Saturday, 23 August 2014

Ten From The Top Drawer: David Bowie.

Recently, I had a Rolling Stone article brought to my attention by my good friend Brother JCC: a list of ‘20 Insanely Great David Bowie Songs Only Hardcore Fans Know.’ 

Ah well, it’s more like a list of ‘20 Insanely Great David Bowie Songs You Might Hear If You Owned A David Bowie Album That Wasn’t A Greatest Hits’, but you know how it is with lists. I hope it may serve a higher function than merely preaching to the converted; that hopefully a casual-but-intrigued Bowie neophyte may peruse the list and be tempted to go beyond the confines of a compilation  — but who doesn’t love to disagree with a list, any list, purporting to precis some pop-cultural achievement in twenty easy-to-digest bullet points?

So — with that in mind, but mindful of your time and tolerance, I present a mere ten songs by The Dame, in no particular order, that I rate most highly. There are many others of course, as my love of Bowie goes back to my first adolescent appreciations of music as an active consumer. His was the first corpus of work by any musician I consciously decided to investigate and collect, but I didn’t agonise over this list — I simply allowed myself a minute to think of musical moments in the Bowiesphere that I find are always welcome when they shuffle up to the surface on my iPod…and shuffle up they do, frequently. Feel free to disagree with my choices. 

Holy Holy: Rolling Stone and I concur — it’s an insane classic, with deliberately provocative occult-flirting lyrics that made quite an impression on me when I was 14 years old and heard it on the Bowie Rare album. The lyric sheet of this album (of European RCA provenance, I believe), should you ever read it, is a veritable velvet goldmine of badly translated mondegreens and typos (“bust just lest me be” instead of “but just let me be” being one of the milder examples in this song alone, if memory serves). Holy Holy also contains a sterling example of the quintessential 70s rock effect of a reversed gated reverb plastered on Bowie’s vocal, rendering the echo of the sung words audible before the words themselves. Legend has it that one James Patrick Page discovered this trick and this explains its earliest outings on certain Led Zeppelin guitar solos.

She’s Got Medals: Again, can’t argue with RS on this. I am a vociferous defender of Bowie’s soi-disant ‘juvenilia’, if defence were even needed, and it riles me when his experimental, fertile and eclectic Sixties output is summarised by tin-eared journalists and wiki-rote pub bores invoking the reductio ad absurdum of The Laughing Gnome (which incidentally is a great song, doing a successful job as a comedy number with a Mod-stomping backbeat that bears repeated listening. Can’t fault it. Form a queue to smack me upside the head if you dare). She’s Got Medals, along with The London Boys, is possibly my favourite song from Bowie’s career before his 1969 breakout. An engaging, semi-spoken lyric (top line: “she went and joined the Army; passed the medical — don’t ask me how it’s done!”) and a weirdly creepy oboe arrangement stand out, along with a blatant steal of Love’s version of Hey Joe (the bass line, mostly, although there’s shades of the Byrds version in there too), but all wrapped up in a very English, between-the-wars parochialism that sets the lightness of the delivery against something dark and sinister in a way only the Sixties ever managed. 

Sweet Thing/Candidate/Sweet Thing (reprise)/Rebel Rebel: OK, I’m cheating by citing three (four?) songs, but they are so artfully linked that they are indivisible (and programmed to come up as such on my iPod). Bowie almost goes Prog! There’s definitely a concept-album feel to Diamond Dogs (betraying its gestation as a musical version of George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, nixed when Orwell’s widow refused Bowie the performing rights) and this three-song suite takes in a cracking range over a relatively short passage of time, with Sweet Thing alternately stately and darkly pretty, then (un)settling into the frankly creepy decadence of Candidate (a song that featured at the centre of a nightmare I once had concerning Bowie) before recapitulating Sweet Thing only to accelerate to the sleaze-out, stomp-riff finale of Rebel Rebel. This could well be the zenith of Bowie’s marriage of theatricality and rock — and the subsequent Diamond Dogs tour reflected that; possibly the high-water mark of Bowie’s live career — at least to begin with… 

Big Brother/Chant Of The Ever-Circling Skeletal Family: Diamond Dogs again, commanding a considerable amount of total minutes on this list. Scary Dave is back. There’s something almost cinematic about the placing of these songs and the atmosphere they convey (perhaps picked up subconsciously from the line in ‘Candidate’ where Bowie conspiratorially avers that “my set is amazing; it even smells like a street”) as we move in a distinct tracking shot (sonically speaking) down from the epic, crumbling tenement towers of Big Brother (with its brilliantly ‘failed’ attempt at a happy middle-eight) to focus on the Skeletal Family dancing round a burning oil drum in the precincts. Chant Of The Ever-Circling Skeletal Family completely obsessed me as a teen, with its theoretically endless, almost medieval tötentanz-ical whirl, while the mellotron/choir transition from Big Brother into the Chant is still up there as one of my favourite ever Bowie moments. The lyrics of Chant read on paper as the kind of interjections James Brown would bark out during one of his numbers (Brother! Ooh-ooh! Shake it up! Move it up!) but in Bowie’s delivery they become a ghostly, fleshless, minimalist mantra. Also noteworthy is the absolutely inspired, almost onomatopoeic use of guiro and claves to scratch-clatch out a hollow-boned percussive drive. Charles Schaar Murray once described Diamond Dogs and the subsequent tour LP David Live as ‘the final nightmare of glitter apocalypse…in which the corpse of Ziggy had been reanimated in hell to run through his act one more time’ — powerfully emotive, matchless metaphors indeed, realised no better than on these closing songs. To a certain post-Beatles generation, the repeated bro-bro-bro-bro fadeout must have been as resonant and final in the Seventies as the closing chord on the Sgt. Pepper album was in the Sixties — a slamming-down of the lid on the Glam Rock sarcophagus.

Life On Mars?:  As a very small child, my mother would sing me to sleep singing ‘Starman’, which she always thought had a nice melody even if that funny chap who sang it on telly wore makeup and looked, as she would put it, ‘a bit poofy’. Consequently, I had the man we sometimes call ‘Bromley Dave’ instilled in me from before I can remember. My earliest inklings of Bowie, visually speaking, were derived from several pop promos that seemed to be on TV a lot when I was a toddler: the Jean Genie film evinces a thrill of vivid childhood nostalgia for me, with the band filmed on The Streets Of San Francisco and the model Cyrinda Foxe vamping about trying to catch Bowie’s eye (which she did in real life, so I’m told). Ditto the Life On Mars? promo, filmed months, if not years, after the single release as it depicts a full-blown Ziggy on acoustic guitar (see link), rather than the Bacall-like, blond-locked and Oxford-bagged Bowie that was behind the mic on Hunky Dory. Throw in the photos of Ziggy in the red leather kecks, high boots and the eyepatch... and you had, er, Adolf Hitler. 

Adolf Hitler, yesterday.

Or at least that’s who I thought it was at the age of four. I blame this misattribution on my older brother, who with four years on me had developed a childish fascination with war films and spoke about Churchill, Hitler, the Nazis etc a lot. Somehow in my head I conflated one person onto the image of another and subsequently maintained, in my childlike manner, a theory that a) Hitler was alive and out there, somewhere and b) he looked like Ziggy Stardust. This was clearly a man to be feared. Consequently my earliest memories of Bowie are imagining him to be some kind of human monster in Maybelline, the epitome of fear incarnate Factored to the Max... who also released pop singles. By the time Bowie got to the Ashes To Ashes promo, the deal was sealed; he terrified me like the Daleks. Even today I am aware that the eyepatched Ziggy pics create a frisson of recognition in me that is as potent as seeing a blue Police Box and acknowledging its time-travel capabilities first over any mere mundane functionality for the boys in blue. I probably didn’t shake this doublethink off until I turned thirteen or so. My sister owned several Bowie albums and, as is healthy for a curious adolescent, my fear gave way to fascination and eventually affection. Funny, I was fascinated by Bowie as a child despite the fact he scared me; as an adult I liked him precisely because I knew he scared me. In fact, I think I like Scary Dave the best of all.

Anyway, there’s nothing more I can add about the self-evident genius of Life On Mars? other than it’s an instant classic, pisses on My Way even if it’s derived thereof, and Mick Ronson’s stunning string arrangement can never be overpraised, although frequently overlooked, it seems. Oh, and Rick Wakeman’s on it. David Bowie: one — rest of the world: nil.

Hang On To Yourself: … and then I’d say this song probably did more to (re)kindle an active interest in Dame Adolf as a teenager and initiate my ‘Bowie rehab’ (which ironically enough, meant I emerged a confirmed addict). This would be potent rock’n’roll by anyone, a crisp nugget of hard-hitting pop perfection and one of my favourite songs of all time. Amidst the Cochranesque riffing and the doo-wop hand-clapping, there is something so very Seventies about the half-heard “yeaaaaahhhh” that drifts across the speakers after the line “you’re the blessed; we’re the Spiders From Mars.” I love Woody Woodmansey’s machine-gun drum fills too. A song with a companionable arm round the shoulder for me. 

StationToStation: I loved StationToStation as a teenager more than Young Americans as I despised anything too funky or soulish in those days, reacting against the preponderance of disco-funk in the charts as a child (I have since reconciled myself with this oft-rewarding, but frequently-abused genre). I found Young Americans, despite Bowie’s ‘plastic soul’ assessment, to be too much like The Real Thing (can you feel the force?). StationToStation somehow packages the funky inflections in with music that is glacial, lengthy and decidedly progressive (I think it’s no coincidence that Bowie, unable to secure Roy Bittan’s services on keyboards for the Thin White Duke tour, opted for ex-Yes man Tony Kaye) and nowhere more effectively than the title track, which builds from practically nothing into a sneaky, almost snidey but steady plod of a tune that then makes one magical movement into weirdly freaked-out, discofied apotheosis, leavened immeasurably by Bittan’s joyous, scintillating piano part. It’s actually amazing how little Bowie himself contributes to the structure of the music, but the Thin White Duke’s presence presides over the proceedings, all-pervading, like a vampiric cloud.  Let us not forget that this album was recorded at Bowie’s lowest life-ebb to date, apparently leaving session boys Earl Slick, Bittan et al to get on with much of the arrangement while he descended into coke-induced, song-inspiring blackout. It is impressive that Bowie managed to parlay his demons into cohesive — and admittedly danceable — music to such successful effect. 

Look Back In Anger: Online intelligence informs me that this song is considered by some critics to be the low point of Lodger. I don’t understand why, as it’s simply a kick-ass song, with the lyric that tells me exactly where the idea comes for the angelic Mr Baker on the cover of the BBM album. The instrumental break that sort of comprises the second verse of Look Back In Anger (at least it comes before the second refrain of the structure) is a thrilling bit of tight ensemble playing, with Alomar’s simple but highly effective solo writhing over Dennis Davis’ astonishing drum part, one of the greatest takes of Davis’ illustrious Bowie career. I get the impression Bowie maybe had extra lyrics, but heard what his sidemen were doing on the backing track and elected to let some of the music breathe for several bars: it really is quite a piece of work. 

Come And Buy My Toys: Another one from the arcane, recondite vaults of Bowie’s psinister, psychedelic psixties. John Renbourn on acoustic guitar. Fact. Artless (arf arf) mention of a ‘cambric shirt’ and some Baroque palm-muted bass counterpoint. It’s a slight arrangement, but something about this song opens a wormhole to somewhere that manages to be sunblest and fell simultaneously. A Wicker Manish Boy.

The Jean Genie: A stone-cold classic. Time can flex like a whore and fall wanking to the floor all it wants, but it fails to diminish the sheer exuberant chug and swagger of this archetypal Spiders song. As a very small child, with the most minimal knowledge of pop music I initially believed it was by the Stones, and who can blame me? I remember this being played frequently when I was about five/six (a reissue, do we know?) on tv (in that aforementioned video) as well as on radio and the DJs talking so warmly of it that I liked it instantly and didn’t realise that ‘Adolf Hitler’ had recorded it until a while later. Then it scared me! 

That’s all from me for now. I’ll be doing more of these scrabblings around in my top drawers of pop culture soon.

But first, a drink.


Saturday, 2 August 2014

2014 — a half-time report. Part one: the bad times.

Many of my blog entries seem to start with “when I first started this blog...” and then go on to outline how what I wanted and what I actually do are two separate things. This one is no different. Clearly it’s a comfortable gambit. I’m a fool for laying out a stall without quite knowing what I plan to sell, I know, but as I have said before, there are subjects that I try to avoid posting online as much as I would in casual conversation. They are obvious. Politics: mainly because my grasp of it is childlike and overly simplistic — but let’s just say that no-one would be deported, prejudiced, unfairly taxed, unemployed or uneducated on my watch. Religion is also a wobbly one — essentially, all you need to know is this ex-Catholic veers between having a distant respect for it as a cultural inevitability or as a framework of faith that gives meaning, substance and order for many in life — but ultimately I think it’s completely crackers. Even that is possibly vouchsafing too much insight into my worldview. Maybe I should pull my head out of the sand on this one. But that’s a discussion for another time.

I’ve also tried hard not to make this blog too private, too personal, being as it is for the most part a collection of music essays, poetry scraps and pop culture silliness. But earlier this year I wrote something that was about as personal as I get. As such, I didn’t post it up at the time as it was more of an attempt at emotional catharsis and on a basic level, something to do; a time-consuming, energy-dissipating exercise. 

However, six months have passed and I am, as they say, in a better head-space than I was in those (literally and figuratively) dark, dank days. I attribute this improvement of my situation to several good, close friends, my family, and keeping busy with creative pursuits; the latter being something I intend to blog about very soon indeed. This article was also instrumental in the healing process, and in that spirit, I am happy to present it to you now. I cannot guarantee this is the last time I ever offer up something so close to home again, but I can promise that it would take a lot for me to do this any time soon. One hell of a lot. 


Saturday, 1st February 2014, 8AM. 

My first night spent in the new flat. Woke on sofa with a dreadful hangover and still wearing my clothes from the night before (it was bit of a session). Since I was already fully clothed, with no-one around to impress, I decided it would be a good idea to head on out and attempt to finish off all business in the old flat before the afternoon, so by 8.30am I was on a Tube train from Finchley heading to London Bridge. I daresay I must have stank to high heaven of stale booze and sweat, but I didn’t give a damn as I felt absolutely rotten and completely lonely. Once more did I thank goodness for my badge-sized iPod Shuffle and the day’s worth of wonderful hand-picked tunes encoded within.

There was a delightful little boy on the Tube who clearly wasn’t enjoying being restrained in his pram and was trying to catch my attention, as I sat dejected and hungover on the opposite side of the car. I comically exaggerated my existing morning-after frown at him to show some solidarity for his plight. I soon got a smile and a wave. Parents smiled approvingly at me; the funny, grumpy, bearded man. Cheered me up a little too. The rail connections were straightforward and I soon found myself on a train that took me back to Chislehurst barely an hour after I’d started my journey — as swift as it gets really. 

I cried briefly, but intensely at several moments throughout the day, each time over instances when it came crashing in on me — as if I didn’t know already — that despite our differences, Mrs M always was (and remains) a very lovely lady. The first tears were on entering the almost-vacated flat in Chislehurst and seeing a note that Mrs M had left for the landlord. It was sweet and kind, written in her distinctively friendly handwriting. At this point, I had an overwhelming need to hear her. I rang her. She was very patient and sympathetic and I soon resolved myself. I wrote a note for the landlord to accompany Mrs M’s and left it alongside. My handwriting, normally fractured and spidery at best, was more so this time. 

The final stages of moving out involved emptying the fridge of food, hiving off anything worthwhile into a cool bag and binning the rest. This simple task took a while longer than it ought to due to my hungover fatigue leaving me vexed, distracted and lacking in any methodic approach; consequently, I ended up making more trips back and forth to the bins than was necessary, as if subconsciously I knew that the best way to blow away the cobwebs was to keep on the move.  Assembling the last couple of bags full of stuff to take back to the Finchley flat also took its time as my shape-sorting capacity seemed to have diminished overnight along with my linear logic.

The garden behind the flat in Chislehurst had given us great pleasure over the years. How often I’d stand with a cup of coffee in hand, at my window, in the back room and observe the wildlife; local cats, crows, blue tits, squirrels, magpies, robins and occasionally the odd woodpecker all passed through the greenery, occasionally tempted by the crumbs and food we’d leave out for them. It was nearly ten years since we moved in, in May 2004, a couple of weeks shy of our wedding day. Things seemed simpler then — a sense of a benevolently inexorable destiny pulled the pair of us happily along wherever we went. As the marriage deteriorated, so the flat became less of a joyful space to stand in as the boxes of stuff piled up. Home became more of a storage area than any place where the heart could be located. So as I stood in the empty flat for the final time late this particular morning, it was actually with an odd sense of satisfaction at seeing the rooms looking much as they did when we moved in, full of potential and promise — and no stuff. Full circle. I went to take a photograph of the garden from the window, but the light was against me — and besides, I have plenty of photos of the garden taken during every stage of our tenure. 

Finally, not long after 11am, my brother-in-law drove round and took the last of my bulkier possessions away for storage, including my two cacti, House and Wilson, who continue, as I type, to make their presence felt on my hands and fingers as they didn’t pack themselves away without a fight and a suitably barbed parting shot or two. 

Good morning, I’m Paul Murphy — you’re watching Saturday Kitchen, while I am not.

Saturday afternoon. I was up against it returning to Finchley lugging my luggage, as I had arranged for Dick, my new landlord’s handyman, to arrive at 1pm and fix all the light fittings and sundry other niggles in the flat that had not presented themselves initially. I arrived on the dot of 1pm and awaited Dick. That a man could wear the handle ‘Dick’ comfortably in this day and age suggested to me that I was to expect a genial, white, middle-aged man on my doorstep — which was exactly what I got. Famished by this point, I left Dick to get on with it while I dashed across the road to get myself — finally — something from the Italian deli so providentially situated. I broke my fast with a cup of tea and a white anchovy, mayonnaise and lettuce ciabatta. It tasted pretty much like the greatest thing ever after five hours solid on the go. Meanwhile, Dick worked quickly and without fuss and soon the flat had a full complement of lights, rendering everywhere a little too bright, if anything — but I have the option now. 

An afternoon sojourn to Finchley Central provided me with some domestic essentials and most importantly, a duvet — my first double duvet. Back home, as I must now call it, opening the boxes containing tinned food and spice jars — which Mrs M had carefully and thoughtfully packed for me — elicited another brief torrent of tears, but hunger spurred me on to make a Thai-style noodle soup, out of a packet, which tasted surprisingly good. This also cheered me up considerably. As the afternoon wore on, a sense of despair had set in and I experienced brief but major pangs of regret and uncertainty about the future. A sort-out of the laundry served to dispel some of the blues still further and yielded a satisfyingly large quantity of clean clothes I can donate to one of the many charity shops in the area. I think the Cats Protection League will be the first beneficiaries. Having the dishwasher, the washing machine and the kettle on also served to provide some agreeable and familiar ambient noise in other rooms. Even setting the clock on the oven to the correct time added a tiny extra sense of being home. Silly really. I sat in the newly illuminated living room listening first to Radio 4, then over to my other ever-constant companion, Radio 3, for the evening concert programme. Pleased to note that I identified the music as being by Shostakovich before I read the information, solely from recognising the style rather than the specific piece. At least that part of my mind is still in decent order. 

And that was my first whole day in the new flat.


Now listening/now reading/now watching: that's a blog entry all to itself, and one I'm happy to do for you soon.