David Bowie: sound, not vision

By Daniel Margrain

The eulogizing in the media of David Bowie since his death last week has predictably been widespread. The consensus view is that Bowie was a trailblazer of musical trends and pop fashion, an innovator and visionary, an artist of unparalleled significance within the musical landscape of rock and roll and electronic music. Adam Sweeting in the Guardian, said of Bowie: “His capacity for mixing brilliant changes of sound and image underpinned by a genuine intellectual curiosity is rivalled by few in pop history.”

The obituary section of the Telegraph, described Bowie as “a rock musician of rare originality and talent”, while Jon Pareles in the New York Times claimed that “Mr.Bowie was his generation’s standard-bearer for rock as theater: something constructed and inflated yet sincere in its artifice, saying more than naturalism could”.…According to Pareles, “He also pushed the limits of “Fashion” and “Fame,”

Mark Beaumont of the NME appeared to go one further by claiming that Bowie’s influence on popular culture:

“simply cannot be overstated. From psychedelic folk rock to glam rock, plastic soul, avant garde experimentalism and beyond, Bowie’s relentless innovation and reinvention was one of the great driving forces of modern music and his impact reached into fashion, performance art, film and sexual politics. While his songs, consistently accessible no matter how difficult the style he explored, inspired countless musicians across a vast tapestry of rock music which he helped weave as he went.”

On the morning following Bowie’s death, and in echoing the kinds of platitudes of superficial pop stars like Madonna and Lady Ga Ga, LBC host James O’Brien devoted half of his three hour programme eulogizing about the alleged innovator and genius, inviting fans to phone in and reminisce about the pop star. With an apparent straight face, O’Brien, a former music critic, stated that Bowie’s 1971 album Hunky Dory was “probably the greatest rock album of all-time.”

These kinds of comments have been the excepted wisdom in mainstream critical circles since Bowie hit super stardom in 1972 with the album Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars, a work that in many ways came to define him. Under the tag line, David Bowie: Visionary singer and songwriter who for five decades exerted a huge influence on pop and rock, Chris Salewicz reminded his readers of the historical continuum that underpinned the iron clad critical consensus:  “The man is a stone genius,” effused New York’s Village Voice, in the parlance of the times, “and for those who have been waiting for a new Dylan, Bowie fits the bill. He is a prophet, a poet – and a vaudevillian. Like Dylan, his breadth of vision and sheer talent could also exercise a profound effect on a generation’s attitudes.”

In Britain, the critical acclaim bestowed on Bowie is arguably only second to the Beatles. But in the cold light of day, to what extent does the man and his work stand up to proper investigative critical scrutiny? The independent music critic, Piero Scaruffi, whose words I transcribed and edited below, offers some invaluable (and corrective) insights into the mythology that surrounds the man, his music and his art. This is Scaruffi’s critique of Bowie. It’s a critique that I share:

“David Bowie turned marketing into the essence of his art. All great phenomena of popular music, from Elvis Presley to the Beatles, had been, first and foremost, marketing phenomena (just like Coca Cola and Barbie before them); However, Bowie  turned it into an art of its own. Bowie with the science of marketing becomes art; art and marketing had become one.

There were intellectuals who had proclaimed this theory in terms rebelliousness. Bowie was, in many ways, the heir, no matter how perverted, of Andy Warhol’s pop art and of the underground culture of the 1960s. He adopted some of the most blasphemous issues and turned them upside down to make them precisely what they had been designed to fight: a commodity.

Bowie was a protagonist of his times [who] embodied the quintessence of artificial art, raising futility to paradigm, focusing on the phenomenon rather than the content, and who made irrelevant the relevant, and, thus, was is the epitome of everything that is wrong with rock music.

Each element of his art was the emblem of a true artistic movement; However, the ensemble of these emblems constituted no more than a puzzle of symbols, no matter how intriguing, a dictionary of terms rather than a poem, and, at best, a documentary of the cultural trends of his time. As a chronicler, the cause of the sensation was the show, not the music.

In fusing theatre, mime, film, visual art, literature and music, the showman Bowie was undoubtedly in sync with the avant-garde. However, Bowie merely recycled what had been going on for years in the British underground, in what in particular had been popularized by the psychedelic bands of 1967. And he turned it into a commodity: whichever way you look at his oeuvre, this is the real merit of it.

Arguably, his most famous album, Ziggy Stardust (1972) represented a relative quantum leap forward from what went before. The culmination of a behind the scenes refining of his image by a new manager, his signing to a new and more powerful label, the utilization of a much more sophisticated production and, with the talents of Rick Wakeman on keyboards and Mick Ronson on guitar at his disposal, Bowie’s “art” represented the peak of the fad for rock operas.

The album is nevertheless a cartoonish melodrama that recycles cliches of decadent and sci-fi literature. Its popularity was due as much to the choreographic staging as it was to the music. The latter relies on magniloquent pop ballads (such as Five Years , the piano-heavy Lady Stardust , almost a send-up of Warren Zevon, the shrill gospel hymn Ziggy Stardust, Moonage Daydream (with a folkish sax solo reminiscent of the Hollywood Argyles and a shower of strings), arranged in such a manner to make the baroque ‘Tommy’ by the Who sound amateurish.

Bowie’s melodic skills shone in the grand soaring refrains of Starman and Rock And Roll Suicide, that were de facto tributes to the old tradition of Tin Pan Alley. The album displayed the half-hearted stylistic variety of latter-day Beatles albums, from the soul-jazz tune Soul Love to the martial folk-blues shuffle It Aint ‘Easy. Hang On To Yourself is a whirling boogie dance as is Suffragette City. The latter, in particular is a quintessentially hysterical breathless Who-style boogie and perhaps his career standout.

The track exudes the languid existentialism of the ballads, confronting Bowie’s erotic futuristic cabaret from the vantage point of teenage angst. Certainly the whole worked well as a postmodernist analysis of show business’ cliches. Credit for the production quality goes to Ken Scott (who Bowie defined as “my George Martin”) and new guitarist Mick Ronson: all the arrangements were designed from them (the string arrangements are all Ronson). Scott did all the mixing alone.

Bowie’s “heartbreaking” vocals were so exaggerated that they sounded like a parody of sorts. Ditto the kitschy arrangements. The concept was, first and foremost, a caricature. By fusing Scott Walker’s melodramatic style, Jacques Brel’s weltschmerz, Zen mysticism, McLuhan’s theory of the medium, Andy Warhol’s multimedia pop art and Oscar Wilde’s fin de siecle decadence, Bowie coined the ultimate revisionist and self-reflective act of the most revisionist and self-reflective decade.

For better and for worse, Ziggy marked the end of the myth of rock sincerity and spontaneity: the star was no longer a teenager among many, a “working-class everyman,” and, above all, the star was no longer “himself” but rather a calculating inventor of artificial stances and attitudes. His stance indirectly mocked and ridiculed the messianic aura of rock music.

Not much of a musical genius, but certainly a terrific showman, diligent student of Hollywood’s mythology, living impersonation of the Gothic iconography (Dorian Gray) and of the Parnassian iconography (Pierrot), Bowie owed ​​little to his frail and easy compositions: he owed ​​almost everything to the “image” that he had created and was nurturing with non-musical factors.

Although the music was almost always banal and embarrassing, the scene in which it played out was at least funny while at the same time solemn and murky. Bowie’s world was a frightening one, devastating and senseless, populated by outcasts and alienated human wrecks. Bowie’s vocal tone resembled an existential horror that could modulate detachment, cynicism and yearning.

Bowie had rediscovered the “crooning” of pop and soul singers of the ’50s, perhaps a less innovative style of singing that one could have imagined in 1975, that nevertheless also managed to combine a form of cabaret in the service of the theatre of Brecht. Mindful of the dramatic experience and clearly with Lou Reed in mind, Bowie consciously evoked “Brecht-ian” alienation that was fashionable in those years. The songs of Bowie deliberately calculated a striking contrast between music, text and image which would lead the public to think critically about “illusions” as presented.

Inspired by the alienated rock of Reed, the Dionysian like performance of Iggy Pop and the meticulous electronics of Brian Eno, Bowie forged a new type of ritual mass that paradoxically conceptually morphed into a kind of kitsch Hollywood entertainment. Skilled at riding fashions, as opposed to creating them, Bowie always arrived one or two years after someone else had invented the phenomenon (for example, decadent rock, soul-rock, electronics).

As with the Beatles before him, Bowie knew how to best present the phenomenon to the masses via the bourgeoisie media and turn it into an international “fashion”. Essentially, Bowie’s major contribution to the annals of rock music was his popularization of the notion of the eclectic and refined musician. Many other rock musicians have explored and referenced pop art, literature and painting in a more thorough and original way than Bowie but have not garnered the critical recognition that came his way.

Bowie was said to have written the first “space ballad” but space-rock had been invented a few years earlier. Before the release of Space Odyssey, the Rolling Stones had recorded 2000 Light Years and the inventors of space-rock, Pink Floyd had, in 1967, released Interstellar Overdrive and Anno Domini. Moreover, long before the media had coined Bowie as being the inventor of the ‘glam’ concept, Mick Jagger, and many other contemporaries of the period, had been sexually ambiguous and had worn make-up.

Also decadent rock had long preceded Bowie with the likes of the Velvet Underground and the Doors. Bowie’s “uniqueness” was that his antics were the first to be publicized by the media. As often happens with the pop star, Bowie has falsely been attributed with creating the merits of an entire population of musicians. One of the most overrated artists of his generation, Bowie’s sound was largely Visconti’s (or Eno’s). Without that Sound, Bowie was a second-rate pop vocalist singing for a second-rate audience. 

For more analysis and reviews, go to: http://www.scaruffi.com/

 

21 thoughts on “David Bowie: sound, not vision

  1. the truth is probably somewhere between the two : The eulogies in the press and Scaruffi’s cynicism . Bizzarley the only Bowie album Scaruffi deems fit to scatter high praise on ” Heroes ” –
    I find oddly scattershot and punctuated with seriously kitschy moments characterized by sadly dated use of 70’s synths . It’s an entertaining enough listen taken in the right way and with an ear for context … but then is from the man who regards Jim Morrison as almost a cultural figure on a par with Michaelangelo or someone ….. most listeners DO hear the ‘ context ‘ as well as the music / sound . Scaruffi uniquely only hears the ‘ message ‘ . This makes his views interesting from an extra musical perspective more than from a musical one I’d argue

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  2. and I suppose I would add to that vis – a – vis Scaruffi’s comment that Bowie’s music was ” almost always banal and embarrassing ” – well OK that’s the way personally I feel about most of the Doors output …..

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      1. maybe it’s time for my 50 year old self to give LA Woman another spin – I did have some fondess for that one

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    1. The Doors have moments that are absolutely sublime.

      Only…sometimes they sound like an incomprehensible drunk yelling over a fairground ride. I mean this quite sincerely – they are really excellent most of the time, but I think in the wrong context or mood they come over a bit overexcited 🙂

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  3. and erm Rick Wakeman did’nt play keyboards on Ziggy Stardust ..It may be cartoonish and jeujeune these days I agree ( excepting Five Years and Lady Stardust ) but its’s not a keyboard heavy album anyway -it’s guitar based Rock ( remember Paul Whitehouse ? lol )

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    1. Ironically even though as a metalhead on Metalpedia so righfully said some years ago,that Scaruffi makes up a whole bunch of contrived bullsh*t about The Beatles and many people think he knows what he’s talking about because he’s a cognitive scientist,I actually think he’s really right on about how overrated David Bowie is.

      Paul McCartney’s early solo early Wings music which includes a lot of great rock and even some hard rock from 1970-1975 (which is Paul’s best post Beatles music) is also much better than David Bowie’s music and better than George Harrison’s solo music.
      Here the very good Russian music reviewer George Starostin reviews Paul McCartney’s solo and Wings albums and songs and he so rightly debunks the common stupid myth that Paul’s solo and Wings music wasn’t very good and he gives great reviews and high ratings to most of Paul’s 1970’s albums.

      http://starling.rinet.ru/music/paul.htm

      Paul McCartney is still in the Guinness Book of World Records since October 1979 as the most successful song composer of all time and Paul has doctorates in music from Sussex University in 1988 and Yale in 2008 and David Bowie was not as great as early solo Paul and John. I personally only like 3 of his songs of the many ones I’ve heard,Changes,Heroes and Space Oddity.I really also think that Elton John’s songs from 1971-1974 were much better.Not that it will matter that much to fans on here,but the Russian music reviewer George Starostin back in the late 90’s early 2000’s gave David Bowie a C rating,http://starling.rinet.ru/music/bowie.htm he also said that David Bowie was talented but not a genius,but he says in his Elton John review that Elton was a genius in his early-mid 1970’s career.

      He also said that David Bowie had a poor voice,was a limited song writer,and that he’s highly overrated as a innovator.He also gave this C rating to solo George Harrison and Elton John,but gave Paul McCartney,Stevie Wonder and John Lennon a B rating. I’ve also never heard a David Bowie song nearly as good or great,and it is great as Elton’s Funeral For A Friend Love Lies Bleeding.

      And although Keith Richards was totally wrong about Sgt Pepper,and some other artists like Elton John( and often goes to extremes,he could and should have said that a lot of or most of David Bowie was posing and image and that it didn’t have a lot to do with his music,not that it was all posing and had nothing to do with it but there is a lot of truth to what he said), he said before David Bowie died that David Bowie was all f*cking posing it has nothing to do with music and he said he knows it too.Of course Keith often goes to extremes,he could have said that most of are a lot of David Bowie is his posing and that it didn’t have that much to do with his music,but there is still a lot of truth to what he said.

      http://www.nme.com/photos/the-razor-tongue-of-keith-richards–17-artists-he-s-slammed-from-david-bowie-to-oasis/390242#/photo/3

      And here this poster cesarat37 says what is so true,in reply to another poster Binkonn who started the Topic A Few Good Songs But Overrated I Think on The Internet Movie Data Base,they said of course you are right!!!

      Bowie is the most overrated musician and singer in rock history.And said,good that you mention Keith Richards because he said in an interview a few years ago that Bowie was all about pose.And then said,that when Bowie started and released a couple of albums in 1967-1968 no one payed him any attention and said (by this point he was a regular looking guy no make up etc) he gained success and notoriety when he began with the extravagant clothes,his bisexuality statements,his Ziggy Stardust persona etc,things that have absolutely nothing to do with the music.Then this poster said,his music is average,medicocre and that as the poster (Binkonn) mentioned he has a few ( very few) good songs but that’s about it.

      http://www.imdb.com/name/nm0000309/board/thread/252707637?d=252716402#252716402

      This Rate Your Music reviewer also says how overrated David Bowie is and gives bad reviews for most of his albums and he too rightfully says that his alien androgyny image was most of the reasons for his popularity.

      http://rateyourmusic.com/collection/Qwerty100/reviews/3

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  4. oh gawd pleeze dont hit me with Keith Richards four bar blues view of practically everything under the sun thankyou ( Musical or otherwise )……he does’nt like Classical Music post Mozart either , guy probably thinks Beethoven was a poser and all ….I have a great fondness for the best of early Wings and Elton too but Bowie at his best brought a quiet philosophical element into popular song in a way that at the time was quite new …..and I still think Ashes to Ashes is simply a great piece of 20th century culture crammed into a four minute pop song

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  5. The worst thing about all is for me is the fact that all the new romantics ripped him off and worshipped him as a “god”. You only need to look at that musical parasite Gary Numan to know what I mean.

    A excellent accurate article. Thanks.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Gary Numan is another one that is oft-maligned, particularly in the UK. There is a somewhat repetitive, jarring quality to some of his melodies and he definitely had a period where he was altering his image and it wasn’t consistently working out. That being said, Gary is another artist who is underrated as a musician. I prefer the vocabulary of his contemporary, John Foxx… but Numan is an underrated guitarist (as per Replicas), and in Bowie’s words (years later after pulling out of a show with him) “wrote a few of the finest gems in British pop history.”

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  6. This is some of the worst analysis I have ever read concerning Bowie’s impact on music.

    Let’s discuss the aspect of marketing. Do you think An artist today could dress in provocative japanese costumes with spikey red hair and overtake kanye west? No that would defy all common sense, yet that is specifically what Bowie did. He , during a significantly more conservative climate and less willing to be open to constructs outside the normal gender roles was able to shock people and seduce them. He didn’t adjust to the culture, he shifted culture to him and just when he had you in his palm he dropped you for his next creative outlet.

    How is that marketing? At Bowie’s popularity he quit his famous character to move on and other music. IN a 1 year period bowie did hunky dory, ziggy, Raw Power , Transformer, and Mott the Hoople. Those albums are the pillars that ushered in a new era and immediately made bands like the Stones, Zeppelin, Who, and anyone else yearning for the 60’s immediately obsolete.

    Then he decideds to do a funk album. How do you go from glam to funk in 1 year? An album that sold number 1. The next year a German centric album that would set out the blueprint for exerpimental artists for the next decade. Krafterwerk the legendary krautrock band titled the album Trans Europe Express after Station to Station as an homage.

    If bowie was a marketing genius he would have stayed in one domain for 40 years and kept rehashing the same old tunes . Instead he dropped his audience at a moments notice, only do build a up a new and different audience. Do you know how hard it is to build up an audience? And yet he did it every year, don’t tell me the same people who came to see Ziggy were the ones going to Isolar tour.

    He is the most brave pop artist We have ever seen . He changed pop culture more than any single human being alive.

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    1. You can go from glam to funk in one year simply by being aware of the direction of travel. Shifting to the prevailing moods of the times was what what a charlatan like Bowie (and the Beatles) was all about. Your obsession as a fan, is clouding your judgement. Your contribution is indicative of somebody who has little or no knowledge of the genre other than in relation to its commercially successful proponents which has no relationship to artistic merit. What Kenye West has to do with what I discussed only you appear to know. I explained the marketing aspect of Bowie’s “art” very clearly in the article. It is not my problem that you cannot understand what I wrote. His move from one persona to another is the personification of superficiality as his alleged ability to change pop culture. His German centric period which you claimed others followed, is actually the reverse of the truth. Here you really show your lack of knowledge.

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      1. Superficiality? So when ziggy stardust claimed to be a gender bending alien from mars that didn’t sit well with you because you thought it was only meaningful at the surface? Music is an art with a wide range of purposes. You can’t hold his music to a standard that you don’t others. Just because James Brown sings with the soul of a deity about how this world would be nothing without women, does not make him a feminist. Shocker, singers have deceived their audiences throughout history. But atleast with Bowie he did it in a way that challenged his audience to go outside the confines of their comfort zone.

        However Here we have a muciasian who touched on a variety of real emotions for people. The themes of Isolation, mental wellness, sexual ambiguity , and love for common man are sprinkled throughout his work , to his death. That to me is showing depth, if you are quick to judge solely on superficial reasons then you will never be able to appreciate what he was doing at the time.

        “There’s something unique about rock ‘n’ roll,” he told The Times’ then-pop music critic, Robert Hilburn, in 1987, “that makes everyone want to think that you are the same person off stage that you are on stage. I mean, no one looks at Bobby De Niro and says, ‘Well, he changes his roles all the time, so therefore he’s calculating and you can’t trust him.’

        Do you think of Robert DeNiro as a Mafioso? If not give bowie the same artistic latitude.

        There are many reasons that any artist would be a subject of criticism, and bowie is no different. This is your page and I appreciate you for allowing me to pen an opinion that differs from yours on your page, but please lets criticize this man for things he deserves instead of holding him to a standard that no artist has never been held to.
        If you want to criticize him for selling out commercially in the 80’s , I will completely agree. If you want to discuss his overt drug use, I too will agree.

        In regards to my point about Kanye, was to bring to light an artist at the height of popularity rarely rocks the boat. It would be a financial disaster to do so, and as a result many artists all of a sudden feel confined by their success. A producer or audience has now defined you as an artist, and as soon as that happens you can be anything else. Bowie never wore face paint again after the diamond dogs era, and the young fans who liked him for his anti establishment look were left pondering what to do. They soon latched on to kiss , and other glam rockers to fill the void, but as those artists were copying bowie, bowie was already performing on soul train. The 6th white musician to do.

        What did all those english glam fans have in common with african american music fans? Not a damn thing.

        This is just one of the many examples of his ability to challenge us as to who we thought of him, and realize that is the wrong way to look at him. You and i will never know who David Bowie is , and he made it perfectly clear to his audience that you will never know anything about him and as a result some people became upset with that. Don’t be. Embrace it. He never wanted to be idolized and worshipped, and as a result lived a very private family life that was starkly different from his characters.

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      2. “So when ziggy stardust claimed to be a gender bending alien from mars that didn’t sit well with you because you thought it was only meaningful at the surface?”
        How did you manage to extrapolate that from what I wrote?
        You follw that with another Strawman:
        “You can’t hold his music to a standard that you don’t others.”
        I *do* hold his music to a standard that I do others.” I have been highly critical of many “artists” in my writing – Radiohead, for example.
        You then go off on another irrelevant tangent citing James Brown, for some inexplicable reason. I think you have totally misunderstood what I wrote – either that or you have some serious comprehension problems.
        The notion Bowie “rocked the boat” is frankly laughable. He nearly always played it safe. The times that he didn’t – Tin Machine, for instance – he was not only an artistic flop but a financial one too. Very rarely do pop stars maintain any level of artistic and creative integrity, otherwise they wouldn’t be pop stars – which appeals to the lowest intellectual and artistic common denominator. Yes, sometimes artists manage to cross over, but it’s very rare. The artists who copied Bowie – New Romantics – weren’t at all interesting either. Bowie’s legacy goes back to age of the crooners – neither innovative of original in any shape or form. Bowie was very clever at manipulating his audience – essentially he was showman, nothing more, nothing less.

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  7. I think the media’s focus on his “leaning into” gender norms and being an “androgynous,” “alien” artist actually created a conception that Bowie was a nonmusician with a very political agenda. This doesn’t pay much credit to a few notable talents that underpinned pop culture prescience or quirky imagery. He had a great talent for arrangements, chord inversions and had an atypical but powerful voice. By his own admission he always wanted to write songs for the stage and other people and wasn’t a confident vocalist, and he always had some of the best people developing his ideas – including mainstays like Carlos Alomar and Mike Garson, who have done great justice to the guitar and piano. Eno never produced Bowie, he was a collaborator and often they composed separately and improvised over each other’s recordings – making a point of throwing out the synth manuals before switching them on. Visconti was and remains a great producing force.

    I think these artists spend an early rebellious period of being f___d up on drugs and create some great things, but inevitably either burn out or do as he did – adopt a conservative, family oriented private life and work at his craft. This might even be reflected in a slicker, more mature image as per Bowie but the relationship with the media is always going to be obliquely apologising or acknowledging you got a bit kooky on the coke and wore a bit of lippy but hey-it-was-the-Seventies. Every generation has a mild, inverted rebellion of dandyism/foppishness and questioning expectations. That’s healthy channelled into pop songs, probably. But the pop landscape now is so sedate, many of the old taboos are broken and rebellion usually equals entitlement. That’s why he is being re-framed as some sort of bi trans rights activist. Generally the remaining Bowie critics complain about his flirtation with rightwing politics or are coming from a more rockist, Americana sensibility where progressive solos of half an hour are not unheard of. Bowie played Sax like Bill Clinton and gave it a nudge a bit too often, but ultimately he could write, he could sing and he could arrange. He was very much, in his words, a human with both feet on the ground – he was just exploring alienation in a lot of his work.

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