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David Bowie – Five Years: The Making of an Icon (2013)

<p><a href=”http://vimeo.com/66987988″>DAVID BOWIE Five Years (Documentary 2013)</a> from <a href=”http://vimeo.com/user9844933″>Videodrome Discoth&egrave;que</a> on <a href=”http://vimeo.com”>Vimeo</a&gt;.</p>

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David Bowie from the horse’s mouth

by Claire Barrett / BBC

21st May 2013

‘It’s not often I get gigs like this,’ admits Francis Whately ahead of a preview screening of his David Bowie film at the Victoria and Albert Museum.

It’s an appropriate setting for what the director describes as a ‘labour of love’ – the latest manifestation of a childhood obsession, passed down by an older brother and never shaken off.

Francis Whately

“A lot of music docs are biographies and I’m rather tired of that format” -Francis Whately

The 90-minute Five Years – which includes thrilling footage unearthed from dusty vaults and revealing interviews with some of the musician’s most reticent collaborators – hits the small screen on Saturday in what is fast becoming yet another year of Bowie.

The V&A’s David Bowie is… exhibition opened to huge critical acclaim in March and is the museum’s fastest selling event – ticket sales boosted, no doubt, by the star’s surprise release of a new single on his 66th birthday in January after more than a decade of silence.

Brief encounter

The BBC Two documentary will happily ride the wave of curiosity in a man who has set musical trends and inspired fashion choices for more than 40 years, but it’s been on the director’s agenda since the late nineties, when he first encountered his hero in a professional capacity.

Whately had been given his first job as a director, tasked with making ten two-minute Omnibus shorts on modern British sculpture and was advised to seek help from those he admired.

An optimistic email was duly despatched to David Bowie. ‘I knew he was an art collector,’ the director tells Ariel, ‘but I was astonished when he called me a week later. We talked for some time about sculpture and British art. He said he wanted to talk about a piece called Sacred.’

David Bowie performing in 1976
Bowie has been a trendsetter for more than 40 years

This turned out to be an 8ft slab of stone in the middle of a wood in Wiltshire – part of a private collection that Bowie had visited with wife Iman.

‘I went with a cameraman to film it from every conceivable angle,’ explains Whately. ‘I wondered what I was going to do with it.’

He needn’t have fretted. Bowie contributed a ‘slightly odd, rather magical’ reflection on the idea of Sacred, set to his own Ian Fish track.

Ziggy in Asda

Later, Bowie narrated Whately’s 2001 Omnibus Special on painter Stanley Spencer and he featured in the director’s art rock episode of the Seven Ages of Rock.

Whately even took Andrew Marr to the site of the Dunstable Civic Hall – now an Asda supermarket – during the first series of History of Modern Britain. ‘It was where Bowie performed as Ziggy Stardust for the first time. Marr did a piece about Ziggy playing guitar between the washing powder and organic potatoes.’

“Even though I’m a fan I didn’t want to make hagiography. I wanted it to come from the horse’s mouth.” -Francis Whately

But he hankered after doing a longer form programme, just about the singer, and got the nod from the BBC Two commissioners last summer.

The film is structured around five pivotal years in Bowie’s career. ‘A lot of music docs are biographies and I’m rather tired of that format,’ says Whately. ‘Plus Bowie’s career has been so extensive, even 90 minutes couldn’t do it justice.’

Spoilt for choice, he selected those years when Bowie’s music was at its most potent and avant-garde. They’re bookended by 1971-72, when he made the remarkable transition from long-haired folkie to spiky-topped rock god, and 1982-83, when a beefy, blonde Bowie swapped cult status for stadium star.

‘I loved all the stuff he did in the nineties and this century, but the work he did in the 70s and early 80s was hugely influential,’ Whately considers.

Acres of transcripts

But if the years provide the junctures, Bowie himself provides the skeleton for the documentary. The production team sifted through acres and acres of transcripts from interviews the musician had given around the world.

David Bowie as Ziggy Stardust
Rare pictures of Ziggy from a Dutch photoshoot

‘He was at the heart and we built up from there,’ explains Whately. ‘Even though I’m a fan I didn’t want to make hagiography. I wanted it to come from the horse’s mouth.

‘He’s talked about most things in his past,’ he continues, adding that it was a case of piecing together snippets on a subject from multiple sources to create the narrative.

Contributors were then asked to add their take on Bowie’s reflections.

‘The whitest man I’d ever seen’

So guitarist/arranger Carlos Alomar remembers his introduction to ‘the whitest man I’d ever seen’ in 1974 New York as Bowie sought to reinvent himself as a soul man, while Nic Roeg recalls casting his Man Who Fell to Earth leading man courtesy of the BBC’s Cracked Actor.

“To find unseen archive material of someone of the stature of David Bowie at this stage would be remarkable. To find the wealth of material [archivist Miriam Walsh] found is a miracle”, Francis Whately

‘Every single person I asked said yes,’ says Whately – even Brian Eno, who was top of his wish list.

‘He’s very reluctant to talk about the past,’ the programme maker says of the former Roxy Music man who collaborated with Bowie on his Berlin album trilogy. ‘He thinks life is too short to dwell on what he did in the seventies.’

Another coup was getting guitarist Robert Fripp to speak on the theme – something he hasn’t done before. Whately credits researcher Sarah Kerr who ‘cajoled him and humoured him and made him feel so comfortable’.

He chose not to approach the likes of Angie Bowie (‘she has a very particular take’) or Bowie’s loyal personal assistant Corinne Schwab (‘the secrets are locked away with her’). ‘His personal life is fascinating to some, but I was interested in the music,’ explains Whately, who was ‘excited and shocked in equal measure’ by the Aladdin Sane cover as a boy.

David and Luther

But it is the previously undiscovered footage – some of it grainy, some of it black and white, some of it amateurish – rooted out by archivist Miriam Walsh, that will have the fans salivating. It was found in private collections, in the vaults of French and German broadcasters and wrongly catalogued in BBC archives.

‘To find unseen archive material of someone of the stature of David Bowie at this stage would be remarkable. To find the wealth of material she’s found is a miracle,’ believes Whately.

David Bowie as the Elephant Man
Bowie was the Elephant Man on Broadway in 1980 – one of the two acting roles the film features

It includes Life on Mars promo outtakes (the mute images skilfully synced up to sound by editor Ged Murphy); Angie Bowie screaming at the fledgling Ziggy Stardust as though he was a star when only one man and his dog had turned out to see him; and Bowie in creative flow as he guides his backing singers (including Luther Vandross) through the Young American sessions.

‘I was ecstatic when I first saw that,’ Whately gushes about the latter. ‘That’s as good as you ever get.’

The director – who was too young for a Ziggy haircut but paid his dues at gigs by artists Bowie influenced, like the Cure and Siouxsie and the Banshees – hopes his hero, who provided ‘no editorial help or hindrance’, likes Five Years.

‘I don’t see any reason why he wouldn’t,’ he muses. ‘But I didn’t make it to please him or anyone else.

‘Many will think we haven’t got the years right,’ he concedes. ‘Well, they’re welcome to make their own film.’

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‘The Jean Genie’ – Top of the Pops (1973)

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Cracked Actor (1975)

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David Bowie album scores first number one in 20 years


17th March 2013

David Bowie’s first album in a decade has become the fastest selling of the year, hitting the number one spot in its first week.

The Next Day is the 66-year-old’s first number one since 1993’s Black Tie White Noise.

The album sold 94,000 copies this week, according to the Official Chart Company, outselling the number two album from Bon Jovi two to one.

Justin Timberlake remains at the top of the singles chart with Mirrors.

The announcement that Bowie was releasing new material came as a surprise to many in the music world, and has had Bowie aficionados picking over the fiercely private star’s back catalogue, comparing his early work with his latest release.

A retrospective of the eclectic performer is being unveiled at London’s V&A Museum on 23 March, celebrating Bowie as a musical innovator and cultural icon.

Although Bowie is not directly involved with curating the exhibition, the David Bowie Archive gave “unprecedented access” to the V&A, which picked out flamboyant costumes, early photographs and other memorabilia to show.

The Next Day’s first week sales beat that of the previous fastest-selling UK album, which was Biffy Clyro’s Opposites which sold 71,600 in its debut week in January.

Emeli Sande’s Our Version of Events slipped down one to number three, following behind Bon Jovi’s What About Now.

Last week’s number one from chart-toppers Bastille fell to number four.

In the singles chart, One Direction saw their Comic Relief effort One Way or Another (Teenage Kicks) rise to number two in the wake of Friday’s Red Nose Day.

The young band took part in fundraising on the BBC show, as well as travelling to Ghana to see how Comic Relief money is spent.

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David Bowie: Appreciating the eclecticism of an enduring star

by Paul Maguire / BBC News

10th March 2013

David Bowie enthusiast Paul Maguire gives an appreciation of David Bowie’s work past and present as the singer releases his first album in 10 years.

The Next Day has dawned. Neither retired nor dying, we have new Bowie. Somebody up there likes us.

It was after years of silence that Where Are We Now? sneaked out earlier this year to widespread acclaim. But it merely took a mention of a Cold War era Potsdamer Platz to mean martial law was imposed on all reviews.

Immediately it was decreed that comparisons to Bowie’s Berlin Trilogy must be made in knowing, reverential tones. It’s as if that part of his back catalogue has its own Berlin Wall built around it.

Low, Heroes and Lodger together cast long, dark shadows over other treasures with less convenient catch-all labels. Not least the trilogy’s immediate predecessors in the Bowie canon.

Released between the Ziggy and Berlin eras, Diamond Dogs, Young Americans and Station To Station form a musical troika which sashays through dystopia, dancing, drugs, Orwell, Lennon and Aleister Crowley. But tales of alleged Nazi salutes at Victoria station, exorcisms, and a daily diet solely consisting of milk, peppers and cocaine always dominate any discussion of these records.

1974’s Diamond Dogs is easy to get into. You just have to love the idea of glam rock made by someone who has read 1984 once too often and is convinced our society is doomed. Which was something in mid-70s Britain that wasn’t hard to envisage.

It also helps to not be disturbed by the images of a hybrid canine rock star with airbrushed genitals as portrayed on its cover. This is Bowie’s most DIY album. He plays most of the instruments himself. Scratchy guitars, weirdly beautiful Moogs and Mellotrons abound.

It features his greatest ever vocal performance on the Sweet Thing medley. With Rebel Rebel you get both his best riff and exactly the record you’d have wanted to hear on a tinny transistor radio as the Thought Police came to take you away.

David Bowie

Meanwhile, the jagged wah-wah guitars on 1984 conjure up visions of Winston Smith meeting John Shaft in a post-apocalyptic working men’s club somewhere on the Isle of Dogs.

Young Americans followed in 1975. David Sanborn was Bowie’s main musical foil which means his saxophone playing dominates this excursion into what Bowie called “plastic soul”.

This may be because it sounds like it was recorded inside a plastic bag. It’s airless and constricted. Soul albums don’t sound like this.

It was recorded at the Sigma Sound studios in Philadelphia, the title track and John Lennon collaboration Fame were its hits and have been the staples of Greatest Hits ever since.

But just listen to them. You can dance to them but they just sound odd. Philly Soul? Harold Melvin and The Blue Notes didn’t sound like this. Try the ballads such as Win and Can You Hear Me? or the up-tempo grooves of Fascination and Right.

The music is on the one hand his most accessible yet, but it makes you nervous. It doesn’t sound like David Bowie, but then it doesn’t sound like it could be anyone else. Better still, it contains arguably one of the world’s worst Beatles covers in the shape of a second duet with Lennon on Across The Universe.

To promote the album he didn’t tour but instead engaged in an epic skeletal duet with Cher on her TV show. Search for it on YouTube, it’s unhinged.

Station To Station was then released in early 1976. This is the peak moment in Bowie’s back catalogue. The album was made shortly after he had filmed his starring role as the alien Thomas Jerome Newton in Nicolas Roeg’s The Man Who Fell To Earth.

He took the visual elements of that character and turned it into his final all-encompassing persona, that of The Thin White Duke.

Under this guise he decided to record this next album in Los Angeles. Whatever Bowie was reading and imbibing during his sojourn in LA the effect was not healthy.

David Bowie in 1974

His concert tours had the air of a Nuremburg rally, reminiscent of Hitler acolyte Albert Speer’s Cathedrals of Light. That’s an artistic homage that one might not want to encourage.

That aside, the six songs contained within the album are all masterpieces. The title track is a 10 minute tour de force.

Phased locomotive sound effects combine with niggling distorted guitars to conjure up a nightmare journey across a shuttered, locked-down totalitarian state. Halfway through the mood breaks and the tension dissipates.

But Bowie’s assertion that “it’s not the side effects of the cocaine…” is fooling no-one. It certainly sounds like it’s just that.

Golden Years, the album’s hit single slithers and slinks its way out of your speakers. The story has always circulated that the song was offered to Elvis to cover, the mind somersaults with glee at the image of him doing it in his final Vegas years.

TVC15 is a piano led romp through tales of a TV set eating your girlfriend. Surely that happens to us all? With the track Stay Bowie invents a form of glacial European flavoured funk that points directly to his future direction.

That direction was towards Berlin and the entrance into a new phase of his record making. A phase that sees him cast off character lead public personas and traditional pop song structural norms.

There is denying Low, Heroes and Lodger are great records. In hindsight who wouldn’t want to have recorded next to the Berlin Wall, shared a flat with Iggy Pop (surely one hell of a washing up rota) and popped out to transvestite cabaret clubs of an evening?

But, when lauding his new work in the same old frames of reference we should do David Bowie a further service. He barely recalls making albums such as Station To Station. We should remember for him.

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A triumphant, almost defiant, return – innovative, dark, bold and creative.

by Jude Clark / BBC

26th February 2013

Even after 10 years away from the spotlight, David Bowie – pop’s most important post-Beatles innovator – still commands unrivalled levels of fascination.

Just when it seemed that he had quietly slipped into a dignified retirement, which no-one would have begrudged, the world awoke one morning in January to the remarkable news of not only a single, Where Are We Now?, available immediately, but also this album.

In the context of the album, Where Are We Now? – a moving, backwards glance at The Berlin Years – seems a slight red herring. Bowie does consider the past, ageing, mortality: on the title track’s chant of “My body left to rot in a hollow tree” and I’d Rather Be High’s stumbling “to the graveyard”.

How Does the Grass Grow? poses the question, “Would you still love me if the clocks could go backwards?” (You Will) Set the World on Fire seemingly addresses his pre-stardom self, a You Really Got Me riff and slick confidence reminding us that he’s always had “what it takes”. This elegiac nostalgia is matched by the beautiful You Feel So Lonely You Could Die.

A complex mood pervades elsewhere, a sense of things gone awry. The nicely sinister Dirty Boys’ expressive, serious vocal depicts a skewed Englishness of cricket bats, “Finchley Fair” and running “with dirty boys”. The Stars (Are Out Tonight) sees those stars (a recurring theme) anthropomorphised: “sexless and unaroused”, unsettlingly “beaming like blackened sunshine”.

The most experimental cut, If You Can See Me, proclaims – amidst spacey, tumbling rhythms and scattered jumbles of notes and words – “I will slaughter your kind”. Love Is Lost makes youth seem ominous – newness abounds but still “your fear is old”. Clearly this is no elder statesman simply wistfully gazing into a dappled, romanticised past.

Valentine’s Day and I’d Rather Be High are further standouts – the former is a mid-paced depiction of a character with a “tiny face” and “scrawny hands”; the latter, a furious anti-war song.

Closer Heat is a brilliant exemplar of what makes our finest, bravest musician of the past 40 years so irreplaceable. It’s full of spaced-out vocals, ominous noises and bangs, keening strings and disturbing, impressionistic poetry.

With the opacity and lack of easy answers that you would hope for from this most stylish and creative of artists, this is a triumphant, almost defiant, return. Innovative, dark, bold and creative, it’s an album only David Bowie could make.

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