Around 1981 David Bowie must have decided it was time to cash in. Fair enough too. He was famous, but not rich. After a string of trailblazing albums and performance personas, a rocky personal life and a disastrous management situation it was time to go out into the world and rake in the kind of money commensurate with The Name and The Reputation.
He made Let’s Dance, a slick, enjoyable pop record that shone only faintly with the subversive, haphazard brilliance of the albums that preceded it. He got his teeth fixed, slipped into a 1980s suit and, like a latter day Sinatra, crooned his way around the world. The album and ensuing Serious Moonlight tour were huge.
The fascinating and intense creativity of his previous work was bleached from this clean cut 1980s Bowie. The tour drew on a catalogue that was eclectic, odd, misshapen and not necessarily your bog standard stadium fare. I saw the show in Melbourne. Without an edgy concocted persona we were left with a slightly removed performer; but what a collection of songs!
A recent documentary (David Bowie: Five Years) attempted to rehabilitate this era of the Bowie oeuvre. I suspect it was the Bowie Myth Making Entity (whoever that is these days) attempting to knit Let’s Dance into the 1970s artistic narrative when that story was already over.
Looking at the publicity images from the David Bowie is exhibition announced today at the Australian Centre for the Moving Image (ACMI) in Melbourne (to be held next year) I see nothing representing the Let’s Dance Bowie. This is not to say that material from the confused 1980s Bowie is not amongst the 300 or so items that comprise the collection that was first shown at London’s Victoria and Albert Museum. Let’s face it; it’s the ’70s stuff we really want to see.
Constructing a narrative for the constructed artist that is David Bowie is a major part of engaging with and enjoying The Work. Hard-core Bowie-o-philes are forever arguing amongst themselves about the finer details. Bowie knows this and has often slyly fed into the myth-making. David Bowie is just might be part of this process.
Bowie burned brightly for roughly a decade, from Hunky Dory to Scary Monsters (and Super Creeps). Early albums (the aforementioned Hunky Dory and The Man Who Sold The World) were an artistic prequel. While the brilliance was already in evidence, Bowie was a bit of a guitar strumming hippy and hadn’t become artistically sure-footed. The real revolution began with Ziggy Stardust and the exhibition appears to lean heavily on this era.
Rock’n’Roll, through the efforts of performers like Iggy Pop and Jim Morrison in the late ’60s, had tapped into a potent energy that anarchically liberated the ‘self.’ Ziggy totally exploded the notion of self. Self became an amorphous, androgynous, contrived persona. While the Californian artists of the time sang indulgently of themselves, there was none of that hippy shit here. Bowie was interested in what lay beyond the edges of ‘who we think we are’; male, female, hetero, bi, earthling, alien. Bowie invented a character. The visuals came from diverse European and Japanese sources. The music and lyrics aped American jive language and gestural idioms (but with the strangeness of an alien – an Englishman abroad). The removal of the need to express an authentic self gave the work an intense focus and created a whole new aesthetic space within the rock idiom. Famously, at the height of Ziggy mania, Bowie retired the character, cut off the orange mullet and gradually became obsessed with soul music.
This transition manifest, partially, in public on the Diamond Dogs tour of the US in ’74. The fans expected the glam rock spaceman. Instead they got the evolving Philly-influenced, blue-eyed soul sound that converged on Young Americans, and the birth of a new character; the Thin White Duke.
The marketing of Rock demands consistency – stick with a sound and a look for five years (50 in the case of the Stones). Here was an artist following his muse on the fly. In this phase Bowie’s work, while still mannered, became more fluid, his process far less rooted in the tradition of ‘sitting down with a guitar and writing a song’. He began to record bed tracks and figure out what the song was later. By eschewing conventional techniques Bowie’s underlying sensibility was set free.
Bowie began to transit out of American idioms on Station to Station, eventually moving to Berlin and making three albums (Low, Heroes, Lodger) that expressed themselves in more chilly, European terms. The Berlin trilogy, as it came to be known, was only partially recorded in Berlin.
Here Bowie, in collaboration with Brian Eno and producer Tony Visconti, wholeheartedly embraced non-conventional songmaking processes. It was a retreat from pop stardom into experimentalism. There were mood-infused instrumentals and lyrics devised using the cut-up technique co-opted from William Burroughs (examples will appear in the ACMI exhibition). Conventional rock tropes were reconfigured: guitars sounded like symphonic glaciers or angular noise shards; snare drums sounded like depth charges. ‘Always ahead of the game’ (a cliché often applied to Bowie and part of the Bowie Narrative), he anticipated the experimentalism of post-punk and invented the ‘80s drum sound.
This experimental triptych diminished Bowie’s commercial worth but increased his artistic reputation. The subsequent Scary Monsters album in 1980 brought the experimentalism into the mainstream. The stunning single, Ashes to Ashes, featured the reappearance of the character, Major Tom, from the 1969 song Space Oddity. Ashes to Ashes and Space Oddity bookended a remarkable decade of creativity. Even at the time I felt David Bowie was saying ‘I’m signing off now – over and out.’ The dreadful (for all of us) ’80s ensued and Bowie didn’t begin to rediscover his artistic mojo until the the mid ’90s. The publicity material for David Bowie is skips over the ‘80s to an image from the cover shoot for the 1997 album, Earthling. So goes the Bowie Narrative.
Real rock music fans don’t just love an artist’s work. They love the actual artist, or at least some idea of who they think the artist is. This requires fans investing in a notion of the ‘authentic artist’. Bowie is interesting in this regard. He was concerned with process and aesthetics and in no way sang about, or represented his own experience. Authenticity was not an issue. But there’s a real frisson in his ’70s work that goes beyond its sheer inventiveness. Bowie, to a certain degree, lived those invented personas. Squint and he really was an androgynous alien, a bleached-dry coke fiend and a dis-associated European recluse. On the 1982 Serious Moonlight Tour he reprised a piece of staging from the 1970s for the song Cracked Actor. This re-enacted schtick-with-a-skull routine lacked the visceral danger of the 1974 Diamond Dogs tour where he looked intense, wasted and bled white. David Bowie was experimenting with form, aesthetics and persona but I suspect he was also experimenting with himself and we can hear and see the danger in his work.
About 18 months ago, unannounced, Bowie dropped a new album on us: The Next Day. The song Where Are We Now? resides in an imaginative state of cloudy reminiscence and descending dementia. It’s a stunning evocation of ageing and dimming consciousness but also an example of Bowie returning to his own Bowie Narrative. The subject of the reminiscence is Berlin, the city where he made, but didn’t make, the Berlin Trilogy. Ah, David Bowie is … at it again.