Wednesday, 13 January 2016

RIP: David Bowie

RIP: David Bowie (8 January 1947 – 10 January 2016)

David Bowie has died, and he was certainly one of the giants in music in the second half of the 20th century. But there is a degree of hyperbole. I heard him compared to Frank Sinatra and Elvis Presley, but I don’t think he was ever as big as them, or quite as versatile.

Certainly he was in a few films, but on the whole his performances were not that memorable. “The Man Who Fell to Earth” (1976) is something of a mess as far as science fiction films go; it certainly does not rate among the top ones, and while it has a certain cult following, it is a relatively minor one.

It is for his music and his performances, his reinvention of himself, and his versatility that he will probably be remembered most. My sister was a big fan of his in the 1970s, and had most of his LPs. I remember going to Le Riches stores where there were collections of LPs and there were always a large number of Bowie’s records. He never seemed to go out of fashion.

The 1970s were to partly dominated by space travel, with moon landings and Skylab, and Bowie certainly reflected the zeitgeist in “Space Oddity”, and his creation of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars. But this was a more lyrical outer space, a music that was more Ray Bradbury than Robert Heinlein in tone.

His versality came to the fore when he teamed with Bing Crosby for a duet, remaking the song “Little Drummer Boy” which went to number three in the charts, and Crosby performed "Little Drummer Boy", while Bowie sang the new tune "Peace on Earth", which they reportedly performed after less than an hour of rehearsal.

But one of my most vivid memories is not the spangly glam rock clothes or strange hairstyle and face paint. It is “Dancing in the Street”. Bowie performed at Wembley in 1985 for Live Aid, Bob Geldoff’s visionary benefit concert for Ethiopian famine relief. During the event, the video for a fundraising single was premièred – this was Bowie's duet with Mick Jagger. "Dancing in the Street". It quickly went to number one on release.

The concert primarily took place at London's Wembley Arena and Philadelphia's John F Kennedy Stadium, with the two sets of performances broadcast simultaneously.

The original plan was to perform a track together live, with Bowie performing at Wembley Stadium and Jagger at John F. Kennedy Stadium, until it was realized that the satellite link-up would cause a half-second delay that would make this impossible unless either Bowie or Jagger mimed their contribution, something neither was willing to do.

In June 1985, Bowie was recording his contributions to the Absolute Beginners soundtrack at Abbey Road Studios, and so Jagger arranged to fly in to record the track there. They produced a video that would, instead, be broadcast simultaneously on the big screens at Wembley Stadium and JFK Stadium, and on television for those watching at home.

Because they were also seen live with Jagger in the USA and Bowie at Wembley, it gave the impression to viewers that Jagger had crossed the Altantic during the course of the day. In fact, only Phil Collins, lead singer for Genesis and famed solo artist in his own right, crossed the Atlantic via Concorde to play both sets of Live Aid, at London’s Wembley and Philadelphia’s JFK stadium.

One of the most quirky items which has come to light on his death is how to pronounce his name. Is it like "showy"'or "snowy", rather than like 'wow-ee'. Is it pronounced “Bow-ee,” as in “wow”? Or is it “Boe-ee,” as in “woe”? Or perhaps even “Boo-ee? During a 1976 interview, he said his stage name was inspired by 'the ultimate American knife' - the Bowie knife.

However, the knife is pronounced differently across parts of the USA. If one looks at origins, however, it is pronounced Boo-wie because it's named after Jim Bowie (pronounced Boo-wie), who played a major roll in the Texas revolution. That would rhyme with Louis because Jim Bowie pronounced his name “Boo-wie,

David Bowie, however, seems to have mostly used the pronounciation bow-ee, which can be seen in the naming of his son - Zowie Bowie This relies on that pronunciation, because Zowie is supposed to be said like 'Zoe' and the couplet is meant to rhyme.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, Zowie Bowie later rejected the name his father had given him, and is now known as Duncan Jones.

Bowie's April 1967 solo single, "The Laughing Gnome", using speeded-up thus high-pitched vocals, failed to chart. It can probably be counted among his rare failures, but it still sometimes get aired: a quirky piece, that is perhaps Bowie's only attempt at a comic song. But I rather like it for its plethora of bad puns.

I was walking down the high street
When I heard footsteps behind me
And there was a little old man (hello)
In scarlet and grey, shuffling away (laughter)
Well he trotted back to my house
And he sat beside the telly (oaah..)
With his tiny hands on his tummy
Chuckling away, laughing all day (laughter)

Oh, I ought to report you to the gnome office
(gnome office)

Ha ha ha, hee hee hee
"i'm a laughing gnome and you don't catch me"
Ha ha ha, hee hee hee
t;i'm a laughing gnome and you can't catch me"
Said the laughing gnome

Well I gave him roasted toadstools and a glass of dandelion wine (burp, pardon)
Then I put him on a train to eastbourne
Carried his bag and gave him a fag
(haven't you got a light boy? )
;here, where do you come from?
(gnome-man's land, hahihihi)
"oh, really?

In the morning when I woke up
He was sitting on the edge of my bed
With his brother whose name was fred
He'd bought him along to sing me a song

Right, let's hear it
Here, what's that clicking noise?
(that's fred, he's a "metrognome", haha)

Ha ha ha, hee hee hee
"i'm a laughing gnome and you don't catch me"
Ha ha ha, hee hee hee
;i'm a laughing gnome and you can't catch me"

(own up, I'm a gnome, ain't I right, haha)
;haven't you got an 'ome to go to? "
(no, we're gnomads)
"didn't they teach you to get your hair cut at school? you look like a rolling gnome."
(no, not at the london school of ecognomics)

Now they're staying up the chimney
And we're living on caviar and honey (hooray!)
Cause they're earning me lots of money
Writing comedy prose for radio shows
It's the-er (what? )
It's the gnome service of course

Ha ha ha, hee hee hee
"I'm a laughing gnome and you don't catch me"
Ha ha ha, oh, dear me

(ha ha ha, hee hee hee
"i'm a laughing gnome and you can't catch me"
Ha ha ha, hee hee hee
"I'm a laughing gnome and you can't catch me")


James said...

Bowie's April 1967 solo single, "The Laughing Gnome", using speeded-up thus high-pitched vocals, failed to chart

...on its original release, but when re-released in 1973 it made the Top Ten - heck, even I remember it.

Ian Pigeon said...

I do hope, Tony, you are not considering a biography of David Bowie anytime soon, as your knowledge and appreciation of the great man is truly lacking.

Bowie was a songwriter: it is erroneous to compare him to Sinatra or Presley.
Like them, he did possess wondrous vocal talents and have an hypnotic stage presence.
Unlike them, he did not rely on the talents of Anka, Porter, Cahn or Leiber and Stoller

It is also to the detriment of your musing that you find comparisons in their relative film careers.

Presley only performed in movies created especially for him and Sinatra was only given roles by producers looking to increase their box office: neither could be called actors in the true sense.

It is a shame that, in your appraisal of Bowie's acting achievements, you choose only to mention "The Man Who Fell To Earth" as, although, I personally am a huge fan, I appreciate that it is widely considered a 'marmite' film.
Why not his hugely acclaimed performance in "Merry Christmas Mr Lawrence"; or his sellout Broadway run in "The Elephant Man"?
Who else but Bowie would or could perform the role of John Merrick without makeup? And receive rapturous reviews for his portrayal?

Ask any fan of Bowie to list their top 20 Bowie songs and you will find few if any include "Dancing in the Street", yet this and The Laughing Gnome are your only track mentions.

Bowie's son is known by the name Duncan Jones because that is his name.
Zowie was only ever his second forename, used only jokingly by his family close friends, and not at all since his teens, when the familiarity gradually evolved into "Joe"; the name by which he is still known to his family.

Would you like to have another go, Tony?