Paul Morley delves into the genius of Bowie over the decades


1st Jan 2015 Celebrities

Paul Morley delves into the genius of Bowie over the decades

We spoke to Paul Morley the author of The Age of Bowie. He reveals his enduring love of Bowie's creative output and his working relationship with the man himself.

Tom Browne: Your new book the age of Bowie is a fascinating read, but it isn’t a biography in the traditional sense, how would you define it?

Well I’d first of all react by saying, of course, David Bowie isn’t necessarily traditional so when writing about David Bowie—as someone who’s been thinking about him for 45 years as a writer, let alone more as a fan—I think it was very important that I try to concentrate on the form it's written in.

[I was thinking] in terms of representing how David Bowie changed and moved and thought and one of the things that immediately occurred to me is the decade. As a performer, he was different [each and every decade] and so the book itself needed to change a little bit just to reflect that. So you get an atmosphere of the decades through the way the book was written.


Listen to the Paul Morley interview in full


The book in that sense then I guess aligns with the critical consensus that locates Bowie’s best work the 1970s, which is obviously when it had its impact on you...

Well, the book represents that [only insofar] as his impact on me and the  age I was. Obviously, I was in my teens at the beginning of the 1970s so that was the perfect time to come across David Bowie.

Although I did want to get away from the idea that his best work was created in the 1970s because I think his best work was created during his lifetime. And I think that ‘s something you can increasingly see now, now we can loosen ourselves slightly from the rigid view of it going through the years and through the decades. 

I think it becomes apparent that his most impactful work was the moment he became a star and after that it was different and difficult because you’re growing older, times have changed, and his works seems to have abandoned artistic powers.

But on the other hand, I think it becomes clear now that he was always in control of what he was doing and some of that 'oh his best work was in the '70s and then it all went wrong' isn’t necessarily the case. It’s David Bowie dealing with being David Bowie and that's something that I really wanted to get across.


And you structure it in a very interesting way, year by year with a summary of what other albums were out that year which is very handy, can I say, for musical recommendation purposes

Yes. I wanted to put it into context what was happening around him and how different things would be. So one of my favourites is in 1974 where for a few weeks The Carpenters are number one and then he takes over with Diamond Dogs, which is quite a sleazy record, and then The Carpenters take over again.

That really shows you how different the rest of the world was and how brave some of the things he was doing [really were]. We take it for granted that this was successful and in the charts, but actually that was quite extraordinary.


Yes, some of the music is only successful or commercial in retrospect, a song like "Ashes to Ashes" is a truly bizarre record isn’t it?

A lot of his records, even the ones that we now look upon with great affection like heroes are quite experimental pieces of music. I think what transcended that was obviously his voice and his ability to be Shirley Bassey and Judy Garland as well as being avant-garde.

He had a unique ability to pin together the two things. It’s interesting in the 1970s though because a lot of those songs we think of very fondly now as being epic hits, as if they always were, weren't originally.

Like "Changes" was not a hit and that frustrated him greatly and to some extent helped fuel, through resentment, the extraordinary impact of Ziggy Stardust. He couldn't believe that he was still not having hits and yet the songs were as great as "Changes".

"Heroes" took a long time to really grow on the world, and I think that’s a part of being ahead slightly: it takes time for the world to catch up to where Bowie’s mind is and what he's thinking and the sounds he wants to create.

You make the point that he could have just disappeared. After "Space Oddity" which was his first hit. It could have been just a novelty hit, which it was for a while.

And back then a year was a long time so to some extent he disappeared, and he was mortified by this because obviously he wanted attention. His big deal was not just to be an artist and have an artistic sensibility but to have an audience. In a way, he had the mentality of a cult leader he wanted his cult


The genesis of this book is partly the work you did at the V&A exhibition back in 2013. You were tasked with writing a book in a very short period of time

Well, I was invited by the human/entity that is David Bowie to be his artistic advisor on that exhibition. Asked by him personally, as an entity .

Our communications were always wonderfully enigmatic but I was definitely given the title, more or less, of his representative [in the sense of] him not coming to the building itself because he didn’t want to travel to the building and become part of very tedious meetings. So another way of looking at it I was just handed the task of attending the tedious meetings.

But they weren’t tedious, it was an incredibly exciting and challenging thing. And also to be aware that David Bowie was using me as a certain kind of mentality to ensure that he got some of the wishes he wanted—for the exhibition not to be too formal so have around its edges a little bit of something abstract. And that was my task.

It was brilliant and it made me consider David Bowie an awful lot. I came up with the title of the exhibition, I wrote a manifesto for the exhibition—all of which appear to have been passed by the entity and/or human being that is David Bowie which was thrilling.

So he approved it, you get the David Bowie approval [and] in a way I collaborated with David Bowie in a really quite wonderful abstract metaphysical way which suited me fine.

But it did make me think a lot about David Bowie and one of the things I did during that exhibition was, in inverted commas, see if I could write a book about David Bowie in a weekend. And that did help me consider David Bowie a lot by the time I came to really write a book.

I wrote it in about 10 weeks. But I was geared up, had been doing a lot of thinking, was ready to go. I didn’t necessarily think it would be because he died, but it was something I wanted to do, process the information I had in my head about the David Bowie that I had in my head


And the idea of David Bowie that everyone else has in their heads as well, because you did encounter a lot of people and, as you say, everyone has their own David Bowie

Yes. Different times they arrived different music they hear the albums they love.

They start in a different place but they always end up goong to the same places, almost coming to a landscape and arriving by a different port or an airport but effectively it’s all David Bowie. You just start to map it out in a different way and everyone has their own reasons for loving Bowie. More music for some and artist for others. For some that he was an outsider for others more that he was different, more that he was incredibly sexy, more that he was incredibly brainy. The scandal, the tabloid bowie.

There’re all sorts of Bowies and this was a part of his genius. This ability to compile himself out of so many elements.





I was talking to a friend recently about the Beatles and whether or not they were overrated and he said if anything the Beatles are underrated I was wondering whether the same could be said of Bowie. In particular, I don’t think he ever got enough credit for his singing. "Heroes" is the obvious example, but I was listening to Ziggy Stardust and his singing on "Moonage Daydream" is just extraordinary.

Time and time again, I mean, it’s absolutely true. And I think what is interesting is as well as having this fascination with the great show business entertainers and the way they could be existentially powerful through singing certain extreme over the top melodies.

You know he managed to put a lot of his artistic thinking into his melodies so that’s a very unusual thing to be doing. Using it as almost a jazz musician. I mean, he loved jazz and he was very much aware of how to distort and change and mutate a melody and how to make it incredibly accessible.

So as far out as he got he was still incredibly accessible with his melodies, he never lost the ability to understand that the whole point of a song is that it’s remembered

This is a transcript taken from the August Reader's Digest podcast

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