A Diamond Dog is for Life…

It’s now three days since I heard that David Bowie had died. On a wet Monday morning in January of all days. And I still feel upset. Obviously, I’m not grieving in the same way I would if I had lost a loved one. But I’m definitely still at the ‘holding back the tears when I hear one of his songs/feeling the need to do a blog post for the first time in years’ stage. That’s weird, isn’t it?

1969

Bowie, 1969. Cool as fuck.

 

Then I think of all the moments in my life that have been soundtracked, influenced and improved by David Bowie and I wonder if it is that weird. I have loved Bowie for as long as I can remember. Not just the albums (which I do think is the greatest body of work in popular music) but his whole persona(e).

 

 

I can remember Mum singing Kooks to me before I ever consciously heard Hunky Dory. Labyrinth was an obsession years before I fell for the genius of Low. I can remember the first time I listened to The Man Who Sold The World with my Dad; a slightly off kilter introduction to the 70s riff rock I still love today.

By the time I was fourteen, I had a Ziggy calendar on my wall. By the time I was sixteen, I was forging friendships over discussion of the relative merits of Space Oddity versus Diamond Dogs. This was in the 1990s, not the 1970s. Yet these Bowie albums were as much a part of our formative years as they had been for our parents. Ok, we weren’t ‘there’ to experience the cultural impact of 70s Bowie first hand. But 70s Bowie was still there to have an impact on us.

Thin white duke

Bowie, 1976. Still cool as fuck.

With Bowie it wasn’t just his old stuff that I loved. There was often an interesting new album to hear, a new film to watch. I’m not going to pretend that these weren’t of variable quality. There was excellence (1. Outside, Heathen) and there was, in my opinion, averageness (Earthling, Reality). It did mean that I never knew when the next ‘Bowie moment’ in my life would occur though. Far from tarnishing his already impressive legacy, these new artistic adventures made me love Bowie even more. He kept producing things that could be ‘mine’, as much as Hunky Dory or Ziggy had been my parent’s.

These ‘Bowie moments’ just kept, and keep on, coming. In the last few years, and just off the top of my head, I have:

  • Received a signed photo of Bowie, framed with a copy Diamond Dogs, as a 30th birthday present from a group of my lovely friends.
  • Seen the excellent ‘Bowie Is..’ exhibition at the V&A.
  • Rushed out to buy two new Bowie albums on the day of release.
  • Had a Bowie-themed birthday bash, soundtracked by Tony Visconti and Woody Woodmansey playing his greatest hits with their band Holy Holy.
  • Also seen Holy Holy play The Man Who Sold The World in full. A truly emotional experience, helped by the fact I was far less drunk for this one!

Just last weekend, Hannah and I fed our obsession with Twin Peaks by watching the follow up film, Fire Walk With Me. Featuring a small cameo from Mr Bowie, naturally. We then drove out to the coast while listening to and discussing Blackstar. This was the day before his death. If I ever needed an example of an artist’s continued relevance, both to my life personally and to us all culturally, Bowie provided it.

david-bowie-promo

Bowie, 2016. STILL cool as fuck.

 

A number of people have contacted me over the last few days to check how I am and share a memory of listening to Bowie with me over the years. It makes me realise how important his music has been in forging many of my longest lasting, and some of my newest, relationships. It also goes to show that at least a part of me, however small, is defined by my love of Bowie. In that sense, it is fair to say I literally wouldn’t be who I am today without him.

So, is it weird to still feel upset? And what am I even upset about? After all, many of his albums were getting on for thirty years old before I even heard them. Will his death mean there are no more Bowie moments in my life? Definitely not.

 

 

What it has done is make me think about the many ways in which time passing can feel very sad. Some of these are small. There’ll never be a new Bowie album again. That’s upsetting, but OK. After all, he’s given us enough to be going on with. Some of these are bigger. There are people I will never listen with again. I will never be a teenager again. I will never hear these songs or albums for the first time again.

The nature of Bowie’s music, and his ever changing personae and artistic interests, seemed to open up a world of possibility. This chimed perfectly with so many of us during those formative years in which we are trying so desperately to ‘find ourselves’. In this sense, he was the ideal teenage icon. His continued evolution, however, made it seem like this process never needed to stop. Bowie was for life, not just for adolescent nostalgia.

His death reminds us that it always has to stop somewhere. I may be being self-indulgent and melodramatic (I am). However, it is none the less true to say that the passing of such a big influence on my life has made me think quite a lot about who I am, where I come from and, most importantly, where I’m going. This is a process that can be both bitter and sweet.

Before I start tearing up, let’s end by trying to focus on the sweet. It is truly incredible to me that Bowie continues to influence, inspire and shape me, even up to his perfectly stage-managed final act. That’s the work of a true artist creating a truly staggering legacy.

That’s why I am so thankful that he lived and so sad that he is no longer with us.

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A Catsuit Has Nine Lives: The Darkness Are Back!

The news that The Darkness are back and producing new music (you can download their new single for free here) will likely be met with mixed reactions. Always a ‘Marmite’ act, I don’t think anyone, least of all the band themselves, are expecting them to reproduce the multimillion selling success of their debut album Permission To Land. Equally, those naysayers who dismissed the band as a ‘joke’- and one that was in desperate search of a punchline- may be surprised at just how much The Darkness have already been welcomed back into the hearts, and ears, of many of the rock-loving public.

The new old Darkness

As a die hard fan and proud East Anglian I still look back fondly at the heady summer of 2003, when it seemed that the dream of locally sourced, sustainable rock had finally been realised. Sadly, a combination of personnel changes, public indifference to their second album, One Way Ticket To Hell…And Back, and Justin Hawkins’ well publicised drug problems proved that future to be less sustainable than some of us might have hoped.

Eventually, a newly clean and outrageously coiffured Justin Hawkins did manage to recreate some of the magic with his band Hot Leg; whose Red Light Fever album still merits a regular listen. He also continued to demonstrate an admirable commitment to both stagecraft and silliness by singing songs about chickens, cocktails and being ‘gay in the 80s’ while dressed from head to toe in tennis whites.

Backcomb In Black

The two times I saw Hot Leg, in two of Edinburgh’s tiniest clubs, it was my first chance, as a long-term but late to the original party fan, to gain a sense of what watching this (post?)ironic hair-rock behemoth up close should be like. The absurdity of stadium-sized moves and music in a broom cupboard-sized room made me laugh and headbang all at the same time. Once you start playing actual stadiums some of the effect must inevitably be lost.

Returning to the clubs also seemed to give him the freedom to occasionally step away from frontman duties and show us what he can do as a musician. People often like to say backhandedly disparaging things about Justin Hawkins’ ‘way with a tune’, as if rock should always be devoid of melody. As anyone who has seen him play live will tell you, however, he’s also an incredible guitarist who knows his way around a riff and a deceptively powerful singer.

The rest of the band went a different way in the hiatus. Although they were first to offer the grieving fan some post-Darkness comfort, I was never quite sure why I couldn’t warm to Dan, Richie and Ed’s band, Stone Gods. Always the less showy musicians and performers, they seemed to take the public rejection of the second album as a request for some ‘back to basics’ rock. They had some good songs and played them well but, ultimately, I found them unspectacular, in the most literal sense. All classic black leather and functional riffing, they were like a million other bands you could find bulking out the bill in dingy rock clubs all over the UK.

It’s not that there’s anything bad about ‘back to basics’ rock but, after the pomp and circumstance of The Darkness, there seemed something almost apologetic about Stone Gods. Despite the self-aggrandising name, it was as if every black T-shirt and slickly effective riff was saying; ‘yes, you were right, this is what proper rock is about, not all that fun and success and self-knowledge nonsense’.

But even Angus Young of AC/DC, the most functionally effective rock band of them all, knows better than to give up on his schoolboy uniform at the first sound of laughter.

A 56 year old schoolboy preparing for Double Rocking Out.

The increasing success of the reformed original line-up proves there doesn’t necessarily have to be a distinction between the ‘jokey’ elements of rock music and the ‘serious’ elements (as does AC/DC’s continuing global dominance of the hard rock scene!). During The Darkness’ previously meteoric rise many postulated that they would burn out because they wouldn’t be able to maintain the delicate balance between ‘laughing with’ and ‘laughing at’ the hardcore rock fans; while the mainstream fans they were apparently courting would tire of them when they realised they didn’t really like loud guitars after all.

The Darkness were only a ‘joke’, however, to those with no interest in rock music, who assumed they must be mocking the genre they, in fact, so evidently loved. Most rock performers have always known how to laugh at themselves and I would argue that silliness, exaggeration, innuendo and a certain knowing cheesiness have always been a part of the hard rock milieu. While they don’t set out to be ‘comedy’ acts, does anyone really think that Def Leppard or AC/DC sit around congratulating themselves on the nuance and subtlety of inviting their lovers to ‘pour some sugar on me’ or to ‘cut your cake with my knife’?

Having seen the reformed Darkness twice this year, in increasingly large venues, I can reliably report that rock fans never turned against The Darkness for ‘making fun’ of the music we love. Many, like me, were thankful to them for reminding us that a sense of fun played a big part in creating that love in the first place. Maybe there weren’t enough of us to keep filling stadiums forever but certainly enough to continue filling mid-sized venues for a good few years yet.

People seemed to assume that the combination of failing to meet unrealistic expectations and personal friction that put paid to them first time round was inspired by a public consensus that the ‘joke’ wasn’t funny anymore. While the supermarket CD shopper may have deserted them once they had stopped laughing, the rock and roll faithful always knew that they would return to make us jump around, headbang and, yes, even chuckle once more.

 

A Beef With Beefheart?

I want this blog to be a place where I sometimes actually try and think about rock music: what it’s like, what it means and what it’s for. While my original plan was to try and write intelligently about the big and dumb (and we’ll get to my new found love of Whitesnake soon enough), sod’s law would have it that I just so happen to be reading Mike Barnes’ excellent biography of Beefheart right now. And it seems I now want to kick things off with a few thoughts on the good Captain.

It might yet prove a happy accident. Perhaps by writing about an artist who has always prioritised the sort of questions that I want to explore, and has pushed the boundaries of ‘rock’ further than any other, I will be revealing more about my intentions in post one that I ever intended. By trying to tell you why I love the almost universally derided Bluejeans and Moonbeams; and appreciate, but very rarely actually listen to, the ‘masterpiece’ Trout Mask Replica, you’ll get a hint of where I think the enduring appeal of rock music may reside (SPOILER ALERT: in the fact that it’s not fucking jazz).

Let me begin by restating the fact that Mike Barnes’ book is bloody brilliant. Captain Beefheart/Don Van Vliet is so bat (chain puller) shit insane that it thankfully manages to bypass the usual ‘we did lots of coke and slept with lots of groupies, aren’t we naughty’ anecdotes that even the most dedicated of hard rock fans get tired of hearing. As a child prodigy turned bluesman turned psychic cult leader turned abstract artist, the story of his life is never, ever boring. Barnes’ criticism of his work is also excellent, for the most part; making me spend some much needed time with albums I had neglected, such as Strictly Personal.

A good book.

A good book.

That’s why it was a shame for me when one of the albums that provided my introduction to Beefheart, and that remains a firm favourite to this day, Bluejeans and Moonbeams, was once again hauled over the coals. Barnes is in good company when dismissing this record, and its predecessor Unconditionally Guaranteed, as a disappointment. Most of the reviews were negative and Beefheart’s own opinion of them was so poor that he famously suggested fans take them back to the shops and ask for their money back! I think he’s wrong. Not that I’d have ever said that to his face of course.

'Don't look it in the eyes!'

Maybe it’s because I wasn’t there. Growing up with Captain Beefheart’s excursions to the ‘far out’ reaches of rock as an established ‘fact of life’ for any 70s rock obsessive, the impact of his mellowing and the more commercial nature of his mid-decade work forms just one shift in a now completed career narrative full of twists and turns. Being free from that contemporary sense of disappointment, however, I truly believe that both these albums, but Bluejeans and Moonbeams in particular, are ripe for reappraisal.

The negative view that surrounds them seems to centre on the fact that they’re not very ‘Beefheart-y’. This is a point with which it is very hard to argue. He had managed to alienate most of ‘His Magic Band’ by this point and instead recruited a selection of slick, skilful session musicians (usually dubbed ‘The Tragic Band’) to replace them. Toppled from the dictatorial position he occupied in his original group, therefore, these albums are perhaps more collaborative; robbing them of his singular artistic vision but also allowing a tantalising glimpse into an alternative universe where Beefheart actually made it big as part of a commercial group.

The complex rhythms and free jazz improvisations are replaced by bluesy, groovy workouts. It’s easy to characterise these as workmanlike when compared to the sonic assault of an album with the Magic Band proper. One listen to opening track Party of Special Things To Do, however, and it becomes clear that The Tragic Band’s polish and experience allows them to form a coherent, funky and, above all, sexy unit; adding a lithe swagger to blues jams that it would be unfair to dismiss as merely competent.

This, in turn, encourages Beefheart to give his truly impressive ‘singing’ voice a bit more of an outing; rather than alternating between Ornette Coleman referencing sax solos and Howlin’ Wolf barks. And while the album doesn’t exhibit the ‘recorded over two days in our back garden’ rawness of earlier work like Trout Mask Replica, it is beautifully produced. I’m a sucker for what my friend Mark used to call that ‘sticks to the record’ production sound now most associated with 70s soft rock (think Steve Miller Band for the ultimate example). To me, Bluejeans and Moonbeams’ sheer, sensual sonic perfection makes it worth a regular listen.

I think it’s that old distinction between the raw and the cooked, between the ‘authentic’ and ‘inauthentic’ that makes many people dismiss these albums as Beefheart ‘selling out’. While that was his stated aim, I seemingly disagree with both the man himself and much of his fanbase on the question of whether this makes the work any less valid. The edginess of his experimental work may imbue him with a more imperviously cool aura of primal artistry that transcends fashion, explaining the reverence with which he is rightly regarded today. The fact remains that his attempts to work within the parameters of blues influenced rock music (the genre, after all, to which he must surely be added) yielded equally delightful, but perhaps disarmingly different, results.

The experimentation of Trout Mask Replica is, unarguably, a bold and exciting fusion of the complexity of jazz with the simplicity of the blues, and one that rewards careful listening. As I’m sure the teenage blues obsessive Don Van Vliet would be the first to admit, however, not all music is about careful listening. Some of it is about dancing. And even more of it is about sex.

This why it is a shame that some simply dismiss these albums as Beefheart’s move away from a ‘pure’ form of musical experimentation towards a compromised position of ‘selling out’; even if that is how the man himself chose to remember them. I prefer to think about the fact that Beefheart decided to work within the simplicity of rock music, rather than commit full-time to the complexities of jazz that already existed outside of it. These albums aren’t perfect, but then neither is Trout Mask (two ‘bakes’ of Hair Pie anyone?). People will always, quite rightly, appreciate the aspects of Beefheart more alien to ‘traditional’ rock music, and the way in which they revive and refresh the genre. While trying to create a whole new musical language is interesting and entirely admirable, my enduring love of these albums proves that he was also fairly fluent when it came to speaking mine.

PS – The White Stripes covering Party of Special Things To Do. Raw and rocking or lithe and funky? Which is better. FIIIIIIGHT!!!!!!!!!!!!!