Teenage Wildlife

An Interview with Nicholas Pegg

Author of The Complete David Bowie

Nicholas Pegg

Nicholas Pegg is the author of The Complete David Bowie. Pegg graduated from Exeter University with an MA in English Literature before going to drama school. When he's not being a journalist, Pegg is also an actor, director and playwright for everything from pantomimes to 'Doctor Who' scripts. His most recent writing/directing project is for the new audio series of 'Doctor Who', The Spectre of Lanyon Moor. You can also track him down in his guise as an actor, playing a devious priest in an episode called 'The Marian Conspiracy', available on double CD and cassette at www.doctorwho.co.uk.

The Complete David Bowie is his first book.

TW: What made you decide to write The Complete David Bowie?

It was a combination of things, really. I've been a fan of David Bowie for many years, and I'd always rather regretted the fact that there was no authoritative encyclopaedia or reference book that covered every aspect of his work. And then, round about the time of Bowie's fiftieth birthday celebrations, I found myself reading one of the biographies that came out in the mid-1990s - which shall remain nameless - and it hit me forcibly how many mistakes and misconceptions have been repeated over the years and become accepted as established fact. Perhaps more importantly, I was frankly pretty appalled at the intellectual level on which this particular book approached Bowie's work, and that started me thinking that nobody had ever really undertaken a major critical appraisal which treated Bowie's work with the respect and attention to detail that it deserved.

So I dug out a few scribblings I had made in the early 1990s, and began writing in earnest in January 1997. I finished in August 2000!

TW: When and how did you become interested in Bowie?

I'm 32, so I'm a little bit too young to have been one of the original Ziggy kids - I can remember seeing Bowie on television in 1973, but at the age of six I'm afraid Gary Glitter made more sense to me. What a confession.

The first Bowie single I bought (indeed, I think the first record I ever bought) was 'Sound And Vision' in 1977, and from then on I was always a fan. I suppose my full-scale conversion came a few years later at university - like many students over the decades, I only truly discovered albums like 'Hunky Dory' and 'The Man Who Sold The World' while sitting on the floor at parties in my late teens.

Bowie always seemed to me to be a fascinating barometer of the times, and he remains so today. A lot of the other rock/pop artists I particularly admire (they include people like Kate Bush, Joni Mitchell, Robert Smith and Marc Almond) have carefully staked out their own musical and thematic territory and made fascinating, brilliant careers out of exploring that one patch of ground minutely. By contrast, one of the things that's very special about Bowie is the way he challenges conventional ideas about the purity of artistic endeavour: he repaints his musical landscape and recontextualizes his work from one album to the next, but always with the same strong and consistent thematic threads running through.

I'm also very interested in theatre (my main career is as an actor/director/playwright) and Bowie's uniquely theatrical development of rock music is a source of endless pleasure and fascination.

Another thing I admire about Bowie - and it's something that has often been undervalued - is quite simply that he's one of the great popular songwriters of our time. Amid all the colour and extravagance and theatricality of his career, it's often overlooked that Bowie writes some truly wonderful songs. It's a simple point, but it's often ignored. 'Quicksand', 'Drive In Saturday', 'Word On A Wing' - or, getting more up to date, 'The Motel', 'Seven Years In Tibet' or 'Survive' - these are examples of great songwriting, certainly on a par with the Lennons and the Dylans, or whoever else you may care to name.

There's so much else to say, but I suspect I'm in danger of waffling...

TW: This might be the largest single volume ever written about the man. How long did it take you to research and put together the manuscript?

It's 350,000 words in total, which I believe makes it the longest Bowie book yet published. As I mentioned earlier, I was mapping it out embryonically in the mid-1990s, and I started writing and researching in earnest at the beginning of 1997. So it's been four to five years, slotted in between the various other fragments of my career! The final sprint took place from March to June this year, four months during which I was writing and rewriting solidly from morning till night every day. There were last-minute updates and corrections right up until the end of August, when it finally went off to the printers.

In addition to the masses of research, one of the hardest jobs was placing the book with an appropriate publisher. To begin with I received a few polite rejections - I've just dug out some correspondence from 1997, and one very high-profile publishing house informed me that the book would be "too narrow to appeal much beyond the ever-dwindling band of hardcore Bowie devotees". Charming! However, I soon started getting more encouraging noises from various publishers, and after much to-ing and fro-ing it became clear that Reynolds & Hearn were by far the best people for the project. They're a very experienced company who really care about the integrity and quality of their books, and it was such a relief to be working with people who agreed about how important it was to get everything exactly right. They even allowed me to extend my original word-count by an extra 50,000 which, I needn't tell you, has immeasurably improved the scope of the book. They were willingly incorporating my last-minute updates long after most publishers would have told the author to go home and have a lie down. It's been a very happy, very professional partnership and I'm extremely grateful to Marcus Hearn and Richard Reynolds for their belief in this project.

TW: How would you personally classify your book? Is it a reference tome or a biography? Or both?

Well, it's a bit of both really. Essentially I would regard it more as a reference work than a biography, as it's arranged subject-by-subject rather than in a straight chronological flow; but as you know, it would be impossible to discuss an album like 'Station To Station' or a song like 'Letter To Hermione' without a considerable biographical element coming into play. And although I have taken pains to avoid the unnecessarily sensationalist stuff that has occasionally crept into some biographies, I think it would be fair to say that my book has as great a biographical depth as many of its predecessors.

However, I'd hate to give the impression that it's nothing but a great big list of facts. Certainly a major emphasis has been the research of factual detail and the pursuit of absolute accuracy, but the book also seeks to analyse each song, album or tour, placing them in the cultural context of their times and exploring the resonances of the subject matter. So it's part history, part analysis.

TW: What materials did you use in researching the extensive facts contained in the book? How did you ensure their accuracy?

It's been a long, painstaking process, because right from the outset I was determined to ensure that the book was as factually accurate as I could possibly make it. Like every Bowie writer, I am of course indebted to my predecessors, and I'm happy to acknowledge my debt to ground-breaking biographers like Peter & Leni Gillman, Kenneth Pitt and David Buckley. But at the same time, I was determined to seek corroboration and cross-reference for factual claims made in any such books, and I did everything I could to obtain this.

It often meant trawling press archives and excavating original interviews and quotations which, in very many cases, have been quoted out of context for decades. Just to give you one tiny example, Bowie's famous description of the 'Young Americans' album as "plastic soul" has invariably been quoted in biographies and retrospectives as though it were a dismissive write-off of the album. But if you go back and find the complete quotation in the original interview (I quote it in context in the book), you'll find that it's nothing of the sort.

Another instance that springs to mind connected with 'Young Americans' is the popular misconception that the whole album (bar the two John Lennon tracks) was recorded in Philadelphia in August 1974 - in fact two other tracks, 'Win' and 'Fascination', weren't completed until December at New York's Record Plant Studios. The Lennon collaborations themselves, which many sources claim were recorded in late 1974, in fact date from January 1975. So it was a matter of checking up on many thousands of little points like that, right across Bowie's career. Each individual instance might seem trivial, but they quickly add up to become the basis for larger errors - and to paraphrase Bowie's famous remark about musical arrangements, a mistake repeated three times becomes a fact!

In the pursuit of accuracy I undertook a vast amount of comparative research in books, libraries, press archives and on the internet - I should add that Teenage Wildlife played a substantial role in this! I was very lucky to have the assistance of various writer friends who are also knowledgeable about Bowie, and with their help I ploughed through an unthinkably massive amount of documentation. It's one of the truths of documentary research that, provided it's conducted with sufficient rigour and with access to enough different sources, it becomes relatively simple to identify a common mistake and trace it back to its point of origin.

More specifically, I was very fortunate to have access to ground-zero resources like the BBC's Written Archives centre, with the result that I've been able to lay to rest such perennial confusions as the widely mis-reported dates of Bowie's 'Starman' TV appearances in 1972.

Also worth mentioning is the invaluable assistance I received from Steve Pafford, whose name will be familiar to you as the editor of the fanzine 'Crankin' Out!' and the co-author of the recent 'Bowiestyle' book. Steve very generously gave me access to previously unpublished interview material from his 'Crankin' Out!' days - with the result that, for example, my book is able to reveal for the first time the full personnel line-up for Bowie's 1967 outfit The Riot Squad.

So it was a case of constantly checking, double-checking and seeking external corroboration. Just to give you one final example, it's amazing how many accounts of Bowie's acting career have relied on nothing but previous Bowie books. By approaching the work from other directions (I consulted Martin Scorsese documents for material on Bowie's role in 'The Last Temptation Of Christ', Jim Henson interviews for material about 'Labyrinth', and so on), I was able to discover new and revealing insights.

TW: There are often rumours and anecdotes associated with Bowie's work. Were you personally able to confirm any previously "rumoured" stories as fact?

Oh gosh, that's an interesting one. Yes, I think there are quite a lot in the book. I'd better not reveal too much here, so how about a couple of amusing anecdotal facts...

Bowie was definitely offered the villain's role in Peter Davison's final 'Doctor Who' episode in 1983 (filming clashed with the Serious Moonlight tour, so his management turned down the offer straight away). And in the mid-1970s Bowie met with the actor Christopher Lee to discuss recording a duet. They never did, but Lee was offered complimentary tickets to Bowie concerts for many years afterwards, and he eventually went to see a Glass Spider show!

TW: Was there something that you were really surprised to discover about Bowie while writing the book?

One thing that never failed to surprise me throughout my researches was how the contemporary reaction to Bowie's work has nearly always been at variance with the views later fashioned by hindsight and history. I quote contemporary reviews of albums and tours throughout the book, as they're often fascinating. It's fairly well documented, for example, that the mighty 'Low' was almost universally panned by reviewers on its original release, even by dedicated Bowiephiles - but I was rather more surprised to find positively glowing reviews of 'Never Let Me Down', the Glass Spider tour and 'Tin Machine', reviews which we seem to have collectively erased from our memories. Pretty much every 1970s album from 'Aladdin Sane' to 'Lodger' was heavily knocked in its day, before being reclaimed as a classic. It's remarkable what a different picture is painted by hindsight and critical consensus.

TW: Have you had any personal communication with Bowie or his management regarding the publication of the book?

Only comparatively recently. Once publication was confirmed, Reynolds & Hearn conducted the standard discussions with Bowie's management regarding the safeguarding of copyrights etc, and I understand that David has requested a copy of the book when it's ready. It's all been very amicable, and I do hope that David likes the book - nothing would give me greater pleasure than that.

TW: Will The Complete David Bowie be updated and reprinted as Bowie's career progresses?

I certainly hope so, but of course it will depend on the success (or otherwise) of the first edition - no publisher in their right mind would reprint a book if they think it won't sell, so everyone had better go out and buy a copy straight away! So yes, I'd love to update it in the future if the sales figures allow.

TW: Knowing all you know now about Bowie, how do you think he will be judged by historians who write about popular music 50 years from now?

That's a very, very interesting question. I think first and foremost Bowie will certainly be perceived as the most significant British rock artist of the 1970s. But if that were to be his sole legacy, it would sadly be a bit of a double-edged compliment, because I sincerely believe that Bowie has contributed tremendously important and influential work to the other three decades (and counting) of his recording career. It would be nice to think that he'll be remembered fifty years from now as a multimedia artist whose work remained significant throughout his career, notwithstanding a few ups and downs during the 1980s.

It's good to see that Bowie's 1960s recordings are gradually being rehabilitated, because there's some great work in there. I also believe that, given time, Bowie's music from 1993 onwards will come to be regarded with far greater respect as a substantial and impressive body of work. At the moment each new album is greeted with surprise by critics who grudgingly confess to liking it, apparently having already forgotten that they also admitted they liked the last one, and the one before that. It will take time, but I'm certain that people will eventually look back on Bowie's 1990s recordings as among his most compelling and valuable work.

Bowie also deserves to go down in history as the first major artist to integrate concepts of irony, theatre, alienation and fictive distancing into popular music, opening up new avenues and fresh approaches which permanently altered rock and defined the post-Beatles landscape in the 1970s. In addition history has proved, time and again, that Bowie defies the lazy assumption that an artist should pander to his audience. His biggest mistakes have arisen from doing just that; his greatest creative successes have been born of a brilliantly perverse desire to try something new, to wrong-foot both himself and his audience. It's one of the elements that has made his career such a long and consistently brilliant one, and he deserves to be remembered for daring to do it over and over again.

And as I said earlier, over and above any amount of cultural analysis, I think David Bowie deserves to be remembered quite simply as a very fine songwriter and performer.

If you were to give one piece of advice to David Bowie, what would it be?

Keep moving on.

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This document last updated Wednesday, 20-Sep-2000 10:05:43 EDT
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