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David Bowie: Fleeting Moments In A Glamorous Career
(It's not how long you make it...)
by Ron Ross - Phonograph Record Magazine (October 1972)
With not so much as the Ed Sullivan Show, Shindig or Hullabaloo, a Winky Dink screen or a fifth-Spider like Murray the K to add grease to his glitter - wham glam thank you ma'am - David Bowie, essence of Tutti Frutti and Trendiness Incarnate, candid darling of those who would boogie on till they play NASHVILLE SKYLINE over and over and over again, has come to America, to turn young dudes into mama-papa space invaders, young women into funky thigh collectors of electric dreams, and experienced music biz executives into lovers (of sorts).
In this year of David Bowie Superstar, his obstensively fatal twenty-fifth there are those who think him a hype, though to Marc Bolan, wash-out wizard of the unfulfilled promise of bopping mania and once Bowie's "only friend in the business" David is "not big enough to be bitchy about. I could see Rod Stewart." Something is happening here and you don't know what it is, do you droogies? Well come along, this mid-tour wrap-up will be a ray-gun to your head.
David Bowie is the Face of 1972 whose pictures you may have seen more often than you've heard his music. Having released no fewer than five albums in the States on three different labels with each album presenting a completely different facet of what has become a fascinating succession of images and intuitions about rock and what people want from it, Bowie is constantly the ironic victim of the accuracy of his own forecasts.
In 1967 on Deram, he was a pop singer who won corny awards for his Newley-ish collapse of a love song, "When I Live My Dream", and wrote an album track about veterans who hung around playgrounds, but Cat Stevens hit with "Mathew and Son" and David was aced. He quit altogether, found a Buddhist monastery, joined a mime troupe, and came back with "Space Oddity" on Mercury in 1969, the summer of the first manned space flight to the moon. The record met stiff opposition from patriotic Top 40 outlets who didn't like the idea of Major Tom opting for outer space. Bowie himself refuses to fly over water and won't stay in a room higher than the fifth floor of a hotel. His first producer was the ubiquitous Mike Vernon who made the first famous Mayall, Savoy Brown, Fleetwood Mac, Ten Years after, etc etc etc records; just the guy to get into bouncy bits like "She's Got Medals", about a dyke who joins the army and escapes from a fatal bomb raid by strolling out of camp the evening before as a lady of the night.
His producer on Space Oddity was Gus Dudgeon and the arranger Paul Buckmaster, the team that would later bring us Elton John, but it wasn't in the stars for David to break in America at the time, despite the tune's top five popularity in England. By 1970, when The Man Who Sold The World was released on Mercury without producing a hit single of any kind, Bowie had a new manager but no agent. 1970 was thus not a year when too many had the opportunity to get to know David or his music for that matter which was unfortunate because now Tony Visconti (the mix-master behind T-Rex's hits) was on the board and bass, and David was HEAVY. He'd enlisted Mick Ronson on lead guitar and Woody Woodmansey on drums, the core of his recent band, and was writing existential and bruising electronic things about Saviour Machines, lobotomy, pathological murder, and other light subjects. The music was spectacularly hearing in the best Cream/Hendrix/Zeppelin tradition, and altogether a departure from his Man of Words/Man of Music, Dylan cum James Taylor stance which was the only time our karma kid ever verged on the sentimentality absurd. M.W.S.T.W was hard to take in its high energy, but consistently so without any embarrassing lapses of self assurance. Apparently hot love on white swans was more what English teens in the know had in mind.
Back here, at Mercury's home office in Chicago, publicist Ron Oberman who had met Bowie in London even before "Space Oddity", was impressed with David's quiet sentimentality coupled with what seemed incredible self-confidence and ambition. Oberman decided that if David wasn't to show himself on stage, a sure way along with not having a hit single to die a death, that he'd better get his charm in gear with press and radio people in the US. A tour of Washington DC, New York, Philadelphia, Chicago, Los Angles and San Francisco could not really hope to break M.W.S.T.W. but Oberman saw such a promotional visit as an investment in the future. He worked out a similar trip for Rod the Mod when the Star-To-Be was between Beck and the Faces, so Mercury was not a loss for talent rockers those first months of 1971.
Bowie played it straight for the Eastern part of his trip; doubtedlessly he was feeling his way around the country he'd never been to before. By the time he hit 'Frisco he'd picked up a couple of dresses and some undeniably omnisexual social techniques, impressing the ever-alert John Mendelsohn as enough of a kindred spirit to warrant a very to the point news story in Rolling Stone. Six months later The Man Who Sold The World was a two buck cut out, and Rod Stewart was getting ready to follow Cat Stevens and Elton John into happening-ever-after-land.
Now in the summer of 1971, a most peculiar and relevant chain of events went into motion. Bowie's manager Tony De Fries brought over to the States four tracks from the hopefully soon to be released LP Hunky Dory, since The Man Who Sold The World, David and Mercury had parted company to the mutual relief of both, and Bowie was once again "available". David's American trip hadn't all been thrills and chills, in New York he'd been ignored at a folk club where he'd asked if he might do a set, and there were still parts of the country that found a young man in a dress something other than elegant. So De Fries wasn't taking any chances: he waved Hunky Dory before a lot of itchy A&R ears. Among those first interested were the folks in the United Artists Records Creative Services Department. Upon hearing the initial tracks presented for Hunky Dory (which included "It Ain't Easy", a tune by Ron Davies that failed to make it on Hunky Dory but did show up on ZIGGY, and BOMBERS which has still to see a commercial release). What took place subsequently is unclear, but UA's Bill Robert's describes it this way.
"Mike Stewart (UA President) and Tony agreed upon an equitable deal and we proceeded to draw up contracts. Before they could be signed Bowie apparently received an alternative deal from RCA with greater revenues. Marty (Cerf) and I were both crushed but that's show biz buddy."
The alternative deal was with RCA Records and in the alternative office of the frivolous Dennis Katz.
The Closet Opens
Dennis Katz, a lawyer who affects penny loafers and velvet bow-ties after the manner of Ray Davies cherished an ambition to make RCA something more than a distributor for Elvis Presley and Jefferson Airplane products, and in one short year he perhaps recklessly but idealistically signed Lou Reed, The Kinks and David Bowie to the recording company of a corporation that makes its profits selling defence technology to red-blooded American heroes. It was all quite fitting, if not exactly calculated to sell any of Trendy Triumvirates discs. But although De Fries had a lot of offers, Katz really wanted Bowie even though he heard nothing from David but those few HUNKY DORY tracks, because good golly Miss Molly, RCA's the last place anybody expects to find a rock n rolling queen bitch, and shock tactics were part of his master plan. De Fries wanted a company that wouldn't tell him too much about what to do with his boy, a company where David would stand out and receive the maximum amount of specialised and hit-hungry attention. The Machiavellian net drew tighter around the protagonist.
So HUNKY DORY as produced by "actor" David Bowie and engineer Ken Scott, presented a blond tressed androgynous Bowie that any movie goer could love, and classics like "Changes", "Andy Warhol", "Oh You Pretty Things" and "Life On Mars?" drew an immediate and enthusiastic response. Unfortunately, many of the reviews were by long-standing fans who had been waiting for their chance and, like the various record company people with whom Bowie would become involved, they were a little too anxious to presume that which they had been the ones into all along. Much of what was written about David was terribly insidey, and but for Richard Cromelin's definitive piece, taken from an interview he'd done with Bowie during the promotional trip, and published in Phonograph Record Magazine last January, there would still be little detailed factual information available on Bowie's career. After another six months of journalistic hoopla, Bowie still had no act, no hit, and no sales to speak of, although "Changes" had gone to top ten in Boston, and of all places, Memphis, due to the efforts of an extraordinarily dedicated and together group of radio and retail people. To RCA's amazement the album didn't sell though proportionate to the airplay the single was getting where it was played; it was as though they were trying to market a poetry book.
There was however, a David Bowie Society*, put together around 1970 by a lovely boy from Cleveland named Brian Kinchy who thought it would be nice to get in touch with "the kind of people who were into Bowie" Long before HUNKY DORY, Brian's letters were an important source of information about Bowie, taking great care to list additions to the discography, alternate versions to different tracks, and all the enticing rumours that make following an obscure artist worthwhile. Brian lives within bicycling distance of Jack Springer, founder of Move Society and a fan supreme. That people were getting to know each other through loving his music paid David a greater compliment than all the "Album of the Year" picks he could put into the "so what" file; by your fans ye shall be known.
*The David Bowie Society has grown in recent months to a total of 63 writing members. And more are coming together daily...
Just before RCA indicated that breaking him internationally was a matter of life and death to any number of its executives, Bowie was contradicting himself every time he gave an interview in England. At one point he'd say, "I don't study (rock) much, and I'm not a follower of anything much. I never wanted to consider myself in the rock business too much", this from someone who had already had a smash single in England, put out more than half a dozen less successful singles, made three albums and quit the biz twice, both times presumably for good. Then again, "I can only face this business if I'm totally involved in it, and I can't do that if it is boring and takes itself seriously. How can anybody be a serious pop artist at 24?" Note the consistent references to the "business" of rock and roll.
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---This page last modified: 13 Dec 2018---