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Bowie and Bassey

Derek Jewell • Sunday Times | 9 May 1976


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 ape him.

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.


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this page updated January 17, 2020