Music Writing

This is where I post about music: concert reviews, album reviews, and anything where I feel I have something to say.

There are a few things worth noting. One is that I embarked on a project to write about this history and music of Mott the Hoople and Ian Hunter. You can find an index to this work on a separate page here; it is also referenced in a post below.

You will also find a fair amount of content on David Bowie and Bob Dylan, two other enthusiasms of mine

David Bowie: Welcome to the Blackout

The 21st April 2018 was Record Store Day, when the industry comes up with hundreds of special edition vinyl records which are offered for sale only through independent record shops. A helping hand for the independents, or a an attempt to con us into buying overpriced product via the old trick of artificial scarcity? Take your pick; but there’s no doubting that it gets thousands of people into record shops for at least one day in the year.

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For me, the highlight this year was a 3LP David Bowie live release, called Welcome to the Blackout. Not least because it was recorded at Earls Court London on the evenings of 30 June and 1 July 1978, and well, I was there, at least on one of the nights (I am not sure which). I remember it was an amazing experience, and that the the set visuals including the vertical bars backdrop were stunning – apologies for the poor quality of the picture below, which is taken from here.

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The Earls Court concerts were filmed by David Hemmings but the film was never released. However this might explain why the concerts were recorded by Tony Visconti and selected songs from the last two concerts were mixed by David Bowie and David Richards at Mountain Studios, Montreux between 17th and 23rd January 1979 (according to the sleevenotes). Two additional songs on Welcome to the Blackout, Sound and Vision and TVC 15, do not use Bowie/Richards mixes, perhaps because they were not selected at the time.

In 1978 David Bowie embarked on the ISOLAR II world tour, building on the release of Low and Heroes. The tour began in San Diego, March 1978, and ended in Tokyo, December 1978. Performances in Philadelphia in late April, and in Boston in early May, were recorded and formed the basis of the album Stage, first released in November 1978. Stage was originally just 17 songs, presented in a different order from that of the performance. In 2005 this was expanded to 20 songs, and the performance running order was restored, so that the opening track is the moody instrumental Warszawa. There was also a surround mix released on DVD Audio for a short time. Then in 2017 Stage was again reissued, now with 22 songs.

Since we already have Stage in so many guises, do we need Welcome to the Blackout? Having enjoyed this release for a couple of days, my answer is an emphatic yes. The Earls Court dates were at the end of the European leg of the tour, which did not resume until November in Australia. Bowie seems to be energised by this being in some sense the last concert of the tour and refers to this several times. He also performs two songs not on any version of Stage: Sound and Vision, and Rebel Rebel.

More important, the character of both the performance and the sound is different. There is simply more energy, and although the crowd noise is still mixed fairly low, it comes over as more of a live performance than the rather bland sound of Stage. We also get a longer Station to Station, under 9 minutes on Stage, and over 11 minutes here.

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The band, the same on as for Stage, is outstanding:

Carlos Alomar: Rhythm guitar
Adrian Belew: Lead guitar
Dennis Davis: Drums and percussion
Simon House: Electric violin
Sean Mayes: Piano, string ensemble
George Murray: Bass guitar
Roger Powell: Keyboards, Synthesizer

I’ve compared several songs on Stage and Welcome to the Blackout. For example, the song Blackout itself, which is decently performed on Stage, is introduced here by Bowie saying hoarsely “Welcome to the Blackout”; the instrumentation at the beginning of the song is more menacing and engaging on the new release; the vocal is more frenetic and desperate.

In TVC 15, the opening loony voiceovers is louder and more distinct on Welcome to the Blackout; it sounds like the band is having a great time and the song is more fun to listen to.

Jean Genie is stunning on this album; the guitar growls and grinds, Bowie’s vocal is full of drama; it makes the Stage performance (only on the 2017 edition) sound tame.

Despite the occasional flub, I can’t find any instances where I prefer the Stage recording.

Of course the album is meant to be heard as a piece, and seems to me to be an excellent capture of one of Bowie’s best performances.

Having said that, this concert lacks the intensity of Bowie in 1974 or 1976. Bowie is more at ease here.

I was fortunate to catch Bowie in performance in 1978. His next tour was not until 1983, when we got a different kind of performance to support the more mainstream Let’s Dance album; and after that in 1987 with the unsatisfactory Glass Spider tour.

Full track listing:

Warszawa
”Heroes”
What in the World
Be my Wife
The Jean Genie
Blackout
Sense of Doubt
Speed of Life
Sound and Vision
Breaking Glass
Fame
Beauty and the Beast
Five Years
Soul Love
Star
Hang on to yourself
Ziggy Stardust
Suffragette City
Art Decade
Alabama Song
Station to Station
TVC15
Stay
Rebel Rebel

Finally a shout out to Ray Staff who mastered the album. On first listen he did a great job. I love the dynamics and the overall balance of the sound.

Recommended; and if you find the album hard to find at a sensible price, or don’t have a record player, there is no need to panic as it will probably be out on CD and download/streaming in a few months.

Update: Welcome to the Blackout is released on CD on 29 June 2018.

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Sandy Denny: 5 Classic Albums

These last days of the CD have delivered some amazing bargains for those who still like CDs – and I count myself as one, even if they are more often played through a music server than in an actual CD player.

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One such is the 5 Classic Albums collection of Sandy Denny (6 January 1947 – 21 April 1978), a singer with an amazing voice who was a member of the band Fairport Convention in the sixties.

In 1969 Denny left Fairport to form her own short-lived band, Fotheringay. After just one album, the band folded and Denny embarked on a solo career.

This set covers those solo years, during which she released four albums. The fifth album is a recording of her last concert, released in 1998.

The North Star Grassman and the Ravens (1971) opens with Late November, a song originally written for Fotheringay. It’s a fine album, firmly in the folk tradition but also highly individual, almost jazz-like at times with its interesting rhythms and tonalities. The band includes the amazing Richard Thompson (also ex-Fairport) on guitar and several other instruments.

Sandy (1972) is perhaps her most celebrated album. The haunting It’s take a long time, The Quiet Joys of Brotherhood, which starts a cappella, the gorgeous Listen Listen, and more.

Like an old fashioned Waltz (1974) is a more lush album thanks to strings, brass and piano accompaniments and would be better without them, though it is still very enjoyable. The opening song Solo is great and features the immortal words “I’ve always kept a unicorn and I never sing out of tune”.

Rendezvous (1977) is again over-produced and poignant to hear now, knowing it was her last album. It opens with Richard Thompson’s I Wish I Was a Fool For You (For Shame of Doing Wrong) which almost sounds like a rock song, as Denny seeks a new audience. The cover of Candle in the Wind is not Denny’s finest hour but still seems prophetic: “your candle burned out long before your legend ever did”. Her voice is huskier thanks to smoking but she remains a strong singer.  I’m a Dreamer is a lovely song, as is the closing number, No More Sad Refrains.

Gold Dust (Live at the Royalty) (1998) is Denny’s last concert and well worth hearing. The concert was recorded and always intended for release as a live album, but there were some problems with the tapes, and some guitar and backing vocals were overdubbed for the eventual production in 1998. The song Solo is a highlight.

Overall, although it is wrong to describe all these albums as “classic”, what you do get is immersion into the music of a very fine singer and songwriter. Recommended.

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The Mott the Hoople and Ian Hunter Story

I’ve been a fan of first Mott the Hoople and then Ian Hunter solo since way back when. I decided to embark on an album-by-album discussion of the band and of Hunter’s solo career over on the Steve Hoffman Music Forum. I started in October 2016 and have not finished yet, but I will.

There are a couple of reasons why I have decided to repost the content here – my own content, not the entire discussion. One is that I cannot edit any old posts there so errors, additions, fixing broken links etc cannot be fixed, other than by emailing moderators. Another is that it is hard to navigate a long thread, for example if you are looking for a review of a specific album.

Therefore I’ve posted the key posts on this site. You can find an index in the first post and continue from there.

Comments are welcome, especially if you have your own recollections of seeing the band (or one of Ian Hunter’s bands).

Bob Dylan’s Nobel Speech

Bob Dylan did not attend the Nobel Banquet where his prize for Literature was celebrated on 10th December 2016 – but he did provide a speech which was read by the US Ambassador to Sweden Azita Raji:

“I’m sorry I can’t be with you in person, but please know that I am most definitely with you in spirit and honored to be receiving such a prestigious prize. Being awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature is something I never could have imagined or seen coming. From an early age, I’ve been familiar with and reading and absorbing the works of those who were deemed worthy of such a distinction: Kipling, Shaw, Thomas Mann, Pearl Buck, Albert Camus, Hemingway. These giants of literature whose works are taught in the schoolroom, housed in libraries around the world and spoken of in reverent tones have always made a deep impression. That I now join the names on such a list is truly beyond words.

I don’t know if these men and women ever thought of the Nobel honor for themselves, but I suppose that anyone writing a book, or a poem, or a play anywhere in the world might harbor that secret dream deep down inside. It’s probably buried so deep that they don’t even know it’s there.

If someone had ever told me that I had the slightest chance of winning the Nobel Prize, I would have to think that I’d have about the same odds as standing on the moon. In fact, during the year I was born and for a few years after, there wasn’t anyone in the world who was considered good enough to win this Nobel Prize. So, I recognize that I am in very rare company, to say the least.

I was out on the road when I received this surprising news, and it took me more than a few minutes to properly process it. I began to think about William Shakespeare, the great literary figure. I would reckon he thought of himself as a dramatist. The thought that he was writing literature couldn’t have entered his head. His words were written for the stage. Meant to be spoken not read. When he was writing Hamlet, I’m sure he was thinking about a lot of different things: “Who’re the right actors for these roles?” “How should this be staged?” “Do I really want to set this in Denmark?” His creative vision and ambitions were no doubt at the forefront of his mind, but there were also more mundane matters to consider and deal with. “Is the financing in place?” “Are there enough good seats for my patrons?” “Where am I going to get a human skull?” I would bet that the farthest thing from Shakespeare’s mind was the question “Is this literature?”

When I started writing songs as a teenager, and even as I started to achieve some renown for my abilities, my aspirations for these songs only went so far. I thought they could be heard in coffee houses or bars, maybe later in places like Carnegie Hall, the London Palladium. If I was really dreaming big, maybe I could imagine getting to make a record and then hearing my songs on the radio. That was really the big prize in my mind. Making records and hearing your songs on the radio meant that you were reaching a big audience and that you might get to keep doing what you had set out to do.

Well, I’ve been doing what I set out to do for a long time, now. I’ve made dozens of records and played thousands of concerts all around the world. But it’s my songs that are at the vital center of almost everything I do. They seemed to have found a place in the lives of many people throughout many different cultures and I’m grateful for that.

But there’s one thing I must say. As a performer I’ve played for 50,000 people and I’ve played for 50 people and I can tell you that it is harder to play for 50 people. 50,000 people have a singular persona, not so with 50. Each person has an individual, separate identity, a world unto themselves. They can perceive things more clearly. Your honesty and how it relates to the depth of your talent is tried. The fact that the Nobel committee is so small is not lost on me.

But, like Shakespeare, I too am often occupied with the pursuit of my creative endeavors and dealing with all aspects of life’s mundane matters. “Who are the best musicians for these songs?” “Am I recording in the right studio?” “Is this song in the right key?” Some things never change, even in 400 years.

Not once have I ever had the time to ask myself, “Are my songs literature?”
So, I do thank the Swedish Academy, both for taking the time to consider that very question, and, ultimately, for providing such a wonderful answer.”

It’s a fine speech. I love the way he celebrates the working artist, the real-world artist who is not concerned only with artistic creation, but also with the practicalities of both life and art.

Exploring David Bowie’s “Life on Mars?”

“Life on Mars?” has always been a favourite among David Bowie’s songs, and even more so since his death in January. Many have performed it as a tribute, not least by Lorde at the Brits Bowie tribute, Rick Wakeman (the pianist on the original) and Sarah Blasko.

A great song then; but one characteristic it shares with Queen’s Bohemian Rhapsody, another much-loved track, is that the lyrics are fantastically obscure, particularly in the second verse.

It’s a God awful small affair
To the girl with the mousey hair
But her mummy is yelling, “No!”
And her daddy has told her to go
But her friend is no where to be seen
Now she walks through her sunken dream
To the seats with the clearest view
And she’s hooked to the silver screen
But the film is a sadd’ning bore
For she’s lived it ten times or more
She could spit in the eyes of fools
As they ask her to focus on

Sailors, Fighting in the dance hall
Oh man! Look at those cavemen go
It’s the freakiest show
Take a look at the lawman
Beating up the wrong guy
Oh man! Wonder if he’ll ever know
He’s in the best selling show
Is there life on Mars?

It’s on America’s tortured brow
That Mickey Mouse has grown up a cow
Now the workers have struck for fame
‘Cause Lennon’s on sale again
See the mice in their million hordes
From Ibiza to the Norfolk Broads
Rule Britannia is out of bounds
To my mother, my dog, and clowns
But the film is a sadd’ning bore
‘Cause I wrote it ten times or more
It’s about to be writ again
As I ask you to focus on

Sailors …

Still, while Queen’s effort may veer towards pomp and nonsense I have nothing but respect for Bowie’s lyrical craftsmanship. I think we will struggle to make perfect narrative sense of the song but nevertheless there may be some insights to be had.

What does Bowie himself have to say about it? The back cover of Hunky Dory, the album from which the song comes, states “Inspired by Frankie”, a reference to Frank Sinatra. The contemporary advertisement for the album adds more handwritten notes on the song, this time “A sensitive young girl’s reaction to the media.”

Then there are the notes on the song for the 2008 iSelect compilation:

This song was so easy. Being young was easy. A really beautiful day in the park, sitting on the steps of the bandstand. ‘Sailors bap-bap-bap-bap-baaa-bap.’ An anomic (not a ‘gnomic’) heroine. Middle-class ecstasy. I took a walk to Beckenham High Street to catch a bus to Lewisham to buy shoes and shirts but couldn’t get the riff out of my head. Jumped off two stops into the ride and more or less loped back to the house up on Southend Road.

Workspace was a big empty room with a chaise lounge; a bargain-price art nouveau screen (‘William Morris,’ so I told anyone who asked); a huge overflowing freestanding ashtray and a grand piano. Little else. I started working it out on the piano and had the whole lyric and melody finished by late afternoon. Nice.

Another key reference is this interview from around 2002, specifically about the making of “Life on Mars?”

In this interview, Bowie tells the story of how he was asked to write an English lyric for a French song, called Comme D’Habitude (rough translation, “As Usual”).

The original song, entitled Pour Moi (“For Me”) was written by Gilles Thibaut (lyrics) and Jacques Revaux (music) and offered to singer Claude François. The lyrics and music were adapted by all three, renamed Comme D’Habitude (rough translation, “As Usual”), and the song became a break-up song related to the ending of the relationship between François and the young Eurovision winner France Gall.

Bowie translated the song as Even a Fool learns to Love, and you can hear a snippet of his version in the interview above, but François rejected his lyrics. (Bowie adds that it was “a godawful lyric. Dreadful”).

Comme D’Habitude describes a relationship near its end; he is still in love but they see little of one another as he goes to work before she gets up (“Quietly I leave the house. Everything is grey outside. As usual”) and is in bed before she returns. “All alone, I’ll go and lie down in this big cold bed, as usual”. They make love but he is “playing at pretending”.

Bowie translated the song as Even a Fool learns to Love. His version is also about a relationship gone sour, but tells the whole story, about a man who is the life and soul of the party (“a fool”), meets a girl, falls in love (“a clown and an angel so much in love”), but the joke “turns stale” and the time when even a fool learns to love becomes a “sour time”.

“The next time I heard it, it was My Way by Frank Sinatra,” says Bowie. François had rejected his lyrics, and Paul Anka had come up with My Way.

“I was really pissed off. It should have been my song. So I thought, OK I’ll write my own version. So it’s My Way on Mars,” says Bowie.

“Inspired? It was more revenge.”

“Life on Mars?”, while not exactly a relationship song shares with Comme D’Habitude a sense of discontent with life and reflection upon it.

Actually the opening lines do suggest a relationship “a godawful small affair”, one that is unacceptable to mum and dad. The girl goes out, like the man in Comme D’Habitude, into a grey and sad world. Her friend (boy or girl?) cannot be found.

Bowie’s song then departs from the script, exploding into a kaleidoscope of images as the mousy-haired girl stares at the cinema screen. Yet this does not rescue her: she sees clearly that the fantasy world of entertainment will do nothing to change the greyness of her world. Mickey Mouse is not a real friend; he grows up “a cow” and whatever that means it is not flattering.

The song becomes surreal as Bowie plays with reality.

The girl is watching the film. The girl is living the film. The girl’s life is a film. The girl, or the narrator, wrote the film. The film is being “writ again” as we are trapped in our humdrum lives. “A sensitive young girl’s reaction to the media.”

Is there Life on Mars? Wait a moment, how did Mars get into this song? Bowie is playing with us of course. Let’s look at a few shades of meaning:

2001 A Space Odyssey, part inspiration for Space Oddity, “look at those cavemen go”, and note the little quote from Also Sprach Zarathustra as the song fades. The film’s central character goes to Jupiter not Mars, but hey, it’s all space; and like Space Oddity, inner space as much as outer space. Is there life there? Maybe, but it’s pretty desolate.

Life on Mars is a B movie too, cheap sci-fi. It’s escapism but not life, not real life.

Is there life on Mars? is a question of yearning, because there is no life on earth, or it seems that way in our most desolate moments.

Bowie tells us that this kind of interpretation is not too far off. In 1998 he was interviewed by Alan Yentob for the BBC, in a kind of follow-up to Yenton’s earlier documentary Cracked Actor.

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David Bowie telling Alan Yentob about Life on Mars

“She may be an ordinary girl,” says Yentob, “but isn’t she as alienated as any of your other characters?”

“I think she finds herself let down,” Bowie replies. “I think she finds herself disappointed by reality. I think she sees that although she’s living in the doldrums of reality she’s been told that there’s a far greater life somewhere, and she’s bitterly disappointed that she doesn’t have access to it. It’s very hard to think back to one’s state of mind 25 years ago. I guess I would feel sorry for her now, I think I had empathy with her at the time. That’s probably the difference.”

When asked in the 2002 interview referenced above about whether the song is about alienation, he says:

“A lot of it is. One’s interior kind of isolation as well. It doesn’t just mean one’s social isolation, it can mean how you get in contact with your own feelings. It can be quite personal in that way.

“My subject matter hasn’t really changed over the years. I’m still in a way writing about life on Mars, all these years later. (Laughs). And the man who sold the world … the way that I present songs has changed a lot. And the style for each album has changed considerably. I’ll often try new rhythms and kinds of arrangements. It’s like, I want to keep writing about the same subject but my approach, it’s like I’m trying to get into it, like finding a different door each time I approach that same subject.”

Can we go further, and examine the lyrics with more precision? It is difficult because the song is deliberately surreal; yet there are intriguing connections which may or may not be intended. Is it Lennon (“Power to the People”) or Lenin who is on sale again? Bowie with his love of word play likely intended both meanings.

What about “The workers have struck for fame?” In 1941, there was a famous strike by Disney’s (“Mickey Mouse”) animators. One of their grievances was lack of credit for their work:

“To add insult to injury, the animators weren’t featured in the credits of the film, with all credit going to the owner of the studios himself, Walt Disney.”

says this report.

Bowie however did not want to explain everything. Mick Rock, who worked with Bowie on a video for the song, says:

I would not be so presumptuous as to try and put any meaning on it. Certainly David Bowie never has as far as I know. I don’t know what it means. But it means a helluva lot to me, it’s like a poem by Rimbaud, say, what does it mean? Intellectually it is very hard to define. You can only say, I love it.

I would not go so far as Rock; Bowie has given plenty of clues about his intent in writing the song. At the same time, he enjoyed leaving room for the listener’s imagination and participation, referring to the French painter Marcel Duchamp and approving in this interview with Jeremy Paxman:

The idea that the piece of work is not finished until the audience come to it and add their own interpretation, and what the piece of art is about is the grey space in the middle.

However you look at it though, it is a pretty gloomy lyric. Why do we like it? Well, it is witty, it is evocative, it is mysterious; and the music absolutely soars, complete with unexpected key changes and a near-octave leap from “on” to “Mars”. Like all the best music, it takes us out of ourselves to another place and makes our reality a little less grey than it was before.

Thanks to members of the Steve Hoffman Music Forum for assistance with puzzling out this song, and to author Nicholas Pegg for the source of the quote from the Yentob interview, which he also references in his book The Complete David Bowie.

re-examining Song for bob dylan by david bowie

I’ve always liked this song, which appears on Bowie’s 1972 album Hunky Dory, but never fully understood it. Recently I’ve given it some further thought and music forum discussion. Here are the lyrics:

Hear this Robert Zimmerman
I wrote a song for you
About a strange young man called Dylan
With a voice like sand and glue
His words in truthful vengeance
Could pin us to the floor
Brought a few more people on
Put the fear in a whole lot more

Ah, Here she comes
Here she comes
Here she comes again
The same old painted lady
From the brow of a superbrain
She’ll scratch this world to pieces
As she comes on like a friend
But a couple of songs
From your old scrapbook
Could send her home again

You gave your heart to every bedsit room
At least a picture on my wall
And you sat behind a million pair of eyes
And told them why they saw
Then we lost your train of thought
The paintings are all your own
While troubles are rising
We’d rather be scared
Together than alone

Ah, Here she comes …

Now hear this Robert Zimmerman
Though I don’t suppose we’ll meet
Ask your good friend Dylan
If he’d gaze a while down the old street
Tell him we’ve lost his poems
So they’re writing on the walls
Give us back our unity
Give us back our family
You’re every nation’s refugee
Don’t leave us with their sanity

Ah, Here she comes …

In a full-page advertisement for Hunky Dory at the time, Bowie offered some handwritten notes on the songs, and for this one he wrote “This is how some see B.D.” – perhaps distancing himself a little from the song.

I am a big Dylan fan and for me the song represents a kind of interaction between two heroes, albeit one-sided. The phrase “a voice like sand and glue” seems to me a neat summary of how some hear B.D. and the ability to get past that into the beauty of his songs and performances is a kind of shared secret among Dylan fans.

I also like Bowie’s vocal performance which captures something of Dylan’s nasal, scratchy voice but without descending into full-blown parody.

That said, there have always been things that puzzled me. Who is the “painted lady” and why does she “come on like a friend?” Since this is the chorus, it is emphatic, but I didn’t have a clue what it was about. And why do we not want the “sanity” of “every nation’s refugee” in the last verse?

An aside on critiquing Bowie’s work

As an aside, its worth noting that although Bowie has attracted reams of prose about his work, very little of it examines such puzzles. In general, pop lyrics are not treated very seriously, and if a song does not quite make sense, most of us just shrug if we even think of it at all.

Bowie himself used a cut-up technique for some of his work, in which words are rearranged to make new texts, and you might reasonably conclude that that the resulting output is unlikely to make sense in a conventional manner.

Despite the above, it seems to me that Bowie took great care over his lyrics and I am constantly finding new shades of meaning in his work. He also loved word play, as noted by his friend Brian Eno after Bowie’s death:

“I received an email from him seven days ago. It was as funny as always, and as surreal, looping through word games and allusions and all the usual stuff we did. It ended with this sentence: ‘Thank you for our good times, brian. they will never rot’. And it was signed ‘Dawn’.

"I realise now he was saying goodbye."

I do believe therefore that the lyrics deserve more attention than they usually receive, even though it means digging into Bowie’s interests in the arcane and occult, for example, which can be both demanding and uncomfortable.

Two writers deserve a shout-out here for doing a lot of this spadework. One is Nicholas Pegg, author of a book called the Complete David Bowie (now being revised) which is full of excellent research.

The other is Chris O’Leary, whose song-by-song site Pushing Ahead of the Dame and associated books are also thoughtful and full of insight.

Song for Bob Dylan

Back on point: what is this song about? It is part tribute and part open letter to Dylan, the central thought being that the man who once effortlessly created “words of truthful vengeance” has gone off in a different direction – and we need him back.

Bowie I suspect knew this to be a rather narrow view, hence his note “this is how some see B.D.” allows for other perspectives.

Dylan began his career as a folk singer, with songs of “protest” that spoke out against injustice, racism and war. He went electric in 1965, escaping the “protest singer” box but not without backlash. Then in 1966 he had a motorcycle accident and went into a kind of retreat, emerging in 1967 with gentler-sounding albums like John Wesley Harding and Nashville Skyline, more country than folk or rock. Dylan’s ill-received 1970 album Self Portrait used his own child-like painting of himself on the cover; “your paintings are all your own.”

In 1971 then, when Bowie was writing Hunky Dory, Dylan seemed to have lost all interest in reforming the world as well as settling for a less energetic style of performance, losing it seemed the incandescent power he achieved on albums like Highway 61 Revisited and Blonde on Blonde.

The stage is set for Bowie’s song. The first verse is straightforward, setting the scene; but then we get the painted lady. Who is she?

A “painted lady” is slang for a prostitute; but as Pegg observes, this is also a reference to Athena, the goddess of war (among other things) in Greek mythology. The 5th century BC Greek poet Pindar writes:

"from the cleft summit of her father’s brow Athene sprang aloft, and pealed the broad sky her clarion cry of war"

There are also other references in Greek mythology to Athena being born from the forehead of Zeus and emerging fully-clothed.

Athena, in other words, was born from the brow of Zeus, god of thunder and ruler of the Olympian Gods, the “brow of the superbrain.”

In this context Athena seems to represent mankind’s sad tendency to be seduced (“painted lady”) by war and to “scratch this world to pieces”; Bowie appeals to Dylan to “send her home” by returning to his potent songs of protest.

Bowie is always inclined to the apocalyptic and the idea that “troubles are rising” and the world being “scratched to pieces” is nothing strange to him.

Bowie plays with identity in the last verse, addressing Robert Zimmerman, Dylan’s proper name, and asking him to bring back the Dylan persona. Bowie knew all about personae, “David Bowie” being in some ways a creation of David Robert Jones, his own proper name.

What about the final couplet:

You’re every nation’s refugee
Don’t leave us with their sanity

Dylan may not be a refugee as such, but is on the side of the refugees, that much makes sense. But where does sanity come in?

Bowie’s view of sanity may not tally with our own. His family had a history of madness, his brother was in an asylum, and in his earlier song All the Madmen he explored the idea that society’s division between sane and insane may be arbitrary. “I’d rather stay here, with all the madmen, I’m quite content they’re just as sane as me”.

Sanity then is not necessarily better than insanity; but the couplet is still odd. One suggestion I’ve heard is that “their” could refer to the nations, not the refugees.

I’ve found three performances of Song for Bob Dylan, one on Hunky Dory, one a rehearsal for a John Peel session where it is sung by Bowie’s friend George Underwood, and one from a 1972 live performance. In all three cases the word “their” is not clearly articulated. It could be “our sanity” or even “insanity”. Printed lyrics are not always correct. If it is “our sanity” it might mean, don’t leave us with the sanity that drives us to war.

Final thoughts

Song for Bob Dylan is a good song but not wholly satisfactory. Dylan stopped being a protest singer way back in 1964 or thereabouts and there is an uncomfortable sense that Bowie is inviting another artist to regress; perhaps this is what made him hesitant about the song in his notes.

I still like the song though. I can’t think of any better songs about Bob Dylan.

Bowie’s sublime blackstar: why you should buy the vinyl

I was broken-hearted when David Bowie died in January; but grateful that he left us with one of his finest works, the album called Blackstar or possibly just ★.

I had pre-ordered the CD but soon realised that I would have to get the vinyl. The cover design is different. The CD has a black star on a white background.

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The vinyl on the other hand has a black cover with a cut-out opening onto the black vinyl inside.

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The cutout hole is like a wound, no coincidence. The fragmented star symbols below spell Bowie. Great work from designer Jonathan Barnbrook.

As a piece of art it is beautiful and powerful, as an album cover it is highly impractical. The cutout star shape is easily bent when you shelve the record, and the transparent plastic inner sleeve is not ideal for protecting the vinyl.

I have even heard it suggested that this is deliberate, the fragility of the package echoing the fragility of life.

In addition there have been quality control issues. Some reissues have a horrible soft PVC inner sleeve that clings to the vinyl and seems to damage it, causing swooshing noises. Others are just rather noisy. You are doing well to get one that plays perfectly on both sides.

I am on my second copy and it is not perfect, but what I found most surprising was how much better it sounds than the CD.

Play Lazarus: the vocals are more real, the bass more dramatic, the wind instruments more sonorous and eerie.

I am curious about such things, and made a 24/96 digital copy of the track. It still sounds better than the CD, though something is lost in the copy. One reason – probably the main reason – is that the CD is “brickwalled”, that is, compressed for maximum loudness at the expense of dynamic range. Here is the view of the Lazarus track on CD in Adobe’s Audition CC:

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And here is the vinyl:

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That CD waveform is tragic; all the wide dynamic range of which CD is capable wasted for no good reason.

The vinyl is better in part for technical reasons; you cannot max out vinyl in the same way.

It is also intriguing to see frequencies above 30K in the vinyl (not that you can hear them).

Still, the bottom line is that it does sound better, especially if you hear the vinyl directly.

Recommended, despite the fragility and imperfection of the medium.

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David Bowie, star man

In January 1972 I started at a new school. I had enjoyed pop music on the radio but it was here that I gradually became aware of things called albums, records with other-worldly sleeves and amazing propulsive music. I wanted them.

It look a while to get a record player of my own so I started with cassettes – taping everything I could find.

In April 1972 a single was released, Starman by David Bowie. It was catchy, it was extraterrestial, it was about listening to the radio at night (just like I used to do), it was about letting the children boogie, I loved it.

Moving on to the Ziggy Stardust album, Bowie became special to me. Looking back I am sure it was because I felt a bit of a misfit and Bowie’s music and image was about acceptance and celebration of oddness, as well as exploring sexuality in ways that were appealing and mysterious to innocent young things like myself.

I kept the faith through Bowie’s ch-ch-changes, Ziggy Stardust’s retirement, the fractured world of Diamond Dogs, the strangely downbeat David Live, the funk of Young Americans, train noises and Earl Slick’s frantic guitar on Station to Station, sombre electronica on Low, and then the unforgettable “Heroes”, love in the shadow of the Berlin wall.

Bowie had his difficult middle period for sure, but was always interesting. He was an actor as much as a musician and one of the acts he performed was himself; with Bowie the difference blurs.

His work shows a deep interest in what it means to be human; he’s content that the madmen “are just as sane as me” (with all the ambiguity that implies), his writing on outer space is also about inner space because if you imagine yourself “out there” you have nothing but yourself for company.

Bowie had huge artistic courage. I much regret not seeing his 1995 “Outside” tour when apparently some audience members walked out because he focused on his dark new material and not greatest hits.

That said, I was fortunate to see Bowie in concert on several occasions, starting with Earls Court in 1978, and including Milton Keynes Bowl 1983 and (most memorably) Nottingham’s Rock City in August 1997.

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Some Bowie memorabilia from my attic

This last was the closest I got to the man, playing in a small 1,500 capacity club venue and standing fairly close to the stage. He performed a long set with many of my favourites, the darker side of Bowie, starting with Quicksand from Hunky Dory “I’m sinking in the quicksand of my thought” and including I’m Afraid of Americans, Fashion, Fame, Under Pressure, White Light White Heat, and much of Outside.

Late period Bowie is more of an acquired taste than his early years but rewarding. I found The Next Day in 2013 moving and when he sang “Where are we now” of course I was transported back to my schooldays and asking the same question of myself.

Bowie was reclusive in his later years, especially after being injured on tour in 2004, and lived quietly in New York.

Today’s news brought the news of his death, “after a courageous 18-month battle with cancer” according to his son Duncan.

This means that he composed his just-released album Blackstar in full knowledge of his illness and perhaps anticipating departure.

The song Lazarus, accompanied by a New York musical of the same name, seems particuarly to the point.

“Look up here, man, I’m in danger
I’ve got nothing left to lose
I’m so high, it makes my brain whirl
Dropped my cell phone down below
Ain’t that just like me?

This way or no way
You know I’ll be free
Just like that bluebird
Now, ain’t that just like me?”

Other lyrics on the album have new significance today, like these from Dollar Days:

“If I’ll never see the English evergreens I’m running to
It’s nothing to meet, it’s nothing to see
I’m trying to
I’m dying too”

Bowie made his ending an artistic moment and one that is not without hope – Lazarus rose again after all – but also, like all his best work, full of ambiguity.

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Thank you David Bowie.

Ian Hunter and the Rant band at the Stables, 30 Sept 2014

The Stables is a delightful small venue near Milton Keynes, and when I saw that Ian Hunter was due to play there with his Rant Band I grabbed one of the last remaining tickets.

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He came on shortly after 9pm, following an energetic set from support act Federal Charm, and told us in a croaky voice that he wasn’t feeling too good. In that case he is a true star (he is anyway) since he went on to give a great performance; his voice was a little gruff at times, but hear him belt out Sweet Jane and you discover that he has no problem delivering powerful vocals when it counts.

I am a fan: I loved Mott the Hoople from the first time I heard them (it was the cover of At the Crossroads on the famous Island compilation Nice Enough to Eat); and both with Mott and on his work since, Ian Hunter is able to achieve a musical texture that is rich and evocative, as well as being able to rock out on occasion.

Hunter is a great songwriter too, coming over as an honest and thoughtful voice in an industry full of decadence and plastic.

I enjoyed every minute of the concert, even though I felt that Hunter’s voice was mixed too quiet and that the sound overall could have been better. I have not seen him perform since Hunter/Ronson days; it has been far too long.

Highlights for me included When I’m President (a more recent song), Irene Wilde performed from the keyboard, a powerful rendition of Bastard, All American Alien Boy with its sharp reflections on life in the US of A, Once Bitten Twice Shy of course, Sweet Jane and the closing medley including All the Young Dudes, I Wish I was your Mother, and a strong performance of Boy. “Genocidal tendencies are silly to extremes” – I wasn’t expecting to hear Boy (my hunch is that the lyric refers to Bowie’s Diamond Dogs) but it was great.

Thank you Ian for keeping on keeping on; it was a wonderful evening.

Kraftwerk at Tate Modern, London. Computer world. 11 February 2013

Yesterday I journeyed to London to hear Kraftwerk perform Computer World at the Tate Modern.

A cold night, and I was glad to reach the warmth of the Tate Modern. We picked up our green armbands, and 3D spectacles, were instructed that no re-admittance was possible, and move on into the concert foyer where vaguely Germanic sausages, bread, chips and mustard was on sale, along with cans of flavourless beer.

It feels like a lot of attention has been paid to the total experience. The 3D glasses are packed in an envelope specific for the evening. The programme is only a sheet of A4, but it is informative and intriguing.

“A vision of bright hopes and dark fears of the booming microchip revolution, Computer World is a serenely beautiful and almost seamless collage of sensual melodies and liquid beatscapes,” it says.

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We move on into the concert space. Black pillows are handed out; essential if you plan to sit on the cold concrete floor. The hall is not huge, but it is exceptionally high. It is a relatively small crowd, and not entirely composed of middle-aged men as you might expect. The iPad-using guy next to us is 29, he says.

The concert starts at 9.00pm sharp. Everyone stands; forget the pillows then. Four men stand behind desks and barely move; the sounds of Numbers fill the hall, and 3D images pass across the screen.

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The images are integral to the show. The effect is more that of an animated slideshow than a film, with many loops and repeats. The images are iconic; watching the show is like walking round an art gallery, with one carefully composed image following another.

Lead man and co-founder Ralf Hütter is on the left and does vocals; I am not sure you can call it singing. What are the others doing? Are they playing real or virtual keyboards? Running programs? Tapping out percussion? It is all part of the mystery.

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Next it is Pocket Calculator. I love this song. “I am adding. And subtracting.” it says. It is about delight in technology. It is about doing things that would otherwise be impossible. It is about dehumanisation, no more pen and ink, columns of numbers, mistakes and crossings out, but just a few keys to press.

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We no longer have pocket calculators so the whole thing is decidedly retro. Can you be simultaneously retro and futuristic? Apparently you can. The main car in Autobahn is a VW Beetle.

Autobahn as it happens comes rather quickly, after around 23 minutes according to my watch. That’s odd, since Computer World the album is over 34 minutes.

We did not get the whole of Computer World and I want my money back.

Well, maybe not. The concert was stunning and I would not have missed it for anything. But I was surprised.

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Autobahn seemed to go on endlessly, which is as it should be of course. Then the VW took the exit slip and it was over.

Radioactivity. This song has been updated and now features Fukushima alongside other nuclear incidents like Chernobyl.

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This is a disturbing song. “Radioactivity is in the air for you and me … contaminated population” The jolly melody is at odds with the subject matter, but it works; does it represent the PR machine?

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Trans Europe Express. The train song is perfect for Kraftwerk. The train rushes towards us. Travel. Communication. Engineering. Cold steel. Kraftwerk.

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Two songs which are particularly striking live are The Robots and the Man Machine. The Robots come first.  This is where the band performing in front of the visuals works so well. What is more true, that the robots are human-like, or that the band is robot-like?

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Are we, in fact, machines ourselves, making the whole question moot?

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I have skipped over a few, songs in fact which touch on the more human side of Kraftwerk’s art. After Space Lab, The Model is performed to a backdrop of black and white glamour girls, retro, unreachable.

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Neon Lights is a short, refreshing interlude. The melody is stark and beautiful. If Hutter ever sings, he sings here.

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A note on the sound quality. In general, good, and not ear-splittingly loud for which I am grateful. It did get louder as the concert progressed, and I felt there were times when it distorted; but improved again towards the end.

There was true chest-shaking bass at times, something you had to be there to feel.

Tour de France is rather good. We see human endeavour, more black and white footage for the retro feel, and followed by Vitamins, making a point perhaps.

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Vitamins give rise to some strange 3D effects. Giant pills seem to float out over the audience, but as they fall, they fall behind the band, breaking the illusion.

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The Techno Pop section is the last in the concert. There is Boom Book Tschak, and another song I think, then Musique Non Stop, just as the concert is in fact stopping. The musicians leave the stage one by one, until only Hutter is left.

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He moves to the right of the stage, he bows, “See you tomorrow”. Unfortunately I will not. Then he is gone.

No encore. It is not the Kraftwerk way.

That was Kraftwerk. Repetitive, yes. Perplexing, yes. Beautiful, yes. Unique, yes.

Everything is ambiguous. Perhaps we are participating in an elaborate joke. It does not matter. Wonderful.

Setlist

Numbers
Pocket Calculator
Computer Love
It’s more fun to compute
Autobahn
Radioactivity
Trans Europe Express
The Robots
Spacelab
Metropolis
The Model
Neon Lights
Man Machine
Tour de France
Vitamin
Planet of Visions
Boing Boom Tschak
Techno Pop
Musique Non Stop