This is how David Bowie took over the world, & invented us all, in just 5 years:
Imagine if you didn’t like David Bowie. Wouldn’t that be weird? Not to love David Bowie. Not to love David Bowie - one eye blasted, hair dyed ginger in the sink, gaying it up with Mick Ronson on Top Of The Pops for Starman.
Not to love David Bowie – pale like bone; voice like ice breaking - singing ‘Heroes?’ in Berlin: the sound of mankind giving itself a standing ovation.
Not to love Bowie - stalking towards the microphone during the intro of Let’s Dance – looking as sharp as any human’s ever looked; an albino leopard whispering, “You know what? In three years, I’m going to play Jareth the Gnome King in Labyrinth, in an outfit so tight my knackers look like two badgers having a fight down my trousers - and I’m going to be fucking badass in that, too.”
People who don’t love David Bowie? I don’t even know what such a person would look like. Perhaps the person in Edvard Munch’s Scream.
I presume, then, that everyone has seen BBC Two’s Five Years - a feature-length documentary on David Bowie, made up of “Unseen out-takes and unused footage”, telling the story of five key years in Bowie’s life – 71-72, 74-75, 76-77, 79-80 and 82-83.
Chronological and prompt, we started in ’71, where Bowie had spent nearly a decade studying mime, acting, writing songs, walking around London in a dress, being a “thing” – trying to work out which one of things will make David Bowie big.
71 is the year he realises he never had to chose: the point of David Bowie is that he will do all of these things - and that is the big thing. What will free him up is realising that, for him, it’s actually easier to create something dazzlingly, grindingly, blastingly new – to take pop to the Kabuki theatres of Japan, the German avante-garde, into space – than it is to try and just be some kind of redux Anthony Newley. He’s not going to fit in anywhere – he’s going to terraform a whole new world, and take pop with him.
One of the first people he tries to explain this to is Andy Warhol - and Warhol’s having none of it. In b&w footage you can’t quite believe you’re seeing, in 71, in New York, Bowie and Warhol have a stand-off, on camera.
Warhol is trying to direct Bowie in a film he’s making – Bowie tries to direct him back. In the end, because it’s his film, Warhol shuts Bowie down. Bowie retaliates by filing a take where he mimes how he feels about this: ripping open his guts, spilling his entrails on the floor, and then pulling out his still-beating heart, and throwing it up into the sky. Man, these are the pop-cultural moments I live for – David Bowie bitching off Andy Warhol with an angry mime. When the gays take over the world, all wars will be conducted like this.
But fuck Warhol – it’s 71-72. Bowie’s not messing around. He’s got other fish to fry. He’s back to the UK for Ziggy Stardust, Hunky Dory, Moonage Daydream.
Rick Wakeman – rubicund, crumpled; a keyboard Falstaff – appears, telling us about playing piano on Life On Mars? How absolutely illogical and astonishing the chord sequence is – on both “But the film is a saddening bore” and “Sailors! Fighting in the dancehall”, the song goes somewhere no-one else on Earth would ever take it: a violent, swooningly vertical take-off into genius.
“It really is a piano-player’s dream,” Wakeman says – newly agape at how confounding it is. He stares down at his hands. “I must go home and learn it.”
More footage, all previously unseen – Bowie in lapis lazuli trousers with his tits out, singing Queen Bitch – “Oh, God! I could do better than that!? Lots of shots of him putting make-up on, going crackers on the Rimmel as you murmur “Re-wind on the blusher, love.” He kills Ziggy at the end of 73. His scale is vast, fast – how is he doing this whilst being so utterly off his tits?
“He even ate breakfast like a superstar,” Woody Woodmansey, the Spiders from Mars drummer, recalled, which is quite a commitment if Bowie was eating, say, Shredded Wheat, or kippers.
74-75: “David Bowie was never meant to be. He’s like a Lego kit. There is no definitive David Bowie.”
This new Bowie, six months later, is pale, cadaver-like – so thin his teeth look fat. He doesn’t look like he’s eating breakfast like a superstar any more. He doesn’t look like he’s eating breakfast. You’ve never seen anyone look more ill on cocaine. It practically crystallises on his skin, like salt on saltfish.
“He was the whitest man I’d ever seen,” his new guitarist Carlos Alomar, say. “I’m not talking pink-white. I’m talking translucent. I said, you look like shit. You need food. You need to come to my house.”
But Bowie’s driven – “I was tumbling over myself with ideas.” These are his soul years: the heart is warm, even though his face is frozen. Young Americans, Fame, Golden Years. He appears on The Dick Cavett Show, coked to the gills - sniffing constantly. At one point, you can see a sniff dislodges an old nugget from his nose – it hits the back of his throat, and you can see him register the acrid blast, before chewing on it. He has a cane, with which he traces patterns on the ground.
“What are you drawing?” Cavett asks, clearly scared of Bowie. Bowie is so blasted he can’t even look him in the eye. Don’t look on the carpet. I drew something awful on it.
Cracked Actor, The Man Who Fell To Earth: “I knew Bowie had serious problems at the time – I just told him to put his clothes on and walk right through it,” director Nicolas Roeg says. Have I said before how amazing all the footage is? Bowie being interviewed by Russell Harty, and Harty getting the song-titles wrong: “Your new song, Golden Tears.”
“Golden Years,” Bowie corrects – a face on a wooden-cased TV screen on a table on Harty’s show, with a poor Translatlantic connection.
Bowie ends up introducing the song himself, in his cut-glass voice. Los Angeles is not good for him.
“People took so much coke they couldn’t talk. They’d just … whistle.”
76-77. LA exited. Berlin. Bowie stripped down in jeans, riding around on a bicycle. The cold, clean air of Brian Eno’s production – the introduction of new instruments, and Robert Fripp’s high, spiralling, exposed-wires solo on Heroes? Co-producer Tony Visconti calls Bowie and Eno – he has a new toy for the studio, called a Harmonizer.
“What does it do?” Bowie asks.
“It fucks with the fabric of time,” Visconti replies. They book him onto the next flight, and make Low – a new re-set button for pop. Half instrumental, pistons hissing on Sound & Vision. Always crashing in the same car.
79-80 – Bowie on the Kenny Everett Video Show in extreme close-up, still with his Steve Buscemi teeth, looking astonishingly beautiful, playing Ashes To Ashes and pretending to be scared. Or perhaps he is scared? You still can’t tell when Bowie’s being Bowie - or Bowie. It’s endlessly beguiling. If you were never actually in love with him before you see this clip, you will be afterwards. Still only 33, and he’s regenerated ten times, all alone: no George, John or Ringo to hang out with. His only bandmates are his massive genitals, which in these trousers seem even bigger than before: as if a small Shetland Pony were living in his knickers. Maybe one was. Hot tramp! I love you so.
It ends with 82-83 - Bowie on the Serious Moonlight tour, where comes onstage and attacks Let’s Dance like a matador putting a sword right through a bull’s heart. How did Andy Warhol not think this would work? Couldn’t he see all of this even then, in Bowie’s blasted pupil?
71-72, 74-75, 76-77, 79-80 and 82-83. The date-stamp for the invention of much of modern pop-culture. Duran Duran, Madonna, Lady Gaga, Beyonce, Daft Punk - whenever pop is ambitious, whenever pop is odd, whenever pop dresses up, whenever pop looks like nothing you’ve seen before, it is using tools and a framework largely built by one man from Bromley with tombstone teeth, and his name borrowed from a fixed-blade fighting knife. Did I say I love David Bowie? I love David Bowie. I loved this hour and a half with David Bowie.