The Twisted Name On Garbo’s Eyes: LGM on Bowie’s Hunky Dory

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Records as opening point. As gateway; the route straight through. Beneath mould-coloured skies and the bricolage of teenhood, back when no-one cared for vinyl and Camus was read in his native tongue – each word understood, the sentiment less so. The devils were busy downgrading to compact disc, their LPs dumped like never-loved puppies; these were stupid people, a lack of foresight and glued-up ears, and because of this entire collections were broken up then re-homed at thrift store prices. A mint 1971 pressing of Hunky Dory, purchased for 50p from a grizzled Vietnam vet who scraped a living clearing houses, selling off the proceeds from whatever temporary premises he could procure. I no longer own this copy; a few years later I split up with that era’s love interest, who somehow came out of the relationship with custody of the Bowie vinyl, thus beginning a series of break-up-inspired record divorces that continued into my thirties, as if some rather fine music was default compensation for suffering my attentions. Also: this loss doesn’t matter; records experienced at formative ages stick with you to such an extent that the actual physicality is mere transience. I was fourteen or fifteen; how could I have foreseen the trails of song and broken hearts leading long into the distance?

I’ve read somewhere that Hunky Dory is easy listening, subjugated (transfixed; possibly rescued) by its lyrical content. Which is another way of proclaiming its conventional musicality, and thus the contrast with all those chameleons, comedians, Corinthians and caricatures hanging about the vocal track. This is not a theory I can buy into (my teenage self would prohibit it). I still recall those early listens; an event of Precambrian proportions, I suspect. Before, Bowie had prowled within parameters defined by the Top Of The Pops aesthetic. Pop Bowie, ’80’s Bowie, dancing in the bloody streets Bowie. The ’70’s canon would have been brushed up against – a highlights package badly and heavily edited; ‘Starman’, ‘Life On Mars?’, ‘Space Oddity’ – but any nuance didn’t hit as representative. Hunky Dory changed all this. The gateway, the route straight through sound and vision – by which easy listening is simply a dispersion.

Those preliminary listens, then: an exercise in enchantment. The method through which the material is backlit. The framed theatricality, the fading looped sax squelch as ‘Fill Your Heart’ segues into ‘Andy Warhol’ (the former originally recorded by (of all people) Tiny Tim; the b-side to ‘Tiptoe Through The Tulips’ – come the revolution, every album will have to feature at least one Tiny Tim cover). ‘Fill Your Heart’ is whimsy, yet neither alien nor gratuitous; Hunky Dory’s themes may be complex, the hot/cold maturity flaunted, but that doesn’t mean fun (and/or warmth) is deliberately excluded. What this record represents (or possibly: represented – I may be no longer in my teens) is a proposition; an invitation to view the equilibrium implicit in Bowie’s back catalogue in ways yet thought of.

Take ‘Quicksand’ for instance. “I’m not a prophet or a stone age man, just a mortal with potential of a superman” (which pretty much trumps any “Put on your red shoes and dance the blues” in the gravity stakes). There’s a great deal here to get (adolescent) teeth into; the lyric-carried philosophy is cod, of course, the Aleister Crowley references pure Jimmy Page, but the execution is deft and fleet of foot, gravitas courtesy of Mick Ronson’s string arrangement as much as Bowie’s hocus pocus.

So: album as a series of poignant statements, perhaps. One in which the slanted self-exposure rides amidst sly lullaby (‘Kooks’) and charging glam ballad (‘Oh! You Pretty Things’). Opener ‘Changes’ can be read as a soliloquy of sorts; a mark of intent, the display of actorly confidence, Bowie’s sax rampant, the interplay between Ronson’s guitar and Rick Wakeman’s ivory tickling resplendent. ‘Life On Mars?’ is ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ but good; ‘Eight Line Poem’ fosters a languid, lazy Sunday quality (“The tactful cactus by your window surveys the prairie of your room”).

Also, side two. A fan boy triptych; Warhol, Dylan, Lou Reed. It’s easy to have a thing for Michael Ronson (he did produce Vauxhall And I, after all), and his guitar lines across these three tracks signpost the attraction (was Bernard Butler a fan? I’m guessing that Bernard Butler is a fan). ‘Andy Warhol’ (which I think is in E minor) and the duelling acoustic cross-check, one playing chords, the other splayed out against the riff. ‘Song For Bob Dylan’ has Ronson’s lead all sensual over the vocal. And ‘Queen Bitch’ – such the slutty hook, aping the acoustic riff like some tarty pastiche, Eddie Cochran on a construction site in too much Max Factor. This is artist (and foil) at their most waspish, their most New York City, and as a track it really is rather marvellous, buffeting up against the grand finale that is nonsense poem ‘The Bewley Brothers'; inscrutable and yet strangely fragile; another aspect of that self-revelation should you know where to look.

Teen me = a big fan of this album. Adult me functions in very different patterns (I think), and yet dropping needle here isn’t an act of stagnant nostalgia, of meeting my younger apparition behind the bike sheds to share a crafty cigarette. There’s a vitality to this record; a lean sort of swagger, a zip and a zing. But is Hunky Dory the acme of David Bowie fandom? I don’t know; after spinning ‘Win’ on his wireless show the other night, Marc Riley (who very much knows his stuff) nailed it when confirming Young Americans as his favourite – his favourite that particular week. You can draw a trail right through his ’69 eponymous album all the way to 1980’s Scary Monsters, and whilst the musical focus is the child spending an entire afternoon in the fancy dress shop – troubadour to harlequin, Philly Soul to Cold War blitz kid – the integrity is solid, and all-encompassing whether Tony Visconti is at the mixing desk or not (Ken Scott produced Hunky Dory; hence the subtle, pleasing art rock whiff to proceedings – it’s hard not to hear this playing in the background as Roxy Music recorded their debut, for instance). The difficulty arrives in the contrast, of picking out one item above another (cue awkward tapas analogy). Heroes is the more intoxicating album. Aladdin Sane is more coherent, and perhaps more thrilling; Diamond Dogs, and I’m hiding behind the sofa. Hunky Dory? Well; it represents something. A left turn perhaps when considering what came before, but also one of those staging posts along the way when the listener received a jolt, and a new way of appreciating recorded sound. The album arrived in adolescence, near-on twenty years after release (which is not the point), yet potent enough to mark the place where Bowie’s importance first struck, the 80’s material identified as aberration, and buying habits very promptly changed for the better.

David Bowie / Queen Bitch

Tiny Tim / Fill Your Heart

Confessions Of An Ageing Record Whore

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I get home. Pour a large glass of wine (red; a preference for malbec), stick a record on. Any record will do; I’ve long since quit any pretence at alphabetising. LPs sit on shelves, in stacks on the floor by the turntable, lost in alcoves after hiding them whilst a little tipsy, ready to be rediscovered in some hazy, ill-thought-out future. 7”s congregate like late-night drunks, the desk in the corner of the room their taxi rank, their take-away, a setting befitting the punch-up. It’s more fun this way – honest; listening by chance. The lucky dip of the thrift store disco. Just don’t ask me to spin something specific, unless you have the time…

From I wanna hold your hand through to It seems I saw you in some teenage wet dream (via a series of looped buzzes and bleeps most pernicious), the journey’s been long, eventful, and judging by my bank balance, ludicrously taxing upon general funds (whomever invented late night booze-fuelled jaunts to online vinyl retailers – the ones with credit card details handily pre-populated because numbers are not a drunk’s best friend – deserves a slap). Also, the older I get the more I’m able to witness a regression toward adolescent fanboy territory; I’m not quite yet at the stage of posters pinned to bedroom walls, stalking Terry Hall, or applying for tickets to be in the Top Of The Pops audience the week Luke Haines, Einstürzende Neubauten and a reformed T-Rex kick down the doors to the Hit Parade, but it’s only a matter of time.

A recent witness for the prosecution: the lead track from The Man Upstairs, the new Robyn Hitchcock LP (out at the end of August). ‘The Ghost In You’ is originally a Psychedelic Furs single; from the 1984 album Mirror Moves if memory serves, back before they set upon their legacy with hammers. Hitchcock’s version is a departure of sorts in that he makes the song his own; there’ll be at least twenty or thirty of his tracks to neatly exemplify the attraction ageing record whores feel for the back cat – the cheeky grin and an easy, playful charm that frame the deceptive, underlying melancholia – but the delicate touch of this slots into the mindset as well as any of his other records left lying about the LGM garret. Only, remember to disguise your disappointment should you arrive at a request and expect a rapid location.

Announcing LGM’s Favourite Album Of 2014, Just A Few Months Early

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Because I’m a music blogger, and therefore possess zero imagination, you’ll usually find me each December penning over-elaborate paeans to LPs released during the previous twelve months. Culminating in a 2,000 word treatise with an Album of the Year bent. This year, however, is different. Because I already know the title of 2014’s best in show. A disc spun on heavy rotation. In every weather. Whilst wearing a range of spectacular trousers. Should I end up backtracking when the nights turn to frost, and relegate this record to a minor placing in my year-end list, any subsequent LP is going to have to be approaching life-changing in its impact.

Yup; I’m that confident about calling this now.

The subject matter, of course…

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is World Peace Is None Of Your Business. Recorded thirty years after the release of The Smiths’ début. Twenty after Vauxhall And I – the acme of Morrissey fanaticism. A decade after You Are The Quarry; a dog of an album that doesn’t bear scrutiny. I’ll be kind here, and admit to low expectations; for quite a few years Steven Patrick has been subsiding into some pre-ordained, convalescent home diva-hood. A light-entertainment Morrissey, re-living the same battles but with a little less oomph and brio up his sleeves (I’m an acolyte, with his words permanently imprinted up and along my arm; I’m allowed to have a mealy mouth). He still has it live (as long as he doesn’t cancel the tour); the Debbie Reynolds of disenfranchised pop. Yet of the studio material of the last ten years, Ringleader Of The Tormentors is only fascinating in a certain light. Years Of Refusal… far less so (Swords – his b-side compilation covering ’04 to ’09 – is a far more coherent proposition).

The point being is that Word Peace… shouldn’t be what it is. Word Peace… should be an adjunct. A companion piece. That “It’s nice to see the lead singer of The Smurfs still going” comment thrown about by dad during Sunday lunch. Pass us the potatoes, you fucker. No, not the broccoli; the potatoes. Artists well into their fifties do not release game changers. Perhaps in other disciplines – the warm arts, as Chris Morris would have called it – but not new vinyl. Middle age (at least as advertised) brings with it nuance, contemplation, sharper understanding – a vista of musical contexts very different from kicking against the pricks. And World Peace…doesn’t kick against the pricks; instead it takes them behind the woodshed to administer the soundest of thrashings.

Put simply, this is a beast of a record. It struts, preens, has confidence dripping from each pore with gleeful abandon. A butch musicality that doesn’t skimp on any grace of movement; it’s lithe, supple, immediate, and very, very necessary. Never has the band – Boz, Jesse and the boys – sounded so tight, this vibrant. Opener (and lead single) ‘World Peace Is None Of Your Business’ kicks off with a thirty second didgeridoo fugue. ‘Neal Cassady Drops Dead’ is built around a dirty guitar riff and breeze block percussion – a pugilistic, bruising sound. And the epic ‘I’m Not A Man’ leads with over a minute’s worth of obtuse ambient soundscape before morphing into a buff yet strangely delicate slice of socio-political hectoring (well, this is a Morrissey record) in which each element (buzz-saw guitar, glam-rock drums, the vocal urgency) are revealed one at a time; the grand dénouement.

Morrissey records always invite comparison with what came before – such is the evocative nature of so much of the back catalogue. It’s to do with timbre; each track’s gait, the swagger, that fuzzy adjective defining the devotion (is there a word meaning Morrissey-like? Morrithetic? Mozesque?). World Peace Is None Of Your Business succeeds not only because its slots neatly into canon (it’s every bit as grandiloquent as Kill Uncle or Your Arsenal, for instance), but by subtly pointing the lyrical emphasis towards the staccato, songs such as ‘Smiler With Knife’ (“Sinking bed all warm and clean / Only sadness waits for me / Smiler with knife, you’re just in time”) and ‘Kiss Me A Lot’ (“Bastille, mausoleum / Stick-yard, church-yard”) carry an opaque quality that’s most pleasing – after all, the listener should always be doing some of the work. The lyrics are as arch and needle-sharp as only Morrissey’s could be (“I was sent here by a three-foot halfwit in a wig”), yet there’s an added layer of frisson about this, echoed in the banshee wail (with harp) climax to ‘Kick The Bride Down The Aisle’.

So; a powerful record. Cute with its muscularity. As wry as wry can be. And then there’s ‘Mountjoy’. You know that moment when but a simple listen becomes something so much more? Song as enfolding construct, coiling itself tightly around perception, never letting go? Well, that. Stripped percussion, no bass, no chorus. Momentum crafted by acoustic guitar, the electric present to provide the shards, the odd angles. There are parallels with the mighty ‘The Teachers Are Afraid Of The Pupils’ here, but where-as that leaves Southpaw Grammar feeling unbalanced (it’s too pneumatic for its own good), the sensibilities of ‘Mountjoy’ underpin the entire album. It pummels with its starkness. Its sculpted edges. The manner by which, four minutes in exactly, the mournful cello adds just the right shade of emphasis. A lament of sorts (“A swagger hides the fear in here / By this rule we breathe”), perfectly lit; when Morrissey sings “The only thing that makes me cry is when I see the sky,” it’s delivered with impunity.

This is Morrissey’s tenth studio album; the element that’s so vital about it (perfectly exemplified by ‘Mountjoy’) is its sense of gravity. It works on all the senses (except maybe taste – but even then I’m not sure); the playful poke of ‘The Bullfighter Dies’. The coy, pop narrative (and lovely lazy trumpet) running through ‘Staircase At The University’. An equilibrium that we haven’t seen for quite a while – the biggest surprise being that we suddenly see it now. His finest album since Vauxhall And I – and considering how much I adore Vauxhall, that’s very high praise indeed.

Morrissey / Mountjoy