by Scott Isler / Musician
The 1980s have not been kind to many long-reigning stars of British rock. The decade has seen the break-up of the Who, the Rolling Stones, Led Zeppelin and Pink Floyd. And then there was John Lennon.
But one English singer/songwriter has experienced greater success in the 80s than ever before in a career stretching back to the 1960s. David Bowie’s Massively popular Let’s Dance album in 1983 followed immediately upon commercial lull. He hadn’t sold even a half million copies of any new album in seven years; Let’s Dance, with two top ten singles, did nearly two million.
The comeback was one more turn in a peripatetic journey. For better or worse, Bowie has never played the music-biz game by the usual rules. Thus he’s worshipped by a cult that occasionally flares into a general public: in 1973 with “Space Oddity” (a U.K. hit in 1969, and again in 1975), in 1975 with “Fame” and “Golden Years”, in 1983 with “Let’s Dance” and “China Girl”, in 1984 with “Blue Jean”. Between hits he’s indulged in defiantly uncommercial styles, or abandoned music for acting roles that show a decided bent for the grotesque: on Broadway as The Elephant Man, on British television in Bertolt Brecht’s Baal, onscreen as an extraterrestrial (The Man Who Fell To Earth), vampire (The Hunger) and goblin king (Labyrinth).
Bowie’s fitful moves reflect a sensibility that could be called “‘artistic'”, but he’s unpretentiously pretentious. He raves about painter Eric Fischl, whose outrageous images are on the same brain wavelength as his own crisis-laden lyrics. Indeed, the rise of neo-expressionism in the arts corresponds with Bowie’s greatest popularity to date. He was indulging himself before it was trendy (e.g. the Egon Shiele pose on the cover of (“Heroes”). You can’t accuse him of being false to his school: the art division of Bromley Tech.
You also can’t accuse him of spontaneity. Despite the Dionysian nature of his chosen musical field, bowie always seems to have his plan laid well in advance. Even the New York press conference in March at which he announces his current world tour-and surprised onlookers by playing two songs live with his touring band-was part of a well-planned “press tour” covering almost a dozen cities. There was an occasional edgy question about Pepsi Cola’s tour tie-in (Levi Strauss sponsored Bowie’s 1983 U.K. tour-before he released “Blue Jean”), but for the most part the press ate out of his hand.
And why not? In an age with too few stars in any media, Bowie continues to exude a glittery aura. His appearance, his British accent (to yokel Americans), his apparent confidence all project a self-love that draws others into its force field. If turning forty this year has had any effect, it’s probably only made him turn up the luminance even more.
Fortunately for interviewers, Bowie’s been on his best behavior for a few years now. Unfortunately for interviewers, good manners don’t always yield good copy. An old pro at manipulating media, Bowie uses his considerable charm to disarm. He invariably agrees with opinions. Like James Dean, one of idols, Bowie prefers to mirror an interviewer rather than open a window to his own personality. He’s elusive on detail, and eager to shift the spotlight to his longtime friend Iggy Pop (Jim Osterberg), “a great American songwriter” and just about Bowie’s polar opposite in temperament.
Most of the following conversation took place in Los Angeles, where Bowie was shooting a typically controversial video for the single “Day-In Day-Out“. He appeared in a hotel room dressed Rock Star Casual: open-neck patterned shirt with long sleeves rolled up, studded black pants, brown leather belt, pointy-toed brogues with draped chains. Around his neck was a small crucifix, which he’s said he wears for superstitious, not religious, reasons. Smiling an affable, he was rarely without a cigarette, a cup of coffee or both at once. Incipient crow’s feet is virtually the only sign of his age.
Two months later, Bowie spoke from New York, where he was in the middle of tour rehearsal: ten till eight o’clock at night, six days a week for eight weeks. For what he claims is his most “overly theatrical” tour ever, the only problems Bowie would admit to were “lots of bruises!”
Never Let Me Down, Bowie’s twenty-fourth or so album, got off to a bumpy start. The initial single, “Day-In Day-Out” stalled short of the top twenty, but Bowie says the song’s purpose was “more of a statement of energy than going for the single”. With that in mind, he must hope his just-arrives U.S. tour-his first in four years-will buoy the album. Nor would it hurt if his record company, EMI-America, pushed the tuneful title track, one of Bowie’s lovelier efforts.
Whether on not Never Let Me Down repeats the phenomenal success of Let’s Dance, Bowie’s place in pop history is assured. Too many music stars got that way by finding a niche and digging in for dear life; Bowie’s protean creativity isn’t the kind to stay in one place for too long. He nay seem haughty, but never condescending. Love him or leave him; chances are many of his fans have done both, more than once.
MUSICIAN: When did you write the songs on Never Let Me Down?
BOWIE: Throughout last year. Writing and recording was all I did last year. Jim [Osterberg] and I started in the mountains. He and his wife come over a lot, we go skiing together. So we thought it’s be a good idea to occupy our time in the evenings. I took up a 4-track and some guitars, a drum machine, and we started writing up in the mountains. It just worked really well. I wrote all through last ski season, January, February, up there.
“Never Let Me Down” is a pivotal track for me. It’s probably the most personal thing I’ve written for…albums. I don’t know if I’ve written anything quite that emotive of how I feel about somebody. Other tracks I think are too schematic to…a lot of them are allegorical and I just wanted to sort of right on the nose.
There’s a lot of reflection on the album. The whole reflective thing about it was totally unconscious. I realized how much it drew from the 60s and early 70s when I’d finished. It gives it an overall atmosphere that I hadn’t intended, but it’s quite nice. It doesn’t seem to be a bitter look back; it seems to be quite energetic and up.
MUSICIAN: What did Carlos Alomar contribute to the song “Never Let Me Down”?
BOWIE: The chord changes are very much his thing. I had a basic chord change I wanted to use, but it sounded ponderous and funereal. I gave it to Carlos, and he did something with it.
MUSICIAN: The same thing with “Too Dizzy”, written with Erdal Kizilcay?
BOWIE: That was sort of a mess. We sat down at the piano and worked out together in one session. I tend to work like that with Erdal, whereas with Carlos I tend to and something over. It’s usually rhythmic with Carlos. He’ll bring in changes incorporating a rhythm other than I would have used.
MUSICIAN: Both of the songs you co-wrote seemed the most cohesive structurally on the album.
BOWIE: Yes, they do. When I’m writing on my own the songs tend to fly off in all directions. They’re sort of scatterbrained. Erdal and Carlos are so much more musical than I am [laughs]; I don’t see music in quite the same way. They’re both trained musicians, so they know what chords are supposed to follow other chords! [laughs] I’ll do an F-sharp, “How about following it with an A-flat minor?” “Yeah, man, but, uh, you should really follow it with an E, y’know?” “Well all right”.
MUSICIAN: Those two songs you co-wrote are also very direct lyrically. The album’s other tracks tend to say different things within each songs.
BOWIE: That was the intention. The album is a reflection of all the styles of writing I’ve used over the last few years. I had a lot more material than I used. I could have presented a whole surreal album, one with a sort of scrambled-egg theme, or one that was very direct, with each song being very personal; it all sounded like overload on one particular thematic device. I wanted an overall feeling of how I’m writing these days, and it seems to be in all those areas. It’s quite stimulating to go from one very personalized interior kind of song, and become more expansive and objective and a little more surreal on another. I’m, not much good at cohesiveness! [laughs] Something always breaks down somewhere. In this particular album the breakdown is that there is no continuity of style. I guess that reflects my musical tastes. I like all kinds of music.
MUSICIAN: What have you been listening to recently?
BOWIE: Well! The band this week-I’ve only just discovered them, so they’re my pet project- is the Screaming Blue Messiahs. They’re the best band I’ve heard out of England in a long time. I tried the Jesus and Mary Chain but I just couldn’t believe it [laughs]; it’s awful! It was so sophomoric-like the Velvets without Lou. I just know that they’re kids from Croydon [laughs]; I just can’t buy it. I used to like the Fall, but now it’s ending up like fourth-form poetry. I like the Beastie Boys single. They’re like Gary Glitter meets the Coasters doing rap!
MUSICIAN: You use different voices on the album. Are these more of your characterizations-different voices for different songs?
BOWIE: I tried “Shining Star (Making My Love)” with another voice, and it just sounded wrong; it needed a high, little voice, a bit Smokey Robinson. That never bothered me, changing voices to suit a song. I don’t think it’s character-changing so much. You can fool about with it.
MUSICIAN: What about the John Lennon quality of your vocal on the title track?
BOWIE: Of course. That owes an awful lot to John. “Time Will Crawl” owes a lot to Neil Young. Everything owes a lot to everybody. There’s a whole lot of recognition of people that have influenced me. I’m terribly eclectic that way.
MUSICIAN: The song “Zeroes”-I don’t want to gel too deeply into “meanings”, it’s pretty degrading for you to have to explain a song…
BOWIE: No, help me out! You must know by now that a lot of this stuff doesn’t exactly come from a cerebral point. There’s a lot of free association.
MUSICIAN: A lot of people will inevitably think about a band like the Spiders, especially with the introduction and screaming girls. Was “Zeroes” a nostalgia trip?
BOWIE: I Think it had to do with the realization that all things that are supposed to come from superstardom let you down, and the real thing you’ve got to live with is yourself. That’s why the “little red Corvette” is driven by, all really naïve…Also I wanted to put every 60s cliché I could think of! [laughs] “Stopping and preaching and letting love in”, all those things. I hope there’s a humorous undertone to it. But the subtext is definitely that trappings of rock are not what they’re made out to be. It’s been said over and over, but it’s a different way of saying the same thing. There’s nothing very deep there.
MUSICIAN: Instrumentally, it’s charming: the “Eight Days A Week” opening…
BOWIE: I really threw it in there! [laughs] Peter plays a sitar guitar. He said “David, don’t ask me to bring that Vox out!” I wasn’t going to lay that on him. The chord changes at the end are real derivative. I wanted to get as close as I dare but not make it overly silly.
MUSICIAN: Again, your voice on that is the Ziggy voice.
BOWIE: The strangest thing is how high I’m singing these days! I’ve retained both ends of the scale, so I’m quite happy. But I don’t know if I can manage that onstage, frankly. It’s okay in the studio, but doing that nightly for three-hour shows is pretty hard. Maybe I should do all falsetto things in the front of the show.
MUSICIAN: Is “Glass Spider” based on a Chinese folktale?
BOWIE: I was fascinated by the fact that the black widow spider does lay out its victims’ skeletons on a web. I found that out a few months ago; it came up in some documentary on television. I just took it from there. I have this thing about spiders representing motherhood-play around with that one! I always saw spiders as being a maternal thing, and I wanted to have an all-encompassing motherhood song: How one is released from the mother and then left on one’ sown, and you have to get by on your instincts. I wanted to develop the fable of the black widow spider, transform it. The reference to glass is obviously fitted. Putting the two together, “glass spider” reminds me of castles and something almost Chinese. Imagine this layer of webs like a castle; it moves from room to room and had a kind of altar at the top. It’s fabricating a mock mythology. The subtext for that one was motherhood: being abandoned by one’s mother, which is inevitable.
MUSICIAN: Is this a personal song?
BOWIE: Everything comes from a personal source, but then one screws it up, bends the edges and exaggerates it. Every song on the new album had a personal root to it for me; from there I expanded and made it a little more abstract or surreal and then implanted or juxtaposed things that were irrelevant to the song to give it a more real nature, like life is-full of the unexpected all the time.
MUSICIAN: You seem to be attracted to extreme situations to write about in your songs, extreme roles to portray both onstage and on screen. Is this flair for the melodramatic something you’re consciously aware of?
BOWIE: It has a lot to do with what I listen to as well. I’m not really a John Denver kind of person. I don’t particularly glorify the simple joys of life very much. That’s never really interested me as a writer, anyway. It was always more the recesses or outside situations of life that interested me as a writer. In terms of roles-obviously because of the kind of work I’ve done, you get a certain amount of stereotyping. So the roles I’ve been offered have people pretty well fucked up, either physically or mentally! [laughs] Which generally I find quite interesting to play anyway.
MUSICIAN: Do you ever worry about being typecast?
BOWIE: No, because it’ s far too general an area that I deal with. But certainly not in the area of the simpler things in life. It’s often the more awkward or more obscure or more unfathomable areas that I’m interested in.
MUSICIAN: Do you find it easier to write about extreme situations than a simple love song?
BOWIE: Not now, not anymore. I’m finding the idea of working within love-song situations not quite as claustrophobic as I would have once. A couple of things like that turn up on the new album. But yes, I still dally with more extreme things. I just find it always invigorating. I like dream-like states and where they become almost tranquil, surreal through to nightmarish situations. The dream state for a writer is always a rejuvenating thing.
MUSICIAN: You used to cut up fragments of lyrics. Is there less relying on your subconscious now?
BOWIE: I can still do that. But now I’m able to fit it into a more realistic concept rather than, well, if I put a whole bunch of stuff in there, something will come of it that’s really interesting. Now I know what’s going to be interesting with the bits I put in, and I know which bits aren’t and are unnecessary and flippant or just unimportant. So I’m not wasting as much time just doing rubbish. Now when I put a phrase in, I know it counts; before, I’d winder it counts. That’s the difference.
MUSICIAN: Your previous album, Tonight, seemed like it was rushed out to capitalize on the success of Let’s Dance.
BOWIE: It was rushed The process wasn’t rushed; we actually took our time recording the thing; Let’s Dance was done in three weeks, Tonight took five weeks or something, which for me is a really long time. I like to work fast in the studio. There wasn’t much of my writing on it `cause I can’t write on tour and I hadn’t assembled anything to put out. But I thought it kind of a violent effort at a kind of Pin-Ups [laughs]. It didn’t have any concept behind it, it was just a collection of songs. But having played it recently, it sounds much better now than when I did it; some of the stuff I like quite a lot. Things like “Don’t look Down” I think are great now; I’m gonna be doing that on the tour. “Alien” sounds great.
MUSICIAN: Were you happy with the album at the time?
BOWIE: No. I sort of sounded jumbled; it didn’t hold together well at all. I think that’s because there was no real idea why I was in the studio. “Yeah, I better put something together”, and I put some good songs together and we did them well, but it didn’t gel at all. It was a terrible feeling-though if you take a song out of context and play it, it sounds pretty good. But if you play it as an album it doesn’t work, and that was unfortunate. It stopped me from rushing out with another one, `cause I could see the disjointedness in it, and I wanted not to put something out till I was completely satisfied.
MUSICIAN: Are there any songs you’ve recorded that you feel haven’t held up?
BOWIE: There’s a disastrous recording of [Iggy Pop’s] “Neighborhood Threat”. That’s one I wish I’d never touched, or at least touched differently. It went totally wrong. It sounded so tight and compromised, and it was such a gas doing it. It was the wrong band to do it with-wonderful band, but it wasn’t quite right for that song. I had this huge bunch of people and it just made the whole thing claustrophobic, tightened the whole thing up and it sounds squeaky.
There’s a track on Let’s Dance, “Ricochet”, which I adored, I thought was a great song, and the beat wasn’t quite right. It didn’t roll the way it should have, the syncopation was wrong. It had an ungainly gait; it should have flowed. I want to do that on the tour, but playing the beat the right way. [Let’s Dance co-producer] Nile [Rodgers] did his own thing to it, but it wasn’t quite what I’d had in mind when I wrote the thing.
MUSICIAN: There’s a thick “wall of sound” approach to the band on Never Let Me Down.
BOWIE: That came out of working with Jim-Iggy-on his album. I enjoyed working that way as much that I worked exactly the same way for my album. That’s the nature of the studio I was working in, Mountain Studios, and Dave Richards, who was engineering for me and co-producing. He’d worked a lot with Queen before, so he was used to getting that vast, gigantic kind of thing. I tempered it more for what we wanted to do, but there are still remnants of that.
The nucleus of the album is a Turkish guy I’ve been working with quite a long time now called Erdal Kizilcay. He’s written a few things with me. He wrote the Tina Turner track “Girls”; another on for a British movie called When The Wind Blows. He went to the equivalent of Julliard in Turkey, where they require them to play adequately every instrument in the orchestra. He can switch from violin to trumpet to French horn, vibes, percussion, whatever. His knowledge of rock music begins and stops with the Beatles [laughs]. His background is really jazz. He moved to Switzerland to play with a pickup band there, and try to carve a niche for himself. I met him in a club. I heard him playing and was amazed; he kept switching instruments all night long [laughs] and he was great on everything he touched! So I asked him if he wanted to start working with me. Carlos Alomar, of course, is on rhythm guitar, Peter Frampton on lead guitar-he’s playing really good.
MUSICIAN: Have you and Peter always kept in touch?
BOWIE: There were long periods where we didn’t acknowledge each other, `cause we’re in different spheres of the world, but every five years we’d make contact. The last time I saw him was when I was doing The Elephant Man and he was living in New York. I always thought it’d be good to work with him-`cause I was so impressed with him as a guitarist at school! I thought it might be a nice way to start working with a lead guitarist; I couldn’t think of anybody else off the top of my head that I wanted to work with that I also liked as a person.
MUSICIAN: What do you play on this album?
BOWIE: I do a lot of keyboard things, like synthesizer parts, some rhythm guitar and I play lead on a couple of tracks: “New York’s In Love” and “’87 And Cry”.
MUSICIAN: On those songs you wanted to have a go at it yourself?
BOWIE: I’d done it on the demo. Peter laid down a couple of solos in the middle, and it wasn’t quite what I wanted. So I thought, maybe I should put down what I did and see if it works the way it did in the demo. No disregard for Peter’s playing; it just wasn’t the kind of guitar I wanted. Peter’s too controlled. Mine is a lot of effects and ambiance, just trying to get an atmosphere rather than play. I don’t know about “playing”.
MUSICIAN: Was it difficult assembling the band on Never Let Me Down?
BOWIE: Physically, no, because Erdal and I put down such a lot of work before anything really started. I’d prepared everything pretty well on the demo at my house. I’d done all the head arrangements, I knew exactly how I wanted it to sound, so Erdal and I spent the first two weeks putting down everything as a backbone. Then Carlos came in, then Peter. It was really that simple. I had a very fixed idea of how it should be. The longest time was just putting my vocals down.
There’s a sense of excitement you can lose by not writing in the studio. But I think you can hone things brighter when you work on them at home. I enjoyed the process; I’ve been doing that now for some time.
They were all daytime sessions, which is the way I’ve been working for years now; ten o’clock in the morning till about six. Evenings we reflect on what we’d done during the day. It’s a different kind of energy than working through the night, which I used to do. I think it’s better for me, anyway.
MUSICIAN: You said you found “Never Let Me Down” a breakthrough in terms of your writing. Is this something you’ll be doing more of?
BOWIE: I would only do those particular things if they were truly heartfelt. I couldn’t sit down and write love songs as, “Lets’ use this as a new genre”. These kind of love songs pop out, that’s great, but it’s not really a genre that I’m interested in writing in. I think I’d always stick to my own particular area.
I must admit that one thing that was going through my mind the entire time I was recording was that I’m really excited about doing something onstage that’s going to be different, very important-at least to me-and I think that comes through on the album. A lot of it was consciously written with performance in mind: “What kind of songs do I want to do night after night that I can enjoy playing?” That brought the energy up on everything. I stopped it getting too reflective and too “a man in his room”. There’s a lot of stage sensibility behind the songs, especially “’87 And Cry”, “New York’s In Love”-those are just great jams.
MUSICIAN: The arrangements and echo on the album do sound like arena-rock.
BOWIE: It has a great, forceful sound to it-that’s [mixer Bob] Clearmountain. I just drop all of that. I can’t mix for the life of me. It’s fascinating watching him work; he’s like a painter.
I’ve only got one catalog of songs to dip into for the stage, so it’ll be this album plus the ones I enjoy playing from the past. I loved doing “Golden Years” on the last tour. I enjoy a lot of the old stuff now onstage.
MUSICIAN: Some artists feel trapped by their past.
BOWIE: No, not at all. Fortunately, the times I have toured, the recent material at that time has been very enjoyable for me, so it’ always been tempered. And I’ve tried to pull out only songs I enjoy onstage. There’s nothing worse than getting five weeks into a tour and finding out you hate half the material, that you’re bored stiff with it.
MUSICIAN: Has that happened to you?
BOWIE: I think maybe on the last tour I was really pushing it, trying to do all those Ziggy things at the end. It was fine for the first few weeks; then I thought, god, I wish I’d dipped into more stuff from Lodger and maybe some of the “Heroes” things-Low even. “I’m not doing `Star’ again. That was quite hard. I don’t think I’m doing much Ziggy material on this tour! [laughs] Probably use a lot of that mid-70s material, but not the more ponderous thins like “Warszawa”. I tried that, and that was a bit yawn-making. I want to resurrect “Joe The Lion”. There was one I was humming to myself the other day: [sings] “Baby, baby, I’ll never let you down”-oh lord, what’s that one? Jesus, I can’t remember it. I think it’s off “Heroes“. Something like “Space Oddity” is a constant. I can’t even foresee the day when I stop doing it; it just has to be in there somewhere. But all the new avenues like-“Sons Of The Silent Age”! [snaps fingers] Ah! That’s right! Thank god I could remember it! So that for me now is a new song. I’ve never done that one onstage. So I’ve got these ten from the new album, plus another twenty scattered throughout the past, but choosing them is quite exciting.
MUSICIAN: Any mixed feelings about the Pepsi tour tie-in?
BOWIE: None whatsoever. For me it’s strictly a business device which enables me to put on a better show than I would have been able to do otherwise.
MUSICIAN: You couldn’t tour without Pepsi?
BOWIE: I could, but it would have been compromised tremendously. You’re gonna get corporate situations everywhere. Soon as you sign to a major label you become corporate. Any of us could have stuck with an independent label and still sold records-maybe not as many.
I’m not really sure if anybody takes [corporate tie-ins] seriously. It’s become so assimilated into culture now that I don’t think it affects the music whatsoever. It’s certainly not changing my style of songwriting or performing. It just becomes another device by which you can reach a larger area of the population and put on something more spectacular than you did before.
MUSICIAN: How big a tour is this?
BOWIE: It’s a world tour. I guess it’ll go on six months or so. I’m very excited about it. It’s a return to theatre in a way that I’ve never done before-quite ambitious. I’ve done my just -singing-the-songs-straight; I needed to get it established that I was a songwriter first and foremost, and everything else was embellishment. Now I feel I can be a little more adventurous.
MUSICIAN: Will you still be playing large places?
BOWIE: Yeah, but this is theater for large places. It’s almost agit-prop-surreal!
MUSICIAN: I wasn’t sure you were the kind of person who enjoyed long tours.
BOWIE: I don’t when it’s just singing. Fortunately there was a morale boost from the band on the “Serious Moonlight” tour that they got me through the tour more than anything else. There was an intrinsic harmony-this sounds really pat, doesn’t it?-but it really was great from day one to the day we broke up at the end. Everybody got on great, from the road crew right on through to the band. There’s nothing worse than going out with a bunch of stiffs, guys who are really nasty or moody or sulky. It’s so demoralizing. You just can’t face each night; you think, “I have to go on with those pricks again,” it’s really horrible. Now I’m doing something which is going to keep my attention even more [laughs] every night-at least I’ll have to think throughout the evening. You can kinda throw out thinking on a tour, and just sing the songs. But now there’s a lot of stage directions.
MUSICIAN: Your Diamond Dogs tour was highly theatrical and you got fed up with it.
BOWIE: I was in a bad state of mind to have attempted that. It was pretty exciting, but I was so blocked [laughs] so stoned during the entire thing that I’m amazed I lasted with it even that one trip across America before I ditched it.
MUSICIAN: I just saw the BBC-TV documentary of that tour, Cracked Actor.
BOWIE: Oh my God! Oh no! It’s quite a casualty case, isn’t it. I’m amazed I came out of that period, honest. When I see that now I cannot believe I survived it. I was so close to really throwing myself away physically, completely.
MUSICIAN: Around that time you recorded a couple of Bruce Springsteen songs.
BOWIE: “Saint In The City” and “Growing Up”. I did “Growing Up in London in 1973, ’74 with Ronnie Wood on lead guitar; it sounds great. “Saint In The City” is from the  Philadelphia sessions[that resulted in the Young Americans album]. Bruce came down to the studio, I vaguely remember [laughs], and I remember chickening out of playing-I didn’t want to play it to him `cause I wasn’t happy with it anyway.
I used to go and see him. I hated him as a solo artist, when he came on and did this Bob Dylan thing. It was awful, so cringe-making. He’d sit there with his guitar and be folky, have these slow philosophical raps in between the songs. As soon as the band came on, it was like a different performer and he was just marvelous. A Philadelphia DJ who was quite a supporter of mine said. “You’re doing these Springsteen numbers, do you want me to get Bruce Down?” He brought Bruce down, and I was out of my wig. I just couldn’t relate to him at all. It was a bad time for us to have met. I could see what he was thinking, “Who is this weird guy?” And I was thinking, “What do I say to normal people?” There was a real impasse. But I still think he was one of the better American songwriters around those early days. I like the Asbury Park material; my favorite period of Springsteen is the early stuff.
MUSICIAN: Do you have a sense of who your audience is?
BOWIE: Absolutely none. I lost that completely around the time of Aladdin Sane. I’ve never known who my audience are or why they even-[laughs] I’ve got to be careful there-uh, why they, how they, uh [laughs] why they’re always there, why they bother! I can’t assess my audience at all. When I look out, it’s so disparate: There’s people my age, and it goes right back to kids. On the last tour there were thirteen, fourteen-year-olds; it was really strange. Before, I guess it was kind of student-y. That’s broadened out so widely now. I guess that comes with stadium work or radio play: It attracts people because of one song. Some of them to get into it a bit more and suddenly you’ve got people listening to what you’re doing that would never have even thought of buying one of your albums or singles before. For me at the moment, I’ve no idea who they are. I’m very pleased that they’re coming to see me.
MUSICIAN: Did the magnitude of the Let’s Dance success take you by surprise?
BOWIE: Yeah, it knocked for six. I’d always had an audience, but it was kind of a large cult. I was quite happy; I never really saw it doing anything other than that. I’m always exceedingly grateful that I have an audience, but it doesn’t bother me if they get smaller. I’ve always just wanted to do interesting things. The sequence of Low, “Heroes“, Lodger was really important for me. I guess the sales stunk on those, but it was important for me to get that work done, and no doubt I’ll return.
I wouldn’t know how to pick a single if it hit me in the face. I had absolutely no idea that “Fame” would do well; they just stuck it out there, and it gave me a whole new lease on life. On the other hand, I never hold it against an artist for being successful. It’s wonderful that somebody like Prince should be accepted on such a vast scale. He’s really important, and his music’s dynamite. I don’t necessarily think smaller is purer-as one can see from the Jesus and Mary Chain!
But I don’t think you should compromise one’s writing, or what one wants to do, and I certainly wont. I might have been flustered a little back there on Let’s Dance: “Christ, what do I do now? Do I try to do what that kind of audience want?” I touched on that around Tonight. It worried me a bit; I felt really uneasy about getting involved with that, so I’m so happy I’ve gone back to the kind of recording and material I feel more comfortable with. That’s important-and the next album I’m really excited about!
I’m writing in a different way: structured. I’m writing from a completely different perspective these last ten years. It’s a lot more disciplined. I’m more comfortable with the tools I use for writing than I was before. It was fine to be experimental, but because of my lack of discipline or control over the elements I was writing with, a lot of it missed the mark completely. Maybe it’s taken all those years to feel more comfortable with being more adequate as an artist. That’s what I’m looking forward to in the future.
MUSICIAN: Do you think the music scene has changed since your last album, in 1984?
BOWIE: It’s starting to become exciting again. Everyone was video crazy in ’83, ’84. People saw that as the salvation of rock `n’ roll. But interaction with an audience is becoming important again. There’s a new awareness of audience/artist participation; rap music has done a lot for that. Some exciting new acts should emerge form this, with more irreverence for video and what it is now: a sham. We can forget video for now; that’s over. It’s established, it’s just…there.
MUSICIAN: Didn’t you just make one?
BOWIE: Yeah, I hope this is a video that maybe nobody will play, with a bit of luck [laughs]. It’s one that Julien Temple and I have devised. It has much sharper cutting edge to it than a lot of videos that I’ve seen. It’s not going to sell the song at all. It’s going to try to make use of video, to be a good five minutes for the sake of making a video. I don’t want tot sell shit on video. I couldn’t care less. I’ve done some great videos in the past, and I don’t want to start selling stuff on video now.
MUSICIAN: Does music mean the same to you now as it used to?
BOWIE: IT means the same to me now as it did probably in ’73, ’74. It’s gotten exciting to me again.
MUSICIAN: You’ve branched out so much: acting…
BOWIE: I still don’t take that seriously. I’m quite happy to be accepting little things. John Landis’ Into The Night was a gas; it’s nice to do cameos. My priority is still music. I was wobbly about that in the early 80s, but I’ve come back to that again.
MUSICIAN: You used to say that acting for you was a stepping stone to directing.
BOWIE: I harbor a strong penchant for directing. I guess I’m fulfilling that need to a small extent with the videos. But it is such a quantum leap from a four- or five-minute video to a ninety-minute piece. I worked so much in conjunction with Julien on the “Blue Jean” piece and saw so many errors in it. I had such misgivings afterwards that I wouldn’t try to develop a twenty-minute piece again without-but it was quite successful. I could do a better one than that.
MUSICIAN: Did you have any thoughts on turning forty?
BOWIE: Do you know, I just skimmed over it. Fifty to me seems like a milestone. There are so many people doing great at forty that it wouldn’t occur to me to think anything. It was no different than being thirty-nine.
BOWIE: I’m not sure that I’m proud of anything particularly-maybe bringing theatricality back into rock to a certain extent that hadn’t been done before. I always found that invigorating and I thought that, to the extent I did it, it was fairly successful. I quite liked drawing that line of finding a character in rock. Other than that, on the writing side of it, it’s always an endeavor that-there’s nothing that truly satisfies me as a piece of writing, something I can relax with that I’ve done. I’m always looking to do something in a better way or approach it in a different way.
Peter Frampton: Play, Don’t Worry
What’s nice boy like Peter Frampton doing with David Bowie? The same thing he was doing twenty-five years ago: playing guitar. Anyone surprised by the pairing on the Never Let Me Down album and subsequent tour isn’t aware that the two go back to Bromley Technical High School, where Frampton’s father was Bowie’s art master.
“It was very difficult for me to be at the same school as my father”, Frampton recalls-coming to school and calling him `sir’, as was the custom in English schools.” It also didn’t help that Owen Frampton was one of Bromley Tech’s more popular teachers. “A few kids-shall we say the one-half percent who didn’t get on to well with my father-made my life rather like a living hell”. After a year, Peter switched out.
While he was there, however, twelve-year-old Frampton made the acquaintance of fifteen-year old David Jones, already expressing himself musically via the saxophone. “We used to hang out,” Frampton says, “because I was probably the only twelve-year-old playing guitar; I was the only twelve-year-old that brought a guitar to school. Instead of hanging out with kids my age during lunchtime, playing soccer in the field, I would hang out with [Bowie] and George Underwood in the art block playing Buddy Holly numbers”. (Underwood went on to do artwork for Bowie’s Hunky Dory album. His best claim to fame is punching the teenage Bowie in the eye-a punch that resulted in the singer’s mismatched peepers.)
Frampton and Bowie each had their own bands, but the former enjoyed the acceptance by his elders. “I used to sit occasionally”, Frampton chuckles. “There was a bond between us because I was ahead of my time, as far as playing guitar very young”. Bowie also introduced Frampton-then listening to Cliff Richard & the Shadows-to other eternal verities of Presley, Holly and Eddie Cochran.
The next time their paths crossed, it was on a processional basis. In 1969 Frampton-as a member of Humble Pie-headlined a British package tour that also featured a solo, acoustic-guitar-strumming David Bowie (he’d changed his name by now). Bowie had just scored his first hit with the British release of “Space Oddity.
In the 70s, both Frampton and Bowie became household names. Bowie enjoyed considerable notoriety with his Ziggy Stardust persona, then really hit it big 1975 with his number-one song “Fame”. Frampton left Humble Pie and plugged away at a solo career. His payoff eclipsed even Bowie’s: The 1976 Frampton Comes Alive! Was the first mega-million-selling album of the rock era.
But Frampton’s dream come true turned into a nightmare as he saw his career barrel out of control. “People forgot about me, the guitarist”, he now says; his image became that of a singer/personality. IT wasn’t until last year’s Premonition album that Frampton again felt comfortable with his music.
On the road supporting Stevie Nicks last year, Frampton got a phone call from Bowie. “He said, I really like what you’re playing on your new album, and would you like to play on my new record?” Last fall Frampton went to Switzerland for the Never Let Me Down sessions; while recording, Bowie asked him on the tour as well. Frampton had planned to spend the summer recording his own album. “I had a pow-wow with all the people I’m involved with, and we thought it would be a terrific idea to do this.”
He warns that he’s already used to people asking him how it feels for a best-selling artist to play back-up for someone else. No controversy here: “This is a wonderful opportunity to play with a great band and be there for David, who’s a terrific artist…I’m enjoying immensely being able to concentrate on my playing.” Not even one chorus of “Show Me The Way” among all that Bowie material? “My job is purely to be David’s lead guitarist, and I’m happy doing that.”
Frampton will have competition for that lead-guitar spot from Carlos Alomar, Bowie’s faithful six-stringer who solos on “Fashion” and Scary Monsters”. Frampton isn’t used to sharing the stage with any guitarist, lead or otherwise. “But I think we’re incredibly compatible, two completely different styles.” It also helps that Richard Cottle, one of Bowie’s keyboadists, played on Frampton’s Premonition and toured with him last year; and bassist Carmine Rojas worked with Frampton on some unreleased songs from the Premonition sessions.
As for the big B himself, Frampton admits. “We’ve never been this close before”. But he’s “exactly the same” as the fifteen-year-old that Frampton knew back at Bromley Tech: “I find us very similar in many ways. We come from the same town, we almost sound alike when we talk-talking to him on the phone is like talking to myself. [He’s] just a very easy-going guy who knows what he wants.”
Does that include returning the favor by appearing on Frampton’s next album-which the guitarist will be “streaking into the studio” to cut as soon as the tour is over? Wouldn’t that be nice!” Frampton smiles.
Glass Spider’s Class Act
On David Bowie’s “Glass Spider” tour, Peter Frampton is playing two Pensa-Suhr Strat types, hand-made by New York-based John Suhr. “The one I’m using most,” the guitarist says, “is a natural-finish maple body.” The have Seymore Duncan humbucker pickups in the necks and bridge, and an “almost Strat” pickup in the middle. His strings are Ovation Kamans, .009″ to .042″. He also has a Fender Telecaster and for “Zeroes”, a Coral electric sitar with Danelectro-type pickups. The then owner of Electric Lady Studios gave the sitar to Frampton in the late 70s; it was formerly owned by Jimi Hendrix. Other strings used are by D’Addario, GHS and Ernie Ball. His guitar straps are by Earth III; Frampton makes his picks himself from a die based on an old Hofner design: very stiff, small and thick. A custom computer switching system by Bob Bradshaw controls Frampton’s effects, each of which can be MIDI’d. On his rack are an Eventide 969 harmonizer, t.c. electronic 2290 digital effects and 1210 spatial expander, two Yamaha D1500 DDLs and an SPX90 digital effects, Lexicon PCM70 digital processor, Roland SRV2000 reverb and SDD320 Dimension D, two Rocktron Hush IIC noise reduction units, a Mutron octave divider, Foxx fuzztone, Urei1176LN limiter and Boss Turbo overdrive pedal. For a clean sound, Frampton uses a Rane PE15 equalizer with the Urei limiter. For “rhythm crunch”, he plays through a MESA/Boogie Mk.III-C and Marshall Lead 12 amp. His main lead sound is a modified Marshall 100-watt bass and MESA/Boogie Mk.III Coliseum 300. All his effects go through two Rane stereo SM26 mixers and two new Marshall 4z12 cabinets enclosing Celestion Vintage 30 speakers. Connectors are Switchcrafts and Neutriks, cables by Connectronics. Monster Cable, Belden and Mogami. In addition, Frampton has two wireless units: a Nady 701 for his guitar, and a Yamaha for the Coral sitar.
Carlos Alomar, on the other hand, is using six Kramer American series guitars and one custom Alembic, with GHS strings. He likes collecting Boss effects: the DD-3, CE-3, OD-3, GE-7, HMD and PSM-5. He also has three (count `em) racks. Rack 1 holds a Photon MIDI converter (K-Muse); Yamaha MJC-8, MEP4 and two TX812s, Prophet VS, Roland Super JX MKS-70 and Super Jupiter MKS-80; Akai S900; and Quark Long Range MIDI 2. Rack 2 has a spare Photon MIDI converter; Yamaha MEP4, EQ-2031, two MV802s and two SPX90s; dbx 166; Roland DEP5; t.c. electronic 2290; Rocktron distortion; and two spare Quark Long Range MIDI 2s. Over in rack 3, we’ve got a Southworth Jambox; Apple Macintosh Plus; Hyperdrive FX20; and software by Southworth (MIDI Paint) and Digidesign (Softsynth and S900). All three racks have a Furman PL-8 Plus. Alomar has a Yamaha wireless system, and plays through two Roland JC-120s with Electro-Voice Pro Lines.
Now multi-instrumentalist Erdal Kizilcay really has a lot of stuff. A Man-Frotto keyboard stand holds his Yamaha DX7 (top) and Emax (bottom). On the left side are a Korg SGI and a Yamaha CS70. The DX7 is the main keyboard, plugged into a Casio MIDI Controller. Kizilcay’s key rack holds a Furman Plus Light, Ibanez Reverb, Hill 8 channel mixer with two-power supply, and a Crown 1200XL power amp. He also has an Akai S900 sampler. The two speaker cabinets are Electro-Voice three-way 315s. On the guitar front, Kizilcay straps on a Tokai Stratocaster, Yamaha GS1000 bass or Pedulla fretless bass. Strings are Dean Markley, .009″ light-gauge, GHS Boomers (.045″ light-gauge), and Long Scale round-wounds. Fender makes those white picks. Bass and guitar go through the same rack, with a Furman Plus Light, Ibanez Multieffect with remote foot switch, and two Seymore Duncan 400×2 power amps. Speaker cabinets are Elctro-Voice BK15s. Not to forget a set of Latin Percussion timbales and white congas, an LP cowbell, six-inch and eight-inch Zildjian splash cymbals, and Promark drum sticks. And a Simmons SD-9. And a cornet. And a seventeenth-century Italian viola.
Keyboard player Richard Cottle won’t leave home without two Prophet 5s; an Oberheim; Yamaha DX7, DX7-IID and KX5 remote; a PPG 2.3 Plus Wave Term; and a Roland MSQ-700 sequencer and Yamaha RX11 drum machine. For effects he’s got a Yamaha REV7 and SPX90; Drawmer dual gate and dual compressor/limiter; and t.c. electronic 1210 expander, chorus and flanger. He plays through a Soundcraft 2006 16×422 mixer, Yamaha p-2200 amp and two cabinets, each with one fifteen-inch woofer and a one-inch horn. He also has a Selmer alto saxophone.
Bassist Carmine Rojas uses two Spectors-one tuned down to D with a Kahler tremolo- and an ESP Surveyor with active pickups and eq. His strings are Rotosound standards and heavy-gauge; picks are Sadowski heavies. He also has two Nady 701 wireless systems. Effects: Ibanez VE405 multi and HD1000 harmonizer. Preamp is a Yamaha PB-1, amps are two Crown Microtech 1200LX’s. Speakers are custom-built 2×15 JBL E140s, and a Carvin 4×12 300-watt Electro-Voice.
Alan Childs beats on Tama Artstar II drums with a Pure Cussion/Rims mounting system. Tama `87′ Titan hardware and Tama Tower rack system. His cymbals are Zildjian large Chinas: eighteen-inch crashes and eight-, ten- and twelve-inch splashes; and two sets of K-top, Z-bottom high-hats. One set is closed for use with Tam Double Camco chain pedals. Latin percussion makes his chimes and mambo cowbell. Drum sticks are custom-made from Manny’s Music in New York, and Pro-Mark 737SG wood-tips. On the electric front, Childs has an Akai S-900 sampler for triggered sounds; a Marc MX-1; Yamaha PML-1MIDI converter, MV-802 mixer and REV7 digital reverb for the kick-drum; an Ibanez SDR-1000 for the other drums; J.L. Cooper Expression Plus for the level control; and Furman PL-8 power monitor and light unit. Custom-modified Shure SM-57 microphones are inside his snares; Marc XT Sensor Detonators are in the tom-toms; and a Marc Black Knight Magnetic in the kick-drum.