In this latest edition of Discussions, Josh Becker and John Ulmer try to pin down the musical chameleon that is David Bowie.
JOSH BECKER: So how did you first get into David Bowie?
JOHN ULMER: I’m trying to remember the exact point in time where I fully delved into his music… I suppose my earliest exposure to Bowie in general, as embarrassing as this may be, was through the movie Labyrinth. It was my older sister’s favourite film growing up, so I used to watch it a lot. And as a kid, I don’t think I really understood who he was or recognized him as more than an actor from a film, but I did always like his songs in the film (and as cheesy as they are, I still rock out to some “Magic Dance” once in a while). I remember my grandmother watching it with us and making comments about how, when he was younger, “People didn’t know whether he was a guy or a girl” – the sort of comment that struck me as amusing years later when watching videos from his androgynous era. But rambling aside, I think my deeper interest in music began in my late teens, and just from browsing internet forums and looking for recommendations I probably stumbled across more of his work. I think as soon as I began playing his albums – and I think I might have started with Ziggy Stardust, as seems to be the norm – I recognized a lot of the material. When I heard songs like “Changes,” “Five Years,” “Golden Years” and “Heroes,” the pieces started to come together. He’s one of those artists that you’re just constantly exposed to through pop culture at a younger age, and then as you grow a bit more conscious of who he is, it just hits you: “Wow, so he wrote that song! And that one too!” I feel like that was a really long-winded response to your question, but I’ve always felt Bowie was the perfect example of that phenomenon for me: where you grow up on an artist’s music without even realizing it until a later point. I think the same thing happened with The Beatles — I was like, “Oh, shit. They did that song in Ferris Bueller!” And that’s pretty embarrassing too, but my parents were never into classic rock or anything, so I had to kind of educate myself on all that. How did you first get into his music?
JOSH: Well it depends which Bowie we’re talking about. See, my dad was (and still is) really into classic rock, so I grew up listening to his favorite bands, running the gamut from British invasion superstars (e.g. The Beatles, The Who) to Southern rock (e.g. The Marshall Tucker Band and The Allman Brothers Band). “Space Oddity”-era Bowie was part of the former group; my dad was never hugely into glam rock but he loved Bowie’s whole Ziggy Stardust persona. I distinctly remember driving in the car with my dad, singing “Ground control to Major Tom” along with the CD stereo. So that was probably my first introduction to his music.
If we’re talking about Berlin Trilogy-era Bowie, however, that was a more independent (and recent) discovery. I was actually already into Eno’s ambient stuff by the time I began to read about his work with Bowie, and once I heard Low I knew that whole collaboration was just something special. I think that string of releases from, say, Hunky Dory up through Scary Monsters — the 1970s, pretty much — was the apex of Bowie’s career, especially the latter half of the decade. It’s the kind of thing in which the constant references to Bowie’s music in critical reviews of contemporary music suddenly made sense to me — how could you not compare, like, any band that used a synth and a guitar after 1980 to at least some of Bowie’s material?
JOHN: Yeah, delving into the whole Eno/Berlin Trilogy era was something else altogether for me as well. I can’t remember if I was already heavily into Bowie’s music when I first began listening to Eno’s solo work, but I’m assuming I was. I feel like the connection between them is probably what led me to checking out some of Eno’s albums. But it’s interesting, because I went through a big ambient music phase a few years ago (around the same time I was getting into a lot of older jazz music for whatever reason), and I recall listening to both Eno’s Ambient series and Apollo quite often during study sessions. It wasn’t until after that point that I got into Eno’s poppier works like Taking Tiger Mountain…, which were closer in spirit to what he was doing with Bowie, and I suppose it was during this time that I might have come to appreciate the Berlin Trilogy a little more. And as far as those albums go, it seems like (dare I say it!) the “hipster mentality” (a phrase I’m sure many readers detest as much as I do) is to champion Low as Bowie and Eno’s masterpiece. Sometimes people even posit that it’s Bowie’s best record overall. And for a while I kind of bought into that, but nowadays I’m not so sure. While it’s certainly a brilliant album, “Heroes” is quite hard to ignore, and I think sometimes it gets a little bit more backlash in music circles because it was the most commercially successful of the Berlin Trilogy. But they’re both nothing short of amazing, and Lodger — often overlooked in comparison to its predecessors — is nothing to scoff at either. I remember reading an interview with Scott Weiland a few years ago… people always said Stone Temple Pilots ripped off Nirvana, and I guess that’s true to an extent, but the influence Bowie had on Weiland’s stage persona was underplayed. He claimed Lodger to be his favourite Bowie record in this interview, and cited “Fantastic Voyage” as one of his most underrated tracks. And that’s what I love about an artist like Bowie — his music is so eclectic, and crosses so many different styles and genres, that there’s no clear, definitive standout amongst the fans or fellow musicians. I mean, I’ve spoken to a few people who cite Scary Monsters as their favourite of his albums, and you can’t even really fault them for thinking so. Hard-pressed to choose an overall favourite Bowie album, I suppose Ziggy Stardust is still my first choice, as it may be for most of us; but I’m always coming back to those Eno records. Do you have a clear-cut favourite from his extensive career? And to keep the discussion going, since we were talking about his collaborations with Eno, it’s probably worth mentioning his work with Iggy Pop as well. Any thoughts on those records?
JOSH: Well I’ve heard it said that Bowie practically made Iggy Pop’s career, which certainly speaks to what you’re saying about the breadth of Bowie’s influence; the fact that he could create these textured, electronic masterpieces with Eno and then turn on his heels and create such different works with the dude from The Stooges is pretty remarkable. I mean, you listen to a track like “Nightclubbing” and there’s this very prevalent psychedelic element that’s related to, but also outside of, what Bowie was doing with Eno at the time. And then you hear about how Bowie probably smuggled cocaine into the mental institution Iggy had checked himself into, and you realize that it’s pretty amazing that either artist was able to make music at all, given how deep both of them were into drug addiction at the time. I guess there’s this feral undertone to that era of both artists’ work that speaks to the troubles in their personal lives but also contributes to their lasting relevance.
Anyway, if I had to pick a favorite Bowie album… I’m not sure. Part of me does say it’s Low. It’s a quintessential headphone album, from the cosmic detailing on “Art Gallery” to the primordial, subdued catharsis of “Warszawa” and the good-ol’-boy posturing of “Sound and Vision” (my favorite Bowie song, bar none). But on the other hand, there’s something about Hunky Dory, the sophistication behind its piano pop, the way it’s got one foot in a very classic rock sound and the other stepping inside a cabaret, that sums up everything I love about him. So I guess it’d be those two albums, but I can’t say that I necessarily prefer one over the other.
I’m glad you mentioned Lodger, because I agree that it’s his most underrated work. It almost feels like a musical safari; it’d definitely prescient. Right now I’m listening to Super Ae by the Boredoms, and maybe this is just a kind of listening confirmation bias but I hear something of the kraut-ish guitar wanderings of a track like “Look Back in Anger” in this Japanese noise-rock, especially “Super Going.” Come to think of it, a collaboration between Bowie and Yamantaka Eye would almost certainly be absolutely incredible. I feel like the rock n roll equivalent of “6 Degrees of Kevin Bacon” would be “6 Degrees of Bowie,” because you can draw parallels between him and pretty much any modern rock star.
JOHN: “Sound and Vision” was, for quite a while, one of my top contenders as well. But, as mentioned above, because Bowie’s material stretches across so many genres and is so eclectic, it’s hard for me to choose any sort of overall favourite. Sometimes I listen to ““Heroes”” and it really just breaks my heart, and I think it has to be his greatest track, the culmination of everything I love about his music; and then I play something a bit more straightforward like “Five Years” or experimental like “Speed of Life” and it’s just fascinating and somewhat remarkable that a single man is responsible for so many various kinds of output, so diverse and so often wonderful.
And I agree with your point about his influence on modern rock stars. Hell, not just rock stars, but pop singers in general. I think both Madonna and, more recently, Lady Gaga wouldn’t have been able to exist – or even know how to exist – without Ziggy Stardust. He laid the blueprint for the eccentric, boundary-pushing pop persona.
Going back to his work with Iggy Pop, I’ve always enjoyed the contrast between their interpretations of “China Girl.” Iggy’s was first, and had a sort of sleaze and desperation to it; when Bowie sang his version, he infused it with romanticism. I think I actually prefer Iggy’s because of the desperation – when he says that he feels tragic like Marlon Brando it just makes more sense – but it’s interesting that Bowie’s was the more successful of the two, and years later is mistakenly considered by many to be the “original,” although to be fair he did help Iggy write it.
JOSH At the risk of sounding overly cynical, I wonder whether Bowie’s intention was to make his version of “China Girl” more romantic, or simply more commercially appealing. He had to have known that putting a more blatantly “pop” spin on the song would make it more palatable to a greater number of people.
Of course, that’s not to say that commercial pop music is necessarily worse or less legitimate than “rawer” music, which raises another, broader question: Is David Bowie a pop star? If you think he is, do you think you’d still consider him as such if he hadn’t been so successful? What is our classification for pop music in the first place, and is it really its own separate musical genre?
I ask because I too would consider Bowie to be a pop artist, but I think many people would first place him in the “rock” (or, shudder, “classic rock”) category. And then this raises broader questions about the line — if it even exists — between rock, pop, and experimental music. For example: is Low a pop album? Is it half a pop album? Does the presence of melodic development and a verse-chorus structure determine the “poppiness” of a given piece of music? And do you think it makes a difference that Bowie attached so much of his music to other cultural identifying markers (e.g., Ziggy Stardust, The Thine White Duke)?
JOHN: I think some of Bowie’s more well-known songs — the “mainstream” ones, so to speak — can definitely be considered pop music. Tracks such as “Changes” or “Let’s Dance” effectively tick-mark every category of pop: they’re catchy, have relatively straightforward production and have become staples of commercial radio over the years. And though he adapted what you refer to as cultural identifying marks — personas such as Ziggy and the Thin White Duke — I would hesitate to simply label him a pop star. You asked whether Low is a pop album, and I’m not sure it fits so cleanly into a single category; even saying it’s “half a pop album” seems a discredit to its merits. But, then, what exactly is pop music? That’s a whole other discussion; it seems to me genres are constantly changing and evolving, and I suppose you could say anything with a mass appeal is considered pop.
As for Bowie himself: I think his toying with conventions and the artistic leanings of much of his more esoteric works is what has defended him from criticism over the years — the sort of latter-day criticisms that many of his peers have been met with. A lot of iconic musicians from his era are now considered outdated or past their prime; you often see the older works of a guy like Springsteen greeted with adulation amongst this generation of music geeks, yet the figure himself met with mockery for his modern output (how much hate did he get for “Queen of the Supermarket” a couple years ago?). But I believe the fact that Bowie did experiment with musical boundaries has endeared him to this generation’s music fans and defended him from accusations of losing his touch or silly labels such as “dad rock” (whatever that even means). In essence, he has indie cred. The rise of the internet has produced a generation of music fans who can be quite cold and cynical, but you never see Bowie talked down upon, and even his last few albums prior to his apparent retirement — Heathen in particular — were hardly met with cringes or knee-jerk dismissal from fans. They were quite good records. His worst-reviewed album since the 80s was probably Earth, and even that record has its fans; I’ve always enjoyed the “We’re Afraid of Americans” single, which was put out with a variety of remixes by guys like Ice Cube and Trent Reznor. Even though the album wasn’t a complete success, I think Bowie’s always been extraordinary at anticipating trends, and he jumped on the electronic/remix bandwagon at an age when many musicians would have probably refused to even consider it a viable form of music. So, in a way, I suppose this would be an argument for referring to Bowie as a pop star — being able to foresee popular trends and being able to effectively capitalize upon them — but he never seemed quite comfortable working strictly in the popular eye, and enjoyed challenging his listeners without the bitterness or purposeful alienation of, say, Lou Reed. In my opinion, Bowie is at once the defining pop star and the complete antithesis of one. It’s an interesting dichotomy.