At the time of writing it has been a week since the death of David Bowie was announced. During that time there have been countless tributes, often from the most unlikely of places, which mark him out as one of the most significant figures of our time. It is impossible to imagine what Western culture would be like without the impact he made, particularly in the 1970s. This was not just about the music, but his contribution towards breaking down all sorts of barriers is inestimable. Actually it was not just about the 1970s as because, even during the relatively low profile he kept over the last decade or so, his influence has continued through the generations.
As such it is great to see that Backseat Mafia contributors have not exclusively chosen tracks from those twelve studio albums from ‘The Man Who Sold The World’ through to ‘Let’s Dance’, which arguably represent the longest and most consistently innovative output of any artist since, and including, The Beatles; although that period is properly represented here.
There is ample evidence here and elsewhere that Bowie’s legacy with endure for many years to come and we at Backseat Mafia acknowledge David Bowie’s phenomenal contribution to the music, film, fashion and art that we love and we thank him from the bottom of our hearts for what he brought us.
Here are our loving memories of him.
BEWLAY BROTHERS, stAn
It’s really difficult for me to pinpoint one particular song that means the most to me from Bowie’s vast back catalogue. I’ve loved the man and his music for such a long time, could have picked many and written about them all. The memories they invoke and stories that go with each and every one – dancing alone at a working men’s club to “Jean Genie”. How “Rock N Roll With Me” became the theme tune to me falling in love. Escaping from it all listening to “Sense of Doubt”. And, unless you pay me lots of cold hard cash, I’ll keep the “Cracked Actor” moments to myself thank you very much 😉 . So rather than attempt the impossible task of selecting one song to say it all, I’m going to go with the first song I played upon hearing about his passing.
“Bewlay Brothers”, by all accounts, a semi-fictional account of Bowie’s relationship with his schizophrenic half-brother Terry. For me it is quite definitely one of the finest, most intriguing and thought provoking songs ever written. Half sung, half spoken, lamenting and poetic, at times gentle, at others harsh, almost arrogant in its delivery, but at all times remaining mysterious, otherworldly.
Containing, what I believe, are two of the most fascinating lyrics ever written, (By anyone ever!)…
“I was stone and he was Wax. So he could scream, and still relax. Unbelievable.”
“My brother lays upon the rocks, he could be dead, he could be not. He could be you. He’s Chameleon, Comedian, Corinthian and Caricature.”
…”Bewlay Brothers” is absorbing as any of the finest of novels. Magical in the way it drags you in and takes you on a most fantastic journey. From an intimate moment at the back of the kitchen door, to far off lands trading positions for saccharin and trust, the song ebbs and flows with intensity, belies the fact that it’s just over 5 minutes long, and teases us with stories of places and times we can only imagine.
And then, finally, with your head reeling from the earlier verses, you are spun off at an ever so unsuspected angle, as the narrator commands a place at the table, asks for pie and gravy, and leaves us with the dreaded thought that, one day, he might just slip away…
STARMAN, Jon Bryan
When I was asked to write a few words about my favourite Bowie song, I had something of a conundrum, as my favourite David Bowie song can depend on any number of variables, such as my mood, the time of day, how sleep deprived I am, or if I’ve been to the pub that evening. It could be “Ashes to Ashes”, as far as I’m concerned one of the most perfect pop songs ever recorded, or maybe it could be “Ziggy Stardust”, featuring one of the greatest riffs from one of the greatest guitar players in rock, or maybe today it’s “Life on Mars?”, because of the ‘girl with the mousy hair’. Damn it, there’s too many amazing David Bowie songs for me to pick my favourite, so I’m just going to have to write about the song of his that I see as his most important.
Imagine a family sat watching Top of the Pops on Thursday 6 July 1972. The kids had had word that some one hit wonder had performed his new song on Lift Off With Ayesha about three weeks ago. The song is called “Starman” and it’s by that odd-eyed bloke that had a hit with that song about Major Tom a few years back. There he is on the Top of the Pops stage with his bandmates, playing a nice pop-rock strum along about an alien contacting the population of the Planet Earth via the radio. David Bowie himself appears to be wearing some sort of pyjama suit, playing a blue twelve string acoustic guitar, his hair is the colour of a fresh carrot and his skin shares the same tone as porcelain. For some reason the drummer is sat in front of the rest of the band, and – fucking hell! – check out the sideburns on that other bloke!!! Your dad shifts uneasily in his chair, because despite a winning melody that owes more than a little bit to “Over the Rainbow”, as far as he’s concerned this song is being played by a bunch of degenerate freaks.
Then it happens.
Bowie drapes his arm over the guitar player that appears to be dressed as a glamorous oven ready chicken and the country collectively loses its shit. Dad looks like he’s about to explode…
Of course, watching that iconic Top of the Pops performance of “Starman” these days, this gesture seems ridiculously tame and unworthy of comment, however back in 1972 it was little more than revolutionary. Not only did it have sexual undertones that the less culturally sophisticated had difficulty dealing with, but it was also the collective moment where every young social misfit of all sexual orientations realised that maybe, just maybe, it was okay to be different to everyone else (something which would be absolutely confirmed when Bowie told those same social misfits that ‘You’re Not Alone’ on “Rock and Roll Suicide”, the heart-swelling tune that closed the album that also featured “Starman”).
The Top of the Pops performance of “Starman” was the moment where Bowie became a made man. After that moment every kid who thought they were an outsider felt a sense of inclusion that they’d previously never experienced and many became life-long David Bowie fans.
For me personally, “Starman” is the first song I remember being able to identify as a David Bowie number and was therefore my gateway to the rest of his career. I’ve not enjoyed everything he ever recorded, but he was an utterly vital and unique creative and cultural force, and never more so than on that absolutely iconic Top of the Pops broadcast.
SOUND AND VISION, simfelemy
“Sound and Vision”, from Bowie’s 1977 album “Low” may seem like an unusual choice as a favourite David Bowie track. Its brief three minute running time is only actually blessed with Bowie’s delightful vocals (half rasping boom, half howling yelp) from the halfway point, then just as it gets going, it fades out, leaving your wanting more. As a metaphor for my love of Bowie and my feelings in his absence, it’s perfect.
The fact he chose to do nothing to promote the single, (despite it being the first from a new album!) but let the BBC use it in their own trailers, and it still managed to get to #3 is sheer Bowie. Produced by Tony Visconti, and featuring Mary Hopkin on backing vocal, it’s such a pleasingly rhythmic, breathy, jangly pop gem. it feels like it could only have been produced by a computer or a robot as the most euphoric pop ditty ever. Every bit of instrumentation and vocal is pulling its own weight admirably and the lyrics for me have always spoken about the pleasures of music and film, something Bowie has contributed much to and always excelled in.
I feel like I’ve always known “Sound and Vision”, even though I know that’s probably highly unlikely given my relative youth and distance from the track’s release, but the influence it has had on many of my favourite bands growing up, is immeasurable. Blur, Franz Ferdinand, the Arctic Monkeys, the Killers and many more, all owe a debt to David Bowie and I can find hallmarks of his and this very track amongst their output. But enough about them, back to the original. “Sound and Vision” sums up what life would have been like without David Bowie’s influence – “Pale blinds drawn all day, nothing to do, nothing to say”, and only with his gift, a considerable gift spanning 50 years, the world has been a much better place. It will continue without him, just perhaps a little more (electric) blue.
LIFE ON MARS?, Briandroid
In 1972 and I was eight years old, and though we had a record player (a “radiogram”, a bulky sideboard of a thing) the only records in the house were my Dad’s ‘Dubliners’ singles. Then my older sister obtained ‘The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars’. We listened to it on rotation, it being the only album in the house.
Despite the antiquated stylus and bulbous cream-coloured tone-arm, it sounded amazing (due I know now, to Ken Scott’s incredible production) and me and my brothers were drawn into Bowie’s strange world. I remember being full of questions – Why did we only have five years? If Bowie was Ziggy then who was Lady Stardust?
Not long after, the single ‘Life On Mars?’ appeared in the house and that totally blew my mind. My poor sister was again bombarded – “mousey” hair?? Her dad has thrown her out? Mickey Mouse has grown up a cow? (we actually thought it was “off a cow”, which just made it even stranger!), My mother, my dog and clowns?? Not to mention the amazing song itself, the piano, booming strings and ever climbing crescendos, I’d never heard anything like it. We used to turn it up at the end to listen to the studio telephone ringing, and sometimes for some variety we’d listen to the b-side, ‘The Man Who Sold the World’, which was also an amazing song. The only downside is that Bowie’s music gave me false expectations in terms of songwriting, production and sheer uniqueness that so many other artists as I grew up, would fail miserably to live up to. He’d simply set the bar so high.
‘Life On Mars?’ transported me to so many places in my imagination, and fostered a love of well-crafted music in me at a formative age. Over forty years later it still sounds like nothing else.
KOOKS, Paul Clarke
When I bought my Bowie At The Beeb bootleg I’d just become a Dad. As I got to a glorious version of Hunky Dory’s Kooks about his own experiences as a first time father it made sense of all the complex emotion and fears swirling round my head. Sure I loved all the classics, but his funny and wise meditation on being a famous Dad really struck a chord. I only remember my Dad as an ‘Old Man’, or least a middle aged bloke who acted like an old man. Yet here was Bowie saying you can still be yourself not some old before your time fart, challenge things and be a good Dad to boot.
Bowie was also trying to bring up a kid in the midst of all the lunacy of being the world’s most famous bisexual rock star; so it’s not all that surprising he ended up calling his son Zowie Bowie. It was the 1970s after all. Even minor Bowie like Kooks is better than most artists manage at their absolute peak and, although this is a love song to his son, it is never mawkish. As always with the Thin White Duke it is beautifully judged.
Instead David advises his son: ‘Don’t pick fights with the bullies or cads/’cause I’m not much cop at punching other people’s dads’. Even better as the song closes he sings to his first born: ‘and if the homework brings you down/Then we’ll throw it on the fire/And take the car downtown’. How cool is that? Eventually Zowie ditched the daft name – becoming instead acclaimed film director Duncan Jones – but despite all the intervening madness the son remained close to his Dad. I suspect that despite all he achieved Bowie was probably most proud of that.
ASHES TO ASHES, Andrew Noel
I’m 13 years old. For Christmas my parents give me my first MP3 player, which my Dad loads with his music. Talking Heads, Blur, Level 42, Genesis… and David Bowie’s ‘Ashes to Ashes’. It’s a real 21st century music love story, the equivalent of pouring through your parents record collections as a kid. ‘Ashes to Ashes’ really struck me as a teenager; the keyboards sounded like they came from a freak show, the synthesizers reeked of Eighties nostalgia, and Bowie’s vocals quivered and shrieked.
Of course, on first listens I never dissected ‘Ashes to Ashes’ the way I would now but it kept me transfixed. Aside from the music, Bowie’s lyrics wormed themselves into my brain. They were bleak, hypnotic, and to a certain extent indescribable. ‘I never done good things/I never done bad things/ I never did anything out of the blue.’ Lyrics like these make ‘Ashes to Ashes’ feel like a confession, and with Major Tom brought back by Bowie, there’s some deep emotional deconstruction. ‘I’m happy, hope you’re happy too’.
When I look back at ‘Ashes to Ashes’ as an adult, I see it more as just the mesmerising experience that I did as a kid. The song takes the sci-fi nature found in the likes of ‘Starman’ or ‘Ziggy Stardust’ and puts it on acid. It’s Bowie bringing in the Eighties with a bang, taking his wordplay to new levels and expanding his musical repertoire past that of his arty beginnings. Even in an era where some of Bowie’s better received albums were in past, ‘Ashes to Ashes’ shows consistently amazing song writing, whatever style Bowie chose to focus on.
While ‘Ashes to Ashes’ may no longer be my favourite Bowie song, without this song I wouldn’t have the musical taste I have today. It’s twisted, absurd, whacked out imagery helped shape my musical taste, and for that I am very grateful.
SOUND AND VISION, Rhiannon Ormerod
It really is impossible to pick a favourite David Bowie song, so I’m going to explain what ‘Sound and Vision’ means to me personally.
I should begin by explaining that I’m not a Bowie superfan. I don’t own all his rarities. I don’t even own all of his albums. He did, however, appear on the playlist at my wedding (‘Modern Love’); provide me with one of my favourite songs to jump around to at retro club nights (‘Rebel Rebel’); warp my impressionable young mind in one of my favourite films (‘Labyrinth’); and gave me so many other music related memories.
I wasn’t alive when ‘Sound and Vision’ was released, but I remember hearing it when I was a kid. It was only later in my life that I fell in love with it. Firstly because, for a song that was produced in the late 70s, it sounds quite 80s to me and I adore 80s music. Mostly, however, because of how I relate to it. Bowie called it his “ultimate retreat song” and, as I consider myself to be quite introverted and often become locked in my own head, I feel I have always related to that – “Pale blinds drawn all day. Nothing to do, nothing to say. Blue, blue”.
Despite the lyrics being about retreating, musically it is upbeat and I love that contradiction. There’s the swishing sound of the drum, Bowie’s saxophone, the bright descending synth, bouncing bass and Mary Hopkin’s “doo-doo-doo-doo” lines that actually give it a joyful sound. Bowie doesn’t start singing until halfway through – something I found quite bizarre when I first heard it – but when his vocals do arrive it does actually sound like he’s sitting in a room and has just spontaneously decided to sing along. It’s simple and evokes the mood perfectly. The other layers of his vocals kick in suddenly like the synth. Then, unexpectedly, the song fades out leaving you wanting more.
‘Sound and Vision’ has floated around in my subconscious for years but when the most important person in my world gave me a compilation mix with it on a couple of years ago, I rediscovered my connection to it along with the links that I have to the people in my life through Bowie’s music. The title of my website (Sound and Fiction) the subtitle and even the colours of the site (shades of blue) are actually inspired by the song. My round-up blogs are called ‘gifts of sound and fiction’ because they are about what has inspired me to write in that moment – “I will sit right down, waiting for the gift of sound and vision”. I have spent a lot of time since Monday morning recalling these and other ways that David Bowie’s music and words have inspired, moved or comforted me.
This week we’ve sadly said goodbye to the man who epitomised ‘sound and vision’ for me.
MOONAGE DAYDREAM, Bineal Roy
Like many others, my first experience with Bowie was ‘The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars’. As a budding guitarist, the spacey pop-rocker ‘Moonage Daydream’ was the tune that really leeched into me. For me this is a song that is often overlooked on the record for the hit radio singles (Starman, Ziggy Stardust) but is every bit as good, if not better. It’s definitely one of the tunes that would have helped him keep up to date and be able to compete with the hard rock and prog dominated scene of the time.
Bowie provides a simple yet catchy melody with great lyrics to boot in the chorus ‘…keep your electric eye on me babe/put your Ray gun to my head/press your space face close to mine love/freak out in a Moonage Daydream oh yeah…’ coupled with some psycho Dylanish imagery in the verses, thus building on his style from the preceding album, ‘Hunky Dory’. As part of the story arc of the concept album, Moonage is the first on the album sung from the perspective of Ziggy and introduces him as ‘a space invader’ who’ll be ‘a rock n’ rollin’ bitch for you’.
The song itself is economically structured with a fun and jazzy interlude breaking it up, led by Bowie himself on the sax. The instrumental backing provided by the rhythm section of Trevor Bolder on bass and Mick Woodmansey on drums, is to the point, giving room for Bowie’s impassioned lead and Mick Ronson’s guitar work. The main selling point, however, is the climactic coda, with Bowie’s echoey vocals (‘freak out, far out, in-out’) over the back drop of Ronson’s incredible soaring solo and the cool schizophrenic orchestral backing (arranged by who else? David Bowie). An absolutely unforgettable atmosphere and my favourite David Bowie song.
BATTLE OF BRITAIN (THE LETTER), Benji Jackson
It’s school holidays and I’ve been in the United Kingdom for a year. I find myself sat in my nephew’s room in a small village in Nottinghahmshire going through various cassette tape compilations of happy hardcore acts recorded at raves on the coast when I happen upon a CD from a name I am familiar with, but never thought to see in his record collection.
“Alex” I ask, “what are you doing with a David Bowie album?”
My nephew explains that Bowie had recorded a dance album, and proceeded to put it on for me. I am suddenly struck by this almighty sense of wonder as track three comes on. “Battle Of Britain (The Letter)” is a grunty electronica number that is far removed from the David Bowie I was familiar with as the angsty, teenaged Benjamin Jackson settles in to the incredible journey that Earthling beckoned.
Time after time in the obituaries and testaments that have flowed regarding the loss of such an icon there was a concurrent theme; innovator, pioneer. Bowie worked with the times, never afraid to delve into things that perhaps may alienate a previous audience but at its heart was fundamentally what he was all about – evolving. Perhaps throwing myself open to ridicule using a pun, changes.
For those 48 minutes, my preconceived notions of David Bowie being for “older people” subsided and led for me to revisit his older works. A bit older now, a bit more worldly and a bit more accepting, should I had met the 14 year old me, I’d not of changed his perception at that time. For me, discovering Bowie fully at that age led to an appreciation never to be quick to judge – a lesson I would hold steadfast through to this day. David Bowie was essentially counter-culture through and through. Even when it pertained to his own cultural impact.
BLACKSTAR, Simon Delic
As many of the other contributors here have commented, picking just one David Bowie track is almost impossible. For those of us of a certain age, and I’m 51 as I write this, Bowie has provided the soundtrack of our lives. At school, when we started work, at the party after our weddings, when we want to tell our kids about music and life, when we can’t think what to put on the stereo…David Bowie has been there. Faced with such a difficult decision, then, I have gone for the title track of what I assume will be the great man’s final album (although I wouldn’t bet that Bowie hadn’t left another one before he left us).
‘Blackstar’ the track, like the album that bears the same name, has been described as Bowie’s parting gift to us; the sign of a man who choreographed his death every bit as much as he did his life. And that is why this track is so important to me. I have written elsewhere that Bowie’s passing has resulted in me seeing my life in a very different way, particularly in terms of my own mortality: and ‘Blackstar’ helps me to come to terms with that.
For me ‘Blackstar’ is a very spiritual song, more like two songs in one. The beginning and end evoke a certain ritualism which help take the listener into a very spiritual place, but typically of Bowie this is not something that is proscribed…we can make up our own mind about such important matters. That ‘solitary candle/ in the centre of it all’ could represent him, or it could represent any one of us…or something completely different.
The middle section, for me, is autobiographical…the ceremony for his own passing…Bowie’s requiem for himself. At the moment when he begins to sing ”Something happened on the day he died’, it gets me every time. This is not only because it reminds me of Bowie’s death, but also reminds me of my own mortality. It reminds me that my time of this Earth is finite
For me Bowie has done something unique in speaking to me beyond the grave (as he did to countless people during his life) and inspired me to be as amazing as I can be for the rest of my time. He has told me that I can be my own person and not worry about what others think, to be daring and creative. For me then ‘Backstar’ is every bit as important as Bowie putting his arm around Mick Ronson’s shoulder all those years ago. It tells me that he has remained as important at 69 as he was at 25, and that my solitary candle does not need to be dim despite my age.
‘Blackstar’ truly is a gift and I am confident that it will stand up every bit as well as all those other classic tracks that we have come to know and love over the years. Thank you so much David…for everything!
You can read other lovingly written articles about David Bowie from Backseat Mafia contributors here.