Having travelled for nearly 5 billion kilometres to the outer limits of our solar system, the New Horizons space probe sent back its first data from a fly-by of Pluto on 14 July 2015, nine and a half years after its launch. A day later, with photos of Pluto’s icy terrain newly imprinted upon our consciousness, the exhibition David Bowie Is opened at the Australian Centre for the Moving Image (Melbourne, until 1 November). Had David Bowie, original Space Oddity, planned it this way? I wouldn’t put it past him. Bowie is one of the cleverest artists that pop music has ever known. He has a knack for forward planning. Robert Johnson may have sold his soul to the Devil for the chance to be the best bluesman in America, but Bowie could sell a blood contract back to the Devil at a profit. He probably has NASA on speed dial.
In a run of a dozen albums from 1970 to 1980, Bowie invented and then re-invented himself as a catalyst for hard rock, glam, punk, ambient synthesiser music and the powder-puff pop extravagance of new wave. (These successive genres have not always been separate from one another, in Bowie’s music or anyone else’s.) The hits kept coming. Bowie’s biggest selling album is Let’s Dance, from 1983 – the video for the title track was filmed partly in Carinda, northern New South Wales, and featured two young Aboriginal dancers – and though his star dimmed somewhat over the remainder of the 1980s, Bowie’s spiritual inheritors in Britpop kept his legacy alive through the 1990s. The Next Day (2013), his first studio album in a decade, was lacklustre, but got a ton of coverage. Bowie is always an event. His back catalogue is so impressive that any missteps are quickly forgiven.
It’s easier to count popular musicians that Bowie hasn’t influenced than those he has. Of the major genres that have arrived since Bowie began recording, only hip-hop seems largely immune to his power, give or take a few rappers sampling ‘Fame’, which was Bowie’s pastiche of James Brown–style funk to begin with. Add to this his innovations in concert staging, costume and video, and you have a performer who bestrides the past 40 years of popular culture like a neon Colossus.
That outsized stature is underscored by David Bowie Is. The show’s original curators at London’s Victoria and Albert Museum insist that this is not a retrospective, but it has the effect of one: it confirms the distance that Bowie has travelled, from cultural renegade to cultural treasure.
Bowie is not the only pop musician to have made this journey. For argument’s sake, let’s take the 1967 release of The Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, generally regarded as the first concept album, as the starting point for pop’s move from disposability to permanence, teenaged distraction to serious pursuit. (Bowie’s self-titled debut album was released on the same day as Sgt. Pepper’s, which is probably the last time that he failed to accurately read pop’s forecast. It was hence lost in the storm.) For many years it was the popular music press – emerging in the mid 1960s as a place to discuss concept albums by The Beatles, among other subjects – that fought a lonely battle on behalf of pop music’s artistic and social worth. Now the passage of time has brought with it a generation (or two) of curators, critics and academics for whom pop music is a familiar cultural form. Only the stuffiest of classicists could now deny that pop music, along with cinema, was the 20th century’s great mass medium.
Popular music now occupies a similar position to the one it did before rock ’n’ roll came crashing into the 1950s to divide teenagers from their parents: like Tin Pan Alley, it’s family entertainment. David Bowie Is has done great business, touring six cities before its arrival in Melbourne and breaking attendance records at every venue along the way. Pop music’s entry into the museum (and this exhibition is not the first instance, though it is one of the most successful) is an acknowledgement of the form’s worth as art. But placing pop music in this environment changes how we see and hear the pieces arrayed before us. The heat of fanaticism is tempered, and reverence takes its place.
On display in this exhibition – and afforded its own box like a Catholic reliquary – is a crumpled tissue, stained with Bowie’s own lipstick. Nearby, onscreen, there’s a loop of footage from Bowie’s zenith as a teen idol: the Ziggy Stardust tour of 1972–73. Girls scream and batter on the stage door. Pensionable English ladies wearing cat’s eye spectacles look on, vastly amused. They reckon Bowie is the best entertainment they’ve seen since the music hall.
This footage carries a spark, a sense of the social and sexual forces that Bowie brought to a boil. But inside the museum it’s a dying ember. There’s no sweat left on the fabulous stage clothes, even if there’s still lipstick on the tissue. Much is made in the exhibition of Bowie’s slipperiness, his shape-shifting – and yet every object (drawn from Bowie’s personal archive, which amounts to some 60,000 items) points us towards one consistent, central absence. David Bowie is not here.
Had I been alive and young in 1972, I like to think that I would have been smart enough to climb aboard the Bowie/Ziggy spaceship when it visited Earth. Really, though, I think the truth is my teenage heart would have belonged not to Bowie, but to Marc Bolan, the East London pixie who led his band T. Rex to glam-rock superstardom. Bowie is the better artist, without a doubt, and I admire him deeply, but Bolan commands another kind of magic. Nearly 40 years dead, he can still make me believe I would have loved him.
The two men were friends and rivals. For several years their careers ran in close parallel, in part due to their mutual connection with the young record producer Tony Visconti, for whose approval they vied.
They were both teenaged mods in the mid 1960s, parading their immaculate clothes around the streets of Soho. Each took an ill-advised early shot at chart success, Bolan with a cover of Bob Dylan’s ‘Blowin’ in the Wind’, Bowie with a novelty song called ‘The Laughing Gnome’.
Then they tried out the folk-hippie thing. Bolan formed a duo named Tyrannosaurus Rex, and played acoustic guitar while sitting cross-legged on the floor. There’s a 1968 gig poster for Tyrannosaurus Rex included in David Bowie Is, with Bowie listed as support act. A debut album by Tyrannosaurus Rex was released the same year, with the title My People Were Fair and Had Sky in Their Hair … But Now They’re Content to Wear Stars on Their Brows. (Hey man, those were the times.) The Tolkienian cover art was drawn by George Underwood, who also did the rear cover drawings for Bowie’s Space Oddity, released in 1969. (The album, like Bowie’s first, was originally self-titled, but was renamed and re-released after the breakout success of the single ‘Space Oddity’.)
“Marc has been a great influence on me,” Bowie told NME that year. Neither was exactly a true believer in hippie ideals. They each sensed the new decade arriving. Bowie’s The Man Who Sold the World (1970) was harder and louder than Space Oddity, an electric freakout rather than a whimsical trip. It’s one of his best albums. But it was Bolan, having lightened his load by dropping several syllables from his band’s name, who ascended the charts in 1970 with ‘Ride a White Swan’, a song that combined a louche, Presley-style guitar lick with a lyric just ridiculous enough to make you want to sing along. T. Rex followed up with ‘Hot Love’ in early 1971, a song that did pretty much the same thing. It went to number one in the UK, and stayed there for six weeks. Glam rock had arrived.
Bowie was watching carefully. His diminutive friend had one songwriting trick, but it was a damn good one: take a huge riff, add a screwy chorus, and watch the records fly off the shelves. Bolan strutted across the concert stage and the television screen in bright, shiny clothes, his beautiful face painted with glitter, shaking his mane of dark curls. The girls would scream and scream and scream. T-Rexstasy, they called it; the biggest thing since Beatlemania. “And he was awful nice / Really quite out of sight,” sang Bowie, on ‘Lady Stardust’, a song that in demo form had been called ‘He Was Alright (A Song For Marc)’.
Ziggy Stardust had arrived by then, a stranger beast altogether than T. Rex. The rock ’n’ roll alien soon eclipsed the dinosaur. Bowie had his own curls lopped off into a mullet, which was dyed bright orange. The clothes were even more elaborate: quilted jumpsuits with shin-high boots, modelled on Stanley Kubrick’s highly stylised adaptation of the Anthony Burgess novel A Clockwork Orange. (Bowie’s fashion choices have always been as canny and as cool as his music.) The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars (1972) had as many obvious hooks as a T. Rex album (‘It Ain’t Easy’, ‘Suffragette City’), but the conceptual framework was far more sophisticated.
Ziggy came with an ejector seat: Bowie wanted to be a star, but after just a year he could exit the spaceship and move sideways. Bolan, having made only himself into a star, soon found that he had no direction to go but down. Then he died, at 29. I would have loved him (I do love him), for his beauty (Bowie had this too, but his was eerie where Bolan’s was guileless) and for his faith in the sheer pleasure of pop music, which made him both vulnerable and stupid.
Bowie was neither of these things. After Ziggy Stardust he stepped from cover versions (Pin Ups, 1973), to dystopias (Diamond Dogs, 1974), to soul (Young Americans, 1975) to Krautrock (Station to Station, 1976) and finally to his celebrated late-1970s “Berlin Trilogy”, produced by Brian Eno. These albums were half vocal and half instrumental; ‘Warszawa’, from Low (1977), anticipated the bleak mood of post-punk while The Sex Pistols were still gleefully climbing the charts. (And who else had bright orange hair? None other than Johnny Rotten, Ziggy Stardust gone septic.)
In the middle of David Bowie Is stands a small room with the dimensions of a recording booth; displayed inside is an array of Bowie’s own handwritten notes from various studio sessions. One note, dated March 1994, when Bowie was working on the album Outside (his first collaboration with Brian Eno since 1979), reads: “to resample and reconstruct the ingredients of the 76–79 Berlin albums … and create a fourth, so-called Lost Tapes. An album, in short, that was never really made.” David Bowie is screwing with you. David Bowie is always many steps ahead.
“Unlike some celebrities, David Bowie does not tell people what to do,” reads one of the wall texts in David Bowie Is. “By publicly forging his own way, he shows us that we are free to be whoever and whatever we want to be.” It’s a nice thought, but a bit pat. Bowie, even more than most performers, is interested in manipulation. Ziggy Stardust was a kind of parody of a star’s influence, but the parody came true, which is what made it so exciting. It’s a thrill to surrender, and bliss to be part of a tribe, one freak among many, roaming pop’s galaxies.
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