David Bowie in 1973. Photo: Michael Ochs/Gettuy
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From the archive: Martin Amis on the “mild fad” of David Bowie

The feelings David Bowie aroused will vanish along with the fashion built around him, argued Martin Amis in 1973.

First published in the New Statesman on 6 July 1973.

When Glam-Rock superstar David Bowie flounced on to the Hammersmith Odeon stage last Monday night, recognisably male and not even partially naked, it seemed that we would be denied the phenomenon-of-our-times spectacle which your reporter was banking on. The preludial ambience, too, was discouragingly humdrum: behind me in the audience upper-class slummers boomingly voiced their fears of having to endure a “really grotty” supporting band; in front of me teenage couples snogged with old-fashioned – not to say reactionary – zeal; beside me a joint was lit and furtively extinguished; and on stage, prior to curtain-up, a fat old teddy-boy appeared, asked Hammersmith if it was feeling good, wanted a louder answer, got one, and left us with a lie about the anticipated time lapse before Mr Bowie’s arrival. Once under way, admittedly, that musician went through various stages of déshabillé – now in orange rompers, now a miniskirt, now in hot-pants, now a leotard – but we never got to see the famous silver catsuit and pink jockstrap. Bowie did, it’s true, have a habit of turning away from the audience and sulkily twitching his backside at it before floating off to arouse each aisle in turn with his silky gaze – but there was no sign of the celebrated sodomistic routine involving lead guitarist Mick Ronson, no acts of stylised masturbation and fellatio with microphone and mikestand. Perhaps Mr Bowie just wasn’t feeling up to it that evening, or perhaps Mr Bowie was just a mild fad hystericised by “the media”, an entrepreneur of camp who knew how little, as well as how much, he could get away with.

But despite these austerities the superstar’s dinky weapon of a torso remained the centrepiece of the concert. When Bowie entered, half the audience rushed the stage and the other half got to its feet; during the interval, the fat teddy-boy lumbered on to coax and cajole everyone back to their places; when Bowie re-entered, half the audience rushed the stage and the other half got to its feet – or its knees. Interestingly, this physical presence was exerted with none of the Grand-Guignol goonery of an Alice Cooper (black leather and bull-whips) or a Gary Glitter (moronic foot-stomping), and without any of the sincere, and therefore quite charmless, exhibitionism of the beefy Mr Ronson. For all his preening and swanking Bowie often seemed a frail, almost waiflike figure, curiously dwarfed by the electric aura of knowing sexiness and modish violence on which his act depends – panicky strobes, dizzying light effects, a Clockwork Orange-theme ritornello, and SS lightning-flashes.

This incongruity may be responsible for Bowie’s appeal and for what (if anything) is sinister about it. Among certain more affluent hippies Bowie is apparently the symbol of a kind of thrilling extremism, a life-style (the word is for once permissible) characterised by sexual omnivorousness, lavish use of stimulants – particularly cocaine, very much an élitist drug, being both expensive and galvanising – self-parodied narcissism, and a glamorously early death. To dignify this unhappy outlook with such a term as “nihilist” would, of course, be absurd; but Bowie does appear to be a new focus for the vague, predatory, escapist reveries of the alienated young. Although Bowie himself is unlikely to last long as a cult, it is hard to believe that the feelings he has aroused or aggravated will vanish along with the fashion built round him. 

This article first appeared in the 09 April 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Anniversary Issue 2015

BBC
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Would the BBC's Nazi drama SS-GB have felt half so resonant a year ago?

This alternate history is freighted with meaning now we're facing the wurst-case scenario. 

Would SS-GB have felt half so resonant a year ago? Though the clever-after-the-fact Nostradamus types out there might disagree, I can’t believe that it would. When it comes to the Second World War, after all, the present has helpfully stepped in where memory is just beginning to leave off. The EU, in the process of fragmenting, is now more than ever powerless to act in the matter of rogue states, even among its own membership. In case you hadn’t noticed, Hungary, for instance, is already operating as a kind of proto-fascist state, led by Viktor Orbán, a man whom Jean-Claude Juncker, the president of the European Commission, jokingly likes to call “the dictator” – and where it goes, doubtless others will soon follow.

The series (Sundays, 9pm), adapted from Len Deighton’s novel, is set in 1941 in a Britain under Nazi occupation; Winston Churchill has been executed and the resistance is struggling to hold on to its last strongholds in the countryside. Sam Riley plays Douglas Archer, a detective at Scotland Yard, now under the control of the SS, and a character who appears in almost every scene. Riley has, for an actor, a somewhat unexpressive face, beautiful but unreadable. Here, however, his downturned mouth and impassive cheekbones are perfect: Archer, after all, operates (by which I mean, barely operates) in a world in which no one wants to give their true feelings away, whether to their landlady, their lover, or their boss, newly arrived from Himmler’s office and as Protestant as all hell (he hasn’t used the word “degenerate” yet, but he will, he will).

Archer is, of course, an ambiguous figure, neither (at present) a member of the resistance nor (we gather) a fully committed collaborator. He is – or so he tells himself – merely doing his job, biding his time until those braver or more foolhardy do something to restore the old order. Widowed, he has a small boy to bring up. Yet how long he can inhabit this dubious middle ground remains to be seen. Oskar Huth (Lars Eidinger), the new boss, is keen to finish off the resistance; the resistance, in turn, is determined to persuade Archer to join its cause.

It’s hard to find fault with the series; for the next month, I am going to look forward to Sunday nights mightily. I would, I suppose, have hoped for a slightly more charismatic actress than Kate Bosworth to play Barbara Barga, the American journalist who may or may not be involved with the British resistance. But everything else seems pretty perfect to me. London looks suitably dirty and its inhabitants’ meals suitably exiguous. Happiness is an extra egg for tea, smoking is practically a profession, and
the likes of Archer wear thick, white vests.

Swastikas adorn everything from the Palace of Westminster to Trafalgar Square, Buckingham Palace is half ruined, a memorial to what the Germans regard as Churchill’s folly, and the CGI is good enough for the sight of all these things to induce your heart to ache briefly. Nazi brutality is depicted here as almost quotidian – and doubtless it once was to some. Huth’s determination to have four new telephone lines installed in his office within the hour is at one end of this horrible ordinariness. At the other is the box in which Archer’s mutinous secretary Sylvia (Maeve Dermody) furiously stubs out her fag, full to the brim with yellow stars.

When I first heard about The Kettering Incident (Tuesdays, 12.20am; repeated Wednesdays, 10pm) I thought someone must have found out about that thing that happened one time I was driving north on the M1 with a more-than-usually terrible hangover. Turns out it’s a new Australian drama, which comes to us on Sky Atlantic. Anna (Elizabeth Debicki), a doctor working in London, pitches up back in Tasmania many years after her teenage friend Gillian disappeared into its Kettering forest, having seen a load of mysterious bright lights. Was Gillian abducted by aliens or was she, as some local people believe, murdered by Anna? To be honest, she could be working as a roadie for Kylie, for all I care. This ponderous, derivative show is what happens when a writer sacrifices character on the altar of plot. The more the plot thickens, the more jaw-achingly tedious it becomes.

Rachel Cooke trained as a reporter on The Sunday Times. She is now a writer at The Observer. In the 2006 British Press Awards, she was named Interviewer of the Year.

This article first appeared in the 24 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The world after Brexit