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The David Bowie Story
Jane Birkin made some sexy oohing noises, backed up by some heavy-breathing and her BBC-banned sage of love Je T'Aime was another one-off disc that hit and was never followed up. Nothing much more happened until the end of 1970 when David Bowie did his bit to change the style of contemporary pop.
David's breakthrough came in the charts dominated by Bob Dylan, Johnny Cash (A Boy Named Sue) ... ironic title that, in view of what eventually was to come from Bowie ... and there was Creedence Clearwater Revival, later to be reduced in numbers, and Karen Young singing Nobody's Child, an American-based song about a blind kid at an orphanage. A touch of the religious with the Hare Krishna Temple - and a monumental example of the one-hit making business in Zager and Evans who got to number one with their In The Year 2525, but were never heard of again.
As David Bowie entered the charts, so the journalists flocked to see him and find out what made him tick, musically-speaking. It wasn't quite as easy as they might have thought, specially those brought up on a diet of asking teeny-booper questions and getting, let's say, frivolous answers.
Actually Bowie was no stranger to the somewhat contrived art of the pop interview. In his early days when he'd shown promise round London clubs as a bluesy-jazz musician, various management figures had tried to get him publicity. There were few "biters" but at least David knew the score.
He was twenty-two then, with an ill-matched pair of eyes. One was surely a pale shade of blue, while the other - would you believe? - was something of a brisk shade of green. Was that normal? Was it perhaps unique? Maybe the story should be sent to the doctors trade paper, the British Medical Journal, rather than used in a pop paper.
David admitted his enthusiasm for Bob Dylan's work, and he nursed a theory that his own voice was rather like Dylans would have sounded had the American folk star been born in London. David's Dad had died but recently and that was a tragedy made all the sharper by the fact that he would never know how his son had made so much progress in pop music.
We all could see immediately that David Bowie was an idealist and one who reacted in a most friendly way when his ideas were accepted. He had been deeply into the so-called underground and he'd become disenchanted, because he'd come to realize that people should actually DO something to improve life, rather than just sit around and talk about what should be done.
Some pop experts wondered if there wasn't just a bit too much coincidence in the release of Space Oddity at around the same time as most of the rest of the world was sitting up all hours watching an actual moon-landing on television. However David said: "A lot of my inspiration did come from the film "2001" but I can't say it was the real be-all and end-all of the song. I just think that the spacemen do have that kind of feeling."
Have no doubt that David Bowie did have confidence in the record and he knew that it would enable him to make more personal appearances and get his real personality across. That's not to mention a decent amount of money so that he could feel secure in "doing his own thing" as the saying went.
The only worry: people were writing about how good-looking and sensitive David was, and at the same time we were believing that the era of the "pretty-looking" pop star was over. David once said: "For four years now, I've been a sort of male equivalent of the dumb blonde. It's not a good thing to be, not if you're a musician and not a male model. If it's your looks that attract people, then the chances are they'll take no notice of your music."
But he did have the knowledge that his act on a big nation-wide tour was going well - and that his Space Oddity feature was greeted with rapturous yells. It was quite a tour, that. It was the first one topped by Humble Pie, comprising Steve Marriott, late of the Small Faces, and Greg Ridley, and Jerry Shirley and Peter Frampton.
Now Peter Frampton was also a very good-looking guy and also a good musician. He could have told David, warned David, of the hang-ups always present when people concentrate too much on your sparkling teeth and handsome features ... and get to forgot that you're laying down some very good music too.
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"The Face of 1968" they'd tagged Frampo. And Frampo took as much of the situation as he could and then promptly retired to get himself together musically. He didn't actually contemplate plastic surgery on his face to develop a well-worn, live-in look ... but he wanted out of the pure teenybopper scene which in the end threatened to stifle him.
That tour opened at Coventry Theatre, a plush new theatre. They had in Sean Kenny to do the "changes" - that is the stage production - and he was a giant of a name in the "legitimate theatre". But he clearly enjoyed himself in what was presumably the "illegitimate theatre" and introduced a huge white elephant (specifically manufactured) to add a little colour and life to the proceedings, and it was admittedly quite effective when its tail exploded in a space-rocket scene filled with blue throat-searing smoke.
It was - and this is seared into the memory - a very loud show indeed. Not perhaps the best showcase for David Bowie who then was working alone, except for his guitar. His acoustic act thrown in, as it were, might have died a most terrible death. Instead, David captivated the audience on that opening night. He displayed his charm, his talent and his ability to control an audience.
We knew we were in the presence of a superstar of the future. We really did - and even if we were kept waiting of a couple of years or so, the real believers honestly didn't lose faith. Does that sound like so much rubbish, built on a hindsight view? Well, you know what liars we are in pop music!
The impressive thing, though, was that David, the quiet man of the entire evening, worried himself almost sick over going on ... but conquered the nerves and triumphed ... and in a quiet way. And the audience did listen to the words, though he feared they would be restless. And they found the words both interesting and exciting.
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But, its worth stressing again, it was a triumph for a very strong in-person personality. He'd only got twenty minutes to establish himself, and there was no studio-created orchestral backing to lend weight and atmosphere to his Space Oddity, but he won through. The raw material was clearly there; but could the breaks and sheer luck help him to super-stardom?
Another thing that emerged at this time was that David met and became friendly with Marc Bolan - mostly through their work with that aforementioned mime company. David was quite adamant about the value of Marc's friendship.
"He's been a great influence on me. It's not just his music that turns me on. It's himself - the way he manages to shut out the destructive side of the business and just get on with his work in his own way. In that sense, he gives me an object lesson on what I should do if things continue to build for me."
They both came out of the underground in pop, both were later to be heavily criticized for "selling-out", but both were also destined to become superstars. Bolan used the makeup, wore the ladies shoes, had the twinkle-dust liberally applied to his face. Bowie - and it's easy even to get the names mixed up - was to turn to "men's mediaeval dresses," and makeup, and a sort of camp-rock, and the result was that they appealed both to male and female fans.
Probably there are other links between the two. For sure in later days they were to be played off, one against the other, and cornered into making derogatory remarks which trigger off the "Bolan Slams Bowie" headlines ... headlines which give a gratuitous story the next week when "Bowie Slams Bolan." But when Bowie first hit the charts, he had feelings of gratitude to his fellow Londoner.
Neither, though, had had a proper kind of childhood .. though maybe it's presumptuous to talk of what is proper and what is improper. But David Bowie sometimes admitted he missed not having been able to spend his days kicking a football around, or chat up the chicks in the usual way ... and from an early age Marc Bolan had been single-minded in his determination to have people take notice of him so that he could advance himself first in modeling and later pop singing.
Marc was into the underground and "sold out" because he felt an urgent need to communicate with mass audiences, not just the converted.
What's more, David Bowie didn't despise the show-business world of cabaret and films and gloss and glitter and tarting up and, if you like, just showing off. He was already building on the seeds of combining the world of rock n roll with the world of the old cinema, with its larger than life close-ups.
So David Bowie got away on his efforts to be a trail-blazer in pop - a genuine original. But in fact he looked like being in on another trend, this one involved with sound. He had used a stylophone on Space Oddity, and it was a pretty amazing instrument, because it made it possible for even the tone deaf characters with cloth ears to make a bit of music.
In fact, it was a pocket electronic organ, and you'd have to be plain daft not to be able to play it within a short time. It had a keyboard, but you didn't use your fingers - you used a sort of pencil-like thing to press the keys. Just a delicate little touch, and very full sounds came out of the pocket-sized instrument. Yes, even a musical beginner could play along with the latest records in double-quick time.
And that instrument, really just a commercial gimmick, had had a lot to do with David Bowie's first hit single. Strange - and ironic. Because the Bowie musical talents were huge, and he really didn't need any kind of do-it-yourself gimmickry. Rolf Harris was very much involved in advertising these "real instruments' and each one cost under a tenner. For David Bowie's single, you can say it was a tenner well invested.
In that October of 1969, David presented his album, David Bowie. That really was an eye-opener. So many people had suddenly turned on to his name by Space Oddity but here, before their ears, was a set of first-rate songs, neatly styled, and with Juniors Eyes helping out substantially on the backings.
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It's worth listing the tracks: Space Oddity (but that HAD to be included), Letter to Hermione, Unwashed and Somewhat Slightly Dazed, Cygnet Committee, Janine, Occasional Dream, Wild-Eyed Boy from FreeCloud (the flip side of the single, remember) God Knows I'm Good, Memory of a Free Festival.
What about Hermione? All we know is that she was a real person, a dancer with that Lindsay Kemp mime act, and David thought she was something really special. The song expressed this thoughts; his disappointment that she had gone away.
Though the general pattern was for a big hit single to be followed by a big hit album, there was no sensational sales on David's classy LP. It did well enough. But it was to be followed by a long spell when our hero was just not really involved in the music business in terms of acting the recording idol. He was putting his ideas and theories together and he was to have a long spell of hibernation before anything new happened.
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David was a bit late on the 1970 scene as a hit-maker to register strongly in the pop popularity polls of the time, but in a couple he was reasonably up there .. listed along with the likes of balladeer Malcolm Roberts, bassist Jack Bruce, guitarist Peter Green, Jethro Tull anchor-man Ian Anderson and so on. And he actually beat, in one poll, Led Zeppelin's Robert Plant and the mighty Sheffield steel-man Joe Cocker, so that wasn't too bad for a start, and anyway Space Oddity got into the as-voted British top-ten single's discs.
No matter what was to come, David's groundwork in pop music had guaranteed that he would be accepted as a worthwhile talent, not just as a fly-by-night charchacter who was blessed with good teeth, a photogenic smile and a good head of hair. Bowie had obviously been doing things the right way round ... laying the foundation before building on a career as a pop hit-maker.
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---This page last modified: 29 Jun 2002---