It’s an exciting day for the Bemolution. Art-rock colossus David Bowie has startlingly reappeared from a decade of silent exile that many read as retirement, marking his 66th birthday by issuing his first musical peep since 2003. Four-minute single ‘Where Are We Now?’ was laconically deposited on ITunes with no prior warning, no comment from the man himself and little else beyond the promise of a full album to follow in March.
Who cares? Why is the re-emergence of an aging pop deity who, Blair spin-doctor Alistair Campbell’s dairies revealed, would’ve considered endorsing New Labour if it wouldn’t have opened him up for attack as a multimillionaire tax exile, in any way noteworthy?
Short answer: it probably isn’t unless you’re us. Way, way back, back before the Bemolution had bemmed its first bem, it was said multimillionaire tax exile that kicked off our strange, enlivening, enlightening adventures in the sonic realm. It all began with Bowie.
One late December evening in 2006, in the bath, over a novelty Homer Simpson shower radio, the Bemolution heard a documentary celebrating Bowie’s 60th birthday. Before that point we didn’t have all that much time for music. The radio was a background noise, nothing more, and the CD selection didn’t extend much beyond a middle-period Eric Clapton album and a Bee Gees compilation found in a box in the attic.
But something about this enthusiastic career retrospective stuck with us, the musical snippets it showcased worming into our pre-Bemolutionary brain. Interest sufficiently piqued, we sought out Mojo magazine’s 60th birthday Bowie special and, with its guidance, set about plumbing the depths of his voluminous discography. For about a year, the Bemolution’s musical intake was 100% Bowie. We whole-heartedly flung ourselves into the aural universe of England’s premier fey zeitgeist-rider.
Bowie started out playing Howlin’ Wolf covers as a teenager, restlessly zig-zagging between various orthodox rhythm and blues outfits, but finding little to quench his free-wheeling creative urges. When he first pricked the national consciousness, it was as a hirsute, vaguely Dylanesque folk-rock troubadour with a nice line in psychedelic balladry. It wasn’t until he’d thrown some hard rock heft – courtesy of a new foil, guitarist Mick Ronson –and the kind of lyrics that could nonchalantly hat-tip Himmler and Nietzschean supermen into his musical brew that his brilliance began to show.
Bowie barrelled across the stylistic landscape of the 1970s – becoming sensationally popular as wham-glam messiah Ziggy Stardust, slinking across the Atlantic to make an album of ‘plastic soul’, then one where funk rhythms met hard-edged, inscrutable Krautrock. By the middle of the decade, he was a blanched, drug-addled zombie obsessed with Nazism and the occult, frighteningly thin, unnervingly erratic and subsisting, by his own later admission, on a diet of ‘red peppers, cocaine and milk’. He’d been employing the randomising ‘cut-up’ writing technique for a while, producing songs with a mangled, Burroughsian diction. As he fell apart physically and psychologically, his music sounded more and more like the schizoid, anguished output of an unsound mind.
But it was at this fragile, emotionally fractured phase of his life that he was producing his best music (at least as far as the Bemolution’s concerned). He fled to Berlin, then the paranoia-wracked epicentre of the Cold War, to try and recover. Enlisting a wildly creative crew of collaborators, most notably arch-experimentalist Brian Eno, formerly of Roxy Music, then, later, Robert Fripp, King Crimson’s baffling but brilliant guitarist-mastermind, he started to write and record again.
This time, though, it was a very different David Bowie on the LP sleeve than the glam-rock populist of only a few years before. Professing himself unconcerned if his therapeutic experimentations proved too strange to release, he produced albums half-stocked with numb electronica, brooding ambient instrumentals where synth-swells loomed in and out of earshot like glaciers. He hadn’t abandoned lyrics. Fragmented ruminations on depression, loneliness, and repeated mistakes were given angular, often furious instrumental backing, with a few notable exceptions – Low’s startlingly jaunty ‘Sound And Vision’ paired a flat, weary, agoraphobic lyric with a blissful melange of sprightly guitar lines, cascading synth-strings and exuberant doo-wop backing singing, while ‘”Heroes”’, taken from the album of the same name, was an anthemic, uncharacteristically hopeful affair.
The last hurrah of Bowie’s late ‘70s creative surge wasn’t actually released until 1980. If his Berlin output had stark beauty through its creator’s determination not to compromise, Scary Monsters represented a perfect balance between pop sensibility and the jagged, scything approach of the previous few years. It was his last great album. For the rest of the decade, alas, Bowie would not just upset that sublime equilibrium, but tip the scales in the opposite direction – reductively put, his Berlin phase saw substance prized above all else, Scary Monsters combined substance with accessibility, and the shoulder-padded pastel-suited David of the ‘80s dispensed with substance entirely to blimp off into vapid, glitzy Thatcher-era excess.
He’d eventually come back down to Earth, horrified by the jolting realisation that he was playing to crowds of Phil Collins fans, but he’d never get back the creative momentum he’d lost. In the 90s, he’d try and embarrassingly fail to appropriate drum and bass the same way he had with folk, glam, rock, soul, and electronica twenty years before. By the early 2000s, things had improved. He was back to making albums that were quite good, very good in places, if far more conventional than his best work. Then, on tour in 2004, he had a heart attack and vanished from public life for a decade, leaving many fans thinking he’d gone for good.
But now we know they were wrong. And what of the subject of all the fuss – the single itself? ‘Where Are We Now?’ finds Bowie in a nostalgic, introspective mood, warbling with affecting fragility about his days in Berlin. It seems David Robert Jones, he of the restless innovation and galloping creativity, isn’t immune to looking backwards after all.
The track sounds quite similar to ‘Everyone One Says Hi’, his earlier resigned-contended meditation on mortality from 2003’s Reality album and, to switch on the Bemolution’s self-reflexivity engine, we’d probably conclude it was a wearisome ditty if it was by anyone else. But let’s face it – people do not unerringly like or dislike things based on their objective merit. In fields like music, when you’ve immersed yourself in the work of a particular artist, you’re quite likely to buy their latest release and listen to it repeatedly until you’ve trained yourself to like it – especially when they’ve been away for ten years.
The Bemolution rarely puts on a Bowie album any more. We’ve moved on. These days, it would be far more exciting to hear that, say, ragged-edged avant-bluesman Billy Jenkins was strapping on his Epiphone Casino and coming out of exile. But years of accumulated goodwill and, probably, entirely unwarranted loyalty to a man catapulted to grotesque wealth at the expense of record-buying drones like us, mean we’re still inexplicably delighted that he’s back.