David Bowie imagines himself as the world’s weirdest lounge act, complete with a satin suit, and campy covers of decade-old pop hits. It felt like quite a novelty and it still does. There’s some suspension of disbelief required, watching a vermilion-haired alien croon about chasing some Earth-dame as if this rock messiah would stoop to the childish dating rituals the original McCoys song was referring to. Tongue-entirely-in-cheek of course.
Peter Tosh is kind of a forgotten giant. He was founding member of The Wailers and recorded some classic albums as a solo artist, but he hasn’t been able to promote himself and grow his legacy on account of being dead. Now, Bob Marley is dead too, but apparently his heirs and offspring are thorsty and business savvy above and beyond most people’s capabilities. I don’t see whoever’s in charge of Tosh’s estate trying to plaster his face on a line of vanity bongs. I suspect, though, that Tosh would have found that sort of aggressive profiteering very vulgar and antithetical to his philosophy. It’s better to be well known to a few for the power of your message than vaguely known to the masses for nothing more than the image of your face.
David Bowie has a real quarrel with the straight world and the briefcase-carrying types who populate it. It’s not just David Bowie, of course. Artists and musicians and assorted Bohemians have mocked the conventional life in a trope as age-old as dogs chasing cats. It’s a real tragedy that so many people remain locked in a life of silent conformity, and the probability that most of them are perfectly content with it just adds to the pathos. In David Bowie’s eyes, it’s also symptomatic that we’re all living in some kind of an Orwellian regime that actively punishes free thought and self-expression, which is just… reality. George Orwell, for his part, may have added one or two science-fiction-ish flourishes to his world, but mostly he was just describing the perfectly real. So we’re all children of the silent age, aren’t we though?
From the image of Ian Anderson boiling his tea water over an open campfire, to the final ode to domestic tranquility, everything about Songs From the Wood speaks to my heart. Jethro Tull tapped into something that rock music, with its relentless bluster, rarely touches on: the appeal of a peaceful life. They also leaned hard on English folklore, another thing that pop culture usually disregards. It’s a sustained vision of sprites in trees, Solstice revelries, sexy outdoor sportage, and warm homes full of happy dogs. Everything a soul might long for when they have to spend most of their lives in windowless, featureless modern public spaces. There’s an entirely conflicting fantasy, of course, about the glamour of urban life, but glamour, unlike a nice backyard garden, is a very nebulous thing to aspire to. For someone who hears the highway through their bedroom window, the longing to hear leaves rustling and to smell the earth and sleep in natural darkness is… well, it’s there, quiet and small and undiagnosed, like a vitamin deficiency.
Well, they were right. The song does remain the same. No doubt that when they wrote it, they had in mind some grand metaphor for the endless turning of the world. But, really, in the most prosaic terms, the song literally remains the same in the sense that everyone who grew up listening to Led Zeppelin is till sitting around listening to Led Zeppelin. For example, me. I am still choosing to listen to Led Zeppelin over the possibility of exploring whatever the hell is being done right now, today, by people who weren’t born when Winston Churchill was still alive. Which officially makes me an old person, I think.
“I was kind of making fun of Arista Records” who had “asked for a mid-tempo ballad with a saxophone…They wanted a song that could be played on the radio, [so] very tongue-in-cheek I wrote…’Song on the Radio’. I thought they’d [get that] I was actually joking, but of course they didn’t & …put it out as a single [which] made the Top 30, [so] the joke was on me because I screwed up a preposition” – referring to the opening lines “I was making my way through the wasteland/ The road into town passes through” which ends with a preposition – “Worse, I used the same word [through] twice in the same sentence.” – Al Stewart
This is why I love Al Stewart so damn much. He has a hit single and he’s embarrassed that he made a grammatical mistake. Never mind that most hit singles are just a series of words that barely hang together. Al Stewart’s songs have to be able to double as an academic submission. Stewart proves that even when being ironic, he actually does know how to write a radio-friendly hit song: lead strong with a sax solo, declare the depth and passion of your love, don’t mention Hitler.
Bryan Ferry knows one fundamental truth: everything in life is more beautiful when it’s on the banks of the Seine. Ferry grew up in a small mining town in the north of England, where his father cared for pit ponies. Which put young Bryan as far from the sophistication of Paris cafes as a kid growing up in Appalachia. So, although he jetted his way to the top of the class pyramid without leaving a trace of Northern yokel about himself, there’s always a touch of the outsider’s wistfulness about him. The fascination with luxury and glamour, the slight sense of irony in the way he occupies those spaces. It takes an outsider to understand that even the bad times are a savory delight when you’re having them someplace nice.