Questions & Answers
Can you remember the first David Bowie song you heard? And how long did it take to become as passionate as you are now?
I'm just that little bit too young to have been conscious of David Bowie's big breakthrough in the early seventies - I was only four years old when he gave that famous performance of 'Starman' on Top of the Pops.
I think the first Bowie song that registered on my radar was 'Rebel Rebel', but the one that really gave me the bug was 'Sound and Vision' in 1977, which was the first single I ever went out and bought with my own pocket money. From that point on I was always a fan, but I don't suppose I got properly 'hardcore' until my student days in the 1980s.
This is now the sixth edition of what many Bowie fans refer to as their 'bible'. How much time would you estimate you've put into compiling it now?
I shudder to think! Obviously the first edition took the longest to write - about a year, on and off - but every revised edition since then has been a major undertaking. It's in the nature of the book that I can't just bolt on a couple of new chapters at the end. It's not structured like that. I have to pull the whole thing apart at the seams, stitch in all the new material where it belongs, and then put it all back together again. In between editions, I do my best to keep track of any new developments and discoveries and potential amendments, so I tend to build up a file of material for each new edition, which means that I'm ready to get cracking when the publisher asks for another update. This latest edition took me two or three months in the actual writing.
The new edition contains around 35,000 words of new content. Which highlights will Bowie fans find most fascinating? And what's the early-70s song "never before mentioned in print" you mentioned on a fansite a few months ago?
Gosh, I'm not sure where to start. How anorak-y do you want me to be here?! I suppose the obvious thing is that the book has been fully updated, so all the deluxe archive reissues we've had in recent years are now included, along with various rare and obscure tracks that have come to light recently. For example, some previously unheard excerpts of unreleased songs from the Young Americans sessions were leaked onto the internet a couple of years ago, so they're now mentioned in the book.
Getting a bit more obscure, I've unearthed several previously unpublished 'exclusives' which I think will be of interest even to the most knowledgeable fan. Some of these derive from conversations I've had with Bowie's veteran producer Tony Visconti, who was extremely generous with his time and has helped me to straighten out a number of unsolved mysteries. Among other things, you can expect some interesting new information about the recording of the 1969 Space Oddity album, and the most comprehensive investigation yet published regarding the uncertain provenance of Bowie's Bruce Springsteen cover 'It's Hard to be a Saint in the City'. Which album session - or sessions - does it come from? At last, all is revealed.
Of course, a lot of this stuff is the sort of hardcore detail that is chiefly of interest to Bowie nerds like me - to give you another example, I've tracked down the exact date and studio where the video for 'Life on Mars?' was filmed in 1973, which has never been pinpointed before. There, that's exciting, isn't it?!
But moving into a slightly less geeky arena, I've also unearthed a huge number of previously undocumented musical and literary influences on Bowie's early recordings, which is the sort of thing that I've always found a lot more interesting and illuminating than the studio dates and catalogue numbers. There are dozens of examples, but just off the top of my head they include some very interesting new revelations about the sources behind 1960s songs like 'When I'm Five', 'There is a Happy Land', 'Come and Buy My Toys', and even 'The Laughing Gnome'.
Moving onto more familiar ground, there's new information on the development of several tracks from The Man Who Sold the World, Hunky Dory and Ziggy Stardust, including the first detailed account of an elusive Ziggy out-take called 'It's Gonna Rain Again' which, until now, has been nothing more than a mysterious title to most Bowiephiles.
And as for that never-before-mentioned number from the early 70s... well, you're going to have to buy the book, turn to page 114 and check out 'I'd Like a Big Girl With a Couple of Melons'. I guarantee you'll be flabbergasted. I know I was.
Earlier this year, Toy, the unreleased album that would have come out between hours... and Heathen, consisting largely of updated versions of Bowie's pre-fame songs from the 60s, was leaked on the web. Where do you think this album stands in the Bowie canon?
It's an observable phenomenon that every David Bowie album can be regarded as a coherent stand-alone work, and also as a stepping-stone between the previous album and the next. There's no clearer example of this than Ziggy Stardust: it's a terrific album in its own right, but it's also equal parts Hunky Dory and Aladdin Sane. You can see this constant development playing out in the albums across the years.I think what's interesting about Toy is that, as well as being a really beautiful set of recordings in its own right, in terms of its sound and its atmosphere it's clearly the 'missing link' between hours... and Heathen.
There's also the fact that Toy seems to signal the point at which Bowie finally made his peace with his own back catalogue. Throughout the 1990s he had pointedly avoided playing his greatest hits. It was a stance which gave rise to some brilliant new work and was clearly the right decision for him at the time - but from around the turn of the millennium, he seemed to become more at ease with his old material, and he was happy to start playing 'Rebel Rebel' or 'Let's Dance' alongside his new songs. And Toy was obviously a part of that same process: until the late nineties, Bowie had always made it fairly clear that he regarded anything from his pre-Space Oddity career as little more than embarrassing juvenilia, but thankfully that's a judgement that has now been re-evaluated, both by the fans and by David himself.
There's some great material back there in the sixties, and revisiting it on Toy created a lovely set of recordings. Why the label decided not to release that album beggars the imagination. I do hope it will get a proper release some day. It would be an awful shame if the dodgy leaking of some low-grade MP3s were to put the kibosh on that.
Most evidence suggests Low is Bowie's proudest achievement. Why do you think this particular album is so dear to him?
I'm not sure Bowie would necessarily say that Low is his proudest achievement to the exclusion of all else, but you're right, it's certainly up there among his favourite pieces of work. I think there's a whole combination of factors that make Low such an important album for David, and for the rest of us too. It came at a time when he could very easily have settled down into an established career groove - his previous two albums, Young Americans and Station to Station, were the ones that broke him big-time in the United States. He'd just completed his first big movie, The Man Who Fell to Earth. He was appearing on American talk shows, and performing cheesy duets with Cher, and presenting Grammy Awards to Aretha Franklin. At that point he could very easily have opted for the commercial mainstream, and settled for becoming a particular kind of rock star.
Instead he made a decision to, as Brian Eno later put it, 'duck the momentum of a successful career'. Bowie's record label wanted him to deliver another helping of Young Americans. Instead, his artistic curiosity and his creative restlessness gave us Low, which has turned out to be one of the most groundbreaking and influential rock albums ever made. In terms of its production techniques and its artillery of sounds, it changed the landscape of popular music and opened new doors for a whole generation of artists.
And also, there's the fact that Low coincided with the first step in Bowie's recovery from cocaine addiction. It took him away from Los Angeles and back to Europe, and it marked a new phase in his personal and professional life. So it's all sorts of things: it's a spectacular vindication of Bowie's unwillingness to rest on his laurels and repeat his last success, and it's a creative template for everything that followed, and there's that element of personal therapy... but most importantly it's just a magnificent album.
Of all Bowie's remarkable collaborators, Brian Eno, Mick Ronson and Mike Garson are three names most often linked to his, but who else would you say is most deserving of recognition?
That's a very hard question to answer, because there are so many. Bowie has always had a remarkable knack for finding interesting collaborators and bringing out the best in them, and it seems invidious to single out anyone at the expense of others. Still, let's add three more names to those you've mentioned. First of all, I think the contribution of Tony Visconti is often underrated. Among other things Visconti produced The Man Who Sold the World, Young Americans, Low, "Heroes", Lodger, Scary Monsters, and more recently Heathen and Reality. Whenever those two get together, there seems to be an extraordinary simpatico relationship: Visconti has a wonderful ear for Bowie's work, and he has always understood how best to complement Bowie's songwriting and his voice, helping to create these amazing soundscapes but never cluttering them up with over-elaboration. Visconti's string arrangements in particular are legendary.
Another outstanding arranger and player is Carlos Alomar, who was Bowie's bandleader and rhythm guitarist from the mid-seventies until the late eighties. Initially he brought a wonderful funk sensibility to Bowie's sound - he's the man behind the guitar riffs for songs like 'Fame' and 'Golden Years' - but he did so much more than that. Bowie has often remarked that he seldom gravitates towards virtuoso musicians: in fact, he's the sort of artist who is rather bored by virtuosity for its own sake. Carlos Alomar is undoubtedly a virtuoso guitarist, but, just like the pianist Mike Garson whom you mentioned earlier, he's a virtuoso who is unafraid to take Bowie's hand and step off the creative brink. He plays on Low and all of those edgy late seventies albums. He's an amazing guitarist, and another collaborator with a real feel for Bowie's work.
And for number three, I'll go for a drummer. Percussionists are often undervalued, and Bowie has been blessed with some exceptional ones. Dennis Davis, who started on Young Americans and went right through to Scary Monsters, is simply wonderful. Again, he's a fearlessly experimental musician - he's the drummer on Low, which is famed for its revolutionary percussion sounds. And he plays those superbly soulful drums on 'Wild is the Wind', and that wonderfully complex slow ska beat on 'Ashes to Ashes'. He's a real unsung Bowie hero.
Which Bowie album would you say is his most undervalued?
That's another tough one to answer. Can I pick three again? I think critics and cognoscenti have long agreed that The Buddha of Suburbia is a magnificent album, so in a sense that one's not really undervalued, just underexposed. Anyone who doesn't have a copy of Buddha should rectify the situation immediately - they won't be disappointed.
Another great album from the nineties is 1.Outside. Again, the passage of time has proved its worth, but it's still sorely undervalued.
And for my third pick, I'm going to go out on a limb and wave a flag for the 1967 debut album David Bowie. I absolutely adore it. Okay, so it's not exactly Ziggy Stardust, but is it undervalued? You bet it is!
What's the most tantalising recording you think Bowie still has stashed in the vaults (aside from possible radio recordings of 'Chim Chim Cheree' from 1965 and the infamous 'You Can Have Her, I Don't Want Her, She's Too Fat for Me')?
I'd love to hear the abandoned soundtrack recordings for The Man Who Fell to Earth. They were done in late 1975, just after the sessions for Station to Station, but the film ended up being scored by John Phillips, and Bowie's tracks have never seen the light of day. And there's supposed to be plenty more unreleased material from the Berlin albums - who wouldn't want to hear that?
Which you think was Bowie's most potent live incarnation: Ziggy in his pomp, the ringmaster of the Diamond Dogs tour, the Thin White Duke, the stadium megastar of the 80s, the alt-rock hobgoblin from the time of his drum n' bass dabblings or the genial rock god of his tours in the new millennium?
These are really hard questions! Objectively, it's obvious that there was something incredibly special about the early Ziggy Stardust live shows. The surviving footage from 1972 gives us an idea - but actually to be there at the time, in the audience at some middle-sized venue in Bristol or Newcastle or Sheffield, watching Ziggy evolve into a superstar... that must have been something else. Having said that, if I had a Tardis then I think the show I'd be most tempted to go back and see would be the Diamond Dogs tour.
Sticking to my own experience of seeing Bowie on stage, I'd say that there was little to beat the excitement and brio of his performances on the Outside and Earthling tours in the mid-nineties. Those were dazzling shows. But then, so were the Heathen and Reality tours. I don't think I've ever been disappointed by a Bowie concert. He's always been a brilliant live performer.
Bowie's 90s renaissance followed a decade of music that even the man himself acknowledges is relatively weak. Why do you think things went awry for so long?
I think it goes back to what we were saying about Low earlier on, and the temptation to give in to a commercial career. 1983 was a year when everything changed for Bowie. The Let's Dance album was massive. It was by far the biggest commercial hit of his career at that point, and he suddenly found himself playing multi-thousand-seater stadiums - and, as lucky timing would have it, he was once again a movie star, with Merry Christmas Mr Lawrence and The Hunger both coming out that summer. The Serious Moonlight tour went round the world that year, and it was colossal. Bowie was on the cover of Time magazine. And, thanks to the fact that he'd recently disentangled himself from a dreadful old management contract which ensured that he saw very little of his earnings throughout the 1970s, he was suddenly making far more money than he'd ever made before.
All of these factors came together in 1983, and David has since been quite open about the fact that he simply lost his way for a while. He was surrounded by people who assumed that he had to maintain his new profile, and that he had to carry on making megabucks, and for a while he began to assume it himself. So for the next few years he was struggling to carry on being David Bowie while at the same time succumbing to the commercially understandable temptation to become a stadium crowd-pleaser.
There was also the fact that he had stopped working with Tony Visconti - they had a bit of a disagreement in the mid-eighties and they didn't get back together again for several years. During the eighties Bowie lurched from one producer to another, with results that weren't always great. The Tonight album is a case in point: 'Loving the Alien' is a terrific piece of songwriting, hobbled by mediocre production.
But with hindsight that whole period didn't last long. By 1988 Bowie was turning his back on the whole stadium rock-god thing, and he formed Tin Machine in a deliberate effort to wrench himself away from the greatest hits circuit. By 1993 he was right back in the zone.
And in any case, I would like to add that I don't actually subscribe to the theory that everything Bowie did in the mid-eighties was useless. He completely rocked at Live Aid. And the song 'Absolute Beginners' is one of his all-time classics. And if you can't find a place in your heart for Labyrinth, there's something wrong with you!
Many of Bowie's songs have been covered repeatedly and almost always disappointingly. Have you come across any that you feel might even outdo the original?
Outdo? Never. But there are some good ones out there. I think the most important thing when covering Bowie is to avoid the middle of the road at all costs - nobody wants to hear Barbra Streisand or Marti Webb drowning 'Life on Mars?' in a perfumed bath, thanks very much. Do something interesting with it! For example, the violinist Lucia Micarelli did a superb instrumental version of 'Lady Grinning Soul' on her album Music from a Farther Room, with a backing of drum loops and synthesizers - it sounds like something from Heathen.
There's a great version of 'Breaking Glass' by Paul Lewis on his album Trading Horror Stories. Really quirky and unexpected. I love Marc Almond's version of 'The London Boys' on Stardom Road - he does his Marc Almond torch-song thing with it, and really makes it his own. There's a wonderful slow acoustic version of 'Modern Love' by the Last Town Chorus and a lovely sort of alt-rock rendition of 'As The World Falls Down' by Girl in a Coma. And I have to mention those fabulous acoustic Portuguese covers by Seu Jorge in the soundtrack of The Life Aquatic. They're brilliant!
Bowie has dabbled in many other areas of the arts, from theatre to painting. Which do you think he might have flourished at most had he not focussed on music?
Oh, I think he's flourished pretty well, hasn't he? Critics have always had a rather tiresome tendency to belittle Bowie's painting and his acting. I'm not sure if it's a global phenomenon - I think it's a peculiarly British thing, this suspicion of polymaths, as if nobody ought to be entitled to do more than one thing in their lives. Personally, speaking as someone who divides his time between writing, directing and acting, I know how silly that attitude is. If you look at David Bowie's body of work, he's actually had a very respectable career as both a painter and an actor. Sure, he's appeared in a couple of stinkers, but who hasn't? You only have to see Bowie in The Prestige, or Baal, or Basquiat, or The Last Temptation of Christ, to know what a very good actor he is. So had things turned out differently, I think either acting or painting could very easily have become his primary career.
Amongst the scores of Bowie-related books you list in your bibliography, which did you find the most insightful?
Yes, there have been dozens of Bowie books over the years, some more insightful than others. Of course, a book can be insightful while still getting its facts all wrong, and conversely it can be packed with facts without being particularly insightful - in my book I've always done my best to satisfy both sides of that equation! Once again, I'm inevitably going to miss out some books that really deserve a mention, but let's choose three. Despite the fact that it's long since out of date and out of print, Alias David Bowie by Peter and Leni Gillman is still worth a look. It was the first attempt to write a serious biography of Bowie, and it's well researched, well written and quite fascinating in places - but on the downside, it also has a prurient and sensationalist streak which I don't care for.
One of the very best books in terms of insight is The Bowie Companion by Elizabeth Thomson and David Gutman, which is an anthology of reviews, interviews and other Bowie-related journalism over the years, very thoughtfully chosen, catching snapshots of David at different points in his career.
And thirdly I have to mention Kevin Cann's recent book Any Day Now, which is an extraordinary accomplishment and now stands as the definitive collection of facts, figures and dates covering Bowie's earliest years. It's also a very beautiful book - the level of illustration is sensational.
Kevin Cann is someone else who gave very generously of his time when I was preparing the new edition of my book - he helped me out a lot. In fact, we pooled our researches and I think we've managed to learn a few things from each other! I'm very grateful to Kevin, as every Bowie aficionado should be.
If you were stuck on the same island as the Desert Island Discs castaways, which eight Bowie tracks would you choose to keep you company?
Oh my goodness. And I thought the other questions were hard. Okay, here goes. On the strict understanding that I reserve the right to change my mind completely before teatime, and then change it again tomorrow, and the day after... here are the eight tracks I'll choose today:
Wild Eyed Boy from Freecloud: this is one of the first really mature Bowie compositions, and the album version has a breathtaking orchestral arrangement by Tony Visconti. It's right up there with 'Space Oddity' as one of the earliest recordings to do full justice to the scope and ambition of Bowie's songwriting.
The Bewlay Brothers: restricting myself to just one choice from Hunky Dory is agony - I could happily choose eight tracks from that one album. But let's go for this one: haunting, beautiful, and a gold-standard Bowie classic.
Soul Love: again, there are so many delights on the Ziggy album that choosing one is tough. This is one of the less celebrated tracks, but it's always been one of my favourites.
We Are The Dead: I can't begin to tell you how much I love this one. It's another slightly obscure number: the only song from Diamond Dogs that Bowie has never performed live.
Always Crashing in the Same Car: the lyric is astonishing: so slight, so economical, yet dripping with metaphor and implication. Bowie's vocal is a paragon of subtlety, nuance and control. And the soundscape sums up everything that's groundbreaking and great about the Low album. In a word, perfect.
The Motel: a contender for the most underrated Bowie song ever. A couple of great live versions have been released, but I'll go for the original album track from 1.Outside.
Slip Away: a majestic, poignant ballad from the Heathen album. Since the big internet leak a few months ago it has become fashionable to prefer the unreleased Toy version, but I'm not so sure about that. They're both gorgeous, but the Heathen recording gets my vote.
Let's Dance (live version from Bowie at the Beeb): it's understandable that Bowie's studio work gets most of the attention, but that means that his excellence as a live performer can sometimes be overlooked. This radical reworking of 'Let's Dance' from a BBC gig recorded in 2000 is irresistible. It begins in a slow, dreamy ballad style, not unlike 'Wild is the Wind', and then after a couple of minutes we get to the first "tremble like a flower" and Bowie ramps up his vocal, the familiar tempo kicks in, and the band really lets rip. It's thrilling.