About The Author
Chris O'Leary is a writer, editor and journalist based in western Massachusetts.
His interviewees range from Richard Fuld, former head of Lehman Brothers, to actor Kiefer Sutherland. He writes for Entertainment Weekly, as well as the Encyclopaedia Britannica.
In 2009, he began a blog analysing the music of David Bowie, song by song, called Pushing Ahead of the Dame (The title is taken from the lyrics of 'Queen Bitch' from Hunky Dory.) As well as every officially released song, he covers demo tracks, outtakes and unrelased songs that made their way into the hands of collectors.
He began with 'Liza Jane', released in 1964 under the name of Davie Jones and the King Bees, and, at the time of writing, has just reached the point where Bowie disappeared from the music scene for several years following a heart attack in the middle of his 2003-4 tour.
Now he's rewritten, edited and updated the blog to produce the first of two definitive volumes on one of rock's outstanding talents. Rebel Rebel covers Bowie's career up to the release of Station to Station in 1976, a period encompassing such classic albums as The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars, Diamond Dogs and Young Americans.
You can read a sample from the book, the entry on Station to Station album track 'TCV15' below, which reveals the combined influences of classic science fiction, Kraftwerk, 50s death ballads and Iggy Pop's dreams.
In our exclusive interview with Chris, he talks about why Ziggy Stardust remains the iconic image of Bowie, how he might have ended up an actor rather than a rock star and why Bowie's literary influences are as important his musical ones. He also names his eight Bowie Desert Island Discs.
Questions & Answers
You've said in an earlier interview that you considered a song-by-song blog on The Who's Pete Townshend originally. What made you decide upon Bowie? And might you attempt Townshend at a later time, or indeed any other musician?
I suppose I finally went with Bowie due to my ignorance—I really wasn’t familiar with much of his 1960s work, and I had only vague memories of his late ‘90s and early 2000s stuff. So I thought it would be fun to dig into an artist who, for me, had lengthy stretches of 'unknown' music. I also felt that I was too close to Townshend, as his songs have had great personal resonance at a few, often miserable times in my life. Whereas my relations with Bowie have been formal—I like his music but I’ve always kept a bit outside of it. So a good vantage point for such a survey as Pushing Ahead, I suppose.
I have an idea for another blog song-by-song thing, but it’s still tentative. It won’t be a single artist, but likely a group or a collection of different musicians.
Fans of your blog will find that many of the entries in the book substantially revised. How did you go about things differently for the book?
The fun and the curse of writing online is its lack of limits, so on occasion blog entries gassed on and rambled all over the place. So they needed pruning. By contrast, most of the 1960s entries were very short, and in some cases were glib and shallow. So they needed shoring up and expanding.
I tried to create a 'narrative' voice for the book, which meant greatly revising some entries that didn’t fit this format—'Changes', as you can see on the blog, was originally a sort-of memoir. The original 'Sweet Thing' entry was a bungled attempt to use William S Burroughs/Bowie-style cut-up to arrange the piece, and so it needed to be more coherent. It’s also easy online to use links to flesh things out—if there’s an obscure person or word mentioned, just throw in a link to Wikipedia or something. This obviously wouldn’t work in print, so this mandated building up a substantial endnote section and either excising or spelling out the more esoteric stuff.
1972's The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars remains the album with which casual fans would most immediately associate Bowie, even if critics and dedicated fans tend to bump the album several places down their list of favourites. Why do you think Ziggy remains so iconic?
Yeah, it’s arguable that for most critics, particularly those born after, say, 1970, Ziggy Stardust is almost second-tier Bowie by this point: Hunky Dory, Aladdin Sane, Diamond Dogs, Station to Station, Low, Scary Monsters often all get ranked above Ziggy in surveys. But for a generation of fans, both US and UK, Ziggy remains the central Bowie figure. In a way he’s the 'Bowie' that Bowie never quite was again. I think in part it’s simply that Bowie first came into the public consciousness, in the UK especially, as this Ziggy character and that he retired Ziggy so quickly that there was a collective sense of loss—this legendary Bowie character who never appeared again after 1973.
In America, it’s in part because Bowie was awkwardly shoehorned into the 'classic rock' radio format by the late 1980s, which meant that Ziggy had to serve as his equivalent to Sticky Fingers or At Fillmore East. Which it’s really not—it’s as much a Broadway cast album as it’s some hard rock monolith. Man Who Sold the World is much harder rocking, as is Aladdin Sane. But Ziggy got much more airplay.
Bowie had been fascinated with America since childhood and was planning to leave Britain by the time Diamond Dogs was released in 1974. Could Bowie have ever become the 'rock god' he is thought of as now if he had stayed?
It’s hard to say. He’d made some inroads into the US but his singles didn’t really sell until 'Young Americans' and 'Fame'. Could he have wound up being like a Marc Bolan—a legendary British pop star who only had a couple of hits in America? Possible. You can see him drifting into becoming a full-time actor by the late '70s if the albums didn’t sell that much. It’s easy to imagine him acquiring a Nick Drake-esque cult among American hipsters in the 1990s and 2000s, too.
You say of 1976's Station to Station, an album that Bowie has famously claimed to have no memory of recording: 'Most crack-ups happen off screen, with studio roughs or half-written manuscripts their only evidence. Bowie's was immaculate, and you could buy it at Woolworths'. What do you think it is about Bowie that allowed him, even in the depths of his cocaine addiction, to create such a remarkable album?
Well, the upside of cocaine is that it gets you out of the house and gives you energy to get through like 36 hours at a recording console, listening to overdub after overdub. It’s the junkies who can’t be bothered to pick up their guitars at some point. With the exception of The Man Who Sold the World, where Bowie (according to his collaborators) seemed indifferent about making the album, he’s always had a pretty rigorous work ethic. Knowing his core weakness, that he gets bored and distracted easily, he learned to cut records fast and efficiently. Hence his habit of doing one- or two-take lead vocals.
The book concludes with the title track to 1976's Station to Station, concluding 'here he went no further'. Where does the critically adored 'Berlin trilogy'— Low, 'Heroes' and Lodger—fit into this assessment?
The book (and blog) has a fair amount of those sort of portentous statements—it’s a bit tongue in cheek. I suppose what I meant was that Station is the end of one sort of Bowie figure—the questing, all-consuming, grandiose superman who’s still a popular musician—he’s taking karate lessons on Dinah Shore while he’s recording these bizarre songs about the Kabbalah and white magic. The Berlin' records are in part the sound of a man unpacking himself, disassembling old structures, and they’re far less popular records (at least they were at the time). The global pop star Bowie of the 1980s is a less complex, or at least a less ambitious, figure as well.
Which new discovery, either of a song itself or of its background, did you find shed most new light upon Bowie's music?
A couple of years ago, Bowie released a list of his top 100 favourite books. This seemed at first a bit like a marketing scheme tied to the ongoing museum exhibit. But I found that whenever I read one of them, particularly the older books, they’d shed light on some songs. So the list is, essentially, a hidden Bowie biography, or a key to a treasure map. I recommend that fans read a few of the books he listed: you might be surprised what you find. The 1960s singles and Bowie’s first album have a lot of Alan Sillitoe and Keith Waterhouse in them, for instance.
Most Bowie albums feature at least one cover version, often more – although few are memorable (and one or two are beyond the pale). Why do you think that such an original artist has such an interest in interpreting the songs of others?
I guess one thing to keep in mind is that Bowie’s a record geek at heart. He shows his appreciation either by nicking riffs and ideas from records he likes or envies, or by covering artists he admires, especially those he feels have been neglected. Like Biff Rose and Ron Davies ('Fill Your Heart' and 'It Ain’t Easy', respectively). Scott Walker and Nina Simone. And in the 1980s, he basically puts Iggy Pop on retainer and covers several of his songs to ensure Iggy gets some royalties from Bowie’s platinum sellers.
Other covers are more pointed. Covering the Rolling Stones’ 'Let’s Spend the Night Together' was basically Bowie boasting to the Stones that they were old hat, that he was making better Stones records in 1973 than they were. His 'Across the Universe' is in part 'an “oh my God, I’m singing with John Lennon' fan geekout moment he preserved on record, but it was also a canny political move—Bowie used his Lennon collaborations as a way to ensure his record label got behind Young Americans, as his estranged manager was moving to block its release.
On your blog, you recently named Carlos Alomar as “Bowie's finest collaborator”. What do you think is his stand-out contribution to the Bowie canon?
The heart of all of the 'Berlin' records is Alomar’s brilliant work as a bandleader and arranger. His solo on 'Look Back in Anger' is a small perfection.
There are mentions in the appendices of 'Book 2', intended to cover the remainder of Bowie's career, so a few questions. Were the 1980s as much of a creative nadir as is generally held? Do you consider any of his post-Tin Machine albums essential for an appreciation of his music? And what will you be concluding about his surprise 2013 comeback The Next Day?
In order: 1) The 1980s can be a sad, dispiriting time for Bowie—the tale of a man who “got what he wanted but lost what he had,” to quote Little Richard. The best stuff is often hidden away on soundtracks, like 'When the Wind Blows'. And 'Let’s Dance' and 'Modern Love' are still great pop songs. 2) 1995’s Outside, and its unreleased original version, Leon, are pretty essential Bowie. I think their critical appreciation will increase more with time. Buddha of Suburbia is an oft-forgotten but fascinating little album. 3) I don’t know! I haven’t gotten to those songs yet on the blog.
As an American, you may not be familiar with the radio programme Desert Island Discs, but we laid down this challenge to Nicholas Pegg, author of The Complete David Bowie, so it seems only fair to ask the same of you: could you name eight Bowie tracks to keep you company on a notional desert island?
Ugh. Okay, but this is as of this morning and will likely change tomorrow:
1) 'The Bewlay Brothers'
2) 'Queen Bitch'
3) Lady Grinning Soul
4) 'Alternative Candidate'
5) 'Ashes to Ashes'
6) 'Sound and Vision'
7) 'Station to Station'
8) 'Modern Love'
Interview by our Web Editor, Jonathan Ruppin
Recorded: 22 September-late November 1975, Cherokee. Bowie: leadand backing vocal, tenor saxophone, baritone saxophone?; Alomar: lead and rhythm guitar; Slick: lead and rhythm guitar; Roy Bittan: piano; Murray: bass; Davis: drums; Maslin: tenor saxophone? Baritone saxophone?; MacCormack: backing vocal. Produced: Bowie, Maslin.
First release: 23 January 1976, Station to Station (RCA APL1 1327, UK #5, US #3). Broadcast: 15 December 1979, Saturday Night Live. Live: 1976, 1978, 1983, 1985, 1990.
Inspired by Iggy Pop’s dream of a television devouring his girlfriend, the avant-garde novelty song 'TVC 15' also hailed from The Man Who Fell to Earth, in which Bowie’s extraterrestrial Thomas Jerome Newton fills rooms with televisions, each tuned to a different channel. Newton’s race had learned about Earth by watching TV but it’s been a mistake visiting the set. 'The strange thing about television is that it doesn’t tell you everything. It shows you everything about life on Earth, but the true mysteries remain. Perhaps it’s in the nature of television. Just waves in space.'
Television as malevolent artificial intelligence and purveyor of false realities was another staple of postwar science-fiction—take the four-wall TV 'parlors' of Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 or the demagogic talk show hosts/TV priests who populate Norman Spinrad’s Bug Jack Barron and Philip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? Far from being a modest evolution from radio and film, TV had rewired the human brain (though TV seems, in retrospect, to have been pre-op for the Internet’s aggressive surgery). It eroded old verities and remade society in its own funhouse image: a transformation that the human race apparently had always wanted, like our age-old dreams of flying. 'The television was an open funnel, with its other end stuck in the middle of everything,' wrote Geoffrey O’Brien, recalling his Sixties youth.
Bowie had seen television go from the genteel incarnation of his childhood, TV as a glorified wireless set showing a single government-run channel a few hours a day, to become a lightbox in every home and hotel room, a unblinking electric eye, a compost of old Hollywood movies, riot footage, wildlife documentaries, kung-fu exhibitions and breakfast cereal ads. He contributed to the mix his own bizarre televised performances of the Seventies, including a version of 'TVC 15' he sang with Klaus Nomi and Joey Arias on Saturday Night Live in late 1979, where he wore a pencil skirt and high heels while a stuffed pink poodle behind him held a video monitor in its mouth.
Yet despite its quadraphonic sound and hologramic televisions, 'TVC 15' was at heart a Fifties teenage death ballad, like 'Teen Angel', 'Endless Sleep' or 'Last Kiss', where the singer recalls how his girl perished and wonders whether to join her in death. The catastrophe of 'TVC 15' starts when Bowie brings his girlfriend home to see his new hologramic set. She’s bored, transfixed, consumed (she’s the 'Life On Mars?' girl again, or the girl eaten by the Braque painting in 'Unwashed and Somewhat Slightly Dazed'): she crawls in through the screen, leaving him to mourn her and consider leaping “down that rainbow way” himself. The teenage death ballad gave some assurance from the afterlife; the dead girl wailed the boy’s name in a graveyard. But here the TVC 15 just stares back, a void in a box. “My baby’s in there someplace”is all he can muster.
Fresh from playing the revivalist on 'Golden Years', Bowie outfitted 'TVC 15' in rock ‘n’ roll trappings, from the C major blues progression of its verses (with an F minor shuffled in at the turnaround) to Roy Bittan’s piano, seemingly airlifted from Fifties New Orleans, to the opening 'oh OH-oh-OH-OH' line nicked from the Yardbirds’ 'Good Morning Little Schoolgirl'. The swaying attack of its verse melodies and the marginal commentaries of guitars and saxophones had some of Otis Redding’s 'The Hucklebuck' in them, apparently Alomar’s contribution. Bowie said Elvis Presley’s 'The Girl Next Door Went a-Walkin' (instead of being swallowed by the TV, the girl next door throws herself into marriage) got diced up in the song as well.
As with 'Golden Years' there was a 'German' abrasiveness to corrode the Fifties references. The 16-bar verses were noise experiments in miniature. Bowie starts each bar holding on one note while three distorted guitar tracks grind together like an engine failing to get into second gear. Carlos Alomar described his and Earl Slick’s guitars as a drone: 'the music would stay in one place and just keep going'. Yet Bowie’s vocal becomes buoyant, loopy, as if he’s telling you the best story he’s ever heard, and maybe he is. The song moves into an F7/A7 bridge, a Kraftwerk-inspired 'trans-ition! trans-mission!' sequence tugged along by Alomar nervously picking at his open B string.
Back home in C major, a 'Oh my TVC 15!' refrain begins, half mantra, half-jingle, set against a vicious guitar riff and chased by a Roy Bittan piano figure. It erases the lost girl, making the singer a fanatic advertisement for her captor.
With the standard Station to Station layout of two guitars in opposing channels, the dense mix suggests radio signals eating into each other’s frequencies. ('TVC 15' quickly outgrew the 24-track console, requiring Maslin to keep bouncing down guitar and vocal dubs). The backing singers echo Bowie a beat late; sometimes they hum a different tune or whisper a barely-audible line. The stack of saxophone overdubs (Bowie and Harry Maslin) bay through later refrains like foghorns. It’s as if Bowie’s recounting his tale after being swallowed by his television: the last testament of his terrestrial life, delivered in flux.