Mojo Special Limited Edition JANUARY 2005 - by David Buckley


By the mid-'70s David Bowie was busily recoiling from rock stardom and seeking a new sound. His latest toy: the synthesizer. The music he was about to make would inspire a generation of electro-pop stars.

In the summer of 1975, David Bowie possessed a preternaturally thin body and a mind several years ahead of its time. Having already launched glam rock and soul music for white boys, he was about to change again. Fame, recorded with John Lennon, was on its slow ascent to the top of the Billboard charts. Bowie was big box office. Yet the song, a jaundiced view of celebrity, recorded his ambivalence towards his new status as a global superstar: Fame, what you get is no tomorrow, Bowie howled. Full of spite, it was the first sign of Bowie's disaffection with the nature of superstardom. His next musical move would be to take rock out of the musical equation almost completely, and to pare down the posing. In the space of eighteen months, Bowie was to reinvent himself and his music.

Going back, you can start plotting the course of Bowie's discomfort with his role in the star-making machine. Australian journalist Antony O'Grady's interview with him in July that year is a landmark of weirdness in rock music history: discursive and babbling, the non-sequiturs follow rapidly on from one another in a stream of not terribly heightened consciousness, culminating in Bowie's claim that morals needed straightening up: and that the West could do with a far right dictatorship. The weather the day of the interview in Los Angeles was a fair reflection of Bowie's current mind-set: smog bound.

In Bowie's case, the fug was caused by a cocaine habit that had now become destructive. Yet, in terms of how Bowie's career was about to develop, the most important part of the interview came with the singer's portentous claim that the rock era was about to end. A generation before Marilyn Manson, Bowie proclaimed rock was dead; according to him, rock as culture had lost its fire and its meaning. The subtext was that Bowie was an ironist who mocked rock music rather than felt it as a pure expression of belief. They used it as a strategy, nothing more. In this, he was no different to many of the punks about to pour scorn on the old guard.

In the same year, told Rolling Stone's Cameron Crowe: It's interesting how this all started. At the time I did Ziggy Stardust all I had was a small cult audience in England from Hunky Dory. I think it was out of curiosity that I began wondering what it would be like to be a rock and roll star. So basically, I wrote a script and played it out as Ziggy Stardust onstage and on record. I mean it when I say I didn't like all those albums - Aladdin Sane, Pin Ups, Diamond Dogs, David Live. It wasn't a matter of liking them, it was, Did they work or not? Yes, they worked. They kept the trip going. Now, I'm all through with rock'n'roll. Finished. I've rocked my last roll. It was great fun while it lasted but I won't do it again.

Bowie was as good as his word. The subsequent Station To Station Tour rewrote the rock concert rule-book, as Bowie pioneered a brand new sound: harsh, technological, discordant, synthetic and spacey. The codes and practices of rock music, along with all its trappings and all that it stood for, were, to Bowie's mind, becoming obsolete. The future was what journalists would come to call the New Musick.

As writer Jon Savage recalls, the term New Musick was coined to describe what perhaps now might be called post-punk music. The term originates from a big two-issue article that we did at Sounds on 26 November 1977 and 3 December 1977, Savage says. The editor, Alan Lewis, had asked his punk correspondents - myself, Jane Suck, Sandy Robertson and features editor Viv Goldman - to do an Images of the New Wave Part 3. Having already decided that punk was old hat, we collectively came up with the idea of celebrating the new electronic and futuristic music that seemed much more interesting than old pub rockers banging out three chords. Jane Suck and I did the editorial in the first issue. Over the two weeks, Steve Lavers wrote about Kraftwerk, Viv about Siouxsie, Davitt Sigerson wrote about disco, Sandy Robertson about Throbbing Gristle, and I wrote about Devo and The Residents. Obviously Bowie and Eno were a big reference, cited in the editorials. The foundations of the New Musick had already been in place for at least two years with Bowie at the very heart of it.

In fact, Bowie's musical shift in the mid-to-late '70s wasn't a totally unpredicted move. He had dabbled with electronics almost from the outset of his career. A mastery of the Dubreq Stylophone would provide an entry into this world. Described on the box as a pocket electric organ, this quaintly dated monophonic instrument, famously endorsed by Rolf Harris in the late '60s, made, made a noise like the sound of a hornet being sawn in two. It had no speaker, only two settings (Normal and Vibrato) and was played with a metal pick-up. Despite being perceived as a musical gimmick, it appealed to the then twenty-two-year-old Bowie, who decided that he needed it on his 1969 hit Space Oddity, a record which many at the time wrote off as a gimmick itself. On 9 October 1969, Bowie's appearance on BBC's Top Of The Pops to promote the single featured a Stylophone solo. The single still peaked at Number 5.

The next year, Bowie's fascination with the possibilities afforded by new technologies became more serious. On songs such as Saviour Machine, After All and The Supermen, the bleak, forbidding sounds of The Man Who Sold The World spliced hard rock with out-there sound effects. Producer Tony Visconti, later to work with Bowie on the Low/"Heroes"/Lodger trilogy, remembers: I saw immense possibilities, not so much in sci-fi sounds but as a kind of larger-than-life Wagner or Beethoven-type device. I scored the first parts and asked Ralph Mace, a middle-aged executive at Phonogram, to play them because they were beyond our abilities and he was a classically trained performer. David and I had an agreement to try to create the most startling, evocative electronic effects when we wanted to follow that route. There was a kind of sonic one-upmanship going on in those days. The biggest compliment anyone could give was to ask, How did you make that sound?

In 1972 and '73, the astonishing synthesizer music created for A Clockwork Orange soundtrack by Walter (later Wendy) Carlos, would boom out of the speakers before Bowie's Ziggy Stardust shows, reflecting his continued interest in electronics. However, at the time the synth was used sparingly rather than as a core component of his own records. Bowie producer Ken Scott recalls that Trident Studios had one of the first ARP synthesizers, and it was this machine that made the briefest of debuts on 1971's Hunky Dory, during the link between Fill Your Heart and Andy Warhol. Although again uncredited on the sleeve-notes, Suffragette City - from Bowie's breakthrough album, the following year's Ziggy Stardust - was powered by a big, booming ARP sound. As Scott remembers: We wanted something to thicken the sound up, and I suggested that we brought down the ARP. I messed around with it until I got the sound we wanted and then, as I recall, Ronno [guitarist Mick Ronson] played the part.

With each album that followed, the synthesizer assumed an even greater role in Bowie's music. On 73's Aladdin Sane, the cover of The Rolling Stones' Let's Spend The Night Together fizzes with Mick Garson's Moog, which had a richer, fatter synth sound than the ARP, while the follow-up, Pin Ups, contains synth on I Wish You Would, See Emily Play and Shape Of Things. By the time of 74's Diamond Dogs, the synth is even more dominant.

But it was in '75 that Bowie appears to have picked up on an essentially European scene, which would quietly dominate much of modern music for decades to come. He began listening to the then novel sounds of such German acts as Neu!, Edgar Froese, Can, Cluster and Kraftwerk. The most influential group from this scene, Kraftwerk had scored an international hit single with Autobahn earlier that year, and Bowie asked them to be his support band on the 1976 tour. They apparently declined due to technical reasons - their set-up was essentially their studio - but their Radioactivity would become Bowie's pre-stage music for the tour. However, Bowie's improvised music, its emotional impact, and its meld of funk and electronics was still in many ways the antithesis of Kraftwerk's dead-pan discipline and rigid minimalism. The Germans would pay tribute to Bowie on '77's Trans-Europe Express, quoting his name and sonically referencing Station To Station's title cut. Yet in Kraftwerk, like other German groups, Bowie found the blueprint of rejection: rejection not only of most rock, but much of the musical basis of Anglo-American popular music over the past thirty years.

Bowie's first attempt to record instrumentally has never been released. In collaboration with classical arranger Paul Buckmaster, he worked for over a month on the soundtrack to his film, The Man Who Fell To Earth. The material is to this day still under wraps, although a backwards bass-line would later be used on Subterraneans on Low. We rented a house in Bel Air, recalled Buckmaster. We had a TEAC four-track and some early non-programmable drum machines - Japanese rhythm boxes. We also had a Maestro Echoplex Unit into which we plugged a Rhodes Fender. David played guitar and I played cello. Buckmaster recalled that the two shared a common interest in German electronic music. We were listening to Kraftwerk's Autobahn and Radioactivity. I was fascinated, tickled and amused by them. We both enjoyed those records. We kind of took them seriously, but we kind of laughed as well, not at it, but because the music itself had an innocent quality which was very fetching, and it had a dead-pan quality as well. Kraftwerk were definitely one of the influences.

The first public airing of Bowie's new musical direction can be heard on the title track of his next album, '76's Station To Station. The opening third of this astonishing track was given over to a mantric, spell-like sequence of repetitive riffs, as a synthesized train passes from speaker to speaker. Later that year, Bowie's live sound was in a transitional state, a harsh collage of warm funk and edgy synths. Together with its stark presentation, the White Light Tour (as it was to become known) was arguably more influential than Bowie's Ziggy triumphs four years earlier. A whole new generation of British performers were astonished by the starkness of the presentation as Bowie took the stage clad in black and white and illuminated by varying intensities of white light, while his band played harsh synthetic timbres.

At the end of the tour, Bowie approached Brian Eno, then three years into a solo career after his split with Roxy Music, to collaborate on his next project. Tony Visconti was recalled as producer, bringing with him a new gadget, the Harmonizer, which created the astonishing snare sound for the next album. Although Eno is often mistakenly named as the producer of these late-'70s Bowie albums, it was Visconti who actually took this role. Eno was there, as Bowie later put it, as Ideas Co-ordinator.

I really admired his working methods, which I found extraordinary when applied to rock music, said Bowie at the time. He'd done an interesting thing. He'd taken techniques that you would use in a modern way of working in the visual arts and conceptualism and just applied them to music. He gave people their freedom. And it's not so much what Eno plays, it's how he arranges ideas that is the most important.

With Eno around, there would be role playing, musical cut-ups, Oblique Strategy cards and a sense of adventure. Bowie had found the perfect partner.

The sessions for Low had seen Bowie, Eno and Visconti join forces with what is unarguably Bowie's finest rhythm section: Carlos Alomar on rhythm guitar, George Murray on bass and Dennis Davis on drums. The incredible find of Ricky Gardiner on lead guitar completed the line-up. The result was one of the most influential British records of all time. A host of electronic pioneers would later make music in the image of Low.

After years of trained musicians playing expensive synths with maximum virtuosity, Low acknowledged the fact that synths could be used in short pop songs as well as lengthy electronic instrumentals. A generation of new wave bands added the synth to their kit and, by the end of the decade, electronic music was a constituent part of the mainstream chart sound.

The results of the Low sessions mortified Bowie's label, RCA. Originally titled New Music, Night And Day, the album was scheduled for release in late autumn 1976. Its title perfectly captured the sense of adventure to be found in the proto-electronica of the age, and pre-dated Sounds magazine's christening of the movement by a whole year. But it was the first (and by no means the last) of Bowie's records to fall foul of scheduling conflicts. One RCA executive allegedly approached Bowie and told him that the label would pay for him to return to Los Angeles and make another album of Young Americans-style pop. Meanwhile, Bowie's ex-manager Tony Defries reportedly came to hear the record prior to its release and tried to intervene, fearing that his own future royalty payments were under threat, so uncompromising was the music.

Four years into his global fame, Bowie had decided to opt out of rock completely. Gone would be the lavish make-up, the glitter, and the flamboyance. Bowie was, as his future collaborator Brian Eno put it, trying to duck the momentum of a successful career. The main problem with success is that it's a huge momentum. It's like you've got this big train behind you and it all wants you to carry on going the same way. Nobody wants you to step off the tracks and start looking round in the scrub around the edges because nobody can see anything promising there.

Low finally arrived in January 1977, baffling reviewers and the public alike. Only the surprise success of the first single, Sound And Vision, rescued it from probable commercial meltdown. Texture, nuance and ambience replace recognisable song structures and literariness. The entire album contained fewer words than some early Bowie songs. Rather Bowie had reinvented his music almost completely. Overall, though, Low represented a brilliant reflection of Bowie's then-current psychology. With its bright timbres and pure sounds, the album gives the impression that Bowie, the recovering addict, was detoxing his music, too.

By 1977, Bowie, along with his friend and musician Iggy Pop were living in West Berlin, cycling or driving a clapped-out 1950s Mercedes around town. Bowie's hair was now a short crop, while a blonde moustache, checked shirt and blue jeans completed his reinvention as a native Berliner manqué. Together with Visconti, Bowie and Pop soaked up Berlin's decadent nightlife - the gay bars and transvestite reviews - as well as the city's history. For several months, Bowie was to live a modest lifestyle, slowly rebuilding his life and career. A decade or so later, he would perform the same trick when the bombast of the Glass Spider period gave way to the rootsy vigour of Tin Machine.

Bowie recorded the follow-up to Low in the summer of 1977 at Berlin's Hansa Studios, with almost the same personnel that had worked in 1976 on Low. A stunning four-track instrumental sequence on the original vinyl Side Two - V-2 Schneider, Sense Of Doubt, Moss Garden and Neuköln - defined 1977 as clearly and as articulately as any punk anthem. But it would be the six-minute-plus title track which would come to overshadow all else on the album and which, in many ways, is Bowie's defining song. His brilliant vocal, expertly recorded by Visconti using the ambience of the huge ballroom which served as the main studio, is arguably Bowie's finest ever, while a weave of guitar and various Eno-inspired sonics encouraged the song to transcend its basic chord structure, based, Bowie later claimed, on The Velvet Underground's Waiting For The Man.

Released in October 1977, "Heroes" was regarded by critics of the day as a better record than Low (even being voted Melody Maker's album of the year). There's old wave, There's New Wave, And There's David Bowie ran the press ads, perfectly capturing the essence of Bowie's reinvention. Low and "Heroes" sounded like nothing heard before, but like so much thereafter. From the gloomy ambience to the cold vocal delivery, it was a blueprint used by virtually all British electronic bands since: from Joy Division to Radiohead. By '78, Bowie had repositioned himself as an artist working on the margins. I feel incredibly divorced from rock, he claimed. And it's a genuine striving to be that way.

Bowie's next two releases - 1979's Lodger and 80's Scary Monsters (And Supercreeps) - saw him edge back towards the mainstream. By the time of 83's Let's Dance, the thirty-six-year-old father of a twelve-year-old boy had repositioned himself foursquare inside the mainstream, the synthesizer no longer part of his musical make-up. In the music press that spring, he claimed the sound of Scary Monsters... etc was the epitome of the new wave sound at the time; from bubbling synthesizers to erratic and unconventional guitar playing, it had all the elements which are, by definition, the young way of playing music. The dead synth-pad sounds used on his next two releases, Tonight (1984) and Never Let Me Down ('87), seemed to confirm Bowie's ennui and unhappiness with his new role as populist entertainer.

It came as no surprise, then, to long-standing Bowie watchers that it was when he began to build a synthetic web of musical information into his music in the 1990s, starting with the much overlooked The Buddha Of Suburbia and continuing on 1. Outside and Earthling, that he started to make some of his best music in years. In 2002, even his once-beloved Stylophone would make a comeback, on Slip Away from the Heathen album.

Bowie's career has often been decoded as a series of radical departures, a parade of different substances and different styles. He will always be best remembered for the hit singles and for the grand gestures of the Ziggy Stardust era, yet it still seems now that the greatest satisfaction Bowie gained from his own music was during the year of 1976 and '77: exploring unearthly new sounds and working hard at not being a superstar.