INTERVIEWS, REVIEWS & RELATED ARTICLES
"Craft is what enables you to be successful
when you're not inspired." - Brian Eno
Guitarist MARCH 2016 - by Jamie Dickson
DAVID BOWIE: 1947-2016
"Time: he's waiting in the wings / He speaks of senseless things / His script is you and me..." Time, David Bowie, 1973
When David Bowie released his final album, Blackstar, on January 8 nearly everyone here who watched the video of the title song shrugged and smiled and said something like, "Wow, that's weird, even for Bowie." Its dark, fever-dream imagery of deserted cities under an eclipsed sun were as striking as anything he had produced to date, but harder to decipher. Perhaps the jewelled skull inside the astronaut's suit should have been a warning - Major Tom's remains, slumped in the dust. Two days later, Bowie himself was dead.
As the world absorbed the shock of his sudden passing, it also dawned that Bowie had pulled off a remarkable artistic coup, making musical theatre of his own demise - and then leaving the stage in a puff of smoke while the crowd gasped, like a Victorian conjuror. The boldness, the humour and the quiet courage of this final gesture were entirely characteristic of his life in music.
Born in Brixton in South London on January 8, 1947, David Bowie's wild spark of creativity was kindled in the unpromising setting of drab post-war London. The records of Little Richard, Elvis Presley and others ignited his interest in rock 'n' roll, but the jazz of Charles Mingus also formed part of the musical backdrop of his teenaged years. He formed his first band, The Kon-rads, in '62 and, after a series of dead-ends with outfits such as The King Bees and The Manish Boys, The Buzz and The Riot Squad, he released the first single as a solo artist, Do Anything You Say, in April 1966.
A change of moniker from David Jones (his real name) to David Bowie followed and he released his eponymous debut on Deram in June 1967, which saw music hall collide with psychedelia and gender-bending lyrical themes, anticipating the theatrical and transgressive daring of his later work. He had to wait until 1969 for his first Top 5 hit, Space Oddity, from his second album, however. Mick Wayne (a former bandmate of Jimmy Page) played a jazzily sci-fi solo on the track with, reportedly, a borrowed guitar that slipped out of tune on the last note - a chance discordant touch that Bowie, typically, loved.
But it was Bowie's partnership with guitarist Mick Ronson as The Spiders From Mars that marked the first classic phase of a career that saw him assume and discard musical personas at will. Uninterested in following trends, it's arguable that Bowie wasn't preoccupied with setting them either - the rigour of his artistic vision dictated what form the work took and he left it up to listeners to decide what they made of it. Guitarist contributor Charles Shaar Murray, writing for Melody Maker in 1972, summarised the timeless, yet somehow futuristic, quality that this seemed to lend to Bowie's work when he described him as: "A man in the '70s, looking back on the '80s from a position somewhere in the next century."
While Bowie was not solely - or even primarily - a guitarist himself, his albums gave the world guitar riffs that are as memorable as anything from the back catalogue of The Stones or The Beatles. Think of Bowie's own scalding intro riff to Rebel Rebel or Mick Ronson's reckless, careering solo on Suffragette City. Or Robert Fripp's noble, soaring refrain on "Heroes" - for which he had to mark positions on the floor of the studio to indicate the precise place to stand, relative to the amp, to induce specific notes to sustain. Stevie Ray Vaughan's sparse but poised blues licks on Let's Dance linger in the mind, too, while millions have swayed to Nile Rodgers' and Carlos Alomar's chrome-slick R&B riffs on tracks such as China Girl and Golden Years. Everywhere you look in Bowie's back catalogue you find brilliant guitar parts, as propulsive and memorable as they are strikingly original.
Why has so much fine guitar work come out of David Bowie's music? Perhaps because the parts are often pared back to the visceral essentials - think of Mick Ronson's fuzz-saw riff that slices into the speakers like an industrial laser as Bowie exhorts the listener to 'freak out in a moonage daydream'. While the guitar grabs you by the lapels, your mind is left wondering what 'freaking out in a moonage daydream' would even look like - the classic Bowie double-whammy of killer hooks and dazzling ideas.
Also, Bowie had a talent for finding distinctive voices on guitar that suited the work in hand. When cosmic glam-rock was his aim, Mick Ronson was the perfect, tinsel-clad wingman on guitar. When streetwise soul was in, as on tracks such as Young Americans, ex-James Brown guitarist Carlos Alomar stepped up. Bowie was a judicious and eclectic bandleader with great taste in guitarists, moving on when it was time for a new sound but always treating players with respect, trusting them to do what they did best. They invariably rose to the occasion with top-drawer work.
In the days after his passing, we spoke with some of Bowie's former guitarists to gain fresh insights into what it was like to play for the Thin White Duke - you'll find their reflections and recollections of working on his music in the following pages. For the moment, however, we'll leave David with the last word on his motives for exploring so many sound-worlds - and stellar guitar styles - during his extraordinary career: "I realised that what I had to do was experiment. To discover new forms of writing. To evolve, in fact, a new musical language. That's what I set out to do."