STARMAN: on the trail of David Bowie with Nicholas Pegg [INTERVIEW]
Nicholas Pegg is one of the greatest connoisseurs of David Bowie’s artistic production.
He is the author of “The Complete David Bowie”, published by Titan Books, defined by historical producer Tony Visconti as “”the best Bowie reference book one could ever hope for”.
Pegg has also served as a consultant and collaborator on a number of Bowie-related projects, including the BBC TV documentaries “David Bowie: Five Years (2013)” and “David Bowie: The Last Five Years (2017)” Victoria and Albert Museum “David Bowie Is”, BBC Radio 2 documentary “Exploring ‘Life On Mars?'” (2017) and the Royal Mail edition of Bowie’s commemorative stamps of the same year.
To analyze the career of David Bowie I had the pleasure of doing an interview with Nicholas Pegg.
David Bowie’s first real commercial success was probably “The rise and fall of Ziggy Stardust and The Spiders from Mars”. What limited Bowie’s success during the previous years and how strong was the impact of this album on the revaluation of the precedents in that era?
Commercial success in pop music has always been an unpredictable business. There’s always an element of fortune involved. It’s perfectly possible to imagine an alternative reality in which one of David Bowie’s earlier albums became a success at the time of its release, although this might not necessarily have been to his long-term benefit. Imagine, for example, if an early single like ‘Rubber Band’ or ‘The Laughing Gnome’ had become a big hit back in the 1960s. Would David Bowie have then evolved into the songwriter and performer that he eventually became? Quite possibly not. Throughout the sixties and into the early seventies he worked incredibly hard on his craft, and earned his spurs as a performer and as a writer. The lack of acclaim must have been frustrating for him at the time, but I believe that his long road to success was ultimately something that strengthened and consolidated him as an artist. Even the success of Ziggy Stardust was not immediate. By early 1972 there was a sense that David Bowie was a coming man, but the breakthrough didn’t happen until the summer. He had already been touring for several months, and the ‘Starman’ single had initially failed to make any impact, before that famous appearance on Top of the Pops finally tipped the scales and propelled him to stardom.
In the wake of Ziggy Stardust’s success, the re-evaluation of Bowie’s earlier albums was swift. Hunky Dory, which had only been released six months earlier, was belatedly discovered by fans, and by the end of the year it actually rose higher in the UK chart than the Ziggy Stardust album itself. Bowie’s record company, RCA, wasted no time in reissuing the previous two albums, Space Oddity and The Man Who Sold the World, both redesigned with new Ziggy-era photographs on the covers. The fact that Bowie already had a substantial body of work to be discovered by his legions of new fans was another factor in the consolidation of his success. Fans could buy not just one album, but four!
David’s earlier 1960s material, including his debut album from 1967, remained a little more obscure, although there were some opportunistic re-releases by his old record labels. Most famously, ‘The Laughing Gnome’ became a big hit in the UK when Decca re-released it in 1973. At one point it shared the Top 10 in the same week as Bowie’s latest single ‘Sorrow’!
In 1973, David Bowie “killed” Ziggy Stardust. Was there a particular reason that led to this change?
The killing of Ziggy Stardust has become one of the great cornerstones of Bowie mythology. It was a brilliant masterstroke of theatre that night in July 1973, and it became a turning point in David’s career, but over the years I think there has been an understandable temptation to dwell on the ‘poetic’ notion of the tortured artist destroying his own creation before it consumes him, while overlooking some of the more straightforward, down-to-earth reasons for David’s decision to retire Ziggy. For one thing, he was quite simply exhausted. He had been touring almost non-stop for a year and a half, and during the latter part of the 1973 tour they were often playing two full concerts in a single day. The schedule was punishing.
Secondly, and perhaps more significantly, Ziggy was always destined to become a casualty of his creator’s famously low boredom threshold. Throughout his career, from his earliest singles in the 1960s right through to Blackstar, Bowie’s music was constantly re-energised by his appetite for fresh ideas and new enthusiasms. Time and time again, he would ‘break up the band’ and move on, eager to explore new ideas, work with new collaborators, record in new surroundings. In that respect, the retirement of Ziggy was no different from any of his other moves. I think what gives it that additional mythic dimension is the fact that Bowie had effectively prepared the way for Ziggy’s demise from the very beginning. The album, after all, concerns Ziggy’s rise and fall – and it concludes, as did almost every concert of the tour, with ‘Rock’n’Roll Suicide’. So the ground had been prepared all along and the seeds had been sown, allowing Bowie’s final immolation of Ziggy to become a work of art in its own right.
In the late 1970s, David Bowie and Iggy Pop moved to Berlin. How was the friendship between these two artists born and what were the main influences, from a cultural point of view, that Berlin had on them?
Bowie and Iggy had a connection from the moment of their first encounter in 1971. They came from very different backgrounds – I think it was Leee Black Childers who came out with the memorable observation that ‘Bowie was a South London art student, and Iggy was a Detroit trash bag’ – but nonetheless they had a great deal in common, and I think they both recognised that straight away. They were two sensitive, intelligent, creative young men, being buffeted to and fro by the demands and excesses of the rock’n’roll lifestyle, and as they both descended into their respective drug problems in the mid-1970s, they found in each other the mutual support that they both needed to pull out and survive. So their friendship became profoundly important to both of them.
In terms of their music, too, it was a mutually enriching relationship. Creatively they bounced off one another well, and each offered something that was of benefit to the other. Iggy gave Bowie a kind of edginess and street cred, while Bowie was able to give Iggy’s work stronger production and greater commercial impact, and perhaps also a more structured working environment than the Stooges had been accustomed to! Bowie was always a very disciplined worker in the studio.
So they helped one another a great deal, and Berlin helped them both. As far as their lifestyles were concerned, West Berlin in the late 70s was the right place at the right time – a no-nonsense reality check after the relentless sunshine of Los Angeles. And culturally Berlin’s impact was tremendous. Bowie had always been interested in the art, theatre and cinema of Germany in the early 20th century, and now here he was, living with Iggy in the city of Fritz Lang, Christopher Isherwood and Bertolt Brecht, the melting pot of European modernism. It was the beginning of a concertedly ‘German’ phase in Bowie’s work, encompassing not just his so-called ‘Berlin trilogy’ of albums, but also film projects like Just a Gigolo and Christiane F, avant-garde cabaret-style performances on Saturday Night Live and The Kenny Everett Show, and of course his performance as Bertolt Brecht’s Baal for the BBC. Many years later, David reminded us of the special place that Berlin occupied in his life when he released that beautiful retrospective song ‘Where Are We Now?’.
David Bowie was an extremely inclined to changes artist. Quoting Pirandello, we could define him as “One, No One and One Hundred Thousand”. Was there a period in David’s career that you think was underrated or not understood by everyone? If so, why?
If you look back at contemporary reactions to Bowie’s work over the years, it becomes clear that he was always ahead of the game, and his work was very often underestimated or misunderstood in its day. Albums which are now regarded as among his very best were given a decidedly mixed reception at the time. Aladdin Sane received some very poor reviews when it was first released. So did Diamond Dogs and Young Americans. The most hostile reactions of all were reserved for Low, which had some truly terrible reviews back in 1977. Critical opinion has long since been revised, and all of these albums are now regarded as classics. What’s interesting is that elsewhere in Bowie’s body of work, that process is still ongoing today. So to answer your question, I think the great sea-change taking place right now is the gradual re-evaluation of the albums that Bowie recorded in the 1990s. It’s a phase in his career which for many years was widely ignored or even derided, which I’ve always thought a great pity, as I genuinely consider it to be one of his richest and most rewarding periods. In particular, The Buddha of Suburbia, 1.Outside and Earthling are three magnificent albums. Critical reappraisal is at last beginning to catch up with them, but compared with other periods of David’s career they are still sorely undervalued. I would urge anyone unfamiliar with those albums to explore them without delay. They’re wonderful pieces of work.
There was a period, especially in the second half of the 90s, when Bowie seemed to “have quarreled” with an extremely representative part of his songbook. What led him to make this choice and what was it, subsequently, that he chose that led him to “make peace” with his historical songs?
Bowie was always more interested in the future than in the past, and he never really enjoyed dwelling on his earlier work. For example, he once remarked that he could see how bored he looked in the 1972 video for ‘Space Oddity’, a song that was already ancient history to him when that video was shot. In the eighties he found mainstream success as never before, but playing huge stadium shows began to take its toll on him. By the time he agreed to embark on a ‘greatest hits’ tour in 1990, it was becoming clear that his back catalogue of famous songs had become something of a burden to him. A Bowie tour was always a special occasion, but that particular tour wasn’t his finest. I’m not convinced that his heart was completely in it – he had no new songs to sing, and as ever, he was more interested in creating new work than in resting on past glories. Over the next few years he pointedly avoided playing his greatest hits. It was a stance that gave rise to some brilliant new work, and it was clearly the right decision for him at the time. His next major solo tour, in 1995, was dominated by songs from his latest album 1.Outside, mingled with comparatively obscure oldies like ‘Andy Warhol’, ‘Teenage Wildlife’, ‘D.J.’ and ‘Joe the Lion’. And you know what, I think it was probably the best Bowie tour I ever saw: a cleverly curated set list, a superb band, and the man himself at the peak of his art-rock powers. It was clear that the decision to shelve the greatest hits had invigorated and re-enthused him, both as an artist and as a performer. So I think it was a very healthy and necessary process for him at that time.
By the turn of the millennium he had proved his point, both to himself and to his audience, so when he came to play his headlining set at Glastonbury in 2000, he was ready to wheel out the big hits again and combine them with his more recent songs. And interestingly, later that same year was when he reached way back to his very earliest days and recorded the album Toy, which has just recently had its first official release. The recording of Toy in 2000 seems to reinforce the idea that this was the point at which Bowie finally made his peace with his own back catalogue. He was happy to revive ‘Rebel Rebel’ and ‘Let’s Dance’ alongside his new songs, and Toy was obviously a part of that same process: up until the late nineties, Bowie had always made it fairly clear that he regarded anything from his pre-Space Oddity career as little more than embarrassing juvenilia, but thankfully that judgement was now being re-evaluated, both by the fans and by David himself. There’s some fine material back there in the sixties, and revisiting it on Toy created a lovely set of recordings. By the time he was touring the Heathen and Reality albums two or three years later, Bowie was playing huge set lists drawing on songs from every period of his career. He was at peace with his legacy.
Imagine: you are in front of a 20-year-old who has just heard of David Bowie for the first time. If you had to recommend three albums to start with, which would you choose and why?
That’s an impossible question! Okay, on the condition that I reserve the right to change my mind immediately, and then change my mind again tomorrow, and every day thereafter… here are the three that I’ll choose right now to introduce a newcomer to Bowie. First of all, Hunky Dory – a beautiful album packed with brilliant songs, and a comprehensive introduction to many of Bowie’s enduring themes as a songwriter. Secondly, Low – another spectacularly good album, and a vivid demonstration of Bowie’s fearlessness when it came to sonic and musical experimentation. And for my third pick – oh, it’s difficult – let’s go for Aladdin Sane. David Bowie at the height of his glam rock period, backed by a brilliant band, ripping their way through ten fantastic songs.
In conclusion, I’d like to speak about Blackstar: what is your personal opinion on this record?
What can I say? I think Blackstar is a masterpiece. It’s an album that grows richer and more rewarding with every listening. In my opinion it’s right up there with the finest albums that David Bowie ever recorded.