by Tony Horkins / International Musician
Tin White Duke Exclusive!
In an exclusive IM interview, Bowie casts a technical eye over his many collaborations past and present. By Tony Horkins
FROM A SMALL HOTEL bedroom in the heart of Paris I can hear the voice of DAVID BOWIE. Not on the radio, not on the stereo, not on the television, but in real life. David Bowie. He’s exchanging pleasantries with a gentleman from the Italian press, who emerges flushed with excitement from the room in a bright green David Bowie suit, circa 1986. Later, during my allotted 30 minutes or so with the man, the green suit will re-emerge to have its photo taken next to David and his musical chums. This is me and David, he’ll tell his friends. And, damn it all, they’ll be impressed.
MADONNA, JAGGER, JACKSON, Bowie; there aren’t that many musicians on the planet left to meet that you can impress your friends with. And I mean seriously impress. And not just your friends; there’s girlfriends, aunties, uncles – christ, even mums and dads want to know what he’s like.
So what is he like? As I’m escorted into the room, David (I think we can call him that) is strewn casually across an elegant yet comfortable sofa, with REEVES GABRELS, his right hand man, positioned appropriately on an armchair to his right. The familiar nicotine-enhanced voice bids a cheery hello, and his handshake is firm and long. Looking relaxed in a casually undone silk shirt and smart (yet casual) trousers, he’s smaller than you’d imagine, tanned, healthy looking, friendly and has an almost permanent smile on his face. As he talks he gets more animated as the subjects drift closer to his heart, hands waving and face contorting as he searches his mind for the answers, and Reeves is his perfect foil – easy in his company, understanding of his asides.
David Bowie isn’t known for his technical prowess, but as any good musician knows, technique should never be mistaken for talent. Bowie’s talent isn’t the result of hours spent studying nodal chord structures and mixing desk manuals, but as both a songwriter and producer he has naturally excelled. His personal musical history is almost the history of all things musical, with Bowie out front shaping change itself.
It’s been a long journey for Bowie, and the changes he’s seen in recording technology have been immense. It’s just a little under 30 years since the young David Jones got his first taste for what he could accomplish with a tape machine, and he remembers it like it was yesterday.
“It was upstairs in my bedroom in 4 Plaistow Grove, Bromley, on an Elizabethan tape recorder,” he says cheerfully. “Stereo? It was indeed a stereo tape recorder. I don’t know if I could get it stereo because it only had a mono speaker in it, but you could get an extension speaker. That was the first time, just voice and acoustic guitar.”
Bowie being Bowie, of course, he wasn’t content with just a voice and guitar. Even in 1963 in a back bedroom, overdubbing was the order of the day.
“I borrowed somebody else’s tape recorder. I was 15 or 16, and I’d just record a basic track on one tape machine, then play that back through the speaker, sing to it and play guitar parts over it onto the other tape recorder, backwards and forwards until there was nothing left but tape hiss, with the idea of a melody for a song way in the background. God, things haven’t really changed very much now – except you don’t get the tape hiss any more.”
BOYS KEEP MIXINGIt wasn’t long before young Jones was mixing with the big boys, and taking his first tentative steps into a professional recording studio.
“It was a studio that BILL WYMAN used to use out in Cricklewood. I did demos there because it was very, very cheap; stuff like London Boys. It was a four-track, I think – no tape hiss for ages. I was intrigued by the fact that you could keep going backwards and forwards. I do remember that mathematically we tried working out how many times you could go until it started hissing badly, and how, with pre-planning, you can reduce the amount of tracks you’ve got to do.
“But the most absurd situation I encountered when I was recording was the first time I worked with IGGY POP. He wanted me to mix Raw Power, so he brought the 24-track tape in, and he put it up. He had the band on one track, lead guitar on another and him on a third. Out of 24 tracks there were just three tracks that were used. He said ‘see what you can do with this’. I said, ‘Jim, there’s nothing to mix’. So we just pushed the vocal up and down a lot. On at least four or five songs that was the situation, including Search and Destroy. That’s got such a peculiar sound because all we did was occasionally bring the lead guitar up and take it out.”
Even though Bowie has assumed the role of producer on a number of occasions, the technology itself still passes him by.
“I’m absolutely hopeless. I know what I want when I’m doing my own solo things, and we (TIN MACHINE) know what we want when we’re working as a band. I think that’s probably half the battle. It’s like musicianship itself: it’s 0K to be a virtuoso, but unless you’ve got any ideas, being a virtuoso serves you no purpose at all. All you can do is paraphrase everything else you’ve heard before, or play very conservative, melodic lines. Just scales.”
So how good a player is David Bowie?
Gabrels: “He doesn’t have the bias of technique to hold him back. He comes up with these great parts that I would never have thought of, and that I really wish I did, which really pisses me off. He does that consistently.”
Bowie: “It’s 0K for me to break rules on instruments because I have no embarrassment – I don’t know if I’ve done anything wrong. Until it’s pointed out.”
Gabrels: “That’s the hardest thing with recording and playing. If you’ve acquired any sort of technique, it means breaking the rules that you’ve made yourself – forgetting the technique, thwarting the knowledge you’ve acquired, trying to forget what you know. That’s a cliché in itself, but it’s definitely true.”
Perhaps it was Bowie’s uninhibited approach to the studio that made a lot of his earlier recordings sound so experimental. To Bowie himself, he was just having fun.
“Funnily enough, I didn’t really think any of them were that experimental. I was always thwarted by the presumption that THE BEATLES had done everything anyway, so you might as well just get into the fun of it. It wasn’t until later that it became apparent that some of things we’d done were actually quite innovative in their own way, even the choice of musicians. That was essentially eclectic, to say the least, like bringing somebody like MIKE GARSON into THE SPIDERS. You wouldn’t think of bringing a fringe avant garde pianist into the context of a straight ahead rock and roll band, but it worked out well. It brought some really interesting textural qualities to the album that wouldn’t have had quite the same feel on it if Mike hadn’t been there. The track Aladdin Sane, for instance – I think that’s a really exciting track still.”
The innovation of early albums like Hunky Dory – and Aladdin Sane Bowie puts down mainly to the songwriting, but it was in 1974 with the recording of Diamond Dogs that the actual process of recording started to become more important.
“I don’t think I really got into messing about with recording technique until then, where it was virtually just myself doing everything. I played a great percentage of everything on Diamond Dogs, apart from the odd lead guitar, and the bass and drums. But most of the other lead guitars and the rhythm guitars and the keyboards, and saxophones, were just me. That was real playhouse stuff I just had a ball, with the late KEITH HARWOOD, who was the producer and engineer on that and who was a great buddy. I remember we were running backwards and forwards with ENO, who was in the studio next door doing Here Come The Warm Jets, and we were dashing in and out of each other’s studios. We hadn’t worked together then, but little did we know…”
It wasn’t long before Bowie and Eno formed their classic partnership, with a common aim.
“We both had the same ideas – that everything was shit, and we should fuck it up some more. The main thing was to make rock and roll absurd. It was to take anything that was serious and mock it. Diamond Dogs, as I remember it at the time, was trying to accomplish some great mockery of rock ‘n’ roll. It seemed to be part of my manifesto at the time, I don’t know why.
“One of the great strengths of the early ’70s was its sense of irony; MARC BOLAN was an extremely funny, witty man. There was a very strong sense of humour that ran throughout the early British bands; myself, ROXY MUSIC, Marc; we really thought a lot of it was a jest, and I think that hadn’t happened for a few years in rock. Whatever came out of early ’70s music that had any longevity to it generally had a sense of humour underlying it. Like THE SWEET were everything we loathed; they dressed themselves up as early ’70s, but there was no sense of humour there. They were humorous – we felt they were funny – but there was a real sense of irony about what we were doing.”
So were Bowie’s early characters merely a joke?
“Oh yeah, definitely.”
You mean Ziggy was just a joke?
“Well, not just a joke, but it was definitely a reaction to late ’60s seriousness, and the real murky quality that rock was falling into. I think a bunch of us adopted the opposite stance. I remember at the time saying that rock must prostitute itself. And I’ll stand by that. If you’re going to work in a whorehouse, you’d better be the best whore in it.”
It’s just possible, I suppose, that if you too had a video of yourself wearing thigh-length woollen leg warmers and a thunder stripe on your face, 15 years later you might wish to point out the subtle ‘irony’ of the situation, but the effect that Bowie had on the development of music was no joke at all. It was Bowie, in fact, who was one of the first commercially successful artists to embrace synthesizers.
“Yes, and not just to do classical reproductions. The idea was to fuck the sound up – give it some ‘woah, what’s that?’. 1973 was the first time I used synthesizers, on Let’s Spend The Night Together.”
The wobbly noise in the break?
“Yeah, that’s it, the wobbly noise in the break. It was an ARP 2600, and it had patch wires, but by the time I went onstage they’d already brought out the MiniMoog, and that’s what we adopted for live work; it was much more convenient to cart around the country.”
For a man known for embracing technology, it’s odd to find him in 1991 fronting Tin Machine, whose token nod to technology seems to stop at the brandishing of headless guitars. Why resist what technology has to offer when it’s getting so exciting?
“Well, it’s so strange, because it’s not a part of my character at all, technology. It’s not in my life.”
But it was always used to enhance your sound, so why the total abandonment?
“It’s their choice,” he says pointing to Reeves, now assuming the role of all three Tin Machine members that aren’t David Bowie. “It’s the way they play.”
Gabrels: “I’ve found, from a guitar player’s point of view, that I’m still convinced the guitar has got a world of sounds in it. The art for me lies in imposing a limitation, in sticking with this electric guitar.”
It’s true that, in Bowie’s music, the guitar has remained centre stage, and his choice of guitar players central to the development of his sound. In Gabrels, Bowie’s convinced he’s hit the jackpot.
“Not to embarrass him, but of any of the guitar players I’ve ever worked with, without doubt Reeves is musically the most accomplished. He’s an extraordinary musician, but he hides it very well, fortunately. Probably the nearest in those terms was FRIPP. In musicianship, Fripp and Reeves are probably on a par.”
It was Fripp, of course, who was responsible for the soaring guitar that underpinned Heroes. Rumours about the making of the track included the story that Bowie told Fripp it was to be an instrumental, thus ensuring carefree playing from beginning to end. Alas, the story isn’t true.
“The only premise that I gave him was to play with total abandonment, and in a way that he would never consider playing on his own albums. I said play like ALBERT KING, and he would look puzzled for a few moments, and then he’d go in and try his damnest to get somewhere near it, but it would come out his way. So things like Joe The Lion were him really having a bash at the Blues. He was great like that – he really got into the swing of it. He really liked the idea of me giving him an image or a guideline; it was his way of breaking what he normally does. If he went in with his own set of methods it would turn out recognizably like Fripp, but because I would throw this spanner in the works and give him two more signposts as to where to go, he would go ‘ah, right, I see what you mean,’ and he’d do something.
FRIPP SIDE “The problem with Fripp is that he doesn’t have a way of abandoning his own style. I’ve got to be terribly careful about this because I have an incredible respect for him as a player, but that’s the difference between him and Reeves. Eno is the bridge between the whole thing in that way. Eno knows how to stop his flow in a certain direction and create new channels, whereas very few musicians know how to do that. Once they’ve got a link with their abilities it’s all over in a way; they have a style. It’s a style that they’ll mature with, but it will keep re-presenting itself. Other than Eno, Reeves is one of the few people who knows how to change his streams of thought. He’ll present himself with his own obstacles – he doesn’t need me to give him obstacles.”
Whereas most solo artists would find the context of working in a band creatively stifling, Bowie actually finds the exact opposite. He talks of Tin Machine coming along at exactly the right time to give him the artistic freedom he needed.
“The band became my obstacle,” he explains. “They re-present me with ideas and also problems that I wouldn’t encounter working on my own, telling people what to do. You start to learn how to tell people how to do things, and that becomes a system. And once you’ve got a system you’re really fucked up. When you develop a system, that’s the time that you have to break it – and I needed to break it! Fortuitously, this band has done that for me. My system has been broken.”
Gabrels: “Within this band, there’s a total mistrust of a comfortable thing. As soon as it starts to feel like it’s our mode of operation, then we have to change the parameters.”
Bowie: “Everyone in this band has something they want to say musically. Somebody will do something in rehearsals, and rather than do the obvious, which is to say ‘no no, that’s not what we should be doing’, we say, ‘let’s go with that’. HUNT may suddenly turn the beat around or something, and your instinct is to say that’s not how it goes, and so rather than do that you tend to sit on your opinions. Suddenly you find that the band has turned around on itself and is doing something it wouldn’t have been doing ten minutes before.
“When that kind of flow stops, that’s when the band will stop.”
Until then, Tin Machine remains in full operation. And maybe, like the rest of Bowie’s career, it’ll all make a lot more sense in a few years’ time.