The Man Who Sold the World: David Bowie and the 1970s

The Man Who Sold the World: David Bowie and the 1970s
Peter Doggett
The Bodley Head, 432pp, £20

I can't be the only person who has spent time wondering whether Bowie père ever did turn to Bowie fils and say, "Hey, son, that homework's obviously getting you down. Let's throw it on this nice big blaze I've got going in the minimalist hearth and take the car downtown." (By the time Zowie was of school age, that would be downtown Vevey, Switzerland.) It might take a couple of deep hypnosis sessions with the grown-up film director Duncan Zowie Haywood Jones (Moon, Source Code) to find out.

I would like to know on personal grounds, because "Kooks" - Bowie's heartfelt pledge of parental irresponsibility - was the song that I played in the car as I drove each of my newborn sons home from hospital; and it has remained an ideal of fatherhood that I have consistently failed to achieve. More generally, it is of some cultural significance whether Bowie followed through on the early Seventies promise of putting the personal before the institutional - of sticking it to The Man even when the man in question happens to be your son's maths teacher.

The title of Peter Doggett's The Man Who Sold the World: David Bowie and the 1970s is perfectly chosen. To work properly, it must be placed beside the title of the book to which it is an explicit sequel, Ian MacDonald's Revolution in the Head: the Beatles's Records and the Sixties, first published in 1994. See the contrasts? Feel them? The era of the Beatles is one of revolution - that of Bowie, selling. And how much more loveable, even as words on the page, are "the Sixties" than "the 1970s"? Note that cold, distancing, specious "19". These distinctions reflect exactly our present cultural relation to both decades. We feel profoundly at home with the Sixties, the Beatles and all that they stand for; even "Revolution 9" has become as comforting as a slice of Brontë Fruit and Brandy Cake, because it's a failed revolution, and we Brits love nothing better than those. The Seventies, on the other hand, still seem capable of horribly unnerving us, because they were a failed counter-revolution, and we Brits hate nothing more than those.

Doggett's previous book, You Never Give Me Your Money: the Battle for the Soul of the Beatles (2009), was the perfect preparation for writing about both the Seventies and Bowie. Buried inside The Man Who Sold the World is a very hard-headed financial account of Bowie's career - an account which, at certain points, suggests that he was influenced far more by his bank balance than by, say, Lou Reed. "Bowie signed a five-year publishing deal with Chrys­alis Music in October 1970 . . . [for] a £5,000 advance . . . 'All of a sudden, all these great songs started appearing,' recalled Chrysalis executive Bob Grace."

This influx of cash comes at the start of the Seventies, before which Davie Jones then Davy Jones then David Bowie - despite numerous, excruciatingly charmless attempts to charm - had failed (apart from "Space Oddity") to connect with the British public. Cut to the death of the decade in 1980, and witness Bowie shutting up shop after Scary Monsters (and Super Creeps), at least partly because of a 1975 settlement "which ensured that his ex-manager would receive . . . 16 per cent of Bowie's income from all his recording projects and acting engagements until 30 September 1982". Note: Bowie's comeback hit "Let's Dance" was recorded in December 1982 - at which point it was more than homework that was being thrown on the fire. Says Doggett for the prosecution: "The Bowie of 'Let's Dance' (and the clumsily titled Serious Moonlight tour) questioned nothing, risked nothing, stood for nothing."

One of the greatest pleasures of Revolution in the Head is how astringent MacDonald can be with those loveable moptops, both musically and intellectually. Even though not quite his match, as either a prose writer or a social seismometer, Doggett achieves greatness in some of his one-liners. The Bowie of 1969 replaced "the 1967 model with the same lack of regret that Ford might have applied to the launch of a new Escort". Even at the height of 1973, "Bowie was a much better alarmist than he was a futurologist." Of the song "Station to Station", he observes that its "lumbering progress suggested a force too evil to stop". And the hits just keep on coming - to the point where one eventually realises that Doggett has lost, or never had, the underlying fondness for his subject that MacDonald managed to retain.

And here lies the chief difference between the two books. Revolution in the Head was, in the truest sense, revisionist history - de-tarnishing the reputation of the Sixties, and allowing us to see them in both their full glory and their brash crudity. Reading MacDonald on, say, the necessity and corrosiveness of LSD during the entire decade was to travel way beyond mere music criticism. Although Doggett tries, he can't quite manage to do the same for the coked-up Seventies. His cultural history is less nuanced than MacDonald's, and it seems that he finds very little in the decade worth the redemption of clarity. But the fault is as much ours as his; not only must our sons do their homework, they must go nowhere near fires.

Toby Litt's most recent novel is "King Death" (Penguin, £8.99)

This article first appeared in the 10 October 2011 issue of the New Statesman, The next great depression