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 is more qualified 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, florid 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 Low/”Heroes”/Lodger 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 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 (or crawl).

‘Ashes To Ashes’ is published by Repeater Books.

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David Bowie’s Stonehenge: The Glass Spider Debacle

David-Bowies-glass-spiderI’m generally a big ’80s Bowie apologist but sometimes even I have to say: What the hell was he thinking?

I was a 12-year-old pop fan when Let’s Dance hit, perfectly placed to love it and its usually-maligned follow-up Tonight. I enjoyed almost everything Bowie did in ’85 and ’86 too, from ‘Dancing In The Street’ and ‘This Is Not America’ to ‘Absolute Beginners’ and ‘When The Wind Blows’.

But 1987 is another story altogether. Even as a 15-year-old, right from the start I sniffed something dodgy about Never Let Me Down and its accompanying Glass Spider tour. I’ve found a couple of things to love about the former in the years since (especially the great Lennonesque title track) but can’t find anything good about the latter. And the entire debacle is right there in all its glory on YouTube, of course.

Bowie at the Never Let Me Down/Glass Spider Tour London press conference, 20th March 1987

Bowie at the Never Let Me Down/Glass Spider Tour London press conference, 20th March 1987

The show was certainly ahead of its time with its tightly-choreographed, narrative vignettes – just look at Prince’s Lovesexy and Madonna’s Blond Ambition tours for evidence of its influence.

If you’re a big Bowie fan, the opening moments are amusing if a bit tasteless – guitarist Carlos Alomar attempts some ill-advised, sub-Van Halen guitar pyrotechnics while an offstage David repeatedly screams ‘Shut up!’ in ‘It’s No Game’ style.

There then follows an outrageous opening medley featuring a bizarre, lip-synched version of ‘Up The Hill Backwards’ followed by a hilariously hammy spoken word section by Bowie which closely resembles Nigel Tufnel in Stonehenge mode. Is he taking the piss? Usually this question doesn’t cross your mind with Bowie, no matter how much he ‘tests’ his audience, but it does here.

Then there’s a brutal depiction of gang warfare juxtaposed with Bowie’s cheesy, reassuring grin, a typically unsettling mixture of menace and child-like innocence. But he seems generally uncomfortable throughout the show. His attempts at audience interaction are always awkward and nothing links the songs; almost all end in blackout before another lumbers into view.

david-bowieThe Glass Spider tour also features surely the most dated-sounding band in Bowie’s history, with huge, triggered drums, rambling synth solos, garish, unpleasant DX7 factory sounds and lots of cod-raunchy guitar from Alomar and Peter Frampton. This is a far too ‘muso’ bunch of musicians for Bowie. The fanfare of synth horns at the end of ‘Fame’ is just unforgivable.

‘Heroes’ is stripped of all romance and majesty and becomes a jaunty throwaway. ‘Sons of the Silent Age’ coasts in on a nicely Middle Eastern-ish vibe, a huge relief from the bombast, but is nearly ruined by Frampton’s nasal lead vocals. None of these versions come close to being definitive. Also the fact that Bowie only plays four tracks from the Never Let Me Down album just a few months after its release pretty much goes to show what he thinks of it.

Bowie famously burnt the huge stage set in a field at the end of the tour. He must have wished he’d never set eyes on it. But within a year, he’d hooked up with avant-metal guitarist Reeves Gabrels, started work with influential dance troupe La La La Human Steps and embarked on some very interesting new musical adventures.