Saturday, February 4, 2017

Mark Spitz RIP

I didn't know the music journalist and author Mark Spitz  - who has died tragically young  - very well, but I always enjoyed chatting with him. He asked me some questions for a couple of his books: Twee: The Gentle Revolution in Music, Books, Television, Fashion and Film  and Bowie: A Biography. The twee talk was on the phone, but the latter chat was via email in 2007. In addition to the Dame, Iggy, and glam in general, it also covered DB's heirs in postpunk, goth, and new wave. It is reproduced below.

Mark Spitz: Eno had already been working on a new sound for years when he hooked up
with Bowie in ’76.    The language: ambient noise, both classical and deliberately unpolished structures, the Kraftwerk fandom, was already in place in many ways.  What do you think Bowie brought to it?

SR: The songs and the soul. Meaning the anguish. Does Eno do anguish? He does those slightly-dejected, passive drifting through life, fatalistic type songs on Another Green World and Before and After Science. But while Eno can enchant and delight (and disorient and amaze), I don’t know if he could reach the places Bowie did on Low.

What is, if it can be said there is one, the “Low” sound that’s so  influential.  Is it a texture or a feeling that’s particular, or the  way they process the noise on their new fangled synths. And who, in your opinion, has used it well since? (Nine Inch Nails?).    Clearly anyone
can master a synth now....

People go on about the drum sound. This painfully crashy, abrupt drum sound, is what I think they mean. Howard Devoto mentioned it when I interviewed him for Rip It Up, that the drums sounded so different and so modern. Also I read an interview with Steve Morris of Joy Division about how he felt Low was so revolutionary, on account of the drum sound. Morris was the most production attuned member of the band, also the one into Krautrock and esoteric music.

There’s a certain dank electronic sound on the second side that I don’t think had many precedents. This glum, damp quality. It’s related to things like Edgar Froese’s solo albums like Aqua and Epsilon in Malayan Pale (I think that’s the title) which Bowie was really into, along with Cluster and La Dusseldorf and the rest. But it just has a unique melancholia to it.

Do you suppose Bowie and Eno simply got bored with rock; even punk  rock, which was already taking root in ‘76.   Bowie gets accused of  dilettantism but in part at least it probably takes a dilettante’s fleeting attention to come up with something like “Warzawa” with the
doomy synths and almost gypsy wailing vocals.

I don’t know if he was even that aware of punk brewing. He was in LA, and then went straight to Europe pretty much, right? Did the massive self-immersion in European high culture as a kind of inoculation against America/rock/decadence. Whether deliberate strategy or accidental, being out of the UK for 1976 was a great move. He was able to come in early the next year and eclipse punk, in many people’s eyes, show it up as very traditional and backward looking.

You talk in Rip It Up about its influence on Joy Division in name.  And Ian Curtis’ Bowie fascination is well documented (as is the fact that he played The Idiot the night he killed himself).  Is J.D. the bridge between Bowie and post-punk?   Did they take all that was interesting about Bowie and use it best at the time?  If you could talk a bit more about the Bowie/Joy Division nexus and share some thoughts, I’d love to hear them.

I think it’s the inhibition and repression in the Bowie/Iggy albums made in Berlin that Joy Division and others responded to. The fact that the music, while guitar-based and harsh and aggressive, never rocks out. It’s imploded aggression. And that’s very British, and particularly very Northern British. People do bottle it all up. So Iggy going from “Loose” to a sound that was very much not-loose - that resonated for your British.  I think Iggy actually had hits in the UK with songs off those albums, Idiot/Lust for Life/New Values. They were much bigger records in Britain than America, at any rate.

You mentioned “Bowie damage” in your email.  Could you elaborate on it.  Were you referring to say Duran or the Blitz club fashion crowd?

There was a time when there seemed to be an awful lot of Bowie imitators on all sorts of levels of the UK scene, and a lot of the time the influence was pernicious. Most of the New Romantic/Blitz stuff was terrible, it picked up on the idea of posing, but not the soul that Bowie actually has in there. Or indeed the intellect.

But you can see the Bowie vocal mannerisms all over the place, e.g. Richard Butler in Psychedelic Furs has a voice pitched EXACTLY midway between Johnny Rotten and David Bowie.

Some of the people who were evidently Bowie influenced (and good) at that time I never actually realized were Bowie influenced. I never understood why people dismissed Numan as a Bowie clone. Now I can see it more, but I still think he really took the influence somewhere. And the same with Billy Mackenzie of the Associates. It’s only later that I noticed the extreme influence of the Low side two instrumentals on the early Associates stuff, as collated on Fourth Drawer Down.

Is it an accurate theory that the American garage kids who tried to play Stones and Beatles songs and came up with crude but exhilarating Nuggets tracks instead invented punk rock, then the British kids who tried to be Bowie invented New Wave?  Or am I just reaching?

That’s slightly overblown. There’s a bit more in the mix than Bowie. But you could say that in a lot of ways the poppy end of New Wave -- what we called New Pop, in the US they called in the New Music or the Second British Invasion -- was a re-staging of glam. All that stuff from ABC to Culture Club to Adam and the Ants to Duran to Japan was by Roxy and Bowie and T.Rex fans.

What’s the best fake Bowie song ever?  Worst?

The Associates’ “White Car In Germany” is the best. Closely followed by “Down in the Park” by Gary Numan/Tubeway Army which is quite influenced by side two of Low I think.

Worst. Not sure. Probably something by Spandau Ballet in their trying to be in Young Americans mode.

Why was ’77 such a watershed year for the weird getting attention.  Even things like Devo’s first record or Eraserhead, and its soundtrack seemed to find favor.   As you mention in the book, it’s often over shadowed by Nevermind The Bollocks, The Clash, etc. but it’s also
really year 1 for artboy rock too.

Yeah, but glam, eh? Alice Cooper, Sparks, Roxy, Glitter, even The Sweet with their women’s clothes and Hitler-mustache-wearing guitar player. The whole early 70s was a freak zone! There’s an argument (Dick Hebdige's) that punk is just a scrawled addendum to glam. And even prog was quite outré: Gabriel’s costumes in Genesis, Jethro Tull even. Not to mention Queen…

I suppose punk, through its assault on all taboos, took that glam freakery and added the sick humour, the grotesquerie.

Lyrically, do you suppose Low is underrated as far as establishing the classically angsty New Wave lyric?  Its subject matter seems to be damage and sexual or existential fear, all rendered with self-deprecating wit; a New Wave template.

Aspects of it certainly seemed to have been picked up by people like Howard Devoto (in Magazine) and Gary Numan.  The language has a non-rock’n’roll-ness about it, a lack of American idiom (no blues or raunch or R&B derived expressions) , that I can’t see too many precedents for. But nor is it Englishness-y in the way that Syd Barrett or the Soft Machine alumni did things. It’s a stark, fractured, alienation that must have seemed stunningly modern in 1977.

I don’t know about under-rated, though!

What do you think the Bowie and later (on The Idiot and Lust For Life) Iggy croon’s influence is.  It sort of makes its debut here.  Certainly as far as Iggy’s previous albums were concerned.

Well he always had a bit of a non-rock aspect in his voice, didn’t he? If you think of the way he sings in “Space Oddity”. He was influenced by Anthony Newley, right? Who was a kind of show singer, cabaret… very English sounding. And also Scott Walker is in their somewhere.

But definitely the sonorousness and non-rock’n’rollness is more pronounced here. “Wild is the Wind” on Station to Station would be a transitional song in that respect I expect. That’s some kind of standard, a cover, right?

I must admit that while I can see how important the Iggy/Berlin albums are, I don’t really enjoy them that much, give or take the odd song. I think it’s because Iggy is American through and through, and his authentic artistic being is the wildness of the Stooges. It’s “Raw Power” and “I Got A Right”. When he does the croon it’s like he’s been forced to wear a tux and a bow tie. It seems more mannered than Bowie’s croon, where the mannered-ness seems authentic and to spring from within. But it could just be something where the grain of his voice and its range doesn’t suit the croon style like Bowie’s higher voice does. Iggy always seems like he’s crooning through a belch.

 Is Low an end to Bowie’s period of radical shape shifting?  Parts of it are disseminated throughout the other albums that he’ make, certainly through the 90s like Earthling and Outside, and obviously through the records of other artists, but he never did a complete 180 after that.   Let’s Dance was a polish but not a jarring style change as say Ziggy to 
Plastic Soul.

To me the Let’s Dance persona was the last massive, and significant change to his image. He went from being cocaine-raved thin, with this totally gaunt, pallid face, to this new healthy look -- blonde hair, tanned looking, very exuberant in the video for “Modern Love”. And that was Bowie for the first time following rather than leading. With Low and the Berlin trilogy and even with Scary Monsters’ “Ashes To Ashes” he was right ahead of what was going on, from postpunk to the New Romantics. But with Let’s Dance it was as though he was following the cues of New Pop, the rhetoric of health and self-discipline that was being propagated by groups like ABC and Scritti Politti. And the sound too with its Motown echoes and the upfulness and extroversion, the clean, bright sound, the blatant commercialism, that was totally New Pop.

Can you talk a bit about this period Bowie’s influence on the goth end of post-punk.  Bauhuas obviously, and Cure.   Do you suppose it was more visual than sonic?  The whole Euro-vampire look he was mining?

Again, almost without exception, the Goth performers were glam fans who briefly got caught up in punk and then reverted to type. They never had any truck with that being-the-same-as-the-audience, Everyman/"Ordinary Joes up on stage now" aspect of punk. They always wanted to be stars. Not that he was a Goth, but you can see it in a name like Billy Idol. You might say that was a punk name mocking the idea of rock stardom… but not really. And Idol was part of the Bromley Contingent, he hung with Siouxsie Sioux and Severin. None of these people were ever into the egalitarian side of punk. They were into the Doors and rock as theatre, Alice Cooper, Roxy, Bowie. There is an authoritatian subtext to glam, it’s a domineering relationship to the audience, who are down there while you are up there onstage. That’s why it has this relationship with showbiz. And hence all the flirtations with imagery of aristocracy and even fascism. And the obsession with physical beauty. Bauhaus were totally about that -  if the singer looked like the bassist they’d have got nowhere.

An interesting thing about Bauhaus is their cover of “Ziggy Stardust”, it’s almost like karaoke. Its shows the circularity of glam, where fans grow up to be idols having learned the art of posing from their idols.

Then again the Associates did a similar thing: their first single was a cover of “Boys Keep Swinging”, released only a month or so after the original single came out. Talk about chutzpah!

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