Friday 15 December 2017

All the old dudes...

And why Bowie is the coolest of them all

David Bowie has released his first single and album in a decade. Photo: PA
David Bowie has released his first single and album in a decade. Photo: PA
A scene from the video starring David Bowie and Tilda Swinton
David Bowie (second right), Tilda Swinton (second left), Andrej Pejic (left) and Saskia De Brauw (right) starring in a short film entitled 'The Stars (Are Out Tonight)' which accompanies Bowie's new single
Leonard Cohen
Lou Reed.
Mick Jagger
John Meagher

John Meagher

David Bowie turned pensionable age last year. Glowing tributes were paid from all quarters, but they read like obituaries.

You had to remind yourself that Bowie had not died. He was still among us – somewhere. The received wisdom was that he had embraced retirement and had turned his back on his music career. And what a career it was.

What nobody knew – save for a tiny number of trusted allies – was that he was hard at work on a new album. While commentators around the world were solemnly delivering the last rites, Bowie was recording new songs so good that they would have critics and fans in a frenzy of excitement a year later.

The fruit of his under-the-radar labour was finally released yesterday and the consensus is near unanimous: The Next Day – his 30th album, and first in 10 years – is as daring and inventive as his best work in the 1970s. High praise indeed: more than any other musician, David Bowie helped sculpt the sound of that decade.

But it isn't just the quality of his music that reminds us of what an undeniably cool presence Bowie has been since emerging in 1969 with an arresting single, 'Space Oddity'. It's the manner in which his new work was announced that truly marks him out from his peers.

In an age where virtually no artistic endeavour can be kept secret and when the likes of U2 drip-feed information about their forthcoming releases with wearisome regularity, Bowie's achievement in keeping The Next Day sessions completely under wraps is virtually unheard of.

His age-old ability to wrong-foot the world happened on the day of his 66th birthday, January 8, when he announced that not only was he releasing a new single, the elegiac 'Where Are We Now?', but an album would be in the offing, too.

So much for all that talk of retirement, especially when it later emerged that he had worked on the record on and off for two years with long-time collaborator, the veteran producer Tony Visconti. Remarkably, even senior figures at his record company had no inkling that he had been making new music or had one of 2013's most significant albums up his sleeve.

One of the most appealing qualities of the album is the way it harks back to the myriad back pages of Bowie's glittering career. There are songs that recall his early days as, first, a folksy troubadour and, then, a gender-bending glam-rock visionary. And there are reference points to his excursions into avant-garde music as well as the less-loved hard rock of his Tin Machine period in the 1980s.

Bowie, himself, has remained remarkably quiet over the past eight weeks, content to allow hype to swell all around him. And, it's this very silence, too, that enhances his unshakable coolness. Other big names on a comeback would be filling every media outlet with their news and views. Bowie, as the cliché has it, is simply happy to let his songs do the talking. Even after all these years, there's nothing cooler than that.

So how do those other senior citizens in the music business shape up in the cool stakes? Who still has it and who lost it a long time ago? And which of the biggies never had it in the first place?

VERY COOL

Leonard Cohen

He may have flirted with rather naff-sounding synthesizers in the 1980s, but the man they call 'Laughing Len', pictured left, remains one of the coolest people to ever pick up a plectrum. He's still capable of knocking out searingly honest and beautifully observed songs and his marathon shows could teach the younger folk a lot about the art of the live performer.

Sartorially elegant, gracious in word and deed and still a huge hit with the ladies, Cohen simply doesn't put a foot wrong.

Lee "Scratch" Perry

He may still be something of a cult curio whose wildly adventurous music hasn't impinged upon the Coldplay-loving masses, but the man born Rainford Hugh Perry is still living it large at 76. Perry has followed a singular path since first emerging in the 1960s and his work in the fields of reggae, ska, dub and drum and bass continue to influence new generations of musicians.

He will be – by some distance – the oldest performer at hipster music festival Forbidden Fruit this summer. And he'll be one of the bigger draws.

COOL

Lou Reed

When you fronted one of the most critically adored art-rock bands of all time, you'll always retain a vestige of cool – no matter what you do. And such is the lofty legacy of Reed's Velvet Underground and his early solo albums – including the magnificently sleazy Transformer – that he will be forever guaranteed a place on the cool chart.

Despite all this, he has done some terribly unhip things, not least his tendency to cannibalise his own songs in concert and his willingness to unleash self-indulgent rubbish on the audience. Metal Machine Music anyone?

Bob Dylan

The guy who wrote 'Like A Rolling Stone' – and at least 50 other era-defining tunes – is guaranteed a place on our list. That he is still releasing new music 50 years after first changing the course of popular culture is to be celebrated, and it's not just any old music – it's high-quality, self-referencing work that is taking a rightful place in the Bob Dylan songbook.

He would have joined Messrs Cohen and Perry above had he not had that unfortunate dalliance with Christianity 20 years ago: his songs of salvation fell a long way short of his own very high standards.

UNCOOL

Elton John

There's no doubt that the former Reg Dwight has given the world some fantastic songs. We'll ignore the fact that most of them were co-writes with Bernie Taupin and were released 40 years ago. But even in his 1970s heyday, Elton John cut a deeply uncool figure.

Those oversized sunglasses didn't help, nor did the ghastly outfits that he wore at every available opportunity.

It's also true that it's impossible to be cool if you've got a comb-over (the great Bobby Charlton exempted).

Ray Davies

The Kinks frontman wrote 'Waterloo Sunset' – the most emblematic song of Swinging Sixties London and, to my mind, one of the finest compositions ever – and a batch of tunes that gave an early Blur a reason to exist.

But Ray Davies has never been cool – not even during those golden years when it appeared as though the King's Road and Carnaby Street were the cultural centres of the universe.

There was certainly nothing cool about his dreadful performance at Dublin's O2 last year as he did his level best to ruin his own songs.

VERY UNCOOL

Paul McCartney

Is it possible for a Beatle to make this unflattering category? You bet it is. Macca was cool for perhaps a few weeks in the early 1960s, but somehow managed to seem irredeemably square even when his band were rewriting the rulebook with Sgt Pepper and The White Album at the end of that decade.

He may have written his fair share of classics, but his sentimental tendencies made sure such schmaltzy fare as 'Martha My Dear' (written for a beloved pet, an Old English Sheepdog) and 'Mull of Kintyre' were foisted on the world

Mick Jagger

The vocal and focal point of The Rolling Stones was once the coolest kid on the planet. Just look at the cocksure demeanour he displayed in the Ireland-set documentary Charlie Is My Darling, which was released last year, and captured the Stones' in their early, heady days.

But Mick lost his mojo a long time ago – not least when he sold out to corporations like Microsoft (his tune, 'Start Me Up', soundtracked the ubiquitous advertising campaign for the company's Word product).

For too long, this consummate businessman has appeared more interested in money than music.

Irish Independent

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