We all know that Mystery Train by Greil Marcus is one of the greatest music books ever written. Now, thanks to some industrious soul, there’s a 200 song playlist to accompany it. Tune in below.
The new edition of Mystery Train is available here.
1. It’s a warm Saturday evening in the early summer of 1969. I’m walking up town, cradling my transistor radio, dreaming small town dreams, listening to Radio One because there is nothing else to listen to. Pete Drummond plays a haunting mesmerising record by a name vaguely familiar, but little known to me. I go into school on Monday morning raving about Space Oddity by David Bowie. General indifference greets me. No one else heard it and no one else will for ages. I order a copy from my local record shop and it takes all summer to arrive. When it does I’m slightly disappointed to see that it’s a mono copy. Everyone forgets this now but Space Oddity was what the industry in those days used to refer to as a ‘sleeper’. It doesn’t chart until September 1969 by which time we’re back at school and all my mates are raving about it. “That’s the record I was talking about before the summer break” I squawk to no avail. Eight weeks is a lifetime to a teenager.
2. November 1970. I’m in Harlequin Records in Oxford Street with my girlfriend trying to choose between two new releases. Bowie’s Man Who Sold The World and Syd Barrett’s second solo album. I can only afford one so I buy the Barrett LP. I think about stealing the Bowie sleeve from the racks but Harlequins is the first record shop I ever encounter with security cameras. That original dress cover disappears pretty quickly. As indeed does Syd Barrett.
3. 1972. One hit wonder David Bowie is on the cover of Melody Maker sporting a fabulous new hair cut and talking to Michael Watts about being gay. I cut out the photo, take it into the trendiest Kensington High Street salon I can find and pay for the most expensive haircut I’ve ever had. I find it near impossible to keep the shape and within two weeks it has sagged into a lop sided soufflé.
4. 1973. A Lad Insane. The evening class trainees at my Tech College offer haircuts for two bob, as long as you don’t care how long it takes, and don’t mind the supervisor fussing around you every five minutes. I find that the supervisor doesn’t mind fussing round me one bit. “We don’t get many asking for burgundy red,” he purrs approvingly. I risk a lynching by riding on the top deck on the late bus home. My unshockable Mum is in the kitchen making supper when I walk in the back door. An expression somewhere between the wry and the risible plays across her face. She shouts into the living room to my Dad. ”Ere Bob, come out here and look what he’s done to ‘is ‘air.”
5. 1975. I got off the Bowie bus for a while. Didn’t like Pin Ups. Didn’t like Diamond Dogs. Knock On Wood didn’t bode well I thought. He’d already announced that his new album was going to be plastic soul so me and my flatmate Pete were sitting there prepared to hate it when Johnny Walker played a few tracks on his Saturday afternoon show. A few friends were round post-pub, the radio was on but no one was paying it much attention. First track. Sniff sniff. OK I suppose. Not as bad as I was expecting. Next track half an hour later. Hmmm. By the third track, which was Win I think, me and Pete are looking at each other going “this is effing fantastic.” Bowie doesn’t put a foot wrong for the next five years.
6. 1976. Off to Earls Court with Pete to see the Station To Station tour. Long before the NME started its laudable ‘Just Say Gnome’ campaign Pete is on an Anthony Newley tip and unlike me, baulks at anything too arty and above itself. In the cavernous Earls Court arena the instrumental build up to the title track is even more portentous and monumental than it is on the album. Just as the thin white duke is about to step up to the mike and sing his opening lines Pete turns to me with a stoned grin on his face and starts singing “I was walking/down the high street”. You had to be there.
7. Late 1976. NME features a short news snippet announcing the forthcoming Bowie album Low. The tracks are listed. Laid end to end they look as stark as the album will be. Speed Of Life. Breaking Glass. What In The World. Sound and Vision. Always Crashing In The Same Car. Be My Wife. A New Career In A New Town. Warszawa. Arty Decade. Weeping Wall. Subterraneans. There are very few albums where you can tell that the music is going to be great just from looking at the titles. Trout Mask Replica is one. Low is another.
Fade To Blackstar.
Health rumours aside I’d only been thinking a few months back about how much we’d miss him when he’s gone and how everyone will be forced to acknowledge his monumental influence. I was watching the last of those 1980 TOTP reruns. Gary Numan, his star starting to wan, doing This Wreckage, still copping every gesture, every facial grimace from his overlord. Hundreds of other glam romantics and plastic soul punks all still mining that rich seemingly inexhaustible seam.
The comparison may seem odious to the die-hards among you but Bowies final dignified curtain call reminded me a lot of Freddie Mercury’s similarly frail last bow on Innuendo. An album full of clues. Similarly mercurial. Ambivalently naked. “Everybody Knows Me Now”. Actually my favourite line on Lazarus is the previous one “I’ve got drama can’t be stolen.” Here’s one last mime you can’t emulate folks, one last one-way ticket, one move you can’t cop as your own, until it is your own.
Like Johnny Cash in Hurt that Lazarus video is going to be poignant till the end of time. And isn’t that one last joke at the very end? Climbing back into the closet.
Nah, sod all this analysis. Go and watch his guest appearance again in Ricky Gervais’ Extras. Laugh until you cry. I know I will.
Remembered by Jon Savage.
In case anyone cares to remember, the first couple of years of the 1970’s were something of a hard rock desert. It was all singer songwriters and shagged out hippie stylings, the revolution of 1966/67 grown tired. If you wanted louder faster harder it was not easy. In late 1971 and early 1972 it was a case of scrabbling around: the MC5’s “Back in the USA”, the Flamin’ Groovies’ “Teenage Head”, Alice Cooper’s “Love It To Death”, the Velvet Underground reissues written about so eloquently by Richard Williams in the Melody Maker. But what of Britain?
I used to haunt Ken Market, a rabbit warren of stalls and approaches to life situated just eastwards of the Barkers Building on Kensington High Street. One guy sold records there: he was training to be a lawyer and so was super sarcastic in the way that such people can be. I was riffling through the lps early in 1972 when I came across “Hunky Dory”: didn’t know much about David Bowie but I liked the cover and the feel. Seemed worth a punt. ‘Oh, he’s the new hype’ I was told with a sneer. So of course I bought it. Fuck you.
Bowie had just given a great interview in which he carefully positioned himself in contrast to the pop culture of the day. ‘I feel we’re all in a fucking dead industry that really relates to nothing anymore,’ he told Cream magazine; ‘the most important person in Europe and England today is Marc Bolan, not because of what he says but because he is the first person who has latched onto the energy of the young once again. He has got his dictatorships fixed up. He’s kind of neuter and he has that star quality. That is very important. Marc Bolan is the new angry young man. Marc Bolan has that angry young life. You can quote me on that. I also like Iggy Stooge and the Flaming Groovies. Rock should tart itself up a bit more, you know. People are scared of prostitution. There should be some real unabashed prostitution in this business.’
How to cut through the half-baked products of a dead industry? In January 1972, he was interviewed by Michael Watts of the Melody Maker, who wrote: ‘David’s present image is to come on like a swishy queen, a gorgeously effeminate boy. He’s as camp as a row of tents, with his limp hand and trolling vocabulary. “I’m gay,’ he says, ‘ and always have been, even when I was David Jones.’ But there’s a sly jollity about how he says it, a secret smile at the corners of his mouth’. That set the cat among the pigeons.
Well. I got home and played the record, searching for rockers. “Andy Warhol”, that’s great – like the laughter, good tune. But it was the legend next to track 4 side 2 that caught my eye: ‘SOME V.U., WHITE LIGHT RETURNED WITH THANKS’. OK, I’m there, and “Queen Bitch” was everything I could have ever wanted, from the camp scat introduction to the moment when Mick Ronson’s guitar slices through everything: all the ersatz country rock and fake maturity and even more, the conspiracy of silence about the person that I’m beginning to I realise that I am.
“Queen Bitch” is a clarion call for weirdos everywhere. It’s not just the sound and the camp lyrics – ‘She’s so swishy in her satin and tat/ In her frock coat and bipperty-bopperty hat’ – and the sense of immersion in a glamorous, deviant subculture, but the knife-edge sense of desperation. Can there a better line for that awful feeling than ‘and I’m phoning a cab ’cause my stomach feels small/ There’s a taste in my mouth and it’s no taste at all’. Mix in asides like ‘choo betcha’, ‘oh yeah’ and the general sense of glee, and something is changed forever.
It’s complex but shattering. Slowly the realisation: it’s actually OK to be gay. Wear this song as a badge of pride, along with the glitter eyeliner. Crank it up – along with Lou Reed’s “Vicious” – and annoy the Grateful Dead freaks. Don’t look back.
In “Queen Bitch” you can hear a door unlocking. Despite the best efforts of many, it has remained open. Thank you, David Bowie.