Saturday 7 December 2019

Radio: Strung out on heaven's high... hitting an all-time low

David Bowie - it seemed impossible he could die.
David Bowie - it seemed impossible he could die.
Darragh McManus

Darragh McManus

If you were a David Bowie fan, this week has been all about one thing. Actually, if you were any way interested in, or passionate about, music and art and the popular culture of the post-WWII era - this week has been all about one thing.

That's how much David Bowie mattered. (Still matters.) That's how important he was.

It was also a strange week, because it started with good vibes, regarding Bowie. A new album, released last Friday, right on his 69th birthday - a strange, compelling, unsettling and beautiful record called Blackstar. Proof (as it if were needed, ha!) that he'd lost none of that incredible talent and inventiveness.

Where next will he go, you wondered, listening to Bowie's inspired melange of free jazz and industrial drumbeats and floating, ghostly vocals. Anywhere, everywhere. The universe entire was the playground for the (super)man who fell to earth.

So, with Blackstar just out, there was a buzz of excitement on radio. We had Ed Smith's Songs of Praise (Today FM, Sunday 10pm) playing lots of Bowie, chatting about this excellent new record.

We had The Tom Dunne Show (Newstalk, Sun-Thur 10pm) interviewing Gerry Leonard, Bowie's guitarist on several records, who was in town for last weekend's Bowie festival. And again, talk was interspersed with the most vital thing, the music.

Then Monday came, and the news broke. Bewilderment and disbelief were almost as common a reaction as sadness. It didn't seem quite possible that David Bowie would, or even could, die - but there it was. And to (mis)quote that famous line from one of his greatest songs, Planet Earth was very, very blue.

As music writer Tony Clayton-Lea put it on Arena's (Radio 1, Mon-Fri 7pm) tribute to Bowie, "I don't want to be here - I'd rather not talk about DB being dead, it's awful."

He, and fellow music writer Roisin Dwyer, gave a good, thorough look back on Bowie's career with Sean Rocks. As contributors, they were both knowledgeable and, more importantly, clearly cared a hell of a lot about the man and the music.

And that's what it's all about, really. We can analyse culture and art in a theoretical way until the cows come home, but ultimately what's most meaningful is how it impacts on individuals, in the gut and the mind.

Sean also spoke to Geoffrey Marsh, curator of the David Bowie Is exhibition held in London in 2013, who shaded in those other, non-musical aspects of his career: the fashion and style, the theatre, the unerring eye for drama and magic.

For an early band, The Conrads, Bowie wanted the name spelled as Con-Rad - which mightn't seem like a big deal, but for a 15-year-old showed massive precocity. "He was ambitious from the start," Marsh said, "thinking about the image as well as the music, always thinking ahead."

BBC radio, of course, with its huge archive, provided a feast of Bowie-related programming during the week. I'll mention just two here.

On a special edition of Front Row (BBC Radio 4, Mon 7.15pm), presenter John Wilson caught the mood perfectly, and expressed what many others were thinking, when describing Bowie as "my main teacher - he taught me about a more interesting, wider world…(he) changed the sound and look of popular culture, many times over."

There was a great interview from 2002, in which Bowie was customarily witty and charming, and thoughtful contributions from music writer Paul Morley and designer Jonathan Barnbrook.

The former confidently predicted that, posthumously, "Bowie's power will only grow. He was a great entertainer who also managed to smuggle into the mainstream these extraordinarily brilliant and avant-garde ideas".

The latter - who created several album covers for Bowie - said he had "showed how to do creativity correctly. You don't have to be a tyrant or some kind of superhuman; you can be kind". Which, in a funny way, was as fine a tribute to the man as any other.

The best thing I heard all week on Bowie was David Bowie at the BBC (Radio 2, Mon 7pm). Presented by Ken Bruce, this was a biography "drawn entirely from BBC archive interviews and sessions".

Why was it the best? Because after all the analysis and homage and discussion, it boiled the thing down to its core elements: David Bowie and his music.

All that humour and good cheer. All those fascinating insights into the artistic mind, into this specific mind. The references to great literature - you have to love a reader; you have to love any pop star who'll talk about Nietzsche - and how much of his early music was an attempt to better understand the books he was reading.

And all that fabulous music. Half a century of great art. How lucky we've been, when you think about it.

So, by the end of the week, I did the only sane thing - I'm not a lad insane, after all - by switching off the wireless and throwing on the albums. Nothing more to be said.

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