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Greg Wilson’s Discotheque Archives #2

GWDJ2

The second edition of my ‘Discotheque Archives’ series for DJ Mag is now online, featuring more landmarks in pre-Rave club culture:

COLIN CURTIS – A central figure in three distinct dance music movements; Northern Soul, Jazz-Funk and House, Curtis was one of the most significant DJs in the UK in regards to his role in its development during the 70’s and 80’s.

STREET SOUNDS – Morgan Khan’s Street Sounds label was instrumental in bringing the fresh and exciting sound of the US underground dance and hip-hop scene to the UK’s mainstream via it’s affordable compilations.

THE MUSIC BOX – Chicago’s lesser-known but equally important House music club inhabited the same space where the more famous Warehouse had been. As Frankie Knuckles made way for Ron Hardy, the venue took on a new name and new life on the rougher, rawer side of House.

THE TEARS OF A CLOWN – A classic single that almost never was, Smokey Robinson & The Miracles’ ‘Tears Of A Clown’ is now regarded as one of Motown’s seminal hits, yet it was overlooked by the label as a single initially, until the UK-based Tamla-Motown showed them its worth.

Discotheque Archives

Read this month’s column here:
http://djmag.com/features/greg-wilsons-discotheque-archives-2

Read all pieces in full here:
http://www.gregwilson.co.uk/greg-wilsons-discotheque-archives/

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Spotify Playlists

Spotify
Technology is often a double-edged sword, announcing on the one hand exciting new possibilities, but on the other a break from a tradition you once thought was always.

People consume music very differently now to how they did in our not too distant past. The demise of the record shop, an almost mythical meeting place where life-defining tunes were first heard, then eagerly bought and brought back home for more intimate exploration, is sadly lamented by many, and this been a factor in the recent vinyl renaissance – leaving all that black gold behind us was just too much to bear.

Although a healthy amount of younger heads have nobly hooked-up a record player, the overwhelming majority of people nowadays listen to their music online, via platforms like iTunes, YouTube, SoundCloud and Spotify, which has now amassed an impressive history of recorded music to select from, confirming the ever-escalating trend for people to move away from buying their music, instead listening via a sonic library. We now loan what we used to own.

Greg Wilson's Time Capsule

On the flip side, as an archive Spotify is immense. I’ve been impressed, for example, with the amount of tracks I was able to find from my Time Capsule series, which covered the music I was playing in the clubs back in 1976 and 1977, some of it pretty obscure. Granted, there are still frustrating omissions, but overall I’ve got to say that if you’d told me, back in 1976, that there would be the possibility of hearing a great deal of the music I owned, and would subsequently own, not to mention all the stuff I could never find time to hear if I lived a dozen lifetimes; and all there at my fingertips, all accessible within my own home (or let’s make it anywhere I want to be), I’d have signed up to the future there and then. What an incredible resource this is.

I suppose that, moving forward, and given the unlimited choice now available, the need for curation grows ever-stronger, people utilizing trusted sources in order to access the ocean of recorded history now available.

It’s in this spirit that I’ve approached Spotify, which provides a solid platform for my more documentative projects, like the Random Influences and Time Capsule series’, whilst also enabling me to create playlists from genre selections I have on SoundCloud and Mixcloud – Electro, Northern Soul and the early to mid-70s Soul, Funk and Proto-Disco tracks that feature in my Music Played In Discotheques mix.

The Beatles/Bowie

Then there are artist compilations, my Bowie tribute following his death earlier this year, and a Beatles Children’s Classics playlist taken from a CD I’d put together for my son back in the late 90’s, and then burnt off for friends along the way, so they could play to their kids – I put this on Spotify when The Beatles back catalogue was made available to stream:
http://www.gregwilson.co.uk/2015/12/streaming-the-beatles/

There are also playlists containing my remixes, production & edits and one for the releases on my record label, Super Weird Substance, but whilst SoundCloud and Mixcloud are more related to what I do as a DJ, Spotify is more akin to the blog, taking in a wider-range of music and influences.

Random Influences

What’s been particularly pleasing is that Random Influences, which has had, and continues to have, a number of homes since its inception in 2010, has finally found its most suited abode. Whilst I didn’t have a way around it at the time, the 12 part 24-hour long series was compromised by even being in a fixed running order. It features a days worth of 7” singles I knew and loved during my formative years, and Spotify finally allows me to present the series in a way that’s befitting of its name, all the tracks in a single playlist and the shuffle function enabling the randomising I’d initially envisaged for the selected tracks, but had no realistic way of achieving until now. This can, of course, be done with any playlist, but it’s the perfect way to consume Random Influences.

So have a look for yourself, plenty already there to explore and lots more to come. Check in here:
https://open.spotify.com/user/djgregwilson

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Greg Wilson’s Discotheque Archives

Discotheque ArchivesLast December, whilst I was in London to collect the DJ Mag Industry Icon award at their Best Of British event at Heaven, editor Carl Loben and digital editor Charlotte Lucy Cijffers approached me with the idea of writing a regular column for the magazine focusing on various aspects of the history of dance culture during the pre-Rave era, taking in the 60’s, 70’s and 80’s.

The first column, titled ‘Greg Wilson’s Discotheque Archives’, was included in the magazines April edition, and is now available to read online. It features 4 sections – Classic DJ (David Mancuso), Classic label (Sugar Hill Records), Classic Venue (The Twisted Wheel, Manchester) and Classic Record (‘Love Money’ by T.W. Funk Masters):
http://djmag.com/features/greg-wilsons-discotheque-archives

Discotheque Archives

On a personal level, this provides me with the perfect opportunity to highlight history and legacy to a generation of younger DJs who read the magazine, helping join the dots between what’s happening nowadays and the roots and branches that led there.

Josh Ray, who works with me at Super Weird Substance has been helping me compile the contents, whilst Pete Fowler is providing the accompanying illustrations of the Classic DJs – the first, ‘Mr Mancuso’, taken from a painting I bought from him back in 2013:
http://www.gregwilson.co.uk/2013/12/mr-mancuso/

DJ Mag

DJ Mag Wikipedia:
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/DJ_Magazine

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Prince

Prince

Minnepolis born music icon Prince Rogers Nelson, better known as simply Prince, died today at his Paisley Park estate in Minnesota aged 57. The cause of his death is still undetermined as I write this, but last week he was taken into hospital for a few days with flu-like symptoms, following an emergency plane landing in Illinois after he’d performed in Atlanta.

I first came across Prince in the late 70’s – I remember confusing him with the Reggae artist Prince Far I at first because his debut album was listed as Prince ‘For You’ in 1978. It wasn’t an LP that set the world alight, but his next album, the self-titled Prince, released the following year, would spawn 2 massive club cuts, ‘I Wanna Be Your Lover’ and ‘Sexy Dancer’, as well as ‘I Feel For You’, a track that would be covered by and become a huge hit for Chaka Khan in 1984 (other notable Prince covers include The Bangles ‘Manic Monday’ and Sinéad O’Connor ‘Nothing Compares 2 U’).

Prince defied pigeonholing, coming up with his own musical mutations that fused Funk, Soul, Rock and Electronic styles. During the early 80’s, whilst he was making tentative steps towards stardom in the US, in the UK he was too rock for the dance crowd and too dance for the rock crowd. He teetered on the margins for a few years, but there was an upturn in 1982 with the release of the ‘1999’ LP and the single of the same name, which certainly brought him to wider attention in the UK. However, it was the next album, the soundtrack to the film ‘Purple Rain’ (in which he starred) and it’s flagship single ‘When Doves Cry’, which gave him his first US #1’s and launched him to superstardom.

Purple RainAs a live performer he was one of the most spectacular of his era, whilst inside the studio he was a musician who could pretty much pick up any instrument and make it sound great. He was one of the most innovative record producers of his time and, along with Michael Jackson and Madonna, one of the defining pop stars of the 80’s. Although he reached the height of his popularity from the mid-80’s to the early 90’s, he continued to score top 10 albums right up until 2014.

During recent years I’ve played a number of Prince edits along the way, but by far and away the most memorable is the Dimitri From Paris take on ‘I Wanna Be Your Lover’, an absolute classic of the re-edit genre, which you can hear here:
http://www.dailymotion.com/video/ximhs9_dimitri-from-stoke-on-trent-i-wanna-be-your-lobster_music

The news of Prince death came as quite a shock personally – I’d played ‘When Doves Cry’ as the closing track at my last gig, in Liverpool earlier this month. He was just a year older than me. Here’s the recording:
https://soundcloud.com/clubfreeze/greg-wilson-the-garage-liverpool-090416

There are lots of people remarking that there’s already been far too many deaths this year, but it seems that it’s something we’ll have to get used to as the 60’s generation reaches old age. Already this year on the blog I’ve written pieces about David Bowie, Maurice White, George Martin, DJ Derek, Howard Marks and now Prince, all categorized RIP – it’s been a discomforting trend. Prince is perhaps the most shocking of all given his relatively young age and the fact nobody could have anticipated this.

Prince

Prince Wikipedia:
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Prince_(musician)

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Howard Marks

Howard Marks

Howard Marks, the once international dope smuggler, later bestselling author and raconteur, died on Sunday. He was aged 70.

Howard was someone I was fortunate enough to meet on a number of occasions, and even interview, during his latter years. He was a friend of my friend, Kermit Leveridge, and it was when I started working with Kermit again in 2013 that I first met Howard. He came to my house to record a spoken word section for ‘Universal Prayer’, a track by Kermit’s band Blind Arcade, which extolls the virtues of the green stuff:
https://vimeo.com/106020154

He also recited one of Kermit’s poems, ‘Lies And Other Fools’, a much darker piece of prose, which dealt with Kermit’s heroin addiction of former years. It was a powerful portrayal by Howard, his deep distinctive Welsh tones adding further gravitas. It wasn’t easy listening, but it wasn’t meant to be, it was part of a cathartic process for Kermit before embarking on a new creative chapter. We decided to press it up as as a limited 7” single, which was issued on Record Store Day 2014. It was our offering to the vinyl gods:
http://www.superweirdsubstance.com/listening-lies/

We held a special event at Dry Bar in Manchester to mark the occasion, and Howard was our guest of honour – Dry, with its rich Manchester heritage having been opened by the owners of The Haçienda / Factory Records right at the height of the Madchester era, in 1989 (the year Howard’s luck ran out and the authorities finally caught up with him). Artist SLM painted a regal Howard at Dry – I suggested the laurel of hemp that adorns his head.

Howard Marks by SLM

I collected Howard from Piccadilly station that day, and as we drove to the venue he casually mentioned that Dry had been the location of his very first book presentation, following the publication of ‘Mr Nice’ in 1996.

‘Mr Nice’ was a wonderful yarn, Howard’s autobiographical account of the years he spent playing cat and mouse, avoiding the authorities across continents as he masterminded a major network for the illegal importation of cannabis. The title referred to the name Mr Nice, one of the aliases Howard would use, assuming, in this case, the identity of a real Mr Donald Nice.

The name suited Howard, for apart from being a highly intelligent and clearly cunning man, he was also extremely charming – the warmth of his larger than life personality a key characteristic that magnetised those around him. It was also this that no doubt kept him safe and sane when incarcerated in a maximum security prison in the USA until 1995, following his arrest in 1989 (his death was 21 years to the day since his release from prison).

Howard was one of the true anti-heroes of the age, a fact embraced by all those who went out and bought ‘Mr Nice’, making it a bestseller, particularly popular at the time with students, as well as stoners. His new-found celebrity led to talk tours where he embellished on his book tales with the command of a stage veteran – his wit and intoxicated wisdom resulting in packed venues. I went to see him myself in Liverpool during the late 90’s.

In 2010 ‘Mr Nice’ was adapted into a film, but it just didn’t capture the spirit of the book, falling well short for me, and for many others. Sadly, a lot of people have subsequently gone for the quick fix of the film, rather than the long haul of the book.

Following the success of our Dry Bar Record Store Day Vinyl Happening, we booked in a series of Super Weird Happenings featuring Blind Arcade, as well as live art, spoken word and DJ’s. Howard was to have been our special guest on the 5 dates, which took in Manchester, Glasgow, Bristol, Liverpool and London, but just before we released the promotional material for the first dates, which had his name on, we learned that he’d been diagnosed with bowel cancer.

A Super Weird Happening In Portmeirion

Howard’s cancer was inoperable, but his lust for life remained large, and over a year on from his diagnosis he was able to join us in North Wales for our Super Weird Happening at Festival No.6 in Portmeirion, where a packed crowd gathered on a gorgeous afternoon in a show of heartfelt warmth towards Howard that was truly touching. I could tangibly feel it as I sat on stage interviewing him – it was something that will always stay with me. Howard was very much a loveable rogue, and that day he generated a wave of love and goodwill from the audience, who hung on his every word, perhaps knowing that this was the last time they’d see this then living legend and countercultural icon.

This would be the last time I saw Howard. There was talk of him doing more events with us later this year – he remained the optimist. However, Howard’s health deteriorated in recent months, with Kermit informing me of his passing before the news broke on social media.

My personal commiserations to Howard’s family and friends.

Kermit Leveridge & Howard Marks photo by Elspeth

Guardian Obituary:
http://www.theguardian.com/books/2016/apr/11/howard-marks-obituary

Howard Marks Wikipedia:
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Howard_Marks

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DJ Derek

DJ Derek

It’s now been announced that the body found in woodland outside Bristol on 10th March, has been confirmed as being former Bristolian Reggae DJ, Derek Serpell-Morris (aka DJ Derek), who had been missing since July 2015. He was 73.

Derek retired from DJing in 2013, although he returned for a final one-off appearance at Bristol’s Thunderbolt on New Years Eve 2014, alongside fellow Reggae selector legend Don Letts (the sell-out event being filmed by Don for posterity).

Derek’s disappearance was, and for the meantime remains, a mystery. That someone so identifiable within the local community could seemingly vanish without trace left hope that perhaps he would miraculously turn up again somewhere, but as each week / month passed that hope evaporated, and more and more people came to believe that news of Derek’s death was inevitable. The last flickers of hope faded just before Christmas when reports of Derek being sited in London came to nothing more than a case of mistaken identity.

I wrote about Derek back in 2012, before he’d announced his retirement, in a blog post called ‘Never Judge A Book By It’s Cover’:
http://www.gregwilson.co.uk/2012/09/never-judge-a-book-by-its-cover/

I’d imagined him enjoying a lengthy retirement travelling up and down the country quenching his thirst as he fulfilled his intention to visit every Wetherspoons Pub in Britain in order to sample their real ales (Derek, despite his JA leanings, more hops than herbal), but this tragically wasn’t to be.

By way of a fitting tribute, I’d highly recommend you take out the 20 minutes necessary to watch this film about Derek by Jamie Foord, which celebrates his DJ career and love of both Jamaican and American black music: Pt 1: https://vimeo.com/1758371 Pt 2: https://vimeo.com/1758440

There’s also this wonderfully observed 4 minute short by Yan Murawski:
https://vimeo.com/47731096

DJ Derek Sweet Memory Sounds

DJ Derek Wikipedia:
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/DJ_Derek

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Sir George Martin

George Martin At Abbey Road

North London born A&R man and record producer of The Beatles, George Martin, died yesterday aged 90.

Martin, very much the gentleman of the Pop world, began working for EMI in 1950, taking over as label manager at Parlophone in 1955. The label wasn’t known for Rock ‘n’ Roll back then, but all that changed in 1962 after Martin made the genius move of signing The Beatles. He would be later referred to as the ‘Fifth Beatle’, due to his intimate involvement in their recording career, working extensively with them at the now iconic Abbey Road Studios in London.

The Beatles had been turned down by all the major labels, including the main EMI imprints of HMV and Columbia. Parlophone was very much the poor relation, but it turned out to be a match made in heaven – the cultured Martin, with his classical leanings, perfectly suited to the raw energy and songwriting savvy of the 4 Liverpudlians he discovered.

Initially these were John Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison and Pete Best, but Martin was less than enthusiastic about Best’s drumming, wanting to use a session player instead – their first single, ‘Love Me Do’, would feature Andy White on drums, with Best’s replacement, Ringo Starr (headhunted from Rory Storm & The Hurricanes) playing on the album version and subsequent recordings.

George Martin with The Beatles

Throughout the next 7 years Martin would produce all The Beatles albums with the exception of the final one, ‘Let It Be’, which was out of sequence in terms of recording, the difficult studio sessions taking place in early 1969 against the backdrop of a band coming apart at the seams. The following year Phil Spector would sort through the tapes and cobble together a final LP from these messy sessions (immortalised in the film ‘Let It Be’), which was issued a month after the band broke up.

Following the ignominy of the ‘Let It Be’ sessions, The Beatles were able to rally one more time, bringing Martin fully on board for their final album (in terms of recording) ‘Abbey Road’ (1969), adding to Martin’s production credits on ‘Please Please Me’ (1963), ‘With The Beatles’ (1963), ‘A Hard Days Night’ (1964), ‘ Beatles For Sale’ (1964), ‘Help!’ (1965), ‘Rubber Soul’ (1965), ‘Revolver’ (1966), ‘Sgt. Peppers Lonely Hearts Club Band’ (1967), and ‘The Beatles’ (better known as the ‘White Album’) (1968). He would also produce the numerous singles / EP tracks that didn’t appear on the 60’s albums, overseeing what’s widely regarded as the greatest body of music recorded during the pop era.

He was particularly influential in introducing the band to the classical instrumentation of the orchestra, which The Beatles would utilize to full effect, changing the course of popular music in the process, especially on the albums ‘Revolver’ and ‘Sgt. Peppers’.

Apart from The Beatles, Martin would produce fellow Merseybeat artists Gerry & The Pacemakers, Billy J. Kramer, The Fourmost and Cilla Black. He would also subsequently produce hits for a variety of other artists including America, Little River Band and Paul McCartney – solo, with Wings and with Michael Jackson. Martin’s most successful single being the biggest selling of all-time – Elton John’s 1997 remake of ‘Candle In The Wind’, following the death of Diana, Princess Of Wales.

His son, Gilles, has followed in his footsteps, collaborating with his father in 2006 to rework a number of The Beatles songs for ‘Love’, a theatrical production from Cirque Du Soleil, which also resulted in a soundtrack album of the same name. He was also heavily involved in preparing the music for the video game ‘The Beatles: Rock Band’, which was released in 2009.

George Martin

George Martin Wikipedia:
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/George_Martin

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Bowie – My First Great Obsession

Brixton Bowie by Micha Theiner

I wanted to write in greater personal detail about David Bowie and the depth of impact his music and words had on me during my formative teenage years – this occurring when I was between the ages of 12 and 15. I’d uploaded a blog post once I’d heard about his death, but I’ve found myself needing to revisit what was a magical mystical part of my musical / life initiation, as much for myself as anyone else, both by listening through the records I loved, and still love, whilst getting it all into words somehow. Once I started writing this I couldn’t contain it – it was bursting out of all sides. So please excuse me for the tangents I go off on and the jumping about – there’s no easy coherent way for me to express this. For a period following his 6th July 1972 ‘Starman’ performance on Top Of The Pops, until 1975, when I began to disengage, Bowie ruled ok in my world.

To accompany this piece, I’ve put together as 3 hour podcast featuring 40 tracks that I became intimate with during the 1972-1975 period – the first of which was the ‘Starman’ single in July 1972, the last being ‘Golden Years’ in November 1975, just weeks before I started working as a club DJ (‘Golden Years’ featured on the ‘First Impressions’ podcast that highlighted the records I was playing as I started out). There are, you’ll find, tracks also included from the period 1969-1971, but with the exception of ‘Space Oddity’, these were all first heard in retrospect, Bowie’s back catalogue picking up significant sales on the back of the success of ‘The Rise And Fall Of Ziggy Stardust And The Spiders From Mars’.  I selected 40 tracks by Bowie (41 if you want to add the ‘Sweet Thing (Reprise)’ as separate), but also added 4 from Lou Reed’s ‘Transformer’ album, which Bowie and Mick Ronson produced directly after recording ‘Ziggy’, and Mott The Hoople’s huge hit from 1972, ‘All The Young Dudes’, written and produced by Bowie. Like his post-75 releases, his pre-‘69 output doesn’t feature here – as with the title of the final track in terms of release, this podcast, for me, truly represents Bowie’s golden years – the era in which he made the majority of his greatest recordings, whilst being at his most vital as a trailblazing artist.

https://www.mixcloud.com/gregwilson/bowie-my-first-great-obsession/

*(added on 17.02.16) due to Mixcloud’s agreement in the US not allowing artist compilations, the podcast is unfortunately not available to stream there. To resolve this we’ve now also uploaded the podcast to the Hear This platform, which can be accessed in the US:

 

Whilst I’ve been writing this I chanced upon an old school project I did back in May 1973 when I was 13. It was about pop music and contained the following handwritten entry about Bowie (please excuse any youthful inaccuracies):

Greg Wilson School Project 1973

At the age of fifteen David Bowie started playing the tenor saxophone in a modern jazz band. In 1964 he formed a group called David Jones And The Lower Third, but it was about this time when an American group called The Monkees were starting to make a name here, so to avoid confusion with a member of that group he changed his name to Bowie. But the name change did not do much to help David. His first recordings went unnoticed until he made a record in 1969 called ‘Space Oddity’. The record whizzed up the charts.

Bowie took up Buddhism – a subject that had intrigued him from an early age. It was at this time that Bowie became interested in mime and he started formulating ideas as to how music could be expressed by combining the two arts. His stage act today is indeed strengthened by his ability to project himself both as a musician and a mime artist – hiding behind his white expressionless make-up and elaborate stage clothes.

There was a long lay-off after ‘Space Oddity’, but he released ‘Changes’ as a single and ‘Hunky Dory’ as an album. After that Bowie released ‘Starman’, ‘John I’m Only Dancing’ and ‘Jean Genie’ as singles (all were great successes) and ‘The Rise And Fall Of Ziggy Stardust And The Spiders From Mars’ as an album. ‘Space Oddity’ and ‘The Man Who Sold The World’ were re-released as albums. All this happened in Bowie’s most successful year 1972.

So far this year he has released a single ‘Drive-In Saturday’ and an album ‘Aladdin Sane’, but Bowie must thank his single ‘Starman’, which helped re-establish himself as the great artist he is. In 1972 Bowie produced and wrote a record by Mott The Hoople called ‘All The Young Dudes’. 1973 looks like being an even better year than 1972 for Bowie and his group The Spiders From Mars.

Apollo 11

The first David Bowie record I ever heard was ‘Space Oddity’, which was a top 5 hit in the UK in 1969, feeding into the zeitgeist of the Apollo 11 moon mission (the title a play on Stanley Kubrick’s seminal film of the previous year ‘2001: A Space Odyssey’). As such, the record was regarded as a novelty, and when Bowie’s subsequent singles flopped he was in serious danger of vanishing from the pop scene no sooner had he appeared. To my 9 year-old ears it was a strange exotic sounding record, with equally weird words leaving no resolution, or not the one expected, with the astronaut clearly adrift in the vastness of space, floating around his ‘tin can’. The 60’s, especially the post ‘67 period, threw out many a weird and wonderful record that, seemingly from some other stratosphere, broke into the pop chart and thus our daily lives. So, a distinctive out of leftfield track like ‘Space Oddity’ paradoxically wasn’t that unusual (a perfect example from around the time ‘Space Oddity’ was released, was ‘In The Year 2525’ by Zager & Evans, who would fulfill the true definition of one hit wonder on both sides of the Atlantic – their only hit being a #1). Besides, most people would have associated ‘Space Oddity’ with the name Major Tom rather than David Bowie.

To establish himself as an artist Bowie needed to follow-up, but it would end up taking him over 2 and a half years and 3 more albums before he finally had his 2nd hit single, ‘Starman’, which peaked at #10 – this was the record that would open up his Ziggy Stardust Pandora’s box of the brilliant and the bizarre. It was his Top Of The Pops performance of ‘Starman’ that would act as the catalyst for his subsequent UK superstardom.

David Bowie 'Starman'

Top Of The Pops had a massive audience back then, made up mainly of the youth, but also, in those days of limited TV choice (just 3 channels in the UK at the time) a cross-section of society. Whole families would watch together, teenagers and parents criticizing each other’s music taste in a weekly ritual. A generation gap had already opened up in the 60’s, and now, still not 5 years on from the legalization of homosexuality in the UK, here was a feminine looking man with his arm draped around another feminine looking man (lead guitarist and brother in arms Mick Ronson). What was the world coming to? This was the provocation of Bowie to the war generation, and even a fair proportion of 50’s rock & rollers and 60’s revelers to boot, for there was still an overriding atmosphere of homophobia across the general populace, even amongst some of those who were part of the supposedly open-minded hippie generation.

To say you were homosexual in those days would spell the kiss of death for your pop career, yet Bowie pulled a rabbit out of the hat, blurring the lines by declaring himself bisexual, whilst, via his Ziggy alto-ego, presenting himself as androgynous, perhaps even asexual – he was projecting a lot of stuff through this spellbinding persona he’d manifested. Whatever was going on, it was like nothing that had gone on before – Ziggy was most certainly at the cutting-edge, even as Bowie became the biggest chart artist in the UK during 1973. As with The Beatles before him, he’d managed get the balance right between writing great accessible music, which was at the same time ambitious and challenging – hooking the listener in, whilst stretching their horizons. He also had a shit hot band we came to know and love as The Spiders from Mars, or simply The Spiders.

I was 12 when ‘Starman’ came on TOTP, and like so many others, I saw Bowie look to camera for the line ‘I had to phone someone so I picked on you’, and point directly out of the tele at me! It was a call to arms – he’d brought us into his glammed up spaceworld in a very personal way via a technology viewed by millions. It was an incredible piece of magic theatre, but most vitally a great song with a positive message that really engaged me that evening, along with thousands of others. Like a modern day pied piper he was about to lead us a merry dance, with his call ‘let all the children boogie’.

This TV appearance has since gained legendary status in the fullest sense of the term. Writer Dylan Jones even dedicated an entire book to this cultural milestone in 2012 called ‘When Ziggy Played Guitar: David Bowie And The Four Minutes That Shook The World’.

At the age I was, things initially play out in the schoolyard the following day when people discus what had been on, who was good and who was crap. On a handful of occasions during this period there’d be a performer / track that would be dissected way beyond the good / crap norm (the first TOTP appearances of Roxy Music and Sparks were also pretty legendary), and following ‘Starman’ there was not only external but internal debate. We lived in a time when being a ‘queer’ or a ‘puff’ still wasn’t social accepted, despite the 1967 legislation – for a whole heap of people it would have been ‘did you see that puff on Top Of The Pops?’ To admit you liked the track yourself was immediately risky, for this could implicate you within the minds of certain people with bigoted opinions passed down from their parents’ generation – you could quite easily be labeled a queer by association.

But the music was undeniable, even to some of those with objections to the moral stance of the artist, and this, as a consequence, forced so many non-homosexuals with a love for Bowie’s music to break from the prejudice of their contemporaries, or their family, in order to reconcile this supposed anomaly within themselves. Bowie’s impact on gay culture was seismic, for here was a proud articulate icon bold enough to say he swung both ways, but he also made a major impression on so many straight people who would subsequently change their views on gay issues, taking a less judgemental stance and adopting more of a ‘live and let live’ viewpoint.

I got to know some older lads who’d also fallen under Ziggy’s spell. Some of these were people I’d previously avoided, lads who’d left school and had a reputation for being ‘hard knocks’. Quite a lot of hard lads seemed to gravitate towards Bowie that year – some were now sporting a single earing, having dyed their hair orange / red / sandy and swept it back in the Aladdin Sane carrottop style. I had a go at dying my own hair, not too successfully as witnessed in my school photo from 1973, when I was 13 and at the height of my Bowie obsession – I’m the one in the second row with the big knot in my tie and the roots coming through.

Henry Meoles School 1973

The height of my obsession was the summer of 73, by which point I was totally submerged in his music, wanting to own everything I could get my hands on. Bowie turned me into a collector of albums and I set about exploring not only his latest music, but what had come before – and what a journey of discovery this turned out to be, taking in ‘Aladdin Sane’ (1973), ‘The Rise And Fall Of Ziggy Stardust And The Spiders From Mars’ (1972), ‘Hunky Dory’ (1971)’, ‘The Man Who Sold The World’ (1970) and ‘Space Oddity’ (1969) in an aural feast. RCA Records had acquired the rights to ‘The Man Who Sold The World’ (originally on Mercury) and ‘Space Oddity’ (originally released as ‘David Bowie’ on Philips in the UK and ‘Man Of Words / Man Of Music’ in the US), and would make a killing when these albums spent an unprecedented combined amount of 182 weeks on the chart in a single year following the Ziggy breakthrough. From being a nearly man for so many years, David Bowie reigned supreme in the 1973 album charts, whilst continuing to score hit single after hit single following his ‘Starman’ breakthrough – ‘John I’m Only Dancing’ (peak of #12) and ‘The Jean Genie’ (#2) in 1972, followed in ’73 by ‘Drive In Saturday’ (#3), ‘Life On Mars’ (#3 – taken from ‘Hunky Dory’, released 2 years earlier), ‘The Laughing Gnome’ (#6 – a 1967 recording re-issued by Deram) and ‘Sorrow’ (#3 – a cover of the 1966 Merseys hit, which would appear on Bowie’s ‘Pin-Ups’, the follow-up to ‘Aladdin Sane’, issued towards the end of the year).

Images

I didn’t stop with the RCA releases, but went back further into his earlier 60’s output, picking up 2 compilation albums that included most of his previous material. He’d released a self-titled album on the Deram label in 1967 (not to be confused with the original ‘Space Oddity’ LP in 1969, also called ‘David Bowie’), and most of the tracks on there were re-packaged on a budget-priced 1970 compilation released on the Decca label called ‘The World Of David Bowie’. No sooner had I picked this up than I came across a similar comp, this time a double album called ‘Images 1966-1967’, which included all ‘The World Of David Bowie’ tracks, plus 7 more – this was a US import on the London label, the first import LP I ever bought now I come to think about it.

These earlier recordings are most revealing, and very much about an artist fumbling around trying to find his style. Most are pretty forgettable, whilst some of the tracks are downright bizarre – who can tell what was going on in his head when he wrote ‘Please Mr Gravedigger’! Brixton born and Bromley raised, Bowie’s voice back then sounded like a chirpy Cockney mixture of early 60’s hitmaker Anthony Newley and British musical star Tommy Steele – the often quaint and quirky realm we’ve entered here is a world apart from ‘Ziggy Stardust’, and hardly what might be described as at the cusp of things, lapsing into downright corny at times, but nevertheless full of madcap ideas and lyrical invention.

There were some hidden gems amidst the mayhem. ‘The London Boys’ focused on his time as a Mod and the bittersweet feelings of belonging this gave him, whilst the extremely jolly ‘Love You Till Tuesday’ was a jaunty little number that later provided the title of a half hour film his manager of the time, Ken Pitt, financed in 1969, featuring a mish-mash of tracks including a prototype version of a new song, the freshly written ‘Space Oddity’, which would finally bring Bowie’s name to wider attention.

 

In the ‘Love You Till Tuesday’ film he utilizes mime, which he’d learnt under Lindsay Kemp (who would also teach Kate Bush in the 70’s), performing his songs largely against a clear white background, relying on the character of his delivery. Some of the tracks feature his girlfriend of the time, Hermione Farthingale, and his musician friend John ‘Hutch’ Hutchinson – the short-lived trio calling themselves Feathers. The film wouldn’t gain an official release until 15 years later, in 1984.

Around the late 60’s, Bowie was clearly influenced by American in England Scott Walker, who, having left the highly successful Walker Brothers following a string of mid-60’s hits, had embarked on a solo career, taking an unexpected route that alienated much of his Walker Brothers fan base, retreating from mainstream to cult, reinventing himself via a series of Jacques Brel inspired late 60’s albums – Brel’s ‘Jackie’ (English translation of ‘La Chanson De Jacky’) providing him with his most enduring single. Bowie would subsequently perform the Belgian’s songs ‘My Death’ (providing a particularly poignant moment at the final Ziggy Stardust concert on July 3rd 1973’, but first heard by me on the ‘Live Santa Monica ’72’ bootleg) and ‘Amsterdam’ (which would turn up on the flip side of ‘Sorrow’), both of which featured on Walker’s solo debut ‘Scott’ (1967). Brel’s lyrical breadth and flair for the theatrical wouldn’t be lost on Bowie.

Scott Walker 'Scott'

Bowie’s word imagery is something that awed me as a 13 year old. Half the time I had no idea what he was on about, but the poetic flow of his words made symbolic, if not literal sense. The drama was always there in his songs, but it took him a long time to, on the one hand, hone his craft and embrace the explosive rock star dormant within him, and on the other, step into his destiny.

I’d subsequently realize that there was often a weighty sub-text to his lyrics, which I hadn’t understood when I originally heard them, with religious, philosophical and occult themes present. One of my favourite tracks from ‘Hunky Dory’ was and remains the beautifully haunting ‘Quicksand’, which closed side 1, with its now infamous opening lines ‘I’m closer to the Golden Dawn, immersed in Crowley’s uniform of imagery’. I’d come to learn that the Hermetic Order Of The Golden Dawn was an organization during the late 19th / early 20th century devoted to the study and practice of the occult, metaphysics and paranormal activity. Crowley was Aleister Crowley, once a member of the Golden Dawn, and later to gain a scandalous reputation as ‘the wickedest man in the world’. He is certainly viewed at the forefront of occult practice in the 20th century, coining the phrase ‘do what thou wilt shall be the whole of the law’ and advocating sex magick as a central tenant of his religion, Thelema. These associations are now leading to lots of online comment as people pick apart Bowie’s words and his beliefs.

Bowie Sphinx 1971

As Bowie sang ‘I’m sinking in the quicksand of my thoughts and I ain’t got the power anymore’, it felt, even back then when I was oblivious to what the song was referencing, like he was yielding to darker forces. With a career full of setbacks punctuated by the solitary success of ‘Space Oddity’, before an immediate slide back down the snake to failure status again, he must have felt desperate. Prior to ‘Starman’ he’d see no less that 15 out of his 16 single releases fail to make the chart at all (plus 2 further 1971 releases of tracks that would later turn up on ‘Ziggy Stadust’ – prototypes of ‘Moonage Daydream’ and ‘Hang On To Yourself’, under the alias Arnold Corns), whilst his first 4 albums all sunk without trace in his home country. It was rejection upon rejection. Further to this, his friend / rival, Marc Bolan, would steal a march on him, emerging as the new face of pop in the early 70’s. If there was ever a musician ready to make a Faustian pact, it was Bowie at this juncture.

Print

Whilst ‘Starman’ was the big crystalizing moment from a UK perspective, you can actually date the upturn in Bowie’s fortunes to April 1972, 2 months prior to his TOTP arrival. This was when his previous single ‘Changes’ entered the US chart, reaching a respectable #66 (it would re-enter the US chart 2 years later, peaking at #41), whilst ‘Hunky Dory’ would scrape into the top 100 at #93. The seeds had been planted with a change of manager, with Tony DeFries key to Bowie’s subsequent success, not least in securing him the deal with RCA in the US that would prove to be so fruitful. He gave Bowie permission to act like a star before he actually was, with the artist and his entourage encouraged to decadently live it up on their first US tour in 1972 – to act like a star was to be a star, even though the records sales had still to kick in. This followed a promotional trip to New York in August 1971 that would bring Bowie into contact with Lou Reed and Iggy Pop, sowing seeds for future collaborations, as well as Andy Warhol and the menagerie of characters around him. MainMan, DeFries’s management company, made a shrewd move in hiring the cast of Warhol’s play ‘Pork’ to promote Bowie in the US. It was all beginning to gel.

Bowie, Pop, Reed, DeFries

So, on the surface it looked like Bowie was something of an overnight sensation following the release of ‘Ziggy Stardust’, rather than this being the culmination of a long 8 year process largely strewn with setbacks. It all seemed to come to him so naturally, but as I dug into his history I was to learn that this was a man who’d worked extremely hard at becoming a pop star. It’d been a herculean struggle to establish himself and it certainly hadn’t come easily / naturally – there were 5 years of constant disappointment, from his first single release ‘Liza Jane’ (as Davie Jones With The King Bees) in 1964, until the ‘Space Oddity’ breakthrough in 1969, and then a further 2 and a half years of purgatory to endure ahead of ‘Starman’.

There was a glimmer of light in the UK during this period however. Bowie was buoyed by one of his compositions, ‘Oh! You Pretty Things’, becoming a top 20 hit for Peter Noone in 1971, the former lead singer of Manchester pop band Herman’s Hermit’s, who’d been huge on both sides of the Atlantic during the 60’s. Bowie even played piano on this unlikely cover, appearing on Top Of The Pops to accompany Noone. (another mainstream singer, Lulu, would have a top 5 hit in 1974 with ‘The Man Who Sold The World’, Bowie and Mick Ronson producing).

Peter Noone ' Oh! You Pretty Things'

‘Oh! You Pretty Things’ was the second David Bowie composition I heard, although I had no idea who its writer was at the time, it was just this strange song about homosapiens outgrowing their use, and preparing for homosuperiors, whatever they might be, and all sung by the guy from Herman’s Hermits, the safest of all the ‘British Invasion’ bands who’d staked their claim to American culture in the 60’s, and one of the most successful to boot with its cuddly lead singer Noone. This was definitely an anomaly, but we were used to mad ideas in the mainstream, so this great song first slipped into our consciousness via this unlikely channel. Coupled with the weird words was this beast of a chorus ‘oh! you pretty things, don’t you know you’re driving your mamas and poppas insane’ – it was double-hooky and a perfect counter-balance to the rather unsettling imagery of the verses, With Noone it was an odd but pleasant pop tune, but when I got to hear Bowie’s original on ‘Hunky Dory’, I knew I was listening to a masterpiece.

There was certainly a hidden language in Bowie’s tracks. For example, the follow up single to ‘Starman’, ‘John I’m Only Dancing’, completely unbeknown to most people who bought the record, concerned a gay relationship, whilst the next single, ‘The Jean Genie’, was a pun on the French novelist, playwright, poet, essayist, and political activist, Jean Genet. I was oblivious to this subtext, but loved the words whatever they meant.

Marc Bolan

One line in ‘The Jean Genie’ seemed to slip in a reference to his pop star friend, ‘so simple minded he can’t drive his Marc Bolan’, but it just sounded like that – in reality it was ‘can’t drive his module’, but lots of Bowie fans stuck with the former and still hear it that way now. In 1972 Bolan was the biggest pop idol in Britain, and between 1970-72 had a sensational run of hits – ‘Ride A White Swan’ (#2), ‘Hot Love’ (#1), ‘Get It On’ (#1), ‘Jeepster’ (#2), ‘Telegram Sam’ (#1), ‘Debora’ (re-issue, #7), ‘Metal Guru’ (#1), ‘Children Of The Revolution’ (#2). ‘Solid Gold Easy Action’ (#2) and ‘20th Century Boy’ (#3). Bolan had previously been Marc Feld, a Mod ‘face’ from Stamford Hill, London, before re-imagining himself as the flowing haired leader of folk rock group Tyrannosaurus Rex. He met Bowie in the late 60’s when they were both struggling to make a breakthrough. In 1970 Bolan had shortened the group’s name to T. Rex and embarked on an electric pop/rock odyssey that had taken him to the top of the charts – a move that undoubtedly influenced Bowie. Tyrannosaurus / T. Rex producer Tony Visconti would also take the production credit on all but one of the tracks on the album now known as ’Space Oddity’ – the exception, being the title track, which Visconti had dismissed as pure novelty and not something he wanted to work on, instead recommending Gus Dudgeon (who’d later go on to global acclaim via his work with Elton John). Visconti would also produce ‘The Man Who Sold The World’, as well as a number of Bowie’s later albums, right up to his final release ‘Blackstar’ (the production credits from ‘Hunky Dory’ through ‘Pin-Ups’ were shared by ex-Beatles engineer Ken Scott and Bowie).

I was a big T. Rex fan, and would pride myself on picking up copies of their new singles the moment they came into my local record shop of choice Ali Baba in Liscard market, slipping out from school to make sure I was in the shop to catch the delivery (Jean, the lady who ran Ali Baba, would find me a rare copy of Bowie’s ‘Memory Of A Free Festival Pts 1 and 2’ (1970), which had spectacularly flopped on release – selling it to me for normal price when she knew it had already acquired a value of significantly more).

Bolan had played guitar on Bowie’s follow up to ‘Space Oddity’, the original version of ‘The Prettiest Star’, which he’d written for his first wife Angie (later re-recorded for ‘Aladdin Sane’), but rather than build on his new found success, it sank without trace, selling less than 1000 copies on the back of a top 5 single! It was an unmitigated disaster, and it must have been agonizing for Bowie to watch Bolan completely outstrip him, T. Rex soon to become the biggest band in the land, whilst Bowie returned to his pre ‘Space Oddity’ obscurity.

Mott The Hoople 'All The young Dudes'

All that would change though after Ziggy. In the ‘Starman’ TOTP performance he changed the line ‘rock and roll, lot of soul he said’ to ‘get it on, rock and roll he said’, whilst Bowie also referenced T. Rex in one of his great compositions of the period, ‘All The Young Dudes’, which proclaimed ‘man I need TV when I got T. Rex’. ‘All The Young Dudes’ was written for the band Mott The Hoople in 1972, revitalizing their career in reaching #3 on the chart following its release just over a month after ‘Starman’ was on Top Of the Pops, and a month before his follow-up ‘John I’m Only Dancing’ gave him 3 hits in 3 months – you wait ages for a bus and then they all come along at once! Bowie never released ‘All The Young Dudes’ himself until it appeared on his 1974 album ‘David Live’, captured on his US tour that year, but the wonderful Mott The Hoople original remains the definitive version.

Marc Bolan was undisputedly the leading British pop star of the time, and his elfin effeminacy certainly helped lay the ground for Ziggy, however, Bowie’s rise would parallel Bolan’s fall, and following ‘The Groover’, which reached #4 in June 1973, the T. Rex hits would gradually dry up. Bolan would die in a car accident in 1977, just as his career was on the upturn via his own TV show ‘Marc’, which ran for 6 weekly episodes before the accident. As fate would have it, the final episode concluded with an instrumental jam between T. Rex and Bowie, after Bowie had performed his then current single, ‘Heroes’ (‘Heroes’ incidentally, nowadays always at or around the top of greatest Bowie song lists, only reached #24 on release in the UK, whilst failing to chart at all in the US).

Alladin Sane Ad

People now talk about it the being the era of Glam Rock, but Bowie wasn’t really seen as part of a movement – his music was unique, and his image had taken things to a whole other level. I would never have described him as Glam Rock; that was more the likes of T. Rex, The Sweet and Gary Glitter – the poppier side of things. Bowie defied pigeonholing, and apart from Roxy Music, with their strangeness of sound, glamour and sophistication, he had no peer throughout this time.

Bowie was the great champion of the outsider – another major example is his highlighting of mental health, which can be heard most directly in tracks like ‘All The Madmen’ (‘The Man Who Sold The World’) and ‘The Bewlay Brothers’, the haunting conclusion to ‘Hunky Dory’’, which is thought to refer to himself and his older half-brother, Terry, who suffered psychiatric problems, and would eventually take his own life. His words certainly resonated with me, offering new perspective, and even embracing the madness in preference to so called normality – ‘I’d rather stay here with all the madmen, than perish with the sad men roaming free, and I’d rather play here with all the madmen, for I’m quite content they’re all as sane as me’. Even the title ‘Aladdin Sane’ works on this theme, being a take on ‘a lad insane’.

Lou Reed 'Transformer'

Another album that slips perfectly into the Ziggy context is Lou Reed’s ‘Transformer’ (1973). Reed, who originally emerged as a member New York’s Velvet Undeground, a big influence on Bowie, himself died in 2013. Here’s part of the blog post I put up to mark his passing:

It’s Spring and I’m in school on a Tuesday lunch time. I have a transistor radio pressed close up to my ear and I’m listening to Johnny Walker, the BBC Radio 1 presenter, who, every Tuesday, announces the latest UK singles chart rundown, which I followed religiously back then. All of a sudden, despite the limitations of my tinny sound source, I hear that bass line for the first time and I’m instantly under its spell. Then came the song, which seemed to be some kind of sleazily surreal ‘through the looking glass’ saga, with Holly, Sugar Plum Fairy and Little Joe amongst a cast of curious characters. I had no idea what it all meant (neither did the BBC, or they would have banned it on the spot), but the word imagery mesmerized me. Holly, it transpired, was a very different type of tranny to the one held tightly to my ear.

I was already big into Bowie by this point, so I’d have read in Record Mirror or Disc that he and Mick Ronson had produced Lou Reed, although I hadn’t properly got my head around what production actually was. Now I’d been exposed to this unique aural treat, all that mattered was getting my hands on a copy straight away, so it was off to the record shop to pick one up without delay. 

As it turns out, the flip side, ‘Perfect Day’, was also destined to become a classic, and is now the second best-known and loved Lou Reed track. Not the subtly tormented love song it appears to be on the surface, its subtext apparently an ode to heroin, which Reed had been accused of glorifying since his time with the Velvet Underground. What’s for sure is that it’s certainly one of the great 7” couplings, and more than convinced me to save my pennies for a copy of ‘Transformer’, the album from which this wondrous single had been taken.
http://www.gregwilson.co.uk/tag/walk-on-the-wild-side/

David Jones & David Jones

Bowie’s long struggle to establish himself began to fully sink in when, having eagerly snapped up all the RCA albums and singles, I also bought a couple of cash-in re-issues of some of his 60’s recordings. One was particularly interesting to me, for it contained obscure stuff I’d never heard before, from 1966 when he had a short-lived deal with Pye Records and released his first singles as David Bowie (he’d previously recorded under his own name Jones, but changed it to Bowie to avoid confusion with the hit US TV group, The Monkees, whose lead singer shared the same name). This was Bowie the Mod, just ahead of the psychedelic revolution that was to change our cultural horizons so radically.

However, it’s the other record that takes a special place in Bowie folklore – from those crazy Deram sessions that had spawned the ‘Images’ compilation, the label succeeded in cashing in with one of the novelty tracks of the year, 6 years on from its original release. This was the infamous ‘The Laughing Gnome’, with Bowie, in full-on chirpy Cockney guise conversing with his own speeded up voice, which depicted the gnome. It must have been a right headfuck for casual Bowie observers who’d just been awed by his most recent single and one of his greatest compositions, the symphonic masterpiece ‘Life On Mars’, to be greeted with this ‘latest hit’. It really was a case of from the sublime to the ridiculous, and Bowie, the coolest cat in the cosmos, must have squirmed with embarrassment as he was subjected to this unwelcome blast from his not so illustrious past. The attempts at a cash-in paid dividends for Deram and ‘The Laughing Gnome’ made it all the way to #6. Suffice to say that, despite its popularity, this is a track you won’t find on a Bowie hits compilation.

‘Life On Mars’:

 

‘The Laughing Gnome’:

 

So there I was in the summer of 1973 devouring it all – the future classics and the curio. I was only 13 and there was nobody I knew of my age with the same level of obsession. Sure, there were others in my school who were into Bowie, but I’d embraced it all on a whole other sphere. Most of the kids I knew were more interested in other pop stars of the time, like Slade, Gary Glitter, Rod Stewart, Elton John and T. Rex, but even so, this interest was only surface. I’d buy the music papers – Sounds, NME, Melody Maker, Record Mirror & Disc – dependent on whether they had Bowie images / articles, and my bedroom became a shrine of cuttings. I remember going to a fancy dress party across the road from where I lived, at the Wallasey Powerboat and Ski Club, with my freshly dyed hair swept back, the Aladdin Sane lightning bolt across my face, and wearing something suitably fabulous I’d found in my mum’s wardrobe. I’d also taken to tagging my name with lightning bolts replacing the G’s.

Lord Of The Flies

I got friendly with some older lads, who would have been around 17/18, local hard cases with single earrings and orange hair who I’d connected with over Bowie. I’d realized that my knowledge and enthusiasm had garnered a level of respect from them that bypassed the significant age difference. They didn’t speak to me as a 13 year-old kid, but as a Bowie adoring equal. This came in really handy when I went to my final school, only to walk straight into trouble with a gang of lads in the years above who had singled me out and would surely have made my life a misery had I not had these friends in high places.

I more or less lived in New Brighton Baths during the summer months – it was heaven on earth on a sunny day, a huge outdoor swimming pool that held around 12,000 people at capacity (opened in 1934 it was grandly described as ‘the largest aquatic stadium the world’). On this particular day I was talking to one of my Bowie comrades, a lad who’d already left school about 4 years my senior, and someone, as they used to say, you wouldn’t want to get on the wrong side of. Just at this moment a group of lads from this school gang walked past, including the nastiest of the bunch – the one who would most happily instigate any bullying. Shit-stirrers we used to call them. Well, he spotted me, but then spotted who I was talking to and his face became a picture of confusion – without having to ask for protection, or even point out I had a problem, the problem evaporated in that instant, right in front of my eyes my adversaries nodded their respect to my carottopped friend, and I never had any problem from those lads throughout the rest of the time we shared a school. I was connected it seemed, and Bowie was very much the catalyst.

Little Alex - A Clockwork Orange

On June 10th 1973 Bowie had played one of his legendary Ziggy Stardust concert dates at Liverpool Empire. I was still only in middle school and just too young to be allowed to head across the Mersey on my own at night. I remember some of the older lads in the area went and came back with that changed look in their eyes. I’d noticed the same thing with regards to the controversial film ‘A Clockwork Orange’ a year or so previous, before director Stanley Kubrick withdrew it due to occurrences of copycat violence. It was like they’d seen something that they shouldn’t have, and as a result had acquired some sort of secret. The 2 actually linked together – during the Ziggy tour, before the band took to the stage the soundtrack to ‘A Clockwork Orange’ would be played, the droogs in the film (a four man gang in effect) having a big effect on Ziggy & The Spiders. The track ‘Suffragette City’ even contained the direct reference ‘hey droogie don’t crash here’. The references to ‘A Clockwork Orange’ returned at the end of his career – the track ‘Girl Loves Me’ on ‘Blackstar’ containing a number of words in Nadsat (the teenage language Manchester writer Anthony Burgess invented for ‘A Clockwork Orange’, which was published 9 years before Kubrick’s film adaptation in 1962).

At this time there was nothing to suggest that Ziggy wouldn’t be back on another tour in the not too distant, and there was no way in the world I was going to miss the Liverpool date next time. Then, on July 3rd, during the final tour date at London’s Hammersmith Odeon, he dropped the bombshell – Ziggy & The Spiders were no more, this would be their final appearance. I was absolutely gutted when I read the news in the music press. I cursed myself for not being able to make the June date in Liverpool and prayed that this decision to ‘break up the band’ (as prophesized in the lyrics of the song ‘Ziggy Stardust’) would be reversed. It never was, and I didn’t have any inclination to see Bowie live after this – it had to be with the classic Spiders line-up of Mick Ronson (guitar), Trevor Bolder (bass) and Woody Woodmansey (drums), or nothing at all. The Spiders From Mars were a key part of the picture – I wrote the following on marking the 40th anniversary of ‘Ziggy Stardust’:

Hunky Dory - Ziggy Stardust - Aladdin Sane

It wasn’t just Bowie, but the whole Ziggy package, complete with the Spiders, that rocked my world. ‘Hunky Dory’, ‘Ziggy Stardust’ and ‘Aladdin Sane’ are life-defining records for me, which also happen to be the 3 LP’s that all 3 Spiders appear on. So, whilst acknowledging Ziggy’s 40th, I also want to celebrate one of the great rock bands – Bowie may have had the vision and the drive, but The Spiders From Mars, especially Ronson, were the facilitators of his wildest dreams.
http://www.gregwilson.co.uk/2012/07/ziggy-at-40/

I never did see Bowie live. I spat my Ziggy dummy, and with hindsight I can see that the decision to put a full stop to that phase of his career spelt the beginning of the end for my own affections, for it was never quite the same again for me. Don’t get me wrong, there was still a wealth of discover to come, starting off as 1973 drew to a close with ‘Pin-Ups’, the follow up to ‘Aladdin Sane’, giving him consecutive chart topping albums.

I’d never thought about this until I was writing this piece, but I believe that had I gone to see the Ziggy Stardust concert it’s more likely that I would have gravitated towards making music / playing in bands, as so many did as a consequence, rather than becoming a DJ, as I would, a couple of years on.

Bowie Pin-Ups

‘Pin-Ups’ was a stop-gap covers album featuring a selection of Bowie’s favourite tracks that he used to hear played or performed in London’s clubs during the 1964-67 period – all bar one (The Easybeats from Australia) originally recorded by British artists, including The Who, The Kinks, The Pretty Things, The Yardbirds and The Pink Floyd (he’d deliberately picked tracks that weren’t well known in the US). Two thirds of the Spiders were retained for the recording sessions, but Woody Woodmansey had been replaced by Aynsley Dunbar – Ronson and Bolder would follow Woodmansey out of the door by the time of the next studio album. It was also the end of the road for producer Ken Scott, who worked on all of the material that Bowie and all 3 Spiders together recorded.

It wouldn’t be until a decade later, in 1983, that the wonderful D. A. Pennebaker film of the Hammersmith farewell was made available to buy on VHS, with the soundtrack also released as an album. The film is certainly the next best thing to being there, catching the essence of this otherworldly artist at the height of his remarkable powers. In the meantime I contented myself with a bootleg double album cut from an FM broadcast of an October 1972 tour date in Santa Monica, California – owning this album, with the pig ‘trade mark of quality’ logo, was seen as the true mark of the Bowie aficionado. Playing along with the Spiders is American pianist Mike Garson, who began touring with the band that year, and would make a significant contribution to ‘Aladdin Sane’ and the 2 subsequent studio albums, outlasting the Spiders in the process (Garson, a practitioner of Scientology, would introduce Bolder and Woodmansey to the controversial belief system in 1973). ’Live Santa Monica 72’ finally gained an official release 26 years on via EMI / Virgin in 2008.

Live In Santa Monica

I remember being immediately uncomfortable with the demise of the Spiders – there was much debate in the music press on the subject. However, I was hugely re-assured that the Bowie rollercoater was still in full swing when I heard his follow-up to ‘Sorrow’, his ‘Pin-Ups’ single, released just ahead of my 14th birthday in February 1974. ‘Rebel Rebel’ has become one of his most enduring singles, this was the first Bowie hit, apart from ‘Space Oddity’ that Mick Ronson hadn’t played guitar on – to add insult to injury, Bowie himself plays the killer guitar riff that defines this classic. It seemed like business as usual, Spiders or no Spiders.

Absent from ‘Rebel Rebel’, the Spiders, about to drop into the pop abyss, were tucked away on the flipside with the magnificent ‘Queen Bitch’, a relic from ‘Hunky Dory’. Bowie was surrounding himself with American musicians for the next phase of his career. It was out with the old and in with the new as he set about reinventing himself.

I must make special mention of ‘Queen Bitch’, which was much loved on the weekend nights at Wigan Pier when I became resident there (1980-82). Specialist Bowie / Roxy nights had begun to make a big impression in the clubs during the late 70’s, the DJ’s playing records by what were a new wave of acts emerging, led by Bowie and the ultra-cool Roxy Music, and including German electronic pioneers Kraftwerk, and then new British acts like Ultravox and The Human League. This would eventually morph into the Futurist / New Romantic scene of the early 80’s (to whom Bowie was an icon). ‘Queen Bitch’ was a Roxy / Bowie special, which could be played on a regular night, along with numerous Bowie classics from the 70’s. Pips in Manchester held a legendary Bowie / Roxy night, as illustrated in this footage from 1977:
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xGjM26me_AA

Ziggy & The Spiders

One further thought on the Spiders. Hull has been designated UK city of culture 2017 – both Ronson and Trevor Bolder were from Hull, with Woody Woodmansey from nearby Driffield. Surely now, following David Bowie’s death, the story of his greatest collaborators should come more to the fore. Ronson (in 1993 aged 43) and Bolder (in 2013 aged 62) are sadly no longer with us, like Bowie, both dying as a result of cancer. Mick Ronson was Bowie’s lieutenant and the perfect rock god foil for his Ziggy theatrics. Bowie may have continued to be a successful recording artist for another shapeshifting decade, but despite all the great musicians he subsequently worked with, the combination of Bowie, Ronson, Bolder and Woodmansey amounts to one of the great bands in its own right. Had Bowie never recorded another note following the final Hammersmith appearance, he would have still left a vast legacy – such is the measure of the artist during those eventful years, backed by his 3 electrifying droogs.

Diamond Dogs

The new era began with ‘Diamond Dogs’, of which ‘Rebel Rebel’ was a precursor. My main recollection of listening to the album is off a portable cassette player in New Brighton baths, feeling like the coolest kid in town. With hindsight it was all a bit over the top, its apocalyptic Orwellian theme never hanging quite right, and his new ‘Halloween Jack’ character unconvincing – no wonder given Bowie’s increasing cocaine dependence, which would eventually take him to the brink. That said, I’d have sworn undying love for the album at the time – Bowie was still at the top of the tree, ‘Diamond Dogs’ making it a hat-trick of chart topping LP’s, whilst the album also provided his US top 10 breakthrough. My favourite tracks at the time were very much the ‘Sweet Thing’ / ‘Candidate’ combination, but apart from ‘Rebel Rebel’ it was clear that there wasn’t another killer single to be found on the album, RCA, hoping to turn a similar trick to what they’d done with ‘Life On Mars’ the previous year, releasing ‘Rock ‘N’ Roll Suicide’, the concluding track on ‘Ziggy Stardust’, as a single. The release was a relative failure – stalling at #22, with the indignity of being the first Bowie RCA single not to reach the UK Top 20 since ‘Changes’, the single that preceded ‘Starman’, which failed to chart following its release in early 1972.

Backtracking somewhat, RCA rush-released the album’s title track as the follow up to the ill-fated ‘Rock & Roll Suicide’, but it hardly fared any better, peaking just one place higher at #21. Even though his next single returned him to the top 10 (just), the fact it was a cover of Eddie Floyd’s 60’s Soul classic, ‘Knock On Wood’ only added to sense of discontinuity in his single releases. I don’t think a lot of people quite knew where they stood with Bowie at this point, the direction he was moving into unsure. ‘Knock On Wood’ heralded another stop gap album, ‘David Live’, recorded in July 1974 on the Philadelphia leg on the ‘Diamond Dogs’ US tour, and released 4 months later, reaching #2 on the UK chart.

David Live

I’d tried to go with the flow, but I was coming to realize that things just weren’t the same. Despite my initial enthusiasm, ‘Diamond Dogs’ just didn’t stand up to repeated plays for me in the same way as ‘Hunky Dory’, ‘Ziggy Stardust’ and ‘Aladdin Sane’ did, and felt somewhat hit and miss in comparison. Further to this, I had big issues with ‘David Live’, which just wasn’t cutting it for me in the way that the ‘Live Santa Monica ‘72’ bootleg had – the elephant in the room being The Spiders. The new band were all crack musicians, but the edge just wasn’t there. ‘Moonage Daydream’ was a point in question; once urgent and vital it now felt weary and labored – whilst Earl Slick was a fine guitarist, Mick Ronson’s solo was arguably his defining moment as Bowie’s right hand. Check out Ronson in his pomp here, during the final Ziggy performance at Hammersmith:
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5g6–QoPsDM

Mick Ronson

Mick Ronson would get a solo deal with RCA, going on to release 2 albums, the first of which, ‘Slaughter On Tenth Avenue’ (1974), reached #9 in the UK chart, with the 2nd, ‘Play Don’t Worry’, peaking at #29 a year later. He would then return to the periphery of the rock world, along with Bolder, who would join the band Uriah Heep, and Woodmansey, who formed his own band U-Boat. Ronson’s best-known recording would be ‘Only After Dark’ from his first album, later covered in 1980 by The Human League. Following his short solo career, Ronson became a long-time collaborator with Mott The Hoople’s former leader Ian Hunter (Woodmansey, the youngest member, is the only surviving member of Ziggy & The Spiders). He would also produce Morrisey’s ‘Your Arsenal’ album a year before his death in 1993. Here he is being interviewed about the Ziggy Stardust era in 1992 for the BBC documentary series ‘Dancing In The Street’:
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dFQnIU3lkBQ

Bowie 'Young Americans'

‘Knock On Wood’ had provided the clue as to where Bowie was heading, and why this was the station I’d be getting off, for before Bowie, before even T. Rex, there was the music I first fell head over heels in love with when I was still in primary school. It was a type of music that had remained constant in my life throughout my Bowie obsession, always there to turn to when I needed a different perspective or mood. This was Soul, handed down by my brother and sister, and its subsequent offshoot, Funk. Black music was already a constant in my life, so when Bowie recorded ‘Young Americans’ at Sigma Sound in Philadelphia, taking his fans off into another new, this time soulful direction, it felt a bit anti-climatic on a personal level, for I was already into the Philly Sound, buying records by artists like The O’Jays, Harold Melvin & The Bluenotes, The Intruders, Billy Paul and MFSB. Yes, he was doing it in his own unique way, and some really good tracks came out of this period, not least the essential Funk jam ‘Fame’, his first US #1 (co-written with John Lennon and guitarist Carlos Alomar), but I didn’t want Bowie the soul boy, I was pining for Ziggy the space alien.

This is where the disconnect came for me, and whilst I’d still very much admire Bowie throughout the next decade, I was no longer up close, hanging on his every move. It was at the end of 1975 that my DJ career began, and during my first appearance I would have played ‘Golden Years’, which like ‘Fame’ would herald his 1976 album ‘Station To Station’. These singles provided something of a skewed view of the coming album, with his new material taking a more European leaning as he soaked up the influence of experimental German artists like Can, Neu! And Kraftwerk.

As I moved slowly towards my aspirations of becoming a black music specialist – for black music was club music – Bowie would soon be off over the horizon, out of sight in Berlin. Our worlds would subsequently align via the tracks I’d play in the clubs, until I finally achieved the goal I’d set, and concentrated solely on black music in the early 80’s. Before that Bowie would pop up every now and then with a single that that was big in the clubs, most notably ‘Sound And Vision’ (1977), ‘Ashes To Ashes’ and ‘Fashion’ (1980). He also had a UK top 20 hit in 1979 with his re-working of ‘John I’m Only Dancing’, a Sigma Sound recording from the ‘Young Americans’ session earlier in the decade. I wasn’t a fan of this alternative version and avoided playing it out, my Spiders loyalties again coming to the fore. Both of these releases, the 1972 original and ‘John I’m Only Dancing (Again)’ in 1979, reached #12 in the UK.

Space Oddity

I’m not quite sure why this was the case, but having flirted with the lower regions of the US album chart – ‘Hunky Dory’ (#93) and ‘Ziggy Stardust’ (#75) – Bowie made his breakthrough in 1973 with a re-issue of ‘Space Oddity’ – the single reaching #15 and the album #16. 2 months later ‘Aladdin Sane’ entered the US album chart, peaking at #17, whilst ‘Pin-Ups’ would stall at #23. It wasn’t until 1974 that he scored his first top 10 albums, ‘Diamond Dogs’ (#5) and ‘David Live’ (#8). So although Bowie was making a strong impression in the US, he wasn’t the superstar he was at home – his first chart-topping album being his final one, ‘Blackstar’, achieving in death what he never quite did during his life. All in all Bowie scored just 6 top 10 singles in the US throughout his 44 year chart career (as opposed to 24, 4 times as many, in the UK).

Terry OÕNeill was the official tour photographer for Elton John 1975

To put this all in context you only have to look at the album chart presence of his fellow Brit, Elton John, during the 1972-1975 period I’m focusing on here, when he released no less than 7 consecutive US #1’s. Now Elton John really was an American superstar, whereas Bowie was more of an acquired taste as far as large swathes of the US public was concerned – loved by the freaks and the outsiders, but mistrusted by the mainstream. His sexuality would outrage many Americans, especially in the less cosmopolitan areas of the country, and these people wouldn’t have dreamed of buying the music of such a degenerate, as they’d have viewed him. It’s ironic now that many of these same people would be happily buying all those Elton John albums – when Elton John did finally come out, during a Rolling Stone interview in 1976, his sales plummeted and the long run of number 1’s, lasting over 3 years, abruptly stopped.

Even within the UK, where Bowie was a superstar, he somehow retained cult status throughout much of the 70’s and through the early 80’s – right up to the point he fully embraced the mainstream and made his most successful album in terms of pounds, shillings and pence, ‘Let’s Dance’ (1983). Whilst I write all this, there are no doubt many people who arrived at Bowie via ‘Let’s Dance’, and would view this as his greatest work, citing the title track, ‘China Girl’ and ‘Modern Love’, all MTV favourites, as Bowie classics, which I suppose they are in a different sense, but this was but a shadow of Bowie for me – the clean cut master craftsman for sure, but no longer that galactic creature that arrived through a crack in time. ‘Let’s Dance’ was the commercial peak for Bowie as a world star – whereas Ziggy was cult, myth and legend in comparison. That’s where we were back in ’72 / ’73, deep within the mythos.

It was pretty much downhill from there – Bowie continued to sell records to a loyal fan base that stayed with him throughout, with new fans acquired via a series of megatours, and would still pick up the odd #1 LP during the 3 decades following ‘Let’s Dance’, but despite morphing from one approach to the next he couldn’t find the magic he once seemed able to summon so effortlessly. The proof is in the pudding – following his death the vast majority of the top 40 Bowie tracks downloaded were from his first decade, and only a couple from the mid-80’s on, most notably his surprise 2013 hit single ‘Where Are We Now?’, which was his first top 10 hit since ‘Jump They Say’ 20 years before, serving to build the momentum for another chart topping album, ‘The Next Day’.

Song Of Norway

‘Where Are We Now?’ was an uncomfortable listen for me, it struck me as maudlin and bleakly nostalgic, an older man looking back over younger times, It felt like exactly what it has now become, an expression of an artist approaching the end. It was one of those songs that force you to face your own mortality, especially when accompanied by a very strange video, with Bowie’s head, along with a woman’s, the artist Jacqueline Humphries (the video directed by her husband, Tony Oursler), conjoined as ‘face in a hole’ puppets sitting on a pommel horse, with footage of Berlin in the 70’s, referencing Bowie’s time in the city during the late 70’s (as did the song lyrics), showing in black and white on a screen behind them, in a room filled with various memorabilia items. There was no joy to be found in the track or the video, it harbored some sort of resignation, but it really seemed to strike a chord with a great many people, and was his best received single in a generation. There was a further nostalgic touch in the video, where we leave the weird puppets and Berlin footage, cutting to Bowie stood alone in a room wearing a t-shirt that contains the words ‘Song Of Norway’, which takes us back to 1969 when his then girlfriend, and some would say the love of his life, Hermione Farthingale, ended the relationship, leaving to pursue her own career, appearing in a film of the same name (a musical about the life of Norwegian classical composer Edvard Grieg, which, following its release in 1970, was a commercial disaster). She inspired the songs ‘A Letter To Hermione’ and ‘An Occasional Dream’ on his next album, and he referenced her as ‘the girl with the mousey hair’ on ‘Life In Mars’.

David Bowie & Hermione Farthingale

It was directly after this that he made his ‘Space Oddity’ breakthrough, as well as meeting his future wife Angie Barnett, who he married in 1970 (they had a son, Zowie Bowie, in 1971 – he would later change his name to Duncan Jones, forging a career as a film director). Angie Bowie played a big part in evolving her husband’s image, and consequentially helping create the Ziggy persona – she egged him on to do stuff he might not have tried on his own, or had he still been in a relationship with Hermione. Angie was his muse, his ‘Space Oddity’ follow-up ‘The Prettiest Star’, was a song he wrote for her, and married life really brought out the daring in him as he attempted to scandalize British sensibilities by posing in a ‘man dress’ for the original cover for his 1970 album, ‘The Man Who Sold The World’ (when the album was re-issued, in 1973, it was accompanied by a less controversial sleeve image).

Bowie 'The Man Who Sold The World

Another key member of the inner-circle, Freddie Burretti, who would play a central role in helping create the Ziggy image. Buretti also fronted the short-lived pre-Ziggy Arnold Corns project, which saw the release of 2 tracks that would subsequently become Bowie / Ziggy favourites, ‘Moonage Daydream’ and ‘Hang On To Yourself’ (although Burretti fronted the project, it was Bowie’s vocals on the records).

His wife would encourage Bowie’s gender-bending image – she herself was bisexual and had been expelled from Connecticut College For Women in the US for having an affair with another girl. She can be seen in a revealing backstage sequence during the film of final Ziggy Stardust tour date, engaged in a high camp exchange with her husband whilst he has his make-up applied. There relationship would end in acrimony, with many dismissing her opinions as the rants of a spurned and bitter ex-wife, but there’s no question that her part in the story is a crucial one – their years up close at Haddon House in Beckenham (’69 until just before everything took off in ’72), saw Bowie flower from nearly man / also ran to no less than one of the greatest stars of the Rock era, and certainly the most flamboyant. In this interview she talks about her involvement in his career following their meeting, pre-‘Space Oddity’ in 1969:
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BeTCAQp8cFY

David & Angie Bowie

By way of irony, at the time David Bowie died, Angie, who hadn’t been heard of for years, was a housemate on the British Celebrity Big Brother TV show. The producers of the Channel 5 programme showing a distinct lack of sensitivity in deciding to film the diary room moment they informed her of her ex-husbands death, which served to turn his passing into something of a farce, which they went ahead and broadcasted regardless. Leaving the diary room somewhat stunned by this news, Angie told fellow housemate, Tiffany Pollard, that ‘David is dead’, asking her not to say anything to the others. At this point Pollard goes into hysterics, alerting the rest of the house. She then runs into the garden, saying she had to tell the others. The farce aspect was the result of the fact that another of the housemates, sleeping at the time, was also called David – David Guest. The whole sorry scenario only resolves after Guest was found alive in the bedroom, and with the pissed off housemates about to admonish the former Mrs Bowie for what they thought was some kind of sick joke, before she was able to clarify the situation, and people realized that she actually meant David Bowie:
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=97pEKGNT0Xw

Angie Bowie became increasingly marginalized, both as wife and muse, in the post-Ziggy period, once the focus had shifted to the USA. This period was perfectly captured by documentary maker Alan Yentob in ‘Cracked Actor’, part of the BBC’s Omnibus series aired in early 1975. This, to the best of my knowledge, is when parts of Pennebaker’s Hammersmith Odeon footage were first broadcast in the UK.

David Bowie Cracked Actor

Finally seeing Ziggy on stage before my eyes, albeit on the TV, only served to hasten the disconnect that had become increasingly apparent, especially when juxtaposed against more recent footage from Bowie’s ‘Diamond Dogs’ shows, which never came to the UK, and seemed tame in comparison to the Ziggy footage. We were presented with a stick thin Bowie, indulging in decadent cocaine overload, trying to make sense of his ever-growing stardom (he’d recently scored his first US top 10 album with ‘Diamond Dogs’). On watching ‘Cracked Actor’ some years later he recalled; I was so blocked … so stoned … It’s quite a casualty case, isn’t it. I’m amazed I came out of that period, honest. When I see that now I cannot believe I survived it. I was so close to really throwing myself away physically, completely.” ‘Cracked Actor’ can be viewed in its entirety here:
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FsPVrsZcbZU

To remind you that this was in the days before YouTube is something of an understatement – this was in the days before we even had video recorders, when what we saw on the TV we wouldn’t get to see again unless it was repeated at a later date. This was, of course, until home video players became affordable in the early 80’s – hence the much-welcomed VHS release of the hallowed Hammersmith Odeon finale in 1984 under the title of ‘Ziggy Stardust & The Spiders From Mars: The Motion Picture’.

Ziggy Stardust- The Motion Picture

Getting hold of this historic footage, and then being able to play it at your convenience, was like a window into a lost realm. By the time the full concert was made available on VHS I was 24 and it was over a decade on from those halcyon days of discovery. It was manna from heaven for me, enabling me to see and hear something I’d only previously read about, or heard people talk about, and for that it was a special gift from the past wrapped in a bow of warm nostalgia.

After my attention had waned in the mid-70’s, for a few years Bowie had felt like an old friend, but no longer my main inspiration. I still bought his LP’s, but found myself picking at them rather than engaging with his music in the same way I had previously. He’d connect with a whole new underground audience via his ‘Berlin trilogy’ of albums in the late 70’s, whilst concurrently losing his mainstream gains in the USand then enter the 80’s with a return to the top of the UK album chart, his first #1 since ‘Diamond Dogs’, courtesy of ‘Scary Monsters And Super Creeps’; its lead track ‘Ashes To Ashes’ reviving the Major Tom character from ‘Space Oddity’ – this clever combination of reminiscence and futurism touching a nerve and taking the single to the top of the charts, laying the groundwork for the album’s successful release. Rewind to 1975, and slotted in between the singles from ‘Young Americans’ and its follow-up ‘Station To Station’, RCA decided to re-issue ‘Space Oddity’, 6 years on from its original release in ’69 when it reached #5 and gave Bowie his first hit. It had also given him his first top 20 album and single in the US when re-issued there in 1973, and now it finally delivered his first UK #1 single (a matter of months on from his first US #1, ‘Fame’, which had only reached a very disappointing #17 in the UK). Now a sequel to his first #1 had given him his second – Major Tom was certainly a lucky charm, with ‘Ashes To Ashes’ seemingly bringing things full-circle for Bowie.

Major Tom

There’d be a two and a half year gap between ‘Scary Monsters’ and his next album, the first under his new EMI contract, ‘Let’s Dance’, although Bowie and Queen would join forces along the way to top the charts with ‘Under Pressure’ in 1981, whilst he’d also have an unlikely top 3 Christmas hit via a duet of ‘Peace On Earth / Little Drummer Boy’ with legendary crooner Bing Crosby the following year (recorded in 1977, just prior to Crosby’s death, but not released until 5 years later – it was his final RCA single, Bowie not approving, but the label cashing in anyhow now he was off to pastures new). One of the great points of interest was Bowie’s new look – he looked great, as he generally did, but pretty regular for the times, all suntan and Hollywood smile – the only trace of the alien confined to the different colours of his eyes.

The new album, co-produced by Nile Rodgers, formerly of Chic, would place him squarely in the mainstream, being his most globally successful release of all, and although this obviously brought new fans on board, it also alienated him from many of his existing fan-base who felt he was somehow betraying his outsider legacy. This view was compounded when he recorded a duo with Mick Jagger of the Rolling Stones as part of the Live Aid famine relief fundraising concerts in 1985, held in London and Philadelphia and broadcast worldwide. Jagger, once a hero to Bowie, had also allegedly been his lover (implied by Angie Bowie). The track, a cover of the Martha & The Vandellas Motown classic, ‘Dancing In the Street’, was accompanied by a video in which the 2 superstars pranced through London Docklands seemingly trying to out camp each other (it was sent up more recently in ‘Family Guy’ as ‘the gayest music video of all time’). It was all for a good cause and the mainstream loved it, with the record rocketing to #1 in the UK and top 10 US, but it was also regarded by many of those who’d followed him since Ziggy as all a bit cringeworthy – a couple of old rock stars hamming it up. The lasting impression was that Bowie was now viewed as becoming increasingly part of the establishment; no longer that anti-establishment figure who’d once shocked our sensibilities and shook things up – now the words mid-life crisis were being bandied about. His marriage to supermodel Iman played into this narrative – Bowie now appearing as the wholesome family man on the cover of Hello Magazine.

Hello Magazine Bowie & Iman 1992

Throughout the final 30 years of his career Bowie would re-appear every now and then to release a new album or embark on a tour. There’d always be some sort of media fanfare about Bowie’s new direction / image, but it was very much a case of style over substance now. The critics hauled over the coals of his decline, and Bowie was ridiculed for wanting to get back to basics by forming a band Tin Machine, who would release 2 albums, which, whilst commercially successful, were widely derided. Although his albums, released every few years, continued to reach the top 10 in the UK, his final #1 of the 20th century would be ‘Black Tie White Noise’ in 1993.

He look a decade long break from releasing music after his LP ‘Reality’ in 2003, a heart attack the following year stopping him in his tracks. Then, in 2013, an unexpected album release, ‘The Next Day’, saw him top the chart once more after a gap of 20 years. Bowie was now being talked about as a serious artist again, rather than simply a changeling on his latest musical whim – absence had definitely made the heart grow fonder.

And so it comes to his swansong, ‘Blackstar’, which has proved to be his final great artistic statement – his impending death inspiring him to a work of true depth and gravity.

Fresh Garbage

A week after his passing I headed over to Liverpool with family and some friends for a special Bowie tribute edition of Fresh Garbage, which is streamed live every Sunday evening from The Buyers Club – the master of records being one of the city’s great musical mages, Bernie Connor. Bernie links back to the fabled Liverpool club Eric’s, and before that, back to Bowie. In fact, most of the crew of people who grew a scene out of Eric’s in the late 70’s / early 80’s, had been absorbed in Ziggy and followed Bowie though the 70’s, eventually stumbling across similar outsiders who shared their musical passions and introduced them to new ones, culminating in a scene that subsequently produced bands like Echo & The Bunnymen, The Teardrop Explodes, Frankie Goes To Hollywood and Dead Or Alive.

If anyone in Liverpool was going to pay proper tribute to Bowie it was Bernie. Around the time I first got to know him, in the mid-90’s, he told me his new baby’s name was Buddy, I naturally presumed this was ‘from the line in ‘Drive-In Saturday?’ (‘his name was always Buddy’), and Bernie told me I was the first person to make this connection, most others thinking it referred to Buddy Holly. My own son is called Ché, and although it wasn’t specifically because of this song (although it may have had a subliminal influence), the name also pops up on the same album (‘Aladdin Sane’) in ‘Panic In Detroit’ (‘he looked a lot like Ché Guevara’). Both Buddy and Ché were there that night and met for the first time. Both are also in bands, and discussed the possibility of gigging together in the future. This generational re-cycling seemed a fitting conclusion to a night of musical memories where a busy room sang their hearts out to Bowie classics and his spirit was saluted in true style. You can hear what Bernie played on Mixcloud:
https://www.mixcloud.com/bernieworld/loving-the-alien-fresh-garbage-loves-david-bowie/

Haight Ashbury

When I started writing this I hadn’t thought about a conclusion as such – I just went with the flow, but before I knew it the narrative was sprawling out into all sorts of different directions. Just as I began to address one thing, adding further paragraphs, something else popped out that needed some sort of explanation. To be honest, the whole thing has gotten a bit out of control, demanding, as is clear if you’ve gotten this far, more than a quick 5 minutes to read – I hadn’t set out for it to be like this, but I don’t know what I expected; it was always going to sprawl out of control, for there’s so much of me tied up in there.

Whilst writing this I was interviewed by Manchester’s Viva magazine, who asked me a few questions about Bowie’s passing. It was part of my reply to the question ‘did Bowie influence you in any way?’ that got me thinking about the themes of what I’ve been writing in this (seemingly) never ending blog piece. I told them that ‘between 1972-1975 he was very much part of my identity’.

I feel that, in writing this, I’m somehow untangling that ‘identity’, which I’d assumed throughout this time. Whilst serving to help me understand Bowie better, at the bottom line it’s probably more some kind of cathartic process for myself – I just hope it has relevance to others, and perhaps gives a taste of back then when he appeared as if from Sirius B or wherever. I’d never considered myself an outsider in any way – you only know your own life, which I regarded as normal, whatever that may be. As I’ve said previously, there were other kids of my age who liked Bowie, but I was going at it from a whole different intensity – I suppose the answers I’m looking for, if it is a question I’m asking, are wrapped up in that intensity.

Bowie Ziggy

It would become clear later down the line that I’d never properly separated Bowie and Ziggy, having been left in limbo by the shock of his decision to ‘break up the band’ before I’d been able to pay my own personal homage. Not seeing them live left its scars – I can only imagine the overwhelming almost religious ecstasy of being there. You see it in the faces in the audience at the Hammersmith show, not least the girl singing along to ‘Moonage Daydream’. I have no doubt that had I been there I’d have crystalized in a different way – I might even have ended up at Eric’s later in the decade, rather than being a DJ playing Soul, Funk and Disco on the other side of the River Mersey. Perhaps it’s those unfulfilled possibilities that bubbled away at the back of my mind.

I think I blamed Bowie for taking away access to this part of my newly acquired identity, and whilst everybody lauded him on his chameleon-like changes of image, he was moving ever further away from the unearthly artist that had inspired me – the more time moved on the more it felt like a dressing up game, whereas Ziggy was real (or at least a wondrous illusion). This is how I suppose my young mind processed it, putting him on a pedestal, then being let-down when he no longer satisfies your requirements, not taking into account that amidst all this was a human being who’d been overwhelmed by the trappings of his hard–fought success – a young musical god worshipped by adoring fans who would gladly indulge his every whim. The unreality of the world he, and those around him, had created led to chronic cocaine abuse and dark places. There was a price to pay for this type of stardom, and the actor, which was what David Bowie always professed to be, found himself trapped within his own concept – the divide between reality and fantasy no longer clear.

Bowie created a character so convincing that he even convinced himself. Ziggy was never killed off in Hammersmith, but absorbed into Bowie, even back into David Jones – kept under cover and out of sight, but despite all attempts to off-load him, remaining a constant presence throughout Bowie’s life. We knew this back in 1973 – you couldn’t just expect us to view this all as some kind of cosmic space age theatrical illusion, and now we could all applaud and go back home. There was far too much invested.

Ziggy Blackstar

And now, all these years on, Bowie has gone, but not without managing to summon all the magic in his power to leave us with his final testament – the album ‘Blackstar’ and the accompanying videos for the singles, ‘Lazarus’ and the epic 10 minute title track. That he’s managed to make a deeply profound artistic statement out of his death is now a remarkable aspect of his legacy. Fully utilizing the communications technology that evolved within his lifetime, which shapes the new world into which we’re moving, he announced himself as an artist of the 21st century as well as the 20th, ‘Blackstar’ a parting shot of great poignancy and dignity.

Look up here, I’m in heaven
I’ve got scars that can’t be seen
I’ve got drama, can’t be stolen
Everybody knows me now

 

Something happened on the day he died
Spirit rose a metre and stepped aside
Somebody else took his place and bravely cried
(I’m a blackstar, I’m a blackstar)  
 

 

What it all means is open to conjecture, but the most weighty questions are most certainly posed – questions of the soul, and what becomes of us after we’ve been relieved of our physical body. This is a puzzle that artists of all types have sought to unravel since time, but nobody has used their own mortality in the medium of popular music to outline these ideas, and has had a worldwide web to distribute them.

As he forecast in the ‘Lazarus’ lyrics, ‘everybody knows me now’ – Bowie’s name is back on the lips of popular culture, relevant to a new generation who’ve been drawn in during the past month, and are devouring his music online as we speak whilst reading up on this unique artist who clearly affected so many. Leaving behind more questions than answers, much debate as to what Bowie might have meant in his final work has ensued on the internet, with articles like this one from conspiracy website Vigilant Citizen, ‘The Occult Universe Of David Bowie And the Meaning Of Blackstar’, offering their take on things:
http://vigilantcitizen.com/musicbusiness/occult-universe-david-bowie-meaning-blackstar/

When I heard the news of Bowie’s death I hadn’t expected I’d become so absorbed with him again, as I certainly have been throughout this past month – and not just the hero of my youth, who I needed to re-visit, but, perhaps more importantly, the older man nearing the end of his life who recorded this concluding album that’s made such a marked impression, and now sits neatly in my CD rack alongside ‘Ziggy Stardust’, ‘Hunky Dory’ and the others as a David Bowie album that touches not only my heart, but my essence.

Bowie through the looking glass by Mick Rock

I’ve never checked word count on a blog post previously, but I did with this – over 13,000. It’s crazy! This is twice as long as anything I’ve previously written on the blog, and I’m not shy of writing a long piece if that level of explanation and detail is necessary. This has been something else though, and I’m quite amazed if you’re reading these words – I’d imagine most people will look at the sheer size of the piece and give it a wide berth. But, as I’ve said, I figure that this was something I needed to do for myself as much as anything – I just didn’t realize it would become so involved and time-consuming. You open these things up, you need to see them through.

Ziggy-says-goodbye

Related posts:

Living To Music – ‘Ziggy Stardust’:
http://www.gregwilson.co.uk/2010/12/living-to-music-david-bowie-the-rise-and-fall-of-ziggy-stardust-and-the-spiders-from-mars/

Living To Music – ‘Hunky Dory’:
http://www.gregwilson.co.uk/2012/10/living-to-music-david-bowie-hunky-dory/

Ziggy At 40:
http://www.gregwilson.co.uk/2012/07/ziggy-at-40/

David Bowie RIP:
http://www.gregwilson.co.uk/2016/01/david-bowie/

Starman by Lil Lyon

David Bowie Wikipedia:
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/David_Bowie

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Maurice White

Maurice White

Memphis born Earth Wind & Fire founder Maurice White died in Los Angeles on Wednesday – he was 74 and had been diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease since the late 1980’s. White was the bands co-lead singer (with Philip Bailey), their main songwriter and their producer.

Prior to EW&F White had been a session drummer for Chess Records in Chicago, where he moved as a teenager, backing artists including Etta James, Fontella Bass, The Dells and The Impressions, before joining the Ramsey Lewis Trio and subsequently playing on 9 albums with the Jazz pianist.

People don’t realize just how big Earth Wind & Fire were during the mid-late 70’s, both on a mainstream level in the US, and on the Funk underground in the UK (eventually coming to mainstream attention here after what many Funk aficionados would consider their most creative period).

From a US perspective, having had a couple of top 20 albums in the preceding years, the whole thing went into orbit for EW&F when their wonderful 1975 soundtrack ‘That’s The Way Of The World’ topped the album chart and was followed to the top spot later that year by the band’s excellent live set ‘Gratitude’. During the next 5 years they’d score another 6 top 10 US LP’s, whilst picking up multiple Grammy awards along the way.

All 'N' All Earth Wind & Fire

I remember going to the Red Star parcel depot at Liverpool Lime Street in 1977 with DJ Terry Lennaine, where he picked up a promo copy of ‘All ‘N’ All’ to premiere on his specialist Funk & Soul radio show ‘Keep On Truckin’’ that evening. It had been sent by the CBS club promotion department in London ahead of US imports being made available, and it was straight back to the station to share in the magical experience of hearing the tracks contained for the very first time, ahead of their imminent broadcast over the Merseyside airwaves. And there were some pretty amazing tracks to be heard on that album – ‘Fantasy, ‘Jupiter’, ‘Magic Mind’, ‘Runnin’’ and ‘Brazilian Rhyme’ included. It was a major musical highlight of the year and the unveiling of these tracks by Terry on Radio Merseyside an eagerly anticipated event in itself – a whole subculture of Soul & Funk enthusiasts throughout the region tuned in.

Outside of the Soul shows on stations up and down the country, Funk wasn’t getting a look in at all on radio in the UK. It was the clubs where EW&F built their following, via a quartet monster dance floor tunes – ‘Shining Star’, ‘Sing A Song’, ‘Getaway’ and ‘Saturday Nite’ (their first UK top 20 hit, just ahead of ‘All ‘N’ All’, which would be their first album to make the UK chart, peaking at #13).

Earth Wind & Fire

Their biggest British hits would be ‘September’ (1977) and ‘Let’s Groove’ (1981), both of which reached #3, and ‘Boogie Wonderland’ (with The Emotions – White having co-written / produced the groups huge hit ‘Best Of My Love’ in ’77, as well as co-producing Deniece Williams’s ‘Free’, a UK #1) and the ballad ‘After The Love Has Gone’, which both peaked at #4 in 1979.

In many respects it’s a shame they recorded ‘Boogie Wonderland’, which was lapped up on a mainstream level, but regarded as a bit of a commercial cop-out by their core audience. It, unfortunately, became their defining track, and has served to obscure their legacy – subsequent generations not realizing that this was, at its pomp, a cutting-edge Funk band made up of brilliant musicians ,who sold millions of records whilst wowing their audience with a stage show that really pushed at the boundaries, packed with illusion and Egyptian symbolism – instead there remains a ‘cheesy disco’ association with the band via this track.

Their more Jazz based recordings continued to fly the EW&F flag throughout the Jazz-Funk days, whilst connoisseurs of black music, never in any doubt of their status at the top table, have listened to and loved their music every since their pre-Hip-Hop heights.

During recent years Earth Wind & Fire’s music has been reworked to great effect by DJ’s like The Reflex, Derek Kaye and Appo, giving some of their classic tracks a new lease of life in the clubs.

Maurice White Wikipedia:
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Maurice_White

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20 Choice Edits & Reworks

Greg Wilson photo by Nick Mizen

Secret Life have just published my ’20 Choice Edits & Reworks’ from the last year. It’s the 4th annual list I’ve compiled, with Secret Life providing links to each individual selection (wherever possible): http://secretlifemusic.com/greg-wilsons-choice-edits-reworks-2015/

What’s different this year is that I’ve also put together a podcast featuring each of the 20 inclusions, which runs at almost 2 and a half hours. You can stream here:

https://soundcloud.com/secretliferemusic/greg-wilsons-choice-edits-reworks-2015-1

What’s clear is that the quality of these reinterpretations is as strong, if not stronger, than ever. There are also more new names making their mark; whereas last year my 20 choices were the work of just 10 editors, this year the same amount is split between 15, including a number of names who haven’t appeared in my previous lists – Shit Hot Soundsystem, DSD, Shreddie Murphy, Raw-Artes, Dot 40, Dr Packer, Todd Terje and Hotbath (Todd Terje being a bit of an anomaly in this context, his genius edit of Dolly Parton’s ‘Jolene’ seeing him re-visit the arena where he first made his name a decade ago). These inclusions appear alongside old friends – V, Late Nite Tuff Guy, Fingerman, Luxxury, Derek Kaye, The Reflex and Twisted Soul Collective.

Fingerman

Fingerman (Gregg Holmes) scored a hat-trick of entries, giving him an overall total of 11 inclusions over the 4 years, the most by anyone (Late Night Tuff Guy is next on 10, with 2 in 2015). Via edits from Luther Vandross, Teena Marie, La Pamplemousse, Bloodstone, Seal, Doobie Brothers, Fatback, Steely Dan, Massive Attack, Faze-O and Unlimited Touch, Gregg brings classic / cult-classic tunes back into focus via his un-fussy approach to editing, which never loses sight of the fact he’s working with great source material. This he channels into a contemporary context, providing DJ’s like myself with, as illustrated here, a consistent supply of dancefloor nourishment.

V (aka Muscovite Valique), whose Led Zeppelin ‘Whole Lotta Love’ dub just missed the top spot in 2012, goes all the way this time with his reworking of ‘The Best Of My Love’ by the Emotions (aka The Emoticons). A new take on ‘Whole Lotta Love’ by Luxxury really gathered steam towards the end of the year and is only going to build further in 2016 – it places here at #12 – the first track to make the lists twice.

How To Edit

20 Choice Edits & Reworks 2014:
http://secretlifemusic.com/greg-wilson-20-choice-edits-reworks-for-2014/

20 Choice Edits & Reworks 2013:
http://secretlifemusic.com/best-of-2013-greg-wilson-20-choice-edits-reworks-for-2013/

20 Choice Edits & Reworks 2012:
http://secretlifemusic.com/greg-wilson-20-choice-edits-reworks-for-2012/

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