Best Albums 2016

Here’s a quick list of my favourite albums of 2016. In no particular order, although I suspect Gregory Porter edges it in terms of listens for the year, closely followed by Mr Bowie.

David Bowie – Blackstar

Gregory Porter – Take Me To The Alley

Radiohead – A Moon Shaped Pool

Travis – Everything at Once

Kyle Dixon and Michael Stein – Stranger Things Vol. 1

Michael Kiwanuka – Love and Hate

Takatsugu Muramatsu – When Marnie Was There Soundtrack Music Collection

Ed Harcourt – Furnaces

Film review – Absolute Beginners (Julien Temple, 1986)

Panned on its original release and a complete commercial failure [1], Julian Temple’s musical Absolute Beginners is a film that is often cited as the cause of a partial collapse of the British film industry. Looking at it with fresh eyes, the criticisms are undoubtedly harsh, but the film still has too many flaws to warrant anything more than cult status.

The musical charts the on-off romantic relationship between aspiring model Crepe Suzette (Patsy Kensit) and unestablished photographer Colin (Eddie O’Connell) as they try to make their way in 1950s London. Weaving elements of gang warfare, race riots and youth culture in a way that is almost brilliant, but largely incoherent.

It wuzza strange casting choice

The film starts with the familiar sound of David Bowie’s title track, which was a global hit at the time and proved to be one of his most enduring songs. If, like me, you were made aware of it solely because David Bowie has a named role in the film, then prepare to feel shortchanged. Bowie stars as Vendice Partners, a sales and marketing man who first appears about halfway through the film. By all accounts, his prominence in the film was more a marketing choice than an artistic choice, but his scenes breathe life into a stagnant portion of the film as it threatens to grind to a halt.

Temple was famed for his music videos and by the time this film was released he’d been responsible for some of the most celebrated music videos of the 1980s, including efforts for the likes of The Beat, Culture Club, The Sex Pistols, Depeche Mode, The Kinks and Sade. Some of the best moments in Absolute Beginners are the standalone tracks that could be lifted straight out of the film and placed on MTV. The two best examples are Ray Davies’s ‘Quiet Life’ and David Bowie’s ‘That’s Motivation’, the latter of which has Bowie tap dancing around a giant typewriter.

The film’s lack of focus is its downfall. When Colin gets caught up in the Notting Hill race riots in the final third of the film, he takes a wrong turn to avoid danger and ends up in a neo-Nazi war rally. This is a scene that creates some really powerful imagery but the themes had been underplayed in the build up, making its inclusion neither relevant nor integral to the plot. Indeed, the threat of violence is imminent all around the city without ever feeling anything more than a light touch suggestion. Yes, it’s a musical, but I can’t help think that if they’d just cut a couple of needless scenes earlier in the film there could have been a better balance struck between the romantic side and the social commentary. It is hard to believe that the die-hard fans of the book don’t feel the same way.

It was a troubled film to develop and the brilliant 53-minute documentary now included in the Blu-ray release is enough justification to pick up a copy. It’s also a curiosity for fans of any of the stars in this bizarrely-assembled cast. It is, however, not a good piece of cinema.

[1] Absolute Beginners took £1.8m at the box office in the UK and $930k in the USA against a budget of £8.4m.

Bowie Berlin Tours

I recently enjoyed a brief holiday in the capital of Germany, Berlin. The city is rich with modern history and everywhere you look there’s a potential point of interest. I can honestly say it was one of the most educational and enriching holidays I’ve ever been on.

No discussion of the political landscape of Berlin over the last 100 years would be complete without mention of the music scene that grew organically within the city from the late 1970s onwards that produced some of the greatest works of the era, inspired by the unique make-up of a city split in two and equally inspiring those living there. It is a music scene that also arguably helped to bring down the wall (or factually if you are the German Foreign Office).

Spearheading the scene was David Bowie, who in 1976 was out of money and keen to break away from the LA drug scene that had facilitated his addiction to cocaine. It was there that he famously completed his ‘Berlin Trilogy’: Low, “Heroes” and Lodger [1], which kickstarted his career and helped him on his road to recovery.

If you’re in Berlin and have an interest in David Bowie the you’ll definitely want to make sure you sign up to the Berlin Bowie Walk, operated by the Berlin Music Tours company. For a relatively small fee you will be guided around the famous city for around three hours, taking in the outside of the famous Hansa Studios (where he recorded throughout his time there); Potsdamer Platz (you can now get the train there!); the Brandenburg Gate; the Reichstag, which was the site of his famous 1987 performance; and his flat in Schöneberg.

If you’re feeling especially adventurous, you can return on a second day and visit the inside of Hansa Studio, standing in the Hall by the Wall and looking out from the former control studio through the window from the same spot Bowie where famously wrote the lyrics to “Heroes” – the precise details of which were debated by the many Bowie übergeeks during my tour.

I’ve been purposefully scant on the details of the tour because I don’t want to ruin your enjoyment, but both sessions were truly special experiences and brought me closer to one of my favourite artists.

The studio tour was actually Depeche Mode focused, but that wasn’t a huge problem. In fact, it was great to be able to learn a lot about a band that are surprisingly famous outside the UK. They recorded most of their most successful music at Hansa and this was clearly a pilgramage for many of those on the tour. They run several tours that are focused on different artists, including U2 and David Bowie. Sadly as yet Lou Bega hasn’t been given a tour yet [2].

If I have one recommendation it’s that both tours overran on their expected finish time. This meant we got great value for money each day but if you have something else booked in (for example a visit to the Reichstag) then you should leave at least two hours at the end of the tour to do your next activity. On the walking tour you end up at Café Neues Ufer, which was a former favourite spot of Bowie and Iggy Pop to drink in – we ended up spending over two hours in there and didn’t want to leave!

These tours are excellent value for money and packed full of anecdotes from people who are passionate about their subject. When that subject is David Bowie, it’s a no-brainer!

[1] The trilogy is often referred to as such despite Low being written prior to Bowie’s arrival in Berlin and Lodger actually being recorded in Switzerland.

[2] Lou Bega recorded his infamous ‘Mambo No. 5’ track in the late 1990s with some of the producers who now work at Hansa, a fact recognised by the double-platinum proudly on display in the lobby area of the studio.

David Bowie R.I.P.

Well, today started off on an awful note. I woke up at my normal hour after a particularly banal dream to a string of texts from a variety of people, many of whom hadn’t been in touch for years. I immediately knew something was awry.

Scrolling through the messages, I pieced together that something had happened to David Bowie. Whether it was good or bad news wasn’t immediately obvious. The first was actually from my mum. “Have you seen the news about Bowie?” it read. My immediate hope was that he would be touring again – it was nice my mum thought it was such urgent news! This was ambushed by the slow realisation of what had happened. He wouldn’t be touring again. He had passed away after an 18 month battle with liver cancer.

Devastated just doesn’t cover it.

The following is going to be a cathartic and self-indulgent diarised memory of me discovering David Bowie as an artist, character and chameleon.

1996-2002

David Bowie has been a part of my life for a very long time. I would still be classed as a relative newcomer to the party. My first memory of him was listening to ‘Little Wonder’ on one of those cheap compilation double CDs that were the rage when I was younger. This isn’t his best song by a long way, though it is a great example of him producing something special and cutting edge in a genre previously unfamiliar to him. At the time, of course, I didn’t really think that, though I was probably influenced by the fact the CD didn’t even list him on the front cover of the album as one of the top artists (Gina G, 3T and Mark Morrison did make the cut). He was just some old guy doing weird dance music that I didn’t understand.

As time went on, I began to see his influence more and more. Oasis covered “Heroes” as the b-side to ‘D’You Know What I Mean?’ in 1997. Nirvana covered ‘The Man Who Sold The World’ for the MTV Unplugged in New York album, which I picked up when I reached my angsty phase (which lasted, all told, about six months). I was absorbing the snippets I was hearing but not really taking the bate.

When the album Heathen was released in 2002, it had a quality that finally made me take notice. The song ‘Slow Burn’ was a regular on UK radio stations and that alone convinced me to pick it up. It was Bowie’s 22nd album but it was my first Bowie album. Sitting alongside Gemma Hayes, Elbow and Doves, my year in music was certainly very melancholic and reflective; the tones reflecting the mood of the world in 2001 when most of the songs were written and recorded. This formed the soundtrack to my A-Level studies.

Slowly working backwards and learning more and more about Bowie, I was able to reward my patience with a thorough look at his different periods as I discovered them. This was a deliberate choice. That’s one of the great things about discovering an older artist – they usually have years of releases that you can pick up as you read more about them. So if, as I did, you get stuck on Hunky Dory for a whole year, then you don’t need to worry as the other 20+ albums will wait for you to finish with it.

2003-2012

As time progressed, I become progressively more aware that everything had gone quiet on the Bowie front. After two albums in quick succession (Heathen was followed shortly after by 2003’s Reality), I’d managed to sweep up the last of the Bowie albums by around 2010. Somewhat inevitably this went to the much derided Never Let Me Down from 1987, an album that I felt had merits but lacked any reason to hold my attention beyond his better work.

Now well versed in Bowie’s music, it dawned on me that the length of time he’d been away from the music scene could be construed as him having retired without really telling anyone. If he’s retired, then that meant he probably wouldn’t tour again. Had I missed my chance to see The Thin White Duke? Surely not.

I began to think back to when I had considered going to see him during his Reality tour. My friends and I were debating which music festival to go to. The choice was either V Festival or T in the Park. We opted for the former, getting a day ticket to see Dido and Muse. Yep. That actually happened. As it turned out, Bowie pulled out of T in the Park due to ill health and he never toured again.

I will forever regret never getting to see Bowie live. But it is something I have come to terms with over the last ten years.

2013-2016

When Bowie announced a surprise album in 2013, it almost felt like a hoax. Out of the blue on 8th January, a new single titled ‘Where Are We Now?’ was delivered to radio stations across the world and played simultaneously. For a surprise return to the music industry, it was a far cry from anything that could be considered immediate or upbeat. This, I’d come to learn, was typical Bowie.

Given that Bowie was now effectively a recluse, he had taken on the kind of godlike status usually afforded only to artists that had already passed away. Nobody thought they’d hear from him again. In a way The Next Day felt like the first posthumously released album put out during an artist’s lifetime. It was a wonderful present to fans old and new, many of whom were in the exact same boat as myself.

Blackstar was announced in November and was set for release on 8th January 2016. It arrived with no special mention of what was going on behind the scenes. A couple of weird videos with a hard to decipher message, the usual Bowie-esque ambiguities in the lyrics. It is a fantastic album and I listened to it almost non-stop for the first weekend of release. 

Then on the morning of 11th January the news of Bowie’s death hit the world and suddenly the content of the album all fell into place. He had written and recorded his own obituary and released it to the world without anyone realising.

And with that, Bowie confirmed himself as one of the most confident artists of all time. Who else in the history of music would look on his own death as his final chameleonic transformation?

Today has been a day that may have started off in a depressing manner, but became one of listening, watching and consuming all things Bowie. It has been a completely beautiful experience. A sad but beautiful experience.