The Prettiest Star

Please take a moment of silent awe for what may be the only recorded collaboration between David Bowie and Marc Bolan. Bowie and Bolan were frenemies whose clashing egos made for one of the great rivalries in music history. Bolan was full of great ideas and made many trailblazing breakthroughs in music and image, but Bowie kept overshadowing him and stealing his thunder. This is a prime example. A romantic ballad featuring Bolan’s instantly recognizable lead guitar, it was a failed single in 1970. Bolan’s playing is outstanding, while Bowie is in earnest mode, emoting like a leading man in a Hollywood musical. It’s a slightly weird combination of Bowie’s theatrical tendencies and Bolan’s fluid pre-glam psychedelic style. A few years later, when both players had become big stars and even bigger rivals, Bowie re-recorded the song, with Mick Ronson taking over on lead guitar. The tune is the same, the arrangement is similar, but Ronson’s style couldn’t be more different. Bowie has gone full Ziggy, his earnestness gone, the camp factor turned up to 11. It’s apocalyptic cabaret on crack now. This is the version everybody knows, while the earlier, arguably better version is a rarity. It certainly shows how much David Bowie changed his outward style in just three years; how he could twist his own sentiments from romantic sincerity to drag-queen burlesque; and, unfortunately, how he didn’t mind erasing other people’s contributions. Bolan was pissed that his work had been thrown away, and he hadn’t been informed or invited to the rerecording. The two didn’t talk again for several years. David Bowie was a great collaborator, but only with people who could accept that their spotlight would always be the less bright.

Post World War Two Blues

 

Call this the thinking person’s answer to Don McLean’s American Pie. Which, don’t get me wrong, is a great song, and quite a bit darker than people give it credit for. But. I think we can all agree that there’s nothing more grating than people who lived in the 60’s’ nostalgia for the 60’s, and there’s nothing that defines knee-jerk nostalgia for the 60’s more than American Pie. I’m sure that coming of age in the 60’s was really *wonderful* for everybody who experienced it and I’m right jealous, ok? But also let’s acknowledge the glaringly obvious; it was a very, very different, considerably less rosy coming of age time for everyone literally anyplace else besides the United States. For people coming of age in the UK, the golden age of the Youthquake, the Sexual Revolution, the Age of Aquarius and all of those other neat things was marred by memories of the trauma and deprivation of the war years, in ways that Americans, flush on the fat of the land, couldn’t begin to imagine. (Never even mind what people growing up a little bit further east had to go through.) So when noted songwriter and history buff Al Stewart took a look back on his postwar upbringing and early 60’s young manhood, he wasn’t waxing nostalgic for the old juke joint and Chevy; he was recalling years of rations, shortages, cold and hunger. Though Buddy Holly may have been a shared point of interest, the worlds and viewpoints couldn’t be more different. For the generation of Americans who are still patting themselves on the back for how cool the 60’s were, there’s a generation of Europeans whose lens has considerably less vaseline smeared on it.

Poor People

Alan Price is kind of an overlooked figure of the swinging sixties. He was a member of The Animals, a regular session and tour musician, and also had some popularity in the UK as a solo artist. I guess mostly he’s known as a guy who played with one hell of a lot of famouser guys. His solo music can be best described as…very English, very very English. He can make a Screamin’ Jay Hawkins cover sound like something that belongs in an East End music hall. If he had one great defining solo moment, it was the O Lucky Man soundtrack. It had some very clever and charming songs, which made for an ironic contrast with the lesson of the movie, that shitty things will randomly and incessantly happen to you no matter what you try to do in life. Yeah, that shit’s depressing, but, again, good songs.

The Paw Paw Negro Blowtorch

My, my, my… Brian Eno continues to surprise even if you think you’ve figured out his methods. We’ve all heard by now of his oblique strategies; starter packs are available for purchase. Throwing out sounds, ideas and words at random then finding some means of binding them together has served Eno and his collaborators very well. I always presumed that this particular title was a result of just such witchery. There’s no cohesion to those words being together. But, nope, Eno took inspiration from a true tale of a young man named William Underwood – a Negro in the parlance of his time – from a place called Paw Paw, MI who claimed to possess pyrokinetic powers. Being the 1800’s, of course, science had no means to either disprove or explain those claims, but the man was documented by observes breathing fire (though not, to my knowledge, barbecuing kittens.) The nineteenth century was full of such delightfully credulous tales of pseudo scientific quakery, and more of them should be revived in pop culture. The weight of real context lends a whole new meaning to a self-consciously flippant song; suddenly there’s a story that you really want to know more of. This could be the seed of the next AHS.

Panic in Detroit

David Bowie imagines the apocalyptic breakdown of civil society. In Detroit of all places, because of course Detroit. It was 1973, and the point of reference was probably the 1967 Detroit riots, as well as the general sense of unrest in the United States at the time. Today Detroit has become as close as any place in America to an actual post-industrial wasteland. Oh, and urban America has been engulfed in rioting and violent unrest, repeating the exact same pattern as before, with the same players in the same roles. All of which makes this an eerily prescient portrait of normal life descending into chaos overnight. The more things change, eh? What was relevant in 1973 is if anything more relevant today. Why does it seem that every dystopian speculation eventually winds up coming true? Is it because people are fundamentally stupid and short-sighted and inevitably bound to repeat the same calamitous mistakes as soon as the previous ones begin to fade from living memory?

Over the Hills and Far Away

Watching Led Zeppelin in action, I ponder on how much of their image (and, of course, their sound) was built on their understanding of mysticism and mythology. No question, Jimmy Page fancied himself some sort of fire shaman, with his dragon suit and his backlit posturing. Led Zeppelin started out as a blues-based band, but by the time of their full fledged success, the blues was only nominally an influence. What they really set out to do was create a suitably epic soundtrack to the historical mythology slash fantasy that had become quite in vogue during the 60’s. The sense that perhaps a particularly English mythology was somewhat lacking in comparison to the cool mythology of other cultures was what had inspired J.R.R. Tolkien to create his richly populated world, and it was a feeling that struck a deep chord. The rock demimonde of the 60’s was fascinated with all things fantasy, from the English-pastoral to the quasi-historical to the darkly occult. Page and Plant really made it cool like nobody else did, thanks to being head and shoulders above most of their peers in both the musicianship and charisma departments. Being thundering sex gods really helped sell the fantasy. Led Zeppelin’s music, besides the obvious requirement of being good music, filled the same need that fantasy novels and before them religion-based myths have done; the need to imagine a world of something more.

One Misty Moisty Morning

I do believe that English folk music is about due for another revival. The brief popularity in 60’s/70’s of revivalist groups like Steeleye Span is a hazy memory, vaguely linked to the hippie movement. It barely made a dent in the United States, that’s for sure. There’s definitely an element of willful anachronism in trying to make traditional folk music relevant, a sort of  so-uncool-we’re-cooler-than-you attitude of rebellion against modern standards of hipness. It’s very there on the American bluegrass scene. I’m not sure what the equivalent situation in the UK is, but I’m sure there’s some brave folks out there; probably bearded, armed with mandolins and harps, versed in Chaucer-era poetry, just waiting for the market to turn in their favor again.