Wednesday, 9 January 2013

A Career in Cool

The unheralded release of David Bowie's first single in a decade has unleashed a tsunami of self-regarding bloke-love in the form of free advertorials. Prominent among the flotsam was a front-page piece by Jonathan Ross in today's Guardian in which the great broadcaster spent many column inches establishing his credentials: he's the biggest Bowie fan on the planet, he used to have a long-running radio show, he might expect to meet Bowie socially, he knows his son slightly, he has enjoyed chats with Morrissey, and just to reassure any reader intimidated by proximity to such stardom that he's still an ordinary bloke, he caught the norovirus bug over the holidays.

Unlike Ross, Bowie is generally regarded as an astute manipulator of his own image, the creator of a brand based on permanent reinvention, a performance artist in whose trail imitators like Madonna look derivative and uninspired. In fact, his career has been far more a matter of chance than corporate strategy, let alone artistic integrity, a point made by his biographer Paul Trynka (on Newsnight) who doubted the new album had been long in gestation. Bowie's one-time employment of cut-up techniques in his lyrics was simultaneously emblematic of artistic pretension (a homage to William Burroughs), vapid fashion (the 70s vogue for the occult), and his own arbitrary impulses (he should have attempted a rock opera based on Luke Rhinehart's The Dice Man). Perhaps the new album is just a random emission.

The new single, Where Are We Now?, is a wistful recollection of his time in Berlin in the late 70s. This period produced Low, Heroes and The Lodger, the three albums that will ultimately define his career, along with his contributions on Iggy Pop's The Idiot and Lust for Life, despite the claims made for the earlier run of LPs from Ziggy Stardust to Station to Station. Bowie fled to Berlin not just to avoid the fallout from the ill-judged Fascist flirtation of his Thin White Duke persona, but (with Eno) to feed off the musical zeitgeist inspired by Krautrock and the fashion for Weimar-style decadence that also influenced Lou Reed and punk. The irony is that foremost among the latter crowd were the Bromley contingent, hailing from the South East London 'burb where David Jones had spent most of his childhood. Members of the contingent would go on to form Siouxsie and the Banshees, arguably the most Bowie-inspired group in the punk firmament, though shortly to be overwhelmed by the wave of post-punk and electronic bands inspired by his Berlin work, notably Ultravox (before Midge Ure) and Simple Minds.

In the era of the individual song download, the best guarantee of a high-margin sale is the box-set with previously unreleased material. I bought the missus Simple Minds' X5 for Xmas, which includes their first five albums and no less than 19 "bonus tracks". The first three albums were patchy, as they found their metier (you could do worse than buy the Arista compilation, Celebration, which is a decent cherry-pick), but the double-album Sons and Fascination/Sister Feelings Call and New Gold Dream are the real deal. Simple Minds were never a cool band (Scots bands can do truculent, edgy or nostalgic, but not cool), but they produced some seriously cool music for about 3 years. My other recent purchases (as opposed to free downloads) have also biased towards compilations and gap-fillers, including My Bloody Valentine's EPs 1988-91 and Sonic Youth's Hits are for Squares.

There is a saying in football, "Form is temporary, but class is permanent". It's utter cobblers, as anyone watching a former maestro try to keep up with the game will acknowledge. It is even less true in music where the temporary intersection of talent, place and luck produce that most unpredictable thing, cool. Despite the best endeavours of the music industry, this does not translate into lasting class and thus a permanent asset. The Rolling Stones are no longer cool, and certainly not worth hauling your arse out to see play for a small fortune. They were cool once, but primarily as a live band, which is why they are condemned to spend their dotage trying to recapture that spirit on stage. Bowie, like Simple Minds, was actually better on vinyl, despite his theatrical pretensions and the shock and awe of his later tours. When only hardened fans still give Sticky Fingers a spin, you can expect to hear tracks from Low crop up all over the place.

Paul Trynka's 2011 biography of Bowie includes a comment in the epilogue: "In 2012, his back catalog will be available for license once more, and many fans hope to see what is thought to be the most intriguing set of unreleased recordings of audio and video outtakes of any major recording artist." In other words, the surprise new release may be the harbinger of a massive retrospective of Bowie's career, now that we've safely forgotten all the crud from the 80s and 90s. If it includes previously unreleased work from his Berlin oeuvre, I might be tempted.

1 comment:

  1. My third attempt to post a comment. How do you have the patience with this stuff? "The missus"? Who is she? I am totally sickened by Jonathan Woss' sycophantic droning and hope that Bowie's new stuff is more worth listening to than the last. Though I am more drawn towards the Britten "top 10" in G2 today. Ian Bostridge unfortunately has to drop into the article that he was at Cambridge, which probably means he is a product of the private education system (do state primary schools have music appreciation at ages 6 or 7?). Well,some of the best of us are. We also sang A Ceremony of Carols (my sister as the growling bass)but somehow at that point I was more interested in Ziggy Stardust. I will give Bowie's new offering a listen, but I will also be heading towards Peter Grimes.