One Week On: The Long Arm Of David Bowie
Until last Monday, I wasn’t a massive David Bowie fan, I’m still not. Sure I like a lot of his stuff but Bowie always appeared more as an icon in the vicinity of musical movements rather than at the forefront. With Social Media ablaze with tributes, it wasn’t until I heard The Man Who Sold The World on Berlin Radioeins’ all day tribute that it hit home how inescapable his legacy is.
Nirvana’s Unplugged in New York was a favourite in my teens. The guitar lick on their version of the 1970 classic was a revelation, with Kurt Cobain faithfully true to the original in echoing the assertive/fragile Bowie tones. As a Queen obsessed eight-year-old, I repeatedly listened to Under Pressure, with multiple worn out, groggy sounding cassette copies to prove it. Most guitar bands share an obvious affliction for Bowie but his influence runs much deeper into many other genres.
Fast forward a few years from Unplugged and Bowie’s 1997 collaboration with Trent Reznor brought him back onto my musical radar, I even had the T Shirt proclaiming I’M AFRAID OF AMERICANS. The ominous, mechanically shuffling drums a sign of things to come as rockers traded swaggering guitars for electronic pulses and bleeps.
Further tentative steps into the ever shifting world of electronic music came with 2004’s Session One of the Rebel Futurism series mixed by Damian Lazarus. The mix came at a time when overblown, big room dance music was being given a make over by tracky, Berlin-centric forms of textural micro house and wonky minimalist techno. Spiky electroclash was seen as the antidote to the more progressive forms in the same way as punk was to the stadium bands of the late 70s. It was the bratty, androgynous granddaughter of the punk scene that very much saw Bowie as a father figure.
The Session One mix featured Chicks on Speed and Dave Clarke, with the second volume switching to the more refined sounds of Steve Bug, Ame and early DJ Koze. What better way to start Session One than with an edit of Rebel Rebel? The master of genre bending and reinvention again never far from the path of musical discovery,
Born David Jones in Brixton in 1947, he was always one step ahead throughout a career that saw him release his last critically acclaimed album just two days before his death. He danced from scene to scene, ceaselessly collaborating and planting seeds from rock to disco that would be bloom in the decades to come. He used the shock factor to seemingly marginalise himself through his image, pushing the boundaries with the Ziggy Stardust persona with while staying relatively safely within rock’s confines through his music. At the last count he had sold over 140 million albums between 1967 and 2016. This body of work has bled into almost every corner of the music industry. Each phase of his career left its own distinct mark with musicians, particularly those who dared to be different.
Initially training as a mime artist under Lindsey Kemp, he rattled through a host of bands, looks and managers from the King Bees to the Lower Third and the Buzz, before going solo with his first single The Laughing Gnome in 1967. Putting his own spin on the prevailing images within psychedelia and pop of the time his formative years laid the foundation for the restless, chameleonic visual persona that would go on to define him. Arguably his training in the silent arts elevated him to a level above other artists of the time and kept him there throughout his artistic peak in the 70s and 80s, Kemp said that during their time together he taught Bowie to; “free himself through his moves”. Countless other acts have used their images to shock an entertain but never quite as convincingly as Bowie, which as left him as a high water mark for artists putting a theatrical spin on their music.
Bowie had immaculate sense of timing, ceaselessly scanning for scenes in their embryonic stages and revelling in their fresh energy. With impeccable timing he’d usually moved on to the next thing before the scene withered. He knew how to play the game before it played him.
His theatric flair and lack of inhibition was undoubtedly hugely influential on 70s black American music from the disco divas to Parliament. Surprisingly he had an uneasy relationship with disco itself. In an interview with long defunct Zig Zag magazine in 1978; "I'm not a big fan of disco. I loathe it. I really get so embarrassed that my records do so well in discos."
From David Mancuso’s seminal Loft parties, Studio 54, the Paradise Garage, clubs that have shaped modern nightlife, tracks such as Lets Dance, Fame and Fashion became anthems.
Although the oversaturated production line of disco appalled Bowie, he was of course drawn to the futuristic sounds. In the liner notes to retrospective collection Sound and Vision, he says; “One day in Berlin around 1976, Eno came running in and said, ‘I have heard the sound of the future’ … he puts on ‘I Feel Love’ by Donna Summer … He said; ‘This is it, look no further. This single is going to change the sound of club music for the next fifteen years.” Today when it comes to the weekend, Bowie records are never far from the boxes of those who carry the disco torch today with the likes of Todd Terje, 2 Many DJs, Greg Wilson all editing his work for their sets. Wilson frequently returns to the subject of Bowie’s influence on the proto disco scene. If anyone can connect the dots between genres then its Optimo. JD Twitch, one half of the duo, dropped a funk filled tribute mix which surfaced this week.
Having grown up with jazz and other black music understood the simplicity of disco and more rhythm in music. While most rock bands were going the stadium route he reached back into the scene to pluck Nile Rogers from exile to produce 1983 album Let’s Dance. The Chic founder initially auditioned for Bowie’s band back in 1975 before disco hit its dizzying heights later in the decade. In the wake of Disco Sucks! and with no one returning his calls, he returned from obscurity to distil the heady atmospheres of the Berlin trilogy into a cutting edge pop record. Using this springboard, Rogers went on to work with almost everyone from Duran Duran to Madonna to Daft Punk. Cast your mind back to the sweltering summer of 2013 and the ubiquitous Get Lucky – would that and so much dance music in between have happened without the long arm of Bowie?
If the funk in modern dance music can be traced back to Chic and disco, then the minimalist, textural side we hear today comes from Kraftwerk. In 1976, going broke and cocaine addicted, Bowie retreated to Berlin from LA. Although he was by no means the only artist to do this at the time, his move set a precedent for many others to take advantage of the cities low rents to expand their creativity.
Between 76-79 Bowie began to experiment, with the highly tonal and atmospheric Low and Heroes the results. On Low, the spacey ambience was provided by Brian Eno’s portable EMS Synthi A synthesizer, while long time producer and collaborator Tony Visconti used a harmonizer to distort the drums. This creative flurry drew in Kraftwerk as they pioneered a sound entirely removed from the traditional 4 piece band, the band’s lyric “Meet Iggy Pop and David Bowie – TRANS EUROPE EXPRESS!” shows the respect they had for Bowie and Eno’s boundary pushing experiments in sound. Mime artists create atmosphere and imagery from open space, in the same way the ambience and mood is created in music. Bowie’s influence on Berlin can be seen at the vigil kept at the Hansa Studios that have mirrored those in Brixton.
Bowie himself said of the period; “For whatever reason, for whatever confluence of circumstances, Tony, Brian and I created a powerful, anguished, sometimes euphoric language of sounds. In some ways, sadly, they really captured, unlike anything else in that time, a sense of yearning for a future that we all knew would never come to pass.” Yearning for an imagined future is right at the centre of electronic music from techno to electro to house, vital to those who have pushed electronic sound forward to what it is today, though Kraftwerk to Jeff Mills to Aphex Twin. The Berlin trilogy is probably his most influential work, without it the other worldly sounds that followed from seminal bands through Parliament to Radiohead would lack a vital building block.
If disco and Kraftwerk were the influential sounds of the 70s then techno has since taken over that mantel in pushing electronic sounds that have bled through to all other strains of music. Techno godfather Derrick May underlines the Bowie influence to this continuum in his famous quote; “Techno is George Clinton meeting Kraftwerk in an elevator.” Throughout the 90s and 00s it would be difficult to imagine the experimental side of hip hop without the Bowie influence, from Outkast to Dilla.
David Bowie’s chameleon like innovation through reinvention (see PR guy David Cameron’s tribute tweet) was a sub-plot to his music, capturing fans and media imaginations. If he has influenced the way music sounds then his own personal journey was an lesson in the way it could be presented and perceived. Look through any serious record collection and you will see artists recycling and reinventing themselves a la Bowie, the twists and turns in the narrative of his musical personalities an inspiration from Madonna to Lady Gaga.
With Bowie however, the reinvention came from deep within, a drama enacted in his own head that captivated his fans. His desire to rebel and desire for acceptance were two opposite sides of a creative coin that just kept him spinning ahead of the game, seemingly never to come back down to earth and inspiring others in his wake. The rebellion kept him relevant so that his influence has run deeply through successive generations, the need to be accepted keeping him open and accessible to all those who shared the values he expressed.
It’s these reasons why people are seeing his passing as the end of an era. It is why the long arm of his influence is ever more vital, from Live Aid to Leeds Festival, Studio 54 to Sub Club or X Factor to Brixton to Berlin. With a reach this long its difficult to point to another musician whose legacy is so rightly inescapable, even to those who wouldn’t call themselves true fans. Now another great is gone, this one seemed so remote, so alien but it turned out he was there all along.