Plus our Bowie Ultimate Music Guide is coming back into the shops, too

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February 26, 1976. At the Maple Leaf Gardens in Toronto, the 17th night of the Isolar tour came to its traditional close. As the stark, expressionist spectacle reached its climax, David Bowie fired an imaginary arrow into the air. On cue, his lighting director plunged the stage into darkness. Cut to black.

Thirty feet from the stage, the photographer John Rowlands took the picture which adorns the cover of Uncut this month, and which Bowie reputedly counted as one of his favourite images of himself. In the midst of the grief and chaos which has engulfed the music world this past week, it occurred to us that Rowlands’ shot would be a fitting one to use on the front of this special issue of our magazine, one which we’re rushing into the shops a little earlier than planned: you should be able to find it in the UK on Thursday.

I can think of few words I like less than “iconic”, and the way it’s casually bandied about in journalism, often to the point of meaninglessness. Nevertheless, it seems apposite here. No rock star has understood the iconic possibilities of his art more than Bowie; has grasped the mythic potential of what he does. “He believed in costume, and theatre, choreography, set design, lyrics, the right producer, the right engineer,” says bassist Herbie Flowers, one of the many Bowie associates who were so generous to us with their time and tributes. “He could do everything.”

Time and again in the interviews collected in this month’s Uncut, there is testimony to the range and complexity of Bowie’s genius and character. A master of bold gestures and otherworldly glamour on one hand, a deeply humane friend on the other. We hear of a touching gift for producer Ken Scott; a brilliant practical joke at the expense of Brian Eno; a memorable last encounter with one of Blackstar’s gifted lieutenants, Donny McCaslin. Bowie contained multitudes, and David Cavanagh has reflected on that in a 5,000-word memorial piece remarkable for its scope, erudition and emotional heft.

“Assessments of Bowie’s legacy came from every corner of the culture, every place where a culture prevailed,” Cavanagh writes, “and when you added up his significance to all of them, he seemed to have had a number of simultaneous lifetimes… In each encomium his fearlessness was a common theme. His uncanny ability to see into the future – and then promptly shape it – was another.”

To complement all this, we’re also making our Ultimate Music Guide to Bowie available again, in case you missed it when it was on sale last summer (That’ll be in the shops on Thursday, too, though you can now order one from our online shop). The format is the same as usual with our UMGs: in-depth album reviews, coupled with unedited interviews from the NME and Melody Maker archives. Now, of course, some of those interviews inevitably take on a terrible new poignancy. In 1977, Bowie tells Allan Jones about how fatherhood has changed him. His son’s future is what concerns him. “My own future slips by,” he says. “I’m prepared for its end.”

“There are still so many people on an immortality kick, though, and it amuses me now,” he continues. “We’ll do anything in our power to stay alive. There’s a feeling that the average lifespan should be longer than it is. I disagree. I mean, we’ve never lived so long. Not in any century that man’s been on this planet.

“Not so very long ago, no-one lived past the age of 40. And we’re still not happy with 70. What are we after exactly? There’s just too much ego involved. And who wants to drag their old decaying frame around until they’re 90 just to assert their ego? I don’t, certainly.”

Back in Uncut, 2016, it’s striking how much Bowie permeates our own culture. In pieces filed long before his death, artists as diverse as The Pop Group and Clint Mansell note his influence. The memoirs of his landlady, with whom he lodged for nine months in 1969, turn up on our Books page. And among other sad deaths logged in our Not Fade Away section, there is an obituary for Brett Smiley, one of those fated glam starlets whose careers were launched in the wake of Bowiemania. We can’t escape Bowie this month – and, thankfully, we never will.

He’s told us not to blow it, after all…

The March 2016 issue of Uncut is now on sale in the UK – featuring our 19 page David Bowie tribute plus Loretta Lynn, Tim Hardin, Animal Collective, The Kinks, Mavis Staples, The Pop Group, Field Music, Clint Mansell, Steve Mason, Eric Clapton, Bert Jansch,Grant Lee Phillips and more plus our free 15-track CD

Uncut: the spiritual home of great rock music.

  • Alex Cho

    What a great roundup of a great man. Thank you for this.

  • Suad Ali

    The Duke of Stratosphear

    I was reading about
    David Bowie’s death when my five-year-old walked in.

    “Who’s that?” She
    pointed to a Japanese movie poster of Bowie, taped to the wall.

    “David Bowie. He just
    died.”

    “He was done with all
    his ages?” she asked.

    “Yeah. I guess.”

    “When you’re done with
    all your ages, then you have to die?”

    She sounded like a Zen
    koan. He would have approved.

    Bowie was much more
    than a singer. I’m going to argue, in fact, that he’s the most influential
    musician-singer-songwriter since Hank Williams and Chuck Berry. The Stones’
    influence, while great, is rather narrow and specific. They inspired countless bands
    who play conventional music that doesn’t stray far from the early rock
    template: old school R&B, Berry-‘n-Bo Diddley-style riffing, Gram Parsonian
    country-inflected pop, straightforward garage-rock. The Beatles and Dylan exert
    their gravitational pull in a more diffuse, generalized manner—they’ve
    influenced everyone, a little.

    Bowie has had more
    impact—he’s influenced everyone, a lot. He explored, and had a serious effect on,
    more popular musical forms than anyone else—ever. His work embodies punk, glam,
    folk, top 40, metal, hard rock, ambient, postpunk, blues, musique
    concrète, psychedelia, krautrock, R&B, mod, postrock, soul, synthpop,
    drum ‘n bass, classical, disco, skiffle, techno, pop, dance, torch song, music
    hall, cabaret, easy listening and more. And he wasn’t just sticking a pale,
    privileged toe into these exotic waters—like a Paul Simon or Linda Ronstadt
    adding steel drums and indigenous back-up singers to a preexisting formula. No,
    he fully embraced, trail-blazed through, and in some cases epitomized these
    genres.

    Who else has had an
    impact on both hard rock (The Man Who
    Sold the World, 1970) and soul (Young Americans, 1975)? Who else
    participated in trad jazz and synth-pop? Blues and drum ‘n bass? Krautrock and cabaret?
    The answer is no one.

    Let’s examine this
    further. The Rise and Fall of Ziggy
    Stardust and the Spiders From Mars (1972) was punk before there was such a
    thing.[1] He influenced hundreds,
    and then thousands, and eventually millions in New York, London, Belfast, Brisbane,
    Boston, DC and beyond. Bowie was a creator of punk. There were others, but he
    was the most enduring, prominent and necessary. “Suffragette City,” the
    penultimate track on Ziggy, is punk’s
    most immediate and crucial origin song.

    Bowie was also a
    pioneer, and leading exemplar of, ambient, techno and electronic music. This is
    evident in his work from the mid-70s onward but is especially true of his “Berlin
    Period” albums with Brian Eno—Low (1977), “Heroes” (also 1977, almost
    implausibly) and Lodger (1979). Bowie
    learned from Satie, Cage, Stockhausen and other avant-garde composers,
    internalized these lessons, and transformed their ideas into something entirely
    new. What’s more salient and remarkable is that he could accomplish this so
    effectively within a popular music idiom. He was able to take forms and
    theories from art music and reimagine them as pop songs. The Berlin albums explored
    collage, minimalism, and almost singlehandedly invented postpunk and many of
    the dour, synthy tributaries of pop music. Without Bowie there’d be no Aphex
    Twin or xx, no laptop rock or chillwave.

    If this wasn’t
    enough—but it is—to make Bowie the preeminent architect of contemporary music,
    consider some of his more esoteric, peculiar and uncategorizable projects. He
    got his start playing saxophone in a jazz band, the Kon-Rads. A few years later
    he was recording novelty music (“The Laughing Gnome,” “Please, Mr. Gravedigger”)
    and singing “The Little Drummer Boy” with Bing Crosby. Bowie narrated Prokofiev’s
    Peter and the Wolf in a 1978
    recording with the Philadelphia Orchestra. He wrote the music for—and starred
    in—Labyrinth (1986), a children’s
    fantasy-adventure directed by Muppet-leader Jim Henson. The soundtrack includes
    “Magic Dance,” which features a call-and-response between Bowie (as “Jareth”)
    and a troupe of goblins; just to make it extra special/strange, the lyrics
    reference the Cary Grant film The
    Bachelor and the Bobby-Soxer.
    There are, of course, four versions of this song. Bowie was fond of, and
    pioneered, the remix.

    The music Bowie made for The Buddha of Suburbia (1993), a British
    TV serial, is a peculiar hybrid of jazz, classical, pop, ambient, instrumental,
    techno and pop ballad. He recorded German- and Italian-language material, the
    latter of which includes an Italian version of “Space Oddity” (“Ragazzo solo,
    ragazza sola”) and a cover of “Volaré” for the Absolute Beginners (1986) soundtrack. Naturally, he starred in
    this film, wrote several pieces for it, including the title track, of which there
    are four distinct versions. “Girls,” from the Time Will Crawl (1987) EP, is limited to three versions, though one
    is sung in Japanese.

    The
    Stones didn’t do anything like this. Neither did the Beatles or Dylan. Bowie’s
    not only our most influential singer, but also the most perverse and original.

    But
    there’s more. Bowie teamed up with Pat Methany in 1985 for “This is Not
    America,” a jazz fusion/ soft rock/synthpop/ambient single, in two versions,
    for the soundtrack to The Falcon and the
    Snowman. More strangely, he recorded David Bowie in Bertolt Brecht’s Baal (1982), an EP accompanying the modernist German
    play—translated into English—in which Bowie also starred. Baal made the UK pop charts even though it’s comprised of recited
    choral hymns rather than…songs.

    Bowie was also an unparalleled
    interpreter of music. He could growl and yelp like Johnny Rotten or croon like
    a jazz singer, male or female. He was the first British pop star to sing with
    an estuary twang rather than a posh, Americanized or proper BBC accent. On Hunky Dory (1971) he had a go at “Fill
    Your Heart” and, astonishingly, transformed a Paul Williams song into something
    cool. His covers album, Pin Ups
    (1973), is an ecstatic take on British invasion classics, but it’s anything but
    sedate or predictable. His shrieking, punkified version of the Easybeats
    “Friday on my Mind”—a sugary pop-folk hit from 1966—is definitive. And
    remember, punk was still three years
    in the future.

    Bowie wrote two rock operas, Diamond Dogs (1974) and Ziggy Stardust. He also produced 37
    albums, including one for Lulu and four of Iggy Pop’s. Aside from his own work,
    five of the albums he produced for other artists are masterpieces: Mott the
    Hoople’s All the Young Dudes (1972),
    The Stooges’ Raw Power (1972), Lou
    Reed’s Transformer (1972), Iggy Pop’s
    The Idiot (1977) and Lust for Life (1977). Bowie also wrote and performed on most of
    these albums. Finally, consider the timeline. In 1972 he wrote, performed and
    produced his own masterpiece—plus three for other people. In 1977 he wrote, performed
    and produced two of his own masterpieces—plus
    two more for other people.

    And he
    still had time to quit music and study mime. Keith Richards never did that. No
    one did.

    What else? Bowie was an early adopter
    of music video in the early-1970s. He was a member of 10 bands in the
    early-mid-60s before going solo; 25 years later he joined Tin Machine, a group
    of relatively unknown avant-guitar musicians.

    Although in the public imagination
    Bowie is perceived more as a singer/celebrity than a musician, he did play
    guitar, piano, alto and tenor saxophone, bass, mandolin,
    mouth harp, keyboards, stylophone, harmonica, koto, recorder, viola, violin and
    cello. Not bad. He played sax on the album Now
    We are Six by the folk-rock band Steeleye Span, and he played
    nearly every note on every instrument of Diamond
    Dogs, not excluding the classic riff that defines “Rebel Rebel.” Lennon,
    McCartney and Richards simply aren’t in this class of musicianship. Neither is
    Dylan. Please, don’t even joke about Jagger.

    As for song lyrics, Bowie’s are darker and more
    exotic than most of his peers, his world-view much less wide-eyed and
    optimistic. While others wrote about peace and flowers in the 60s—and the
    punks, discothèquers and stadium-rockers of the 70s sang of boredom, dancing,
    and life on the road with drugs’n’groupies—Bowie wrote about fascism, dystopia,
    the occult, and of course spacemen. More poignantly and impressively, he
    deployed the “cut-up” of William Burroughs.[2]
    This technique involves typing a text, cutting it into individual sections,
    rearranging them, and inserting them into a work in random order. Burroughs deployed
    this method for words. So did Bowie, but he extended the cut-up to melodies and
    musical passages as well, particularly during his Berlin Period.[3]
    The fact that he could use this cubistic process to make catchy, accessible[4]
    music is a testament to his incomparable ability to absorb, synthesize and
    refract cultural practices so quickly and so skillfully.

    Album art wouldn’t be what it is today without
    Bowie. In 1970 he appeared in a dress with long voluptuous hair on the cover of
    The Man Who Sold the World. That had
    never been done. Today, however, it’s a standard option for “transgressive,
    edgy” singers. Pin Ups, with Twiggy and
    Bowie in mimish make-up, is an iconic cover. So is the still shot from the film
    The Man Who Fell to Earth on Low. So is Bowie as
    spaceman-cum-glam-rocker on Ziggy
    Stardust and the lightning bolt face-paint of Aladdin Sane (1973).[5]
    There are others. The gatefold sleeve of Diamond
    Dogs was almost as controversial as the drag of The Man Who Sold the World. Bowie is painted as a half-man/half
    dog with his—if that’s the right pronoun—genitals openly displayed.

    Simulating fellatio on the guitarist—Bowie invented that.
    Having a Buddhist Period—he invented that, too. He was a student of Buddhism,
    inserting its precepts into his lyrics, several years before George Harrison.
    Before the Beatles and the Who had Yogis. The elaborate stage sets. The avant-garde
    costumes by Japanese designer Kansai Yamamoto. The status as fashion icon. The campy stage act. The
    flaming red übermullet. There isn’t time or space to address the many ways in
    which Bowie influenced and led the music world.

    .

    Okay, so Bowie was a singularly influential
    singer-songwriter-interpreter-musician-producer-frontman. Great, but what else
    has he done?

    I’ll tell you. He acted in 33 films, from
    light Hollywood fare (SpongeBob,
    2007) to comedy classics (Zoolander,
    2001) to canonical arthouse work such as The
    Hunger (1983), The Last Temptation of
    Christ (1988) and Basquiat (1996).
    He won a best-acting Saturn award for The
    Man Who Fell to Earth (1976). He produced three films, won acclaim as the
    lead in The Elephant Man (1980) and,
    as a teenager, was interviewed by the BBC after founding The Society for the
    Prevention of Cruelty to Long-haired Men. He told the audience, “It’s not nice
    when people call you darling and that.”

    Despite this aversion to being mistaken for a woman, Bowie’s
    major contribution to world culture, aside from his career in music, was his
    role in destigmatizing androgyny, nontraditional sexuality and cross-dressing.
    While some public figures had toyed with gender ambiguity and homosexual reference,
    Bowie was the first to openly identify as bisexual. In 1972 he revealed to Melody Maker that he was gay, which was
    quite daring since homosexuality had only recently been made legal in Britain and
    was not yet socially acceptable.

    Bowie was also in the vanguard of self-invention. Today it’s
    commonplace for a rock star to periodically transform his appearance. Madonna,
    for example, has been called a chameleon
    for merely cutting and dying her hair, for switching from bangled arms to
    traffic-coned breasts, though her music has never undergone any substantive renovation.
    Bowie, on the other hand, would change his look, move to a new country (the US,
    Germany, Switzerland), switch careers, dramatically reposition himself within music, create an entirely new
    persona, and adopt a new name to complete the rebranding. Ziggy Stardust.
    Halloween Jack. The Thin White Duke. David Bowie.

    The cover of his penultimate LP, The Next Day (2013), is the cover of “Heroes” with a white square concealing most of the artwork, an
    homage to Duchamp’s L.H.O.O.Q., in which
    Mona Lisa is vandalized, and Rauschenberg’s
    Erased de Kooning Drawing. Identity is
    a palimpsest, he’s telling us. It can be erased and plastered over. It’s merely
    a construct, not an objective reality. The cover, the face, the identity: these
    are expendable things.

    I need to take back what I said at the
    beginning. David Bowie wasn’t the most influential musician of the century. He
    was the most influential cultural and artistic figure of our times. Protean,
    unpredictable, ectoplasmic. He was a pin-up for boys and girls, men and women,
    mainstream and underground. He makes us reimagine what music sounds like, what
    a man is, what sexuality and gender are, what a pop star’s life should be.

    [1] The word had previously been applied to popular music but hadn’t
    assumed its current meaning, and the “punk movement” had yet to evolve.

    [2] Who
    learned it from visual artist Brion Gysin.

    [3]
    Yes, Bowie invented the concept “having a Berlin Period,” paving the way for
    Wayne/Jayne County, Martin Gore of Depeche Mode, Nick Cave, Peaches, Stephen
    Malkmus, et al. He also pioneered the premature-retirement gambit, which the
    Who would later copy. He “quit music” in the 60s and again in the 70s at the
    height of Starmania, as documented in
    Ziggy Stardust: the Motion Picture (1973), the live album and film documentary.
    1973 was busy—he released two additional albums that year.

    [4] Yet
    still complex and theoretically dense.

    [5] An
    allusion to his older half-brother Terry, who was institutionalized with
    schizophrenia. The lightning bolt, severing the face in two, symbolizes Terry’s
    illness.

  • Marc

    Sorry completely mis-interpreted your comment 🙂

  • dave marsh

    Sorry Marc. Not bitter, merely sarcastic. Nothing to do with Bowie either, just a pithy comment on Uncut’s rather tiresome & sycophantic obsession with Dylan

  • Marc

    Why so bitter? If you don’t like bowie don’t buy it?

  • dave marsh

    I’m assuming that you’re devoting half the issue to Bob Dylan’s influence on Bowie…