting in my studio, put together records with basses and drums and choirs, or I can put together a video in a similar way. So the question then becomes not, ‘Do I have the skill?’ It’s not an issue.

DB: The skill hasn’t been an issue in art for 50 years. It’s really the idea.

Damien Hirst once said something to the effect that if a child could do what I do, that means I’ve done it very well.

DB: Picasso said, I think, when someone said to him a child of three could do what you’re doing he replied, ‘Yes, you’re right but very few adults.’

BE: Einstein said, ‘Any intelligent nine-year-old could understand anything I’ve done; the thing is, he probably wouldn’t understand why it was important.’ That’s the other side of that coin: to be free and simple and child-like, but to be able to understand the implications of that at the same time. To be Picasso is not suddenly to become a three-year-old child again, it’s to become someone who understands what’s important about what the three-year-old child does.

It says in the blurb about your album that much of it was improvised, and that Brian would hand out cards to different musicians saying things like: ‘You are the last survivor of a catastrophic event and you will endeavour to play in such a way as to prevent feelings of loneliness developing within yourself; or: ‘You are a disgruntled member of a South African rock band. Play the notes they won’t allow.’ Is that to strip everything down, remove everyone’s preconceptions and start again from scratch?

BE: There are certain immediate dangers to improvisation, and one of them is that everybody coalesces immediately. Everyone starts playing the blues, basically, because it’s the one place where everyone can agree and knows the rules. So in part they were strategies designed to stop the thing becoming over-coherent. The interesting place is not chaos, and it’s not total coherence. It’s somewhere on the cusp of those two.

The rhythm is very strong throughout the album. That’s what holds things together…

DB: Something we really got into on the late-’70s albums was what you could do with a drum kit. The heartbeat of popular music was something we really messed about with. And very few people had done. It was, ‘Right, bass and drums, get them down, then do all the weird stuff on top.’ To invert that was a new idea.

I did a lot of walking around with the album playing on my headphones, and often you would get noises from the street – a bicycle bell, beeps from bus doors – and wherever they came in the songs, whatever noise it was, it fitted right in, you could absorb it into the song and it would work because the layers were so strong you could add anything on top.

DB: The great thing about what Brian was doing through much of the improvisation is we’d have clocks and radios and things near his sampler, and he’d say find a phrase on the French radio and keep throwing it in rhythmically so it became part of the texture. And people would react to that, they’d play in a different way because these strange sounds kept coming back at them.

BE: Yeah, and he was doing the same thing lyrically. We had a thing going where David was improvising lyrics as well; he had books and magazines and bits of newspaper around, and he was just pulling phrases out and putting them together.

DB: If I read some off to you, some of them you’d find completely incomprehensible.

I did try that, in fact. I read the lyrics sheet out loud and thought, ‘He’s gone off his rocker.’ Then when I heard it with the music, it made sense.

DB: Exactly. There’s an emotional engine created by the juxtaposition of the musical texture and the lyrics. But that’s probably what art does best: it manifests that which is impossible to articulate.

If an English student, on a poetry course or whatever, sat down and tried to analyse your lyrics, would they be wasting their time?

DB: No, because I think these days there are so many references for them in terms of late twentieth-century writing, from James Joyce to William Burroughs. I come from almost a traditional school now of deconstructing phrases and constructing them again in what is considered a random way. But in that randomness there’s something that we perceive as a reality – that in fact our lives aren’t tidy, that we don’t have tidy beginnings and endings.

So you’d be very happy if I and another journalist had different ideas of what the songs were about?

DB: Absolutely. As Roland Barthes said in the mid ’60s, that was the way interpretation would start to flow. It would begin with society and culture itself. The author becomes really a trigger.

In rock music, the lyrics you hear are sometimes better than they turn out to be. In one of your early songs, ‘Stone Love’, a line I adored was ‘in the bleeding hours of morning’; I finally got the lyrics sheet and discovered it was ‘fleeting hours of morning’, which is much more prosaic.

DB: That’s right. For me the most fascinating thing was finding out after years that what Fats Domino was singing was nothing like… I’d gained so much from those songs by my interpretation of them. Frankly, sometimes it’s a let-down to discover what the artist’s actual intent was.

You’ve now got a computer program, apparently, to randomise your writing. But you’ve been doing cut-ups since the ’70s, inspired by Burroughs.

DB: As a teenager I was fairly traditional in what I read: pompously Nietzsche, and not so pompously Jack Kerouac. And Burroughs. These ‘outside’ people were really the people I wanted to be like. Burroughs, particularly. I derived so much satisfaction from the way he would scramble life, and it no longer felt scrambled reading him. I thought, ‘God, it feels like this, that sense of urgency and danger in everything that you do, this veneer of rationality and absolutism about the way that you live…’

It’s a drugs thing as well, isn’t it? When I was a student and took lots of drugs, suddenly all kinds of things would make sense that otherwise wouldn’t; or rather, you’d see connections between things you otherwise wouldn’t.

BE: That’s what drugs are useful for. Drugs can show you that there are other ways of finding meanings to things. You don’t have to keep taking them, but having had that lesson, to know that you’re capable of doing that, is really worthwhile.

DB: But you know, I think the seeds of all that probably were planted a lot earlier. Think of the surrealists with things like their ‘exquisite corpses’, or James Joyce, who would take whole paragraphs and just with glue stick them in the middle of others, and make up a quilt of writing. It really is the character and the substance of twentieth-century perception, and it’s really starting to matter now.

BE: What I think is happening there is it removes from the artist the responsibility of being the ‘meaner’ – the person who means to say this and is trying to get it over to you – and puts him in the position of being the interpreter.

DB: It’s almost as if things have turned from the beginning of this century where the artist reveals a truth, to the artist revealing the complexity of a question, saying, ‘Here’s the bad news, the question is even more complicated than you thought.’ Often it happens on acid I suppose – if I remember! – you realise the absolute incomprehensible situation that we’re in… [Bowie, who has been gesturing with dangerous animation, knocks an ashtray full of chain-smoked Marlboros on to the carpet] … like this kind of chaos! [Eno kneels to sweep up the ash and butts from Bowie’s feet.] Why are you doing that, Brian? That’s immensely big of you.

BE: Just so you can finish your sentence.

DB: I didn’t need to. I illustrated it! [Hilarity] The randomness of the everyday event. If we realised how incredibly complex our situation was, we’d just die of shock.

There’s a lot in the short story that accompanies your album about artists who indulge in self-mutilation: Chris Burden, who had himself shot, tied up in a bag and thrown on to the highway and then crucified on top of a Volkswagen; Ron Athey, an HIV-positive former heroin addict who pushed a knitting needle repeatedly into his forehead until he wore a crown of blood, then carved patterns with a scalpel into the back of another man and suspended the bloody paper towels on a washing line over the audience. You seem to have this morbid fascination. It’s also the most literal expression of the old idea that art can only come out of suffering.

DB: Also it has something to do with the fact that the complexity of modern systems is so intense that a lot of artists are going back literally into themselves in a physical way, and it has produced a dialogue between the flesh and the mind.

BE: Yes, it’s shocking suddenly to say, in the middle of cyberculture and information networks, ‘I am a piece of meat.’

And is shock also a necessary part of a definition of art?

BE: At some level I think it is, yes. It doesn’t have to be only that kind of shock.

DB: The shock of recognition is actually more what it’s about, you know. I think that’s what it does to me, anyway. That, for me, is Damien [Hirst], of whom I am a very loyal supporter, it’s the shock of recognition with his work that really affects me, and I don’t think even he really knows what it is he’s doing. But what there is in the confrontation between myself and one of his works is a terrible poignancy. There’s a naive ignorance to the poor creatures he’s using. They’re cyphers for man himself. I find it very emotional, his work.

Have you been collaborating with him?

DB: We did some paintings together.We took a big round canvas, about 12-foot, and it’s on a machine that spins it around at about 20 miles an hour, and we stand on the top of step-ladders and throw paint at it.

BE: You should see his studio!

DB: It’s from a child’s game; you drop paint on and centrifugal force pushes the stuff out.

You’re on the editorial board of Modern Painters, along with the likes of Lord Gowrie, and actually they’re not so modern. You must be like the man in the HM Bateman cartoon, saying, ‘Actually, I think Damien Hirst is rather good.’

DB: The magazine is changing. But why write for, say, the Tate magazine, which is full of people already on one side of the argument? At least on Modern Painters there’s a chance of opening up the magazine a little bit. I love the idea of combining some ideas from the Renaissance with ideas that are working now; not to make some kind of . . . editorial point, but because of the pure. . . fun of creating those hybrid situations.

A lot of people were shocked by you doing a wallpaper.

DB: Well, it’s not very original. Robert Gober and a number of others, even Andy Warhol, did them. It’s just part of a tradition.

You also had your first solo art exhibition recently. It must have been frightening to open up your work of 20 years to public scrutiny and to the critics.

DB: No, it wasn’t at all.

Why not?

DB: Because I know why I did it. Ha!

BE: The thing is when you show something, or you release a record, you open it up to all sorts of other interpretations which don’t belong to you any longer. I have millions of tapes at home I haven’t released. I feel quite differently about those than if I put them out on to the market and suddenly there they are, filed in the racks, after the Eagles. Suddenly I imagine someone who isn’t at all sympathetic, who’s actually looking for an Eagles record happening on mine, and I start to hear the thing through what I imagine are their ears as well. So by putting something out you actually enrich it, I think, and you enrich it for yourself. You get it reflected back in a lot of differently shaped mirrors.

DB: I was just a bit late. The reason I wasn’t afraid, either, is I’m an artist, a painter and a sculptor. Why should I be afraid? Seemingly the only other thing I’m supposed to be afraid of is whether other people thought it was any good or not, but I’ve lived that life ever since I began, publicly, of whether I’m any ‘good’ or not, for nearly 30 years, so that comes with the territory.

Does it hurt you if a lot of people are walking around London saying, ‘David Bowie, what a pretentious tosser’?

DB: I don’t know of a time when it was never said, though. What’s the difference? It’s just a different colour overcoat. Not at all.

BE: You know for sure that in England, if you do something different from anything that you did last time, there is going to be a band of people who’ll walk around saying you’re a pretentious tosser but after a while you just have to accept (Bowie is laughing too), both of us just have to accept that we’re good at what we do. The record proves it. We’ve both influenced a lot of things, and a lot of things that are going on can be traced back to what we did, as we would trace ourselves back to other people.

DB: The history of any art form is actually dictated by other artists and who they are influenced by, not by critics. So for me, my vanity is far more interested in what my contemporaries and peers have to say about my work. A lot of it just comes from pure pleasure, you know? I work because it’s such a great way to escape having to work in a shop – to be a songwriter, and a musician and a performer and a painter and a sculptor – it’s so cool to do all this stuff, I can’t tell you how exciting it is. It really is great.

The revolution starts here: Toronto Open Tuning Festival

20 Jun
Mr. P's Ukulele Jam at the Open Tuning festival. Photo: Monica Gupta

Mr. P’s Ukulele Jam, Open Tuning Festival. Pic: Monica Gupta

I’ve just travelled 3,000 miles to see the second annual Open Tuning Festival in Seaton Village, Toronto. (If I were being boringly pedantic, I might specify that I travelled 3,000 miles to see my old friend Ian Sinclair, who happens to be helping put on this festival today, but why let that stand in the way of a good opener?)

It’s a lovely idea: a community-based free festival, using local shops, parks and houses for venues, where anyone who wants can turn up and play. There’s bluegrass, blues, punk, rock, and the brilliantly named ukulele band, Uke Till You Puke. A guy in his fifties played solo by a corner shop with an amp and a guitar, at first to just two people; a group of teens showed with their skateboards, and amazingly stayed to listen for a few songs, despite him ignoring repeated requests to play Smells Like Teen Spirit. A beautiful young girl with an Afro walked past, too cool to change expression, but she nodded to the beat as though signalling approval.

My friend Ian joined him on the bass, then went on to join the Raisins and Grapes a cappella choir, the pitched roof of the porch they sang on giving the effect of a tiny church. At 7pm he’ll be joining his old friend Frank in a jam at the Yoga Sanctuary on the corner of Clinton and Bloor. Genuine Canadian star Jane Siberry will provide the 9.30pm finale in Vermont Park.

This is a festival as it should be: no mud, no hassle; all smiles. You’d think it might be sad to see these men and women, some young but many in their fifties, even sixties – estate agents now, probably, or businessmen, or builders – dusting off their instruments and rekindling the fires of youth. But it’s not. It’s uplifting, and a helluva lotta fun. Because for them, as for most, it was never about the fame or the fortune or the fanfare of big audiences. It was simply because music moved them to pick up the guitar and create songs, and the music moves them still.

The brilliance of the Open Tuning festival is in realising that just as every garage can be a rehearsal space, so every porch can be a stage, and the lawn in front of it a mini-festival. Every town should have a free festival like this. But for now, the revolution starts here: in Seaton Village, Toronto.

The Duke of Burgundy: Q&A about “the thinking person’s 50 Shades of Grey”

27 Feb
Duke of Burgundy

Sidse Babett Knudsen and director Peter Strickland at the Duke of Burgundy Q&A. Photo: Habie Schwarz

One of the most fascinating British films in some while is out now, and I caught a Q&A at the Curzon Soho with the director, Peter Strickland, and his leading lady, the fabulous Sidse Babett Knudsen of Borgen fame.

The Duke of Burgundy is most easily described as “the thinking person’s 50 Shades of Grey”, though any comparison with that film does The Duke of Burgundy a serious injustice. It’s beautifully shot, in saturated colours and at a leisurely, European pace, and though it is about an SM relationship between two women, there is no nudity, and the SM is figurative as well as literal: it’s about the shifts in power that occur in any relationship.

I won’t tell you any more about the plot, because it will spoil the film to know too much. But do go and see it (though perhaps not with your mother), as it’s a remarkable piece of work. No surprise, incidentally, to find Ben Wheatley on the Executive Producer credits. At the Q&A, the shy director was clutching a glass of whiskey and clearly roaring drunk, though still suprisingly coherent. The moderator said it’s the most Strickland has ever talked. The luminous Sidse Babett Knudsen was appropriately dressed for the occasion in fishnet stockings and burgundy-coloured velvet ankle boots. Here are the highlights:

Director Peter Strickland on the genesis of The Duke of Burgundy: “I met Andy Starke, the producer, who runs the DVD label Mondo Macabro with the wonderfully named Pete Tombs, when Pete wrote a book called Immoral Tales (on European sex and horror movies). We wanted to take some elements of Jess Franco films – female lovers, sado-masochism – but it ended up more as a domestic drama in the writing.

“It’s about SM on one level, but it could be any activity that one person finds distasteful, but that you go along with to keep the other person happy. It’s about the nature of compromise in a relationship.”

Duke of Burgundy 2

Mind games forever: Sidse Babett Knudsen and co-star Chiara D’Anna in The Duke of Burgundy

Sidse Babett Knudsen: “The SM element came to me a bit late. I read the script and thought there were so many recognisable things in it about ‘Will I lose myself, my dignity?’ As to the lesbianism, Peter said he didn’t want a man and a woman because then it would be about a power game between the sexes. I took everything as figurative, a way of exaggerating things in a relationship.

“Peter told me that at the beginning he wanted it to seem like porn, like just bad acting, and then after ten minutes the audience realises [what’s really going on]. That was the scariest thing about doing the film, that deliberately bad acting!”

Strickland: “There was one screening where the audience walked out in the first ten minutes, and you want to go ‘Come back! Come back! It all changes!’

“I wanted it to be this fantastical world where there are no men – there’s a strange power shift if you put men in there – and where these niche tastes are the norm. I wanted to normalise it [the SM and lesbianism] because when you normalise it you don’t question it. Also these films always have a bloody back-story – a crack-addict mum or something to explain why they are as they are – but I didn’t want to go into the psychology. I just wanted to look at the dynamics of that relationship, that push-and-pull, where one person wants something that the other doesn’t.”

On getting an 18 certificate, despite the absence of nudity: “It is what it is, it’s their decision. I do find it odd that you can show mutilation and violence to a 15-year-old kid, but not two mutually consenting adults pleasuring each other.”

On whether he would ever “sell out” by doing ads or taking the Hollywood dollar: “The reason I live and make films in Hungary is because I can’t afford anywhere else. But I’m home-sick for England; and I’m not going to live in a one-bedroom flat paying all the money I have to a landlord just to please you fuckers!”

We’ll take that as a “yes”, then.

Peter Strickland’s films, including The Duke of Burgundy, are available to watch online through Curzon Home Cinema.

Get On Up: James Brown’s got a brand-new movie bag

20 Nov
Like a sex machine: Chadwick Boseman stayed in character as James Brown through the Get On Up shoot

Like a sex machine: Chadwick Boseman stayed in character as James Brown throughout the Get On Up shoot

Another week, another musical biopic: hot on the Cuban heels of the Hendrix biopic comes James Brown, the trouser-splitting Godfather of Soul. Hollywood seems to love the genre. Stars thus immortalised include Elvis, John Lennon, Johnny Cash, Tina Turner, Liberace, Ian Curtis, Sid Vicious, the Jersey Boys, Bob Dylan, Notorious B.I.G., Charlie “Bird” Parker, Jerry Lee Lewis and Ray Charles. Projects in development include Janis Joplin (already played in fictionalised form by Bette Midler in The Rose), Elvis again (by Baz Luhrmann), Kurt Cobain and Freddie Mercury (with Sasha Baron Cohen no longer attached).

Why so? They arrive with existing “brand equity”, ie a previously recognisable name, saving a fortune in marketing. Stars love them: it’s a chance not just to slip into someone else’s skin, but show off their singing and dancing, too. Joaquin Phoenix (Johnny Cash) and Angela Bassett (Tina Turner) were both Oscar-nom’d; Jamie Foxx won as Ray Charles. And these biopics all come with a ready-made arc, the same one as in sporting movies such as Rocky or Raging Bull: youngster triumphs over adversity to find success; throws it away again, along with their friends, through the pressures of fame and the ravages of drug abuse; and eventually (though occasionally real life conspires against this ending) finds redemption.

But that’s also the great problem with them: they are familiar and predictable; the ending is known. So kudos to Get On Up, the James Brown biopic that opens in the UK tomorrow, for at least attempting something different.

As scripted by the brothers Butterworth, Jez and John-Henry, the time periods leap all over the place: Brown’s dirt-poor upbringing with parents who both abandoned him; his time in jail; his trip to play to the troops in ‘Nam; the rampant narcissism that alienates his band; his troubles with the tax man. We slip back and forth more bewilderingly than Mathew McConaughey inside a black hole, with only ever-changing hairstyles to guide us.

Though I applaud the ambition, I can’t say it’s totally successful. The lack of a clear narrative arc, together with Brown’s habit of breaking the fourth wall and addressing the audience directly, are disengaging. It would take an auteurial vision on the part of the director stronger than Tate Taylor can manage – a Nic Roeg, say – to pull this time-shifting off. The whole thing feels rather stagey, not surprisingly given the Butterworths’ origins as playwrights. The lighting and cinematography are more TV than movie, and there are a few too many lines that play to the gallery: “Don’t tell me when, where or for how long I can be funky”, he tells an officer in ‘Nam who tries to cut his show short; and when his plane gets shot at, “Do you want to go down in history as the man who killed the funk?”

Get On Up is always watchable and occasionally thrilling, however, both for the music and the extraordinary central performance by relative unknown Chadwick Boseman. He sings, he dances, he does the splits; at one stage during production he had to play a teenaged Brown in jail in the morning, and switch to Brown in his sixties on the same afternoon. He kept in character throughout the shoot. To me, Boseman never quite goes beyond impersonation and into inhabitation of the character – Dan Ackroyd as his kindly manager gives more of a sense of an inner life behind the eyes – but it is an astonishing tour de force. He’s destined for blockbuster fame as the Black Panther in Marvel’s superhero flick, slated for November 2017.

The new folk hero: Al Joshua’s showcase gig at Ronnie Scott’s

14 Jul

Al Joshua press picAl Joshua, who plays a showcase gig at Ronnie Scott’s Upstairs on Tuesday (July 15) that you’d be foolish to miss, is one of the cleverest, funniest, charmingest, bolshiest, stubbornnest people I’ve met. He had a promising music career and strong cult following a few years back as Orphans & Vandals, but has been out of the limelight for a while – working on new songs, and writing the screenplay for Set The Thames On Fire, a dystopian sci-fi buddy movie directed by Ben Charles Edwards which finished shooting a couple of months ago.

A few years is a long time in the music biz. Al’s comeback gig at the Notting Hill Arts Club a few weeks back was attended only by his new manager and a few friends.

Yet it was one of the most mesmerising gigs I have witnessed.

How to describe Al’s songs? There’s a dash of Tom Waits, a sprinkling of Bob Dylan. But they sound raw and fresh and achingly lovely. Though delivered by just one man with a guitar sitting on a stool with a black rapscallion hat perched on his ginger hair, they don’t seem retro at all. These are songs of loss and longing, distinguished by a rare linguistic dexterity. Songs to be listened to. And, in typically stubborn defiance of the conventional wisdom about attention spans getting shorter, they’re mostly about ten minutes long. You wouldn’t want them any shorter.

Al’s signature tune, perhaps, is I Love You Madly. You can play it on Soundcloud here, but it’s especially hypnotic live – the phrase, when it comes, repeated again and again in urgent but subtly different ways like a mania, a mantra, a plea, a prayer.

His manager, an industry veteran with a strong track record, told me after the gig that he had had no desire to take Al on. He didn’t exactly seem like the most commercially lucrative prospect. But then he heard the songs… “And damn him, I just couldn’t not say yes.”

Click here for discounted tickets to Ronnie Scott’s Upstairs on July 15.

 

Video

The Presence LDN: a Cosplay post-punk rockapocalypse

5 Jul

Sometimes, a critic must set subjective judgement aside, and just say: this is TOTALLY FREAKING AWESOME!

The video above, released just today, is one such time. It’s a compilation of Cosplay footage that will get any comic-book fan pressing the Replay button again and again, set to a two-minute hit-seeking missile of a song. It’s put together by the frontman of new band The Presence LDN, a man who seemingly now wants to be known as just “SWP”, though my personal nickname for him is “Occult Steve” due to his habit of… how else can I put it… materialising in unexpected places.

A former horror film director and composer whom I first met thanks to omniscient film critic Kim Newman, SWP has since manifested at three club events I attended as well as a Shoreditch street corner. Usually while I was thinking of him.

Ageless under a shock of white hair, resembling a much handsomer brother of Johnny Rotten (indeed, former Sex Pistol Glen Matlock played bass in his last band, King Mob), SWP and The Presence have even been immortalised on their website by cult comic artist Shaky Kane…

As I say, totally freaking awesome.

‘Like’ the band on Facebook here: http://on.fb.me/17SpmDo

They shoot, she scores! Soundcheque’s movie music

31 Jan
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Soundcheque founder Laura Westcott makes it Big (as in Tom Hanks)

Music and film. Or, as Bowie sang, “Don’t you wonder sometimes/About sound and vision?”

You may not notice it consciously, but soundtracks have a powerful effect on your emotions. Try watching a horror movie, or even a romance, on mute with subtitles. Or imagine Jaws without the cello, Star Wars without the strings. It’ll leave you cold.

Not every film-maker can afford to commission a brand-new composition. Not every musician knows how to get in touch with directors. So welcome, please, www.soundcheque.com, a brand-new website, launched today, that aims to bring the two together. Don’t expect bells and whistles, not yet anyway, or a refinable Search facility. Do expect the personal touch.

“I’m not doing this for the money,” says Laura Westcott down the phone from New York, where she now works as an online content editor for News Corporation. “I’m doing this for love, to help musicians. When someone posts their project, I and my small team of Soundcheckers will try to match it to the right music.”

The site takes 20% commission from any transaction. Fees are negotiable, depending on the size and budget of the project. Laura will even allow student and no-budget film-makers to advertise no-fee projects, assuming one of her musicians is hungry enough for credit.

There are other sites you can go to: www.Scorerevolution.com, for instance, or www.Magnatune.com. SoundCheque has a way to go before it can match the range of their catalogues. But it is free for film-makers to register their projects, while musicians get a no-win-no-fee deal. And Westcott appears to have the nous, the contacts, and, most importantly, the passion to build her site up for the future.

Before spending three years as a recruitment consultant and then pitching up at News International, she got a degree in Music, and spent eight years with the London Philharmonic. Having crossed the Atlantic, she has just got into the New York Choral Society, which will mean singing at Carnegie Hall (she’ll have to “practise, practise, practise!”).

In fact music is, quite literally, in her skin.

Westcott confides: “Peter Brookes (the Times cartoonist) gave me a drawing of a musical butterfly, joking that I should get it tattooed… and I did!”

Soundcheque welcomes project synopses from film-makers, and uploads from musicians, at http://www.Soundcheque.com

Nearly a year after I wrote this, Soundcheque relaunched with a new-look website and 1,000 composers. Read about it here.