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18 January 2016

In defence of “bad” Bowie: why his least acclaimed album is my favourite

Tonight was panned by critics. Rolling Stone gave it one star. But it's the album I return to most often.

By Yo Zushi

“I grabbed Brian Jones’s ankle once,” says Patti Smith to her interviewer Thurston Moore, late one night in a Massachusetts hotel room. “It was in 1964 or 1965 . . . Brian was sitting on the floor playing a sitar.” The Rolling Stones were blasting through a set in a school auditorium and the girls behind the teenage Patti were growing restless. “They pushed me right on the stage and then I felt myself going under and I was gonna be trampled and, just out of total desperation, I reached up and grabbed the first thing I saw – and it was Brian Jones’s ankle . . . He looked at me. And I looked at him. And he smiled. He just smiled at me. My Brian Jones story.”

You can just about imagine grabbing the ankle of most rock stars – even one as heavily mythologised as Brian Jones. Dylan may kick you but, forced to choose between sharp jabs from his pointy shoes and being trampled on by high-school girls, you would grab his ankle. You would grab Prince’s ankle. But David Bowie’s – who could catch it? He seemed perpetually in flight.

My introduction to Bowie was his weird performance as the Goblin King in Jim Henson’s 1986 movie, Labyrinth. I saw it at school not long after it came out on VHS. Maybe that’s why my default mental image of him is as an upside-down dream-weaver in an Escher-like castle, always out of reach, always sliding from view. The music journalist Simon Reynolds once described him as “forever chasing the next edge”. That’s exactly what I picture.

Through much of the 1980s, however, David Bowie stood still. In 1982, after years as a tax exile in an Alpine health resort in Switzerland, he planted himself in the post-disco grime of New York City, where he struck up a friendship with Chic’s Nile Rodgers. A collaboration soon followed and the Rodgers-produced Let’s Dance became Bowie’s bestselling album. That was the point. “I want you to make hits,” he had instructed his producer. Songs such as “China Girl”, “Modern Love” and “Let’s Dance” weren’t just hits – they were pop hits.

The old, shape-shifting David Bowie of the 1970s would have taken the money and run. The new Bowie of the Reaganite 1980s decided instead to take the money and then take some more. Two further pop-oriented albums followed, Tonight (1984) and Never Let Me Down (1987), the latter complete with a sepia-toned video for the title song that was as anodyne as the 1980 “Ashes to Ashes” clip had been audacious.

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Looking back on those years, Bowie was contrite. “It fucked with my integrity,” he said in 1997. “The success of [Let’s Dance] really forced me, in a way, to continue the beast.” Melody Maker dismissed Tonight as “rotten”. Rolling Stone gave it one star. The same magazine wrote off Never Let Me Down as “something of a mess”. It was the first sustained attack on Bowie’s reputation and it bothered him. He attempted to redeem himself by pre-empting the era of bands and guitar rock that he correctly intuited was coming, but his Tin Machine project failed to win many fans. Nirvana and REM waited in the wings.

In England, groups such as Suede and Pulp were busy alchemising a new kind of pop that, marrying Bowie’s theatrics with the suburban romance of the Smiths, soon closed the door on his era of rock music. Bowie became an “influence” – a kind word for yesterday’s man.

Tonight remains the Bowie album I return to most often. Its critical panning seems, now that Bowie is gone, an aberration: no album that begins with the seven-minute masterpiece “Loving the Alien” and contains the rocking “Blue Jean” should have received the drubbing it got. The TV-special-style cover of the Beach Boys’ “God Only Knows” is as stirring, in its cold, almost Brechtian way, as Station to Station’s “Wild Is the Wind” (1976) – it’s like watching Elvis in Vegas through a sheet of ice.

If his fans felt betrayed by his half-decade in the mainstream, it was probably because he had stopped moving; he wasn’t running ahead, bringing back glimpses of pop’s undiscovered treasures. But I first found Bowie through Labyrinth and “Under Pressure”, a duet with Queen. His best music was old before I had heard any of it. He wasn’t my prophet, my scout of things to come. It never seemed a blasphemy that I felt I could reach out and grab at his ankles.

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This article appears in the 13 Jan 2016 issue of the New Statesman, David Bowie