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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Gig Review: Kevin Armstrong @ Pizza Express Holborn, 12th September 2018

photo by Paul McAlpine

It would be tempting to call Kevin Armstrong the ultimate ‘nearly man’ of 1980s pop – he nearly joined a post-Johnny-Marr Smiths, was nearly a founder member of David Bowie’s Tin Machine, nearly joined Level 42 Mark II, and nearly became Paul McCartney’s right-hand man during the ex-Beatle’s late-decade renaissance.

But that would be unfair on the guitarist; as well as stellar work with Bowie (Live Aid, ‘Absolute Beginners’, ‘Dancing In The Streets’) and Iggy Pop (Blah-Blah-Blah, countless world tours), he has also contributed to classic albums by Prefab Sprout, Thomas Dolby and Morrissey and performed live with Roy Orbison, Sinead O’Connor, Grace Jones, Propaganda and PiL.

This entertaining Pizza Express show was half wonderfully-indiscreet spoken-word memoir and half gig. Decked out in all-black rock-star garb, Armstrong described his initiation into the music world via an obsession with Zappa’s ‘Black Napkins’ and postal-order guitar handbooks, and lamented the current pop scene as ‘just another part of consumer culture’.

He spoke of one life-changing morning in early 1985 when he received the call from legendary EMI A&R man Hugh Stanley-Clarke: an invitation to Abbey Road to record with ‘Mr X’. Arriving at the famous address, Armstrong was shown upstairs to a tiny demo studio (not the big Beatles-frequenting Studio 1 downstairs) to find a bunch of session players and a smiling, suited Bowie holding an omnichord and uttering the totally superfluous ‘Hi, I’m David!’. Bowie then proceeded to teach the band a song called ‘That’s Motivation’ (from the ‘Absolute Beginners’ soundtrack) two bars at a time – and they then recorded it that way too!

A few days later, Bowie summoned Armstrong to Westside Studios near Ladbroke Grove for the ‘Absolute Beginners’ and ‘Dancing In The Street’ recordings (the former with vocals by Armstrong’s sister, then working behind the till at Dorothy Perkins, responding to Bowie’s request for a ‘shopgirl’ to sing duet with him!). The latter session was of course graced by an absurdly perky Mick Jagger. Apparently Bowie and Jagger spent most of the vocal sessions shouting ‘Let’s ring Maureen!’, their nickname for Elton John.

Armstrong then told great tales of Live Aid, mainly highlighting Bowie’s incredible generosity: fluffing the names of backing vocalists Helena Springs and Tessa Niles during his onstage band introductions (no other solo artist introduced his/her band on the day), according to Armstrong he immediately apologised profusely to the singers as soon as they were offstage.

There were further funny tales of Gil Evans, Iggy and McCartney (who apparently once smoked some unbelievably strong grass with Armstrong, said ‘That’s you stoned!’ to the erstwhile guitarist, then promptly disappeared) and an exceptionally eccentric Grace Jones who allegedly took a distinct liking to Armstrong at a party, taking him by the hand and leading him away for some sexual shenanigans. Who should intervene but Bowie, grabbing Armstrong’s other hand and whispering in the guitarist’s ear: ‘No you don’t. She’ll have you for breakfast, sunshine…’

In the second half, Armstrong was joined by Iggy bandmates Ben Ellis on bass and Matt Hector on drums to perform songs that he’d played live with all the aforementioned stars. Efficiently sung and superbly played, it was nevertheless a somewhat humourless set of music that only served to emphasise the difference between a perennial sessionman and born headliner.

But this was still a hugely enjoyable evening, foregrounding a time when music really was transformative. We await Armstrong’s forthcoming memoir with great anticipation.