Tag: David Bowie

Doctor Who: The Early 1970s, The Third Doctor and Velvet Aspirations

Doctor Who and the 1970s

Third Doctor Twelfth Doctor

40 years on from the demise of his third incarnation, the Twelfth Doctor’s arrival looks like it will not so much reverse the polarity as boost the popularity of the dandy Time Lord of action. But as the new Doctor may ask, could the real question be how important the 1970s are in the future of Doctor Who?

IN THE 2013 CELEBRATIONS OF ALL THINGS WHO, IT WAS THE SECOND DOCTOR’S STOCK THAT ROSE THE MOST. As the major casualty of the BBC’s catastrophic episode pulping, we’ve been robbed of the majority of his stories. True, some of them have earned a heightened classic status through their disappearance and the hope of their discovery, but for the most part appreciation for the Second Doctor hung on memory and some key rediscoveries like The Tomb of the Cybermen.

For his recorder toots to rise higher in the mix, especially in 2013, something major would have to happen. And fortunately it did. The rediscovery of two of his lost adventures, one long-craved, and the demise of the Eleventh Doctor – the one successor who owes Patrick Troughton’s cosmic hobo the most, unexpectedly pushed him to prominence.

So, with wrangles on the ‘rediscovery’ of further lost adventures ‘possibly’ ongoing and the Eleventh Doctor left on the Fields of Trenzalore, perhaps it’s only natural that 2014 is turning into the year of the Third Doctor. Series Eight brings us one of the largest shake-ups of the new era just as 1970 brought a brave new world of colour and a format sea change when Jon Pertwee’s Time Lord fell through the TARDIS doors… Continue reading “Doctor Who: The Early 1970s, The Third Doctor and Velvet Aspirations”

Glastonbury: Memory of a Wet Festival

Glastonbury Festival Cow 2005

 Glastonbury Festival Cow 2005

Nine Years since I was last at Glastonbury… It was so darned good I’ve never really felt the need to go back…

Yes back, back to 2005…

SUNDAY 29TH JUNE, AND THE DUST OF WORTHY FARM HAS BEEN WELL AND TRULY SATURATED AND CHURNED BY THE SHUFFLE OF A MILLION WELLINGTON BOOTS.

Strangely, many people seemed to head down yesterday, the Saturday.  By that time the moat of cars would be at peak, blissfully ignoring the threat of long exit queues mashed with mud trenches that will hit them tomorrow. I wonder how many not at all remotely incongruous Bentleys will be stationed on a slope, asking of everyone who passes how long their handbrake tension actually is (consensus: less than three days).

It’s nine years since I was last at Glastonbury and I’m fairly confidently that was my last (in a never say never type way)…

Road Trip

The festival had slumped under regulation and reality

It was an inauspicious start nine years ago.  We had a Thursday arrival as usual, but people were already surrendering to the Glasto week, filling up the site by Wednesday.  By the time we arrived after some rather marvellous Bowie and Beatles harmonies on the road, most pitches had been laid.  The half-hearted attempt to camp near The Glade or somewhere close to that enchanted inner land was blocked.  Turned away several times, and rather burdened by my insistence we only make one trip, we were already behind.

Tired and mottled, it was to our piebald cousins, the cows. The gravel path leading up to farm gave refuge, although it wasn’t ideal.  A lovely, somehow lonely view of the Pyramid Stage, but otherwise just a little less magical and a little more corporate. Cash points beeped not too far away.  Same as it ever was.  The festival had slumped under regulation and reality at the turn of the century.  In 2002 the super fence was unveiled, bringing horrid connotations and two undeniable facts: One that the free festival was over or if it wasn’t , Glastonbury definitely was. The other, that it would never really be the same again.

The Wall Change

I was near an ice cream van

The year that followed the wall was noticeably empty, probably to the tune of hundreds of thousands.  Worse, the crowd, whether uncovered by new found space or simply reflecting a new paradigm, was heavily corporate. City boys taking notes for their next Hedgestock.  It was inevitable that the photo cards would follow, then the hour sell out.  In 2005, was already difficult. I managed to secure tickets with the help of a 56k dial up modem. It was painful. I was lucky…

As usual, Glastonbury isn’t sold on acts. They are almost entirely announced after the tickets have sold out and of course it’s possible, if not encouraged, that you spend the whole festival without seeing a single slice of live music. There’s more than enough going on to hide that away.

I’d been many times before. From the odd state of affairs when Skunk Anansie headlined the 20th century to someone catching Keanu Reeves bass with an apple (and hitting the perfect E). From Roger Water’s huge quadraphonic blackmail and apparently the greatest gig I’ve ever been to, Faithless (that was according to NME – I was near an ice cream van).  Of headliners, from REM to Air, Rod Stewart’s mandolin and football mash up and of course, Bowie’s peerless return in 2000 (Now, that was the greatest gig I’ve ever been to).

Calm Before…

I fell asleep to slight growls of thunder

A first evening at Glastonbury should always involve a trip to the Sacred Space.  Pre-2002, this was a classic place for all sorts of course – punctuated by daring and generally successful attempts to break over the minor wall before The Wall. Obese and neon security bumbling after wiry gatecrashers.  This time, aside from the odd panda car struggling to climb the mud perimeter, there was little of the old.  And perhaps it was the change of atmosphere or earlier camping disappointments but the evening ended in disharmony.

I sat at the Sacred Space for a while, kept company by some cigarettes.  As I left, the night had stolen the purple skies and it was impossible to see the heavy clouds it hid.  I took the long return to the Big Ground and as I walked, large rain drops hit my shoulder. I fell asleep to slight growls of thunder, fully certain that this Glastonbury wouldn’t be a classic.

That it rained overnight was undeniable.  But I woke, late to fairly clear skies.  The day before’s recriminations had gone of course, today was festival day. But the problem was it was already late and we’d missed. It was the year following John Peel’s passing and the Buzzcocks were to kick off the Pyramid Stage. We couldn’t hear them, but we were already well into that.  There was little to comment on the weather, from people or announcements. Phones were limited, Facebook still not massively adopted. It was a fair walk to get The Glastonbury Free Press, which this year has every adjective available for download.

What was strange was the path running down to near the Pyramid area which was now a stream.  Looking out from our rocky outcrop there wasn’t much to see, but in fact we were missing everything and absolutely nothing.

Muddy Ragnarok

Heimdall had sounded the advent…

That thunderstorm had wreaked merry japes overnight, with direct lightning hits knocking out several stages. Radio 1 was down, flash floods had soaked my original camping choice with four feet of water and the first three bands on the main stage had been cancelled. Our camping solution was suddenly wise, our lateness forgotten.

Suddenly, the year defined by Kylie headlining then not headlining had something a little more traditional to worry about. Heimdall had sounded the advent of a muddy ragnarok.

That’s the thing with Glastonbury. In the indent of the valley, too much sunlight creates a dust bowl which is quickly stirred into mud by just the merest dash of lightest rain. Perfect for the English summer in other words. Fetch some strawberries.

Mud skating is easy to gain proficiency in – and by far the best way to get around. For once, the reduced numbers were a bonus.  Many were conducting salvage operations in newly found lakes and there was no temptation to sunbathe and relax at the Jazz Stage arena.  But most of all, when Glastonbury, with cynically overpriced rain attire packing out its markets, heads for the mud, solidarity is the only way forward. If you get stuck, it’s likely there’s a stranger opposite you who’s also stuck. Force and equal force, equal and opposite attraction. That’s what it’s all about.

Endgame

An inebriant with the lightening flexibility of a thousand Neos

I stayed pristine for two days, with expertly attached surfing bin liners on each foot.  That is until Saturday night, when sneaking past New Order I fell into a crater. To great cheers.  From then it was all bets off, an unrecognisable long-haired golem in a Kleenex tee-shirt.  Still, after that plunge there was still an epic journey to undertake – to the freshly minted John Peel Stage – through an obstacle course of mud and hay bales.  And so fuelled by that same solidarity and six litres of hallucinogenic pear cider I set off.

It was perilous. And by my return, after heckling The Magic Numbers (inadvertently and constantly) the mud stretch back was almost unbreachable.  And to my eternal credit, I missed Coldplay headline a festival once again.  At one point, amid fits of uncontrollable laughter, I reached for support on a railing of clothes, all bundled up for the night. The result was an inevitable reconstruction of The Matrix Reloaded burly ball scene, as thousands of green screened monster merchants filed out to save their merchandise, trying to lamp an inebriant with the lightening flexibility of a thousand Neos.  At least that’s how I remember it. There are absolutely dazzling photos of that Saturday that I am officially barred from showing anyone but most involved parties.

And then, on the Sunday the sun came out to burn the zombiefied gathering.  Hair still caked with mud, the sun beating down I headed to the Pyramid Stage just as a festive Brian Wilson, decked in a typical Hawaiian shirt, introduced Little Saint Nick. All the people reminded him of Christmas he said. Strange days indeed,

Yes, 2005, that was a good year. Although I expect this year to be hailed the best, as is customary, Glastonbury now fits so well as a separate BBC blanket brand it’s difficult to see the appeal of heading back.

Nah, I think I’m done with that.

David Bowie: Can’t Get Enough of that Doomsday Song: Bowie & The Next Day

David Bowie The Next Day

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A review of sorts of the original creation, as the extended edition of Bowie’s most successful album in two decades is released into the streets and alleys.

AN ALBUM COVER WITH A MORE FAMOUS ONE REMOVED.

Or is it covered up?  It’s a blatant statement with a fair splash of Duchamp, but it represents a whole lot more.  This is Bowie playing on and with the past, and that monochromatic statement is an ideal set-up for the album itself.  An album that is, after all, called The Next Day.  Many concepts were dreamed up in pursuit of the ideal cover and now the success the album has inevitably spawned an extended edition with something a little more complicated on the cover; the square has become a cube (though it’s not called The Next, Next Day or any variant on, sadly).

The original album sits rarely in the Bowie portfolio by not, really, featuring his face – not that it isn’t even more noticeable by its absence.  Of course Bowie’s never got criticism for his photoshopped selfies, because he was doing them way before the words Photoshop or selfies landed on the planet. But he’s always been one of the more integral workers in the field, slavishly pioneering and pushing identity and image with every album as he fell through genre after genre.  And through it all, there’s always been the eyes – surely his most definitive trait amongst the chameleon; effortlessly adding the otherworldly- although only sometimes a manipulated version of the truth, and only a minor facet of his act – even now.

The Tracks

Sight and vision, and particularly eyes, come with added impetus in the video for The Next Day, the title track that blistered fingers as it tore from the traps as the album’s third release.  In the promo, Gary Oldman’s priest enters an ‘establishment’ with a woman carrying her eyes on a plate.  The link of course is St. Lucia, the martyr whose name is linked with the Latin word for light and who’s predilection for proffering her own eyes on a dish is directly lifted.  The Patron Saint of the Blind endured a particularly brutal martyrdom. After rejecting a pagan bridegroom she was condemned as a Christian and sentenced to be defiled in a brothel.   When she was saved by dint of being so filled with the Holy Spirit she was otherwise untouchable, she was tortured and either lost her eyes in the process or removed them herself to preserve her virginity…  The details have become lost…  Particularly in the eyes of Catholic critics who missed the reference.  Although, surely no one can miss the rather tongue in cheek send off in the highly figurative film.

Concepts of early Christian martyrdom tie heavily into The Next Day song, a storming opener for an album that was introduced by the wistfully deceptive trawl to the past Where Are We Now?  That is perhaps the most explicit link to Bowie’s 1970’s Berlin era on the album, as the cover would suggest, but certainly not the only one.  The mid to late 70s riddle the first half of the album, like an old friend and deceptively savage reminder at the same time.

As an album opener, The Next Day is a blistering example of old/new Bowie: a far more effective beast than has been evident since his drum ‘n’ bass days.  The title track is a deep dark trawl through the latest tomes that have fascinated Bowie, as was supposed when the album was announced.  It’s the messy travails of a medieval tyrant, with its first person not-quite-a-chorus allowing a punk screech and one of Bowie’s best vocal performances on the album. From its final call to action of ‘Listen’ – identical to the warning on Low’s Breaking Glass, it sets up a disconcerting agenda for an album that surprises and hits you in the face with its relevance. Religious and historical ties abound, and more overtly pagan than Christian, but tied up in an impressive tense-twister.

The Medieval tyrant and finger pointing at Catholicism in the video may seem simple, but the anti-war songs, ongoing examination of aging, high school shooting constructs and celebrity take downs that it sits among are certainly not.  It’s a cohesive package all the same and, of course, the album is underlined by romance that has flowed in and out of Bowie songs all his career – whether they name check Crowley or The Buddha of Suburbia.

The Next Day propels us into second track Dirty Boys, a different kettle of fish – or perhaps riot kettle of fish.  A brass beat propels a song that trades youthful civil disobedience for Caesar’s famous cry at the Rubicon.  But what challenge is the singer undertaking in crossing that river?  Running with the Dirty Boys may well be a call to get back into the mix or a statement that he still is.  Either way, the tremendous almost award stopping success of The Next Day has brought him back in.  He’s more relevant than simply repeating Caesar’s statement before crossing a forbidden river, but it’s clear that should he get back to the warm safety of Rome, he’s going to stay icy.

The Stars Come Out Tonight is a gleaming Bowie classic, that’s almost too classic, too Bowie.  It had the honour of the long-form video (combined with bonus track Plan) probably for that very reason.  The chord structure recalls some of the lighter touches found in his previous three albums.  A decade later, he’s found a way out of much of the light if haunting synth that was often found there, but he’s still retained the Bowie formula.  To describe it as Bowie tackles celebrity piece is a disservice.  For every Brad and Kate he name checks, the video shows that it’s all about Bowie.

Next, Love is Lost – released at The Mercury Prize hosts a disarming and unsettling video that cost a rather brilliant $12.99.  Here the synth beats of lost trilogy between Hours and Reality is back, but it’s more distorted. More vital.  Bowie’s back to the awkward, tragic youth name-checked on Reality’s title track, and is a far cry from the calls to action of his the songs that once opened Hunky Dory.  There is darkness behind the song – but while it’s awkward and rightfully discordant, it’s also a great lament for love.   It may seem one of the least referential tracks on the album, particularly the 70s focussed first half, but the remix video sets that straight.  Starting off with Bowie near a sink as in the Thursday’s Child video from the late 90s, it moves on to a puppet that unmistakably has a Thin Whiteness about it. Similar to the Where are We Now? video, Bowie’s singing face is projected onto an avatar, but this time a puppet version of the Pierrot clown from his Scary Monsters phase.  Along with the Ashes to Ashes refrain in the remix, included on the Extended edition, brings the 1980s rather joltingly into The Next Day, but it works.  The fixed, jarring beat of Love is Lost and its tortured attempt to rationalise aging by contrast sits well on the album, sliding seamlessly into its most retrospective song, that first single Where are We Now?

In the album, it reminds why it was an extraordinary come-back song.  It’s now a gentle reminder of the shock announcement in early January that the chameleon was emerging from isolation.  That emergence wasn’t as much of a surprise as its sure-footedness…  Like the song itself, it was brilliantly extraordinary.

When Valentine’s Day was released there was little controversy.  Perhaps the papers were asleep or reeling from The Next Day’s religion–baiting.  Or perhaps the song’s spiky riff and “sha la las” – the Elvis-era kick-on he’ll never give up – just slipped it beneath the sensationalist press.  A simple video for a challenging subject, most noticeable is Earl Slick’s guitar, finely piqued and so nearly recalling his legendary work on 1976’s Stay.  It’s a closer production, but again shows that The Next Day buzzes urgently between Station to Station and the Berlin era albums in the latter half of the 1970s.  There may be puns, but they’re pointed and the light lyrics carry biting sentiment, especially in light of his adopted country.

If You Can See Me signals a half-way change.   Musically, it’s either something that Bowie’s pushing or working out of his system.  Recalling his various dance experiments, but perhaps more the jagged discordance of Lodger, it’s overwrought and brilliantly uncomfortable. Crescendo’s crash out of little, but  its searing lyrical sneers pave the way for the album’s real relevance.

When the 21st century kicks in, the 70s retreat a decade.   “I’d rather be dead or out of my head than training these guns on those men in the sands” Bowie sings on I’d Rather Be High.  Its repetitive rhythm is slightly militaristic, clashing hypnotically with a psychedelia – one that can’t help recall the Vietnam songs that surfaced as American rivals in his formative career.  Peaking in the bridge, his pleaded first person crawl back to 17 years old sits uncomfortably with the song’s modern upheaval.  In fact it’s a little odd, effectively odd.  this album isn’t about comfort.

Things get darker and simpler with Boss of Me, another song that wears its slight modern Americana on its sleeve.  Here Bowie again reaches for imagery of the sky again – a common theme in the album – but beneath the bitter sweet romance and sense of companionable hope, cities burn.  It’s one of the dark and rhythmic hearts to the album.  As usual, there is the hint of biography built on giant battlements of imagery.  The mellotron piping and melodramatic lyrics hand it middle eight of the album for me, again recalling the sixties.  Notably, the co-writing credit for such a brass heavy song goes to Gerry Leonard, the latest great guitarist of Bowie’s acquaintance.

Dancing Out In Space recalls famous pop pilgrimages with its nautical,  allegorical beginning.  The kind of stuff that enriches The Beach Boys’ Smile or laid down a mythic base for The Klaxons’ early promise.  The quest returns as Bowie finally makes it back to space.  But while he’s broken through the sky, this is no Fantastic Voyage.   The rush to the first chorus seems a little quick, but in a stripped down album, Dancing plays a big part in its central hope. it’s also somehow a bit dad at a wedding via the Big Bopper.

The discordant peak is claimed by How Does the Grass Grow?  It’s Boys Keep Swinging revisited once again, that song once so blatantly aped by Blur and remodelled twice by Eno and Bowie.  Here however, it’s merged with the Shadows’ classic Apache.  But the occasional Pin Ups covers project that Bowie’s kept rolling through his last couple of albums is gone.  Instead, he brings a new streamlined raucous version of Apache to the heart of the song.  A rather horrid almost-a capella, it’s could be the sneer of a man happy to be alive. But things aren’t right.   Apache is more western than ever, but this time the boys are lying lost…  The graves are back amid the repeat “Blood, blood, blood”.

If The Next Day represents anything, it’s the return of Bowie the lyricist.   I’ve a soft spot for what I’ve termed his forgotten trilogy, but the decade away has clearly been kinder to his lyrical sentiment.

In the past week, Lou Reed’s passing inevitably turned me back to Transformer and then almost naturally on to Iggy Pop’s work with Bowie in the 70s.  I couldn’t helpt he transition.  Bowie was supposedly rather in awe of Iggy’s ability to improvise at the microphone, but there is a huge strength in Bowie’s clinical precision, with its insights and implications and intellectualism.  That’s where the relevance lies in this album.  Between those two masters, Lou Reed’s lyrics and delivery are the perfect mid-point.  In How Does the Grass Grow?, four and a half minutes reveal a number of startling lyrics, from gazing in defeat at the stars and the feeling that “returns with the day”.

(You Will) Set the World on Fire advances the political agenda, but again linking back 50 years to the early 1960s with a huge number of direct references.  Spiky and searing, it’s once again Slick powered.  Next, You Feel So Lonely You Could Die returns to the beginning, nearly nicking a line from a song the hero he shares his birthday with: Elvis’ Heartbreak Hotel.  A march powers the ballad before sinking into an exit beat lifted straight from Ziggy Stardust’s Five Years…  It’s an extraordinary composition.  Although ostensibly one of the simplest, it’s production is pure stadium.  It’s not only a companion to Rock And Roll Suicide, but a song where Bowie can once again powerfully visit that ‘room’.  The one that’s blue, blue electric blue…  Or indeed the one where he’s been breaking glass… It’s long been a room of bloody history and needs to be in this album. It’s the room full of questions, and here he’s leaving more than ever.

Heat provides the album’s powerful closer. Harking back to Heathen’s closing Sunday, this is a more obscure prayer structure, filled with imagery, allusion, and confusion… Theatrical, and open-ended, the faux-biography whine of ‘My father ran the prison…” falls away into “I am a seer and I am a liar”.  Said it before, will say it again:  Repeat until the next album.

The Bonus

Bonus tracks on the original release Deluxe Edition show that The Next Day‘s quality wasn’t restricted to the album’s 14 songs.  In fact, the album’s leanness makes the bonuses a delight.  So She is a captivating nursery rhyme, with its heavy nautical themes and killer chorus melody.  Here the skies are sleeping at last while hope arrives courtesy of the other half of Scott Walker that Heat ignored.  Plan, the curtain raiser to the album’s second single is urban, 21st century spin on the Low’s Speed of Life. I’ll Take You There is a compulsive guitar track that provides a far more fitting album close.  From the clearly established opening, “Today, today is the 1st of May” this track – again co-written with Leonard – moves from crashing and catchy lament to a call to action and yet more questions.

The Vital

Solid openings, heavy percussion, the rock in rollicking – that’s the lifeblood of The Next Day. Megalomania sits there more often than not, from tyrants to contemporary mass murderers, brought into focus by biting guitar and changing tenses.  If it’s untroubling for Bowie to portray these characters it can’t simply because he enjoys the controversy baiting; their reflections are all too easy to make out.  The relevance and rage that sits alongside is incredible considering the average age of the album’s contributors and that this is the first album Bowie’s produced in his 60s. It’s loud and tinged with blood.  It says far more important things than many young bands’ debut releases, and maybe that’s the point. What’s happened?

Is it the equal of Berlin?  Is it the greatest rock comeback of all time?  Those are questions that some reviews posited.  The answers need to settle alongside the questions.  It may be one, either or both – but there isn’t a short answer.  It’s an album riddled with death as much as vitality.  It’s prickly and live.  It’s vital.  that’s it’s most important statement.

And of course…  Poets often wait to hear what subconscious findings others dig out of their work.  I’m sure that Bowie’s no different.  The appeal of his previous albums, his forgotten trilogy that concluded 10 years ago, wasn’t simply drawing resignation. There was always a room next door he’d written something awful in.  Our room.  Listen.

Read more about David Bowie’s Forgotten Trilogy here.

David Bowie: The Forgotten Trilogy

Space Jokertoon

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As The Next Day is released, a look back at one-named little wonders: Hours, Heathen and Reality

FIRST THINGS FIRST: THERE IS NO SUCH THING AS A FORGOTTEN TRILOGY IN DAVID BOWIE’S BACK CATALOGUE, THERE AREN’T EVEN MANY THINGS RESEMBLING A TRILOGY.  Of the most famous, the sublime ‘Berlin trilogy’ of Low, Heroes and Lodger, only Heroes was completely written, recorded and mixed in Berlin.

But that album, relatively shorn of a persona, may well be the most famous, the most influential, the most definitive Bowie album.  So much so, it’s no surprise that Bowie’s first album in a decade, released this week, modifies/obscures the cover of that 1977 albumIt makes even more sense considering the album’s first single clearly harked back to those Berlin days.  There is no doubt that much has happened in the intervening 36 years but Bowie would never again match his 1970s work rate – a period that once made him wonder if he had ‘overachieved’.

So, the forgotten trilogy?  A trilogy out of nothing.  But it just so happens that the first review I read of Bowie’s new album The Next Day remarked that it was his best album since 1. Outside.  A strange claim in the normal mix of things, but framed in the classic Bowie critique it’s as good as comparison as any; referring back to an abstract point in his back catalogue that has no doubt improved with age.  Legendarily, every album following Bowie’s commercial success, but critical slide, with Let’s Dance was declared ‘the best thing he’s done since Scary Monsters (and Super Creeps)’.  In this review it was 1.Outside – not a bad album – but when fairly bundled with the following Earthling, it manages to totally exclude Bowie’s late 1990s and early 2000s work.  Rather harshly in fact.

While Bowie albums are rarely one genre, they tend to be described by their predominant genre – Young Americans may be soul while Earthling is drum ‘n’ bass.  But between Earthling and 2003, when Bowie started his 10 year break, he actually released three albums. The assumption is that these may not be so easily recognisable as his previous work, potentially even forgettable and so lend themselves to be conveniently written out of history.  It’s always harsh.  By making a trilogy out of them, I myself am conveniently writing out the 2001 All Saints album of collected instrumentals.

So it’s unfair but convenient to wrap the three albums up as the forgotten trilogy – a wonderful jumble of nostalgia and retrospective with I’d say more than one classic Bowie song between them.

Hours: The Last of the Dreamers

Hours surfaced in 1999, and may be my most listened to Bowie album simply by dint of it hitting my first year at University, and fresh into my discovery of Bowie/post-Art School haze.

Hours’ opening track, Thursday’s Child, sets the tone of reminiscence, with rather haunting backing vocals from Holly Palmer pushing up to a duet at points.  It’s subdued but effective, no doubt a side-effect from its origin, as with much of the album, as a soundtrack for the video game Omikron: Nomad Soul.  A neat throwback to Bowie’s recent closeness to touring partners Nine Inch Nails, contributors to games such as Quake, videogames seemed a perfect step for Bowie.  In the previous two years Bowie had refinanced his back catalogue and issued Bowie Bonds while diversifying on the web and now he was forging forward with videogames.  Bowie had always, unsurprisingly, been tech-savvy – reportedly sending his first email in the early 1980s – and games were a neat fit, Tony least culturally.  Not only that, Hours was the first album to be released in its entirety as a download before its physical release.  “Thursday’s Child has far to go” but is still ahead of the curve.

Of course, the result had to be a little obtuse.  Rejecting his recent working methods of sprint writing and recording, Bowie alongside guitarist, former Tin Machiner Reeves Gabrels, settled in Bermuda to write the album.   The result was, despite its brilliantly crazy cover and trend setting technology, Bowie’s most straightforward album for a long time.

Second track Something in the Air harks back to its revolutionary namesake in name alone, although the reference is not lost.  As with much of the first half of Hours, Bowie talks from the past and present about what may be a past or fading love affair or metaphor for any facet  of his career.  Where he has danced too long, he may be referring to his endless attempts to reconnect and win new fans, now or at any point of his career.  “I guess I never wanted anyone more than you”.  In the later songs, he seems to be calling to his muses, particularly in second single Survive.  “Where’s the morning (sic) in my life?”  he asks.  “I’ve got ears and eyes but nothing in my life”  – the muse may be gone…  Or she or his critics remain with their naked eyes on him.  Bowie recalls razzle-dazzle clubs every night while wishing he sent a valentine – but to who?

The result is rather melancholy first half, culminating in Bowie asking if he’s Dreaming all his Life – grasping at the memory of his muse; asking if it was “air she breathed”.

By What’s Really Happening, grunge had replaced the romantic softness of the earlier songs, but the questions haven’t stopped.  A song later Bowie returns to the Pretty Things, this time stating that they’re going to hell – which just might be one of the best titled songs in his career – but this time there’s an edge of mistrust and deceit, a far cry from the revolutionary mock-chastisement of the song’s 1971 near namesake. The riff of Pretty Things Are Going To Hell is glorious while Bowie starts to provide a few answers: “I am the blood in the corner of your eye” indeed.  Prolonged instrumental intros soon take a turn for the Heroes, and when Bowie surfaces he sings about the Angels of Promise once again, this time in discordant chorus.  Brilliant Adventure then delves into the orient, a long held interest surfacing again while drawing up memories of his previous Fantastic Voyage and other Berlin work.  But this is not the Bowie of the 1970s.  Where he had once blurred ‘Lennon’ and ‘Lenin’, Bowie now muddles ‘shallow’ and ‘shadow’ In Hour’s TS Eliot inspired climax; upbeat music and downbeat lyrics.

Bowie’s reasons for such a retrospective at this point remains unclear, but this Bowie is by no means passive.  While 27 years earlier, he sang of five years to live he now speaks of Seven Days.  Seven is a key number linked to the spirituality that the album is steeped in, helped along by the auto tuning, the light synth hangovers and Gabrels guitar from his previous two albums.  It’s better sculpted and more unified than other albums a decade either side, but in the Bowie universe that can equate to bland.  This album was the first of Bowie’s since 1972 not to breach the US top 40, but its significance was to be more obvious in the following years – notwithstanding several reissues.

Of course the clue was not only in the name of Hours, but also its cover.  Among pastel geometric shapes, Hours era Bowie cradles a possibly dead Earthling era Bowie in homage to La Pieta.  Bowie had transformed once again, but had he properly disposed of the retrospection?

Heathen: Have I stared Too Long?

No, clearly not.  Perhaps Hours wasn’t long enough, perhaps not hard enough – but within three years he returned with a new album of retrospection.  This is a good thing, because out of a tumultuous few years, Heathen emerged magnificent.  The intervening time saw the commencement and then abandonment of the Toys album, his self-proclaimed Pin-Ups II.  The resulting fall out with his studio, perhaps led to Heathen’s harder edge.  But probably more key was that Bowie had fallen back in with Tony Visconti.  Not only the producer of the “last good Bowie album” Scary Monsters but involved in much of his legendary 1970s work.  Work on Heathen had also started in the same studios as Philip Glass had used to record his versions of Bowie’s Berlin masterpieces in the early 1990s – an auspicious start.  Clearly Bowie was intent on harnessing the past, much as he would again 13 years later.  “Out in space, it’s always 1982” he sings in Slip Away.

Surrounded by the religiously, gothic, Walkeresque parenthesis, Heathen’s body is an outstanding run of songs.

Just as Bowie had stepped in to help his heroes earlier in his career, so he reasoned in the early 2000s that in times of trouble he would look at his peers and inspirations.  If that’s true, Heathen really is an example of greatness coming from adversity.  This is Bowie at one of his most collaborative, with alumni of The Who, Nirvana and King Crimson making guest appearances. Perhaps as an extension of Toy, Heathen contains three covers, a scintillating version of the Pixie’s Cactus, the Legendary Stardust Cowboy’s I Took a Trip on a Gemini Spacecraft – which returned Bowie to space in a well-fitting spacesuit – and a cover of Neil Young’s I’ve Been Waiting for You with Dave Grohl blistering on guitar. The departed were present as well.  Afraid, is a twisted and rippingly great riposte to Lennon’s God.  Bowie was still competing even if he felt too old to appear in a video.

Bowie is still paranoid, perhaps even more so, but also angrier about impending old age and the inevitability that it would take from him his newly found familial stability.  By Everybody Says Hi – a throwaway, but sweet song – he’s seemingly at dotage.  Even if a song later he’s demanding a better future, backed by a Christmas tinkling.  There is no doubt about Heathen‘s depth.  “From factory to field how many tears must fall.  Down there below… Nothing is moving”

Far more atheist than the agnostic Hours, Heathen  still raises more questions than answers.  Far removed from the glam or literature of his past, the album builds perfectly to its sublime close, Heathen (The Rays).  A simple lament, and one of Bowie’s best.  Were that something agnostic could be beautiful, for this would be a prime example.

The overall result is an album every bit as good as it’s artwork –one of his best covers.  The quality and tone is such that it’s no coincidence Bowie chose to duet Heathen with Low at point of the album tour.  It’s that good an album, let alone a companion piece.  Hours had shown the effect of Bowie’s mastery of drum loops and drum ‘n’ bass, but here they reach a new maturity – kept in check by someone in full control, with a deeper, more visceral and atavistic argument than Hours’ sometimes obscure spirituality.  Partially aided by the failure of Toy, which allowed some songs additional time to grow, most thanks must go to the newly re-fostered relationship of Visconti and Bowie.  They again crafted one of Bowie’s best.

Responding to the obvious questions about its contempraneity, Bowie replied that many of his albums could have been seen as reflective to an event like 9/11.  It’s true that the album was recorded before the terrorist attacks in Bowie’s adopted hometown, but certainly provides a deeper spiritual experience than its immediate predecessors.  New York and a change in his attitude to promotion would surface a short time later.

Reality: Back where I started from…

Pounding back on a schedule, Bowie resurfaced just a year later with 2003’s Reality.  After little fanfare for Heathen but a fair tour with what he proclaimed to be his strongest ever band – Reality was a return to the stadiums.  It had been a while.  As the title suggested, this was Bowie at possibly his most straightforward.  Alas, it would be a stadium album for a stadium tour that would finish him off for ten years.  I saw him at the start of the tour, then near the end.  In Birmingham he was blinding, wheeling out the lovely Days was a nice and unexpected touch – but by the Isle of Wight, I was surely suffering Bowie fatigue.  That is not to say it wasn’t stupendous – he even wheeled out the full Station to Station.  Suitably amazing, but weeks before he had to call time on his biggest tour for years.

A cartoon Bowie adorns the cover of Reality, not the religious heretic of the earlier album nor the old Bowie crossed out 10 years later on The Next Day.  Anime Bowie was the figurehead of a more powerful live rock.  Some of the ambiguity found in Hours was fading, Bowie even suggested that Reality was a “sense of New York”.  This was his true response to 9/11 (most notable in the stinging Fall Dogs Bombs the Moon) and he was taking it out on the road.  Big time.

The songs were accessible, the lyrics retaining a tension after Heathen.  Words mangled in this new world, from its blistering opening New Killer Star through to covers that were again cunningly chosen.

At the time Bowie was wisely cherry picking his back catalogue.  The start of the century had seen him as long haired as Hunky Dory, with a suitably elaborate coat.  Now the hair was styled and foppish, the clothing more regular, as he wheeled out Rebel Rebel as his universal anthem.  He even released it on an album bonus disk alongside Queen Bitch.  The 1970s were writ large, but he was no slave to them.  While his covers were less, they were carefully selected.  I remember a critic at the time wishing that Bowie would end his extended Pin Ups project.  However, in Reality as in Heathen they’re seamless.  In the latter, The Modern Lover’s Pablo Picasso sets a simple statement while recalling Bowie’s own Andy Warhol on Hunky Dory in spirit.  It sets the New York tone intended.  Later on, Bowie picks up the ‘All things must pass’ lyric at the end of Heathen, by covering George Harrison’s Try Some, Buy Some.  And a rather marvellous waltz it is too.

Never Get Old – the theme to that Vittel advert, surely has one of the most simplistic bass scales ever heard in a Bowie song, but then it’s straightforward shouty pop.  Looking for Water recalls the thumping rhythm lines of his 1970’s work, including Boys Keep Swinging, whilst retaining Reality’s  general discordance.  Two great middle-eights set this album for me, the lament on the brilliantly understated Days – the more Hours-like song on the album, if not in production terms – and then that of the title track, a blistering and stadium rock tune full of references to bowie past.

If Bowie remained spiritually agnostic to a point from Hours running into Heathen, here Bowie seems to be testing his own grit and direction.  At points he is introverted , possibly verging on actually  being that Loneliest Guy or singing the haunting avant-garde closing track for eternity.  In terms of this, diversifying the tunes and sending the show out on the road seemed a fair response.   Defaulting to the dark as standard throughout his career, recent new parenthood may have affected Him, but he has said before that he generally approaches similar subjects from different angles throughout all his albums.  Reality was another example.  Alas it was to end sourly, but still after 10 years away from the studio, there was to be The Next Day

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