OWe tend to think of 1971’s Hunky Dory as when David Bowie finally came into his own after years of dead ends and false starts. It opens with a song often seen as its mission statement, Changes, with its promise of constant forward movement and commitment to making pop weird again. He unveiled the brand of glam rock that would send his career stratospheric, on Queen Bitch, and his most famous backing band, soon to be renamed Spiders From Mars. There is a succession of his most indelible songs – Life on Mars?, Oh! You Pretty Things – and, in its lyrics, the concerns that would fuel its career in the 1970s: sexuality and gender, the impending apocalypse, artifice and role-playing, the singular and disturbing ideas about mysticism and occultism that would reappear on Station to Station. Here, finally, is the David Bowie who knew exactly what he was doing, who no longer pretended to be a hippie, or a believer in “heavy” music, or an all-round artist à la Anthony Newley; the Bowie who would so confidently navigate the coming decade that pop music and youth culture both changed in his wake.
The truth, as revealed by Divine Symmetry – a beautifully packaged 4-CD set subtitled An Alternative Journey Through Hunky Dory – seems to have been much less simple than that. The first demo CD introduces us to an artist who still pulls songs all over the place, including in the middle of the road. One minute he’s channeling the Velvet Underground or daringly capturing the cruising atmosphere of London’s gay scene on Looking for a Friend, the next he’s knocking out an oompah song aimed at Tom Jones (How Lucky You Are). Songs about Quicksand’s depth and mystery sit alongside stuff reminiscent of his self-titled debut album from 1967 – the upbeat protagonist Right On Mother, delighted that his mother loved his fiancée, would fit right in on Uncle Arthur and the Little Bomber.
Some of the less familiar songs are definitely more interesting for what they have become than for what they are. Tired of My Life is a mopey acoustic track, nothing special until halfway through the track when it unexpectedly turns into It’s No Game, the opening track to Scary Monsters and Super Creeps from the 1980s. King of the City sounds haunting and infuriating at first. Thirty seconds later, when Bowie’s voice takes on a more anguished tone, it suddenly becomes clear: it’s Ashes to Ashes, almost a decade too soon.
While it’s fascinating that Bowie still draws inspiration from these songs nine years later, the overall impression is not that of a laser-focused artist who has finally figured out what he wants to achieve and how to achieve it. This impression is compounded elsewhere on Divine Symmetry by the lo-fi recording of a show at the Friars club in Aylesbury in September 1971. It was a gig that prompted grim advance publicity – “He is more than likely that David Bowie will appear entirely in women’s wear” – and subsequently gained a reputation as a period event. But Bowie looks nervous, shy, eager to please; embarrassed by his past (“We’ll get this over with as soon as possible,” he sighs before Space Oddity) but unsure of his next direction. He plays Queen Bitch and Changes but he’s not shy about trying to woo a hippy audience (a cover of Biff Rose’s Buzz the Fuzz is full of Furry Freak Brothers gags on LSD and being arrested by the man) and always plays his sexuality for fun.
It’s entertaining but offers no suggestion that this is the artist who, in a few months, would be on Top of the Pops, his arm slung around Mick Ronson’s neck, pointing imperiously at the camera, announcing the arrival of a new decade even more energetically than his old nemesis Marc Bolan had the year before.
Divine Symmetry is full of sometimes intriguing and sometimes wondering alternative radio sessions and mixes how many versions of David Bowie singing Jacques Brel’s Amsterdam one person needs to hear. What emerges is a talented writer uncertainly seeking a new direction, wildly throwing ideas against the wall and fashioning an album out of the ones that got stuck.
There’s something oddly refreshing about it. Bowie’s posthumous industry has done an impressive job of transforming a complex, flawed, brilliant but mercurial artist into an irreproachable genius who was always right about everything. He created a fantasy world in which even the cover of Little Drummer Boy he recorded with Bing Crosby – a single Bowie hated so much, its release prompted him to leave his label – deserves to be celebrated with a T commemorative t-shirt. In which a 140-minute documentary can be made that tactfully neglects to mention anything misguided that might taint the legend. It’s a deliberate distortion that makes Bowie seem perfect, and therefore more boring than he actually was. With all its faults, Divine Symmetry straightens the balance a bit.
This week Alexis listened to:
The Summerisle Six – That’s Something
The fun of reading other people’s best of the year lists and finding something you’ve been missing: in this case, DJ Sean Johnston’s glorious electro-pop.
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