Tag Archives: Time Out

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.

RIP Adam “Batman” West: my 1988 interview in full

11 Jun
Batman image

RIP Adam “Batman” West: do not go gentle into that Dark Knight. Art by Frank Miller, DC Comics.

Pressure of work means I have put this blog on the back burner, but I had to mark the death of Adam West. Batman was my first obsession, at the age of 4. It was surreal to meet the man himself for one of the first features I ever wrote for Time Out.

He was affable, courteous, funny, self-aware, but also with a strong hint of steel and a particularly nice take on how he would do a Dark Knight movie. I’d forgotten, till I re-read this, that I’d also taken him proofs of the forthcoming Alan Moore/Brian Bolland Batman graphic novel The Killing Joke to comment on. This was the feature as printed in 1988:

HAVING DEVOTED half his life to walking up horizontal walls in leathers and skin-tight nylon and foiling fiendish death traps, Adam West is feeling the pressure. He speaks slowly and softly, his voice just occasionally tinged with that famous steel, lying flat out on his bed in the Mayfair Hilton. Even now the phone never stops ringing. In the few days he has spent in London, his first visit in seven years, he has been besieged with requests for exclusive interviews and had to turn them all down, save television appearances and this one. He is tickled when I describe to him the contents of Time Out. ‘You mean you’re elevating me to the status of The Arts?’

At 58, he now tries to roll with the punches, but there was a time when he tried hard to shake off the role which keeps coming back to haunt him. ‘I made the mistake of allowing myself to be rushed into several movies very quickly when “Batman” folded (after three seasons), because I knew I’d have the typecasting problem, with Batman like an albatross round my neck. There was “The Girl Who Knew Too Much”, which was really awful, then another one, and I said “That’s it, fuck it, I’ve had it.”

‘So I just sat on the beach and licked my wounds for a year; carousing, boozing, anything just to get away. And then I began to realise I’ve given a lot of my life to this, this is what I want to do, I love the process of performing and acting. So I started doing anything I could. I did circuses, dinner theatre, avant-garde theatre … My God, I did “The Happy Hooker Goes to Hollywood”!’

MODEST THOUGH he is, he can’t feign surprise at the virulent outbreak of Batmania when the series was revived, first on ‘Night Network’ and then TV-am — causing ratings to leap by 25 per cent. He knows better than anyone the secret of its success: playing the straight-man with deadly seriousness week after week to anchor a sit-com whose wacky guest stars ranged from Eartha Kitt and Joan Collins to Vincent Price and Liberace. When the first series was broadcast in 1966, he was mobbed by admirers even in small mountain towns; and fame came with a high price-tag. “People would get a little ugly and say “Hey, you’re not so tough, I can take Batman.” I usually try to be reasonable, then turn round and run.’

The current passion for all things ’60s is no hindrance to the new burst of popularity — ‘An Italian paper said, “in the ’60s, it’s the three Bs: Batman, Bond and the Beatles”.’ But the groundwork had already been laid by a peculiarly ’80s phenomenon: the huge sales and hype surrounding Frank Miller’s audacious adult comic book, ‘Return of the Dark Knight’. In it, Batman emerges from retirement grey-haired, embittered, determined to wage war against the increasingly mindless violence on the streets with equal brutality, his youthful sidekick no longer Robin the Boy Wonder, but a feisty feminist.

‘Isn’t that something,’ says Adam West of the book. And indeed he bears some similarity to the Dark Knight: still in good shape, his famous paunch if anything less noticeable, but the years showing in his greying locks, thick glasses, and the trenches in his cheeks. ‘I enjoyed it, its inventiveness, its artistry, a bit nihilistic and violent. If I were to do a Batman movie, I would like to have aspects of that.’

AH, THE Batman movie. Ever since ‘Dark Knight’ appeared in 1986, rumours have been rife of a hard-hitting film that would forever banish the memory of the Camp Crusader. Last spring Dick Giordano, Vice-President of comics publishing giant DC which owns the rights to ‘Batman’, confided it had been scripted, would shortly enter production, and that — snigger — Adam West had applied for the part: anathema to the new, more serious breed of comics fan, particularly when rivals for the role include Mel Gibson.

But, after talking with him, the idea of West updating his role is by no means absurd. It would be entirely in keeping with the idea of ‘Return of the Dark Knight’, and he displays an intelligent, even poetic approach to film-making. When I show him a proof copy of ‘The Killing Joke’, Batman’s latest foray into the ’80s, he is enrapt by the brooding artwork, evidently visualising it as a storyboard. But when his eye alights on a page featuring a graphic shooting, he is suddenly angered.

‘On film this would be Peckinpah, slo-mo “Wild Bunch”. You don’t need to do this — blow people away with huge holes, blood splattering all over the place. But you can (and here his tone becomes conspiratorial) lop off a villain’s head with thin Batwire (chuckles) that snakes out of your utility belt — wssst! — and the head lops off and rolls across a full moon, bloodless.

‘I think in the final scenes of something, if it’s bizarre and mysterious, you can still have Alfred the butler driving the old Batmobile to the rescue. In the picture we’d have been using all hi-tech, wonderful slick new stuff, so you haven’t seen it before, and at the critical moment, there’s Alfred, driving the old Batmobile. People would stand up and cheer, it’s like the cavalry.’

But unlike the Dark Knight, Adam West is powerless to effect his own return, and frustrated at his new enemy: he can hardly sock the face of the corporate power which prevents him from using the character he has made his own. ‘Yes, I care about the character. It’s 20 years of my life, my career. I’ve seen so many people, signed autographs, shaken hands, done television — South America, the Amazon even; anything I can do to keep this thing fresh and alive. I don’t mean to sit here and weep about sacrifice in roles or other directions my career might have taken; I just put a hell of a lot of work into this thing and dammit, I know, better than anyone else, the best opportunities to do a smashing Batman movie. I hate to see the character denigrated, experimented with. Ruined.

‘Integrity,’ he continues, hammering out each syllable with very Batman-like force, ‘is vital, organic to the project! Sometimes I just don’t know. I mean we sit here and talk, and you’ve caught me at a moment when I’m very relaxed… Sometimes I think, I really don’t give a damn. Now, am I tired? Am I losing a little energy, am I getting older? No, I just think I really don’t give a damn because I already did it!

BUT WEST isn’t resting on his laurels. No less than three features are in the can, to be released, in America at least, sometime this year: ‘Doing Time On Planet Earth’, an off-the-wall comedy; ‘Mad About You’, a romantic comedy; and ‘Return Fire’, an action pic.

As for the spirit of ’66, that will be recreated in April in a two-week stage show for charity at the Bloomsbury Theatre, called ‘Batman and Robin: The Last Re-run’. West won’t be appearing, but preliminary glimpses of the script suggest it will be hysterically funny, with the shadow of ‘Dark Knight’ nowhere evident, and walk-on parts suggesting other TV shows of the era like ‘Star Trek’ and ‘Man From UNCLE’. Huge, colourful cardboard cut-outs will supply the full array of Batgadgets, as well as the BIFFs, KA-POWs and ZZWAPs.

And what of Burt Ward, aka Robin? How has he weathered the ‘Dark Knight’ era? During the ’60s he had problems coping with his overnight success, going on about his ‘million-dollar face’. Now, says West, ‘Burt’s a kind of super-businessman. Robin the mogul!’

 

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.

 

Tarantino or Taranti-yes? Eight ways to decide whether to see The Hateful Eight

13 Jan
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Bounty hunters Samuel L Jackson and Kurt Russell, with the woman they are taking to hang, Jennifer Jason Leigh, in Tarantino’s The Hateful Eight

Are you thrilled to experience Ennio Morricone’s first score for a Western since 1981? The film opens with a few minutes of a static image with OVERTURE printed on it, to give the score a chance to get going (and a chance for the editor in me to tut-tut at the poor kerning – I would have reduced the space after the “O” and the “R”), and there is wonderful moment where the classic Morricone “ah-ah-aaaah” voices swell over a slow-motion shot of horses struggling through the snow, breathing heavily. But it has nothing like the resonance of his Sergio Leone scores. Though Morricone recently won the Golden Globe for best score, The Revenant and Sicario are both more deserving

Are you excited by seeing it in 70mm Panavision, on Leicester Square Odeon’s huge screen? Tarantino has revived this wonderful (and very expensive) format simply because he has the clout to do crazy expensive s*** like that. However, the entire movie takes place inside either a stagecoach or a single-roomed bar, so the effect is an almost entirely redundant marketing gimmick. Makes for nice lighting, though.

Do you enjoy Tarantino’s talk-talk? This has it in spades. The whole thing is talking, more even than any other Tarantino film, let alone any normal director’s films. You can see why Tarantino is thinking of turning The Hateful Eight into a stage production. But boy does it work. It’s peppered with terrific lines, and utterly absorbing for the whole of its length.

Do you like Tarantino’s bang-bang? It’s not until half-way through the three-hour movie that there is any serious violence. (Some jokey violence, mind you, involving Jennifer Jason Leigh being repeatedly slammed in the face by her bounty hounter, ha ha.) But the climax is every bit as blood-drenched as Reservoir Dogs.

Do you think Samuel Jackson is the coolest motherf***** on the big screen? Then you’re definitely in luck. This could just be his finest role. He carries the film. All the big speeches are his, and he speaks them with the captivating slowness, emphasis and deliberation of a master story-teller. And if anyone can tell me where to get that awesome yellow-lined coat, I’m buying.

Do you believe Tarantino can coax the coolest performances from just about anyone? Yes, the director who resurrected Travolta’s dead-duck career is on form again. Everyone in this ensemble cast is terrific, with special plaudits for Tim Roth’s hilarious and utterly against-type upper-crust British accent. There’s just one exception. Not even Tarantino can make Channing Tatum (thankfully a tiny role) look or sound like he should be in a Tarantino film.

Do you like Tarantino’s time shifts? There is a time-shift scene in The Hateful Eight, where you see a past event from a different character’s perspective. It actually adds very little, however, and feels like Tarantino’s doing it just because it’s expected of him.

Do you feel Tarantino ain’t what he used to be? Let’s face it: Tarantino probably won’t ever better Pulp Fiction. But then again, probably no one will ever better Pulp Fiction; it’s one of the most extraordinary and influential films ever made (and one I’m proud to have nabbed as a cover-interview exclusive, at Time Out, before Empire or anyone else got their hands on it). And though I had my problems with Django Unchained (which I wrote about here), he’s still one of the most interesting writer-directors working in Hollywood, and this film absolutely doesn’t disappoint.

In the final analysis, do you like the sound of a spaghetti western with the same vibe as Reservoir Dogs written as an Agatha Christie locked-room mystery? Then you’ll probably like The Hateful Eight.

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.

Time Out axes Comedy section: are you ‘avin’ a laugh?

19 Dec
Eddie Izzard Time Out cover

Eddie Izzard, in one of my favourite Time Out comedy covers

Two accountants walk into a bar. “Why the long face?” they ask. A  Continue reading

The Future Shock doc, and how I lived for 2000AD

4 Dec

2000AD

When I started reading the “galaxy’s greatest comic” back in 1977, its title – 2000AD – seemed wildly exotic. At a time when the Sex Pistols were shouting “No Future”, this promised to take us to the 21st century, and beyond.

Obviously its founders never expected the comic to last this long, or they would have chosen a different title. Yet here we are, well into the 21st century, and the comic is not only still being published, but is the subject of a celebratory documentary. Future Shock: The Story of 2000AD screens tomorrow at the Genesis Cinema Whitechapel and is out on DVD on Monday.

2000AD was, in those days, funny, violent, and violently funny, written and drawn by fearless and ridiculously talented Brits who would go on to revolutionise the US comics industry and, indirectly, Hollywood –and my  passion for it passed all reasonable understanding. I looked forward to each new issue as teens today might anticipate the next season of Game of Thrones, or the new Grand Theft Auto.

The first thing I did on graduating from Oxford was to hole up in my bedroom for six months writing a (bloody good) role-playing multiple-choice gamebook based on Judge Dredd. I had an agent (AM Heath); a publisher (Penguin); and an agreement from the then editor of 2000AD to license the character with a royalty split. Sadly a new MD swept in, summarily cancelled that permission on the grounds that they were not interested in pursuing anything like a gamebook – and then less than a year later published their own gamebook series called Dice Man, using several ideas that bore a startling similarity (no doubt entirely coincidental) to my own.

Welcome to the real world, fan boy.

So instead of becoming an author, I went into journalism. Comics became my “in”: I acquired a regular review slot in London’s Alternative Magazine, and when I joined Time Out as a sub-editor, I successfully pitched a number of comics-related features – mostly with 2000AD alumni such as Alan Moore – as well as putting the Judge Dredd movie on the cover and using Jamie Hewlett and Brian Bolland as illustrators. At one stage I was sounded out about perhaps becoming the next Mighty Tharg, 2000AD’s editor, which nearly made my head explode – but I was committed to Time Out, and became its editor soon after.

All of which is by way of saying that I might not be the most impartial judge of the Future Shock doc. All the same, to read my review from when it was first screened at the BFI London Film Festival, click here.

And if there are any other fans out there, I still have boxes and boxes of 2000AD, almost the full set from two decades starting in about 1978. If anyone’s interested in buying, get in touch.

One final aside – if you see someone playing poker online under the handle Aaron A Aardvark, that’s me. It you can identify the reference, show the world you’re a clever dick and leave a Comment.