Teenage Wildlife

Words and Music January 1988


by Radcliffe A. Joe


David Bowie is riding high. His hit single, "Never Let Me Down," from the album of the same title, is romping up the charts. The North American segment of his "Glass Spider" tour (the tour started in Europe and will play around the world) is playing to sellout crowds at arenas around the country, and at the end of the year he will return to the movie studios to make two new movies–one with Mick Jagger, tentatively titled, "Rocket Boys," and the other in a Tony Scott movie. Scott has made such movies as "Top Gun," "Beverly Hills Cop II," and "The Hunger," in which Bowie had a featured role.

The popular British rock entertainer recently took time out of his busy schedule to talk about his new album, his tour, songwriting, and the music industry in general. "Never Let Me Down" is his first major writing and recording effort since 1984, and the "Glass Spider" tour is designed in part as a support vehicle for the album. Bowie has shelled out $10 million of his own money to underwrite this tour, with the Pepsi Cola Company picking up a small percentage of the rest of the cost.

W&M: This is the first time since 1984 that you’ve returned to the studio to make your own album. Was there a specific motivation?

BOWIE: My motivation is always to make records. I am first and foremost a writer, singer and musician. I find the record-making process euphoric, depressing and utterly fascinating. When I’m recording I want out, when I’m not I’m looking for any chance to get back into the studio.

W&M: Was your approach to, or execution of "Never Let Me Down," different from your previous musical efforts?

BOWIE: My last album ("Tonight") had huge audience reaction. It increased my audience to a size that I never imagined was possible. Up until that time I had only performed in 10,000 seat auditoriums. That was my level, and we suddenly found ourselves in stadiums of up to 70,000. One of the initial shows on that tour was 250,000 people, which is a lot of people. I was kind of flabbergasted. I didn’t quite know what to do with it all.

So, I started writing for myself. I concentrated on doing sound tracks, and I worked with a couple of other artists including Iggy Pop. During that process I found that I really wanted to write again. So, I approached it from the point of view of having a slow year in a band, and getting back to a rock ‘n’ roll feel that I fundamentally enjoy.

W&M: Your "Serious Moonlight" tour in 1983 coincided with the release of that album, and the entire presentation was reminiscent of a greatest hits style package. Am I right?

BOWIE: Yes, very much so. It was styled that way. Like I said, my audience had increased from around 10,000 to 70,000, and I suddenly realized that there were 60,000 people unaccounted for that probably had just come along out of curiosity because of the "Let’s Dance" single (which was a monster hit). If that was the case I wanted to take the opportunity to introduce them to all the songs I’d written over the past 20 years. Hey, listen, I’ve written some pretty good stuff. You may not have known it was me singing them or in fact, writing them. Anyway, we anticipate getting similar size crowds this time, and I decided I would introduce something further back from my career and reflect on the kinds of theatrical things that I do.

W&M: Talking about "Let’s Dance," that single was such a monster hit, it left a lot of people expecting another dance-oriented album. How come you went for a different sound?

BOWIE: Well I didn’t want to get trapped in that kind of period piece. I didn’t want to start off in the 1980s and just be the "Let’s Dance" guy, and carrying on trotting out that kind of music. It’s not what I wanted to do. It was a fluke single, and I’m happy with it, but I don’t expect to have another single like that kind of success or sound.

W&M: Somehow the vocals on "Never Let Me Down" appear to project a different character from one track to another. Can you explain?

BOWIE: I’ve always been a big fan of rock ‘n’ roll, and rock ‘n’ roll artists. I found that their influences have kept me buoyant, I like being impressed by what other are doing, and I thought it might be nice to sort of includes, in this album, references to all the other artists that I’ve enjoyed over the years. There are some aspects of Prince and Smokey Robinson, and I incorporate those sorts of attitudes into my way of writing songs. Generally, when I do an album I concentrate on a single songwriting style. However on this one I seem to tap into all the styles in which I’ve written over the years.

W&M: Was Little Richard a big influence on your music?

BOWIE: Little Richard and John Lee Hooker, but Richard was my Patron Saint. I heard his records for the first time when I was a kid. My father brought them home. I couldn’t play them properly because we had only a 78 (rpm) windup, and they were 45s with holes in the middle, so I spent hours trying to find something that would fit on the spindle so that I could play them. Of course they played fast, but I found a way to play them slowly, and thought, Gosh! These are great! So I ordered 78s through the record shop down the street. Those were the records that England was playing at the time. We didn’t get 45s until quite a few years later. Little Richard, at that age, was the one who influenced me the most mainly because of the dynamics of his energy and the sax lineup which he had. He had two baritones and tenors which impressed me a lot. So I bought a tenor saxophone. That’s how my musical career got started.

W&M: How would you describe your lyric writing style?

BOWIE: My early writing was very fragmented. However, I believe that today I am writing in a much more linear, narrative fashion, but I do depend on the idea of juxtaposing several images together to create a new piece of information. I’ve always been enamored of that way of writing, ever since I read people like William Burroughs, and some of the best poets and writers of the late 1950s and ‘60s. They also influenced my writing style predominantly, even more that other rock writers. I think my input came generally from a literary era rather than a rock era. I might be wrong, but it certainly feels that way.

W&M: Do you have a favorite song on the new album?

BOWIE: I am very instinctive as an entertainer and a writer, and I never quite know what I’m doing until I’ve done it. When I finished the album, I really liked "Never Let Me Down," I thought that was a really great song. Now that we’ve started playing things live and in rehearsal, there are quite a few things that are coming up. "Time Will Crawl," is among my other favorites.

W&M: What is it about "Time Will Crawl’ that makes it a favorite?

BOWIE: There is a rudeness about it musically. It doesn’t do very much. It just sort of plows through. However, it’s got great momentum, and it’s tough. It’s got a nice toughness to it. It was very quickly written.

W&M: There appears to be a dimension to "Time Will Crawl" that goes beyond its musicality, am I right?

BOWIE: I think it’s the closest thing I’ve written to a protest song. That seems to be something I only recently discovered in myself. I don’t think I’ve done it very well, because I’ve never done it before. A lot of songs on the album are far more pertinent socially than I’ve written for a long time, if ever. Up until now my works were very impressionistic, and had an ambient feel to them. A lot of the stuff on this album is much more direct.

W&M: There’s quite a difference between a song like "Time Will Crawl" and "Blue Jean". Can you explain?

BOWIE: "Blue Jean" is a piece of sexist rock ‘n’ roll. It’s about picking up birds. It’s not very cerebral. Then you’ve got "time Will Crawl" which is, of course, terribly cerebral. Laden with images, one over the other. It deals with the idea that somebody in one’s own community could turn out to be the man whos’ responsible for blowing out the world.

W&M: It must be refreshing that you can still experiment and not have to rely on nostalgia to attract your audiences.

BOWIE: Absolutely. It might have gotten to the point where I would have had to go out and do greatest hits before "Serious Moonlight," and end up like a lot of other artists who simply go out and their biggest hits because they’ve got to keep the money coming in. I’m not forced into that corner, and I feel for artists who are, especially if they get the urge to go with new stuff, new material and everything, but can’t guarantee that they’ve got an audience. Fortunately I’ve been able to keep on moving.

W&M: Are you disappointed that "Never Let Me Down" has not done better on the charts as an album?

BOWIE: Not really. I’ve made about 20 albums during my career, and so far this is my third biggest seller. So I can’t be that disappointed, yet, it is a letdown that it hasn’t been as buoyant as it should be.

W&M: The release of "Never Let Down" coincided with the merger of EMI/America/Manhattan. Do you think it may have suffered because of those circumstances?

BOWIE: I think that probably had an awful lot to do with it. EMI may well have felt unsteady as a company long before it released this album. So it has not been entirely the best year on that side. But I don’t really feel that negative about it. As far as I’m concerned it’s one of the better albums I’ve made. As I’ve said. "Never Let Down" has been a pretty big seller for me. So I’m quite happy.

W&M: Maybe interest will pick up now that the tour has started and the title cut has been released as single.

BOWIE: Yes. We’re all expecting to see greater momentum on the charts with the tour to support the album.

W&M: Was "Never Let Down" your first choice for release as a single?

BOWIE: More or less. I was also strong on "Making My Love," but the final say was with EMI.

W&M: And they decided to go with "Never Let Me Down?"

BOWIE: Yes. You see I really wouldn’t know a single if it hit me in the face. I’ve never been a single-oriented person–not for my own stuff anyway. I know if an album’s good, but as far as singles go, I have no idea what they (consumers) are buying.

W&M: From your perspective, what changes do you see happening in rock ‘n’ roll? Where is it going, and where do you fit into it?

BOWIE: Touring is beginning to change, interestingly enough. Other bands are getting the kind of work that they used to get, just on the strength of having a hit single or having a big video, and I think the emphasis is back on trying to make the live performance interesting. I think of a lot of hard work is coming back into bands, in terms of performance, which I think has got to be good. It’s nice to see an emphasis on live shows again. It had sort of petered out for a while. I think now there is a new energy back in live performances. The energy seems to be refocused on the live performance, which I for one am very happy about.

W&M: Can you equate musical proficiency with the energy in rock?

BOWIE: I don’t know about that, I’ve never been one for the virtuoso. I mean as long as the energy, at least a summoned anger is present, that for me is enough. I don’t care whether the guy can’t play more than three chords. It’s the attitude that he has when he plays them.

W&M: Do anger, energy and enthusiasm characterize you on stage?

BOWIE: I think my performance on stage sums up my excitement and exuberance for living, and it’s tempered by bitterness and anger. It’s all part of a rock ‘n’ roll message.

W&M: Do you see music in the 1980s as a tool to effect social change?

BOWIE: I doubt whether that’s necessarily rock’s purpose, or its singular purpose. First and foremost rock has always represented the feeling of the younger generation. That’s inevitably how it makes its first impact. The thing is, a lot of us are growing older, that’s what changing. But a lot of us are still playing rock ‘n’ roll, and are listening to it when not involved in music. So its changed its generation scope. It now goes from age 15 or 16 through to my kind of age. Nonetheless I still feel it can be represented…But it has proved, throughout the years that it can affect social change, in a certain way or at least refurbish people’s attention to different areas of society. Still, it’s not its primary purpose.

W&M: You’re in the middle of a world tour with your album. What sort of a challenge is it?

BOWIE: This is a very theatrical tour for me. But the theatrics don’t necessarily mean characterization or relying on gimmicks, sets or whatever. This tour certainly has a massive set.* It also has a fair amount of very sophisticated lighting; but the idea was to enhance what we were doing on stage. It really is about mixed media, and a relentless energy, rather than characterization. I haven’t done anything like this for years. The preparation has been quite a physical show, which is good for me. Musically I delved into areas of songs which the public wouldn’t be expecting. It’s not a greatest hits show by any means. There are a few songs in there that people know. A lot of them will be quite obscure, but quite as interesting as my better known tunes, in a different way. The songs have been chosen to flush out the show, rather than the show being there to show off the songs.

W&M: Are there any specific problems with touring a show with sets that big?

BOWIE: Well, for one thing we cannot play indoors anywhere. The tour was halfway through Europe before I found that out. It would cost me between $500,000 and $600,000 to alter the sets enough to bring the show indoors. Still, I would like to play an arena like New York’s Madison Square Garden, so I may decide to have a smaller "indoor" set made somewhere during the tour.

W&M: Does the Glass Spider tour have a theme? I mean, is there anything different or special that we should be looking for?

BOWIE: What I’ve really done is put together two or three songs around a particular thematic device, and that changes throughout the show. It takes you from one area and from one mood to another quite rapidly. It’s a big set, but it’s not particularly the predominant feature. It’s what happens on stage physically that makes it interesting.

W&M: How do you prepare for a tour?

BOWIE: I think I screen out just about everything else. I mean it’s really hard for me to concentrate on just about anything during the process of the show. I prepare the day’s work when I get up in the morning, and then I go in around 10 o’clock (a.m.) for rehearsals. Then it’s constant rehearsals, both the visual side and the musical side, through about 8 o’clock (p.m.). At around 8 p.m. I look at the video tapes of what we’ve been doing during the day, and make adjustments if necessary. So there really isn’t time to do anything else at all except Sundays, and then I sleep for most of the day. It’s very intensive rehearsals, and physically it’s quite demanding.

W&M: How do you handle the rigors of life on the road?

BOWIE: Actually I find stress is far greater during rehearsals than it is during the performance, because I’m anticipating whether what I’m doing is any good, whether mistakes are being made, and whether they can be sorted out. That’s the high stress area. After the first night I know whether or not the show is any good. I think then it becomes a lot easier. The day to day aspects tend to get mundane and boring. The performance is the only light at the end of the tunnel. I am anticipating that on the next tour I’ll be about to take a lot more advantage of being in different cities. I’ll try to find ways of getting out and around the town, to have a look around and find out what it’s like. I’m going to many new places I haven’t been to before. Madrid and Rome are among them. It’ll be sort of an adventure.

W&M: What sort of a response do you expect from your audience?

BOWIE: I either want a bad response or a good response. I hate something in the middle. I mean, if it’s too politely received then it’s a total failure for me. I want to have some reaction.

W&M: What do you think your audience expects from you?

BOWIE: I guess that they come along to see whether I’ll fall down or something. I really don’t know. I know that they get what they consider is a really good performance. I think that over the years I’ve proved that I do my best to provide them with some new vision of musical information on the stage. So I think there’s probably that element in it, but I couldn’t go any further than that. I really don’t know what they want from me. I’ve never really been able to write for them. I’ve only written and performed that which interests me. So essentially they have an agreement with me and that’s great. I mean, I’ve lost audiences many times over the years, and they’ve come back again for one reason or another. I’ve sort of got that mutual agreement with them. If it’s not going very well then they stay away. Which is fair enough, you know.

W&M: What do you want from your audience on this tour?

BOWIE: I think I’m going to make them work harder on this tour. We’ll all be working together. It’s a tough show to go to. It’s pretty abstract and not easy for an audience to follow. Which is exciting. It’s quite radical in a way. It’s not the sort of show where the audience can sit back and be entertained that way. They have to work. They have to focus hard, but I open it up towards the end, and make it a lot simple to follow.

W&M: Of all the characters you’ve portrayed as a musician and actor, do you have a favorite?

BOWIE: I can’t help but have a soft spot for Ziggy Stardust. Not that I’d ever want to portray him again, but it certainly was sort of fun at the time. I inevitably like the thing that I’m doing at the moment. I like what we’re playing musically at the moment. I like the way the tour is going. So I guess this is my first favorite. In terms of anything I’ve done on film, I quite like the old vampire play ("The Hunger"), and I liked the little John Landis cameo that I did.

W&M: Musicians don’t get the chance to change personae without confusing their audience. How have you managed it?

BOWIE: It’s very hard to convince people that you can be quite different on offstage. It’s part of the wider principles of rock that the person himself is really and truly expressing what he feels from there. That applies to a lot of artists, but to me it doesn’t. It never did. I always saw it as a theatrical experience.

W&M: What direction do you see music videos taking today?

BOWIE: I’m not sure where that will go. I hope that they would harden up and become more creatively responsible. There’s an awful lot of fashion show quality to them. I never really wanted to do that. I guess I probably did, on a couple of things. "Life On Mars," was one such project. Generally, I try to get my videos to have an equal balance to the song that I’m interpreting, and I try to make them constructive and interesting and make them say something. At the moment music videos have got sort of vacuous and flaccid, flabby. They need hardening up. It will happen.

W&M: Do you have a current favorite band?

BOWIE: There’s an English band I like very much. Nobody seems to have heard of them. They’re called The Screaming Blue Messiahs and I’m pushing them like mad. I think they’re really good. There’s an element of The Clash in them that I really like. But there’s something else there. I’m not really sure what it is. There’s an exciting guitar player. He’s a sort of new wave guitar player, but they’re an angry mob from London.

W&M: Is there an artistic renaissance flourishing in Europe?

BOWIE: I know it’s bubbling. I don’t think it’s very evident at the moment. I know there are certain things coming out of Spain. Spain is becoming a really interesting place, with new music, architecture, painting. I think, unfortunately, in every case when a country becomes economically depressed it usually produces its best artist, and one of course sees that happening in Europe. I would guess that the economic strife that started to happen in America will also reflect itself in a new strength of cultural expression.

*Editor’s Note: The sets for the "Glass Spider" tour are ambitious, to say the least. They weigh 360 tons and take between four and five days to assemble. Because of their massive size, and assembly time required, two identical sets were created a cost of $10 million each for the U.S. tour. This was necessary in order to maintain a schedule of about three shows a week. The way it is handled is that while one set is being used for one show, the other is being assembled in preparation for another. Now Bowie is talking of constructing a third set that will enable him to play some indoor venues.

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