Something happened on the day he died: Bowibury

As you can tell, I don’t update this blog very often. My next entry was going to be my Best Of 2015, which I had been thinking about for some time.

I was rather distracted by the prospect of a new Bowie album. At that stage, Blackstar and Lazarus had been out, with the video for the latter being released shortly before the album came out on 8 January.

Since his comeback took the world by surprise three years previously, I could do nothing but get excited about the prospect of a whole new album that was clearly going to be completely different from The Next Day. The day it came out, I was at my local record shop buying it on vinyl. I listened to precious little else that weekend.

I awoke on Monday 11 February and turned on 6 Music, as I usually do. The breakfast show started with very little talk from Shaun Keaveny and an awful lot of music. I opened Facebook and read a post in the Bowie group I’m part of that simply said “No”.

I’ve always said to my family that the death of three artists will hit me hard: Paul McCartney, Scott Walker, and Bowie. So it proved. I listened to all the coverage on 6 Music then, which was uniformly excellent. Otherwise I listened to Blackstar a lot and not really much else.

The excellent blog mentioned “Bowibury”, a scheme to listen to all of Bowie’s studio albums, one a day in February, a good way to get an overview of the great man’s work. This is the scheme I followed:

Feb 1. David Bowie + Space Oddity; Feb 2. The Man Who Sold The World; Feb 3. Hunky Dory; Feb 4. Ziggy; Feb 5. Aladdin Sane; Feb 6. Pin Ups; Feb 7. Diamond Dogs

week 2: Feb 8. Young Americans; 9. Station to Station 10. The Idiot; 11. Low; 12. Lust for Life; 13. “Heroes”: 14. Lodger

week 3: Feb 15. Scary Monsters; 16. Baal + Let’s Dance; Feb 17. Tonight; 18. Never Let Me Down; 19. Tin Machine I + II; 20. Black Tie White Noise; 21. The Buddha Of Suburbia;

week 4: Feb 22. 1.Outside; 23. Earthling; 24. ‘Hours…’; 25. Toy; 26. Heathen; 27. Reality; 28. The Next Day; Feb 29. Blackstar

There are few careers in popular music which are as diverse and brilliant at this and merit a complete listening (though I struggled with Tonight and Never Let Me Down – they never get any better for me!). And this doesn’t include live albums, other collaborations and bootlegs. You could spend your life listening to him. I’ve certainly spent the last fifty days doing so.

Highlights: I’ll just mention a couple. My favourite of the albums this time around has been Station to Station, much to my surprise. I’ve finally listened to The Buddha of Suburbia for the first time, and will definitely be going back to that. But the track that hit me hardest was this, from “Hours…”. A deep-cut Bowie selection from me would include this.

A very emotional listen.

Bowibury ends today. The needle has just lifted on I Can’t Give Everything Away, the last track on Blackstar. Just two entries below this one, separated by four years (I don’t blog much do I?) is the Bowie Admin Day entry, when I last did anything approaching this. The last line of that post read, “Oh, and Mr Bowie, any chance of getting out to the studio and surprising us all again?”

Boy, did he. Thanks David.

Best of 2014

Adam Boyle Has Cast Lad Rock Aside – Half Man Half Biscuit

The Wirral funsters are back. Urge For Offal is a great album, of which this is perhaps the most accessible highlight. They made much of the Wicker Man references when I saw them play this live in Manchester. (A pedant writes: shouldn’t The Golden Bough be pronounced as in “bend at the waist”, not as in “tied ribbon”? Not like Nigel Blackwell to slip up!)

Gagarin – Public Service Broadcasting

Single of the year. New album from PSB in February – hurrah! The second time a song about Yuri Gagarin has featured in an annual best-of. (Previous entry: Yuri by Oy Va Voi.)

Why Can’t We Live Together – Timmy Thomas

I heard this on 6 Music a few months ago, having not heard it since I was a kid. It appealed to me then for its Bontempi organ style beat and straightforward message. Still sounds great to me.

Psychedelic Misemono Goya – Bo Ningen On Spotify

Steve urged me to go and see them at Tramlines, and even though I felt all gigged out after a full weekend I took his advice. They were the highlight.

Sue (Or in a Season of Crime) – David Bowie

I realise the world was a bit indifferent to this, but I think it’s great. DB has still Got It.

Sneaking Suspicion – Wilko Johnson & Roger Daltry

Really enjoyed this whole album, much to my surprise, as it’s not usually the kind of music I’d go for. I ‘got’ Wilko/Dr Feelgood after watching Oil City Confidential on BBC FOUR last year, which I thoroughly recommend. Meanwhile, Wilko lives to fight another year, happily.

Danxia – Kusanagi on Bandcamp

I’ve always liked rock instrumentals, including bands like Godspeed! You Black Emperor, Explosions In The Sky (though NOT, oddly, Mogwai). Kusanagi is in that vein.

Revolution Blues – Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young

Prone Hold – Trust Punks on Bandcamp, free download

My last discovery of the year, New Year’s Eve to be precise.

Mother Goose – Jethro Tull

Nothing like a bit of Tull, here in a more folky and reflective moment.

I Shall be Released – Bob Dylan and The Band On Spotify

From this year’s The Basement Tapes Raw, my album of the year. I have very mixed views about Dylan. The only album of his I have heard and genuinely like is Blood On The Tracks. I’ve heard the odd Basement Tapes track before and liked them, so took a risk and bought it without having heard it. (And before you say, yes I do know about streaming services – see above! – I just don’t like using them much.) Anyway, this really is as good as the hype has suggested, even if, as here, the guitars are often out of tune. Probably just adds to the charm.

Slow – Leonard Cohen

Oh Leonard, you old dog.

A few other things that don’t fit nicely onto a compilation:

Much to my surprise, I loved Pink Floyd’s final album The Endless River. Imagine Floyd, post-Syd, pre-Dark Side, with a more C21st sound, and not worried about lyrics. If only they’d pursued this more when Roger left.

I really enjoyed the Scott Walker and SunnO))) collaboration, though it’s not for the faint-hearted. Scott has made noises about possibly playing this live – that would be a must-see. For the brave:

This is simply terrific, and beats the original:

And finally, Kate Bush. She was as good as everyone said, honest. I live in hopes of a DVD: mine was one of the nights filmed.

Bowie Admin Day: an experiment

I had a lot to do sat in front of a computer the other day. If you know anything about being self-employed, and the time of year, you might be able to guess the kinds of things I was doing.

This was going to take a long time, so I decided to make something of it. As it was David Bowie’s 65th birthday last Sunday, how about listening to everything I had by him until I finished? Plenty of variety there.

On the PC’s hard drive I have what is considered to be his Golden Years: The Man Who Sold The World (1970) through to Scary Monsters (And Super Creeps) (1980). That should keep me going, I thought. Eight hours’ worth.

As it turned out, I had listened to all that and had a lot left to do, so I ventured onto Spotify for that uncharted territory called Bowie’s ’80s Albums.

I’ve never spent so long at one sitting with one artist, and I really enjoyed it. Every album from Man Who Sold The World through to the first Tin Machine offering, just short of eleven hours. Since you’ve got this far, I’ll let you know my conclusions.

Certainly, the stretch from The Man… to Scary Monsters is prime time, the man at the height of his powers. Some startling changes of gear, such as from TMWSTW’s proto-metal to the more singer-songwritery beginning to Hunky Dory. Diamond Dogs to Young Americans felt like a handbrake turn!

I faced the prospect of the post-Scary Monsters albums with some trepidation. On the positive side there are some good bits (the famous Let’s Dance singles, Loving The Alien, Blue Jean, This Is Not America) which are good, sometimes quirky, pop. I didn’t realise that the album versions are much longer than the chart versions. Don’t normally approve of single edits, but they really were necessary here.

Never Let Me Down was as bad as it has been portrayed. Hard to believe that the man who started Diamond Dogs with such an eerie monologue could then try the same kind of thing on Glass Spider and sound thoroughly unconvinced about it himself. I shaln’t be bothering with that album again.

After the dire Never Let Me Down, Bowie needed a change. I was convinced by someone on the excellent Word Magazine blog that there are times when some artists need to create something which, whilst perhaps not great in and of itself, is necessary to get them out of a rut, or spark creativity, or whatever. Tin Machine doesn’t get a great press these days, but it was the jump-start Bowie needed, a breath of fresh air after hideous ’80s production and looooooong sooooooooongs. It sounds like an avant-garde version of grunge, still a few years away. Any evidence Kurt Cobain was a fan?

Not sure I’d consider Tin Machine I to be a great album, but one track really stood out for me, and I’ve listened to it several times since:

(WARNING: contains ‘language’).

This typifies two things I learnt from Bowie Admin Day. First, he always produces good stuff when paired with a distinctive guitarist. Admittedly, in a list that includes Ronson, Fripp, and Alamar, Reeves Gabrels is distinctly first-reserve, but he has the wotsits necessary to kick Bowie up the bum creatively.

The second thing I noticed, that curiously always seems to be overlooked: Bowie can SING. I Can’t Read is underplayed, blank and yet quietly unhinged. In Tin Machine he also sings big rockers with huge power. Plenty of crooning in the Young Americans phase. The fey, Cockernee voice which often surfaces in the earlier albums. The staggering use of his lower and upper ranges in Sweet Thing or Sound & Vision. Bowie seems to able to do anything with his voice, and can make even half-baked songs work. I think the sheer creativity of the man overshadows the fact that he has one of the great voices of popular music.

Obviously, I missed the first two albums and Tin Machine II onwards. The next time I have an admin binge, I’ll hit Spotify and fill in the gaps.

Oh, and Mr Bowie, any chance of getting out to the studio and surprising us all again?