David Bowie – the music never played second fiddle

It’s almost two weeks since the death of David Bowie and, if I wanted to, I could still quite easily well up. His songs touched my heart, my head and frequently – if embarrassingly – my legs. When I tried to dance to them, I mean.

Coincidentally, he was also the only artist I could confidently pull off at karaoke parties. He never mentioned this to anyone, of course.

He was by far my favourite musician. Those who know my near-obsession with Frank Zappa will question this. Whatever. They’re different, is all I can say. They’re both my favourites, and they’re both my favourites by a long way. Go figure.

One similarity, though, and an aspect of Bowie that no appreciation of him that I’ve read has mentioned, is that, like Zappa, Bowie really loved music.

No shit, Sherlock? Well, maybe. But for me the appeal of Bowie’s music is just as great when he’s not singing as when he is.

Like Zappa, he gave his musicians room to create, to let rip or to exploit a melody’s potential. He forced them into musical places they wouldn’t normally have considered. He experimented with unusual sounds and non-standard instruments. And he frequently explored music that required a modicum of patience and concentration before it bestowed its rewards.

I’m thinking of how long it’ll take to find examples of all this in his 27-strong album catalogue, when I realise that I could probably find them all in just one. Maybe even in the album I happen to be listening to right now, Scary Monsters (And Super Creeps). Let’s have a go, shall we?

The opening vocals of the opening track, It’s No Game (Pt 1), aren’t sung by Bowie. They’re not even sung in English. When he does start singing, it sounds more like a painful attempt to bring up his own spleen. Robert Fripp’s guitar is appropriately angry and discordant. It ends with Bowie actually bawling at Fripp to ‘Shut up!’ Can you imagine a Coldplay album starting like this?

Track 2, Up The Hill Backwardsstarts in what sounds to me like 7/4 time, again with Fripp on guitar, before settling down into a stomping 4/4 arrangement. Bowie’s knocked-back, almost chanted vocals share the stage with at least two other singers. At about 2:10 the listener is hauled back into 7/4 time for Fripp to return with more of his crashing guitar work. But this isn’t the middle eight. It just signals the end of the vocals. For the rest of the song we’re treated to a minute-long guitar workout, accompanied by Dennis Davis’ thunderous drumming. The singer whose album we’ve bought isn’t singing, but we’re still listening. Do you ever get this sort of thing on an Adele album?

The album’s title track is more like a straightforward rock song, but that’s straightforward in a Bowie way. There are weird clangings, staccato electronic dog barks in a descending scale, Fripp’s snarling guitar and, again, an extended section at the end of the song (some 30% of its duration) in which the only vocals are an anthemic la-la-la-ing. The whole thing sounds very much like…no one.

But, oh dear. The rest of the tracks unfortunately do little to lend weight to my thesis. Bugger. Perhaps this whole exercise has been a mistake. Maybe I should have chosen Low. However, Ashes to Ashes does include a glorious vocal technique that I can’t imagine any other artist even thinking of doing. From 2:44, Bowie repeats his own lines in a flat monotone, like a bored church congregation responding to the vicar. It’s a world away from the girly chorus you’d expect. Best of all, this structure compels Bowie to sing the last line, a rock ‘n’ roll exclamation, in a similar style. So at 2:57 we hear his lifeless response ‘Woe-oo-woe’. Did Elton John ever try anything so audacious? Jackson? Madonna? Presley? The album throws up other examples of Bowie’s vocals being anything but run of the mill. Check out the slowed down/speeded up split vocals from 2:39 in Scream Like a Babyfor example.

Better still, take Scary Monsters off your Spotify Music Centre and play Aladdin Sane instead. The title track. That piano solo. If you want audacious, this takes the biscuit. Dissonant, seemingly random yet coherent and, to me, utterly majestic. How did it happen? Here’s the pianist, Mike Garson, talking about the day it was recorded back in January 1973.  “I played a blues solo and David said: ‘No, that’s not what I’m looking for.’ Then I played a little Latin solo. ‘No, that’s not what I’m looking for. ’ Then he said to me: ‘You told me about playing on the avant-garde scene in New York. Why don’t you try something like that?’ I said: ‘Are you serious?’ He said: ‘Absolutely.’ That whole solo was one shot, one take – boom, that was it. But it came about because he got it out of me.”

And here’s Bowie himself, talking to Angus MacKinnon in a 1980 edition of NME“To digress completely for a moment – I still adopt the view that music itself carries its own message, instrumentally I mean. Lyrics are not needed because music does have an implicit message of its own; it makes its case very pointedly. If that were not the case, then classical music would not have succeeded to the extent that it did in implying and carrying some definite point of view, some attitude which presumably can’t be expressed with words…

… the lyrics taken on their own are nothing without the secondary sub-text of what the musical arrangement has to say, which is so important in a piece of popular music. It makes me very angry … when people concentrate only on the lyrics because that’s to imply there is no message stated in the music itself, which wipes out hundreds of years of classical music. Ridiculous.”

So, yes. Bowie was clowns and make-up and androgyny and all that reinventing himself malarkey. But he was also a staggeringly creative musician with a Gestalt vision of what a song should be – music and lyrics coming together to create a whole greater than the sum of its parts.

This must be my longest post ever. Thanks for reading if you kept with it. Thanks anyway, even if you didn’t.

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2 Comments

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2 responses to “David Bowie – the music never played second fiddle

  1. Lordy

    I enjoyed that, BNM. A different take on all the stuff I’ve been reading about him. Still very odd to think that we’re living in a world without David Bowie.
    I was never an obsessive fan, and was certainly never into his more esoteric stuff, but have been thinking about him, his influence and his music a lot in the days since he suddenly left this world. (Especially ‘Sound and Vision’ for some reason. A track where reflective lyrics are at odds with a funky melody.)
    Thanks for putting pen to paper. It’ll help me appreciate the man even more.

    • bravenewmalden

      Thanks Matt. ‘Sound and Vision’ is a sparkling example of a song that bolsters my case. We’re well into the groove before the vocals start, and there’s a weird thing going on where it’s not exactly clear which is the verse and which the chorus. I’m going to play it now.

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