Chameleon Comedian: David Bowie 1967-1970

As innovative and eclectic as his music has been, Bowie’s means and methods of articulation also reveal an artist finely attuned to the subversive potential of humor.

Has any artist in the history of rock elicited such sustained critical scrutiny for so long as David Bowie has? For over six decades and counting, critics have been magnetically drawn to him, consistently fascinated by his multiple manifestations, cerebral complexity, and subversive gestures. Yet despite the library of analysis dedicated to him and his body of work, few critics have noted the humor that resides at the core of Bowie’s creative expression and impact.

As innovative and eclectic as his music has been, Bowie’s means and methods of articulation also reveal an artist finely attuned to the subversive potential of humor. Within all facets of his musical artistry—lyrics, song-craft, instrumentation, image, and live performance—Bowie has variously drawn upon an array of comedic techniques: parody, satire, childlike whimsy, wordplay. Whether for novelty or for more consciously critical purposes, Bowie has recognized the potency of humor as a means of communication, understanding its ability to incite with insight and to empower by speaking to power. James E. Perone, like most other Bowie scholars, reveres him as the “most notorious changeling of the rock era”, but he has been a chameleon comedian, too, shifting between and perpetually tweaking humorous strategies to meet his current artistic intentions (Perone, James E. The Words and Music of David Bowie. Westport, CT: Praeger Publishers, 2007. p.xi).

Undoubtedly his is an iconic face of '70s rock (if not the iconic face), but critics and fans have often overlooked Bowie’s early work such that they have become regarded as his 'forgotten years'. His late ‘60s releases have invariably been dismissed as unfocused, underdeveloped, even immature. Yet this prelude period shows us much about what Bowie was and was to become, as well as exhibits in sketch-form his interests and concerns, as well as his methods and strategies, later developed to more popular and critical acclaim. Indeed, ‘70s Bowie is intimately tied to ‘60s Bowie, and the two amalgamate at the junctures where he reflects upon that earlier decade.

While communality and solidarity were the tenets of the late ‘60s counter-culture, Bowie was satirizing such ideals as constituting conformity and group-think; and as the songwriting leaders of the era -- John Lennon, Neil Young, Joni Mitchell and others -- sought introspection and new authentic selves when the '60s fragmented into the “Me” '70s, Bowie detached from any idea of self by creating multiple personas. In the process he exposed the romantic delusion of rock authenticity, demythologized the rock star concept, and revealed the commercial machinery that maintained it.

Whereas the Woodstock generation believed that the counter-culture would, as Hunter S. Thompson once envisioned, “prevail” with an “inevitable victory over the forces of Old and Evil” (Thompson, Hunter S. Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas: A Savage Journey Into the Heart of the American Dream. Vintage: New York, 1989. p.68.), Bowie saw resistance in terms of bohemian individualism rather than collective struggle. His dedication to the fate of outsiders in society—to portraying their alienation and escapist pursuits—certainly echoed the sentiments of his ‘60s-styled peers. However, his means of understanding and expressing this condition—as illustrated in his early songs and by his own independent identity—pointed beyond their solidarity solutions, placing the individual front-and-center.

In June 1967, The Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band album was released; so, too, was David Bowie’s eponymous debut album. While the former was (and has since) been hailed as the greatest album of its era (and perhaps of all time), Bowie’s release was largely ignored at the time and has been mostly castigated ever since. Yet the two albums have much in common.

Like Sgt. Pepper, David Bowie draws inspiration from England’s music hall tradition, displaying its characteristic jaunty wit, vernacular vocal affectations, and working class identity. In similar fashion to The Beatles’ “When I’m Sixty-Four”, “Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite”, and “With a Little Help from My Friends”, Bowie’s “Uncle Arthur”, “Rubber Band”, and “Little Bombardier” transport listeners back in time, sentimentally evoking a seemingly gentler England, one absent of generational confrontations and cut-throat capitalism.

This cultural nostalgia is further underscored by the music, with its waltz-like rhythms and brass band accompaniments. Lyrically, these songs consist of quirky character portraits; like many Kinks songs of the period (or more recently, those of Blur and Pulp), they appear to be offering comforting caricatures evoking days gone by. Yet Bowie’s cast of English portraits—like those of The Kinks, Blur, and Pulp—function as more than mere satiation for conservative yearnings. These fictional characters—like those created throughout his career—are essentially misfits and outsiders, either ill-fitted for, alienated from, or unwelcome within their communities.

“She’s Got Medals” is an illustrative song in this regard. One of his earliest gender-bending songs, here Bowie narrates the tale of Mary who, feeling imprisoned by her gender, changes her name to Tommy in order to join the army, and then changes it again to Eileen when she returns to London. Like another song on the album, “Little Bombardier” (about a suspected pedophile that is run out of town), Bowie playfully toys with issues of gender identity and sexuality while implicitly suggesting that one has to become an outsider if one has desires or orientations beyond society’s prescribed designations.

Escapism pervades Bowie’s early work and it is a theme he intimately ties to the concept of childhood. Like contemporaries John Lennon and Syd Barrett, Bowie circa 1967 embraced hippy whimsy as a means of evading adult society. Humor theorist John Morreall celebrates the “imagination, playfulness, and curiosity” at the heart of a child’s world of humor, but bemoans how those characteristics are systematically driven out by adults who consider fun, fancy, and frivolity to be unproductive and immature (Morreall, John. Taking Laughter Seriously. Albany: State University of New York Press. 1983. p.98).

Lennon’s embrace of Lewis Carroll-like verbal play and illogic (in both his books and songs) demonstrated his unwillingness to give up his child-like state of humor; likewise, early Bowie songs such as “The Laughing Gnome”, “There is a Happy Land”, and “Come and Buy My Toys” are joyful, whimsical expressions of childhood play. Like the poems in William Blake’s Songs of Innocence, these songs reflect resistance to the order(s) and repressions of the adult world; eschewing experience, the children escape, simply stepping into fantasy worlds where language, behavior, and play are set blissfully free.

In “There is a Happy Land” the narrator rejoices in youth’s “secret place” away from “Mr. Grown Up”. Such sentiments reflect the regressive escapism of the hippy subculture in general, but they also offer early indicators of Bowie’s recurring fear that individual autonomy is always under threat and that it can only be maintained through escape or the reinvention of the self.

Such anxiety about conformity and constraint are also addressed through more directly satirical means on Bowie’s debut album. In “Join the Gang”, rather than rallying around his generation as The Who, the Small Faces, and other London peers were doing, Bowie is derisive, seeing only pawns and predators. “Johnny plays the sitar, he’s an existentialist / Once he had a name, now he plays our game”, he mocks, assuming the narrative role of a Manson-like manipulative guru. “London Boys”, the B-side of the “Rubber Band” single, finds the former David Jones, once the quintessential mod of Swinging London, turning on his former subculture, ridiculing its hedonistic followers for their drug-addled conformity. “You take the pills too much”, he scoffs dismissively.

With its cynical rebellion against the counter-culture, coupled with songs and arrangements transported from the Edwardian era, it's perhaps not surprising that Bowie did not thrust the aspiring artist into the upper echelons of the '60s rock pantheon. Such a situation, though, did not sit well with the ambitious Bowie; thus, for his next album he shed his music hall affect(at)ions and nudged closer to the musical modes and praxes of the prevailing rock counter-culture. Despite this apparent concession, however, the intra-generational lyrical satire he had exercised prior was also clearly far from exhausted.

Originally released as David Bowie in the UK and as Man of Words/Man of Music in the US, Bowie’s 1969 album was re-titled in 1972 and has since been known as Space Oddity. Full of the kind of folk rock, acoustic-based songs that might have been found on a Bob Dylan or Donovan album, this record was notable for its absence of the kind of light-hearted humor that had characterized the whimsical narratives on Bowie’s debut.

Here, the wit was more edgy. If there had appeared to be a certain incongruity humor on David Bowie between its brass-colored, upbeat melodies and the tragi-comic narrative tales they supported, the juxtaposition between music and words on Space Oddity was even more striking and sly. While the music—with its acoustic strumming and meandering arrangements—plugged in comfortably with the dominant psych-prog-folk genres of the period, lyrically Bowie was clearly not ready to kow-tow to the accepted values and ideals of the counter-culture.

Though less demonstrative musically, Bowie compensated by ratcheting up the volume on his biting wit, aiming it squarely at the very environment he sought to be embraced by. For Bowie, his bone of contention with the counter-culture remained the same: the revolution cannot be achieved by the masses marching in lockstep; it must come from the individual self being set free.

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From genre-busting electronic music to new highs in the ever-evolving R&B scene, from hip-hop and Americana to rock and pop, 2017's music scenes bestowed an embarrassment of riches upon us.

60. White Hills - Stop Mute Defeat (Thrill Jockey)

White Hills epic '80s callback Stop Mute Defeat is a determined march against encroaching imperial darkness; their eyes boring into the shadows for danger but they're aware that blinding lights can kill and distort truth. From "Overlord's" dark stomp casting nets for totalitarian warnings to "Attack Mode", which roars in with the tribal certainty that we can survive the madness if we keep our wits, the record is a true and timely win for Dave W. and Ego Sensation. Martin Bisi and the poster band's mysterious but relevant cool make a great team and deliver one of their least psych yet most mind destroying records to date. Much like the first time you heard Joy Division or early Pigface, for example, you'll experience being startled at first before becoming addicted to the band's unique microcosm of dystopia that is simultaneously corrupting and seducing your ears. - Morgan Y. Evans

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The Best Dance Tracks of 2017

Photo: Murielle Victorine Scherre (Courtesy of Big Beat Press)

From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

In June of 2016, prolific producer Diplo lambasted the world of DJ's in an interview with Billboard, stating that EDM was dying. Coincidentally enough, the article's contents went viral and made their way into Vice Media's electronic music and culture channel Thump, which closed its doors after four years this summer amid company-wide layoffs. Months earlier, electronic music giant SFX Entertainment filed bankruptcy and reemerged as Lifestyle, Inc., shunning the term "EDM".

So here we are at the end of 2017, and the internet is still a flurry with articles declaring that Electronic Dance Music is rotting from the inside out and DJ culture is dying on the vine, devoured by corporate greed. That might all well be the case, but electronic music isn't disappearing into the night without a fight as witnessed by the endless parade of emerging artists on the scene, the rise of North America's first Electro Parade in Montréal, and the inaugural Electronic Music Awards in Los Angeles this past September.

For every insipid, automaton disc jockey-producer, there are innovative minds like Anna Lunoe, Four Tet, and the Black Madonna, whose eclectic, infectious sets display impeccable taste, a wealth of knowledge, and boundless creativity. Over the past few years, many underground artists have been thrust into the mainstream spotlight and lost the je ne sais quoi that made them unique. Regardless, there will always be new musicians, producers, singers, and visionaries to replace them, those who bring something novel to the table or tip a hat to their predecessors in a way that steps beyond homage and exhilarates as it did decades before.

As electronic music continues to evolve and its endless sub-genres continue to expand, so do fickle tastes, and preferences become more and more subjective with a seemingly endless list of artists to sift through. With so much music to digest, its no wonder that many artists remain under the radar. This list hopes to remedy that injustice and celebrate tracks both indie and mainstream. From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

10. Moullinex - “Work It Out (feat. Fritz Helder)”

Taken from Portuguese producer, DJ, and multi-instrumentalist Luis Clara Gomes' third album Hypersex, "Work It Out" like all of its surrounding companions is a self-proclaimed, "collective love letter to club culture, and a celebration of love, inclusion and difference." Dance music has always seemingly been a safe haven for "misfits" standing on the edge of the mainstream, and while EDM manufactured sheen might have taken the piss out of the scene, Hypersex still revels in that defiant, yet warm and inviting attitude.

Like a cheeky homage to Rick James and the late, great High Priest of Pop, Prince, this delectably filthy, sexually charged track with its nasty, funk-drenched bass line, couldn't have found a more flawless messenger than former Azari & III member Fritz Helder. As the radiant, gender-fluid artist sings, "you better work your shit out", this album highlight becomes an anthem for all those who refuse to bow down to BS. Without any accompanying visuals, the track is electro-funk perfection, but the video, with its ruby-red, penile glitter canon, kicks the whole thing up a notch.

9. Touch Sensitive - “Veronica”

The neon-streaked days of roller rinks and turtlenecks, leg warmers and popped polo collars have come and gone, but you wouldn't think so listening to Michael "Touch Sensitive" Di Francesco's dazzling debut Visions. The Sydney-based DJ/producer's long-awaited LP and its lead single "Lay Down", which shot to the top of the Hype Machine charts, are as retro-gazing as they are distinctly modern, with nods to everything from nu disco to slo-mo house.

Featuring a sample lifted from 90s DJ and producer Paul Johnson's "So Much (So Much Mix)," the New Jack-kissed "Veronica" owns the dance floor. While the conversational interplay between the sexed-up couple is anything but profound, there is no denying its charms, however laughably awkward. While not everything on Visions is as instantly arresting, it is a testament to Di Francesco's talents that everything old sounds so damn fresh again.

8. Gourmet - “Delicious”

Neither Gourmet's defiantly eccentric, nine-track debut Cashmere, nor its subsequent singles, "There You Go" or "Yellow" gave any indication that the South African purveyor of "spaghetti pop" would drop one of the year's sassiest club tracks, but there you have it. The Cape Town-based artist, part of oil-slick, independent label 1991's diminutive roster, flagrantly disregards expectation on his latest outing, channeling the Scissor Sisters at their most gloriously bitchy best, Ratchet-era Shamir, and the shimmering dance-pop of UK singer-producer Joe Flory, aka Amateur Best.

With an amusingly detached delivery that rivals Ben Stein's droning roll call in Ferris Bueller's Day Off , he sings "I just want to dance, and fuck, and fly, and try, and fail, and try again…hold up," against a squelchy bass line and stabbing synths. When the percussive noise of what sounds like a triangle dinner bell appears within the mix, one can't help but think that Gourmet is simply winking at his audience, as if to say, "dinner is served."

7. Pouvoir Magique - “Chalawan”

Like a psychoactive ayahuasca brew, the intoxicating "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique's LP Disparition, is an exhilarating trip into unfamiliar territory. Formed in November of 2011, "Magic Power" is the musical project of Clément Vincent and Bertrand Cerruti, who over the years, have cleverly merged several millennia of songs from around the world with 21st-century beats and widescreen electro textures. Lest ye be worried, this is anything but Deep Forest.

In the spring of 2013, Pouvoir Magique co-founded the "Mawimbi" collective, a project designed to unite African musical heritage with contemporary soundscapes, and released two EPs. Within days of launching their label Musiques de Sphères, the duo's studio was burglarized and a hard drive with six years of painstakingly curated material had vanished. After tracking down demos they shared with friends before their final stages of completion, Clément and Bertrand reconstructed an album of 12 tracks.

Unfinished though they might be, each song is a marvelous thing to behold. Their stunning 2016 single "Eclipse," with its cinematic video, might have been one of the most immediate songs on the record, but it's the pulsing "Chalawan," with its guttural howls, fluttering flute-like passages, and driving, hypnotic beats that truly mesmerizes.

6. Purple Disco Machine - “Body Funk” & “Devil In Me” (TIE)

Whenever a bevy of guest artists appears on a debut record, it's often best to approach the project with caution. 85% of the time, the collaborative partners either overshadow the proceedings or detract from the vision of the musician whose name is emblazoned across the top of the LP. There are, however, pleasant exceptions to the rule and Tino Piontek's Soulmatic is one of the year's most delightfully cohesive offerings. The Dresden-born Deep Funk innovator, aka Purple Disco Machine, has risen to international status since 2009, releasing one spectacular track and remix after another. It should go without saying that this long-awaited collection, featuring everyone from Kool Keith to Faithless and Boris D'lugosch, is ripe with memorable highlights.

The saucy, soaring "Mistress" shines a spotlight on the stellar pipes of "UK soul hurricane" Hannah Williams. While it might be a crowning moment within the set, its the strutting discofied "Body Funk", and the album's first single, "Devil In Me", that linger long after the record has stopped spinning. The former track with its camptastic fusion of '80s Sylvester gone 1940s military march, and the latter anthem, a soulful stunner that samples the 1968 Stax hit "Private Number", and features the vocal talents of Duane Harden and Joe Killington, feels like an unearthed classic. Without a doubt, the German DJ's debut is one of the best dance records of the year.

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