Hello my diamond dogs!
What could ever be said about the Thin White Duke that could ever be enough? Few have managed to explore music the way Bowie did, to bring to life such diverse characters and to remain artistically true to his own vision. Pushing the boundaries of his own creativity, he built up sonic worlds, whole universes even, and took us on a journey through his mind, heart and soul. By exposing his own humanity (however alien-like sometimes), he helped us explore our own internal worlds, creating music and lyrics with imaginative, playful and intelligent finesse – undoubtedly one of the most important sonic and lyrical masters of our time.
To discuss the diverse, finely tuned universe of sounds and experimentation found of every single one of his records could take up thousands of pages – from the inclusion of classical and jazz instruments (be it a single, sexy or sad sax, a booming orchestra or a quietly plucked koto) to the use of bird song, synthesizers and invented language. His use of the English language is also spectacular, unparalleled even. Brilliantly subliminal, beautifully delicate and undeniably powerful, Bowie subtly weaves words of poetry, literature and philosophy into his verbal fascinations.
Whether it’s the existential lyrics on his anthem ‘All the Madmen,’ with its heavy guitars and loaded meaning juxtaposing the lighter sing-along ending complete which chorus claps (too good! If it doesn’t reach in a squeeze your heart maybe you don’t have one) or the obsessive yet prayer-like lyrics on his tribute to wandering cocaine hearts eager to connect with love ‘Station to Station,’ Bowie paints a picture like no other. Both these tracks, like ‘Moonage Daydream,’ with its sexy, futuristic lyrics and its inviting, daring attitude, are perfect examples of a Bowie universe in song form – and yet no two Bowie songs have ever been alike.
When I was about 12, I got two Bowie compilation CDs, and have played them on repeat ever since. At that time electric blue was my favourite colour, and I was cutting out anything blue I found in magazines, taping the pages all around my room, making a massive, ever-growing collage of ‘blue, blue, electric blue, that’s the colour of my room”… true story. I remember ‘John I’m Only Dancing’ (along with ‘Suffragette City’) sounding like one of the most ecstatic things I’d ever heard in my life. The howling vocals, the electrifying guitar, the claps and sexy sax, that screeching, raw ending – a total banger and still one of my favourite songs of all time! Velvet Goldmine hit the silver screen about the same time and of course I was hooked.
I was enchanted and excited by every one of his personas – some closer to the heart than others but all carrying their own sound and vision that in turn uncovered a different side of my own self. His ability to wear different creative masks, then shed his skin and reinvent himself, while simultaneously framing his existence within an infinite universe of stars and possibility, giving a perspective to the concept of existence that encouraged embracing life, was a game-changer for me. Why be one thing other people want, when you can be everything you want to be? Why be one colour, when you can be a beam of light and channel a whole fucking rainbow? The collective impact of songs like ‘Starman’ and ‘Life on Mars,’ ‘Rock’n’Roll Suicide’ and ‘Velvet Goldmine,’ ‘Rebel, Rebel’ and ‘Modern Love’ literally shaped who I am today, a testament to how Bowie affected his listeners, deeply altering their perception of…well, everything.
And yet, even when Bowie is singing in a language we can’t even understand (as he does on Low), or when he delves into avant-garde territory (as he does on ‘Neuköln’ for example), whether dripping with classical influences or brimming with electronic innovation, he still creates something totally unique and soul-shattering. When it comes to composition, his influences beautifully shine through, be it Scott Walker, John Lennon, Charles Mingus, John Coltrane, John Cage, Steve Reich or Tangerine Dream.
It’s hard to single out just one Bowie record as the best because it’s hard to even compare some of them, he’s so consistently diverse. To me, however, Low, written in Berlin in an almost destroyed state, stands at the centre of his creations. His records before and after are equally impressive and impressionable, total classics I love, but Low from The Berlin Trilogy to me sounds like the ultimate sonic evolution: the highest state of his creative self-actualization, borne of a phoenix-like incineration, never to be the same again after it. Along with Heroes, Low was reworked by Philip Glass, two sublime pieces of work to say the least. Glass’ signature repetition, cyclical progression and pizzicato playing (think Glassworks) come through wonderfully in his rendition of ‘Some Are (Part 2)’.
Also on this show we hear pieces from the soundtrack Bowie did with Syuichi Sakamoto from Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence, Aphex Twin remixing Glass reworking Bowie, a very dark collaboration Bowie did with Massive Attack covering ‘Nature Boy’ for the Moulin Rouge soundtrack, and (a match made in heaven) Bowie with the absolutely fabulous Pet Shop Boys on ‘Hallo Space Boy’ (I was obsessed when it came out). We basically skip everything else (because there simply wasn’t enough time!) and close it all off in the year 1997 (a good year for music), that finds Bowie pushing his electronic boundaries and delving into drum and bass (the opening to ‘Little Wonder’ could have easily fit into Prodigy’s The Fat of the Land that came out that same year).
Until next time, ‘don’t fake it baby, lay the real thing on me. The church of man, love, is such a holy place to be.’
With love from outer space,