Bowie finds his voice
Robert Hilburn • Melody Maker • 14 September 1974
"I really shouldn't do this", teased
David Bowie as he walked across the room of his Beverly Hills hotel
suite toward a mound of tape equipment. I had come to talk to him
and hear his new live album (a two-record set from his current United
States tour), but there was something else he wanted to play first.
"This isn't the new album, but the one after it,
and the record company doesn't like me to do that. They want me
to talk about the new one, the live one that'll be out soon. But
I'm so excited about this one. We cut it in a week in Philadelphia
and it can tell you more about where I am now than anything I could
This was Bowie's first interview since he began his
massive US tour last June, a tour that included such ambitious staging
that many reviewers have hailed it as the most spectacular rock
Bowie doesn't like interviews and rarely does them
anymore. They are, he feels, unnecessary links between him and his
Like so many, he feels his music conveys everything
he wants to say. Besides, he hates to read later when his views
on a subject may have changed drastically.
And David's views - he's the first to admit - do
change often and drastically.
He was a bit nervous when he entered the room. He
simply walked over to the tape equipment and rummaged through some
boxes until he found the right one, and began threading the machine
and adjusting the controls.
For those who still take note of his fashion, he
now parts his hair down the side - a bit like the 1930s look.
The popular Ziggy hairstyle is gone. He was wearing
black tux trousers, a blue and white check shirt and bold white
suspenders. His shoes were black, rather like a conservative banker
might wear. No platforms.
Satisfied the tape equipment was working properly,
he moved to a chair and listened as the music came from the speakers.
From the opening track (a new version of John, I'm
Only Dancing) it was clear some changes had been made in Bowie's
The musical backing featured a strong touch of rhythm
and blues, but mainly it was the confidence, increased shading and
range of his voice. It was far less one-dimensional than in the
past. More human and "authentic".
The next track - Somebody Up There Likes Me - was
even more telling. It was a socio-political commentary, very direct
in its lyrics.
The other tracks - including a ballad about love
having slipped through one's grasp, and a lament about the loss
of emotion in this era that contains the line, "Ain't there one
damn song that can make me break down and cry?" - were also more
direct and accessible than much of Bowie's previous work. There's
no resort to science fiction or indirect statement.
When the tape ended, there was less nervousness in
Bowie's manner. He was obviously delighted with the new album. It
was as if the music gave him greater confidence.
Later, the nervousness would reappear from time to
time and when it did he would usually end his comment with a nervous
laugh as if to underscore his uncertainty about the particular answer.
"I think it is the closest thing I've ever done on
record to being very, very me," he said. "I always said that on
most albums I was acting. It was a role generally.
"And this one is the nearest to actually meeting
me since that very first Space Oddity album, which was quite personal.
I'm really excited about it."
There seemed to be much less tension and more focus
in the new album - tentatively titled One Damn Song - than in
the recent Aladdin Sane and Diamond Dogs albums.
I asked him about that. He said he had been through
a strain on both of those albums.
"Aladdin Sane was a result of my paranoia with
America at the time," he said. "I hadn't come to terms with it,
then. I have now, I know the areas I like best in America.
"I know the kind of people I like. I've been here
a long time - since April. I've had a chance to clarify my feelings.
And I'm quite happy over here. I found different people.
"But I ran into a very strange type of paranoid person
when I was doing Aladdin. Very mixed up people, and I got very
upset. It resulted in Aladdin … And I know I didn't have very
much more to say about rock'n'roll.
"I mean Ziggy really said as much as I meant to
say all along. Aladdin was really Ziggy in America. Again, it
was just looking around, seeing what's in my head.
"The Pin Ups album was a pleasure. And I knew the
band (the Spiders) was over. It was a last farewell to them in a
way. Diamond Dogs was the start of this new album, actually.
"Things like Rock 'N' Roll With Me and 1984 were
embryonic of what I wanted to do. I tried all kinds of things. It'
was not a concept album. It was a collection of things.
"And I didn't have a band. So that's where the tension
came in. I couldn't believe I had finished it when I did. I had
done so much of it myself. I never want to be in that position again.
"It was frightening trying to make an album with
no support behind you. I was very much on my own. It was my most
difficult album. It was a relief that it did so well."
Was he worried during Diamond Dogs about where
he was going next musically?
"No, I knew it was toward this album. Even then.
The songs on Diamond Dogs that I got the biggest kick out of -
like Rock 'N' Roll With Me and 1984 - gave me the knowledge
there was another album at least inside of me that I was going to
be happy with.
"I mean, if I can't make albums that I'm happy with,
I'll not make them. I won't just go in and knock off dozens of albums.
They must mean something to me.
"It just happens that I write very fast. I write
a lot. That's why I seem to have so many bloody albums out."
Though the new album, then, is a departure for Bowie,
he gave clues to it all along. Even during the peak success of Ziggy
Stardust he had said he was not interested in just being a rock
He wanted a broader, more multi-directional career.
While the new album, is the boldest step in that direction, songs
like Time on Aladdin Sane gave hints of his future.
"Exactly," he said, "it has always been there. It
was just a question of when I was going to come out of my particular
closet. The answer, obviously, was when I had the confidence to. Presumably, the next album will be a further graduation. But, maybe,
it'll be a retrostep. We'll see." The nervous laughter popped up
I asked him about the rhythm and blues influence.
Was it something new?
"No. But it's only now that I've got the necessary
confidence to sing like that. That's the kind of music I've always
wanted to sing.
I mean those are my favourite artists… the Jackie
Wilsons, that type. That was one of the great things about this
trip. I could go to any black place in America and not be recognised.
And that was really fantastic. The only time, really, we got any
kind of recognition on a large scale was at the Jackson 5 concert
because there was a younger audience. But at most of the R&B
shows, they're married couples, not kids, so it was marvellous for
me to be able to go out and rave and yell. I went to the Apollo
a lot, saw dozens of people."
When did the vocal confidence come to him?
"When I started rehearsing with the band for this
tour, I suddenly realised I was enjoying singing again. I hadn't
enjoyed it in a long time. It was just a way to get my songs across.
But when I started rehearsing I began enjoying it and I found I
actually had a voice.
"That's really exciting for me. My voice has
improved in leaps and bounds. I've been flattered by some of the
things the musicians have said about my singing. I'd really like
to be recognised as a singer. I'd love that."
Was singing always a goal?
"I don't know," he smiled. "Once upon a time when
I was very young like 22 or something… I had my eye on that,
but I never really took it seriously. I didn't have any sort of
faith in my voice. I knew that I had an individual voice, but how
I'm beginning to believe it's good as well. Maybe I just want to
be a crooner… "
That laughter popped up again. One of the most interesting
songs on the new album is Somebody Up There Likes Me, a warning
about the danger of hero worship.
"There are several things on this album that lead
front other things I've done," he said. "Really, I'm a very one
track person. What I've said for years under various guises is that
'Watch Out, the West is going to have a Hitler!' I've said it in
a thousand different ways. That song is yet another way.
"I just feel we are very open to… " he continued,
then paused and broke off his thought by saying he hates to pontificate
in that way. He just feels, he said, we all have a temptation to
let others make our decisions for us - to lead us. "That's what
Ziggy was. That's what they all are… all the little characters
I come up with."
Wasn't it ironic, then, I suggested, that so many
of Bowie's own fans look to him as a leader - someone give them
"That's just it," he said. "That's what I said in
Rock 'N' Roll With Me. I mean, the verse of that talks about that…
you're doing it to me. Stop it."
Again, the nervous laugh.
"That's why I'm happy my music is going in the new
direction. It's responsible music. I mean, one could play an enormous
game with people, but I am not prepared to do it. I could see how
easy it was to get a whole rally thing going.
"There were times, frankly, when I could have told
the audience to do anything, and that's frightening. Well, I've
got that responsibility so I've got to be very careful about what
I do with it. It needs a bit of forethought."
How does he feel his audience will respond to this
"When we were recording, a bunch of kids stayed outside
the studio all night until 10 o'clock in the morning, so we let
them in and played some things from the album and they loved it,
which was amazing. Fabulous, because I really didn't know what they'd
think about the change in direction."
What about the absence of science fiction in the
new album? Was that part of his increased confidence.
"Yes it is in a way. I used a lot of science fiction
patterns because I was trying to put forward concepts, ideas and
theories, but this album hasn't anything to do with that. "It's
just emotional drive. 'It's one of the first albums I've done that
bounds along on emotional impact. There's not a concept in sight."
He'd felt a concept was important?
"Yes, very much so. That's what I felt my area as
a writer was, but I've obviously changed. When I finished this album,
I felt. 'My God, I'm a different writer than I used to be.' Before
you put it all together, you don't know what you've really got -
just bits and pieces.
"But then when we listened to it all together, it
was obvious that I had really, really changed. Far more than I had
thought. Every time I play a finished album I get a shock. I think
- wow, is that where I am now?"
It seemed like a good time for Bowie to put on another
tape. This one was the live album, which is due to be released this
month (September). Titled David Live, it contains 17 songs, most
of them vastly redesigned instrumentally from the original album
versions, and sung with the greater character and texture of Bowie's
The first track - 1984 - burst into the room, and
again he settled back in a chair to listen. While the album was
playing, several of the musicians travelling with him and some of
the MainMan staff came into the room to hear it. Bowie was very
much a musician, not a "personality" in the manner of so many rock
stars when they listen to their own music. He was like a fan pointing
out special touches - some crisp guitar lick or a particularly hot
saxophone solo - that delighted him. There were, quite justifiably,
many reasons far his delight. Though it is a bit dangerous making
such judgements on the basis of a single listening, David Live is quite possibly the best live rock album I've ever heard - an
urgent, highly accessible, brilliantly performed collection.
One of its special features is the absence of the
long delays (for crowd applause) between songs. Just as one song
dies down another begins. The result is a lively continuing pulse.
As with Dylan and Before The Flood, David Live updates
Bowie's material - even though some of it is only a few months old
- in a way that almost makes the original version irrelevant.
Bowie's vocals give all sort of new insights and
interpretations to the lyrics, particularly on songs like Changes
and All The Young Dudes. The album's only non-Bowie song is Knock
On Wood, the old R&B hit.
Here is the order of songs on the album:
SIDE ONE: 1984, Rebel Rebel, Moonage Daydream,
SIDE TWO: Changes, Suffragette City, Aladdin
Sane, All The Young Dudes, Cracked Actor
SIDE THREE: Rock 'N' Roll With Me, Watch
That Man, Knock On Wood, Diamond Dogs
SIDE FOUR: Big Brother, The Width Of A Circle,
The Jean Genie, Rock 'N' Roll Suicide
The album, clearly is a testament to a phase in Bowie's
career that is as satisfying as the Rock of Ages album is to the
first phase of The Band's career. And Bowie does, quite definitely,
feel it is the end of a phase of his career.
When someone suggested the live album could be subtitled
David Bowie Vol.1 he smiled in agreement.
The first step in the new phase - even before the
arrival of the next studio album - is the termination of his elaborate
stage show. When his Los Angeles concerts are finished, he'll recross
the US with another tour, but this one, without the huge staging,
will be a fairly straight concert.
"I think I always know when to stop doing something,"
he said. "It's when the enjoyment is gone. That's why I've changed
so much. I've never been of the opinion that it's necessarily a
wise thing to keep on a successful streak if you're just duplicating
all the time.
"That's why I tend to be erratic. It's not a matter
of being indulgent, I don't think. It's just a case of making sure
I'm not bored, because if I'm bored then people can see it. I don't
hide it very well.
"Everything I do I get bored with eventually. It's
knowing where to stop.
"I have now done what I wanted to do three or four
years ago. Stage an elaborate, colourful show… a fantasy …
and I don't think I want to go any further with it because I know
it can be done.
"I know I could do an even bigger, grander kind of
production. But when I know it can be done, I don't have to do it
"Doing a straight show is very exciting to me now,
suddenly jumping into a new kind of tour after this one. Couldn't
imagine just doing the same show over and over again. It would be
terribly boring. That's why I gave up the last time. That's why
I 'retired' last time."
"Besides the new musical direction, Bowie's current
enthusiasm is boosted by some new musicians who'll be joining him
later in the year.
He feels he finally has a band again. Andy Newmark,
a drummer with Sly & The Family Stone, and Willie Weeks, a bassist
who has worked with Aretha Franklin among many, will join him as
soon as their present obligations are finished.
Both men worked with Bowie on the new studio album
and, like many who have read so much about the controversial Bowie
Image, they approached the project with a bit of uncertainty.
"When Andy, and Willie came to see me in the studio,
they were very wary," Bowie admits with a smile. "They didn't know
what to expect. They came in looking for silver capes and all, I
"But once we started playing the songs, it worked
itself out. It ended in a very, very solid friendship and a group
that is going to work with me."
Thus Bowie, as he prepares to recross the US seemed
more confident and enthusiastic than on his first two visits here.
He agreed things were going well. It might be just the kind of quote
that'll make him shudder in some future moment of depression, but
now it fits.
"Yes, I really am more confident. I'm not sure it
is supreme confidence or anything, but I am happier."