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/

 

13 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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  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.

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