05 April, 2007

David Bowie

I don’t know about you but tunes are always running in my head. It’s something like hearing voices, I suppose – but in a good way. Today the tune was ‘Teenage Wildlife’ by David Bowie, one of those pieces the reviewers tend to call ‘anthems’ (for the under-fifties that’s one of those numbers like ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’ by Nirvana). Since I’m my own man these days, and can pretty much suit myself as to what I do, I went to my computer and played the track – and played it loud! And, as ever with Bowie, it was even better than I remembered. So I set my media player to play nothing but Bowie and feasted on his work.

There are several musicians (by which I really mean composers) I admire unreservedly. Mozart, Beethoven, JS Bach, Handel and Haydn for instance. Then there is a second tier who almost make it into this league – Wagner, Brahms, Verdi, Mendelssohn – and many others, less astonishing but nevertheless breathtakingly brilliant (the Mahlers and Puccinis are in there with the JC Bachs and the Berlioz’s). Somewhere in the late 1800s though, the list peters out. In the early-to-mid twentieth century, there were a few – Debussy, Bartok, Stravinsky – but I can’t think of a single ‘serious’ musician I admire who is writing today. Where did they all go?

I think that they turned to pop music. Or, to put it another way, the musicians who really felt genius surging through them, began to express themselves in fresh and exciting new ways – writing popular music – the way musicians like Mozart once did. And judging by the criteria of impact on the genre, groundbreaking innovation that pushed the field forwards, the sheer number of imitators, and the subtlety and emotional intensity of the music itself, there are very, very few people who stand out like David Bowie does (you might argue that Bob Dylan is a contender and I might even grant you The Beatles, if we allow ‘collective’ composers).

I know, I know. It’s hard to think of a guy in a silver catsuit, who named his son Zowie and used to do that invisible wall mime thing on stage, as the modern equivalent of Beethoven or Mozart but I really believe he is. In another age, he could certainly have been Wagner and, let’s face it, since he ‘got God’, I can see him churning out cantatas as JS Bach too. If you don’t believe me, get hold of a copy of Scary Monsters – in my opinion the best album Bowie ever made – stick it on your iPod and go for a long drive with it blasting in your ears. You may need to listen to the album a few times through before you start fully to appreciate its quality but that is no hardship at all.

I’ve been a ‘fan’ of Bowies since I first heard his really early work (Rubber Band, Uncle Arthur, etc. – lightweight but fun) and there are major gems throughout his career. Hunk Dory was his own ‘Sgt. Peppers’ but there are many truly great albums you should listen to (Aladdin Sane, The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars, Young Americans, Lodger, Diamond Dogs, Black Tie White Noise – tell you what, just listen to them all!) But it was Scary Monsters that convinced me that Bowie was a truly great artist, that living in England in the 1980s was something akin to living in Vienna in the 1780s, that people 200 years from today would wonder what it was like to be alive now, the way we wonder what it must have been like to share the world with Mozart.

Actually, guys, it was pretty great!

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