Joseph Stannard offers a personal reflection on David Bowie's later career from Tin Machine to Blackstar
Bowie’s music was a gateway drug for me in several respects. Watching and videotaping – and rewatching – the Glass Spider Tour on TV set the bar high for arena rock performances. Hearing Hunky Dory for the first time in the late 1980s primed my brain for later investigation of Aleister Crowley and HP Lovecraft, even if I didn’t realise it at the time. Hearing Low and Heroes in the early 90s led me to explore the ambient music of Brian Eno, Kraftwerk and minimalism, while Lodger's "Red Sails" prepared me for Neu!. Black Tie White Noise introduced me to The Walker Brothers’ “Nite Flights” and the solo oeuvre of Scott Walker.
By the time he released Earthling in the mid-90s, I had caught him up – he was then being influenced by the drum ’n’ bass I’d already started to absorb thanks to Simon Reynolds’s ecstatic missives in Melody Maker and, of course, The Wire. That was fine: we were now on a parallel voyage of discovery. But Bowie was then a middle-aged man, who could have been forgiven for settling into a classicist rut with horizons far narrower than those he had permitted himself. Many critics mocked Earthling, but it remains one of my favourite Bowie albums. There’s a truthfulness beyond the hi-tech artifice of songs like “The Last Thing You Should Do”, “Looking For Satellites”, “Battle For Britain (The Letter)” and “Little Wonder” that still strikes me today. Having fallen back to Earth, Bowie was now seeking his home upon it. Yet the songs were equally recognisable as the work of the same curious, disconcerted individual who wrote Lodger's “Fantastic Voyage”: "And the wrong words make you listen/In this criminal world".
Following the glossy post-Chic funk of 1982’s Let’s Dance – the ultimate expression of the ‘clean’ Bowie, who emerged into the light after the grim, grey purgatory that produced the ageless Berlin Trilogy – he seemed somewhat lost. The follow-up album, Tonight, had the astonishing “Loving The Alien” (best experienced with its brilliant, baffling promotional video, co-directed by Bowie with David Mallett) but little else going for it. 1987's Never Let Me Down was more interesting than its reputation suggests, but hardly life-altering. It was when he formed the much derided hard rock outfit Tin Machine with guitarist Reeves Gabrels, drummer Hunt Sales and bassist Tony Sales, that something apparently dormant in Bowie started to stir anew.
Tin Machine were never as embarrassing as they were painted. Songs like “Baby Universal”, “Amlapura” and “Goodbye Mr Ed” deserve to be better appreciated. This period, during which our protagonist tried his best to be little more than the singer in a rock ’n’ roll band, allowed him to wipe the slate clean. Working again with Let's Dance producer Nile Rogers, he released an album, Black Tie White Noise, that didn’t sound a great deal like anything else – not even Let’s Dance ("If Nile and I wanted to do Let's Dance II, we would have done it years ago," he said at the time). Quasi-ambient nstrumentals, haywire machine-funk which addressed mortality and defiance in the face of conformity (to society, to age, to one’s inner demons), guest appearances from The Art Ensemble Of Chicago’s Lester Bowie, Scott Walker covers… Bowie’s dormant ambition, perhaps even his innocence, had re-awakened.
The creative renaissance which produced Black Tie White Noise, The Buddha Of Suburbia, Outside, Earthling, Heathen and ‘Hours…’ obliterated the perception of Bowie as a heritage artist. This, more than the cosmic dandy of the early 70s, more even than the monochrome nomad of the late 70s, was my Bowie. Once again, he experimented, courted ridicule, made mistakes – paid close attention to the universe around him. 2003's Reality and 2013's The Next Day were respectable rather than inspirational, but the fact that I, and millions of others, still had any expectations of the man’s work whatsoever, and rejoiced when The Next Day materialised after a decade of silence, says much for the radically refreshed artist who neatly swerved the potentially comfortable rut that megastardom had prepared for him in the late 80s.
With Blackstar – which is still unfolding itself for me – Bowie concludes his own narrative in appropriate fashion; with a fond farewell and an acknowledgement of the impending unknown. As demonstrated by tributes pouring in from artists across the spectrum of modern music, Bowie's influence has endlessly splintered and refracted. Some will miss Ziggy, others will miss Halloween Jack. Still others will miss Aladdin Sane, or The Thin White Duke, or even Nathan Adler. I’ll miss all of those, of course. But most of all, I’ll miss the Bowie who just left us.