Noel Coward in Private Lives points out that it is, “Strange how potent cheap music is.” I thought about this as I was listening to the discussion about the musical legacy of David Jones from south London better known as international superstar David Bowie.
His potent music has the ability to evoke over decades time and place for millions of people. The charge is that the response to his death was disproportionate to his talent. This may well be true only time will tell. The response could be a function of the fact that his death was unexpected; happening just releasing a new album signalling to most people that he was very much alive. It could be a function of the age and life experiences of many of the news editors and presenters losing someone who had provided a part of the soundtrack to their own lives.
All modern pop music is cannibalistic often eating itself and other less popular musical forms and making them palatable for a wider public. Some say this is like the process of turning wholemeal into white bread in the process refining out all the goodness! It is very rare for a true original to reach a mass audience. An obvious example from the birth of the modern pop music industry is the way British blues bands took the great blues from the original artists and made their music palatable for white suburban kids to listen to in their bedrooms.
Many of the early blues greats died in abject poverty yet it would have been hard to conceive of the Rolling Stones, Cream or even Led Zeppelin without Robert Johnson.
The Stones have had a long career from this process. Are they as good as Bod Diddley or Chuck Berry, no of course not, still touring they put on a good show even though today they seem to have morphed into their own tribute band.
Other bands of course pillage both folk and classical music with the occasional pillaging of music from the wider world. Where Bowie was interesting with his art school background was his pillaging of music from the avant-garde. He was not the first to do this; Mark Bolan probably beat him to it, but sadly did not live to evolve the way Bowie did.
After almost packing it in for the musical-theatre it is well known that he created his first successful persona from his reading of the Velvet Underground and MC5 adding beat poetry and a degree of sexual ambiguity to the mix later repaying the compliment by producing Lou Reed’s most commercial album Transformer.
There is a debate about where the quote, “good artists copy, great artists steal,” comes from, some say Picasso some T.S. Eliot. The point however is that there is never anyone who is truly original which is something that makes the present copyright laws so irrational. The point is to take an idea or inspiration one receives from others and add to it.
There is no doubt in my mind that Bowie did this on more than one occasion. Bowie would have been the first to admit he was no great musician or singer but he did have a feel for the zeitgeist and there is skill jumping successfully onto a moving musical bandwagon and not looking a mere copyist.
If he had only done this once it would have been remarkable but he did it again and again. He did it with Nile Rodgers and funk for the Thin White Duke, Young Americans period.
The period I liked best was his so called Berlin phase. He managed to escape from the rock god hedonism of Los Angles which could have been terminal to engage with of all things German expressionism.
What was called Krautrock in a disparaging way by the British the music press involving bands like Amon Duul, Tangerine Dream, and one I followed around University campuses at the time Can (Irmin Schmidt and Holger Czukay of the band had actually studied with Karlheinz Stockhausen), Faust and probably the best known Kraftwerk.
They had been picked upon by people in the States like Frank Zappa who always had an ear for contemporary classical music and there was an overlap with the so called Canterbury Scene in England which included Soft Machine and Caravan.
With the help of Brian Eno and later King Crimsons Robert Fripp and producer Tony Visconti his music did a hand break turn with albums, Low, Heroes and Lodger. Taking this German sound and making it something different. The restless chameleon however soon moved on with the development of the new romantic style and the revival of the character Major Tom who we found out was junky!
A new way of getting to your audience arrived with MTV and the music video which seemed to have been made for Bowie. As well as establishing a compelling visual image by now Bowie could do pretty much anything he wanted and to his credit he always surrounded himself with the very best musicians and producers.
There were other interesting episodes and in many ways the best at least commercially was yet to come. Through a career when his music had been both potent and strange he had ploughed his own furrow. He even has some credit along with Eric Clapton, even if for the wrong reasons, for the formation of Rock against Racism.
It is unlikely that someone like Bowie could achieve mainstream success today as digitalisation has destroyed the value in many large scale record labels making them risk averse. The kind of just on the edge style of a David Bowie would be unlikely to be promoted. The music he poached from Black Soul music, to German Expressionism to the avante-garde however is still going on under the mainstream radar you just have to go out look for it!