Ashes to Ashes (Bowie Remembered)

Authored by Dale Nickey:

 

 

Superheroes aren’t supposed to die…

David Bowie loved to surprise and shock people. Sadly, he saved his best for last as he passed on Sunday January 10, 2016 at the age of 69. No one saw it coming.

Everything he did in life was art. The way he looked, his elegant speech, videos, film, music…above all, the music. It makes sense that he would orchestrate his final exit to perfection and go out on top. And somehow, leave us smiling through the tears.

Born David Jones, Bowie entered the music business through the same portal as many other seminal British artists during the sixties; he attended art school and cultivated a passion for music. He paid his dues playing in R&B bands on the London club circuit. The Kingbees and The Manish Boys were among the more notable ensembles Bowie played in during that era.

 

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His recording career was going nowhere in particular until he released the epic single “A Space Oddity” in 1969 (five days before the Apollo moon mission). It became a hit single in Britain (and later in the U.S.). Although “A Space Oddity”” didn’t catapult him to worldwide stardom at that time, its success earned him the opportunity to make more records until he found his stride.

In 1971 he released “Hunky Dory”, arguably the finest album of his career. It was a gigantic leap forward from his previous album, the spirited but scruffy “The Man Who Sold the World” where Bowie grabbed the attention of the press by shooting the album cover lounging on a chaise in a dress. “Hunky Dory” yielded the classic rock evergreen “Changes”. The rest of the album is a masterclass in songwriting; ranging from the acid folk of “Andy Warhol”, to the Punk Glam snarl of “Queen Bitch”, to the dour S & M imagery of “The Bewley Brothers”. There was no filler, only brilliance. But, how could he possibly top himself?

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1972 saw the release of “Ziggy Stardust and The Spiders from Mars”; an album that (in its own way) changed the world as much as Beatlemania. The Beatles only hinted at an androgynous parallel universe where the languages of art, love and lust were freely spoken. Now we had a painted, sequined poster boy who not only talked the talk, but came armed with classic tunes that could outlast the critics and the naysayers. Bowie made it OK for a man to wear makeup and look beautiful. Well, for a little while anyway.

“Hunky Dory”, “Ziggy Stardust” and “Aladdin Sane” comprise one of the most potent trilogies by any artist in the history of Rock Music. 1974’s “Diamond Dogs” was brilliant but something had changed. Bowie dumped his faithful backing band and was clearly eager to jump into the artistic void.

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“Young Americans” used Philly soul to capture the ears of America. The album yielded Bowie’s first American chart topper “Fame” (co-written with John Lennon). With “Station to Station” Bowie entered a harrowing phase of drug abuse that saw him lose his memory and a significant portion of his body weight. Didn’t matter, Bowie was now an artist for the ages who couldn’t make an inconsequential album

Bowie had to rehab and reboot or snuff it. For Bowie, that meant taking his buddy Iggy Pop and moving to Berlin by The Wall. He did things like shop for his own food and wash his own laundry. The austere cold war environment inspired his second great trilogy of albums. “Low”, “Heroes” and “Lodger”. Bowie brought Art-Rock heavyweight Brian Eno in to collaborate and help him explore his inner Stockhausen. Never had such a commercially potent artist taken such a radically uncommercial detour. Bowie was reinvigorated, his muse was overhauled and ready to meet the challenge of the 80’s.

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Bowie was famous and successful. But, he had not yet achieved ubiquitous celebrity in America. That changed with “Let’s Dance”. It was a pure commercial dance record by design. Bowie brought in Chic hit maker Niles Rodgers as producer and introduced the world to an unknown guitar slinger by the name of Stevie Ray Vaughn. Massive hit singles “China Girl”, “Let’s Dance” and “Modern Love” pummeled the charts, radio and MTV. David Bowie owned the year of 1983.

Bowie would never scale those heights again. He still made good records. He also did some big tours and stayed ahead of the curve by selling shares in the David Bowie brand on the stock market. He also accurately predicted that streaming and file sharing would destroy the music business as we knew it. He did several films, live theater, raised a wonderful family and manfully followed Queen after their epic Live Aid performance at Wembley Stadium.

People sometimes forget he was a good sax player. He did all the horn parts on his early albums. He was a one take wonder. Super producer Ken Scott rated him as the best studio singer he ever worked with. There were no bum takes on a David Bowie session. He wrote “All the Young Dudes” for Mott the Hoople; and who can ever forget his duet with Freddie Mercury, “Under Pressure”?

He was also a heavy smoker. He packed up in later years, but who knows what damage had been done. He died of cancer far too soon. However, he remained trim, youthful and dapper to the very end. He died a dignified and peaceful death surrounded by family. Listen to his music and be amazed by the wonder of it all.

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Top 10 List – Mental Musical Masterpieces # 4 (Joe Meek)

Authored by Dale Nickey:

Click for more Masterpieces >>>>10 9  8  7 6 5 4 3 2 1i_hear

Joe Meek (featuring the Blue Men) – “I Hear A New World”

British producer/composer Joe Meek was certainly a sociopath and was possibly a paranoid schizophrenic. However, it’s a safe bet any condition he suffered was exacerbated by the intolerant environment of postwar Britain. Additionally, his parents desire to dress baby Joe up as ‘the daughter they never had’ couldn’t have helped matters. Meek was a closeted, alpha-gay man in an era where you could be cited by the authorities for openly expressing your same-sex preference. Professionally, Joe Meek cut his teeth in the  1950’s as a tape-op and sound engineer for a production company that produced shows for Radio Luxembourg during the British recording industry’s most intractable period. At EMI Studios (for example), recording engineers were required to wear white lab coats and run their sessions by the strictures of EMI’s bound text instruction manual. Meek couldn’t abide, so he established himself as an independent producer and built his own studio in his apartment.

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Pioneers of any new frontier usually suffer the slings and arrows of skepticism, and Meek certainly took a lot of verbal darts from his fellow record professionals. However, this didn’t stop him from creating some of the most innovative and thrilling records of his day as well as some of the worst. Meek secured his legacy by composing and producing the futuristic (1962) single “Telstar”; a record that changed the ears of the world. The stuffy establishment of the British music industry still branded Meek a crackpot. In a sense their observations weren’t that far off.  His production methods were unorthodox to the extreme and involved assault, bullying, threats and/or harassment of his male musicians and protégés. As an engineer, he routinely pinned VU meters, drenched vocals and instruments with industrial strength reverb and favored the use of household appliances as sound effects.

Joe Meek’s long-form masterpiece was the sound-cycle, “I Hear A New World”. Recorded in 1960, the album was an outsider’s love letter to an extraterrestrial, alien world that Meek surely would have preferred to this one. The album was too ‘far out’ to be released in his lifetime. It contains most of the signature elements of Meek’s sound. Including high-speed vocals, distortion, copious amounts of echo, and a strange ancestor of the keyboard synthesizer called “The Clavioline”. If you wish to examine the tea leaves foretelling Meek’s masterpiece, “Telstar”, listen to “I Hear A New World”. Meek had his moments of clarity and commercial success. However, as The Beatles and their progeny took over the music industry, Meek’s fortunes declined dramatically. Meek finally achieved closure with a self-administered shotgun blast to the head. He committed this final act of sonic audacity shortly after performing the same ritual on his long-suffering landlady who lived on the first floor below his studio. Genius seldom comes in a neat, tidy package.

TAG TEAMS – TOP FIVE SINGER/GUITAR PLAYER HOOKUPS

The Stones, Guns & Roses, Zep, The Who. Great BANDS right? What makes a great Rock And Roll band anyway? It ain’t that hard to figure. A great rhythm section is the slab foundation. Then you need the brick and mortar. That comes down to a charismatic lead singer and a gunslinger guitarist; and in epic bands, they they’re usually joined at the hip and have a special musical, telepathic and (sometimes) quasi-homoerotic bond. Disagree? Allow me to submit the following for your consideration….

Mick Jaggar and Keith Richard (The Stones);

Mick n’ Keef have been playing, writing and fighting in the same band for 50 years now. A dysfunctional marriage without the sex. Every song they produce is community property (Jaggar/Richard). They fight over money and who is whose best friend. Mick pulled a pout during the ‘Exile’ sessions when Keef started spending too much time with stud-muffin country rock pioneer Gram Parsons. Keef pissed and moaned when Mick left him at home to make his first solo album with Jeff Beck. Together they are a money spinning machine that transcends Mick’s inability to sing and the band’s fabled inconsistency. They are the prototype.

Robert Plant and Jimmy Page (Led Zeppelin)

One of the hallmarks of the epic tag-team is that the band cannot exist without either partner. You could have Zep again with a deputy drummer. However, without Page or Plante it’s ‘no deal’. Like the Stones, the Zep songwriting is a co-op. On stage, they only have eyes for each other. As solo artists, Plante has survived well and Page has managed to stay gainfully employed. However, they will never escape the Zep legacy and will be dogged by reunion inquiries until they die.

Roger Daltry and Pete Townsend (The Who):

Even in his youth, Pete Townsend and his prominent proboscis were hard on the eyes. However, his musical genius was indisputable. Roger Daltry was the perfect hood ornament for the high-octane vehicle that was The Who. Daltry was not a writer (a good thing), yet was such a passionate and protective advocate of the brand that he engaged in fistfights with Townsend over the direction of the band  (a good thing). Golden-god Daltry was a perfect foil and muse for Townsend. So much so, that when it came time to cast an actor for the movie version of the rock opera Tommy, Daltry was the only possible choice.

David Bowie and Mick Ronson (The Spiders From Mars):

Yes, I know, I know…..Bowie has been a successful solo artist for decades after his estrangement from the late Mick Ronson. However,Bowie established his brand after Ronson came on board, not before.  Moreover, Bowie went mega in the role of Ziggy Stardust. Ziggy had a band. The band was The Spiders From Mars. Onstage, Ronson was Ziggy’s onstage foil and object of unrequited man-lust. In the studio, classically trained Ronson was indispensable as musical director, string arranger, guitarist and piano man. The grand trilogy of Bowie albums (Hunky Dory, Ziggy Stardust and Aladdin Sane) bear Ronson’s indelible stamp. The drop-off in the quality of Bowie’s productions (post-Ronson) was within acceptable parameters, but still noticeable to discerning rock music fans.

Steven Tyler and Joe Perry (Aerosmith):

At least a few of the above musicians can claim some solo success outside their main-squeeze partnerships. Not so for Tyler and Perry. Solo efforts by both have been laughable and catastrophic. A union cut from the same homoerotic/dysfunctional cloth as Mick and Keef. Steve and Joe always end up back together in sickness and in health, for the career salvaging make-up album and tour. Their personal, studio and onstage chemistry is undeniable; and to hear Steven Tyler talk about it, kinda weird…..