Friday, 21 November 2014

Bowie Top Ten (contains no Ziggy)

Inspired by James Gent's brilliant, knowledgable and tasteful reimagining of a Bowie boxset, I reckoned I could do another 50 different Bowie tracks and it'd still be fantastic.  Then I remembered I have ten days to do a major re-work of my Sherlock Holmes' novel, so decided that ten tracks would have to be enough.  

And then decided - to make it interesting - that none of the tracks could be from either any of Bowie's classic 70s albums, or from his post-Outside resurgence in the late 90s.
And I could still have done 50, you know...

1.  When I'm Five
Originally recorded as a demo in 68, this seemingly whimsical and slight tune sung from the POV of a small child finally made an appearance on mish-mash release 'Love You til Tuesday' and then promptly disappeared again, to be remembered only by Bowie obsessives.  From the first time I heard it, though, I thought it was the saddest song I'd ever heard - and thirty years of listening later I still feel much the same.  It's not a reading I've seen elsewhere so probably nonsense, but the lyrics have always felt to me to be about a seriously ill  four year old. 

Why else does Daddy shout loudly at Mummy when she says the narrator - if he's good - can go to school in August.  Why does he then burst into tears?  For that matter, what's with the headaches in the morning, and why is everyone so soppy and daft when he falls off a trike?  Finally, pleas to Jesus to make him five?  Nope - he's a goner, I reckon.

2. Conversation Piece

Another 60s demo which didn't make a contemporaneous album, but instead mouldered in Bowie's archive for a bit, then slipped - almost un-noticed - into the world, as the b-side to the 1970 re-issue of 'The Prettiest Star'.  Bowie re-recorded it for the abortive 'Toy', but I much prefer this acoustic version from 1969 which I first heard on a tape bootleg called 'Bowie Rarities' c 1982.

3.  Buddha of Suburbia
Seriously, anyone who says Bowie never recorded a great record between Scary Monsters and 'Earthling/Outside/Heathen/Some Other album from the late 90s onwards' should be forced to sit down and listen to this entire album but - to save time - just give the title track a spin.  Deliberately self-referential (both musically and lyrically, but also in its South London setting), funny and thoughtful, with a great melody, some fantastic guitar and a video where Bowie sits and strums a guitar on a tree stump, the only reason this wasn't a huge return to form was that he didn't need one of those - he'd never been away...

4.  Time Will Crawl
And just to prove that, how about 'Time Will Crawl'?  Described by the man himself as one of his personal favourite tracks, this is a single as good as anything Bowie has recorded.  It's not subtle, it's not layered and it features Bowie's shittest ever hair style, but from a decade where - random example - Status Quo managed to get into the top ten with 'In the Army Now', this is pure gold.

5.  As the World Falls Down

I almost went with Matt and my favourite track from 'Labyrinth', the awesome 'Magic Dance', and then I thought of 'Underground', for the wonderful refrain of 'Daddy, daddy, get me out of here' if nothing else - but when I was looking for that on YouTube I realised I prefered this, one of Bowie's more mannered vocals, and a genuinely forgotten but lovely ballad.

6.  Remembering Marie A
James went with the admittedly superb bleakness of 'The Drowned Girl', but personally I've always thought this was as good as Bowie ever sang.  Why is Baal not available on blu-ray, with a beautiful deluxe cd remaster?

7. Silver Tree Top School for Boys
This list is a bit 'on the trail of lost songs', I know but Bowie's own version of this turned up unexpectedly on the Bowie Record Day release in 2012, alongside 'Little Tin Soldier'.  Sadly, the version on there isn't a patch on the Beat Stalkers cover version (on which he allegedly sang backing vocals) from the 60s.  Still it's a great song and if you love Bowie's Deram stuff (and you do, don't you?), then this is a little discarded slice of that very English form of psychedelia.

8. Loving the Alien
I wasn't a huge fan of Let's Dance, with the exception of 'Ricochet' and I didn't even buy a copy until several years later when I came across it in the Bargain Bin at Vinyl Villains in Edinburgh's Elm Row, but I thought aout half of Tonight was genius from the off.  'Loving the Alien' is my favourite purely because I have a rather lovely picture disc 12" of it, but I could as easily have chosen 'Blue Jean' or 'Dancing with the Big Boys' (or 'Tonight' itself, shorn of Tina Bloody Turner).

9.  Absolute Beginners
God that video, Bowie as cool as the fags he's smoking, then the guitar coming in  and Bowie giving it 'ba ba ba oo!'  It's enough to make a grown man cry, it's so good.  The 15 year old me thought it was literally, genuinely the Best Thing that Ever Happened to Music (a fact which wasn't even ruined by a terrible, nightmare date at the movie from which is came some weeks later).

10.  Knock on Wood
No, only kidding.  That's a shit song which even Dave can't save.  Instead we'll have my current favourite Bowie track - 'Can't HelpThinking about Me'.  Bowie himself says it contains two of his worst lyrics, but given that it was his first recording as David Bowie,  the first Bowie track to be released in the States and was re-recorded for 'Toy' (as good a version, in its way, as the original).  There are whole back catalogues from mod bands in the 60s and 70s which don't contain a single better song than this Bowie throw away.

Monday, 10 November 2014

The Story of Fester the Cat - Paul Magrs (Penguin US, 2014)

Spin-offs.  Those stories where what looked like a subsidiary character suddenly moves to centre stage and becomes the star.  I love them.   Frasier spinning out of Cheers, Mork and Mindy emerging from Happy Days, Torchwood springin…well, maybe not all spin offs after all.

The Story of Fester the Cat is, however, the first spin-off in real life that I've come across.  It helps that I knew Fester, and was well aware that this was a cat so full of personality that he could easily move out of the shadows of the boys he chose to let live with him and dominate proceedings.  But this book is so much more than a simple memoir, unexpectedly told form the point of view of a cat.

It's also the warmest of love stories, and the story of the creation of a family.  It's about the author's love for his partner (the grumpier of the two of them apparently), and of their home (full of comfortingly dusty corners and piles of interesting stuff).  It's about loss and anger and pain, and adventures, and fun, and frolics.  It's about shenanigans.

But what's it like to read?  Well, I read the first section, in which Fester, sick and tired and feeling every moment of his 18 years slips away (not, he is keen to point out, to anything as stupid sounding as a rainbow bridge) on a train from Manchester to Edinburgh, on the day that Maggie Thatcher died.  the word of the ex-PM's death spread through the carriages like wildfire, but I - who spent years waiting for the hideous old crone to snuff it - couldn't have cared less as big, fat, thankfully silent tears ran down my face.  It's that good, and that sad, and that beautiful and affirming - it made a middle aged Scotsman cry in public.

But it's not all doom and gloom.  Fester stuck up a tree in the back garden, or trying to eat a frog, the boys having conniptions as Fester opens his mouth and a tiny baby bird squeaks indignantly from between his one and half teeth, Bessy the Big Bollocked Stray…there's plenty in here to make you laugh, and all of it told from what is unmistakably and unflinchingly the viewpoint of Fester, not Paul or Jeremy.

In fact, I could happily read spin-offs from Fester's life too - 'The Tale of Bessy under the Arches', sy, or 'Adventures with Korky in Cheshire'.

Or, perhaps best of all - and what Fester I think would have wanted - more stories about Paul and Jeremy and what they did next...