Book Review: Ashes To Ashes (The Songs Of David Bowie 1976-2016) by Chris O’Leary

Another song-by-song study of Bowie’s output is certainly an ambitious undertaking; we already have Nicholas Pegg’s excellent ‘The Complete David Bowie’ and David Buckley’s brief but arresting ‘The Complete Guide To The Songs Of David Bowie’.

But O’Leary has a greater claim than most, having run the popular Pushing Ahead Of The Dame website for over 10 years now. And, by and large, ‘Ashes To Ashes’ pulls it off, offering a far more personal, literary take on Bowie’s songs than the aformentioned books.

He makes the decision to discuss the songs not in alphabetical order but, roughly, in the order in which they were ‘conceived’ and/or recorded. While this doesn’t allow for easy reference, an alphabetical title index is included at the back of the book.

The section on the so-called ‘Berlin trilogy’ is excellent, with up-to-date interview material from Tony Visconti and Adrian Belew and a focus on the city’s geography/history mostly missing from previous Bowie books. And it’s great to see the ‘Baal’ sessions getting the detailed analysis they deserve.

Fascinating items also emerge around Bowie’s late-’80s/early ’90s work, from Never Let Me Down through ‘Pretty Pink Rose’ to The Buddha Of Suburbia, with more detail than usual about the formation of Tin Machine. And it would be hard to find a better study of Bowie’s final two albums, even if they are this writer’s least favourite works of the era.

There are predictable put-downs of Tonight (but an excellent analysis of ‘Loving The Alien’, complete with reading list!), Black Tie White Noise and Tin Machine II (which actually would have been a late-era Bowie classic if it had jettisoned Hunt Sales’ songwriting contributions), and some sometimes weirdly-personal slights.

There are also oft-repeated errors about the Let’s Dance era, like the listing of Tony Thompson’s drum appearances (he didn’t play on ‘Ricochet’ or ‘Shake It’), but O’Leary makes up for it with a fascinating section on the fact that Bowie was actually more of an actor than a singer when he made that album.

Musical appreciation also doesn’t seem the author’s strong point – for example, ‘Always Crashing In The Same Car’ is described as ‘being ‘mostly in E minor, the harmonic murkiness finally resolved with a closing Em chord’. This ignores the fact that the verse’s home key is clearly G major. And he denegrates Hakim’s ‘gated tom fills’ in ‘I Keep Forgettin’,  but they’re actually the dreaded Simmons electric drums. But elsewhere there are interesting, original observations, like the comparisons between ‘Modern Love’ and ‘Lust For Life’.

One thing’s for sure – ‘Ashes To Ashes’ takes one back to the music. Revisiting Scary Monsters in particular was very illuminating in light of the book. So even if one can’t avoid O’Leary’s natural aversion to much of this material, it’s a valuable addition to the Bowie bibliography. The question is, will one reach for ‘Ashes To Ashes’ for quick reference ahead of the Pegg and Buckley works? Only time will tell.

‘Ashes To Ashes’ is published by Repeater Books.

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Cult-De-Sac: Miss World (1992)

There were a lot of good quiffs around in the ’80s. The rockabilly and psychobilly revivals certainly wouldn’t have been the same without them, but one of the best was sported by Jonathan Perkins, lead singer/songwriter of Miss World.

Though Miss World’s self-titled debut album came out in early ’90s, it seems very much informed by the music of the 1980s. It was released on David A Stewart’s Anxious Records, featured cameos from Pretenders drummer Martin Chambers and was very much under the influence of Iggy Pop’s Blah-Blah-Blah, INXS and Nick Cave, as well as Lou Reed, The Doors and Berlin-era Bowie.

I bought the first album after seeing their mightily impressive set supporting Shakespear’s Sister at the Hammersmith Odeon in summer 1992. An internet search of Perkins reveals very little, except that he was born in Swindon, was possibly an early member of XTC and probably later turned up in mid-’80s nearlymen Silver Spurs.

But whatever his pedigree, Perkins certainly seems to have a great record collection. Miss World opener ‘The First Female Serial Killer’ has a super-cool vocal delivery (is it about Aileen Wuornos?) while ‘Nine Steps To Nowhere’ sounds like Michael Hutchence fronting The Doors. ‘Watch That Man’ marries Iggy Pop’s ‘Isolation’ with Bowie’s ‘New Career In A New Town’ to superb effect.

‘Dead Flowers’ comes on a bit like Jim Morrison singing with The Clash, and then there are great, weirdo murder ballads ‘Highway Of Dead Roads’, ‘Thief Inside’ and ‘British Pharmaceuticals’. Lou Reed couldn’t have done a better job at covering ‘What A Wonderful World’. ‘Love Is The Whole Of The Law’ might be the best of the lot, the only co-write with Dave Stewart.

Perkins also has a great ear for a strong first line: ‘You make me act like a locust‘ (‘Nine Steps To Nowhere’), ‘I’m wasting away/The voices in my head have come out to play‘ (‘Highway Of Dead Roads’) and the Withnailesque ‘I was feeling very beautiful/Having taken pharmaceuticals‘. And – good news for us – the songs either seem to be about sex, drugs, death or religion, sometimes all of them.

Legendary recording engineer Phill Brown (Spirit Of Eden, Solid Air etc) gets a gorgeously uncluttered sound and then there’s the none-more-David-Lynchian cover image.

Not much has been heard from the band since this excellent debut, though some weird footage emerged a few years ago of a comeback gig with Perkins sporting a natty turban. And they seem to have some more recent tracks on streaming platforms. But they never quite caught on after this strong start, more’s the pity.