Saturday 16 January 2016

Bowie changed himself, the art world and my life.

When I heard that David Bowie was dead, the air involuntarily rushed from my lungs. I was so shocked I temporarily lost the use of my legs.

Ever-present throughout my youth, David Bowie not only completely changed the way I looked at music, but life itself.

My brother is four years older than me so it was thanks to him that I was aware of Major Tom’s first incarnation in 1969’s Space Oddity. We wondered if and why the astronaut had killed himself and lingered on that line

‘Tell my wife I love her very much
She knoooows….’


As I write this I’m more than ever aware of the power of the man’s music. It’s impossible to mention any of his songs without hearing the tune in my head, his imperious impeccable voice soaring, stretching, subtly English.

The next year we enjoyed The Man Who Sold The World, and throughout 1971, we sang hit after hit from Hunky Dory.

“Oh you pretty things, don’t you know you’re driving your mummas and puppas insane…” rang out in the Adley household, great teenage anthems of rebellion, but our efforts to shock our parents failed, as my mum ended up singing along with Life on Mars: "Saaaai-lors fighting in the dancehall, oh man, look at those cavemen go-o-oh….”

My fondest memories of Bowie’s 1972 album The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars were formed later in my teenage years, so I’ll come back to that, because in 1973 I fell hopelessly in love with what I consider Bowie’s masterpiece: Aladdin Sane.

The critics hated it but I remember right now the afternoon I put that album on my turntable, eased the needle onto the groove and heard for the first time music that energised me, inspired me and left me simply elated.

Even better, that young teenager now loved music that his parents would hate, that nobody else in the house understood, that had me bouncing off the bed, dancing and strumming, twirling and yelling. 

Mick Ronson’s guitar and piano riffs grabbed hold of the boiling bag of hormones that I was and gave me direction, thrills and a reason to wake up before two in the afternoon.

If all that sounds rather melodramatic, remember being thirteen. If you’ve teenage children, you’ll understand.

The songs on Aladdin Sane were amazing. Panic in Detroit, The Jean Genie, Time, and that rarest of beasts, a cover version that’s better than the original song (especially given it’s a Jagger/Richards number), Let’s Spend The Night Together: all brilliant. 

I won’t waste space listing all the tracks, but I want to. I’d never heard anything like it, and if I played the album today, I’m confident I’d feel just the same.

Wrapped in his Ziggy persona, Bowie was prolific, releasing Pin Ups (Sorrow, Friday on my Mind) and Diamond Dogs (Rebel Rebel) within months of each other, but the apocalyptic political tinge of the latter was a sign of changes to come.

Bowie didn’t only sing about changes. He constantly evolved his stage persona, from the hippy longhair of Hunky Dory through the glam pre-punk Ziggy Stardust, all the way to the Thin White Duke of his Berlin years.

Trying to discover what kind of man I might become, I followed Bowie’s mutations and transformations, realising that change was not only inevitable but often preferable. 

You didn’t have to stay the same to be successful. In fact, if you embraced change, then life could become an amazing creative adventure.

Abandoning the fading days of glam rock, Bowie reached into both his own soul and the heart of American soul music, and came up with Young Americans in 1975. 

A smile spreads onto my lips as I remember the countless post-pub parties where the title track and the James Brown-inspired Fame had living room dance floors packed, as we dared to sing out loud

“Hit every woman like a sock in the jaw…” 
because the world was yet to change for the better.

Bowie’s style changed completely in 1976. The eerie sound of an approaching steam train introduced The Thin White Duke on Station to Station, a persona part-inspired by his work on Nic Roeg’s film The Man Who Fell To Earth

Then, combining cocaine, heroin, electronic Krautrock and the genius of Brian Eno, Bowie created his stunning Berlin Trilogy: Low, Heroes and The Lodger.

Anthemic and ironic, Heroes is probably Bowie’s greatest song, but I remember trying to play Golden Years at my grandparents’ Golden Wedding Anniversary, screaming at my complaining parents:

“But you’ve never heard a song like this before. I didn’t even know a song could sound like this!”

Eschewing needles and Nietzsche, Bowie reverted to glam type in 1980 with Scary Monsters (and Super Creeps), strutting his funky stuff in Fashion before letting rip on the dance floor with his next album, Let’s Dance. Despite great tracks like Modern Love and  Iggy’s China Girl, that was the last Bowie album I bought.

Around then I quit my career in marketing and travelled around the world, working on a novel. Thanks David Bowie: job done.

My most cherished memory of Bowie’s music came in 1979, when, seven years after its release, I became entranced by The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars.

Before classic tracks like Suffragette City and Rock 'n' Roll Suicide, the album opens with the irresistibly terrifying Five Years.
Somewhere in Europe, on a train speeding between Who Knows and We Don’t Care, myself and my friend Martin sat opposite each other in the carriage, engaged in an interminable shrieking duet:

Fiiiive yeeeeears, that’s all we’ve got, we got fiiiive yeeears, that’s all we’ve got, we’ve got….”

Although I was upset about Lemmy, he lived and died an archetypal rock star. 

There was nothing typical about David Bowie. 
He changed my life as much as he changed the world of music.

©Charlie Adley

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