When I was 13 I was obsessed with David Bowie. The first album I ever owned that wasn’t by a current chart band was Hunky Dory, which I bought on the strength of the mysteriously beautiful and moving Life On Mars, and it seemed like an impossibly cool artefact, from the cryptic handwritten annotations on the back cover to the unapologetically pretentious and impenetrable (though often very funny and always effortlessly memorable) lyrics to the clutch of hip name-dropping (Andy Warhol, Bob Dylan, Nietzsche, Crowley). I put away my Human League and Soft Cell records and concentrated on what seemed to be the source of all that was esoteric and challenging and stylish and non-pedestrian in music, gradually acquiring all of Bowie’s 70s output, from the breakthrough Ziggy Stardust through to the complex and magisterial post-punk Scary Monsters (which actually came out in 1980, but for sake of the book under discussion let’s pretend the 70s started with 1969’s Space Oddity and ended here). It all seemed touched by magic to me, and in retrospect 1982 seems like the perfect time to have discovered it all, what with Bowie having temporarily retreated from music before coming back in 1983 with the nakedly commercial Let’s Dance and subsequently falling to Earth by establishing himself as the very type of hyper-successful mainstream rock star he’d previously gone to pretty extreme measures to avoid becoming. As the 80s progressed I lost interest in his music, preferring to seek out stuff that had more of an air of authenticity and commitment to it than Bowie’s unashamedly artificial devices.
I’ve recently found myself listening to Bowie’s old albums again for the first time in decades really and have been kind of astonished to discover how much I still like them, and how well I know them. I can’t have heard Diamond Dogs start to finish, for example, for about twenty-five years, but I’m still able to sing along to it and relish ludicrously overwrought lines like “you’re dancing where the dogs decay/defecating ecstasy”, and the best albums like Hunky Dory and Station To Station seem close to immaculate masterpieces (Station may only contain six songs but all of them are brilliant, and I can’t offhand think of any other albums with as clean a hit-rate). It’s the quality of the songwriting that took me my surprise more than anything – there are pretentious and dilettantish concepts being thrown about like confetti on these records, but there also well worked out and pleasingly unpredictable structures and chord sequences and melodies and harmonies and that goes a long way.
The publication of Peter Doggett’s detailed and impressively well researched new book The Man Who Sold The World, which works its way through Bowie’s 70s output, is therefore sweetly timely for me. The format of the book is borrowed unabashedly from Ian MacDonald’s Revolution In The Head, which analysed the songs of The Beatles within the context of the 1960s: there is an entry for every song recorded or written by Bowie within the time-frame, presented in chronological order of recording (or best guess where the order isn’t clear). Doggett has also added several essays covering the separate albums, significant and relevant themes (sexuality, art movements, politics) and key individuals (Andy Warhol, Iggy Pop and so on). It’s pretty exhaustive – out-takes and songs written for protégés are covered whether released or not, and all Bowie’s formative, and some might say callow and embarrassing, 60s recordings get their own entries in an appendix. Doggett’s clearly a major fan and throws in some amazingly detailed snippets (the precise fingering guitarist Carlos Alomar uses for an F# chord in Golden Years, anyone?) among some interesting and explicit biographical sections and some lucid analysis of the shifts in culture of the time period. If you’re a Bowie freak it’s a must-have.
The trouble is, and I hate to nit-pick such an assiduously assembled piece of work, the book’s not really that much fun. It suffers badly by comparison with Revolution In The Head, which is not necessarily that damning an observation given that MacDonald’s is certainly the best book I’ve ever read on popular music, and to be honest one of the best books I’ve ever read on anything, but even so – MacDonald had a knack of distilling the essence of what made a song great, or disappointing, or engagingly terrible, into a incisive and clear-eyed set of paragraphs that made you immediately want to jump up and listen to the song in question, while Doggett tends to ramble earnestly around a song’s theme for ages before he gives you some details on its recording, and it’s rare that you pick up much of a sense of what makes these records really live. If you weren’t already familiar with them, you probably wouldn’t have much of an idea what they sound like just by reading these entries. His essays however generally read much better than his song entries and display a fair amount of insight so the book’s worth sticking with, but it’s certainly not for someone who’s just got a casual interest for the subject. I wonder who’s next for this kind of treatment – Leonard Cohen? Tom Waits? Spandau Ballet?
Update 19th May 2012: I’ve now read Doggett’s You Never Give Me Your Money, about the break-up of the Beatles, which is a much more successful book, maybe because he’s not having to write about the music. Review is here.