THE MAN WHO SOLD THE WORLD by Peter Doggett (The Bodley Head, 2011)
One of the greatest books on contemporary rock is Revolution In The Head by Ian MacDonald. Subtitled The Beatles’ Records And The Sixties, this illuminating song by song guide to everything the Fab Four recorded is worth buying for the introductory essay alone – ‘Fabled Foursome, Disappearing Decade’. In the space of just 34 pages, MacDonald puts the monumental achievements and legacy of The Beatles into lucid perspective and recognises that we will never see their like again. The way music is made, promoted and consumed has changed beyond all recognition since the heady days of the 60s so the cultural impact the four young men from Liverpool had is unrepeatable.
MacDonald was commissioned to write a similar book on David Bowie but sadly the project floundered n 2003, when he killed himself after a long period of clinical depression. The mantle has passed to Peter Doggett who has himself written a critically praised book on the Beatles, You Never Give Me You Money, which focused on the band’s break up and immediate aftermath.
In his introduction, Doggett admits that Revolution In The Head was the model for his book although the format is not entirely the same and it has to be said that it’s nowhere near as good.
Alongside the track guide (in chronological order), there are a series of short essays about subjects like Bowie’s shifting ideas about fashion, fags and philosophy as well as pieces about the albums and other side projects such as Iggy Pop’s The Idiot and Lou Reed’s Transformer. I can’t help thinking that, if the track descriptions had been more complete, many, if not all , of these supplementary pieces would have been unnecessary.
A constant source of frustration for me was the writer’s inability to get to grips with Bowie’s lyrics. Admittedly these are often obscure, particularly when he made use of William Burrough’s cut-up technique, but too often Doggett ignores the significance or impressionistic power of the words on key songs. He admits defeat completely with the title track to The Man Who Sold The World, Doggett by describing the lyrics as “infuriatingly evocative, begging but defying interpretation”.
When describing Five Years, the opening track on the Ziggy Stardust album, he refers to the “sarcastic recitative” quality of Bowie’s lines, but gives no specific examples and gives no information about the theme or background to the song.
Equally, there’s nothing about the pseudo hippy language of Starman (“some cat was laying down some rock and roll”, “that’s far out”, “he thinks he’d blow our minds”); instead Doggett directs us to “the tentative opening chords – the subdominant chord followed by the lower 7th of the root” which effectively reduces the song’s magic to a something akin to a mathematical formula.
There’s a good reason why music critics rarely write about songs in this manner. It’s perfectly possible to describe a beautiful sunset in terms of astrological conditions and meteorological patterns but to do so will not capture the magical experience. Similarly, over deconstruction of music does nothing to convey the all important mood or attitude of an artist’s work.
Where Doggett is on a hiding to nothing is that he has to encapsulate in words alone an artist whose visual impact was equally as strong as his music. It is inconceivable to think of Bowie having such an impact on the decade if he had followed The Beatles’ example and abandoned live performances in favour of perfecting his sound in the studio. His contribution lies not just in the records he made, great as these are, but also in the ever-changing public persona.
This is why a book about him with no photos is such an oddity and why it would make more sense for his career to be evaluated as an ‘app’ rather than in a textbook.
I can sympathise with the publishers. It’s not as if you could get away with including half a dozen well-chosen mug shots. Once you start, it would quickly become obvious that Bowie’s look was intrinsically linked to each stage of his career. You can’t hear songs off Ziggy Stardust or Aladdin Sane without thinking of the spiky haircut and extravagant mullet any more than you can listen to Station To Station without visualising the Thin White Duke.
It’s no coincidence that where this book ends (with 1980’s Scary Monsters album) Bowie was already moving away from performing as the ‘cracked actor’ and beginning to look relatively normal. Getting his teeth fixed, marrying a super model and generally appearing less alien were all doubtless good for his wellbeing but these steps coincided with the fading of his musical edge, reaching a nadir with formation of Tin Machine.
MacDonald had the significant advantage of writing about a band who so undeniably came to symbolise an era. The case for saying David Bowie did the same for the 1970s is weaker. It could easily be argued that disco music and the soundtrack to Saturday Night Fever were more significant.
Doggett describes Bowie well as being the “eternal outsider”, a role which still makes him a fascinating icon but equally makes it harder to speak of him in terms of defining a decade. He has remained aloof from classic rock, mainstream pop, punk, disco, krautrock and ambient music even though he incorporated elements of each at some time or other.
Doggett’s book is one that any self-respecting Bowie fan must have but it’s far from being the definitive book on the subject and for an artist who has gone to great lengths over the years to maintaining his enigmatic appeal this is probably as it should be.