‘Ashes to Ashes: The Songs of David Bowie, 1976-2016’

❉ This expanded collection of blog essays from Berlin to Blackstar is a consistent, coherent read, writes Tim Worthington. 

“Bowie’s output arguably tells enough of a story on its own, but here the running order has been subtly tweaked to maintain an actual narrative; this isn’t a book you need to dip in and out of to preserve your own sanity, it’s a consistent and coherent read…. Good, bad and Segue: Algeria Touchshriek, every song Bowie so much as stood in the corner of a stage for – running from Iggy Pop’s The Idiot to the new songs included with the Lazarus soundtrack is discussed in detail”

When you’re dealing with an artist who changed their direction, fashion and even medium as many times and in such rapid succession as David Bowie, the idea of separating his canon of work into ‘good’ and ‘bad’ is a little redundant really. That hasn’t stopped people trying, though, and for for obvious reasons this has only got worse in recent years.

Want to talk about Bowie but don’t have much to say? Do you even want to end up saying more about yourself than anything to do with him or his work? Well, just remember these simple indisputable one-sentence rules. Tin Machine were a ‘mid life crisis’, the Deram album is pantomime embarrassment, the second album isn’t any good apart from Space Oddity, the eighties stuff is rubbish, the nineties stuff is rubbish, and Young Americans is rubbish every third Wednesday in August depending on how it fits your argument. As for The Man Who Sold The World, it requires that pesky ‘analysis’ so is probably best conveniently not mentioned at all. And all of them, somehow, are apparently less worthy of celebration than Pin-Ups, which has been ‘reclaimed’ so many times now you keep expecting to see it in the window of Bagpuss & Co.

You don’t have to be as obsessed as that strange individual stood next to me at a show on the Earthling tour – a packed house at a time when he was supposedly deeply ’embarrassing’ – who kept on shouting “DAVID! IT’S ME, DAVID! DAVID!” between songs to feel a little put out by all of this. Two days after the release of Blackstar, I found myself so fed up by the frustrating and boring merry-go-round of people either sobbing in time to Warszawa or dismissing everything he did after 1983 for the benefit of news presenters who probably couldn’t care less one way or the other but liked it when he did The Starman Who Fell To World at Live Aid or something, that I felt compelled to write a piece detailing the most silly and irrelevant ways – from Grange Hill characters to seeing a busker attempting V-2 Schneider – that Bowie had touched my life. And thankfully, if you’re like me, we’re not alone.

If you’re looking for good and thoughtful insight on David Bowie, his music and much more besides, then just off the top of my head there’s Nicholas Pegg’s definitive The Complete David Bowie, Martin Ruddock’s excellent piece on sixties Bowie for Shindig!, and the consistently entertaining and perceptive Album To Album podcast. Meanwhile, throughout it all, Chris O’Leary has been quietly and methodically working his way through every single Bowie song on his blog Pushing Ahead Of The Dame, offering analysis, evaluation, insight and a fascinating line of illustrative quotes and images. Sometimes I’ve agreed with him, sometimes I most definitely haven’t, but they have always been points worth making and that’s all you can really ask for from a project of this nature.

Across a whopping seven hundred pages, Ashes To Ashes collects the second ‘half’ of this epic series of articles – running from Iggy Pop’s The Idiot to the new songs included with the Lazarus soundtrack – in a revised, reworked and often massively expanded form. Bowie’s output arguably tells enough of a story on its own, but here the running order has been subtly tweaked to maintain an actual narrative; this isn’t a book you need to dip in and out of to preserve your own sanity, it’s a consistent and coherent read that takes us from one flip of the Oblique Strategies card to the next. Good, bad and Segue: Algeria Touchshriek, every song Bowie so much as stood in the corner of a stage for is discussed in detail. He even finds something interesting – if not positive – to say about that cover of God Only Knows.

There are positive words, however, on many songs that you really wouldn’t expect – it’s nice to hear someone speak up for Crack City after all this time – and well-explained kickings for the equally unexpected likes of Dancing In The Street. Right at the end, of course, is an epic, heartfelt look at Blackstar, which perhaps comes closer to unravelling the elliptical lyrics than anyone else has ever quite managed. Even more impressively still, he has gone out of his way to understand such key but esoteric subjects as ‘Video Nasties’, the Young British Artists and the eccentricities of BBC Radio 1’s schedule; concepts that are probably understandably baffling to an American writer but which even most British ones would usually just dismiss with one inaccurate namecheck.

The only problem with Ashes To Ashes is that there is literally too much in it, and the extensive footnotes have had to be relegated to a section on Chris’ original blog. It would have been handy to be able to flick back and forth to them, but then again it does allow for a lot of audio and visual material to be incorporated that wouldn’t have made it into the printed page, and in any case it’s arguably in the we-haven’t-quite-figured-this-out-yet spirit of BowieNet. And yes, that is covered in the book too.

Of course, even after all of the above, you may still just want to divide up Bowie’s back catalogue into ‘good’ and ‘bad’. But you definitely won’t be calling this book ‘bad’.


❉ ‘Ashes to Ashes: The Songs of David Bowie, 1976-2016’ by Chris O’Leary was published 19 February 2019 and is available in paperback and eBook formats from Repeater Books, RRP £20.00 (Paperback with free eBook).

Writer Tim Worthington hosts the podcast Looks UnfamiliarTim Worthington’s books include Can’t Help Thinking About Me, available in paperback here or from the Kindle store here

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