❉ In 1972, Bowie elected to use his new-found status to give some of his favoured acts a kick up the charts.
In Summer 1972, David Bowie broke out of an eight-year career spell of sporadic bursts of activity intermingled with stretches of creative inertia with one of the ultimate acts of “Creative Visualization and the Magic of Believing” (to quote his tour manager, Tony Zanetta) in the form of The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and The Spiders From Mars.
It was almost as if, having consolidated his earlier losses, he seized the opportunity to make good on his aspirations exactly as January’s single Changes foretold. Neither the single Starman or its attendant album The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust dented the charts initially, although they were received favourably by the nation’s music press. Bowie’s ascendancy from cult artist to pop figurehead was something that slowly but surely gained traction in the spring and summer of 1972, but once he had broken the mainstream, there was no stopping him – and after having had his name under the title of a series of flop singles, he would use his new-found position to give some of his favoured acts a kick up the charts.
Starman was his return from the chart wilderness, so much so that it may have appeared to the casual pop buff that Major Tom had literally crash landed back to earth, straight into BBC Television Centre, but he’d unveiled the Ziggy look (sans Suzi Ronson’s vermilion-red bog brush hair-do) in February on The Old Grey Whistle Test, and select verses from the gospel of Ziggy had been debuted to Radio 1 listeners on two Sounds of the Seventies sessions in January and May.
Starman would not be directly followed by another David Bowie hit single, but a hit under another act’s name that would rejuvenate Mott The Hoople’s career – hitting record racks a mere three weeks after Starman’s Top Of The Pops appearance.
While Ziggy was in chrysalis form, Bowie was devastated to discover that one of his favourite home-grown rock acts, Mott The Hoople, were on the verge of disbanding. Ever the fanboy, he offered them two songs – one was Suffragette City (“It was a good song, but we didn’t think it was for us” – Overend Watts) the other was All The Young Dudes.
“You could tell it was a great song” said Overend Watts. “He’d got all the chorus words, but hadn’t got some of the verse words.”
Despite never having figured in any permutations of the running order of Ziggy, All The Young Dudes fitted seamlessly into the messianic narrative of Ziggy, with its roll-call of beautiful freaks and juvenile misfits, and a companion piece to Starman – ‘the news’ the dudes carried can easily be read as the Starman’s own, to shake some action in the short period of time Earth had left before the impending apocalypse. It would be retro-fitted into the abandoned Ziggy Stardust musical Bowie talked up with William Burroughs in 1974’s Rolling Stone summit meet, telling the Beat Godfather:
“Ziggy was in a rock & roll band and the kids no longer want rock & roll. There’s no electricity to play it. Ziggy’s adviser tells him to collect news and sing it, ’cause there is no news. So Ziggy does this and there is terrible news. “All the Young Dudes” is a song about this news. It is no hymn to the youth as people thought. It is completely the opposite.”
It was a rousing call to arms for Ziggy’s children, to whom the Beatles and Stones were yesterday’s news, and were waiting for a new figurehead to fill the leadership void. It’s amazing that, in 1972, Bowie was in a position where he could give away such a stone-cold classic to another band, and Mott’s version remains definitive, as his own take on the song – recorded for, but omitted from, Aladdin Sane – chugs along at a funereal pace in comparison.
“Everything was wrong”, Bowie told Charles Shaar Murray. “They were so down I thought I was going to have to contribute a lot of material. Now they’re in a wave of optimism and they’ve written everything on the LP bar (Sweet Jane) and the Dudes single.”
Bowie’s quick working methods in the production room – thanks to his tutelage from backroom masters Mike Vernon, Gus Dudgeon, Tony Visconti and Ken Scott – gave Mott some new moxie as a recording outfit, with Ian Hunter recalling: “We were working with someone who had this basic knowledge, and could tell the engineers exactly what we wanted”.
Come the summer of 1972, Mott The Hoople was not the only obscure act that Bowie was rehabilitating by sprinkling some of his stardust. In different parts of London, Bowie had ushered Iggy Pop’s Stooges and ex-Velvets mainman Lou Reed into studios to pay back the influence they had had on his recent work.
The Stooges Mk.II were left to their own devices in Olympic Studios, Barnes, to lay the groundwork for what would become Raw Power throughout August 1972, to mixed reactions from Bowie’s MainMan, Tony DeFries. Iggy: “DeFries freaked! It was all far too violent to be associated with David!”. Raw Power was not so much released as let out on parole in June 1973, but became a punk touchstone from 1977 onwards.
While Iggy and his Stooges languished in Olympic Studios, pushing the needles towards red with every ‘live’ take, and generating enough rough mixes and alternative takes to spawn an unlimited supply of semi-official studio collections outnumbering the Stooges’ official back catalogue to this day (Stand up, Sick Of You, Jesus Loves The Stooges, Heavy Liquid, Rough Power and countless more!) Bowie and Ronson, in a brief grace period during a non-stop tour, carefully fashioned together Lou Reed’s Transformer, which saw Reed draw from his own first-hand experiences of the demi-monde of the Factory and Max’s Kansas City as well as the delicate melodic sensibilities of the third Velvet Underground album, to create a document of pure “glam” from someone who had already lived this before it became a fashion statement.
RCA’s Dennis Katz recalled, “(RCA) had a lot of faith in David Bowie. So they were willing to take a shot on another (Lou Reed) album, assuming HE was working with Lou. They made it clear that they were disappointed in Lou… but if David took over, they could accept that.”
As such, it has a well-worn realness to it as Bowie could only walk the walk in Ziggy’s shoes, whereas Reed was genuinely transgressive – only a sexually fluid, regular drug user (“for whom the needle is no more than a toothbrush”) like Reed, who had lived and walked the atmosphere of Christopher Street and Greenwich Village, and breathed the same air as the likes of Candy Darling and Holly Woodlawn, could create something like Make Up, with its chorus echoing of the Gay Power chant “Out of the closets and into the streets” and make it feel like a document of lived experience…
Bowie is a presence throughout this album, contributing distinctive backing vocals, but it is Mick Ronson who deserves the lion’s share of credit here. Ronson’s string and piano arrangements, which are such a key part of Hunky Dory, Ziggy Stardust and Aladdin Sane‘s enduring beauty, are all over Transformer, turning the ambiguous Perfect Day (is it about spending time with a lover? Or one last hit of heroin? Ever the contrarian, Reed claimed “‘Heroin’ is a song about heroin. ‘Perfect Day’ is a song about a perfect day”) into a deceptively pretty ballad and transforming a goofy Velvets reject like Andy’s Chest into a genuinely crepuscular and haunting piece of Dadaist poetry. Right up until his death in 2013, Lou Reed spoke fondly and generously of ‘Ronno’, the taciturn but incredibly gifted Yorkshireman who made Transformer a timeless classic: “Transformer is easily my best-produced album. That has a lot to do with Mick Ronson. His influence was stronger than David’s, but together as a team, they are terrific.”
The great gift for Lou Reed was the single from Transformer, Walk On The Wild Side. With its jazzy rhythm and Reed’s poetically intoned vocals, it didn’t fit in with the pop template then let alone now and stood out like a sore thumb. Reed’s dry documentary account of the exotic Warhol Factory acolytes cast a real spell on the British audience, and rendered fringe outsiders Joe Dallesandro, Holly Woodlawn, Jackie Curtiss and Candy Darling as semi-mythical icons forever. There’s a real story behind each verse, and it was beautifully detailed in the 1993 BBC Arena documentary Tales Of Rock ‘N’ Roll, well worth searching out. And to top it all, as if to crown David Bowie’s year of success, he had his old saxophone tutor from Kent – jazzman Ronnie Ross – play the smooth, smoky sax solo.
Back on planet Bowie, RCA resisted the temptation to milk the Ziggy album for hit singles (in stark contrast to the early ’80s, when 80% of Scary Monsters and Let’s Dance graced one side or the other of a 7″ platter) and instead Bowie gave them a brand-spanking new single, John, I’m Only Dancing, with a promo video taped by Mick Rock during rehearsals for an upcoming show at Finsbury Park’s Rainbow Theatre, complete with choreography by Lindsay Kemp and his dance troupe (prophetically dubbed ‘The Astronettes’) – solidly rehearsed over a fortnight at Stratford’s Theatre Royal.
Deliberately provocative, John, I’m Only Dancing was his first single released from a position of celebrity, jumping on the back of the hype from a Save The Whale concert hosted by DJ Kenny Everett (where Lou Reed joined Bowie for the encores) and the Ziggy Stardust Show at the Rainbow Theatre, with ‘Total Pop Art’ aesthetes Roxy Music as support act. One dissenting voice reviewing the star-making Rainbow gig was journalist Nick Kent, who wrote, “Bowie blew it by trying to mix his brand of rock music with the rather precocious art of mime.”
He was not alone, as Roxy’s Andy Mackay complained of the gig to Music Scene that, “I think he just uses people as a buffer. Although the theatricality is good, it’s almost too theatrical… He goes to far on the theatrical side”, and Bryan Ferry crowed, “I didn’t think it worked.” By the same token, Bowie was magnanimous towards his support act: “I love them“, he told Roy Hollingsworth, “they are the nearest thing to being decadent at the moment”, while Lou Reed described Bowie and Kemp’s set as “amazing, incredible, stupendous”.
With its bisexual content, John, I’m Only Dancing consolidated Bowie’s image in the press as a “magnificent outrage”. The single wasn’t issued in the US, but – as Charles Shaar Murray notes in the seminal Bowie bible An Illustrated Record – “it did just great on import in Memphis, Tennessee” (!)- and numerous iterations of this track would appear on catalogue over the years, with at present, five different versions of John, I’m Only Dancing, existing in a dizzying array of formats, some of which are still in print and some are not. Answers on a postcard.
All the while these various waxings were hitting the shelves, David Bowie’s dark past as a sixties chancer began to slip out, with Pye Records releasing the first of an infinity of reissues of Mod Dave’s ill-fated 45s, and the Arnold Corns project getting dusted off for a low-key reissue of the semi-mythical troupe’s primitive prototypes of Hang Onto Yourself and Moonage Daydream, which (due to an administrative error) ended up sharing a catalogue number with Monty Python’s 1972 45 Eric The Half A Bee/Yangtse Song. They didn’t trouble the charts, and certainly didn’t trouble Mr Leper Messiah himself*, for while John I’m Only Dancing romped its way into the Top 20, David Bowie took Ziggy Stardust to America.
To find out what happened next, when Ziggy begat Aladdin, dear reader, jump back to this entry from last June…
* Little did he know that, a year later, a reissue of The Laughing Gnome would shadow that autumn’s ‘official’ Bowie product, Sorrow, up the charts, with Marc Bolan chortling in Record Mirror “Rock ‘n’ Roll suicide hit the dust and the laughing gnomes took over!”
❉ Editor of WE ARE CULT, James Gent is the co-editor of ‘Me and The Starman’, published in July 2019 by Chinbeard Books.