IT’S hard to believe, but it’s already been a year and a half since David Bowie unexpectedly passed away, leaving us with the highly acclaimed ★ album – and, of course, one of the best catalogues in pop. He’s a highly acclaimed songwriter, not least for his extraordinary way around a tune. You only have to hear numbers like “Life on Mars?”, “Space Oddity”, “Changes”, “Starman”, “The Jean Genie” or “Heroes” once and you’ll never forget them for the rest of your life. What makes it more impressive is that these songs aren’t generally based on classic riffs* or repetitive hooks or choruses like most of the catchiest songs, but rather on melodies that are constantly moving forward and developing. Think of “Sound and Vision”, aptly described by Franz Ferdinand’s Alex Kapranos as being like a rollercoaster where it isn’t the big drops that get you, but the little bumps.
That being said, for one of the most revered songwriters out there, Bowie’s lyrics weren’t always necessarily up to scratch. It’s frustrating that a lyricst capable of something like “Five Years” (“Think I saw you in an ice-cream parlour, drinking milkshakes cold and long/Smiling and waving and looking so fine, don’t think you knew you were in this song”) would so often turn out something half-cooked like “Keep your electric eye on me, babe/Put your ray gun to my head/Keep your space face close to me, babe/Freak out in a moonage daydream, oh yeah”. That lyric makes me cringe which is unfortunate, because it’s set to one of Bowie’s best choruses.
I think it all comes from Bowie’s love of some of the more out-there sci-fi writers like William Burroughs. A favourite technique was cutting up magazines and arranging the words at random, which is easier than sitting down with a pencil to come up with lyrics I suppose. Less facetiously: techniques like that are brilliant ways of cutting through clichés, creating unexpected juxtapositions that can be an interesting point to work from when writing. But you do have to work. Bowie collaborator Brian Eno was famous for his “Oblique Strategies”, a set of cards with various ways of tackling problems printed on them, intended to be drawn at random in order to find new angles from which to attack creative or business obstacles. Eno made use of many other such techniques for harnessing the power of randomness. The Beatles were the same, especially John Lennon: think of the serendipity of the King Lear snatches heard during “I Am The Walrus”‘ epic fade-out. Lennon was tuning a radio dial at random (John Lennon/Yoko Ono’s Unfinished Music No. 2: Life with the Lions contains “Radio Play”, a less successful instance of the same technique) and got lucky with Lear. Slips of the tongue, improvisations, and other oddities (the resonating wine bottle that closes “Long, Long, Long”, for instance) make up a sizeable part of the Beatles catalogue. But these artists knew how to work creatively from random elements; randomness isn’t the goal. I imagine Bowie in life was rather like his appearance in Extras, songs constantly spilling out of him. In that state lyrics may well have been an afterthought or even an inconvenience, which is unfortunate because on the occasions where you can tell he’s really trying, he’s capable of some extraordinary lyrics (“Kooks”, “Five Years”, “Heroes”, “Young Americans”, “Ashes to Ashes”). Extra-extra-special credit goes to “We Are the Dead”, an evocation of the tender scene in Nineteen Eighty-Four just before Winston and Julia’s capture by the Thought Police which is, as U2 would sing on their Bowie-revering Achtung Baby album, “Even Better Than the Real Thing”: Orwell’s scene has nothing close to the passion or the horrendous tension Bowie’s lyrics evoke.
*Except for “Fame”, admittedly