Monday, May 27, 2013

Music Monday: Life on Mars (Bowie on the Beckenham-Lewisham bus)

'David Bowie: Five Years' was an interesting documentary shown on BBC2 at the weekend. Bowie must have one of the most documented lives of any musician, so I did wonder if there could possibly be anything new. But there was some great footage I hadn't seen before and some interesting interviews.

His 1971 song 'Life on Mars' featured heavily, with Rick Wakeman being interviewed about his role in arranging the piano part. But what the programme didn't mention was that the song was written in Beckenham,  via a bus journey to Lewisham. In a 2008 article in the Daily Mail, Bowie recalled:

'This song was so easy. Being young was easy. A really beautiful day in the park, sitting on the steps of the bandstand. 'Sailors bap-bap-bap-bap-baaa-bap.' An anomic (not a 'gnomic') heroine. Middle-class ecstasy. I took a walk to Beckenham High Street to catch a bus to Lewisham to buy shoes and shirts but couldn't get the riff out of my head. Jumped off two stops into the ride and more or less loped back to the house up on Southend Road.

Workspace was a big empty room with a chaise longue; a bargain-price art nouveau screen ('William Morris,' so I told anyone who asked); a huge overflowing freestanding ashtray and a grand piano. Little else.  I started working it out on the piano and had the whole lyric and melody finished by late afternoon. Nice. Rick Wakeman came over a couple of weeks later and embellished the piano part and guitarist Mick Ronson created one of his first and best string parts for this song which now has become something of a fixture in my live shows'.

The park with bandstand he mentions is presumably the Croydon Road Recreation Ground in Beckenham where Bowie and friends once organised a festival (the subject of his 1969 song 'Mermory of a Free Festival'). The house in Beckenham was the  now demolished Haddon Hall at 42 Southend Road, where Bowie lived in the ground floor flat from 1969 to 1972 (working on the classic Hunky Dory and Ziggy Stardust albums).

David Bowie outside Haddon Hall in Beckenham
(he also lived for a while in 1969 in Flat 1, 24 Foxgrove Road, Beckenham)

The Transmitter: Bowie in Beckenham

Another Nickel in the Machine: Bowie's early years in Brixton and Bromley


Anonymous said...

That documentary - I realise there's a lot missed out but I was surprised that 'Aladdin Sane' wasn't mentioned. I suspect Bowie has buried it because of the outrageous piano playing which came close to upstaging Bowie himself - and of course the programme didn't even touch on Bowies close links to the occult . . .

. said...

There was some excellent footage in it, especially some of the Young Americans stuff with Luther Vandross etc.

I suspect that the price of Bowie's co-operation though was some editorial control - so sadly no occultism, gay sex, Angie Bowie or embarrassing flirtations with right wing decadence.

Sue said...

Other phases left out in this great film (Scary Monsters?)...Lots left out in the V&A exhibition too (Angie for instance), but Aladdin Sane well documented there and in the accompanying book, and it would appear the show has Bowie's full co-operation (we even saw him there when we visited)...Perhaps it's to do with record company copyright?

Anonymous said...

Yep. of course - (I was the first poster) - it was also fascinating to hear Rick Wakeman comment on his own piano playing on Hunky Dory - I also suspect that Mick Ronson was the real musical brain behind all that early(ish) bowie stuff - he was a classically trained musician so he would know what he was doing with surprising chord changes - but then Bowie was always very largely a catalyst for other musicians (not denying his own contribution of course).

Interesting to hear of the V&A exhibition - I suppose that the 'image' side of Aladdin sane would have to be documented - but I still stand by my theory of the music itself being somewhat suppressed - I can't remember when I've heard anything off that album in many many years.

One last thing, I read the recent 'discography' of Bowie by Peter Doggett, which is OK, but it was always a pity that it wasn't written by the late great Ian Macdonald (who arguably wrote the best book about the Beatles)

Sue said...

I can't think why Aladdin Sane was ignored, it was a great album with at least 9 out of 10 highly successful and memorable tracks....on RCA, and not Sony.

What I've always loved about Bowie is his sense of democracy and collaboration, more really than the main ideas he explored, although I've no idea how democratically that worked out moneywise for his collaborators.

And also I loved that he could change his mind, so that his ideas were never that fixed, something he shares with great artists in general. I like it especially that he thinks of himself as an artist in a painterly tradition; many successful fine artists are trapped in a style they find hard to escape. The truly creative change their style and risk all security to move into the future, not necessarily to embrace the latest technology for fashion's sake, but to stop themselves being bored. This could equally transpire in a visit to history and time travel to heritage crafts; in music terms witness Beck's recent travails.

(Obviously I rate Beck as an artist, you may disagree). Does Peter Doggett mention Talking Heads? Were they not first with the baggy suits?

Anyway, thanks guys for the opportunity to show my appreciation of Bowie, I was there at 15 at the last concert of Ziggy in the Hammersmith Odeon, and our cheap seats (where we could hardly see what was on stage) were rewarded by seeing Angie Bowie dancing 'in the gods' with us.

What I'd like to see is what I missed, eg everything after Let's Dance, but that's EMI. The Tin Machine episode and everything else he did was (another 8 albums?) when I was definitely not listening to Bowie, all the way up to The Next Day (which I'm still assimilating but has one of the best singles all year).


Sue said...

PS Anonymous, Mike Garson's piano was the best thing on that album!