FORMER RC STAFFER MARK PAYTRESS, AND CURRENT RC CONTRIBUTOR STEVE PAFFORD, ARE THE AUTHORS OF A DIFFERENT KIND OF BOWIE BOOK, REVEALS JACK KANE.
“What?” you may cry, “another Bowie book? Why, it’s only a month since Chris Welch’s Changes!”. But hold fast, pop-pickers, for this is a healthy tome of a different stripe. True, it’s a big, fat coffee-table book full of pictures, but unlike most of its type, this one is actually worth reading – the copy is mainly by former RC weird-music specialist Mark Paytress, and his thoughtful prose compliments the illustrations rather well. As for the photographs, these have been researched mainly by Bowie expert and co-author Steve Pafford, editor of Crankin’ Out fanzine, and they really do cover Bowie’s entire career, from school to the present day.
In addition, Pafford’s often witty captions bring a lightness to the affair – a snap of Dave in strides and pirate boots, reclining on a chaise-longue, is entitled “Trouser rehearsal for The Man Who Sold The World cover”.
Another thing that sets this book apart from its canon is that it is expressly not about Bowie’s music, but rather his image and place in fashion history.
Student of popular culture Paytress has attempted to place Bowie squarely in his social context, and the photos provide evidence of Bowie’s long, sartorial journey through the trends of postwar music – Pafford has uncovered some real gems, like a fine colour portrait of the 15-year-old ‘Dave Jay’ (a name taken from Peter Jay And The Jaywalkers, because they “knew about saxophones”, as Bowie himself puts it) togged up for his first band, the Kon-Rads. In fact, a fair amount of the visual material came from Steve’s personal collection, although, as he points out: “We concentrated on rare, unpublished photos as much as possible. I spent four months rummaging through photo libraries’ archives, hunting down unseen pictures.”
A shadowy half-profile of the six-year-old David Jones has him looking almost as detached and ‘different’ as Newton, the alien he was to play in The Man Who Fell To Earth. It’s obvious that, here, we’re seeing someone who is destined to turn out ‘not quite right’.
In the introduction, Paytress and Pafford explain why it should be so that someone as strange as Bowie should come from so seemingly mundane a place as leafy Bromley; suburbia’s “simple ways and suffocating properness have proved time and again to be a valuable creative aid”. The authors also believe that Bowie’s older half-brother, Terry Burns, was important to his development as an outsider. Terry, an image-conscious beatnik, sadly became schizophrenic, and took his own life in 1985. Bowie, allegedly, has always feared the ‘family curse’ of insanity.
From an early age, as the book demonstrates, David was determined to set himself apart. He was stunned upon encountering rock’n’roll at the age of nine, and his favourite artists had a great effect on him – there was Elvis (with whom Bowie shares the same birthday – January 8th), and, more significantly, Little Richard, who, in 1956, must have seemed to arrive from outer space, covered in so much make-up that he looked like a walking advert for Max Factor.
In these days of pierced faces and whatnot, it’s forgotten just how startling even petty deviations from the norm were 40 years ago; a school photo shows David with an electric shock of a half-bleached quiff, like a cross between Tommy Steele and the Bride of Frankenstein.
To ponce around like that, or a few years later (before everyone else), with girl’s hair, must have taken real courage and determination. It’s surprising that our Dave didn’t get a regular kicking, but he only got battered once – in Maidstone in 1964 – though’ fellow Manish Boy Bob Solly tells us that Bowie got “jostled a lot”, and Bowie himself recalls being jeered at in the street.
So, why did Bowie, who after all is no tough guy – on ‘Kooks’ he advises “don’t pick fights with the bullies or the cads, ‘cos I’m not much cop at punching other peoples’ dads” – actively invite scorn by flouting convention?
Scattered throughout BowieStyle is the answer, often in magazine-style short chapters like ‘Influences and Heroes’, in which we read that the 12-year-old David told his teacher that he intended to become “The British Elvis“.
Bowie was convinced that he would be a star, and he therefore did all that he could to get attention – when the Manish Boys were due to appear on the pop programme Gadzooks! the then-Davy Jones gained publicity for the new show by conspiring with BBC producers, ostentatiously rejecting their false instructions to have his shoulder-length locks shorn and, by refusing, causing a minor public scandal: “I wouldn’t have my hair cut for the Prime Minister, let alone the BBC“, he declared.
Harold Wilson’s response is unrecorded.
With success frustratingly out of reach throughout the 60s, Bowie succumbed to conformity of a kind, becoming a sort of folkie in the last years of that decade, and jumping, as Paytress says, on the singer-songwriter bandwagon – albeit to little recognition. Despite apparent failure, Bowie’s fortunes were about to change, and his new-found fame would inspire him to become the strangest pop beast yet seen – that ‘spider from Mars’, Ziggy Stardust.
Hence we come to the core of both the book, and Bowie’s career.
As the book states, “the early 70s were Bowie’s crucial period… he was an all-round talent then, and it was inevitable that he would get massive attention. It was then that he changed both music and fashion.”
Well, not quite at first – the 70s started with Bowie in his infamous Mr Fish “man’s dress”, and the streets weren’t exactly full of lads copying that image. But it got him noticed, and he certainly wore it well – unlike recent pop cross-dresser Kevin Rowland.
BowieStyle is rich with images of the Ziggy era, with our hero sporting costumes of such stupendous flamboyance that even Liberace would have found them too camp.
But did Bowie invent or merely pre-empt the glam craze?
His propagandists have always portrayed him as a brilliant innovator, while detractors dismiss him as a mere opportunist.
BowieStyle takes a balanced approach, arguing that Bowie has always been as much of his time as apart from it, and that though he may have shared his garb with others – for example, Bryan Ferry and Roxy Music – his ‘specialness’ lay in the fact that he epitomised his scene. Paytress: “Rock should epitomise a sense of difference, and Bowie was the epitome of that epitome.”
If Bowie was as significant as Paytress describes him, then it’s curious that his musical and stylistic influence has not been commensurate with his iconic status – of course, there was Glam, New Romanticism and the hapless Jobriath – but when did you ever hear of anyone being hailed as “the new Bowie”? Perhaps it’s his very uniqueness that stops this happening, the uniqueness that BowieStyle describes so well.
Settled now, ageing elegantly and net-surfing on 40 fags a day (no, the bisexual thing was 30 years ago, US readers), I would think that Bowie would be well-pleased with this unbiased but affectionate history, which reminds you of how exciting he once was, and in which he comes across as a rather interesting and decent chap.
By Jack Kane – Record Collector – Issue No. 251).
Mark Paytress and Steve Pafford
160 pages, fully illustrated in colour, paperback.
ISBN 0-7119-7722-4, £19.99 or less, June 2000
You can purchase a copy of the book online here through Amazon Books.
First published: Record Collector, July 2000