Tuesday 15 March 2011


In her three years as secretary, Corinne has watched Bowie shrewdly work up to his most difficult move yet: the switch from cultish deco rocker to a wide-appeal entertainer. "I want to be a Frank Sinatra figure," Bowie declares. "And I will succeed."

-- Cameron Crowe, Rolling Stone, February 1976

By late 1974 the script Bowie had written to play the part of a rock and roll star had reached The End. The albums, the stage show, they worked and they kept the trip going. But now he was through with rock and roll. Finished. Rocked his roll. Time to see if America liked his music Broadway-style.

The Diamond Dogs tour was rehearsed to the last perfect detail. Chris Charlesworth said in Melody Maker, “There isn't one iota of spontaneity about the whole show…The music actually appears secondary to the various effects and dance routines, and while it could be argued that Alice Cooper has taken rock theatre to its extreme level, Bowie has moved onto a totally different level. It’s more in the vein of a Liza Minnelli performance, or even a Vegas night club cabaret.”

Bowie acted out each song as the character involved. For “Panic In Detroit” he was in a ring wearing boxing gloves; he even had a minder towelling him down and fitting a fresh gum shield between verses. But his main role, the role of David Bowie, was to be a star above stars, as untouchable as the sky. He ignored the audience. He didn’t even take a bow at the end.

From this came David Live. Where the staging was extreme, the music took few chances. The band featured London’s best studio rhythm section, drummer Tony Newman and bassist Herbie Flowers, plus keyboard virtuosos Mike Garson and Michael Kamen (later a famous film composer). Kamen recommended a new guitarist called Earl Slick. For production Bowie turned to his old friend Tony Visconti.

Calling the album David… was a nice intimate touch from a guy playing the remotest star on the planet. But we weren’t yet familiar with Bowie’s chameleon poses so the ‘good chums’ pretense failed on both sides of the Atlantic. The tour hadn’t come to Britain so there was no context. In the States he was preaching to the already-converted, whereas Elton John was mesmerising everyone from Hollywood to Harlem. Bowie needed some moves to match his ambition.

Signs surfaced during the Dogs tour. Bowie had added former members of Santana and the Main Ingredient to the band, who morphed the rhythms into something black ‘n’ blues. More tellingly, David started singing 'Knock On Wood'. What had been a solid soul hit for Eddie Floyd in the 60s was filtered through Bowie’s repressed English white-boy emotion into something CREEM writer Robot A. Hull described as “an inspirational interpretive parody. It sounds like a buncha wazoos from some local pub auditioning for the community talent showcase. Madness!”

Bowie was also recording at Sigma Sound in Philadelphia. Here, producers Gamble and Huff had created the platinum successor to the Motown Sound, a silken grooved r’n’b called TSOP – The Sound Of Philadelphia. Bowie took the house band, added some white-noise shimmer with Garson and Slick, and wrapped them around a brace of songs that sounded as cool as they were opaque. For Tony Visconti it was right on target for 1975.

"He's been working on putting together an r’n’b sound for years. Every British musician has a hidden desire to be black. They all talk about 'funky rhythm sections' and their idols are all black blues guitarists. When I was in Philadelphia, I saw Soul Train for the first time, and I was so impressed by the state of black culture. Being black now is a culture rather than a revolution. By the time this album has been released more people will realize that and David's next LP will be timed just right."

Bowie was far more succinct.

“Let's be honest; my rhythm and blues are thoroughly plastic. Young Americans is the definitive plastic soul record. It's the squashed remains of ethnic music as it survives in the age of Muzak rock, written and sung by a white limey.”

At first everyone agreed. But the sophisticated mix of funky rhythm section, atmospheric washes and David’s Sinatra tendencies seeped into the ether. Slowly it made more and more sense. Then the angular hooks of “Fame” hipswayed through discos and Bowie had his first American Number One. Its chilly scream-from-the-limo lyrics were a rare moment of clarity; the rest of the album was lyrical fog with sound bites. In 1976 he told Playboy, “My actual writing doesn't make a tremendous amount of sense... frankly, I'm surprised Young Americans has done so well.”

With American fame achieved, Bowie created his next tour. A monochrome crooner strutted a black and white stage powered by a superlative mix of r’n’b rhythm section and rock guitars. Inspired by the moves, he took the band into the studio and emerged with Station To Station.

It was a perfectly judged collision of Young Americans and Ziggy Stardust: big, moon-age, modern – itchy disco rhythms pitched against triumphant guitar riffs and reigning over it Mr. Bowie, melodramatic and funny, owning the songs the way Sinatra did. The opening lyric created his next pose: “The return of the thin white duke…”

It was a great conceit: Where was the Thin White Duke returning from? Why hadn’t we noticed him before? It fit the album’s restless travelogue mood, the Cinemascope sound and the confident voice. Station… sounded contemporary in a way few records did. The big hit was “Golden Years”, a perfect concoction single-mindedly pursuing an immaculately detailed path. It cemented Bowie’s status.

Station To Station live looked like rock and roll – including a drum solo! – but it was just as choreographed as Diamond Dogs. This time, though, moves and music were in sinuous synch. For two hours everything looked and sounded like 1976. Bowie had made the wild mutation from a rock and roll star.

---- Originally published in Mojo, 2006

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