It had been years since anyone had heard from David Bowie, the rock icon who seemed happier to fade away rather than burn out. But suddenly, in January, came a new single with his first album in a decade to follow. Stuart Clark reflects on the Thin White Duke’s remarkable career, and then talks to his right-hand man, Dubliner GERRY LEONARD, about 2013’s most-anticipated return.
Rock ‘n’ roll was in a pretty dreary old state at 7.25pm on Thursday July 6, 1972 when upwards of 20 million viewers got to see David Bowie and The Spiders From Mars belt out ‘Starman’ on Top Of The Pops.
Sexy, dangerous and guaranteed to confuse your gran – “Is that a boy who wants to be a girl or a girl who wants to be a boy?” was Nanna C’s contribution to the debate, spookily pre-empting ‘Rebel Rebel’ – Bowie and his brothers in glam arms were everything Genesis (snooze), Yes (yawn) and Emerson, Lake & Palmer (chunder) weren’t.
Nine-year-old Stewie Clark from Sevenoaks, Kent wasn’t alone in having his mind blown that evening, with Dave Gahan, Siouxsie Sioux, Jarvis Cocker, Joe Elliott and Robert Smith all citing it as the moment they decided 9 to 5-dom wasn’t for them.
It wasn’t Bowie’s first hit; that had come in 1969 when ‘Space Oddity’ – a dry run for the whole Ziggy concept – went top five in the UK. Prior to that there had been seven years of serial bandom with The Kon-rads, The King Bees, The Manish Boys, The Lower Third and The Riot Squad among his failed attempts to join his idol (and, according to some, future bedmate) Mick Jagger in the charts.
No identikit popster, he’d studied mime, made forays into avante-garde theatre and music hall, run a folk club, tried his hand at comedy with ‘The Laughing Gnome’ and featured in an ice-cream commercial while his native London was swinging around him.
Elvis, Dylan and Jackson fans can bleat all they want, but no solo performer has had such a profound and consistent an influence on popular culture as David Robert Jones. Sure, there have been miscalculations along the way – I refuse to be persuaded that the two Tin Machine albums are anything other than unlistenable and, The Man Who Fell To Earth aside, his films are pants – but Bowie has never ever been boring or predictable.
From Suede, Placebo and Janelle Monae to Nine Inch Nails, Marilyn Manson and Lady Gaga, there are dozens upon dozens of artists who’ve chosen to follow the Bowie blueprint and prospered because of it.
Having spent the ‘90s being overly revisionist – hands up who remembers the godawful bossa nova ‘Moonage Daydream’ he insisted on trundling out for a goodly part of the decade? – 2003’s A Reality Tour found Bowie embracing virtually ever phase of his remarkable career. The DVD document of the trek, the bulk of which was shot in the Point Depot, is up there with The Song Remains The Same and Stop Making Sense in terms of capturing a performer at the height of their powers.
Before that there had been a November 1999 visit to HQ, now the Academy, in Dublin for an invite-only Guinness gig.
“I’m really a very happy guy,” he reflected when we sat down for a chat beforehand in the Clarence Hotel. “Twenty years ago, I wouldn’t have thought I’d have got to this point where I feel, well, reassured about life.”
Also up for discussion that day were the internet (“I’m quite sure that if I was in that 13 to 16 age-bracket, I wouldn’t have time for anything else”); the mythology surrounding him (“I don’t believe in public perceptions too deeply. As far as I’m concerned, David Bowie is the sum of however many people are thinking of me at any given time. The perception belongs to them. I have no control over it”); his disdain for Todd Haynes’ quasi Velvet Goldmine biopic (“There wasn’t anywhere near enough shopping, which was a fundamental part of the early ‘70s. They were such humourless bastards in that film. Perleeeeese, get a life” and the song he’s most proud of (“‘Warszawa’ from Low, partly because it was the first instrumental I ever recorded. I remember hearing the finished result and thinking, ‘What a beautiful piece of music. That’s not a pop song, that isn’t!’”
Warm, interesting and interested, he was everything I’d hoped for.
In rude health again following those heart scares, the Jones boy is back, sounding great and making sure that nobody forgets where he ranks in rock’s hierarchy. We’re lucky to have him.
Gerry Leonard has the inside story on the making of The Next Day
My Bloody Valentine, The Strokes and Prince have all given it a good go, but so far this year nobody has pulled the ‘take ‘em by surprise on the net’ trick off with such élan as David Bowie.
Outside of Bowie, his band, producer Tony Visconti and a select coterie of New York record company people, no-one knew that January 8 – the Jones boy’s 66th birthday – would start with the making available as a free download of his first new song for 10 years, ‘Where Are We Now?’
“Given that we had to go to studios and had people dropping rental gear off, I’m very impressed we managed to keep it a secret,” laughs Gerry Leonard, Bowie’s guitar-playing musical director who back in the ‘80s was one-half of ambient Dublin popsters Hinterland. “The first I heard of David wanting to record again was when he sent me an email titled, ‘Schtum’! It was like, ‘Can you come in and work on these demos for a week and don’t tell anybody.’ I felt obliged to let my wife know what I was up to, but other than that it was complete radio silence. He kept it to a very close-knit group of people who’ve so much respect for David that the story wasn’t going anywhere.”
Was there any donning of false moustaches?
“Moustaches no, but skulking around in general, yeah, lots of it!” Gerry, who’s currently on the road with Suzanne Vega, resumes. “I came up with this story that a new English band were coming over who I was doing sessions with. That seemed to satisfy my musician friends!”
At what point did the jams and demos start to feel like an album?
“We did that first session back in November 2010 – it was David, myself, (producer) Tony Visconti and (drummer) Sterling Campbell in this tiny little dungeon-y room in the East Village. We’d bash out three or four songs and then go to the Italian café next door and drink espressos. How with the four of us sat there together somebody didn’t piece it together… I guess we were hiding in plain sight! At the end of the week, we’d done maybe 10 or 12 songs. It was just a great feeling that David was writing again.”
Still not sure whether he was ready to reengage with the music industry – permanent retirement had been an option following 2004’s emergency heart surgery – Bowie shut down the computer and went offline for Christmas.
“I didn’t hear from David again until April 2011 when I got a message saying: ‘We’re going in to the studio. Are you around for those two weeks?’ It was only then that I thought, ‘Right, we’re doing an album!’”
Talking to Hot Press about the making of 1983’s classic Let’s Dance, which he co-produced, Nile Rodgers said that Bowie spent most of the sessions strumming away on an acoustic guitar.
“David’s quite old-school in how he works,” Leonard confirms. “His two most essential bits of kit are the legal pad containing his lyrics, and a dinosaur of an Akai four-track that he records inklings of songs onto – a snatch of melody, a few lines, whatever. The fleshing out process starts with guitar and a drum
machine. Essentially it’s four or five guys in a studio jamming.”
Keeping a watchful ear on proceedings was Tony Visconti, the legendary English producer who’s been working with Bowie on and off – mainly on – since 1969’s Space Oddity.
“They’ve an incredible rapport,” Gerry reflects. “In David’s mind, Tony is somebody he can really trust and use as a foil. After 10 years away, you could tell he felt vulnerable and nervous about whether or not these songs were good enough. They were, but it needed someone like Tony Visconti, who totally understands where David’s coming from, to reassure him. I’m not sure that a producer he hadn’t worked with before could have done that.”
Bowie had just finished touring 1993’s Black Noise White Tie album when Gerry pitched up in the States with Hinterland. Signed to Island, they were supposed – like about two dozen other Irish outfits – to be the new U2, but failed to achieve commercial lift-off.
“I got left behind with the broken drumsticks!” Leonard smiles. “Hinterland played in New York a few times and I was just very taken by the city. The young band scene has moved out to Brooklyn and Williamsburg now, but you still see David Byrne, Roger Waters, Suzanne Vega, Roger Glover from Deep Purple and David, of course, walking around Manhattan.
“My lucky New York break was getting to play with a guy called Duncan Sheik who had a big single with ‘Barely Breathing’, and then went on to write Spring Awakening and loads of other Broadway stuff. We both loved Talk Talk’s Spirit Of Eden record and hit it off. One of the producers we worked with, Mark Plati, was David’s previous musical director and got me to play some ambient-style guitar, which was kind of my specialty then, on one of the Heathen tracks. The initial sessions were in Philip Glass’ Looking Glass studio, and then David called saying: ‘We’re doing some more recording in my apartment, do you want to come over?’ So I went over, played and hung out afterwards with David who I discovered is as hopeless a music fan as I am!”
Indeed, during the ‘90s and early noughties every band worth their rock ‘n’ roll salt had a story about Mr. B turing up backstage at their New York gig.
“Yeah, he’d put on his old grey tattered overcoat and baseball cap and walk down to the Bowery Ballroom or Joe’s Pub or wherever the show was happening. He’s still very on top of what’s going on – my introductions to Arcade Fire and Mumford & Sons were both through David.
“I got the shock of my life when another of my old bands, Spooky Ghost, played the Living Room and he was one of the 50 people in the crowd,” he recalls. “Even more bizarrely, he heckled me! He was thinking of having me in his live band and wanted to see if I could – his words – ‘rock as well as doing the noodly stuff.’ Thankfully, I passed the audition!”
Job offer gratefully accepted Gerry got to play Heathen and Low in their entirety at the 2002 London Meltdown festival, which Bowie was curating. Has there ever been a bigger kid in a bigger sweet shop?
“I doubt it! I’d listened to ‘Sound & Vision’ a million times, and there I was playing it… with David Bowie. It’s a job in terms of that’s how I make part of my living, but the ‘Pinch me, am I dreaming?’ side of it never goes away.”
What are the other songs he gets goosepimples on his goosepimples playing?
“I’m a massive Fripp-Eno fan, so ‘Heroes’ every time is amazing. ‘Ziggy Stardust’ – it’s such a great fucking riff! ‘Rebel Rebel’ – I remember that song when we’d all be headbanging to it at the school disco. ‘Ashes To Ashes’, ‘Life On Mars’… the list is endless.”
Gerry looks as proud as several peacocks when I bring up the stripped-down version of ‘Loving The Alien’ that he and Bowie performed together on 2003/4’s A Reality Tour.
“I got one of these phone-calls from David saying, ‘Hey Gerry, would you be interested in playing ‘Loving The Alien’ with me at the Tibet House benefit in Carnegie Hall on Saturday? You would? Great! I’d like to change the key and start on a ‘C’. That okay?’ So I go to the song, and it’s a vast, everything-including-the-kitchen-sink ‘80s production. I’m like, ‘Holy shit!’ but figure out a very simple version of it using a guitar-loop and an acoustic guitar. I thought it would be a one-off but, no, he included the stripped-down version in the … Reality set.”
Gerry cites the A Reality Tour’s two Dublin Point Depot stop-offs in November 2003 as “good as it gets from a musical perspective”.
Called on to review the opening night, I found myself positioned on the balcony next to future Thin Lizzy/Black Star Riders man Ricky Warwick who, as soon ‘All The Young Dudes’ came out the PA, rang his fellow Bowiephile mate Joe Elliott up on the mobile. Joe was literally seconds away from going on a Russian ice-hockey stadium stage with Def Leppard, but delayed their entrance in order to listen to his all-time favourite song from 1,742 miles away.
“That’s a great story!” Gerry laughs again. “David had us learn 60 songs for that tour. Every night it’d be, ‘Let’s do this one; let’s do that one.’ He hadn’t played ‘All The Young Dudes’ – which he sort of gave to Mott The Hoople in the ‘70s – for a long, long time. It was as big a deal for us as it was the fans, and ended up on the DVD.
“It was just an amazing weekend for me. To be standing on that stage with David – I felt very proud.”
Six months later Bowie had to halt a … Reality Tour gig in Oslo, when he was struck by a lollipop, which freakishly got caught in his eyelid. The obligatory YouTube clip of the incident is a real video nasty.
“I think the girl responsible was from Korea where apparently throwing candy at someone is a compliment. I don’t think she meant to hit him, but did. We were playing away when David suddenly stopped and went, ‘Fuck, somebody’s just poked me in the eye!’ The media made it out to be this huge big thing that traumatised David to the point where he didn’t want to go on stage any more, but we did tons more shows after that. It was just a little speed-bump along the way!”
At what point did Gerry graduate from being
a guitarist-for-hire to Bowie’s second in musical command?
“After the Heathen tour, Mark Plati took another gig, which puzzled David a bit, but there you go. I was already – this sounds a bit Spinal Tap! – in the organisation so I knew the territory. I was driving across the Brooklyn Bridge in the back of some beat-up car en route to a Spooky Ghost gig when Mark rang and said, ‘I’ve told David that you should be the new musical director.’ I was like, ‘Woah, it sounds a lot, I’ll have to think about this, Mark.’ Then this unknown call came in, which was David asking, ‘Can you play Mark’s guitar part?’ My friends were like, ‘Are you crazy? You have to do it!’ So I did. I became the MD for the A Reality Of Tour, which was on the road for 13 months, filled
nine trucks and busses and had 75 people working on it. I’m not sure how, but I bluffed my way through!”
While the Bowie camp is adamant that he won’t be touring The Next Day, Gerry has his overnight bag packed just in case.
“I wouldn’t miss the opportunity of playing live with him for the world,” he enthuses. “David’s the only singer I’ve ever worked with who’s told me to turn it up. I remember being in rehearsals and he was like, ‘It sounds great Gerry, but louder…’ He likes it loud and he likes a bit of mayhem. It’s very physical playing with David. The other thing is that it’s a great band. It’s not just a super slick session kind of thing – it’s people with personalities who’ve done their own stuff before. The playing’s really excellent, as is the hanging out together afterwards!”
‘Where Are We Now?’ suggests that the still-Thin White Duke has gone all mellow and retrospective on us in his (relative) old age, but Leonard says the song is only a tiny piece of the This Is Now jigsaw.
“Yeah, don’t judge the album by the single,” he chuckles. “There are a bunch of songs that will have you going, ‘Oh, yeah, this sounds familiar!’ and some that you won’t be expecting. It has all those classic Bowie flavours!”
The Next Day is released on March 11 on Columbia records.
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The still-Thin White Duke brings his 'A Reality Tour' to The PointRead More
Although this 30th anniverary edition of the album doesn't actually add a lot more to the already expanded edition released over ten years ago, it does remind you again of its classic statusRead More
Heathen may not be the spectacular return to form that some people are claiming, but it’s certainly a far more cohesive affair than its predecessors, Earthling and …hours, which both buckled under the weight of their experimentation.Read More
Drawing heavily on his Berlin, post Thin White Duke period and the albums Heroes and Low in particular, All Saints is something of a mixed bag.Read More
Hey pop pickers, get a load of this. 37 classic performances from the thin white duke, recorded at the then fledgling BBC Radio 1 studios between 1968 and '72, as the whole world went Hunky Dory.Read More
A new album, an exclusive gig and opinions on Velvet Goldmine, the Internet and life, love and happiness. STUART CLARK meets the legendary DAVID BOWIE.Read More
KATE BUSH: “Moments Of Pleasure” (EMI); DAVID BOWIE: “Buddha Of Suburbia” (Arista)Read More
DAVID BOWIE: "Bowie - The Singles Collection" (EMI)Read More
Just one theory, that's all. Just one… David Bowie, a man of many facets, facades, both factional and fictional.Read More