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Go away, Sir: getting Bowie wrong again

January 14, 2010

Reviewing a re-release of David Bowie’s pre-glam, pre-Ziggy, pre-acceptable work in today’s Guardian, Alexis Petridis makes all the usual unnecessary distinctions between Bowie’s “false start” in the sixties, and his better-accepted work from Space Oddity onwards. This dismissal of Bowie’s early songs is one of those conventional opinions that should set alarm bells ringing, signaling a misapprehension or Bowie’s, well, Bowieness – like when people think the best example of Bowie on film is Labyrinth.

Personally I adore Bowie’s sixties work – as Petridis mentions (albeit as condemnation) there’s a lightness and an uncool camp (which is, of course, much more truly camp than the heroic bi-boy posturing of Ziggy Stardust) being played out. He might have considered that the creeping childishness of songs like There Is A Happy Land usually verges on the unnerving. Here, the “happy land where only children play” is a place founded on uncomfortably absolute moral distinctions — “You’ve had your chance and now the doors are closed, Sir, Mr. Grown-up. Go away, Sir” — which pre-empt the mirror utopias/dystopias in, say, Soul Love, Station To Station, Scream Like a Baby, to name just a few.

Part of the commendable weirdness of Bowie’s 60s work is that it really has nothing to do with the “the teenager”, a phenomenon which, in this decade, had really been perfected as the ideal audience for pop music. In these songs, there are adults and there are children, and there are adults who befriend children (The Little Bombardier) or choose to remain as children (Uncle Arthur). When Bowie did go on to write about teenagers (Drive-In Saturday, Young Americans, Teenage Wildlife), cool youth was always a foreign, distant thing.

In a way, I would argue that Bowie’s heroic / iconic phase (the period beginning with Ziggy Stardust’s earthlanding in 1972 and breaking apart with Station To Station in 1976) is the real aberration. This is the period where Bowie chooses to momentarily perform above the inherent awkwardness of his early work, but this awkwardness returns with added nausea for the terrifically uneasy Berlin trilogy. It’s quite possible to imagine the early Bowie singing Be My Wife or What in the World. Of course Bowie’s sixties songs are at times embarrassing (“agonising” is the word used by Petridis) but nuanced pop music probably should be embarrassing, at least in part.

Even in these few years Bowie / Jones was shifting his identity left right and centre, from Edwardian music hall star to folk child to unconfirmed mod – and then there’s the ghastly abstract concrète of Please Mr. Gravedigger. Remember that Bowie’s late-60s records were made right under the very audible influence of mime / choreographer Lindsay Kemp, without whom there would have been no Ziggy, no Thomas Jerome Newton (though he probably still could have done Labyrinth). I suppose what I’m really suggesting is that even at this stage, the mutability of Bowie was already in full effect, so it makes little sense to root through the catalogue and separate the iconic from the awkward.

3 Comments leave one →
  1. CP Trigg permalink
    January 15, 2010 12:51 am

    Old Petri dish can always be relied upon to get things precisely wrong. I’ve no idea why the British media establishment views him as a kind of Cappuccino Kid for our times.

  2. 79km permalink
    January 16, 2010 2:29 pm

    His reviews of Madonna’s Hard Candy and Primal Scream’s Riot City Blues were funny though.

    Great point about how “Bowie’s heroic / iconic phase […] is the real aberration”. Latter-day albums like Earthling, Buddha of Suburbia, Heathen are all closer related to Bowie’s sixties work than Diamond Dogs.


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