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Hallowed spaceboy

Over 40 years, David Bowie has repeatedly reinvented himself, pursuing the idea that all pop is art.

Over 40 years, David Bowie has repeatedly reinvented himself, pursuing the idea that all pop is artifice. Graeme Thomson surveys the career of a revered innovator

Forty years ago this month, David Bowie made his first ever appearance on Top of the Pops, singing "Space Oddity" from Lime Grove Studios in west London. Despite a performance that travelled some light years beyond fey, suggesting that he would have trouble opening an umbrella, never mind traversing far-flung galaxies, the single climbed to number five. It was the first step in a career that would position Bowie as the shape-shifting, gender-hopping, zeitgeist-jumping pop star in excelsis.

The central image in "Space Oddity", with Major Tom cast adrift in his "tin can", has proved particularly resonant. Bowie's music is one long song of dislocation, disconnection and recurring identity crisis. Haunted by a genetic predisposition to mental illness that led his half-brother Terry into schizophrenia, asylums and suicide, he has always seemed afraid to sit too long in one place. Aged 22 in 1969, the erstwhile David Jones had already bolted through several undistinguished incarnations - quiffed R'n'B band leader, king mod, hippie, sub-Anthony Newley vaudevillian, mime artist - before landing somewhere between Bolan and Bob Dylan, yet another London art-school boy with crazy hair, a 12-string guitar and a penchant for forming "Arts Laboratories" in the function rooms of Beckenham pubs.

In some respects "Space Oddity" was a false dawn, widely regarded as an opportunistic novelty number timed to coincide with the moon shot. Bowie, meanwhile, never felt at ease playing the winsome acoustic troubadour. Bored by the "denim hell" and frayed authenticity of the likes of Led Zeppelin, he eventually hitched his wagon to the overt theatricality of glam rock, creating Ziggy Stardust, the quintessential Bowie construct. Incorporating elements of mime, kabuki and the droogs as portrayed in Stanley Kubrick's Clockwork Orange, Ziggy was the ultimate representation of pop-star-as-alien, driven by the robust buzz-saw guitar riffs of Mick Ronson. Three years after the first, Bowie's second appearance on Top of the Pops was genuinely iconoclastic, his performance of "Starman" denoting 1972 as Year Zero for a generation of punks, Goths, new wavers and New Romantics.

Having achieved lift-off, Bowie followed through on his promise to make a "wild mutation" as a rock'n'roll star. Only five years passed between 1971's Hunky Dory and the corrupted Aryan beauty of Station to Station, but in that time Bowie bounced from hokey folk to glam to hard rock to frigid Eurodisco, mutating en route into Aladdin Sane, Hallowe'en Jack and the Thin White Duke.

Falling on each emerging trend - disco, Philly soul, electronic minimalism, new wave - as it stole into view, he was a magpie with a priceless knack for pinching ideas from the cultural margins and siphoning them into the mainstream through his own work. One biographer defined him as a "style vampire", a mannequin dressed in a series of beautiful, borrowed clothes. "Some people say Bowie is all surface style and second-hand ideas," said Brian Eno, his on-off collaborator for three decades. "But that sounds like a definition of pop to me."

He certainly looked and acted the part. Sexually voracious - when he met his first wife, Angie, in 1969 they were famously "fucking the same bloke" - he was impossibly thin and vampiric, those fangs and odd, mismatched eyes emitting an unearthly vibe. Like all great pop stars, he contrived to paint the grim grind of sustained drug-taking as a vaguely noble quest, a way of seeking new dimensions rather than making emergency repairs to a fractured psyche. In Bowie's case, mired in cocaine addiction, those dimensions involved dystopian visions where the occult, the Holy Grail and fascism met in some futuristic, Ballardian hell.

Recovering in Berlin from these nightmares in 1976 and 1977, Bowie made the most influential records of his career. Low and "Heroes" were dense, pensive, occasionally hilarious works marrying US R'n'B with the electronic Euro pulse of Neu and Kraftwerk. Lodger (1979) and Scary Monsters (1980) concluded his journey from secluded drug dependency to boisterous commercial rejuvenation, but after that his creativity crumbled. The hugely successful Let's Dance (1983) and his triumphant performance at Live Aid in 1985 marked a commercial pin­nacle, but everything had become too bright, brash and easy to digest. He later formed Tin Machine, a blokey, democratic, four-to-the-floor experiment in rock orthodoxy that was the stubbly antithesis of every hope he ever stood for.

The 1980s and early 1990s were a creative waste ground from which, perhaps not coincidentally, Bowie salvaged a degree of personal stability. He cleaned up his act - no drugs, no alcohol - and married the Somali model Iman in 1992. He found new ways to be creative and remained a devoted early adopter, harnessing the power of the internet in the early 1990s while the world was busy doting on the reductive joys of grunge. His two most recent albums - 2002's Heathen and Reality in 2003 - were easily his best in 20 years.

The gathering momentum of Bowie's third act was halted abruptly in June 2004 when he suffered a minor heart attack. In the five years since, his profile has steadily diminished. There are whispers that, at 62, pop's Dorian Gray is at last succumbing to the vagaries of ageing. Sightings are rare, all interview requests are politely rebuffed, and his press office confirms there are no plans on the horizon for any new material.

If he has indeed slipped off into unannounced retirement, Bowie leaves plenty on which to chew. Pop's foremost individualist, he is not a man whose life and music encourage neat conclusions. There are few clear lines: the divisions between gay and straight, innovator and thief, bright'n'bouncy pop star and experimental outsider artist are often blurred. His determination to incorporate elements of theatre, literature, sci-fi, visual art and computer technology into his work ensures his artistic legacy is both complex and hard to overstate.

His rich basso profundo was appropriated wholesale as the voice of Goth; his style, glamour and pale androgyny made him the godfather of the New Romantics; his blend of electronics and guitar virtually invented new wave. Gary Numan and Brett Anderson owe him the kind of blood debt that can never be repaid, while everyone from Kurt Cobain, Placebo and Of Montreal to Philip Glass, Lady Gaga and the Killers has cited a direct influence.

Bowie is easy to parody (witness the recent superb spoof by Flight of the Conchords) but essentially inimitable. It can be forgotten that underneath the dazzling visual incarnations and sometimes dubious aesthetics lies a singularly talented singer and musician. Nobody writes songs like Bowie, strange affairs with unconventional chord patterns and bizarre, unpredictable melodies, held together by that imperious voice, leaping across keys or slipping into a meticulously contrived sarf Lahndan twang.

We needn't blame him for the many atrocities committed in his name, nor linger too long on his own misdemeanours. Observing the high-concept albums, contemporary art shows and existential lyrics objectively, it is easy to accuse Bowie of peddling ideas above pop's station. Although he has often made himself seem ridiculous, I must confess to cherishing his stumbles almost as much as his giant steps. They are part of the package, further expressions of an admirable fearlessness.

Above all, I love how Bowie has never succumbed to peddling "sincerity", the dread, dishonest concept that creeps into the body of pop and calcifies its bones. All great pop is artifice, and Bowie stands as the Platonic ideal: a glorious, fluid, preposterous, inspired, contrived fabrication that changed the outline of our cultural terrain permanently.

“In art you can crash your plane and walk away from it. If you have that chance, you should take it." Coming from anyone else - Madonna, or, more likely, Bono - this would be laughably delusional. From Bowie's lips, amid the carefully calibrated doses of pretension and preciousness, it has the sharp tang of truth. If he has destroyed more conceptual jumbo jets than he or we may care to recall, that is simply the price of flying so high, so far, for so long.

“Space Oddity (40th Anniversary)" is out now on EMI
Graeme Thomson's biography of Kate Bush will be published next May by Omnibus

This article first appeared in the 26 October 2009 issue of the New Statesman, New York / London

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Shell-shock symphony: Berg’s Wozzeck – opera’s take on post-traumatic stress disorder

Begun in 1914 and premiered in 1925, Wozzeck has class struggle, poverty and mental health problems as its principal subjects.

When I was 12 years old, I made a devastating discovery. The arias from my favourite operas – Rigoletto, Turandot, The Barber of Seville – which I played over and over again, winding and rewinding the cassettes ­until they ceased to work, did not ­necessarily have words that matched the beauty of the music. Intense study of a book I had received for Christmas called Stories from Opera taught me that although some of the soaring melodies I adored carried words about love, death, horror and tragedy, other lyrics, in translation, proved to be people agreeing where to meet later, or misremembering each other’s names.

This crushing disappointment came to mind again recently while I was listening to an edition of Radio 3’s Building a Library, a segment of its regular Saturday-morning CD review, in which new releases are compared and contrasted with archive recordings to find the best listening experience. The reviewer Gillian Moore was surveying the available recordings of Alban Berg’s Wozzeck. She gave credit to several English-language recordings for the clarity they offer newcomers to this work, but eventually concluded that she must recommend a version using the original German, because there were crucial aural elements that could not be reproduced without it.

Moore, now director of music at the Southbank Centre, chose to kick off a series of semi-staged concert performances of operas with Wozzeck. Although undoubtedly an opera, it was a far cry from the fairy stories and doomed romances that filled my pre-teen ears, but it worked surprisingly well stripped of scenery, costumes and other theatrical accoutrements.

Zurich Opera’s presentation placed importance on the orchestral score above all else, allowing its jagged and insistent lines to remind us that this is music born of the dark years between the world wars. Begun in 1914, but delayed while Berg served in the Austro-Hungarian army (it premiered in 1925), it has class struggle, poverty and mental health problems as its principal subjects. The score owes much to Berg’s fellow Viennese composers Gustav Mahler and Arnold Schoenberg (Mahler’s widow put up the money for the initial publication of the score). At times in this production, the orchestra was so utterly central that it felt like a symphony with singing, rather than vocal melodies with accompaniment.

The Wozzeck of the title is a poor soldier, flawed and dogged by madness and visions we would probably now see as signs of post-traumatic stress disorder. He scrapes a living for his girlfriend, Marie, and their son by humiliating himself before his military and class superiors (the Captain, the Doctor, the Drum Major) and by participating in degrading medical “experiments”. The star of the show, the German baritone Christian Gerhaher, had to withdraw at the last minute for health reasons, so the British singer Leigh Melrose stepped in to reprise his Wozzeck from the widely acclaimed 2013 ENO production. Despite performing from behind a music stand, Melrose acquitted himself well, handling the transitions between Berg’s three singing styles: “half-singing”, Sprechgesang (or “spoken singing”) and full vocalisation to great effect.

Gun-Brit Barkmin, with a severe Twenties bob and a flowing scarlet dress, was a superb Marie – alternately harsh and soft as the music demanded it, flirting destructively with the Drum Major while conveying how little choice she had in the matter. Of the ensemble, Lars Woldt’s Doctor particularly stood out, using the German libretto to drag every ounce of black comedy out of his character’s fascination with Wozzeck’s bodily functions. The high vocal standard proved Moore’s point about the necessity of the original German libretto – it is a difficult language to sing, because of all the harsh consonants and modified vowels, but when used expertly can be unendingly expressive. We hear this in the way the double “zz” of the title character’s name becomes a derisory bitten-off “tz” in the mouth of the Captain; and Wozzeck’s exclamation in Act I that “Du, der Platz ist verflucht!” sounds so much more accursed and deranged with all those consonants in such close proximity.

The German sociologist Theodor Adorno once called Berg “the foreign minister of the land of his dreams”, much to the composer’s amusement; but, hearing the score for Wozzeck laid so bare, you understand what Adorno meant. The incredible double crescendo on a single B from the orchestra after Wozzeck murders Marie – raised by the conductor Fabio Luisi in this performance to an unbearable volume before being allowed to die away – feels like music from an other-worldly nightmare. Yet, for the war-battered men who inspired Wozzeck, his tragic half-life was all too real.

Caroline Crampton is web editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 08 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin vs Isis