- 17 Dec 20
49 years ago today, David Bowie released his fourth studio album, Hunky Dory. Featuring classic tracks like 'Changes', 'Oh! You Pretty Things' and 'Life On Mars?', the album has since been remembered as one of Bowie's finest works. To celebrate, we're revisiting his 1999 interview with Hot Press's Stuart Clark.
Journalistic objectivity, my arse! There's no way anyone who bought The Rise And Fall Of Ziggy Stardust And The Spiders From Mars in 1972 for £2.19 can meet David Bowie without going all wobbly.
In town for what could very well be the most expensive beer promotion ever - conservative estimates put the bill at around £500,000 - the still wafer-Thin White Duke is in celebratory mood having been told that hours... has just gone in to the UK album chart at number 5.
Not as all-conquering as his record company might have liked, but good going for a bloke who was once famously dismissed as a second-rate Tommy Steele.
In fact, if you're an unpleasantly plump journo who had to beg his bank manager for the money to buy an Everton season-ticket, you'd have every reason to be jealous of the Jones boy.
Never mind being fabulously rich and talented, this is the bastard who's spent the past decade living a life of matrimonial bliss with Iman.
"I'm really a very happy guy," he says with a grin that isn't so much shit as sewage farm-eating. "20 years ago, I wouldn't have thought I'd have got to this point where I feel, well, reassured about life. "
Living legends are a lot like busses. You wait an eternity to meet one, and then two come along almost simultaneously. Having got full value for money and a trip to Stranraer out of Joe Strummer last month, my expectations of Mr. Bowie are obscenely high. He doesn't disappoint the 52-year-old not only answering our questions with genuine gusto, but shooing away an over-zealous PR woman who keeps insisting that our time's up.
"I don't believe in public perceptions too deeply," he proffers in response to a question about Bowie-the-legend. "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."
"For many, many years at least the last 15, I've led a very informal and natural lifestyle, in as much that I don't have an entourage. I don't work like that. I go shopping. I make sure that I'm not imprisoned."
So he knows what the price of a loaf of bread is?
"No," he laughs, "I pay by credit card. I never check. That's a fringe benefit of being a rock god."
To make up for the headlines that his life of drug-free monogamy have deprived them of, the tabloids have taken to exhuming ever-more outrageous stories from Bowie's past. As indifferent as he is to what's written about him, there must be a temptation to clear up any confusion over his relationship with Mick Jagger, or whether that was really a Nazi salute he delivered at London's Victoria Station.
"I've approached it (an autobiography) on several occasions, but it just keeps turning into a piece of fiction, which is maybe the best way to do it! The one thing that's a possibility, if I can find the time, is taking all the apocryphal stories and turning them into a stage piece. Y'know, create a new person out of the myths and rumours."
Another idea he's toying with is becoming the curator of his own on-line museum.
"I have so much stuff, it's unbelievable. Even in my out-of-my-nut stages I seem to have not thrown anything away. I probably have more than anybody else around if that definitive book would ever come out. I think it's much more likely that I'll end up archiving completely on the net. Just assemble the stuff that's collected over the years. Like a presidential library but for rock stars."
How does he rate the current crop of fly-on-the-walls, kiss-and-tells and never-met-him-in-my-lifes?
"On the whole, disappointing. It's got to the point where the cut and paste is being cut and pasted, which makes for some really strange juxtapositions. I've yet to read one that's made me go, Yeah, they've got it. There will be, though, I'm sure."
Bowie is equally dismissive of Velvet Goldmine, Todd Haynes' retelling of the Ziggy story which was mainly noteworthy for the way it bombed at the box-office.
"I knew it was going to die before it was made," he claims. A third of the way through the script, it had lost me completely. I didn't understand what was going on. There's an old axiom in film which is, If it's not on the page, it ain't on the stage. There was a real problem with the writing, so I was quite happy to let it pass.
Did Haynes get any of the dynamic between characters right?
"None at all. Not even remotely. 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."
The good news for fans who still get a stiffy when they hear the strummed intro to Starman, is that Bowie is currently working on no fewer than three Ziggy spin-offs.
"The theatre piece is about Ziggy's interior values his close intimates, how he thinks and what his perception of the world really is," he divulges. "The cinema project is an objective piece about how he's viewed and perceived by his audience. The internet piece is like, 'who's his mum?' It's sort of factground, and startlingly info-packed maps and photographs."
"Will I be in the film?" he continues. "No, I think my days of portraying him are over. We"ll do a massive casting call for the lucky lad, but I'm going to remain on the other side of the camera."
I don't think I'm being unduly nostalgic when I say that Bowie performing the aforementioned 'Starman' on Top Of The Pops rates as one of rock 'n' roll's defining moments. Indeed, you only have to look at Suede and Gay Dad to see that Ziggy is still alive and walking among us. Does his creator reckon that there's anybody around today who's worthy of such slavish adoration?
"It sounds self-interested, but rather than a group or a person, I really do think it'd be 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. It's such a Pandora's Box that I d be absolutely glued to it. I'd be a hacker, probably."
Where does his surfing usually take him?
"Into famous people's bank accounts. No, I go on to my BowieNet website and do clean-ups every morning. Not because I'm addicted, but because I want it to be the most cutting-edge artist site. I get up very early, 6 o'clock usually, so I don't mind putting in the time.
"We haven't gone gung-ho on selling things online. I much more wanted a community, an interactive thing. That's why I pushed and promoted the idea of feedback. I ask the questions of the users, just as the users ask questions of me. They contribute their own ideas, their own visuals and their own ideas for text.
"One thing we want to change over time is that BowieNet started off as being about me, because I was a gateway to the whole thing. What I want to do is make it more music specific. David Byrne has written a piece for us, Lou Reed has done something and Frank Black is working on something. Over time, it won't just be an archive and resource network."
Does he ever look at the porn?
"I'd never dream of doing that!" he deadpans before letting out a chuckle that can only be described as Sid James-esque.
BowieNet has proved to be a nice little earner with the Baltimore Orioles and New York Yankees baseball clubs both coughing-up eight-figure sums for the use of its template. Another cause for fiscal celebration was the Bowie Bond issue - the temporary leasing of his back catalogue to private investors which raised $40 million. Did the young Davey Jones ever think that he'd end up among Britain's Top 200 earners?
"Never in my wildest dreams. I wish I could take credit for it but it wasn't my idea. When it was first mooted, I said 'God, can it work?' Then I asked, 'Is it legal?' More than the money - which I'd have made over a longer period anyway - the important thing is that the songs will eventually come back to either myself or my family.
"Of course, I could do the same deal all over again. Somebody's got to service the catalogue and I'm not sure that I've got the ability, or organisation, to do what is a 24-hour-a-day job."
Seeing as we're talking songs, which one is he 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!"
It's all a matter of taste of course, but to these ears, hours . . . is the best thing Bowie's produced since 1983's occasionally brilliant Let's Dance album. Not that he did it any favours by stating in the press blurb that, "I wanted to capture a kind of universal angst felt by many people of my age." Thankfully, there's nothing even remotely menopausal about tracks like 'Seven', 'If I'm Dreaming My Life' and 'Something In The Air' which are very much written in the first person. Are we right to assume that it s largely autobiographical?
"No, it was written from the perspective of, I guess, a faux novelist. The short story aspect of songwriting always appealed to me. I veered away from it over the years and got a lot more experimental in the lyric writing, so they're not necessarily quite so straightforward. But I think bringing it back to my age and my generation is important for me now."
While living legends are supposed to be above such trivialities as chart placings, I get the impression that it would be quite a different David Bowie we'd be talking to now if hours . . . had landed outside the top 20.
"It was really heartening, at the NetAid show last night, to see kids singing along to tracks from the new album like 'Survive'. Half of the appeal with 'Earthling', 'Outside', and going earlier, 'Scary Monsters', was the textural sound. But this one, I won't say we put the arrangements second, but the idea was that they'd be supportive of the lyrics. It wasn't all guns blazing. It works on a more simplistic level."
Musical merits aside, taking Earthling on a jungle safari appears to have lowered the average age of his audience.
"I don't think it mattered because there are very few young kids who listen to drum n' bass. It was talked about a lot in the newspapers, but you just have to look at the charts to see that it really rated nowhere. In fact, it had a ceiling on it as soon as it started."
Despite hours . . . barely being out of nappies, Bowie is already giving serious thought to the follow-up.
"The next musical project will very definitely be with Tony Visconti," he confides. "Tony and I are very excited because we don't know what it s going to be like. I think I'll put it back into experimental mode again, but who knows? It's really interesting going into the studio because I never quite know which of my writing methods I'll use.
Does this mean that we're about to witness the same productivity which saw Aladdin Sane, Pin-Ups, Diamond Dogs, David Live and Young Americans come out within two years of each other?
"The only restriction on me is the record company. It's very hard with corporate companies to bring out more than one every 18 months, because they want to milk the new album as much as possible. It causes problems for artists like myself, and probably Prince, who have an abundance of material and nowhere to put it. I find it disheartening, and I've got to have a talk with Virgin to see what we can do about it.
"I do see a way out on the internet. It takes most people five hours to download an album, which is ridiculous, but there's definite possibilities in doing it a track at a time. If I had an array of everything I've written on-line, you could choose through samples the ones you want, and burn them in to a CD. That is a way to go. It's not for everybody because some writers, like Scott Walker and Bryan Ferry, are very slow and craftsmanlike."
No longer able to contain her irritation at us overrunning, the Virgin UK PR lady grabs Bowie by the lapels and screams, "For fuck's sake, you've got a soundcheck to do!" Well not really, she's politeness personified, but you can see the intent in her eyes.
As you'll already have gleaned from Peter Murphy's Pulitzer Prize-nominated review, the HQ gig is the best sex you've ever had multiplied by Ray Houghton's winning goal in Stuttgart. I'm not a man who gets moist easily, but when Drive-In Saturday arrives on the scene, that's it, where's me hankie?
I'm not the only person who takes this as a cue to abandon his dignity - Julian Lloyd-Webber glam stomping his way through a version of 'Rebel Rebel' which would make anyone want to sprint down to Miss Selfridges.
At times like these, you can almost forgive him for Tin Machine!
Revisit Hunky Dory below: