Thursday, 21 January 2016

David Bowie and the Importance of Failure...

LIKE everyone - like you - I've been reading a lot about David Bowie over the last couple of weeks. I have wallowed in the old songs, compiled my own mental Bowie's Greatest Hits and then revised it the moment I heard another half-forgotten classic come on BBC 6 Music. (current fave song: Everyone Says Hi: a kind of Kooks aimed at the child now grown up... It says we're here for you, don't stay in a sad place...)

But in all the coverage I've read or heard, there's been are still a couple of things no one else has said. And it's how about important failure is in the Bowie story. How long it took him to find his artistic voice.

The Man That Would Become Bowie - David Jones - first appears to the nation as the well spoken 17 year old spokesperson for the SPCLHM - say what? It's okay, I'll help you out. That's the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Long Haired Men. Under the avuncular questioning of Cliff Michelmore young Jones and his fellow sixth formers complain in a mild sort of way that they are called 'darling' as they walk down Carnaby Street. The group get most excited when Cliff suggests their look is influenced in any way by Britain's Newest Hitmakers The Rolling Stones. No, no, no they say with one alarmed voice. Though you have to say that David looks the very spit of Brian Jones. There's one good gag. A kid is talking about possibly organising a protest march on the lines of the recent CND ones and someone off camera - I really hope it's David - quips that they could call it Baldermaston. Get it? Oh, suit yourselves.

You can see it here:

Then he disappears from the radar and there are determined attempts to break into the pop charts with standard issue beat groups like Davy Jones and The Lower Third. These songs aren't necessarily rubbish exactly, but they are not The Who, they are not The Pretty Things (the acts Davy would like them to be) and they're certainly not ground-breaking, innovative or any of the things we love him for.

You can hear the Lower Third here:

And then there is the name change (so as not to be confused with the Monkee Davy Jones) the early solo singles, the Antony Newley impersonations. There is The Laughing Gnome.

The song is a ridiculous cockernee knees-up of the kind that Tommy 'flash-bang-wallop-wot-a-picture' Steele might have thought was a little silly. It's good-natured, it's full of cracker joke puns ('haven't you got a gnome to go?' etc). It's a breezy novelty song and on the strength of it, you could not have predicted that its singer was going to be any kind of important cultural figure. It would be like thinking Father Abraham of Smurfs fame was going to reshape the entire pop landscape.

You can see an animated video of it here:

Imagine if it had been a hit. It was enough a millstone as it was without anyone actually buying it. Imagine if he'd had to try and live it down if it had been huge. (Famously the folk-punk group The Men They Couldn't Hang played it while supporting Bowie on his Greatest Hits tour, much to the Thin White Duke's chagrin)

He left novelty pop to the likes of The Barron Knights but still the failures went on. There were the mime years. And he wasn't even a big noise in the world of mime.

 Even after Space Oddity was a TV tie in hit (released to coincide with the first moon landings) it looked like Bowie was destined to be a one hit wonder. You could make a very decent album from the Bowie singles of the early 1970s that flopped. Moonage Daydream, Hang On To Yourself, The Prettiest Star, even Changes all got nowhere first time around.

There was a brief flirtation with a new band. The Hype even played a few gigs.

By the time  of his real break through with Ziggy Stardust in 1972 he's been at it for a long time. (yes, Ziggy, because even the magnificent Hunky Dory didn't really connect with the wider public at the time. Didn't make the charts at all. Not even number 73. Hunky Dory. Flopped. The cognescenti loved it, but one of the things about Bowie was that he wasn't that interested in the cognescenti. He always wanted hits.)

Anyway by the time he was a proper star he was 25 (pretty middle-aged to be a new pop act back then) and had been trying to Make It Big for eight long years. This was an ice age in pop's most fast moving years.

And all the failures and the frustrations gave him the impetus and time to explore back streets and alleyways pop artists don't usually go down. Allowed Bowie to develop something fully worked out. By the time he finally got a platform he knew exactly what he wanted to say and exactly how he wanted to say it. He was like a lottery winner who'd spent every day of the previous decade planning how he'd spend the loot if he were ever to get his hands on it.

Bowie is possibly the finest example of the success of the mature student. By which I mean talent plus a restless, frustrated curiousity, plus being ignored when others among your peers are getting  ahead, plus sudden unexpected opportunities plus a sense that time is running out.

We all remember this from University, where the mature students were better prepared for study than any of the rest of us. Maybe you've been that mature student too.

And Bowie so understood the importance of experiment and failure to his own work that he almost deliberately courted it whenever he seemed to feel inspiration flagging. Invited failure into the studio as a means of pushing himself towards success.

And he didn't just Fail. Fail again. Fail better. (To use Beckett's famous one liner) quite often he failed worse. The Tin Machine is just the most obvious example of this, but among all the genius music there are examples throughout his career of ill-advised excursions into idioms he just doesn't master. You could, if you could be bothered, put together a sort of anti-Greatest Hits. Rubbish Bowie tracks sprinkled amongst the great stuff. Turds scattered over the diamond heap if you like.

Anyway, my point in writing this is to stress how artists, if they are to fulfil their potential and purpose, need the freedom to fail. They also need the space and time to fail (proper time too. They might need years.) Artists need to have their Laughing Gnomes supported every bit as much as their Ziggy's. The one might lead to the other, even if the path isn't straight-forward and we can't see it yet.

Recently I've become interested in the possibilities of older people as emerging artists and the story of David Bowie is quite inspiring in this context. But that's another blog post probably.


  1. I was that mature student....ergo that makes me a bit like Bowie, right?! That someone of his god-like genius had to fail, and fail again, and fail worse, is somehow very comforting. Inspiring.

  2. I've always thought of you as the Bowie of the library service... The coolest cat in the building...