One of the things I always like to ask people when I’m playing getting-to-know-you is what’s your favourite David Bowie song? I think it says a lot about a person, which of his incarnations you’re drawn to, and my own pick is constantly shifting and changing. I guess he was always around in the background somewhere as I was growing up, though neither of my parents were ever particular fans. The first time I remember becoming conscious of him was when my amazingly eccentric/borderline secondary school Modern Languages teacher Mrs Smith, upon discovering that someone in our class had never heard of her favourite artist, cancelled the next day’s lesson to have us sit listening to Space Oddity with eyes closed and heads down on the desks. Afterwards, going around the room one by one, we were to list something we’d particularly enjoyed about the track. Anyone who hadn’t liked it was made to defend their opinion against The Ultimate Bowie Fangirl Machine, until they were inevitably beaten into submission and made to announce that 2 + 2 certainly did = a rather spectacular 5.
So maybe it’s like the musical version of Stockholm Syndrome, but I got a bit fixated on David Bowie a few years ago. I had been super into Madonna for a while and read a few interviews where she talked about how sneaking out to see one of his concerts was a formative moment in her life and career, then I took a class on psychoanalysis in pop culture and watched clips from Life on Mars and talked about performers like Bowie (and Madonna) who embodied the ideals of postmodernism, that the solid ‘self’ does not exist and we can choose to be who and whatever we want to be. Soon enough I started googling around and youtubed some of his videos and performances and interviews to get a sense of how much he played around with those kinds of concepts. There were a few of his songs that sunk their claws into me, but I would especially listen to TVC 15 on repeat for literally hours. It remains one of my favourite Bowie tracks.
I love the bizarre seediness of it, the strange calypso drums and Bowie’s odd Elvis intonations on the verse, and the kind of baggy trousers oompah oompah lairishness of it. I love the amazing sci-fi off-set of singing about state-of-the-art technology (oh, 70s) in such an old-fashioned thigh-slappin’ cabaret stylee. “The song was inspired by an episode in which Iggy Pop, during a drug-fuelled period at Bowie’s LA home, hallucinated and believed that the television set was swallowing his girlfriend.” Bowie’s relationship with Mr Pop has always fascinated me. There’s this whole rock ‘n’ roll mythology bit about how they moved into a tiny ramshackle flat in Wall-era West Berlin in the 70s to break away from their celebrity, find inspiration in the kraut rock scene, and get clean. Lou Reed joined them and the three spent the majority of their time nightclubbing, genderfucking, and writing some of the most depressing and sordid songs of their (/anyone’s) careers. I think about this, like, all the time.
Station to Station was the album preceding Bowie’s Berlin Trilogy.’ Subsisting on a diet of milk, peppers, and cocaine, obsessed with the occult, and living “in a state of psychic terror”, he performed under the guise of his last great character, the sinister Thin White Duke, “a hollow man who sang songs of romance with an agonised intensity while feeling nothing”; “ice masquerading as fire.” I love this clip of rehearsals for his 1976 tour. The wolf whistles and how feminised he becomes; the sort of new yoik sitcom theme tune jazz guitar intro and the pathetic weakness of his solo chorus. The pointy fingers at 3.17! It’s all so camp and bombastic, a parody of itself, almost mocking the (hypothetical) audience for seeming to think this is a song one should want to see performed. Wonderfully cruel.
There don’t appear to be many later renditions of the track kicking around — it’s not a song Bowie tends to play in concert anymore — but this is a great version performed on the London stage at Live Aid in 1985. The thrusting hips, the bouncing back-up girls, the frenetic oh-oh-oh-oh-ohs. No longer creepy and absurd and sparse as in the original studio recording, nor sung from very far away with a sneer of derision as by the Duke, all of a sudden TVC 15 becomes crazy meaningless happy bouncy party song! Of all his repertoire, at this point in his career, it strikes me as hilarious that Bowie would choose this song as one of only four to be broadcast before the eyes of the entire watching western world. It works completely in this context — it sounds, to all intents and purposes, like a perfect and obviously appealing candidate for performance to such a mass audience — but he had to completely renovate the track to make it such a rousing crowd-pleaser as this. And should any of the millions watching at home want to track down a copy for their personal collection, they would be introduced to quite a different Bowie in perusing Station to Station and beyond. He mightn’t be mocking himself so overtly anymore, as his alter-ego once did — in fact this performance, in all its shoulder-padded synthesized glory, is almost embarrassingly embarrassmentless. But the song’s inclusion at all perhaps suggests a certain level of discomfort in his status at this time, serving as a kind of caveat emptor, a look closer, an I’m not there.
For the record, I love Yuppie Sell-Out Stadium-Filling Bowie. I always thought it was more about playing into yet another role, monkey-barring his way into the big money music biz, trying on a different costume and stretching himself out in a different direction, without ever losing a sense of detached observation of what was going on around him. He’s never exactly been one for claiming moral integrity or rejecting the base desires. Once it was about lust and gluttony, now it was about greed and pride. But I watched an interview with him once, talking about those years, and he said one night he looked out over the audience and he realised they all looked like they should be at a Phil Collins concert. And he would never be at a Phil Collins concert. And suddenly he wanted to retreat and get back to a time when it was a little less about fame and a little more about infamy, where he might have been popular but never mainstream. So maybe this new interpretation of TVC 15 is just that; an artistic step forward, a bid to improve upon, or modernise, an earlier recording that perhaps at the time seemed silly, but now just seemed kind of… fun.