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More Bowie books January 2, 2017

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Thanks to Netgalley, I read a couple of books about David Bowie as free advance e-reading copies in exchange for reviews. I think both were reprints with a bit of new material added. Some comments:

Spider from Mars: My Life with Bowie by Woody Woodmansey. This one’s due out right about now. As the title suggests, it’s a memoir by one of the Spiders From Mars.

There have been many books written about David Bowie, and this is one of them. It’s an inside story of the band who played with Bowie from The Man Who Sold The World through Aladdin Sane. Woody Woodmansey begins with his days as a youth discovering the joys of rock and roll, playing in small local bands and gradually moving up, playing with Mick Ronson and then being called to work with Ronson and Bowie.

It’s a time of many changes, in society and music, and Woodmansey presents it from the perspective of a northern small town lad who manages to stay away from most of the craziness. Either he kept an unmentioned diary or he has a phenomenal memory — there are details about clothes and instruments and things that I’d never remember, but I never lived through that kind of experience.

So you get a lot of the day to day life of being a rising rock drummer, playing in a popular band, being dropped just as things get huge, and keeping a life going as a professional musician, with occasional encounters with interesting people along the way. What you don’t get is much insight into David Bowie. Why did things change between Bowie and the Spiders? Must have been the drugs. There’s not much insight into anything, really; it’s not a deep book, or a gem of well-crafted prose, it’s a conversation with a geezer telling you stories of what happened. Enjoyable enough but unless you’re a Bowie obsessive who reads every book about him (not me — I don’t think I’ve read more than seven or eight) or someone really interested in the glam period of Bowie’s career, you may not need this. Though I suppose it could serve as a counterpoint of sorts to the recent Simon Reynolds book on glam, showing how all that looked to those who lived it.

And then there’s Bowie Album By Album by rock critic Paolo Hewitt, out for a couple of months now. Also what it says on the tin.

This is an excellent choice for the casual fan who wants something that puts Bowie’s albums into context, that has some good discography and chronology info, and that has a lot of photos, making it something you can browse or read through. Hewitt goes through Bowie’s life album by album, providing some context on the making and reception of each one, along with the occasional critique.

Bowie fans who already have several books in their collections may not learn a lot that’s new here, but even so it’s worth browsing for the photos.

Not much to add, really… highly recommended for anyone who wants a solid introduction to David Bowie’s career, from the early albums through Blackstar.


Review: Hallo Spaceboy: The Rebirth of David Bowie January 30, 2016

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David Bowie's "A Reality Tour" - April 22, 2004

Photo by Lester Cohen/WireImage.com, according to the metadata that came with the cover image from the ECW website and got automatically dumped in here, so there you go.

ECW Press recently put this book on sale, so I picked it up because it looks at a relatively underchronicled era of David Bowie’s career, after 1980.

Dave Thompson is a very prolific writer. I read a lot of his stuff in Alternative Press, back when that was an alternative rock magazine instead of a mall punk/nu-metal magazine, and I’ve read one or two of his other 80 books. I don’t know how much original research he does; most of his books seem to rely on published sources, like other quickie music books, but he is very much a fan of a lot of the music he writes about, so that compensates a bit. I don’t think he’s a cynical opportunist churning out pages for money. Certainly not in this case, anyway; it’s very clear that he’s a big Bowie fan.

Hallo Spaceboy seems to exist to argue that there’s a lot of good Bowie music after Scary Monsters, something I’m reasonably inclined to agree with. He looks at the creation of each of the albums, including the Tin Machine period, and while he can be dismissive of some of the material, he argues strongly for a lot of the music.

I think his fanboyism gets the better of him at times. Talking about Bowie’s live albums, he casually dismisses 1978’s Stage as abysmal; while he likes some solo Morrissey, he writes off the Smiths as hopeless. He also, in my opinion, greatly overstates the importance of Tin Machine. I remember that at the time Bowie talked a good talk about being influenced by the likes of Sonic Youth, which seemed promising. But instead of working with anyone like that for Tin Machine, he got a couple of ’70s rockers and Reeves Gabrels, who seems to have come from more of a proggish background. The result was something that played it a lot safer than Bowie’s “Brancasonic” talk. Clean, disciplined hard rock, without the experimental strangeness I expected. To spin this as the obvious precursor of grunge, as Thompson does, is… well, fanboyish, to use that word again. Nirvana didn’t cover “You Belong in Rock’n’Roll,” they covered “The Man Who Sold the World.”

Still, it’s good to have a book that tells the story of Never Let Me Down, the Glass Spider tour, and so on through the more critically acclaimed Outside, Heathen, and other late comebacks. The book also discusses a lot of soundtrack, movie, and collaborative work I hadn’t been aware of. There’s also a lengthy discography. That doesn’t make The Complete David Bowie or Bowie on Bowie any less necessary, but it complements them.

It’s unfortunate that Hallo Spaceboy ends before The Next Day, never mind Blackstar, but there’s probably another book in the last few years.

David Bowie January 20, 2016

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bowielookI’ll try to keep this one fairly short. There’s been so much said already.

The first Bowie record I had was a 7″ 45 of “Space Oddity”/”The Man Who Sold the World.” I liked it well enough, back when I was listening to a lot of Queen and Electric Light Orchestra and Fleetwood Mac.

But in 1979, I was 16 and starting to listen more to new wave, punk, and electronic music, losing interest in top 40 MOR and light prog rock. So one night I was watching Don Kirshner’s Rock Concert, a late night show with concert footage and music videos from before MTV, and they played three new David Bowie videos: “D.J.,” “Look Back in Anger,” and “Boys Keep Swinging.” They were perfect. Songs by someone familiar from the kind of music I was moving out of — but as adventurous and unique as the stuff I was getting into. Within a year or two I had Stage, Lodger, Low, Heroes, Scary Monsters, ChangesOneBowie…

It’d be a lie to say I stayed with Bowie from then on out. Like a lot of people I tuned out circa Tonight and didn’t tune back in until Outside, aside from going to see him on the Glass Spider tour. It took me a while to catch up with some of the pre-Station to Station albums, but I made up for it, especially over the last couple of years. And while I like The Next Day, it was… well… kind of ordinary rock music, a lot of it, with a misfire or two. When the news broke about Blackstar, it sounded like it would be more what I wanted from Bowie, more of what I discovered in 1979, something unique. And it is. But just as he shows the world he can still surprise us and impress us, he’s gone.

Review: Bowie on Bowie January 27, 2015

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Another Netgalley free advance read in exchange for a review!

David Bowie has been known for reinventing himself for decades, through personas like Ziggy Stardust and the Thin White Duke, and through less personified changes in style and substance, from the experimental Berlin trilogy to the commercial pop of Let’s Dance. This selection of interviews spans much of Bowie’s career, with a variety of sources talking to Bowie about his latest album, his latest movie, or whatever else may be happening at the time. Each is a snapshot of Bowie at a point in time, and it isn’t always clear whether the interviewer is talking to the real David Bowie or the image du jour. Even as one interview leads to another and there is discussion of what Bowie said back then, some of the contributors remark (at the time, or as quoted in brief introductions to the reprinted interviews) they’re still not sure whether he’s being open and sincere, or telling them what he thinks they want to here, or performing in accordance with his current facade.

So it isn’t easy to know what you’re actually learning here. There are some things you can be reasonably be sure of: Bowie is intelligent, creative, eloquent, and thinks a lot; he puts on a lot of poses; he can be a bit of a flake; he reassesses his past and reassesses it again. And it seems that, at least sometimes, when he’s being a character instead of himself he may be fooling himself as much as anyone else.

I’ve read other books that focus on specific periods in Bowie’s career — sometimes intentionally, sometimes because whoever’s writing the book was there for only part of the story. This book, fortunately, covers quite a few years, and when there are gaps it’s because Bowie wasn’t doing any interviews. The selection of interviews is also varied, sometimes going back to certain writers and publications to allow some revisiting of past sessions, sometimes going to more obscure sources for different perspectives. Each interview has an introduction of a few paragraphs, providing some context for the time of the interview, pointing out key moments, or allowing the interviewer to add an updated comment of their own.

A serious Bowie fan or scholar will still need a good, well-researched biography to learn more about the real David Bowie, as well as a book or two on the music. But this should really be part of the collection.

enoise May 7, 2009

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Brian Eno: Before and After Science

Brian Eno: Before and After Science

E. Noise. Eno noise. Doesn’t rhyme with Eloise.

Lou Stathis in 1980:

In the world of rok — and by that I don’t mean the tuna fish that you get on your radio — all that was authentic to the seventies can be summed up in about four words: Roxy Music and Sex Pistols.

Okay, you can stop twitching and yelling. I did not say that these two bands were responsible for the only decent music to come out of the last ten years. only that most anything interesting created during that time was built on groundwork laid either by these two bands, or the seminal groups of the sixties, such as the Beatles, Pink Floyd, King Crimson, the Soft Machine, Iggy and the Stooges, and the Velvet Underground.


[Roxy Music’s Brian] Eno probably was/is the most important figure in seventies rok. I suppose I could go back and amend the opening of this column to read that the seventies could be summed up in three letters, but that would be too much for even me to take seriously. I’ve heard it said that Eno’s “Seven Deadly Finns” single of 1974 was singlehandedly responsible for the new wave — that too is just a bit much. […] As a direct result we have dozens of groups mining territory today that Eno showed was worth diddling around in — bands like the Cars, Magazine, Gary Numan and Tubeway Army, Wire, Devo, the Residents, Pere Ubu, Talking Heads, XTC, and a whole crock of others (all of whom will swear on Elvis’s grave that they were playing that way long before they ever heard the limey wimp’s name). To say nothing of the rehabilitation job he did at the Old Folks’ Studio on Fripp and Bowie.

That’s from his inaugural “muzick” column in the January 1980 issue of Heavy Metal, “the adult illustrated fantasy magazine.” His February column ended with something that was almost a shopping list for me: “Duty Now for the Future: The 1980 Future-Mutant’s Core Record Collection” listed necessary records by Brian Eno (“The Man. Anything. Period.”), Devo, David Bowie, Ultravox, Magazine, Gary Numan and Tubeway Army, Bill Nelson’s Red Noise, XTC, Talking Heads, The Contortions, James White and the Blacks, the Urban Verbs, The Normal, the Silicon Teens, Cowboys International, and Pere Ubu.

I had already discovered Bowie, Devo, and Numan by then. Within the next couple of years I had albums by Ultravox, Magazine, Bill Nelson, XTC, the Urban Verbs, and Cowboys International. In years since I’ve gotten more stuff by them and by the Talking Heads, the Normal, the Silicon Teens, and Pere Ubu.

A lot of this stuff, which Stathis dubbed Enoise (i.e., Eno-influenced postpunk incorporating electronics), was in some sense a cross between the Sex Pistols and Roxy Music. Nearly 30 years later, I still love those sounds and those bands. Their influence is still around, as various subgenres and revivals over the last few years like disco punk and the postpunk revival demonstrate. Eno himself is still around, too, still doing ambient music installations that generate albums like Compact Forest Proposal and Kite Music and collaborating with a everyone from Paul Simon to Coldplay and U2. He’s more an elder statesman than a revolutionary now, but he’s still capable of creating interesting music. Many of the people in the bands Stathis listed are still doing great things, too.

Lou Stathis went on to other things, including editing some of DC’s Vertigo line of comics. He died of cancer in 1997.

20 albums that shaped my life February 26, 2009

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Kate Bush: The Kick Inside (Canadian LP cover)

Kate Bush: The Kick Inside (Canadian LP cover)

Inspired by Kevin and Allyn and Geoff:

List the first favorite albums that come to your mind. This is NOT a list of music you feel is of critical importance or value. By noting the ones that come to mind first, you should get a picture of the music that shaped your life in your formative years.

I know I’m going to forget things and want to change things, but here goes. This is in roughly the order I encountered these albums.

1. Electric Light Orchestra: Out of the Blue. One of the first proper albums I ever got, and the first by a band that I was fairly obsessed by for a year or two, getting several more of their albums.It was probably the combination of catchy pop, prog, rock and roll, and the occasional synth that intrigued me.

2. Kate Bush: The Kick Inside. It was a while before I got the album, and not just the 45 of “Wuthering Heights,” but it was the beginning of a lifelong love for the distinctive and groundbreaking music of Kate Bush. It can beautiful, or weird, or both at the same time. There was nothing else like it at the time, and by the end of 1979 this and the next album, very different though it may be, helped set the course for my taste in music.

3. Sex Pistols: Never Mind the Bollocks, Here’s the Sex Pistols. I didn’t like the Sex Pistols when I first heard them, being too fond of the over-the-top production of artists like ELO, Queen, and Alan Parsons Project to like anything this raw and harsh. It took the more smoothed-off edges of new wave to lead me into the less compromising punk sound. Once it clicked, I realized it was nothing more or less than rock and roll in its purest form. My favourite punk rock is generally the first wave of late ’70s UK punk, but there are still bands doing fresh new takes on the sound. They’re just not the ones you’ve heard of.

4. David Bowie: Stage. My first Bowie LP. Sort of a stepping stone from the vaguely proggy rock I liked to the stranger end of new wave, this was a concert album from the time of Bowie’s Heroes album. From Station to Station through Scary Monsters is my fave run of Bowie albums, though there’s plenty of great stuff before and after that era. This was probably one of my first Eno-related experiences, too.

5. Gary Numan and Tubeway Army: Replicas. Mixing punk/new wave with synthesizers, alienation, and the science fiction of JG Ballard and Philip K. Dick, Numan created an album that was influential in its own right but also brought to my attention the band he happily admitted was his top influence, Ultravox. Ultravox and its founder, John Foxx, have since eclipsed my interest in Numan to a considerable extent, but this is still a fine album and I might have taken longer to discover Ultravox without it.

6. Brian Eno: Music for Films. Heard it playing in a record store: sparse, eerie instrumental electronic music a million miles away from the usual, more florid electronic music of the time. Plus he got bonus points for working with Roxy Music, David Bowie, Devo, etc etc. I’ve got lots of his albums, love most of them, but this is still my fave.

7. Wire: 154. Former punk band demonstrating just how far this whole new wave/postpunk thing could go. A masterpiece by a great band I’ve already blathered about here.

8. Joy Division: Closer. The first album, Unknown Pleasures, didn’t click with me when I first heard it. This did (and then so did Unknown Pleasures). And from this came New Order and so much more.

9. Killing Joke: Killing Joke. Bought this after reading about them in Creem: too punk for metal fans, too metal for punk fans, but using synthesizers too and ending up in the Billboard disco charts? They’re still around and still confounding expectations, after influencing everyone from Metallica to Ministry to Nine Inch Nails. This album showed a different way to incorporate synths: instead of weird noises, or imitating other instruments, or just layering pretty chords on top of everything, this album had abrasive synth sounds that were as aggressive sounding as the guitars.

10. Siouxsie and the Banshees: Juju. Siouxsie practically invented goth but didn’t let it become a straitjacket. Pounding tribal drums, swirling guitars, melodic basslines, and Siouxsie’s voice… another postpunk classic.

11. Cocteau Twins: Head Over Heels. My first exposure to the 4AD sound dreamy and ethereal but also loud and banging. One of the forerunners to the shoegazer scene.

12. Husker Du: New Day Rising. Punk seemed to have been abandoned by the major labels and headed itself into a dead end of faster harder louder dumber. Husker Du was fast, hard, loud, and smart, and weren’t afraid to slow things down occasionally or use acoustic guitars and piano.

13. The Smiths: Hatful of Hollow. Like REM, another fave, the Smiths were jangly guitar-based rock with melodies to die for, lyrics to ponder, and a frontman who was very much not the usual rock singer.

14. Jesus and Mary Chain: Psychocandy. The Beach Boys playing through a slow motion car crash of guitar feedback, this was a renewal of punk and another of the foundations of shoegazer. Noise = pop.

15. Jr Gone Wild: Less Art, More Pop. Friends of mine release their first LP, a mix of punk, ’60s, country, and other influences, especially Bob Dylan, the Byrds, and possibly Elvis Costello. A friend of mine once heard the critics’ darlings Uncle Tupelo, who are credited with kicking off the No Depression/alt.country scene, and said they were just Jr with all the fun sucked out. He wasn’t entirely wrong, though Uncle Tupelo probably never heard Jr.  think their next two albums are arguably better in many respects, but this is the first time friends of mine put out an actual album. I had a single, a compilation LP with a couple of songs, and a couple of tapes of stuff by some of the guys who later became Jr, but an album… especially one I actually liked… that’s a big deal.

16. My Bloody Valentine: Loveless. The pinnacle of shoegazer, layer upon layer of distorted guitar sound and distant vocals, sounding nothing like rock music as that term is generally understood. There were a lot of great bands in that scene (Ride, Lush, Slowdive, etc), but this is the most important and influential album from that scene. And I love it.

17. Various artists: Pimps, Players, and Private Eyes. Ice-T helped compile this collection of funk and soul songs from blaxploitation movies, which helped reignite my interest in those styles. And not just in the context of blaxploitation.

18. Culture: Two Sevens Clash. This is a roots reggae album from the late 1970s that was reportedly a favourite on the UK punk scene (I read about it in a couple of books on punk). The punk clubs didn’t have enough punk albums to play, so DJ Don Letts introduced the punk scene to reggae — a more hardcore version of the sound than Bob Marley’s. This is heavy on the rasta stuff, but also accessible and catchy, and helped get me more into reggae.

19. Interpol: Turn on the Bright Lights. New but drawing on the likes of Joy Division and other postpunk and pre-grunge alternative bands as influences, this helped revive interesting guitar rock for the 21st century. See also Editors, Bloc Party, Kaiser Chiefs, etc.

20. Burial: Burial. Boxcutter’s Oneiric was the first dubstep album I heard, if memory serves, but this one sealed the deal. It may have evolved out of UK scenes I wasn’t familiar with (2-step, garage), but I could hear elements of ambient and dub making something unique, like a soundtrack for a low budget third world Blade Runner. It’s strange, atmospheric, and oddly affecting.