Reviews of The Man Who Sold The World

THE OBSERVER

Christopher Bray's review (23 October 2011)

What's this? A book about David Bowie with no pictures inside? Your average Bowie book is composed of little but pictures, the better for purchasers to feast on all that satin and tat. Not for nothing did Bowie call one of his records Pin Ups. He knew that his fans liked looking at him at least as much as they liked listening to him. Brian Duffy, who shot the famously homoerotic image for the cover of Aladdin Sane, wasn't wrong when he called Bowie "a boy who liked dressing up". There was always more to Bowie than perms and pan-stick, but the credits on many of his greatest albums didn't style him "the Actor" for nothing.
Stage-struck and starry-eyed, Bowie loved the paraphernalia of thespianism almost as much as his worshippers did. Indeed, the one concession to the visual in Peter Doggett's thrilling new study of Bowie is its dust-jacket portrait of our pouting hero emerging from behind a Kabuki mask - an image that serves as a lovely pointer to the book's contents. A work of impeccable scholarly exegesis, The Man Who Sold the World is about as far removed from conventional biography as its subject is from run-of-the-mill rock'n'roll. Still, it is hard to imagine another book telling you more of what really matters about David Bowie than this one.
Its "unashamed model" is Revolution in the Head, Ian MacDonald's song-by-song analysis of the Beatles' oeuvre and its place in 60s culture. In fact, MacDonald was subsequently commissioned to write a companion volume on Bowie and the 70s. (A few tracks on Heathen aside, Bowie hasn't done anything of note since 1980's Scary Monsters.) Alas, MacDonald had apparently done little or no work on the book when, in 2003, he took his own life. Into the breach steps Doggett, whose own books on the Beatles and on rock's (frequently spurious) claims to radical politicking evince a man wholly at ease with MacDonald's brand of historicist aesthetics.
Not, says Doggett, that he has a hope in hell of besting his predecessor when it comes to formal analysis. "Ian MacDonald was a trained musicologist," he tells us in his introduction. "I have chosen to take more of a layman's path through Bowie's music." Some layman. Did you know that "Space Oddity" opens with a floating Fmaj7, and if you did - or could have worked it out with a little noodling - did you know that "the C chord that established the key was played higher up the guitar neck than its companions, despite occupying a lower place on the scale"? "He's only an eye," Cezanne said of Monet, "but my god, what an eye!" Peter Doggett, I think we can safely say, has a my-god of an ear.
But is the ear attached to a my-god of an intellect? Can Doggett move beyond the descriptive and categorical into the discerning and critical? Later on in his discussion of "Space Oddity" he mentions an "almost ethereal sequence of 'ninth' chords that suggested the spaceman hanging free" and a "Mick Wayne guitar solo that seemed to be testing out the walls of Major Tom's prison". I like that "seemed" even less than I like that "suggested", and can't help wondering whether those same ninth chords might not equally "signify" entrapment in a song whose lyric required them to. We are back, I'm afraid, with the old chestnut about music and meaning - about whether, say, the flute motif at the start of Beethoven's Pastoral evokes birdsong or merely reminds us that flautists, like birds, can make incomprehensible sounds that nevertheless please the human ear.
Thankfully, Doggett's more impressionistic judgments are spot on. Aladdin Sane is "a more 'real' album than Ziggy Stardust" - and "a more rewarding one" too. The beautifully multi-dubbed chorus vocal on Diamond Dogs's "Sweet Thing" does sound "pinched yet desperate". The "climactic 'genocide' line" in "Future Legend" is "silly". Bowie's "daredevil mutation into a Philadelphia soul man" on Young Americans did indeed "mask… self-disclosure". Less of a downer than it is often taken for, Low really does "convey… a state of emotional dissonance, in which depression [can] be uplifting and boredom become transcendent".
But it is in contextualising Bowie, in showing how he was nourished by multifarious aesthetic traditions, that Doggett comes into his own. Bowie was always candid about his work being a mash-up of whatever he'd been listening to or watching or reading, though he was often too drug-addled to actually detail chapter and verse. Not so Doggett, who as well as having a fully annotated mental jukebox he can access at will, appears to have read everything from Arendt to Zarathustra. He even owns up to having pushed his eyes through Colin Wilson, demonstrating pretty convincingly that Bowie swiped the imagery for Hunky Dory's "Quicksand" from Wilson's recently published The Occult. Hegel, weirdly, doesn't get a mention, though every page is infused with his spirit - so much so that the book could be called called "Ziggy Zeitgeist and the Riders from Marx". Hence Bowie, for Doggett, was the pre-eminent artist of the 70s because he embodied the decade's entropic dread as much as - perhaps more than - the happy-go-lucky antics of the Beatles did for its predecessor.
Does this mean that our own straitened times augur well for a Bowie comeback? We can but hope. Meantime, we have this challenging, cherishable goad of a guide to the great man's most vital work. Ian MacDonald might have done it differently, but he couldn't have done it better, and The Man Who Sold the World takes its place next to Revolution in the Head on the short shelf of necessary reading about pop. Praise doesn't come any higher.  

 

THE SUNDAY TIMES

Rob Fitzpatrick's review (9 October 2011)

Peter Doggett’s brilliant song-by-song analysis of David Bowie’s output in the 1970s looks behind his many guises

By early 1971 David Bowie had been attempting to become a star for nearly eight years. He’d tried R&B bands, he’d tried mime, he’d tried Dylanesque singer-songwriting, he’d tried brash mockney pop, but, so far, he’d only enjoyed moderate success with Space Oddity (1969), a dramatic, early Bee Gees-like novelty tune about an astronaut called Major Tom whom he pictured floating around in his “tin can” far above a blue planet earth. His previous album, The Man Who Sold the World (1970), had featured songs about alienation, madness and violence. Nobody bought it. Aged barely 24 he was, the author notes, “a performer without an audience”.
But Bowie’s next idea, the one where he became Ziggy Stardust, both “male and female, king and queen, alien and human, transcendental and sublime”, would transform him into the most indelible icon of the 1970s. Indeed, it was such a bold idea he initially lacked the confidence to try it out himself. Instead, he had a 19-year-old clothes designer called Freddie Burretti, whom he had met at Sombrero, a gay disco in Kensington, become “Rudi Valentino”, the lead singer (although he couldn’t sing) of an imaginary band, Arnold Corns, the prototype for Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars. On the series of demos the band produced, Bowie restricted himself to anonymously doing the vocal tracks. But when, once again, that didn’t sell, he took on the role and by late summer 1972 he had become Ziggy, a winking, pansexual Übermensch who, through carefully managed live and television appearances, became “a brand so powerful it would demolish everything in its path”. Including, very nearly, its creator.
The unashamed model for cultural historian Peter Doggett’s doorstop of a book about the golden years that followed is Ian MacDonald’s 1994 masterpiece, Revolution in the Head, a pioneering study of the genesis of, and meaning behind, every Beatles song ever produced. At the time of his death in 2003, MacDonald had been commissioned to write a similar book about Bowie and the 1970s. That project eventually became Doggett’s, and what he has delivered here is an astonishing and absorbing work that expertly unpicks this explosively creative time in Bowie's life.
There are more than 200 songs covered in detail in Doggett’s book, dating from the “mundane teenage narrative” of 1963’s unreleased I Never Dreamed all the way up to the “emotional fracture and disunion” of Because You’re Young from the album Scary Monsters (1980). Proceeding song by song, Doggett exploits the format perfectly, intercutting the individually tailored song biographies with essays on everything from glam rock, minimalism and punk, to radical left-wing politics, music video and a mass of other subjects that helped shape the ideas behind Bowie’s songs.
So after an essay on Nietzsche and 1930s science-fiction author Olaf Stapledon, we meet Bowie’s non-gender-specific glam rocker singing, in 1971’s Moonage Daydream, about a “pink monkey bird”, contemporary slang for a recipient of anal sex. When Doggett writes about Heroes (1977), he explains how Bowie got the inspiration for the song while looking out of his Berlin studio window watching two lovers (his married record producer Tony Visconti may have been one) meeting secretly by the wall.
Elsewhere the details pile up impressively: Kooks, from 1971’s Hunky Dory, was written about an unconventional family Bowie met in Chiswick. His classic 1974 single Rebel Rebel was a deliberate — and entirely successful — attempt to outdo the “tired self-parody” of the Rolling Stones’ most recent LP, Goats Head Soup, with lyrics that harked back to early 1960s insults about the band’s ambiguous sexual identity (“Got your mother in a whirl, she’s not sure if you’re a boy or a girl” deliberately echoes the “Are they girls or boys?” jibes hurled at the Stones in the early 1960s). Fame (1975) drew from James Brown and Sly Stone while touching on the “epic folly” of a musical about Marilyn Monroe (financed by Bowie’s management company) that closed after one, disastrous night on Broadway.
In the mid-1980s Bowie achieved a whole new level of fame with Let’s Dance and a series of Best Of albums, but by then, Doggett argues, he was artistically finished, someone who “questioned nothing, risked nothing [and] stood for nothing”.
In the succinct and illuminating essays that bookmark each turn in the story, Doggett introduces us to many different Bowies. Here is the seven-stone “ravaged” cocaine addict subsisting on Complan supplement drinks. Here is the dress-wearing hippie poet. Here is the stage actor able to portray Elephant Man John Merrick without, for once in his long career, “an ounce of irony” (in the audience one night was John Lennon’s killer Mark Chapman who had, at first, considered shooting Bowie).
To be so skilfully reminded of Bowie's ability to inhabit many different lives is just one of the strengths of Doggett's book, but at the heart of this story is the idea that Bowie’s “ferocious” 1970s work rate, and his restless, relentless creativity, was a way of avoiding the mental breakdown that consumed his elder half-brother Terry, who committed suicide in 1985. Their relationship was so important to Bowie that he wrote The Bewlay Brothers in tribute to it, then used that name — originally a chain of London tobacconists — for his own music publishing company. It was Bowie’s belief that as long as he channelled his “psychological excesses” into his work, he could successfully skirt the shadow of madness. “I felt so utterly inadequate,” he said later. “Work was the only thing of value.”
Ultimately, Doggett's insight and enthusiasm should send you back to the music. If you do so, the book will ensure you experience something entirely new. Just reading about the “fleet-footed, sneeringly confident” Sweet Head (1971) or even the wrongly transcribed Swahili lyrics of 1978’s African Night Flight had me eager to re-engage with the songs. While Bowie has, in recent years, followed Major Tom into an “isolated silence”, the work he created through such a phenomenally productive decade has lost none of its power.