Bowie and Bassey
Derek Jewell • Sunday Times | 9 May
Shirley Bassey and David Bowie on successive
nights. So contrasting, yet so similar. She a peach in maturity;
he fragile as a stick insect, and just as elusive to discern, define,
deny. Similar? Certainly. Both are children of our time, climbing
out of Tiger Bay and Brixton, and so, enabling audiences to identify
with them, are archetypal popular music idols.
She feeds middle-aged fantasy, epitomized in beautiful
songs like 'Yesterday when we were young'. He encourages a younger
army, bored with their external characters, to seek within themselves
alterative egos; as artist-hero, he kills off his past roles - Ziggy
Stardust, spaceman, bisexualist, rebel - like clockwork, with only
the orange coxcomb of his hair for continuity. His disciples dutifully
Both, too, are beyond normal criticism, defying purely
musical assessment. Bassey over-sings (but thrillingly) and cannot
perform except with total commitment. Bowie over-plays (but rivetingly)
and demands attention by his extravagant idiosyncrasy, which is
as professionally adamantine as hers. She devours the audience;
he incites it. Each earthquakingly demonstrates the power of personality.
Shirley Bassey sang, in all, to 25,000 at the Albert
Hall last week. Tuesday, second house, was an outstanding triumph.
Standing ovation after standing ovation, the emotion aroused by
her beauty and her passionate singing flooding the arena. She is
at her peak. She still goes over the top sometimes, which is Bassey
magically being herself, but she knows more about light and shade
than ever. She whispers the final note of The Way We Were; within
Something, the orchestration leaves momentary sounds of silence.
Her world conquests are richly earned.
David Bowie entertained 50,000 at Wembley. On Monday,
after a boring surrealistic movie, greeted with cynical derision,
his casual entry was spellbinding. He has murdered Ziggy, appearing
glitterless in plain black trousers, waistcoat and white shirt,
looking like a refugee from Isherwood's Berlin cabarets. The lighting,
with Bowie trapped in harsh white cross-beams, was rock's most brilliantly
theatrical effect. He sang 14 songs, and when the hundreds of mini-Bowies
leapt on seats, miming every gesture, he played with them, smiling.
He's rejected soft orchestrations (as on Space Oddity) for a thunderous
R&B backing, which is tiresomely flairless. It ruined Stay,
the best of his Station to Station album. But Bowie's personal performance
was monstrously successful, more of a charged-up crooner than an
Alice Cooper rival.
Is he sinister? There are, undeniably, visual Nuremberg
overtones. Bowie's obsessiveness is sterile. But mostly, I suspect,
he's the prisoner of his own publicity, his need to keep changing
his image. Musically, he's limited as yet. It's where he ends up
that matters. Meantime his own lyric, 'Fame, bully for you, chilly
for me, gotta get a raincheck on pain', may yet be his epitaph.