11th January 1999
He calls himself ‘Mr Plod’, likes slapping Spice Girls and telling Tony lair off. Now the new, Internet-obsessed David Bowie tells Andrew Davies that he’s even thinking about bringing back Ziggy Stardust.
Ziggy Stardust, the Thin White Duke, Aladdin Sane… and now Mr Plod. Meet David Bowie’s latest incarnation although you might argue this one lacks the glamour of his previous personas. Unshaven, barely out of bed and sporting an unbuttoned Hawaiian shirt and shorts, ‘Mr Plod’ spends each morning joining the thousands of other Internet addicts in chat rooms around the world from his Bermudan hideout.
“I like Mr Plod, he is very popular, although Panda was big too and a hyphen [-] but I got tired of the Prince joke very quickly,” says Bowie about his various online pseudonyms. “I get one that I like, then get bored after a week and change it. I even used ‘David Bowie’ a couple of times, because that’s the one name no one would expect me to use. The trouble is I’m always so big-mouthed that people suss me out after about 15 minutes. I say some damn stupid thing and people say: ‘Oh we know who you are.'”
Bowie is more than just an avid net surfer though; he liked the medium so much he set up his own Internet Service Provider, BowieNet, joining such companies as Tesco, Dixons, Sainsbury’s Virgin and Amnesty International in allowing his name to be used as a brand to attract new customers to the net. What members get for the £10.40 a month are the usual Internet privileges (access to the mountains of news and junk cluttering up cyberspace), plus a glorified fanclub for Bowie afficionados, complete with rare photos (Bowie in just a pair of tight white underpants playing the saxophone), a discography, online interviews, news about tours and records as well as a regularly updated personal journal full of Dave’s thoughts and reminiscences. Recent entries include memories of Sunday lunch with his family in the Fifties, and the first 45s his dad brought home to listen to. In a voyeuristic way, or if you’re a fan, it’s fascinating material and there are some touching entries about his wife of six years Iman. There’s also book reviews (he’s been reading the likes of 19th-century novelist Thackeray), and Bowie’s own thoughts on other web sites (he’s a big fan of pages dedicated to William Burroughs). Bowie fans can also get that much closer to the star with their own David Bowie e-mail address (firstname.lastname@example.org).
While BowieNet isn’t merely a glorified merchandising stall like many other fan club sites, there is access to Bowie’s art – prints for £75 a throw or £200 signed – and it does look like he takes pride in its appearance. Bowie, 51, says he’s online for the first few hours every day and goes into chat rooms about four times a week lured by the humorous exchanges as much as anything else. This month BowieNet features online chats with the likes of Eddie Izzard, Ronan Keating and Brian Molko for those keen to have a one-to-one with their heroes. Bowie may take a back seat, and he relishes the anonymity of cyberspace where he can indulge his whimsy for silly names. When asked about his favourite sites he is as puerile as most other net addicts. “I am the first one to pop off to the ‘slap a Spice Girl’ site and the ‘punch a Hanson’. And I really like the site called virtual autopsy. You get to take an entire body apart,” he says with relish before suddenly changing tack when he realises how this might sound. “But there are some nice serious ones as well. Me missus told me to go and look at 10 Downing Street which is very good,” he says in a mockingly stern tone.
In recent years Bowie has shown himself to be the most financially astute of rock stars although he is unlikely to make money from BowieNet – “it won’t even keep me in cigs”. As Chris Mitchell, online editor of the Internet magazine .net says: “It’s a promotional thing, a David Bowie franchise market and it’s deliberately designed to appeal to Bowie fans. There are a million things he could do to make money, but he does seem genuinely interested in the medium and it’s a good deal for the fans.”
While sales of his last few albums like Earthling have been relatively poor after a peak in the mid to late Eighties, Bowie has suddenly catapulted himself to the top of the list of wealthy pop stars with some astute marketing. Last year he issued bonds on the stock market on the basis of sales of his back catalogue which put £30 million in his pocket. BowieNet has already been valued at £300 million although like many Internet-based businesses it is not generating any profits as Bowie himself admits. Just the sort of thrusting entrepreneurial spirit that has led to invitations to dine at Number 10 with the Blairs, arguing among other things about the relative merits of political web sites: “I told Blair that I didn’t like the Labour site, it’s still stodgy.”
He doesn’t seem worried by the idea of becoming a brand name like Tesco, his records marketed like tins of baked beans. Where is the artist in all this? “It doesn’t affect me as Jonesy (Bowie was born plain old David Robert Jones back in 1947). Bowie was always a poster boy, his is the thing that goes out there in the entertainment world and Jonesy can stay at home. Anyway I have this very ambivalent feeling about this public figure/private figure idea. I really don’t give a fuck. The site doesn’t present itself as a marketing tool for my records, And I don’t want to ever reduce it to that.”
While he released the single Telling Lies last year exclusively through the Internet, his latest venture, offering a fan the change to co-write a song with him through BowieNet, has run into trouble with hackers who have been rigging the result. “I know who it is, I’ve got his number,” says Bowie with a mischievous laugh. “But don’t mention hacking, you bastard, or I’ll be getting all that ‘had a quick J Arthur [Rank]’ written all over my journals!”
Unlike many of the corporate predators on the Internet, Bowie seems to have much the same attitude as the average user, but then he can afford to. Whereas record companies now employ online music cops to track down pirated recordings and unofficial sites, Bowie is happy to see them flourish. “I am absolutely not into shutting them down, in fact quite the reverse. I like the idea of a network community. If I was 19 again, I’d bypass music and go straight to the Internet. When I was 19, music was still the dangerous communicative future force, and that was what drew me into it, but it doesn’t have that cache any more. It’s been replaced by the Internet which has the same sound of revolution to it.”
For rock stars, the cyberspace revolution has provided a way to bypass the chicanery of the record business hierarchy. Although Bowie is not the first to look at ways around the record companies, he has been the most astute. Prince escaped from the clutches of Warner’s, and then launched his own label and bypassed the entire record company process by selling his albums directly on the Internet, but he now sells far fewer records. Last month Public Enemy’s Chuck D was stopped from releasing tracks online by record company bosses, but notched up credibility points for his stand against them.
Bowie has gained kudos again for his initiatives on the Internet. Computerworld, America’s leading computer magazine, listed him in their top 25 innovators for 1999, the only entertainment figure on the list. With his newly-found financial clout, Bowie could become more of a force as a businessman than a pop star, although he is also talking about resurrecting Ziggy stardust this year in a multimedia project incorporating a film, CD, the net and a stage show. His old fans would welcome the return of the stilettos, make-up and frocks from the heyday of Glam. Many were surprised that he didn’t come up for air during last year’s Glam revival, centred around Todd Haynes film Velvet Goldmine, which unashamedly drew on Bowie and Iggy Pop as its role models. So what did he think about Glam being big again?
“Was it really?” he says in his campest ‘suits you sir’ voice. “I felt that it was a synthetic recycling on the back of the belief that Velvet Goldmine would be a smash movie and be able to sell all those spin-off books and records. It was PR led. It didn’t come from the streets. When I saw the film I thought the best thing about it was the gay scenes, the only successful part of the film frankly. The film didn’t understand how innocent everyone was then about what they were getting into,” he says pausing for a moment. “Also there was a lot more shopping – trawling around Liberty’s looking for fabric. It was hysterical.”
Almost as funny as Bowie’s own cyberspace odyssey, which has seen him transformed from a man who spent a good deal of the Seventies totally wired on cocaine, to end up just plain wired in 1999.