PULP Pop: David Bowie, the Deconstructing Star

8 Dec

It is 1996, and onto the stage amid flashing spasms of light and a near-deafening crush of guitar noise and thumping drums steps a slender figure in a tailcoat and topped with a red field of spiked hair.

The music is hectic, noisy, industrial, the words paranoiac and obsessing over the end of the century, and the singer—who has made a career out of performing as a schizoid cultural commentator—is David Bowie.

When the album Outside was released in 1995, it was both a culmination of and an attempt at deconstructing the various themes that Bowie had focused on for much of his career. As Ziggy Stardust or the Thin White Duke he had been a single character made out of composite parts, but on Outside he was playing many characters in order to compose a layered narrative. The sleeve notes showed Bowie in the guise of each character—“art detective” Nathan Adler, victim Baby Grace, “female goodtime drone” Ramona A. Stone and old man Algeria Touchshriek—but the songs did not move linearly through a storyline.

Instead, Bowie’s listeners were co-opted into a cyberpunk noir, where Nathan Adler investigated the “art ritual murder of Baby Grace Blue”. The result was a sprawling, overly-long album with spoken word tracks and guitar and drum-heavy textures created in the studio by Bowie and his band—notably guitarist Reeves Gabrels—alongside former collaborator Brian Eno. The fin-de-siècle worries were clear in refrains such as I Have Not Been to Oxford Town’s “Toll the bell, pay the private eye/ All’s well, twentieth century dies”, and it was never clear which character was the voice of each song.

Part musical theatre like Diamond Dogs, greatly performative like Ziggy Stardust, but this time more fragmented, Outside deconstructed David Bowie’s own thematic history and dissected his former personas—Major Tom, Aladdin Sane or the Thin White Duke—until they were mere sonic and verbal fragments of the twentieth century.

From the outset, Bowie had been conspicuously aware of his influences and content to poach elements from other sources in order to create a stage presence. His early albums, David Bowie (1967) and Space Oddity (1969) moved from music hall camp to an attempt at Dylanesque folksiness—Bowie even sporting a sandy blond perm and an acoustic guitar—and then to proto-heavy metal on The Man Who Sold The World (1970). With 1971’s Hunky Dory Bowie wore his influences on his sleeve, with songs for Andy Warhol, the Velvet Underground, his half-brother Terry and Bob Dylan filling the second half of the record.

But with Ziggy Stardust he became an arch constructor of pop out of fiction, philosophy, music and anything else that was found on the cutting room floor of 60s rock ‘n roll. Ziggy was based primarily on Vince Taylor, a singer whose decline into drugs and religious delusion no doubt played a major part in Ziggy’s messianic message, but Taylor sat alongside Jimi Hendrix and Marc Bolan in the mix. “I’m an instant star,” Bowie has said. “Just add water and stir.”

The first genuine rock star of the 1970s, just as David Bowie was interchangeable with Ziggy Stardust, images of Bowie or Ziggy were interchangeable with the real thing. Performing as a rock star equated, in essence, to being a rock star. As the 1990s red-haired, bespoke-tailored and svelte version of Bowie took to the stage during the Outside tours, there was little doubt that his appearance was referencing the style of both the Ziggy and the Aladdin Sane tours more than twenty years earlier.

During 1996 the Outside touring band took to the studio to record new material that had been written on the road. Released in 1997, the result was Earthling, an album that captured the vitality of the band while infusing some energy into the less accessible parts of Outside. Techno beats and electronic instrumentation were welded to more traditional rock song structures, and where its predecessor included split personas, Earthling focused on Bowie’s status as an ‘outsider’ in a more personal way.

Battle for Britain and I’m Afraid of Americans placed ex-pat angst in the foreground, and Dead Man Walking and Seven Years in Tibet referenced films while in turn acknowledging that, “now I’m older than movies”, this particular earthling had tipped over into his 50s. Little Wonder and Looking for Satellites also poked fun at Bowie’s search for the spiritual other, for escape into the alienesque, all to the pump of jungle beats.

The main contributor to the moody atmospherics and hollow guitar crunch of Outside, Brian Eno was absent for the Earthling sessions. In 1977, Eno had helped breath some electronic life into Bowie’s songwriting by collaborating with him on Low. Though Bowie had killed off Ziggy in ‘73, his spectre lived on through Diamond Dogs (1974) and was only drowned in alcohol and cocaine as Bowie recorded Young Americans and Station to Station in 1975 and 1976. Low amounted to sonic rehab for a rock star whose interest in the artifice of pop music had turned him into a real-life drug-addled wreck.

Drying out in Berlin, Bowie turned to Brian Eno’s synthesizers and eccentric approach to studio musicians to help debunk and banish from the process his various personas. The resultant trilogy, Low, “Heroes” (also 1977) and Lodger (1979) were free of the constraints of a second personality hanging over both Bowie’s songs and the band’s tours. As another step in the recovery program, several Ziggy Stardust tracks were performed on the 1978 world tour in the original album sequence.

And with Mike Garson back on board from the Aladdin Sane era, the Outside and Earthling tours pulled the dust covers off some older tracks and incorporated them into the new sets. Aladdin Sane’s title track resurfaced, as did Andy Warhol, instrumental V-2 Schneider (now a techno track) and Repetition, from the Lodger album. Bowie’s band revisited these songs, often performing them in vastly different versions and integrating into them the industrial noise and desperate drum and bass lines from the two last albums.

By Outside’s release in 1995, Bowie had begun again to take the role of outsider, a role that he had stepped away from during a mostly mainstream and predominantly bad 1980s. He had turned himself into a rock star through pretense and aesthetics, and had then been consumed by Ziggy Stardust, Aladdin Sane and the Thin White Duke until a sonic rejuvenation with the Berlin trilogy. By appropriating his own history and reconstructing it piece by piece with Outside and Earthling, he had performed a similar feat of revival.

Outside juxtaposed Bowie’s commentary on the end of the century, on the end of life and on a new kind of art with dehumanising industrial sounds and overwhelming guitars. When Earthling picked up the baton, lead guitar solos and choruses had returned, the deconstructed sonic landscape had begun to reform, and the album felt more vital, more punchy, happy to be an earthling again, but happier still to remain on the outside, looking in.

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