Illustration by Triunfo Arciniegas
Bowie was to the 70s what the Beatles were to the 60s
If the Beatles captured a 60s of optimism and love, Bowie was the signature artist of the 70s – distilling paranoia and confusion into pop both euphoric and terrifying
Wednesday 13 January 2016
avid Bowie had no feel for the 1960s. No wonder he floundered. Neither flower-power optimism nor insurrectionary bravado really turned him on: as he wrote in All the Young Dudes: “We never got it off on that revolution stuff.” Even Space Oddity fixated on the loneliness of space travel rather than the pioneer spirit.
The 1970s, though: there was a decade that spoke to his anxieties. A decade of cults, terrorists, scandals, recessions, defeats, environmental panic and a sense of constant crisis – what Francis Wheen described in his book Strange Days Indeed: The Golden Age of Paranoia as “a pungent melange of apocalyptic dread and conspiratorial fervour”. Bowie was to the 70s what the Beatles were to the 60s: a lightning rod, a tuning fork, a mirror. With his mastery of dread, and the excitements of dread, the man who described himself as “an awful pessimist” understood the decade’s strange energies like no other musician.
For Bowie, the 70s started a little late. He described 1970 as “a waste of a year” because the delayed release of The Man Who Sold the World enhanced his sense of depression and pointlessness; the unreleased Tired of My Life presented him as a typical victim of post-60s malaise. He only began to survey the new decade with confidence on Hunky Dory (1971) and what he saw was an exhausted landscape of fallen icons and sunken dreams, crying out for change. Life on Mars? was his tour of the cultural ruins, with a teenage heroine who deserved better. Bowie saw “a leadership void” in rock and felt that the hungry new generation he described in Changes and Oh! You Pretty Things needed a new kind of rock star, attuned to the chaotic vibrations of the time: someone like David Bowie.
Ziggy Stardust was the physical expression of Bowie’s intellectual fascination with stardom and the power of exceptional individuals, fed by Warhol and Nietzsche. In Bowie’s brain the overlapping appeal of rock stars and dictators that disturbed leftwing observers was rather exciting. At a time when more histrionic commentators were comparing western democracies to Weimar Germany, he revelled in decadence and desperate hedonism. Not everyone was as precise as the Jehovah’s Witnesses, who predicted that the world would end in 1975, but there was a growing fear that time and resources were running out. Bestsellers included Hal Lindsey’s grimly millenarian tome The Late Great Planet Earth. Hollywood’s best directors struck a note of cynicism and unravelling. Newspaper editorials warned of irreversible decline. And there was Bowie-as-Ziggy singing, “We’ve got five years, my brain hurts a lot.” Ziggy was killed off after a year because he had to die. Time was racing on.
In 1973, Bowie returned from a show in Japan via a long, grim train journey through the USSR and the Eastern Bloc, arriving home to tell his wife, Angie: “After what I’ve seen of this world, I’ve never been so damned scared in my life.” Assembled from the debris of incomplete concept albums, Diamond Dogs (1974) was a marriage of two dystopias: the grey police state of Nineteen Eighty-Four and the insurgent anarchy of A Clockwork Orange. Again, it felt timely when American cities were facing bankruptcy and the oil crisis threatened the western way of life. Bowie imagined that his tribe of feral urchins, the “diamond dogs”, would use rollerskates because there was no oil for cars. “This ain’t rock’n’roll,” he cried, madly. “This is genocide.”
Bowie moved to New York in 1974, when the US was experiencing the painful spasms of the Nixon administration’s death spiral, and detected “the lilting phrase before the crashing crescendo”. Young Americans (1975) found him searching for liberation in Philadelphia soul and “one damn song that can make me break down and cry” yet alienated by cocaine (the 70s rock’n’roll drug) and “psychological terror”. The title track saw America as a garbled stream of images glimpsed through a limousine window by a cold, curious outsider.
It was while he was bunkered in America that Bowie began getting into trouble for predicting the emergence of a Hitleresque figure who would scythe through the mess and impose tyranny. “I believe very strongly in fascism,” he blathered, to his lasting regret. “Adolf Hitler was one of the first rock stars.” He couldn’t have known that in a feverish corner of the British elite, powerful men such as the SAS founder David Stirling, were talking about giving Britain a dose of what Pinochet had brought to Chile. Historians tend to identify 1975 as the nadir of 70s paranoia and gloom (writing at the time, Martin Amis thought that “everything seemed ready for the terminal lurch”) and that was when Bowie recorded Station to Station (released in 1976), in which he scrabbled for a way out of the psychological pit he had dug for himself while fretting, “It’s too late.” This is the Bowie (and the America) we find so bleakly riveting in The Man Who Fell to Earth. A man who was all too convincing as a bewildered alien.
Another thing that makes Bowie the quintessential 70s artist is that his work was the junction box for so many of the decade’s divergent styles, including glam-rock, soul, funk and krautrock. The love of Kraftwerk and Neu! that filtered into Station to Station was one of the things that led him to West Berlin for Low, “Heroes” (both 1977), and Lodger (1979) where his hectic velocity took on a different flavour. He was not exactly upbeat. “People simply can’t cope with the rate of change in this world,” he said. “It’s all far too fast … And it’ll get worse. There’s not really a cause for hope.” But his Berlin music’s freshness was a kind of optimism. In this cold war city, an isolated outpost of a country convulsed by terrorism, he pulled back from despair. Even when he worried about nuclear war on Fantastic Voyage (the Soviets had just invaded Afghanistan) he sounded more like a liberal humanist than an apocalyptic prophet. He was, he said, “learning to be happy”, in his fashion.
These three albums reasserted Bowie’s importance despite the onslaught of punk (whose ferocious stars reminded him of the diamond dogs) and anticipated the sound and style of the 1980s, when the myriad artists the Pet Shop Boys recently described as “Bowie’s children” would thrive. He emerged intact, if not undamaged, from a decade that he had done more than anybody to define. Fear – of the future, of irrelevance, of himself – was the fuel that propelled him through it. He was not alone in being scared but nobody else so consistently channelled that anxiety into art whose brilliance was a kind of consolation.
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