This year’s string of pop deaths means that my music archives threaten to become nothing but obituaries; I still haven’t done my recap of last year’s listening (or the year before’s). But Tom Ewing has kept ploughing through 2001’s UK number ones, and even though I wasn’t paying much attention to pop that year I’ve commented on a few—reproduced here as a useful stop-gap during marking season.
Even though I was starting to get used to 2016 as the year that Death started getting his groove on (I AM A BLACK STAR), the news about Prince was a shock. He hit his stride just as I was first getting into pop and rock as a teenager, and was as big in Australia as he was anywhere in the 1980s. The single-LP version of 1999 (missing “Let’s Pretend We’re Married” and “D.S.M.R.”) got a lot of play in our house, and Purple Rain made just as strong an impression. In a fit of pop treachery I swapped my LP of the latter for a Big Country tape (je ne regrette rien), but before long rectified the situation by buying CDs of both. My favourite Prince track, though, wasn’t “1999”, “When Doves Cry” or “Darling Nikki”, great though they were, but an album cut that never makes the compilations, “Mountains” from Parade.
Somewhere around Graffiti Bridge I lost track of the purple one, as my ear turned to indie. The contractual wrangles and triple-album sets didn’t make full-price album purchases tempting, and Princely radio singles in the mid-’90s were few and far between. So although I’ve embarked on a second marathon listen to a late artist’s back catalogue in the space of a few months, I might hit a wall a dozen albums in. Pitchfork’s guide to his late-period picks could come in handy.
Those early albums, though: what a run. What other pop star so totally owned the Eighties? Not Bowie, who went off the boil after Let’s Dance. Michael Jackson only released two albums in the 1980s, and Madonna four. Prince released an album every year of the decade but one, including two double-LPs, and they’re almost all great; and he can be forgiven the gap in 1983 because he was making a movie (and did that again twice that decade, too).
It was the purplest of purple patches. Prince may not have been the tallest bloke, but the man was a giant.
A belated farewell to the late George Martin. Apart from his monumental work with the Beatles, which I could hardly begin to go into here without taking all week, I’ll always remember his work on one of my favourite comedy records, Peter Sellers’ 1959 album Songs for Swingin’ Sellers. The Fabs themselves were fans of Martin’s comedy productions, which helped bond them in the early days. On one Sellers track in particular, “Wouldn’t It Be Loverly”, Martin masterminded the Indian orchestral sounds that would come in handy on later Beatle tracks.
This sad event had happy consequences for Monday’s pub quiz. It meant that the bonus round was on the Fabs, and all those years of devouring Beatle biographies finally came in handy. Seventy loverly nicker.
Time for my personal verdict on David Bowie’s studio albums (and one or two honorary ones), after a month of re-listening, listening for the first time, and listening properly for the first time. Ratings are Rolling Stone-style, out of five stars. Anything given three stars or more I’d happily listen to again; four stars or more I’d listen to a lot. Two or two and a half, I’d listen to on a good day. I have no plans to listen to Tonight ever again, especially as its two decent songs are on Nothing Has Changed.
A few grumpy tweets by Times journalist Camilla Long, who once tweeted about crying over Michael Jackson’s death but said Bowie fans doing the same should get over it, prompted an article on “grief police” at The Atlantic which led to a Metafilter thread on the whole subject of public grieving, and whether that’s even the right word for it. I pitched in a few thoughts, reproduced in edited form below for the benefit of the all-consuming daily-posting schedule.
I’m still going to bang on about Bowie, even after posting twice about him in two days. That’s one of the side effects of a daily blog-posting schedule; what otherwise would have been saved up into one longer, more reflective post ends up as several.
I may have described myself as an unobsessive fan on Monday, but just as happened after the death of Elliott Smith, this may be what tips me over the edge to full-blown completism. After a day of shock and repeated listens to Blackstar, I’ve been filling the gaps in my listening, those mainly being (like many people) the post-Tin Machine, pre-Heathen 1990s, and (gasp) half of the 1975-1980 era. Why I kept putting off a closer engagement with the Berlin albums I’m still not sure. Why I never got into Scary Monsters, when I spent my early twenties obsessed with the 1978-1982 work of Split Enz, and loved “Ashes to Ashes” and “Fashion” from the time they were released... well, the only explanation I can muster is that by the late ’80s, when I might have done something about it, Bowie was falling out of fashion, and when my interest was revived by a friend a few years later it was very much in his glam years.
All being addressed now, though. As soon as I can stop listening to “’Tis a Pity She Was a Whore”.
Blackstar is sounding more amazing each listen. Blows away The Next Day and a lot of other post-1980 Bowie besides.
One of the trials of middle age in the 21st century is seeing more and more deaths of people who have been cultural icons for your entire life. I was one year old when “Space Oddity” was a hit. The video to “Ashes to Ashes” was one of my formative pop moments. No matter how good I think the current crop of pop and rock stars are (and a lot of them are), they can never compete with that; they haven’t had time to.
Given that mass popular culture has a finite and relatively recent history, the scale of this phenomenon feels relatively new. Our great-grandparents only had to deal with the deaths of kings and presidents and artists who were little more than names on a page or engraved reproductions. Not people who recorded dozens of albums that tracked their entire lives, and left behind countless hours of filmed interviews, videos and movie performances. Even bringing to mind images of the man is like flipping through shots of a crowd scene, and imagining that everyone in the crowd has just died.