The Byronic Man

by Charles Shaar Murray / The Face

October 1984

Nobody makes records anymore. They make videos. David Bowie has a new record; but more to the point, a new video. If anyone can reconcile the three-minute single with the television screen, Bowie can. His video for “Blue Jean” is a cinematic short, a narrative with song. In it, Bowie indulges his penchant for novel guises by playing both Screamin’ Lord Byron, the star, and Vic, the nerd. To discover the outcome, we watched Bowie at work.


David Bowie’s horoscope, Daily Mirror August 9, 1984.

CAPRICORN (Dec 21-Jan 19): A good time to project a confident image. Make sure you are seen at the right places at the right time. Religion, philosophy and occult matters interest you now.

“What we’re doing here is bringing back the talkies,” David Bowie announces self-mockingly. His livid mask recalls the white-faced clowns and demons of the Commedia del’Arte and the grotesque disguises of the early cinema: pallor so extreme as to suggest a powerful but distinctly unhealthy light juxtaposed with swirling, smoky shadows. His amiable but vulpine grin seems thoroughly incongruous in this ghastly settings. The dark, sandy hair is immaculately styled, but it is streaked with an unpleasant-looking gel that suggests that an asthmatic dog has just coughed on his head.

Ten-thirty a.m. in a fifth-floor ballroom in West London. Bowie has been in make-up for a little over two hours. Outside, Kensington High Street is about to spend the day baking until it glazes over. If you follow the street far enough west you end up in Hammersmith, but the High Street takes its role of linking the well-heeled bohemia of Holland Park and the crisp upper crust of Knightsbridge very seriously. During the early Seventies, designer and entrepreneur Barbara Hulanicki took over the crumbling Derry & Toms department store and turned it into the most grandiose incarnation thus far of what had begun as a boutique called Biba’s. The upstairs ballroom became an extremely chic little venue, host to everything from the Twenties kitsch of The Pasadena Roof Orchestra to the high-octane insolence of The New York Dolls. A memorable wee soiree that was… the potted palms probably never recovered. Neither did the security staff, who had to move in to prevent a couple of the Dolls from a little selective shoplifting – women’s stuff it was too! Life was a good deal less complicated in the early Seventies.

Now the ballroom is principally used for conventions and banquets, but today The Rainbow Room is having something of a fling, an event worthy of past glories. The old stage at the far end of the room has been refurbished into a straight-faced re-creation of Hollywood’s cheesiest Arabian nightclub set, all braziers and rugs and cushions and hookahs. David Bowie is commencing the second day of shooting on a new video to accompany (as these things generally do) a new single called “Blue Jean” under the direction of Julien Temple, firmly accepted after his Sex Pistols movie and his popvid work with ABC, The Kinks and the Rolling Stones as absolutely it in this racket.

The ballroom floor is ringed with tables. In the arena, Temple marshalls his crew, darting from camera to monitor, conferring with choreographer David Toguri and then heading backstage to consult Bowie.

Phyllis Cohen is putting the finishing touches to Bowie’s make-up. Her reference is a garish handbill depicting Bowie, face frozen to its utmost haughtiness and streaked with the black-and-white deathmask which she has just re-created on the living countenance. The handbill announces an appearance of Screamin’ Lord Byron (The Byronic Man) at The Bosphorus Club.

“This is going to be like the old-style Fifties short,” explains Bowie. “The song definitely takes second place to the plot and the characters. There’s quite a lot of dialogue and different parts of the song crop up in different places. It’s about a boy, a girl and a rock star. The rock star gets the girl,” he adds with a grin.

Isn’t that a little predictable?

“Not the way we’re doing it! Just wait and see.

“I think we can promise you,” he adds, “a long, boring day with spasmodic outbreaks of interest.”

 

David Toguri is leading his team of ten dancers through a last-minute revision of their routine. Six men in zoot suits, four women in tight, dramatic gowns stalk and twirl around the catwalk built out from the stage. A naggingly familiar figure in blue shirt and cream slacks is seated quietly at one of the tables. He is lean, sharp-featured and sandy-haired and from across a room could almost be mistaken for David Bowie.

In fact, his name is Ian Ellis and he’s an engineering student and he is the registered David Bowie clone at ‘Lookalikes’ model agency, whom he contacted after being told over and over again how much he resembled Bowie. He’s enthusiastic about the idea of getting work as ‘himself’, but here his services are required so that Bowie can play a dual role in the video. “Still,” he says, “it’s better than looking like Christopher Lee.”

As the dancers continue working over key steps, the new tune, “Blue Jean”, spills out of the speakers to fill the room. A chugging rock and roll nugget with an explosive alto sax break to supercharge the chorus, it awakens instant memories of Marc Bolan and the Rolling Stones (as well as the less harrowing sections of Bowie’s own “Diamond Dogs”). Bowie emerges from his dressing room to listen. An old friend has shown up with a copy of his old school photographs, unleashing a flood of reminiscences of Bromley High School, 1959. Excitedly identifying half-forgotten teachers (“Oh God he was a bastard, this bloke!”) and mates (“Now he used to get all the girls”), he points out his art teacher, Peter Frampton’s father, who created an arts course so progressive that “it was almost like being at art school from eleven years old onwards.”

Julien Temple looks highly abstracted. His manner is perpetually rumpled: his shirt bags out of his pants and he is wearing the most bizarre pair of shoes clocked so far this decade. Based on Japanese shoes split between the big toe and the rest to accommodate sandal-straps, they have been copied from the canvas prototypes into soft black leather and lend Temple’s feet an unsettling, two-toed unhuman look, something like Nightcrawler in Marvel’s X-Men. “I never wear anything else,” he says, “especially for meetings with Hollywood producers.” Temple helped develop the storyboards for “Blue Jean” from Bowie’s plot and roughs, and then the two of them brought in playwright Terry Johnson to fine-tune the dialogue.

“Bowie’s not only very interested in film, but he has a lot of knowledge about it,” says Temple.

“I get a lot of input from him, which is very different from the Stones, who always want you to do everything yourself.”

The three musicians who’ve been hired to mime to the music are set up on stage with their black brocaded waistcoats, sashes and baggy pants, clutching their matching rented black Fenders. They are all from different bands (drummer Paul works with Physique, bassist Richard is now lead singer with Ian Flesh, and Daryl the guitarist plays with The Blondini Brothers) and got the jobs by auditioning, but Bowie later becomes sufficiently enthusiastic about their musical abilities to talk excitedly about using them as his real-life backing band for a charity show that he is planning for some unspecified future date.

By now things are running drastically late, but no-one seems flustered. A hundred extras, rounded up from the Wag Club by Chris Sullivan from Blue Rondo a la Turk, are filtered through from the hall in which they have been waiting and told to leave all their bags outside. Bowie has always had an uncanny ability to enter rooms so unobtrusively that he often seems to have just materialised by the time that you get around to spotting him, and so he appears genie-like near the stage in a real Aladdin suit: black pants, silver-grey tunic and a riot of scarves.

“I wish I’d thought of this in ’74,” he deadpans, gesturing at his outfit.

The first section of the performance to be filmed is a tricky little set-piece wherein Bowie starts out holding one end of a long ribbon, the other end of which is tagged to the head of Richard’s bass. The move that Bowie and Toguri have concocted requires Bowie to snatch the ribbon loose, run two steps forward and fling said ribbon to the back of the stage, but it takes a few goes to get it right. One take collapses when the ribbon refuses to detach itself from the bass in time, another when it doesn’t reach the back of the stage, and a third when one of the scarves in Bowie’s costume ends up over his face.

Bowie performs “Blue Jean” in the role of Screamin’ Lord Byron, a device which enables him to revisit the extravagant role-playing in which he indulged a dozen years ago, but this time he caricatures his old approach with considerable deftness. As he slides confidently through Toguri’s routine, his movements are fluid and decisive. The choreographer watches approvingly. A show of his is opening tonight, but he displays no anxiety about the increasing lateness of the hour. “I’ve missed opening nights before,” he shrugs.

“Bowie moves like a wave,” he says, “there is a weight behind his movements, a real authority. And he makes every move his own. I can’t make him move like I do, but I can give him moves that he can make his own. His concentration is extraordinary.”

The closing section of the song is shot over and over again for angle variation: Bowie moves down the catwalk in a dazzling display of dips, hipshots and kicks, seizing one of the dancers and flinging her into the arms of one of her partners. The dancers and extras move in close as the song ends, clocking their fingers to applaud.

At length Temple declares himself satisfied. Bowie disappears to climb out of his Screamin’ suit and wash off Phyllis Cohen’s make-up.

 

It’s getting on for midnight and the action switches to a ringside table where sits Bowie, in his other characterisation as Vic, an earnest nerd who has blagged his dream girl (played by Louise Scott and named, as it happens, Dream) into coming out with him so that he can introduce her to The Star.

Wearing a powder-blue suit and a blood-stained piece of Elastoplast on his nose, he pushes his way through the extras towards the stage, where an assistant director is wearing the Screamin’ pants and boots. Sitting on the edge of the catwalk, he treats the performer to just what everyone needs to hear when they’re working. “We’re at a table in the corner!” he shouts. “I think you’re doing really great – they really like ya!” Suddenly Screamin’s boot comes down hard on his hand, and he retreats towards the table mournfully clutching the injured appendage.

They run through various sight gags: Vic gestures commandingly for champagne and it is delivered from the opposite direction. His discomfiture is complete. Bowie goes to wallyhood.

By 1.50 everybody except Bowie is showing signs of exhaustion. The air is turning foul and everybody has run out of cigarettes. Bowie’s right-(and left-)hand person Corinne Schwab controls a secret stash of Marlboros in her handbag, and Julien Temple is believed to have a packet of Rothmans somewhere. Ian Ellis, the lookalike, is wearing Screamin’s off-stage drag: powdered and puffed like a Regency rake in a ludicrous velvet frock-coat, he resembles Adam Ant on a bad day. Bowie is chatting to the desperately bored Louise Scott as they await the arrival of The Great Man.

“Must be ‘ard to get all that make-up off,” he mutters uneasily as the club empties and the star does not emerge. “Must take time… well, it ‘as taken time.” Suddenly Ellis swaggers into shot, and slides into the vacant chair on Louise’s other side. “Ello mate! Sorry, I’m very rude… allow me to introduce… ” his voice dies away as Ellis ignores him, takes Louise’s hand and stares into her eyes.

CUT! It’s time to swap over: for the evening’s final shot, Ellis will become the hapless Vic and Bowie will incarnate Screamin’ once more. The beer has run out as well as the cigarettes, but Bowie wanders over to share his can before disappearing back to the dressing room for yet another round of make-up and costuming.

“Tiring, this acting lark innit?” he announces. He describes a tune from the forthcoming album “Tonight” which deals with “the problem of accepting someone else’s religion” and is called “Loving The Alien”. The song also concerns certain matters of Biblical history and alludes to the Templar-Saracen conflict and the political cover-up through the ages of various circumstances surrounding the death of Jesus. He mentions a booked called The Jesus Scrolls: I recommend The Holy Blood And The Holy Grail. “Martin Scorsese and Paul Schrader have been trying for some time to put together a movie on that subject called The Last Testament. They’ve got Harvey Keitel to play Pontius Pilate and I think at one point it was supposed to be De Niro as Jesus, but now I think they’re going for an unknown. Strangely enough, they can’t raise a cent of finance for it in America…”

A squad of extremely large and intimidating men have been assembled to play Screamin’s bodyguards. With their pale blue tunics, dark blue pants, holstered guns and motorcycle helmets, they look like American coppers after the privatisation of the police force. With Ellis togged up in Vic’s blue suit and stained Elastoplast, Bowie – all velvet, buckles, bows and beauty spot – is hoisted off the stage by his minders to make his way over to the table to ignore Vic and make his exit with the Dream.

At ten past four, it’s a wrap. At the end of a 21-hour day, Bowie is still fresh enough to hang around and shoot the breeze.

David Bowie’s horoscope, Daily Mirror, August 17, 1984.

CAPRICORN (Dec 21-Jan 19): For those of you in the limelight this is an excellent spell. Holidays are well-starred. Weddings and christenings seem likely. Listen to good advice.

 

Eight days later the company reconvene at The Wag Club in Wardour Street, a location decided upon after Shepperton (home of The Who’s business interests and Britain’s Greatest Living Novelist J.G. Ballard) had been nixed. Formerly the Whisky A Go Go, the Wag is tricked out in African murals, kidney-shaped stools and booths upholstered in faded blue plush. Spandau Ballet no longer hang out there, and the toilet seat is loose. The Wag’s stage backs onto a huge picture window covered in pink and blue translucent panels and providing a panoramic view of Gerrard Street, London’s Chinatown.

A circular track for the camera has been laid around the stage and the drum kit is set up in position. The purpose of today’s shoot is to tape a straight-ahead, informal performance vid of “Blue Jean” for MTV, the noted protectors and defenders of Black music in America.

They have invited Bowie to participate in an awards ceremony, but since a trip to New York right now is neither feasible or even desirable, he’ll be sending a video billet-doux to represent him at Radio City Music Hall. Everybody concerned is adamant that this clip – much more of a ‘conventional’ item than the sardonic playlet filmed the previous week – is strictly for one-time-only use, despite the fact that it would fit far more easily into the run-of-the-vid-mill pop show.

Temple, as absorbed as ever, is wearing a crumpled white shirt, black leather pants and moccasins. “Bowie is just getting better and better as an actor,” he says, “and the guy is so acute and precise about what he wants. It’s quite amazing to see, actually. I’d like to do a feature with him at some point. On this thing, I’ve never seen a video crew get so involved with a performer. It’s extraordinary in the music field to have someone who understands film like Bowie because film and music don’t often mix. The energy is different because of the hours that you have to spend waiting around.

“He’s also very considerate of the problems that the crew might have with lighting, or just working the long hours. He’s very supportive, which is… unusual. When I was younger, Bowie was really important to me, and he has kept changing in interesting ways where other people haven’t. I think maybe he’s done that a little too much at certain times, but he’s always drawn ideas from the street and been in a position to put them out before maybe the people who instigated those ideas. It’s very, very difficult to stay ahead of the game like that. I think he’s unique in that sense, and I’ve always respected that.”

At 1.30 sharp, Bowie’s blue Mercedes pulls up outside the Wag. He zooms through the crowd and heads straight upstairs: absolute hush is immediately called so that some dialogue from the previous week’s shooting can be re-recorded. When he and Temple have lift-off on that, extras are shifted in and carefully spread around the stage.

A stool has been set up onstage, and Bowie appears next to it in a seriously disruptive black and white print jacket from Culture Shock clutching an Ovation acoustic guitar. Temple’s sound men run the tape and Bowie moves through the song, getting rid of guitar, jacket and shoes by halfway through the take. The second time around he begins the number sitting on the stool (“I feel like Segovia,” he grins) before handing the guitar to a girl sitting on the stage, dumping the jacket and trying out a few Elvis Presley knee-wobbles. A sax player brandishing one of those cream plastic alto saxophones that Ornette Coleman used to play has been added to the ensemble, and when he blows along with the track he’s wildly out of tune, but he looks the part and that is the order of today’s business.

The third time through, Temple, clutching a can of lager, is staring tight-lipped at his monitor screen and Bowie knocks his stool over when he gets up, but he’s creating new bits of business all along. Towards the end he grips a girl (wearing the kind of sailor cap that Bowie wore on the ‘Stage’ tour in 1978) between his knees and rocks her body as he sings. She looks thrilled.

Between takes Bowie chats to extras and the sax player or sits on his stool strumming the Ovation, improvising flamenco lines, little modal riffs and even absently playing a snatch of “Space Oddity”. A bleary eyed extra wanders up to confide eagerly that this video is being re-shot because the original was “too raunchy for the BBC”. We listen spellbound to his revelations.

“Okay, let’s do this PLEASE,” bawls Temple and they go for it again, Bowie swinging his jacket off for a string of bullfight moves and ending the song with a perfect Elvis pose. As the extras applaud him, he bows and applauds them. At five to four they break to re-lay the rails for the camera. Bowie and Temple go into a huddle to discuss the spoken introduction to the track; Temple suggests, “My fellow citizens, we have just outlawed America.” Bowie promises to go upstairs and write himself some lines.

The MTV gala is to be held at New York’s Radio City Music Hall, and Bowie has mixed memories of the place: he played his first big New York show there in 1973, and fainted onstage towards the end of the set. “It was pure nerves that caused that,” he remembers. “I was absolutely terrified. Also I’d had some make up done by Pierre Laroche – not Guy Laroche, Pierre Laroche – and he did some brilliant things, but he used glitter on me for the first time, and it ran in my eyes. I did the whole show almost blind.”

The Wag brings back some memories for him as well, especially after he discovers that it’s the old Whisky A Go Go. “Good Lord… yes, I used to come here quite a lot. They played mainly a James Brown style of music in those days. I remember a lot about those days…” – he points out of the window – “Pete Townshend’s flat used to be just over there.

The rails have now been laid in a straight line from the front of the stage towards the bar. The air-conditioning has had to be switched off since it ruffles the gels over the lights, and the humidity has risen alarmingly. Our extra friend with all the inside information staggers up, oh-wowing all over the place, shakes hands with Bowie, who reacts with a mixture of warm amiability and polite incredibility. He asks Bowie if all the extras are actually going to be seen. Bowie reassures him, looks him in the eyes and announces, “‘E’s got Townshend’s eyes!” This is not strictly accurate. Our friend’s eyes may be bloodshot, but they are not blue.

“That guy’s got almost the same kind of sax I used to have,” he remembers. They’re called Grafton. Used to be made by this company in Grafton Street. They don’t make saxes any more” – he grimaces – “they make bombs.” He excuses himself to write his introductory remarks.

Fashion accessory of the day: a copy of Jean-Paul Sartre’s Age Of Reason, worn in the back pocket.

By 5.10 he has written the magic words and a live microphone is set up for him to deliver them. “Good evening! This is David Bowie and his band The Aliens giving you a big welcome from sophisticated down-town Soho with a lunchtime gig… and our first number is called ‘Blue Jean’.”

He tries it again: “You weady to wock and woll? This is David Bowie, his band The Aliens and some of the prettiest people still standing after a lunchtime gig…”

By 5.25 he’s got it down perfectly: ” …and the only people still standing after a lunchtime gig. This is for all our friends in the American Empire, and we’d like to launch into the first of our lunchtime songs… ”

This one gets it. “Now we’d like to do for you,” cries Bowie to howls for more, “the groove on the end of the record!” Even Bleary is dancing now and by the time Bowie and Temple decide to overdub live backing vocals and handclaps by the audience over the existing track, a kind of crazy heatstruck euphoria has gripped the entire room.

“WOOOOOOHHHHHH,” everybody chants, “THE WHOLE HUUUUUUMAN RACE!”

I wouldn’t have missed it for the world.

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