by George Byrne / Hot Press
17th November 1993
IN THIS age of grand Pop illusion it’s perhaps even more important to be aware of the chief conjurors of yesteryear, to see just how well artifice can be moulded into timeless artefacts. And throughout the Seventies there were few better sleight of hand magicians or, indeed, musical magpies than David Bowie.
For while his fellow Glam Giants Bolan and Ferry both had their obvious root sources in Chuck Berry and art-school chic respectively before blasting off on their idiosyncratic paths, Bowie devoured and disgorged genres at an astonishing rate, a jewelled jackal preying on seminal though half-formed scenes and adapting his way with a smart tune to his newly adopted surroundings.
Thus, between 1971 and ’80 Bowie’s unprecedented run of 26 hit singles reflected and often pre-empted styles which hadn’t yet become an accepted part of the musical mainstream. An assimilator rather than an innovator, his extraordinary talent for spotting coming trends and getting them into the charts – in many cases before the actual pioneers themselves – marked his first chart decade, and when his sources dried up it was exit stage left for Dame David.
But let’s not forget the remarkable Pop music which this 37-track collection leaves us to savour. The Glam era, when Bowie plundered the riffs and raggedy romance of the Velvets and The New York Dolls and added his dubious admiration for Dylan to unnerving effect, provides some of the album’s greatest moments. Adolescent memories aside, ‘Starman’, ‘Drive In Saturday’, ‘Life On Mars?’, ‘Ziggy Stardust’ and ‘The Jean Genie’ are great glowing gems, scattering images and addictive slabs of guitar (the late Mick Ronson on the form of his career) in an irresistible manner.
Tapping into the burgeoning Soulboy movement for ‘Young Americans’ and ‘Fame’, Bowie then entered one of the most interesting phases of his career. The rhythmic electro-funk of German band Neu provided the basis for Station To Station while the sparse, synthetic textures of their compatriots Kraftwerk were more in evidence on Low and Heroes, the singles from each of those 1977 albums – ‘Sound And Vision’ and ‘Heroes’ – perfectly capturing the fashionable alienation of the era, albeit using completely different musical methods.
New Romanticism (‘Ashes To Ashes’ and ‘Fashion’) was next to be added to Bowie’s CV (Culture Vulture?) and it’s after 1980 that things begin to tail off, although not before he went and had the best-selling album of his career with Let’s Dance, a patchy and confused effort which nonetheless yielded three excellent singles in the shape of ‘China Girl’, ‘Modern Love’ and the title track. And then Tin Machine beckoned.
The title of this album is a tad misleading as it most certainly isn’t a definitive gathering together of Bowie’s UK hits. By my calculations there are no less than 13 chart entries missing, including such notables as ‘Cat People’, ‘Loving The Alien’, ‘Peace On Earth/Little Drummer Boy’, ‘Never Let Me Down’, ‘Tonight’ and ‘The Laughing Gnome’. Still, when Bowie was at his best he was always ahead of the game, bringing androgyny, William Burroughs, Kraftwerk and more than a little glamour and true stardom to where it really matters: the charts.
Let all the children boogie!