End of Year Reflection

As we reach the end of 2016, I can’t help thinking: “What just happened?“. It’s been a year of unexpected (and far from conclusive) electoral outcomes. Renewed Cold War hostilities threaten to break out on a weekly basis. Sectarian conflicts have created levels of mass-migration not seen since the end of WWII. Meanwhile, there have been more celebrity deaths than I can recall in a single year. (And a Scotsman is the #1 tennis player in the world.)

Old Father Time, Museum of London (Image: Chris Wild)

Old Father Time, Museum of London (Image: Chris Wild)

The Brexit and Trump poll results are being cited as either examples of the new populist/nationalist politics, or proof that our current democratic systems are highly flawed. Either way, they are indicative of a certain public mood: anger fueled by a sense of despair at not being able to deal with the rapid changes brought about by globalisation, multiculturalism, modernisation and the “open source” economy. Ironically, both the Brexit and Trump campaigns relied heavily on the global technologies of social media, 24-news cycles and internet-driven soundbites (plus they surely benefited at various times from fake news, false claims and belligerent rhetoric).

As I write, I am in the UK, which is heading for a mini winter of discontent (with high-profile strikes in the rail, mail and airline sectors). The last time I was here about two years ago, there was a general sense of public optimism; now, post-Brexit, it feels very subdued, even depressed. Whether this is a delayed response to the Brexit result, or uncertainty about the exit process itself, it’s hard to tell. While the governing Conservative party leadership is struggling to implement the outcome of a referendum that many of them did not want (or expect), the opposition Labour party (whose own leadership was highly ambivalent about the Brexit vote) is busily re-enacting the 1970’s and 1980’s….

Speaking of the 70’s and 80’s, the return to Cold War hostilities has felt like an inevitability for the past few years, and if it weren’t so serious it might be the suitable subject of a satire by Nikolai Gogol. While the primary fault lines are again between the USA and Russia, there are some complications and distractions, that don’t paint as clear a picture compared to the past: first, the relationships between the US President-elect and Russia confuse matters; second, the ideological war has shifted from capitalism vs communism, to liberalism vs autocracy; third, the role of “satellite” states is no longer to act as proxies in localised disputes – these supporting characters might now provide the trigger for all out hostilities between the super powers.

The ascendancy of this new nationalism (within the USA as much as in Russia) and the increased autocratic leadership on display in democratic, theocratic, oligarchic and totalitarian regimes alike is a renewed threat to enlightened liberalism and classical pluralism. Hence the significance of failing democratic institutions and political leadership in the west – the vacuum they leave behind is readily filled by the “certainty” of dictatorship and extremism. With China added to the mix via recent maritime events, plus ongoing strife in the Middle East, the potential flash point for a new Cold War conflict might be in the Spratly Islands as much as Syria, Ulaanbaatar as Ukraine, or Ankara as Aden.

On a (slightly) lighter note, the number of celebrity deaths reported in 2016 could be explained by demographics: artists who became famous during the explosion of popular culture in the 50’s, 60’s, 70’s and 80’s are simply getting old. In terms of dead pop stars, 2016 was book-ended by the deaths of David Bowie and Leonard Cohen. Both were experiencing something of a renaissance in their professional fortunes, and each left us with some of the most challenging but enduring work of their careers. Of their surviving contemporaries, some might argue that Neil Young and Bob Dylan continue to keep the musical flame alive, but for my money, Brian Eno and John Cale are the torch bearers for their generation.

In a satirical end of year review in The Times last weekend, the following words were “attributed” to Bowie (someone known to understand, if not define, the zeitgeist):

“Sorry to bail, guys. But I could see the way things were going.”

Next week: Content in Context is taking a break for the holidays. Peace and best wishes to all my readers. Normal service will resume on January 10.

David Bowie Was – “It’s a god-awful small affair…”

The music of David Bowie was the soundtrack to my teenage years, coinciding with the extraordinary run of albums he released in the 1970s, the like of which we will never see again. He was the first (and probably last) 20th century mega pop star, with a prescient knack for reinvention and innovation. He will be remembered as one of the few truly original musicians of his era, a legacy that he has confirmed with his final studio album, released on his 69th birthday, just two days before he died. Talk about timing…. Even his long-time collaborator, Tony Visconti was moved to say “His death was a work of art.”

Sleeve of 1976 compilation album released by RCA Records. Portrait by Tom Kelley. (Image sourced from Discogs.com)

Sleeve of 1976 compilation album released by RCA Records. Portrait by Tom Kelley. (Image sourced from Discogs.com)

Overture

My own journey with Bowie began with “Life on Mars?” (from “Hunky Dory”), which was released as a single in June of 1973. I was 12 years old, and my family had just returned to suburban London after three years living in Australia. The re-entry was bewildering.

The UK of my childhood had disappeared in my absence: there was decimal currency, membership of the EEC, a Tory government, colour TV, and the Three-Day Week. And then there was glam rock, with Bowie at the forefront. The kids at school were all wearing platform shoes, outrageously wide shirt collars, flared trousers, and Bowie haircuts. If they’d been allowed, they’d probably be wearing glitter and makeup as well. There certainly hadn’t been anything like this in staid, suburban Adelaide, which felt like it was firmly stuck in the 1950s.

Prologue

Although I had probably heard “Space Oddity” (and even “The Laughing Gnome”) on the radio as a child, “Life on Mars?” is the first Bowie song I connected with. I couldn’t fathom the lyrics, but their sense of alienation (along with the song’s outsider perspective) must have resonated with me. It also suggested a loss of innocence, time and place. It was hard to avoid or ignore Bowie during this period. There was a constant stream of hit singles released to an eager market that was happy to keep him in the charts week in, week out.

Act I

At the time, I was more in tune with Top 40 radio than album releases, so for me Bowie was “just” a singles artist. I was mostly oblivious to the stage and album personas of “Ziggy Stardust”, “Aladdin Sane” and “Diamond Dogs”. It took me a while to backtrack through those albums, especially “The Man Who Sold The World”, which was only known to me through Lulu’s cover version of the title song. As for “Pin Ups”, although it was not his strongest effort at the time, it was a significant portal into 60s psychedelic, progressive and underground rock music for those of us too young to have been there.

The first Bowie album I actually bought was “ChangesOneBowie” because it was an excellent primer, and it contained two of my favourite tracks of the mid-70s, “Fame” (from the pivotal “Young Americans”) and “Golden Years” (from the even more significant “Station to Station”, which Kraftwerk name-checked on their contemporaneous album, “Trans-Europe Express”). “ChangesOneBowie” was not a typical greatest hits collection, but stood as an album in its own right.

From there, it was headlong into the Berlin trilogy of “Low” (still an astonishing collection of post-modern rock songs, electronic and ambient music), “Heroes” (confirming Bowie as one of the few pre-punk musicians it was still OK to like) and “Lodger” (tackling issues of cold war politics, gender identity and domestic violence against a backdrop of Eastern, Reggae and Krautrock influences – “world music” before the term had even been coined).

In 1980, Bowie said farewell to the 70s with “Scary Monsters (and Super Creeps)”, which thanks to the video for “Ashes to Ashes”, helped usher in the MTV era. It remained his strongest work for more than 30 years (apart from “Heathen”, and maybe “Let’s Dance”) until “The Next Day” in 2013 (which acted as both a coda to and summation of his musical career), and the valedictory released early last month.

Act II

For much of the 80s and 90s, Bowie seemed to flounder. In the 70s, he had been the instigator of change and the artist to follow; witness the legion of artists who cite him as a key influence. But after “Let’s Dance” he became more of a follower as he tried to catch up with the latest trends rather than setting them, and much of the material on the resulting albums sounds outdated, stodgy and formulaic, lacking the deft touches of his earlier work. While I can even understand why he formed the Tin Machine, I have no time for their music. To my ears their albums are no better than much of the vapid, soulless and synthetic rock that polluted mainstream radio and TV as the major record companies tried to re-corporatise pop and rock music following the disruption of punk, new wave, post-punk, electronic and independent artists and labels.

Act III

I’m sure history will treat the “third act” of Bowie’s career (from “1. Outside” to “Reality”) more kindly than when some of those late albums were first released. Overall, it’s a reasonably solid body of work, and still a lot better than what most of his contemporaries were churning out at the time. It feels as if Bowie was treading water, biding his time, waiting for new inspiration while he explored other interests – whether securitising his back catalogue via Bowie Bonds, or launching his own ISP, BowieNet.

Then came the growing silence: no new material, no live tours, and gradual withdrawal from the spotlight. Only the odd glimpse, and the occasional rumours about his health. Maybe the curtain had finally fallen on Bowie’s recording career.

Epilogue

Suddenly out of nowhere, after an 11-year hiatus, in January 2013 came a startling new single, “Where Are We Now?”, which caught most of us by surprise. It was both new and comfortably familiar – the sonic palette had been updated (without trying to sound “trendy”), but the lyrical themes were the same. Bowie himself sounded wiser but world-weary, and there was an abiding sense of loss, regret and redemption.

The accompanying album, “The Next Day” did not herald any great musical surprises, yet it was good to have him back with such a solid album. The songs avoid being Bowie pastiches (which is a trap many comeback albums fall into), but each track could have appeared on one or more of his classic 70s albums. At one point, too, his vocals sound reminiscent of Scott Walker‘s recent work (surely not mere coincidence?). Despite the lingering thought that this really was the last Bowie album, “The Next Day” was soon followed by new material, various remixes, the “David Bowie Is” touring exhibition, a stage show based on “The Man Who Fell To Earth”, and yet more Bowie compilations, box-sets and re-issues.

All this renewed activity now seems like a diversion, designed to catch us off our guard. Because we were hardly prepared for what happened next: the huge anticipation, when yet another new album was scheduled for release on January 8, 2016; and deep sorrow, when Bowie’s death was announced just two days later.

I haven’t managed to listen to “” more than a couple of times. The lyrics are loaded with poignant references to death, resurrection and final endings. It feels like we are listening in on someone predicting and meditating upon their own imminent demise, contemplating their life with quiet reflection. While the accompanying music is not exactly funereal, nor it as avant-garde or as cutting-edge as some reviews might suggest; but it’s still quite experimental for a mainstream artist. Inevitably, the album will be regarded as Bowie’s final artistic act, a grand gesture, signing off on his own terms. Not many of us will get to do that…

Postscript

When I heard the news that Bowie had died, I was walking home through the park. The city was bathed in a golden glow of a rain lit sunset, and there was a huge rainbow across the sky…. Starman indeed.

Without the benefit of Bowie, I probably wouldn’t have explored or appreciated loads of other music: the Velvet Underground, Lou Reed, Iggy & the Stooges, John Cale, Brian Eno, Neu!, Roxy Music, Robert Fripp, Can, Wire, Faust, Buzzcocks, The Cure, Nico, Devo, TV on The Radio, Arcade Fire, Blur, The Associates, Nick Cave, Au Pairs, The Doors, Tindersticks, Air, Magazine, Kraftwerk, Gang of Four, Sonic Youth, Joy Division, Pixies, Talking Heads, Television, A Certain Ratio, Echo & The Bunnymen, and many more.

If I had to choose one song that best epitomizes Bowie’s personal perspective on stardom (and notoriety), along with a sense of his own mortality and place in the world, it would be “It’s No Game”, from 1980’s “Scary Monsters (And Super Creeps)”. Bowie was neither politician nor philosopher (and he certainly wasn’t a saint), but this existentialist anthem is a perfect statement on the human condition that is still valid today, which is why I for one will miss his presence.

Acknowledgment: Thanks to my fellow presenters David Whiting and Steve Groves at North West FM Community Radio for the great times we had with our special Bowie programs over the past few years.

Next Week: Tech vs The Human Factor

Cultural Overload: Oblique Strategies vs Major Tom

This week, Content in Context took a break from start-ups, fintech and the information superhighway to immerse itself in some cultural overload, with hardly a digital device in sight. However, I didn’t need to wander very far to realise that digital technology is both enhancing and restricting our ability to engage with art, music, culture and live performance – while analogue still wins out in terms of creating tangible experiences.

What technology would Thomas Jerome Newton have used to interpret “David Bowie Is”? (Image found here.)

To start with, I went to the “David Bowie Is” exhibition currently showing at Melbourne’s ACMI. As a retrospective on Bowie’s music career, including his dalliances with mime, theatre, fashion, videos, cut-ups, painting and film, it’s pretty comprehensive. What makes it particularly engaging is the lack of digital trickery among the exhibits: no touch screens, no VR or AR spectacular, not even a smart phone app to accompany your visit. It’s all very museum-like sedateness, well-presented artefacts, and extensively annotated displays – not surprising given the V&A provenance.

The absence of complex digital displays or an interactive/interpretive visitor experience is somewhat surprising, given that Bowie has always been an early adopter of new technologies (after all, this is the man who launched his own ISP, BowieNet, and was one of the first musicians to securitise his songwriting royalties via the so-called Bowie Bonds). Not forgetting that  Bowie was using multiple characters, personas and alter-egos long before we got around to internet avatars.

Bowie’s remarkable run of studio albums in the 1970s (unparalleled in popular music) stretched the limits of contemporary recording standards, because each LP has a distinct sonic palette, based on the careful selection of locations, musicians and studio technology. There’s even a section dedicated to some lyric-writing software that Bowie used to automate his cut-up process (which emulated the Dadaists and writers like Burroughs and Gysin). And videos for some of his early 80s songs (“Ashes to Ashes”, “Fashion”, “Let’s Dance” and “China Girl”) were MTV staples when the medium was still in its infancy. (But as the exhibition reminds us, Bowie was using the short film format as early as the late 60s.)

The only real concession to digital technology is the audio guide, which uses a personal playback device. These devices are linked to either NFC tags or wireless beacons to trigger specific music, commentary or soundtracks when the visitor is in a relevant location. Mostly it works well, and provides a collage of sounds to accompany the more significant exhibits. However, the cut-over between some “trigger zones” is a bit abrupt, even clunky, and there is nothing interactive for the visitor to explore or experience.

At the end, each visitor was given a postcard with a promotional code to download a free Bowie album. All very nice, and a great idea, but poorly executed:

  • The choice of albums is limited to his more recent studio albums, and a fairly average live album (by Bowie’s standards) – so none of those classic 70s recordings
  • The promotion is linked to Google Play and the process of setting up and downloading my account was not very intuitive, and compared to iTunes was very clunky (at least on my iMac)
  • It was not possible to curate my own personal Bowie album, which could have been fun – now, I understand the reluctance to deconstruct complete albums into individual songs, but perhaps some specially selected and Bowie-approved thematic compilations (e.g., based on his many stage and studio personas) could have provided a neat compromise?

While I liked the fact that the exhibition mainly used analogue technology, I think there was a missed opportunity to create an additional layer of interactivity, either via the audio guide, or via a separate smart phone app or website (I’m thinking of MONA’s “O Device”, the NGV’s “Melbourne Now” app, or some of the marvelous exhibition apps developed by London’s Tate Modern, the Réunion des Musées Nationaux in France, and both the MCA and Gallery of NSW in Sydney). Something for the V&A and ACMI to think about?

Then, it was a short walk across Federation Square to the Arts Centre, for a 3-day extravaganza of live events (music, dance, theatre, mixed media) collectively known as “Supersense”. OK, so I appreciate that this curated festival was all about experiencing live performance up close and in the moment – without being (dis)intermediated by any layer of technology between performer and audience (apart from some 3D glasses I wore for one mixed media show). But a festival app would have been very useful to help navigate the warren of corridors and backstage areas where the festival was held, to let visitors know when events were due to start, and to notify them when there no more seats in the smaller performance spaces.  Also, the festival website’s complicated schedule of events was impossible to read on a smart phone, so an app would have been great!

Anyway, the festival format, range of styles and mixed quality inevitably meant it was a veritable curate’s egg – the broad theme made it difficult to establish a cohesive context, and yet there were some connections and overlaps (both direct links between performers, and indirect conceptual links among the cross-cultural references and influences). Again, an app would have helped to make those connections. But the organisers (and performers) are to be congratulated for pulling off this inaugural event, and I look forward to next year’s programme.

Finally, for the culturally aware (or just plain old trainspotters) there were a number of connections to be made between “Bowie Is” and “Supersense”:

  • The performance of Brian Eno‘s ground-breaking ambient composition “Discreet Music” by The Necks and friends reminded us of Eno’s crucial role in recording Bowie’s trio of Berlin albums, “Low”, “Heroes” and “Lodger”
  • More specifically, the incorporation of Eno’s “Oblique Strategies” into the “Discreet Music” concert was very pertinent; not only did Eno use this system of random instructions when working on “Lodger”, he gave Bowie his own deck of “Oblique Strategies” cards, which are on display at ACMI
  • The festival finale by John Cale (also a sometime collaborator with Eno) included versions of “I’m Waiting for My Man” and “Venus in Furs” which he first recorded with The Velvet Underground in the 60s – and Bowie was one of the earliest artists to cover songs by The Velvet Underground in the early 70s.
  • Bowie’s early career incorporated mime, poetry and performance art, reflecting his influences and interests. In turn, thanks to the influence of cultural polymaths like him, a festival as diverse as Supersense seems perfectly natural to contemporary audiences.

Next week: Tourism – time to get digital