David Bowie’s London

by Richard Godwin / The London Magazine

21st February 2013

On a rainy evening at dusk, as the London street scene turns from grey to orange and the shop signs flicker in the asphalt, it is still possible to stalk Ziggy Stardust around the West End. The catalogue of the Victoria & Albert Museum’s new David Bowie exhibition provides a handy guide to the key sites. You could start at the corner of Heddon Street, where the photographer Brian Ward captured the image for the front cover of the album that would make Bowie a superstar in 1972. The eerie streetlight and K West sign are gone, and the cardboard boxes have been replaced by expensive restaurants – but there is at least a plaque at number 23.

Not far from here is New Bond Street, where the teenage Bowie secured his first job as a trainee visualiser for an advertising agency. He would escape to Dobell’s record store on Charing Cross Road, where he would flick through the latest singles shipped over from America, and on to the Giaconda Café on Denmark Street, where the aspiring star would hustle music journalists, charm record company men and spar with Marc Bolan.

On Wardour Street, the legendary Marquee Club where Bowie played a series of incendiary gigs is gone (there now stands an upmarket Cuban bar and restaurant), as are the famous Mod haunts he frequented, The Flamingo and Tiles Club. But tucked into a side alley is Trident Studios, which occasionally runs tours on Thursday evenings. For a spell, this was London’s most state-of-the-art recording studio, complete with the first eight-track recorder to be used in the UK. The Beatles’ Hey Jude, Queen’s Bohemian Rhapsody, Elton John’s Rocket Man and David Bowie’s first classic albums – including Hunky Dory and Ziggy Stardust – were recorded here, and all featured the same piano.

But while you can still see Ziggy’s influence on any of the image-haunted young Londoners walking around the rain-slashed streets of Soho, the essence of Bowie is not here, among the gentrified pilgrimage sites of W1. You have to take in the other edges of London too. You have to return to the landscape that he came from: not some other planet, but some of London’s less-exciting suburbs.

As the late rock critic Ian MacDonald wrote, “Bowie’s modus operandi during the 1970s was transformation, acting out the suburban dream of escape into glamorous ‘otherness’ – hence his popularity among a very specific audience segment (and the total blank he registered with those for whom escape was not an issue).” In other words, to fall in love with David Bowie, it helps to be a teenager, to live in the suburbs – and, by extension, to be pretty unhappy about these things.

It happened to me about a quarter of a century after Bowie had scandalised the nation singing Starman on Top of the Pops, dressed as a weird, gay alien. One afternoon, mooching around my local library in Enfield, I found copies of The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars and Diamond Dogs in the CD section. I was vaguely familiar with Bowie as an ‘important’ figure in rock’n’roll, but I never really connected until I illegally copied those two albums onto each side of a 90-minute cassette tape (music piracy pre-dates the internet, it is often forgotten). I remember walking morosely around the suburbs, the apocalyptic visions coming from my Walkman soundtracking my own disconsolate fantasies. “Pushing through the market square / So many mothers sighing / News had just come over / We had five years left to cry in.” This was 1998, and London was a very different city to what it was in 1972, but still, I recognised it – and still, to take drugs and watch a band and jump in the river holding hands was about the pinnacle of my ambitions.

Bowie was born in Brixton in 1947, given the everyman name of David Jones by his father Haywood, a failed nightclub owner who wound up working for Dr Barnardo’s children’s charity, and mother Peggy. “That year saw the largest ever number of live births in Britain, which makes him literally one in a million,” as Geoffrey Marsh, co-curator of the V&A’s exhibition, points out – although since both parents had children from previous relationships, the family was not entirely conventional. Before the war, Brixton had been popular with music-hall performers as it was served by late-night trams from the West End, though its prior glamour was obliterated by German V-1 flying bombs during the Blitz. Bowie recalled the grey, bomb-scarred landscape of his early childhood as “dystopian”, but it was soon replaced by the relative calm of a pleasant cul-de-sac in Bromley, where the Jones family moved in 1953.

Bromley was where young David went to school (after failing his eleven plus, he opted for the new Bromley Technical High School over the local grammar school), discovered the unhinged rock’n’roll of Little Richard and formed his first band. When he left school in 1963 (having failed all of his O-levels except Art), he remained resident in Bromley until 1969 as he attempted to become a star. Though he signed the deals and cut the records in Soho, and fled London altogether in 1974, suburbia was the true landscape of Bowie’s early years. Escape was something he enacted – or attempted to enact – daily for almost a decade before Ziggy.

“Bowie’s identity as a Londoner was something to which he initially aspired rather than something that he grew up with,” says Charles Shaar Murray, an author and former editor of NME who was close to the Bowie circle in the early 1970s. “Bowie, like JG Ballard, was fascinated with the suburbs. One of his nicknames was Bromley Dave. Unlike The Small Faces or The Who, he was outside the great metropolis looking in. It’s no wonder that he was so thoroughly plugged into that zeitgeist: the suburban dreamer, seeking a way out to somewhere more interesting, trying to shake off the traces of that identity.”

For most of the 1960s, Bowie (or David Jones, as he was still known as) tried and mostly failed to make it in the music industry, getting by more through his charm than any strong sense of what he wanted to be. These were, essentially, his commuting years: he would arrive at Charing Cross station and drop in at the advertising agency, but spend most of his time trying to build his music career. Despite his precocious grasp of image (everyone remarked how fabulous he looked), most of the music that Bowie made in this period was imitative. Still, one early milestone was The London Boys, a cool evocation of taking amphetamines in Wardour Street, written in 1966: “You don’t give a damn about the jobs you’ve got / So long as you’re with the London boys,” Bowie sings. “The essence of being a London boy is wanting to be one,” as Shaar Murray points out.

The key influence on his metamorphosis from workaday singer to superstar proved to be Lindsay Kemp, a choreographer and mime artist whom Bowie met in 1968. At his flat above a strip club on Bateman Street in Soho, Kemp opened Bowie’s mind beyond contemporary rock. “He was suddenly involved with people who had a strong theoretical training in performance,” says Marsh. “That marked the point that he left the main railway line and went off on his own track. He understood the philosophy of theatre: that you can be anybody anywhere. When you see The Rolling Stones, they are just being The Rolling Stones. Most rock’n’roll is about being authentic. Bowie rejects all that and says ‘I’m going to be a piece of theatre’. He became about everything that is inauthentic.”

It seems curious, then, that when he finally did have his first true hit – Space Oddity in 1969 – Bowie retreated deeper into the suburbs. With his first wife Angie, he rented an apartment at Haddon Hall, a Gothic mansion with high silver ceilings and stained-glass windows in Beckenham. It was here that he and Angie watched the moon landings. Bowie once claimed that he saw an alien spaceship come to rest in the street. It was here too that he first dreamed up the persona of Ziggy Stardust. The Ziggy haircut was invented by local hairdresser Suzy Fussey, who went on to marry Bowie’s guitarist, Mick Ronson.

The house was the location for the famous picture on the front of his 1970 album, The Man Who Sold the World, in which a long-haired Bowie reclines in a dress on a chaise longue. Although it predates the Ziggy era, Marsh rates it as his most provocative image – and the one in which he most eloquently embodies that dream of escape. “Despite the suburban setting, it would be difficult to imagine anything that was a more emphatic rejection of his upbringing,” says Marsh. “He’s in a dress, he’s got long hair, he’s in women’s boots.”

It was a dream of otherworldliness that Londoners took to heart. Bowie acolytes, including a young Boy George, duly made Haddon Hall a pilgrimage site (sadly, it is now demolished). In 1974, the journalist Steve Turner wrote for Nova magazine that: “There are as many Bowie imitators in the stands at Millwall on a Saturday afternoon as there are in the canteen of the Royal College of Art on a weekday. One group sees him as rebellious, while the other sees him as creative and camp.”

That was the year that Bowie left London for good. Since then, he has lived in Los Angeles, Berlin and Lausanne, finally settling on New York, where he lives now and where he recorded his latest album The Next Day, out this month. But the London that remains is a city in Bowie’s image. He was one of the first to see the coming of punk. He was also the formative influence on post-punk clubland and the theatricality of the 1980s pop scene. “There’s also the way that he made pop’s gay subtext part of the text,” says Shaar Murray. “Even though Bowie was much gayer in theory than in practice, he contributed a fair amount to speeding up the process by which being gay was culturally normalised. Old Compton Street in its present form is part of the Bowie inheritance.”

Above all he has helped bring the outsiders inside. “He championed the power of the imagination in rock,” continues Shaar Murray. “He was a celebration of difference, a normalisation of diversity. And that’s part of what makes London the great city it is.”

David Bowie is, at the V&A from 23 March to 28 July 2013, in partnership with Gucci, sound experience Sennheiser. vam.ac.uk

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