Category: music

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/

 

Under The Bridge with The Magic Band

By Daniel Margrain

Review of The Magic Band, Under The Bridge, Chelsea, London, Friday, November 20. 

It was a bitterly cold night in west London. I had exited the tube at West Brompton and hadn’t taken into account the 20 minute walk to the venue. Yes, I should have got off at Fulham Broadway which, as I later discovered, was two minutes away but I didn’t know that at the time and neither, apparently, did the venues web writers.

The band were due on stage for the first of their two sets at 8.15 and it was already eight. I didn’t have the faintest idea where I was going. On leaving the station I approached the first person I saw and asked him for directions. I was directed the wrong way. I double checked that I hadn’t put on my West Ham top by mistake and that I wasn’t humming the ‘London Bridge is Falling Down’ tune under my breath.

Apart from the one time I had ventured to the Bridge with my nephew, the only other time I had visited the Stamford dump predated the Abramovitch era by years at a time in history when part of Stamford Bridge was literally at the point of collapsing, which, if memory serves me correctly, was the section of the ground near the infamous Shed end.

We lost 2-1 that day and I got soaked through to the skin. The Russian mafia money has of course transformed a crumbling ground into a shiny stadium but I wasn’t going to ever get there walking in the wrong direction.

Eventually realizing that I had been given a ride up the wrong proverbial garden path, I turned around and began pacing frantically in the opposite direction passing the tube station on my right. I hit some lights, did a right and carried on walking for another 15 minutes until I reached the bright neon lights of Under The Bridge which was located, as you might of guessed, under the stadium.

Propped up against a wall by the entrance to the venue stood the author Will Self who was chugging on an e cigarette. I took that as a sign that the band had not yet taken to the stage, so I relaxed. You enter the venue proper by a short narrow passage, the walls on either side are plastered with various framed photos of legendary, and not so legendary, artists that reminded me of the kind of set up they had at Dingwalls in Camden in the 1980s.

Numerous photos of this nature were dotted throughout the venue clearly modelled on the kinds of Blues bars dotted throughout America – open and spacious with a semi-circular design and a raised perimeter section where the bar and comfortable looking stools were located. These faced down towards an impressive stage that was easily visible from wherever you stood.

The omens were looking good. This was certainly one of, if not the, best music venues of its size that I had the pleasure of frequenting and was clearly evidence of criminal money being put to good use. I grabbed myself a bottle of pear cider at the bar and then found a suitable position stage left by a circular pillar.

No sooner had I got comfortable when I was approached by a guy who looked to be his mid to late 60s who proceeded to give me an ear bashing about how he had seen the original Magic Band with the Captain back in the late 1960s and had subsequently seen the group play live in its various incarnations throughout the years.

I have to admit that the gig which was shortly to unfold before my eyes left me with a feeling of trepidation especially as my new found mate was praising the band so much. Since I had deliberately set out to avoid seeing any of their live performances on you tube or reading any of their reviews, I had no idea what to expect.

About seven or eight years ago I had seen The Electric Prunes at Camden’s Underworld only to have wished that I hadn’t had too much to dream the previous night. The gig was a disaster and my memories of the times I had listened in total awe to the bands records had been forever tainted by what I had witnessed live that night.

If ever there was a case for a band calling it a day, the Prunes, sadly, were it. Of course, for every Electric Prune there is an Arthur Lee and Love, so it’s far from necessarily being the case that all bands from the 60’s turn out to be shocking 30 or 40 years down the line.

However, the more my new found companion raved about The Magic Band, the more apprehensive I became and the more I began to think that they might not reach the level beyond that of a tribute band. He told me he last saw the group at the Garage in Islington in 2011 and described the gig as one of the greatest experiences of his life.

My expectations were now being raised whether I wanted this to be the case or not. I decided that it was best just to go with the flow, take whatever comes my way and ride the crest of the wave along with 700 others.

I’ll lay my cards on the table. I first heard Captain Beefheart and His Magic Band back in 1980 on the John Peel Show. The album Peel played to death that year was ‘Doc At The Radar Station’. Peel was a long standing fan of Beefheart and ‘Doc’ represented the rebirth of the man following his creative fallow period during the early 1970s after having arrived in England.

As an impressionable young man I regarded somebody of the stature of Peel as an authority as to what was ‘good’ and ‘cool’. And for Peel, the Captain reigned supreme. He was the Godfather of post-punk and consequently most of the younger generation of bands worth listening to at the time were influenced by Don Van Vliet.

To be honest, at that time, I didn’t understand the music of the Captain because I hadn’t heard anything like it before. Because I didn’t understand it, I didn’t really like it but pretended to because it was cool to like Beefheart and most of the bands I liked referenced him so I got to thinking he must be good.

Nevertheless, I felt as though there was potentially something interesting in the music to explore but I just wasn’t at that moment ready to explore it. But given time, I could be educated, through repeated listens, to appreciate him, just like Peel, John Lydon and Mark E Smith did.

If John Peel had championed him and played him he must be good, I thought. I remember Peel used to regularly play a lifelong hero of mine on his show by the name of Neil Percival Young. But I remember thinking how can it be possible to like Neil Young and Captain Beefheart?

I tried to like the tracks off ‘Doc’ Peel used to play, but couldn’t get to grips with all those off-kilter demented psychedelic-blues rhythms, manic growls and weird lyrics. Then I got to seeing the Fall play at Totnes Civic Hall in 1981 and everything from that moment on fell into place.

The next day, I went into Castle Records in Torquay and to my surprise, I found ‘Doc At The Radar Station’ among the piles of albums. I took it home, put it on the turntable and everything clicked. Don’s cover art work also somehow started to make sense.

I used to play Neil Young loud but turned the volume down for ‘Doc’ because I thought the sound of the record might of alarmed the rest of the house. I’m happy to say that the great man still has that affect today which is as it should be.

Thereafter I began to check out the Captain’s back catalogue and haven’t looked back since. Some 34 years later, I stood cider in hand, looking at the Under The Bridge stage as the lights dimmed and the band hit the stage. Sadly, John “Drumbo” French is the only original member remaining from the band.

French took to his established role as drummer for a couple of songs while also playing the clarinet and harmonica. As expected, French is the glue that holds the rest of the band together but he is aided by brilliant younger musicians, namely guitarists Eric Klerks and Max Kutner, keyboardist Brian Havey and drummer Andrew Niven – all of whom stepped up to the plate admirably.

As one would expect from band members taking on the complex rhythms and odd time signatures that typify Beefheart’s music, the playing throughout was immense and I just couldn’t help but marvel at the musician’s timing and the manner in which they gelled as a tight unit.

Kutner was the perfect foil for Klerks and the drumming was exemplary. The interplay between band members was awesome. Amazingly, French seemed to hit all the right vocal notes and to my ears his range is almost as strong as Beefheart’s. No one can command the stage like the Captain but that’s not to say that French didn’t made a pretty good fist of translating his stage theatrics while adding a personality that was all his own.

In that sense the performance didn’t come across as a tribute act, but on the contrary, highlighted just how relevant the music of Beefheart still is to contemporary audiences, the age group of which crossed the spectrum. On the whole the set list was impressive although for me some songs didn’t quite work.

I could have done without ‘Her Eyes Are A Blue Million Miles’ and ‘Tropical Hot Dog Night’, for example which are just too conventional sounding for any serious Beefheart fan. ‘Click Clack’ from the underrated ‘Spotlight Kid’ and ‘Suction Prints’ were revelations, as was, of course, ‘Moonlight On Vermont’ and ‘Hair Pie Bake’ from Beefheart’s supreme masterpiece, ‘Trout Mask Replica’.

The main highlights were performed during the second set – ‘Stealing Softly Through Snow’ and the tour de force, ‘Electricity’. ‘The relatively obscure ‘Glider’ and the rip roaring ‘Big Eyed Beans From Venus’ from ‘Clear Spot’ wrapped up proceedings on what was a remarkable and unforgettable night.