Thursday 17 September 2015

David BOWIE: ChangesBowie

(#405: 31 March 1990, 1 week)

Track listing: Space Oddity/Starman/John, I’m Only Dancing/Changes/Ziggy Stardust/Suffragette City/The Jean Genie/Life On Mars?/Diamond Dogs/Rebel Rebel/Young Americans/Fame ‘90/Golden Years/Sound And Vision/“Heroes”/Ashes To Ashes/Fashion/Let’s Dance/China Girl/Blue Jean

(Author’s Note: In the fine tradition of the early Now series, you actually get less value if you buy the CD edition; “Starman,” “Life On Mars?” and “Sound And Vision” appear only on the LP and cassette editions, and their omission from the CD strikes me as being as ridiculous a move as releasing a Beatles compilation which left out “Please Please Me,” “Strawberry Fields Forever” and “I Am The Walrus.” Who on earth would buy that?)

The delay is because Lena was originally going to write this entry but found dealing with the masses of information available on Bowie stressful to the point where even the chance hearing of one of his songs induced a headache. So she has passed it on to me, and I have to say that listening to ChangesBowie is one of the strongest arguments in favour of paracetamol you’re ever likely to encounter.

As much as some of the number one albums of the nineties argue strongly in favour of a future, there was an equal and opposite reaction which heavily promoted the virtues of looking back. For the second time in TPL’s history, a generation was compelled, or persuaded, to re-examine its own memories, and so there are plenty of long-term hits compilations coming up, of which this is the first; a highly selective summary which includes nothing recorded before 1969 or after 1984.

The cover alone indicates that Bowie was as appalling a custodian of his own work as Apple were of the Beatles, featuring a photograph identical to that on the cover of 1976’s ChangesOneBowie but pasted over haphazardly with snippets of other Bowie album covers like a neglected advertising hoarding. Indeed, as far as the CD edition is concerned, its first eleven songs are identical to those on ChangesOneBowie, except that the latter included the original and immeasurably superior version of “Fame.” From 1981’s ChangesTwoBowie, only “Starman” and “Sound And Vision” reappear, although the “Ashes To Ashes” and “Fashion” on ChangesBowie are the full album versions, not the single mixes.

The compilation throws up the extremely important question of whether I have the energy to say anything new about these songs, which on the CD in particular seem sequenced in a way to make Bowie come across as bland and Radio 2-friendly as possible. This is the “classic” Bowie, the only one most people, if they are honest with themselves, give a damn about. It is the Ziggy crutch which leads to situations where Chris O’Leary’s Rebel Rebel, without a doubt the best, most informed and most trenchant book about Bowie that you will ever read, is not reviewed in broadsheets or magazines, cannot be found in bookshops, whereas cut-and-paste books of photographs or “In His Own Words” rush jobs are present in their abundance. Indeed it would not be hyperbolic to state that Rebel Rebel is vastly superior in intent and delivery to Revolution In The Head – the latter gives rise to a serious consideration of the worth of “good writing” since the twenty-one years since its first publication have demonstrated its author to have been wrong-headed about nearly everything that the Beatles did (and its preface and postscript now seem, more than ever, like extended cries for help); however, because it was well-written, it has acquired the status of a Bible.

Nevertheless, ChangesBowie simply leaves me exhausted. It paints a picture of a chancer who had a hit in the late sixties about drug addiction which everybody assumed was a moon landing cash-in and then progressed to boring, sub-Stones cock rock schlock before getting depressed but good in the second half of the seventies and the very beginning of the eighties, and emerging out the other side with boring, sub-Asia adult orientated rock schlock. Even the Aladdin Sane and Diamond Dogs singles sound shockingly anaemic out of their albums’ context, suggesting that some remixing had been done.

“Young Americans” is so good because it marks the moment when Bowie wakes up with a start from his romantic fifties greasy dreams and wonders aloud what all this bullshit has been hiding. “Golden Years” in conception, delivery, performance and production is about as perfect as pop songs get, even withstanding a Crackerjack assault. “’Heroes’” is meaningless in its single edit other than setting the stage for big eighties rock with its Big, Meaningful Statements; Live Aid proved how easily this pop Frippertronics could turn into standard stadium fare, but Bowie, Eno and Fripp all approach the full album version with a mortified exuberance which suggests that this might be the last song anybody sings (like its nephew, “Being Boring,” it did only modest commercial business but eventually evolved into one of his big crowd-pleasers on stage).

But the deathly hallow of the last three songs, from Bowie’s cleaned-up, corporate, forget-the-weird-stuff-please eighties, suggests that nothing was learned and most things that mattered were forgotten. Bowie is mainly interesting when whatever mask he is wearing at any given time falls. As a Rich Rock Tapestrian in the line of Rod, Elton and Sting, he might as well be a Hallmark Collectible Ornaments advertisement. The nadir of this album is the "Gass mix" (somebody called John Gass, under Bowie's supervision) of "Fame" which systematically strips out most of what was interesting, attractive and wrongfooting about the original, including most of the Lennon input. Did Bowie really feel a burning need to remind those Jesus Jones who was scratch n' mix boss?

Next: Some heavenly pop hits, if anybody wants them.