Tag Archives: David Bowie

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?

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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

Rocks In The Attic #362: David Bowie – ‘Let’s Dance’ (1983)

RITA#362This was a great return to form for Bowie. After making a run of great albums the general public would have considered to be ‘a bit weird’ (the Berlin trilogy), it might have seemed like he’d disappeared up his own arse. His first album after those records, 1980’s Scary Monsters (And Super Creeps), proved he still had hits in him (in Ashes To Ashes and Fashion), but it wasn’t until Let’s Dance in 1983 that he returned to the mainstream wholesale.

Let’s Dance has always been one of my favourite Bowie songs. It has such a groove to it that you can’t help but swing your hips. That cod-Beatles intro might put the song into dangerous territory, but when the main riff kicks in, there’s just so much space in it. Even if you take away Nile Rodgers’ lovely guitar work, I could just listen to that bassline on a loop over and over. Of course, you also have a nice blues guitar courtesy of Stevie Ray Vaughan – one powerhouse guitarist clearly wasn’t enough for Bowie in 1983.

Nile Rodgers and Stevie Ray Vaughan are both such heroes of mine, that this really is a treat of an album for me. Even on something like Without You, Stevie Ray’s subdued blues licks in the background give the song a texture that would have otherwise been missing had Bowie only used Nile Rodgers on the record. Similarly, you can’t imagine any of the album’s big singles – Modern Love, China Girl and Let’s Dance – without Nile Rodger’s chicken-scratch, machine-like groove.

Hit: Let’s Dance

Hidden Gem: Without You

Rocks In The Attic #231: David Bowie – ‘The Rise And Fall Of Ziggy Stardust And The Spiders From Mars’ (1972)

RITA#231I used to rehearse with my band in Sankey’s Soap in Manchester on the same weeknight that a David Bowie covers band would rehearse in the room underneath ours. I never saw them in person, but it was always nice to listen to them through the floor when we were packing up. I remember one time listening to them do a rendition of Five Years, the slow-burning opener from this album, and it sounded very, very good. As though a 1970’s David Bowie was in the same building.

This album remains a firm favourite of mine, and depending on my mood, I’ll choose either this or Hunky Dory as my favourite Bowie album. I think the songwriting is better on that earlier album, but the different dynamics that this album delivers is mind-blowing – one of the defining albums where ‘60s rock n’ roll turned into ‘70s rock.

In 2000, I was at Glastonbury on Sunday night awaiting David Bowie to walk on the Pyramid stage. It was one of the best gigs I’ve seen, mainly because Bowie isn’t a proficient tourer, so it was always unlikely that I’d have the chance to catch him again (and to this day, I still haven’t).

All through that show, Vini and I were wondering whether he would play the song Ziggy Stardust. Covering this had sort of become my signature song in my band at the time, and to see him play this would have been a moment to remember. He played most of his hits (he has too many to fit into a 2-hour show), and by his last song – a version of Under Pressure – I had given up hope.

After a short break, Bowie walked back on stage for his encore, and the guitarist crashed into the opening chords of Ziggy Stardust. Vini and I erupted in cheers – a great festival moment.

Hit: Starman

Hidden Gem: Five Years

Rocks In The Attic #200: Radiohead – ‘The Bends’ (1995)

RITA#200The 200th post in this blog celebrates an album that is probably more important to the development of my musical tastes than any other album in my collection.

In the early ‘90s, when I discovered music for myself – and discovered bands like Aerosmith and AC/DC (that I couldn’t care less if other people liked or not) – I was very much into rock music. I naively thought all other genres of music were a waste of time. I either liked contemporary rock, or classic rock, with a touch of metal and grunge thrown in for good measure.

I then went to University, joined the Rock Society club and found other like-minded people. The rest of the time, I would be drinking in pubs with my classmates, usually dressed in an AC/DC or Led Zeppelin t-shirt, with my shoulder-length long hair; and my classmates would be dressed like normal people. Ugh, who wants to be normal people?

Around this time, and from the time I started listening to music, Indie and Britpop were my enemy. This is partly the fault of the hype surrounding Oasis, and partly the fault of those normal people all around me, like the red-headed chick a year above me in college who just couldn’t fathom that I wasn’t going to the big Oasis gig at Maine Road later that night. Britpop was a club that I didn’t want to join, full of bands like Pulp, who sang about twee nonsense whilst mincing around a stage littered with kitsch charity-shop junk. “Jarvis is really a fantastic social commentator,” I would be told. That’s strange, I thought, he looks like a collector of chintz, singing mediocre songs, backed by a band of average musicians.

(I guess that’s the point I still agree with today. If you listen to rock music, you tend to listen to a better pedigree of musician. The lines have blurred completely, because rock music is now so mainstream, and has been for the past decade, but when I think back to the 1990’s, the Indie or Britpop bands were full of musicians who just couldn’t really play. Noel Gallagher may have started off as a decent songwriter – although it pains me to say it – but his skills on the guitar are very basic. Listen to him solo and he plays the same pentatonic scale every single time. Compare him to somebody like Slash, and there’s just no contest. You may think it’s an unfair comparison, but players like Slash aren’t that uncommon in rock music.)

Anyway, I digress. So, there I am at University, in my second year I think, and it’s getting a little tired listening to rock music all the time. It’s not like I had run out of rock bands to listen to, but there was definitely nothing decent that was coming out by contemporary bands. Bright young rock hopes like The Wildhearts had lost their way and gone all industrial, and Terrorvision had gone completely mainstream, singing about Tequila on Top Of The Pops every week. Then one day I was in the Scream pub in Huddersfield, and somebody put Just by Radiohead on the jukebox.

My whole outlook on music changed instantly. Here was an Indie or a Britpop band, playing something that was just as musically interesting as anything that I had heard in rock music – either in contemporary rock music or in classic rock. I rushed out and bought the album straight away.

Just was clearly the best song on the album, accompanied by a great music video, but there was some other really good stuff on there too. I very quickly bought Pablo Honey (average, but with a couple of highlights) and OK Computer (overrated, but with a couple of highlights), but The Bends remained my favourite (and still does to this day).

The rest of my years at University were spent digesting everything I could by Radiohead. I even remember buying one of those cheaply produced interview discs with the band, just because my appetite for anything related to them was so strong.

Their lasting effect on my musical tastes is impossible to quantify. I made a huge left turn from my existing staid music collection, and turned almost wholeheartedly into Indie and Britpop. I started listening to some bad examples of the genre (Cast, Space, Bis, etc), but found plenty of modern classics there too (The Las, Blur, Supergrass, etc). This eye-opening led to a decision that I’m still in two minds about today. In the summer of 1999, I decided against seeing Aerosmith headline a day of rock bands at Wembley Stadium, in favour of travelling to my first of many Glastontonbury festivals.

I guess it was just bad timing, but I still partly regret not seeing Aerosmith that weekend. One of my friends went to that gig, and when he told me about the setlist they played, full of ‘70s classics they had avoided playing in the three times I had seen them up to that point, I immediately started kicking myself. But then when I think back to Glastonbury 1999, and all the bands I saw not only that year, but every year I went back up to and including 2007, it’s not really a fair comparison.

If I had seen Aerosmith at Wembley Stadium in 1999, I would have seen my favourite ever band, supported by the likes of Lenny Kravitz (who I was lucky enough to catch that same weekend at Glastonbury) and The Black Crowes (who I still haven’t managed to see live). By deciding to go to the Glastonbury festival that year, and over the next six Glastonburys I went to, I managed to see David Bowie, Radiohead, R.E.M., Manic Street Preachers, Suzanne Vega, The White Stripes, Super Furry Animals, Oasis, The Who, Paul McCartney, Muse, Doves, Coldplay, Air, The Chemical Brothers, The Bluetones, Fatboy Slim, Kings Of Leon, Moby, The Killers, Blondie, Amy Winehouse, and a whole lot more.

Radiohead almost lost me with OK Computer, but they definitely lost me after that. At one point, I remember seeing them play a live gig on TV, I think to promote Kid-A. At one point during the set, Jonny Greenwood took off his guitar and walked over to a bank of portable TVs. He crouched down and started flicking through channels as part of the performance. That’s it, I thought, they’ve turned into something else.

I liked Radiohead as a guitar band, when they used to write songs on guitars. I’d even be brave enough to say The Bends is the best album of the 1990s.

Hit: Street Spirit (Fade Out)

Hidden Gem: Bullet Proof…I Wish I Was

Rocks In The Attic #176: David Bowie – ‘The Man Who Sold The World’ (1971)

One record on from Space Oddity, and a notable step closer to Hunky Dory, but Bowie’s songwriting here is still maturing.

It’s odd that this album sounds quite a bit heavier than both Space Oddity and Hunky Dory, with a rock sound closer to the Ziggy Stardust album. It reminds me of the way the first couple of Queen albums are all heavy sludge without any particular attention to melody.

For an album with no singles, the title song remains the most well-known song – and I guess Nirvana are partly to thank for that. It’s a great song, with an odd timing, similar to Andy Warhol from Hunky Dory.

This record also marks Bowie’s first partnership with Mick Ronson and the start of the band that would go on to become The Spiders From Mars.

Hit: The Man Who Sold The World

Hidden Gem: Black Country Rock