It’s amazing the stuff you find when you’re least expecting it. I wrote a 14-album Bryan Ferry and Roxy Music review feature for Record Collector magazine the last week of October 1999, and I imagined it, along with a plethora of other bits and bobs, was somehow lost or binned along the way through two continents, four countries and a succession of Apple Mac computers. As luck would have it, I’ve just discovered them hidden in an old ClarisWorks file entitled RC99.
Andy Davis, then editor of said British trainspotters bible, had been pleased with the first features I’d penned for RC just a few weeks before, even if David Bowie and EMI weren’t. So he duly sent me a whole pile of CDs to review, some of which (Elvis Presley, Debbie Harry, Nat King Cole, Natalie Merchant, Sister Sledge et al) I’ve republished in 2017 on this very blog. Andy then arranged for Virgin Records to courier over their second batch of Roxy/Ferry reissues, which was essentially everything in the BF catalogue after 1975’s Siren – the fifth Roxy Music album – and asked me to conjure up another write up.
David Bowie was always a vociferous champion of fellow art rockers Roxy in the 1970s, and in the late ’80s even covered one of the highlights of the band’s catalogue, a fast and furious version of If There Is Something, released on the Tin Machine II album in 1991, which impressed Ferry no end. Not. On October 25th in the final year of the millennium I witnessed a live session DB was performing on Radio 1’s Mark Radcliffe and Lard afternoon show. As was the case at the previous Bowie show in Dublin earlier the same month, I was attending with Mark Adams, who, since 1995, had been the designer of Crankin’ Out, ‘the irregular but really excellent’ Bowie magazine I was self-publishing. And thanks to biographer David Buckley for the contemporaneous quote there.
Adams was an intriguing, ambitious character, but it was evident he and I were going in opposite directions. Whereas Mark – very much a lapsed fan when we first met – seemed fixated on getting on the right side of David, my appreciation of the Thin White one was waning, no doubt hastened by a lacklustre album, Hours. Still, who would turn down being guestlisted by Bowie himself? And at least the Beeb’s Maida Vale studios were rather closer to home than Ireland. About a 20 minute walk, in fact, and just round the corner from where I’d studied at the London School of Journalism. Doctor Who fans will know the building as the home of the legendary BBC Radiophonic Workshop, where one of television’s most recognisable themes was created, as well as the sound of the Tardis and the Sonic Screwdriver.
The two-hour show, which we watched from the gallery, felt like the end of an era in some ways. This would be one of the last times Bowie would be heard on Radio One. As someone who released his debut album the year the station came into existence, he’d had a bloody good run, but was already in the process of being transitioned to Radio 2, along with Mark and Lard and a whole host of artists and DJs. It was also the last time I spoke with David Bowie. This wasn’t a proper sit-down semi-interview type situation as Dublin had been, but, Glastonbury 2000 excepted, I was never to see him ever again in any capacity.
Show over, Mark and I bumped into Paul Kinder, webmaster of the excellent website Bowie Wonderworld, and decided to head to The Elgin, a typically hip West London pub with exposed brick, subway tile and shabby chic decor. Unsurprisingly, an unhealthy chunk of chat was devoted to DB, most of it somewhat tediously along the lines of I wasn’t old enough to appreciate Hours like Mark and Paul, and that they saw The Dame as some kind of father figure. I chucked to myself at the inanity of it, especially as my dad was born in 1947 – the same year as Bowie – though very much alive and still with mum, I’m happy to say. It never even occurred to them that maybe – just maybe – Hours might not be a good album.
Paul then asked us who was the nicest pubic figure we’d met: “John Major, I replied, only half-jokingly, but relieved we were able to turn the conversation to something else.
I groaned silently, casting my mind back to the things Mark used to say about him before the Thin White one started emailing him out of the blue when BowieNet (now just plain old davidbowie.com) was in the process of being launched.
“The trouble with David,” I countered, “was that at least when I met him, Major appeared completely and genuinely devoid of ego, unlike Thatcher of course. But with David there’s always that actorly element of “I like you because you love me. Isn’t it great!” Would Bowie have bothered with them if they weren’t useful to him? They knew the answer to that, which is why they kept silent.
Mark wisely changed the subject and asked me what I was working on. For my first set of RC articles he’d had been so helpful in laying out his Bowie vinyl on his kitchen table, pointing out the errors and omissions of Kevin Cann’s EMI reissues of The Dame’s catalogue. He seemed genuinely interested where it was leading.
“I’m reviewing the new lot of Ferry and Roxy catalogue. Virgin biked over the set yesterday but I haven’t had a chance to play them yet.”
Mark looked slightly peturbed. “Have you heard these albums before?”
“I saw them in the ‘70s. I’ve got all those albums. I’ve even got The Bride Stripped Bare white label with Crazy Love on it, and stuff like that.”
I prepared myself for the punchline.
“I think I should write the article.”
As I took a swig of my cider, I waited for the laugh. A faint smile, perhaps? Anything to indicate he wasn’t being entirely serious.
I looked at his face. The eyes had narrowed, but the rest of him seemed as bloated as ever. He had this barely veiled look of resentment, of desperation even. He was actually being serious.
“But Mark, you don’t write for Record Collector. I do.”
It never ceased to amaze me how nakedly ambitious, nay, power-hungry, Mark was. At the end of the radio show he’d presented David with a home-made CD of some Legendary Stardust Cowboy recordings. Bowie was delighted, but then went all insincere on us and apologised in those affected tones that for the next show (Billy Bragg; same day, same studio, different station – Radio 2), “I’m really sorry, but they don’t want an audience*.” Bingo. Within days David asked him to become BowieNet news editor (as Total Blam Blam or Blammo), and even recorded one of the Cowboy songs on his next album, 2002’s far sharper Heathen, which saw him re-team with Tony Visconti.
When I submitted my reviews to RC, Andy rang me and apologised. He’d forgotten he’d commissioned them and had to apologise but he couldn’t use them. “The reviews editor is supposed to commission all the reviews, and he’d already asked the same writer (David Hemmingway) who did the first batch, so I shouldn’t have asked you, I’m sorry. We’ll still pay you though. Reading it now, you’re a good writer, but maybe it’s for the best, as if you put all your stuff together it looks a bit like you’ve got a bit of a vendetta against EMI, and they’re one of our biggest advertisers.”
C’est la vie. The actual extended review feature is here. All £230 of it.
*Bowie’s claim wasn’t strictly true, as this article makes clear