Tag Archives: David Bowie

Rocks In The Attic #567: ABC – ‘The Lexicon Of Love’ (1982)

rita567I often wonder what would have happened had I been born a full ten years earlier. That would push 1978 back to 1968, and would mean reaching my teenage years around 1981. Punk was dying by that time, and New Wave was quickly morphing into what we now refer collectively as ‘80s music.

Would I have been a fan of ABC? It’s hard to say. The one aspect of ‘80s music that always puts me off is the fashion. I think this stems from looking at the sleeves of my brother’s Adam & The Ants records. I always thought Adam Ant himself straddled the line between looking like a cool motherfucker and looking like an idiot, but I always though the rest of the band looked ridiculous in their camp eyeliner and dandy highwayman clothes.

ABC are a little less offensive to the eyes, and obviously put the music first. Image is obviously still very important to them though – just check out that wonderfully composed record cover. Trevor Horn’s bold production really brings the band to life, and isn’t quite as overbearing as his work a few years later on records like Frankie Goes To Hollywood’s Welcome To The Pleasuredome. They also wear their Bowie influences on their sleeves, and I really love that; it’s one of the saving graces of a lot of pop music from the early ‘80s.

Hit: Poison Arrow

Hidden Gem: Show Me

Rocks In The Attic #563: Stone Temple Pilots – ‘MTV Unplugged 1993’ (2016)

rita563Thank f**k for bootlegs. I reckon I might be waiting until the end of my days for Atlantic Records to dig this one for an official release, so thankfully the enterprising Russian chaps at DOL Records put this out last year. DOL were also responsible for putting out Aerosmith’s 1973 radio appearance at Paul’s Mall, so they’ve come out of nowhere to be one of my favourite – ahem – enterprising record labels.

I used to listen to so much STP in my teens that I almost can’t tell when one songs ends and another one starts. They’re burnt into my DNA. I was sad to see it was the anniversary of Scott Weiland’s death at the beginning of December. What a loss, albeit certainly not an unexpected one.

I don’t think I ever saw the original transmission of STP’s Unplugged set back in the day on MTV. While it might have been in heavy rotation across the Atlantic, it definitely didn’t see that kind of airplay in the UK. In fact, once Kurt Cobain killed himself, pretty much all of the rock programming on the channel was taken over by Nirvana.

When STP released their second record, Purple, they released one of the singles, Vasoline, with a couple of songs from the Unplugged set. I know these versions of the debut album’s Crackerman and David Bowie’s Andy Warhol like the back of my hands, and have always wanted to hear the full set. The wonder of the Internet allowed me to watch the show a couple of years ago, and then I finally got my hands on this disc last year.

Hopefully an official version will see the light of day someday. DOL are great at finding unreleased material to put in stores, but their mastering leaves a lot to be desired. On that early Aerosmith record, they change the running order of the songs to make them fit on the two sides better, and on this STP record there’s a one-second gap of air in the audience reaction between a couple of the tracks, like a badly mastered home CD. Still, beggars can’t be choosers.

Hit: Plush

Hidden Gem: Crackerman

Rocks In The Attic #507: Prince – ‘Prince’ (1979)

RITA#5072016 has been a terrible year for celebrity deaths, particularly those from music, films and television. The year started off tainted by the death of Motörhead’s Lemmy Kilmister just a few days before New Year. Then things started to go crazy with David Bowie dying suddenly on the tenth of January. Following him, we’ve also seen the passing of Eagle Glenn Frey, Beatles producer George Martin, Keith Emerson, Merle Haggard, Elvis’ guitarist Scotty Moore, and many, many more.

Losing Bowie was bad enough, but any year where we lose somebody as iconic as him, plus Prince, plus Muhammad Ali is just plain crazy. It’s like the icons of the late twentieth century are falling off the planet. I’m half expecting a plane carrying Madonna, Tom Cruise and Bruce Springsteen to crash into the Hollywood sign, while Los Angeles succumbs to a devastating earthquake.

Prince’s death seemed to hit a little closer to home, only because he had just played in Auckland a few weeks earlier as part of his Piano And Microphone tour. I would have loved to see Prince, backed by a full band but I didn’t really like the idea of seeing him play unaccompanied. There’s a part of me that regrets not chasing down a ticket, just because it was my last chance to see him perform, but with his passing I’m even more glad that I didn’t go – I like to think that my seat went to a more deserving fan.

I can take or leave Prince. His Batman soundtrack was the first album I ever owned, and I like a good deal of his big hits; I just don’t like all the Sexy Motherf*cker bullshit that he descended to in the early nineties. His contractual dispute with Warner Brothers around that time – leading to him changing his name to the symbol and writing ‘Slave’ on his cheek also turned me off him. All of a sudden, just as I was getting into music in a big way, he didn’t seem to be about the music anymore.

His Greatest Hits album is superb though, and the song off that record I’ve always liked the best is the opening number I Wanna Be Your Lover, taken from this, his self-titled second album. The recent repressing of his back catalogue on vinyl has given me the opportunity to buy the album (I’ve never seen an original pressing in the wild), and it’s a great record.

The album version of I Wanna Be Your Lover sounds even better, being a few minutes longer than the single edit available on his Greatest Hits, and the other singles from the record are all worthy additions to his canon. I can’t remember the last time I liked a record so much from start to finish.

What’s not to like? All the upbeat songs are of a similar quality to I Wanna Be Your Lover, and the slower ballads don’t grate as much as some of the soppier ballads from later in his career. I might put my toe further in the purple water, and try out some of his other records now that they’re widely available again.

Hit: I Wanna Be Your Lover

Hidden Gem: Bambi

Rocks In The Attic #485: Ryuichi Sakamoto – ‘Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence’ (1983)

RITA#485I really need more Japanese music in my collection. The two pieces I have – this and Tomoyasu Hotei’s Battle Without Honor Or Humanity (from the soundtrack to Kill Bill Vol. 1) – kick arse and leave me wanting more. I don’t know if it’s all as good as this; Yoko Ono’s oeuvre makes me think not, but I’d like to find out for myself.

Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence is perhaps my favourite David Bowie film; or at least my favourite where he has a substantial role. I’ve visited one of the locations in the film too. There’s a scene where he’s been reprimanded by a Japanese officer sat at a desk, near the front end of the film I think. It was filmed in Auckland’s Winter Gardens – I guess because of its vaguely Asian architecture – a place we visit every now and then to look at exotic plants and flowers.

One of the things I like about ‘80s film soundtracks is their use of synths and keyboards – as long as they’re used well. Where ‘50s, ‘60s and ‘70s soundtracks were mainly restricted to strings and brass, synths and keyboards really came to the fore in the late ‘70 and throughout the 1980s. Vangelis is the obvious thought here, but there are many others – David Dundas and Rick Wentworth’s score for Withnail & I and John Carpenter’s Escape From New York are a couple of specific examples, but anything touched by Tangerine Dream, Georgio Moroder or Harold Faltermeyer is a sure fire bet.

Of course synths can be bad. In the wrong hands, they can be terrible. There does seem to be a clear correlation between the quality of music dipping in the 1980s, and the proliferation of synths and keyboards. Any true musician knows how they can be used a crutch for somebody who isn’t necessarily musically skilled, and the ‘80s pop charts were full of such ‘artists’. Take a singer and a keyboard player, apply a thin layer of talent, a thick slice of cheese, and apply a liberal helping of Stock, Aitken and Waterman.

Hit: Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence

Hidden Gem: Forbidden Colours

Rocks In The Attic #480: Tin Machine – ‘Tin Machine’ (1989)

RITA#480jpgThat blonde guy in this band sure looks a lot like David Bowie…

I really hope that there isn’t going to be a reappraisal of Bowie’s sub-par efforts in the wake of the great man’s demise. I think we can all agree that Bowie’s post-Let’s Dance albums in the 1980s (Tonight and Never Let Me Down) were lame ducks. I don’t need a string of shiny reissues to try and convince me otherwise.

The same goes for Tin Machine. It was a nice idea, to revert back to a rock and roll band in response to those terrible pop albums. But Bowie could at least have written some decent tunes. 1989 was the same year that Nirvana offered a similar noisy record in Bleach, but Tin Machine sounds like fake plastic punk in comparison. The record was influenced by Sonic Youth, but ended up sounding like Sonic Middle-Age.

Another reason behind the ill-fated project was to distance Bowie from his record label, EMI. Their relationship had reached breaking point by this time. As a result this was the last Bowie release to appear on EMI; the second Tin Machine album and all future original projects would appear on other labels. It could have backfired hugely though, if the record had been a hit; hence the lack of decent material. Bowie surely wasn’t going to let this succeed.

It’s a shame really. Guitarist Reeves Gabrels is a monster of a guitarist, and the Sales brothers on bass and drums are obviously a decent rhythm section. And of course that blonde chap on vocals can definitely sing. I take the record out for a spin once a year or so, but it doesn’t get any better sadly.

Hit: Heaven’s In Here

Hidden Gem: Working Class Hero

Can You Hear Me Major Tom?

Bowie 1
I heard a rumour from Ground Control, oh no, don’t say it’s true…

The world has lost some of its magic. Absolutely heartbreaking. It’s been almost a week now but I’ve been so upset about Bowie leaving us, that I’ve only just managed to start putting everything into context. Let’s start at the beginning…

When I was 9 my parents took me on a weekend trip down to London. Manchester might only be a train ride away from the capital at the other end of the country, but to me it felt like the other end of the world. London is so different to the rest of the country; it never feels like you’re in England. Down there you’re just as much a foreigner as all the other tourists.

One highlight of the trip was a visit to an attraction called Rock Circus. An extension of Madame Tussauds, this was essentially where they put all the rock n’ roll waxworks. Elvis, next to Michael Jackson, next to Buddy Holly, next to the Rolling Stones. You get the idea. It doesn’t exist anymore. I guess they decided that London had its share of celebrity waxworks at Tussauds.

At the end of the exhibit, we were ushered into a small viewing room. Everybody sat down – maybe twenty of us – and the lights dimmed. The familiar orchestral tune-up of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band started, the curtains opened, and there they were, the Beatles themselves. Well, obviously it wasn’t them; it was their waxworks, dressed in the fluorescent military garb from the front of the Peppers album cover. And just like that iconic image, they were flanked by endless rows of cut-outs of the Beatles’ heroes.

They roared through that opening track as much as you can expect a bunch of mannequins to. Their jaws opened and shut in time with the vocals, and to this 9-year old it looked pretty damn good. They probably segued into With A Little Help From My Friends – I can’t remember – but they finished and everybody clapped and cheered.

The curtain closed, and a minute later, a quiet acoustic guitar faded in. I now know it’s a C major going to an E minor, and back; but I wouldn’t have known that then. Then the curtains opened again, the scene has changed to a starfield in outer space and there’s some oddball – a waxwork again obviously – slowly spinning around in a spacesuit, with a bung eye and crazy snaggleteeth.

‘Ground Control to Major Tom…” he sang.

Ladies and gentleman, my introduction to Mr. David Bowie.

Bowie 2
I next ran into Bowie a couple of years later. At secondary school we had to go out into the big, bad world to do some work experience. I landed a job at a small engineering firm called B.J.Engineering. BJ engineering? Isn’t that what pimps do? It was the kind of place where they send the student to the local hardware store for a long stand, or to the sweet shop for a bag of clitoris drops. Thankfully, I didn’t suffer any such pranks; but for two weeks I had to answer the phone, saying “Good morning, B.J.Engineering, can I help you?” There’s nothing like starting at the very bottom.

On my first day, the foreman of the place went to the bookies on his lunch-break, and returned excitedly with a music cassette. It was a new album – Changesbowie – that had just come out that day. At home time, he offered me a lift to save me from the bus-ride, and the new cassette went straight onto the car stereo. I recalled the first song on the compilation – Space Oddity – from the London trip and the foreman’s enthusiasm for this weird looking singer planted a seed.

I then caught a great drama on the BBC in 1993 – The Buddha Of Suburbia – and noticed that the music for the series was performed by David Bowie. This guy is fucking everywhere, I thought, and he’s still relevant.

Bowie 4I started off with The Singles Collection when it was released in 1993, and I’ve been working my way through all of the individual studio albums ever since. I first got into the glam-rock Bowie (The Rise And Fall Of Ziggy Stardust And The Spiders From Mars, Aladdin Sane), then I turned backwards to the singer-songwriter Bowie (Space Oddity, The Man Who Sold The World, Hunky Dory), then forward in time again to the strung-out on cocaine Bowie (Station To Station), onto the Berlin Bowie (Low, “Heroes”, Lodger), then to his early ‘80s pop reinvention (Let’s Dance).

These days I tend to jump all over the place. A little bit of Stone Love here, a little bit of Speed Of Life there, followed with that hypnotic bass line from Let’s Dance. Lately, I’ve been listening a lot to Seu Jorge’s studio sessions from The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou. For the uninitiated, this is a great collection of Bowie covers by Brazilian musician Seu Jorge, played on a Spanish acoustic and sung in Portuguese. They’re wonderful interpretations – abstract yet ambient; even Bowie himself was a fan. “Had Seu Jorge not recorded my songs acoustically in Portuguese I would never have heard this new level of beauty which he has imbued them with,” he is quoted as saying.

As a guitar player it’s the guitarists I tend to categorise Bowie by; and what a choice! Who do I want to listen to today? Mick Ronson? Earl Slick? Carlos Alomar? Robert Fripp? Nile Rodgers? Stevie Ray Vaughan? Absolutely incredible – what a roll-call! Bowie and Rodgers were in the crowd when Stevie Ray Vaughan played at the Montreau Jazz Festival in 1982, and despite seeing Vaughan booed off stage by the festival’s purist attendees, they still went backstage and offered him the gig playing on the Let’s Dance album.

My friend Vini and I would joke endlessly about Bowie’s music video for Be My Wife. His demeanour and actions in that video prompted many a drunken impression back in the day. That’s definitely the strung-out on cocaine Bowie right there. It’s like he’s doing an impression of himself. It would only be a better impression if Phil Cornwell from Stella Street was doing it.

Bowie 5
In January 2011, the 7” of Be My Wife even made an appearance at my wedding. My wife and I also put a nice CD together of all of our favourite songs to give away to people as a memento, and we included Wild Is The Wind on there as it’s a song that we both love so much. It’s nice that Bowie was part of that day.

The first person I thought of when I heard about Bowie’s death was Adam Buxton – from comedy duo Adam & Joe. Their enthusiasm for anything Bowie-related is legendary (they even did a nice little song about Bowie’s appearance in Labyrinth) and Buxton is such a super-fan, even taking Bowie as his specialist subject on Celebrity Mastermind, that my first thoughts were that Adam & Joe would never get to interview him.

(As a sidenote, it’s probably Adam & Joe’s fault that I love Ashes To Ashes so much. I had almost written the song off – I’ve never been fond of nursery rhyme style lyrics – but their love of the song opened up its world of magic to me. There is a lot going on in that song, both musically and lyrically, that it never gets old.)

Bowie 7Mark Twain once said ‘When a man loves cats, I am his friend and comrade, without further introduction.” I feel the same way about Bowie – it’s just one of my natural instincts. If you love Bowie, then I automatically like you. How can any self-respecting muso not dig what he does? He subverted and crossed so many genres, he is his own genre. When I listened to rock, I listened to Bowie. When I listened to metal, I listened to Bowie. When I listened to punk, I listened to Bowie. When I listened to electronica, I listened to Bowie. When I listened to soul, I listened to Bowie. When I listened to jazz, I listened to Bowie. When I listened to blues, I listened to Bowie. Whenever I take a break from listening to music, I still listen to Bowie! I have a great Bowie t-shirt that says everything you need to know: “There’s old wave. There’s new. And there’s David Bowie…”

The surname has always been a subject of debate. Born David Robert Jones in Brixton in 1947, he changed his name to David Bowie to avoid confusion with the Monkees’ Davy Jones. The surname comes from the Bowie knife – that’s why it’s Bow-ie to rhyme with snowy, not Bow-ie to rhyme with Maui. Let’s try to get it right from now on.

There are so many moments that endlessly go around in my head. Like the story about celebrities being afraid to perform on TV with Bowie after Bing Crosby and Marc Bolan both met their end after duetting with him. Or the time that Bowie introduced the famous famine clip at Live Aid. Or the time Bowie serenaded Ricky Gervais on Extras: “Pathetic little fat man…”

Bowie 3
I once found myself in the Auckland Wintergardens, standing on the very same spot that Bowie had stood, being reprimanded back in 1983’s Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence. We should never forget that he was a great actor – and could have filled the screen with great performances had he not concentrated on music.

Back in my days playing Delta 7, I used to do a cover of Ziggy Stardust during our acoustic set. It was probably my favourite Bowie song back then. Around the same time, I was lucky enough to see Bowie headline on the Sunday night at Glastonbury. His band started playing the opening bars of Wild Is The Wind, and after a few minutes, Bowie sauntered out in a palatial, quilted gold coat that looked like it had been sewn with the pubic hair of angels.

Bowie 8
Surely he wouldn’t play Ziggy Stardust, I thought; he’s just here to play the hits. But my friend Vini was adamant: “He’ll play it!”

Bowie thundered on through the set – all the songs you’d expect – but still no Ziggy Stardust. I had resigned myself that he wasn’t going to play it, but first song into the encore, there it was, that crashing G chord. Usually, I leave the festival in a funk as I don’t want to go back to the real world, but that year I left a very happy man.

Bowie 6

My only photograph of Bowie from that evening.

A couple of years later in another band, we used to rehearse on the top floor of an old mill in Manchester (Sankey’s Soap for those who remember). We used to be able to hear the Bowie tribute band in the room below our doing note-perfect renditions of songs like Five Years. I never actually saw the band, but the music was so spot-on, I’m glad I never did. It would have spoiled the illusion.

One of my favourite punch-the-air Bowie moments in recent years was attending the New Zealand premiere of The Cove in Auckland, with director Louie Psihoyos in attendance. I challenge anybody to find a more apt use of a song than Heroes on the end credits of that film.

Bowie 9In light of Bowie’s death, Psihoyos posted the following message on Facebook: “David Bowie could have charged us tens of thousands of dollars to license “Heroes” for The Cove – we didn’t have that kind of money – but one could dream. Pop songs by superstars like him can license for 6-7 figures. He made his publishers take the absolute minimum they would take and we were charged nearly nothing for that song. Rest in peace Mr Bowie, you are my hero.”

Last week, when the news broke about Bowie on Monday night, comedian Jimmy Carr was playing a stand-up show in Auckland. The news broke during the intermission. Now this is tricky ground – an offensive joke from Jimmy Carr is as sure as death and taxes (pun very much intended), but he treated the situation gracefully: “Looking on the plus side we’re all a little cooler now as the coolest man on Earth just died.”

I’m going to give the last word to a member of a vinyl group I’m a member of on Facebook, Bernado El Masiosare. It’s a popular sentiment we’ve heard before, but in this case it seems very appropriate:

Whenever you’re sad, just remember this world is 4.5 billion years old and you were so lucky to live at the same time as David Bowie.

 

Bowie 10

The last photograph of David Bowie, having fun promoting Blackstar on his 69th birthday.

Rocks In The Attic #445: The Cars – ‘The Cars’ (1978)

RITA#445A debut from 1978, just like me! It’s hard to listen to the Cars these days without hearing their effect on that other incredible debut album from Weezer, which Cars’ vocalist Ric Ocasek produced in 1994. Just listen to that synth part in Just What I Needed – it’s Weezer’s Blue Album all over. In fact, you wouldn’t be too far from the truth to label Weezer as the Cars Mark II. Remove the crushing geekiness of Rivers Cuomo, and change the lyrics to something that girls would dance to, and you’ve got the Cars all over again.

Elliot Easton, the Cars’ lead guitarist once said “We used to joke that the first album should be called The Cars’ Greatest Hits”. He’s right – it’s that good. I have the Cars’ Greatest Hits record – and there’s not much in it between this debut and that compilation. In fact, this debut is a lot stronger than some bands’ greatest hits records. The Car’s Greatest Hits just has a few more mid-80s hits like Drive – the song that will forever be linked to that unforgettable video that Bowie introduced at Live Aid in 1985.

Hit: My Best Friend’s Girl

Hidden Gem: Bye Bye Love