by John Robinson / NME
2nd December 2000
David Jones, of Bromley, cannot be with us today. Some elements of the young man remain – the odd coloured eyes, the result of a childhood fight, the unmistakable suburban London note to his voice – but really everything else has changed, and changed by his own design. The hair from long, to permed, to exuberantly feathered. The music, from acoustic doominess to glam rock, to funk, to European synthesizer drones, to drum’n’bass. And the name, of course. From Jones to Bowie.
He’s done, y’know, quite a lot, David Bowie. Experimented with drugs and Japanese theatre (though not at the same time), and with Nietzsche and funk rock (very nearly at the same time). Been a pupil of mime. Written a song about a garden gnome that no-one can seem to forget. Been at the top, then packed it in to form a band with some men in grey suits. He’s been a poster boy for Luv ice cream, and appeared in a science fiction film without the blessing of conventional genitalia. He’s had a ‘German period’, which we’ll talk about, and embraced the possibilities of the Internet, which we won’t.
He’s David Bowie, a resident of New York, and it’s for some of these reasons that he’s been voted as NME’s most influential artist of all time. Marilyn Manson has taken his make-up and otherworldly appearance. Suede have taken his riffs and his seedy glamour. Radiohead have, like him, chosen to make extremely experimental music at the height of their popularity. Not that any of these people don’t bring uniqueness to what they do – but as Bowie himself has been influenced, so in their turn have they. He’s happy about it. And he hopes you’re happy, too.
The phone rings. You know what? It’s The Thin White Duke.
There’s not a lot David Bowie regrets having an influence over, it turns out. But there is one strata of society he wishes he could have helped out more.
“I really think I should have done more for gnomes,” he says. “I always feel a bit guilty that I just put my feet into the water, and never sort of dived into the deep end. I really could have produced a new sensibility for the garden gnome in Britain. Gnomes should have been explored more deeply.”
“The hats,” Bowie continues. “I should have worn the hat more. I tried the beard in the early ‘ 90’s, but because I’m blond it didn’t really take off. I talked to Goldie and A Guy Called Gerald about doing a drum’n’bass version of ‘The Laughing Gnome’, but it just didn’t fly. When drum’n’bass becomes fashionable again, that’s the time to leap onto that particular bandwagon – gnome and bass.”
David Bowie chuckles, influentially. His gnome past is behind him, and he is content to additionally discuss those parts of his past that are not specifically gnome-related. What is most apparent, though, is that as well as being disarmingly flattered by being considered influential (“It’s quite a thing,” he says), David Bowie is a man as comfortable talking about what has influenced him, as the influence he has brought to bear on others.
This has always, essentially been his thing. In a similar way to how Damon Albarn has often been able to pinpoint the mood of a nation in a song, Bowie, for an enviably long time between 1970 and 1980 was right there. He was ahead of the game, and took new strategies, new techniques and new ideas and translated them all in his own songwriting. To listen to a David Bowie album from this period is to hear a pristine modernity, all the then-current technological ideas the backdrop to his music. The fact that these records still sound brilliant today tells you less about opportunism, and something about genius.
“I’ve always cited who my influences are,” says Bowie. “I felt it was important for people to be able to see how things are put together at any given stage. I let people know what’s going through my head. I’ve been quite vocal about that over the years. It often amuses me to see bands who lie about who they’re listening to, because they don’t want people to know who their real influences are. They leave a trail of red herrings. It’s disingenuous, to say the least. I’ve always loved the process – to see how things are put together.”
The way that input from other sources worked on Bowie produced truly remarkable records, and did so while still maintaining a huge popularity. He may not have been the first to do so, but Bowie in the ‘ 70’s reached for goals that sounded impossibly far-fetched or pretentious, but were brilliantly realised. He’s modest about their effect, and won’t be drawn on who he sees as benefiting from them, but this was all very much in his plan.
“I wanted to make the context wider,” he says. “More points of view and perceptions from other areas. Like the arts, theatre – expand the vocabulary. I thought it could be more of a basket of ideas rather than insular and referring only to itself all the time, like the hippy thing. I took my cue from John Lennon in terms of….I saw how he was able to integrate other interests of his into his music rather than just have it be about the music.
“I was always more interested in changing what I perceived as popular music when I was a kid,” he continues. “I always thought that was a lot more flattering to the vanity than being a big album seller. It was something I’ve always wanted to have an effect on. A worker in any particular trade wants to leave some kind of legacy.”
In the ‘ 70’s, David Bowie was one of rock music’s most glamorous workers, and he was helping, simply, to build classic music. He’d begun the decade as a folksy, slightly hippy naffff with an acoustic guitar, and ended it a man in a Pierrot costume walking along a beach, revisiting Major Tom, the character from ‘Space Oddity’ that he’d created 11 years earlier.
In between, Bowie was everywhere, in a number of highly-strung conditions, with a number of very strange people. A visit to New York helped plant in his mind some different ideas about how he could manipulate his music – he met Andy Warhol. Meanwhile, some of the oddball cast of The Factory got jobs with him.
Easy bloke to get on with, Andy Warhol?
“Nah, absolutely impossible,” says Bowie. “He gave the impression there was nothing going on in there. I could never tell if he was a very lucky queen who liked bright colours and struck it lucky, or whether there was a philosophy going on there. I never really found out. I think it was half-and-half, really. Then I ran into that crowd, who worked for me in the ‘ 70’s. The cast of (Warhol play) Pork. That was a strange period.”
Maybe more importantly, while the style of British punk was beginning to ferment, fuelled in part by the brutal rock music that Bowie and glam had produced, Bowie involved himself in collaborations with two of the godfathers of American punk, Lou Reed and Iggy Pop. The relationship was mutually beneficial. Bowie could repay a debt to two heroes. They in turn, could be given a new lease of life.
“I was a super number one fan of both of them,” says Bowie. “Lou was going through an incredibly bad patch around the time that I first met him, and he was being left on the side in terms of what his influence had been. And none of us knew what his influence was going to be – the direction of The Velvet Underground’s reputation.
“I kind of feel like I found them again,” he says. “When I was pushing them and Iggy, no-one believed me, nobody knew who they were. Maybe in NYC, but certainly not in England. I had an acetate of the first VU album, and for me that was the key to a whole new way of writing, and what I tried to do with Lou was to make him well-known. It was as simple as that – so people would realise what a great writer he was, and by way of him, back to The Velvet Underground, and kids would get to know him. We, of course, used to play VU numbers with the Spiders as part of our stage thing. The contribution I made for him was to make it more accessible.
“Iggy is much more open to a number of ways of working. I wrote a lot of the music for Iggy. I would supply him with chord sequences, and in some cases the actual melody. I would say ‘Jim, this particular song gives me the impression that it’s about the Far East…’, a particular set of circumstances, whatever. And I’d maybe give him an idea, and he’d run off in a corner, and in about five or ten minutes he’d have a lyric that would somewhat reflect something we’d talked about. It was much more collaborative in that way. As far as I can remember I didn’t write anything with Lou. It was just like, ‘Here’s Lou’s stuff, let’s make it popular’ With Iggy, it was like, ‘ What d’you wanna do, son?’ On the early LP’s I tried to get him to sing more rather than just The Stooges kind of thing, which I think helped him to find more of a voice.”
Fuelling this workload was, however, beginning to take its toll on Bowie. Resorting frequently to the traditional and hearty ‘musician’s breakfast’, Bowie may have been creating extraordinary music, but he was essentially driving himself to the brink. In terms of ‘non-musical influences’, drugs played a significant part.
“I didn’t really use them for hedonistic purposes,” he explains. “I didn’t really go out very much. I wasn’t getting totally out of it and going to clubs and all that; I’d never really done that to a major extent. I was really just working. I would work days in a row without sleep. It wasn’t a joyful, euphoric kind of thing. I was driving myself to a point of insanity. It probably started in a major way around ‘Diamond Dogs’, and from then on it was, as Trent Reznor would have it, ‘a downward spiral’…”
The way out of the spiral proved, in part, to be Germany, and in part, the free-thinking of former Roxy Music synth wizard Brian Eno. While Bowie was going through personality-threatening crises, a number of German musicians were working on music that would influence the sound of great LP’s like ‘Low’ and “Heroes”, and represent for Bowie a new lease of life.
“I think how they influenced me was attitudinal,” says Bowie. “It was the stance they took. If you listen to ‘Low’, “Heroes” or ‘Lodger’, I’d say there’s very little Kraftwerk influence on the albums. It’s almost like: ‘ There’s a new universe one can exist in. What would I find if I went to that universe?’ ”
While punk in Britain vented its frustrations, and evolved into new wave, David Bowie was, frankly, quite oblivious, wrapped up in his new German universe.
“It was a very odd period for me from about ‘ 75, when I suppose punk started to make its presence felt in Britain,” he says. “It’s almost as though I was way out in a backwater by that time, because I’d switched to Germany and German electronica was having a major effect on me. I probably didn’t realise the weight of punk and what it was doing in Britain.
“I was so fully involved with the Konny Plank studios and all of the Dusseldorf boys, it was almost like the effects of punk in retrospect. When I moved back to America in about 1980, I saw the waves that punk had created, but it was really weird… I missed it. I really missed punk. It was so odd. I was in a fragile state at that time, so my outlook was fairly insular. I didn’t have peripheral vision.”
The new music Bowie was making, encouraged by Eno, in his fairly loose role of “making things fun” was not only among the best of his career, but was also curing Bowie, in mind and spirit, essentially, of the ‘ 70’s.
“It was extremely therapeutic for me. It was a self-help, self-therapy thing to get me out of this terrible lifestyle that I’d put myself into. It was time to pull myself together and get healthy again.”
David Bowie then leaves his most influential decade, and returns to the 21st Century, where he bids us good afternoon. “It means more to me than any number of hit albums, this,” he says. “Thanks very much.”
Really no problem, David.
AS NOMINATED BY:
BRETT ANDERSON (SUEDE)
“Suede have always had a very strong sense of where we came from. I find England strange and unique and beautiful, and I think that’s why I was initially attracted to Bowie. People assume I love ‘Ziggy Stardust’, but my favourite David Bowie albums are “Heroes” and ‘Low’.”
BRIAN MOLKO (PLACEBO)
“I remember being 11 and seeing the video for ‘Ashes To Ashes’ for the first time. I was quite fascinated by it.”
ED O’BRIEN (RADIOHEAD)
“I just admire David Bowie in the ‘ 70’s. He was on a mission. His albums were hit and miss sometimes, but he was brilliant because of that.”
PAUL DRAPER (MANSUN)
“He’s always made ground-breaking music, but better than that, he always looks brilliant.”
BOWIE’S MOST INFLUENTIAL LPS
- HUNKY DORY (EMI, 1971)
- The influence of New York in full effect, features the song ‘Andy Warhol’, as well as ‘Queen Bitch’, a song footnoted on the sleeve: “White light returned with thanks”. It sounds like a glam Velvet Underground. “I don’t really think Andy Warhol was as influential on me as people would like to imagine. What did I like about him? A few of his quotes. Everything could be reproduced. The idea of that was great. Him as a persona, that wasn’t something I wanted as part of what I did. It goes back to Lou and the Velvets. It was by way of the Velvets, I got a fleeting interest in Warhol.”
- THE RISE AND FALL OF ZIGGY STARDUST AND THE SPIDERS FROM MARS (EMI, 1972)
- Bowie’s persona for the ultimate tragic rock’n’roll star. Mick Ronson supplies the riffs, while the band wear rock make-up and foot-high storm trooper boots. Bowiemania erupts. “That was the first really successful cross-pollination for me. I took what I had found exciting about Eastern culture, and kind of bastardised it and made it very colourful. What was going on in Japan, in graphics, or in fashion. A certain kind of look. A lot of the costume changes were nicked from Kabuki theatre, and I thought that was an interesting hybrid of East and West. Which I don’t think many people would associate with him.”
- STATION TO STATION (EMI, 1976)
- Sleeve from the movie The Man Who Fell To Earth. Inside no less bonkers: Kraftwerkian manoeuvres in title track, the weird funk of ‘Golden Years’, and ‘Wild Is The Wind’, by Dmitri Tiomkin, Bowie’s best cover version. “While I was living in California around ‘Station To Station’, I was experimenting with the new European sound, which is why there’s such a heartfelt response to Europe on that album, because I was getting pangs of homesickness, and I really was excited with what was going on there. And I got back in touch with Brian Eno. Those two things… I thought, ‘ This is going to be a wonderful avenue to take.’ “
- LOW (EMI, 1977)
- The cover’s a pun – a shot of Bowie in profile, suggesting the, ho ho, ‘low profile’ nature of the record. Half instrumental. Features excellent proto-Weller song ‘Be My Wife’. “It was made in France, but it was under the influence of the Dusseldorf bands – Harmonia, Kluster, Neu! and Kraftwerk. It was the Liverpool, or the Seattle of Germany. ‘Be My Wife’ owes a lot to Syd Barret, actually. Not Floyd themselves, you understand. He was just as important to Bolan, too. Boly and me used to look up to him as the man in the late ‘ 60’s. The fact he didn’t sing with an American accent was really important. ‘ Like, great, you can do rock’n’roll in English.’ “
- “HEROES” (EMI, 1977)
- Again, half instrumental. Title track arguably most enduring Bowie song. “That really plodding tempo and rhythm, both are from ‘ Waiting For The Man ‘ and the chord sequences are… what they are. I’d got over the majority of my emotional decline, and felt like I was coming back to who I should have been. I felt some substance in my emotional make-up, and I guess there was a certain healing going on, spiritually and emotionally. On that level it’s as much about me as it is about the protagonists in the song. ‘ We can get out of this. I’ll be OK, in my case.’ “