Sunday, 17 January 2016

V.9221. Or CPDR.33318. Just for the record.

I like David Bowie. And I like records. Once upon a time, in a happy land far, far away, I combined both these interests to become that most peculiar of creatures: The David Bowie Collector.

I don't collect any more, though I still have a LOT of records. Economic necessity, coupled with a phenomenon you could call the "Diminishing Return of the South American 7" single" (the Mexican pressing of Blue Jean in its joyless EMI paper sleeve is barely discernible from the Brazilian one - but the collector needs to own both and they're going to cost twenty quid a pop), knocked the expensive collecting game on its head for me.

But while deep in the throes of my obsession, hoovering up rarities from friends, record fairs, mail order companies and Record Collector private ads, I was like a cat in a Whiskas warehouse. I had hundreds of Bowie LPs and hundreds of 7" singles. And hundreds of eight-tracks, too. Catalogue numbers on labels, matrix run-out information on the dead wax, tiny print on the corners of picture sleeves... these were my manna. I was sitting on a pretty decent collection, right up there with the more serious of my collector peers. Clearly, we were obsessed.

I've held onto one copy of each UK album release, from the 1967 Deram debut onwards, and have shifted the rest. That's right: my Yugoslavian Never Let Me Down is no longer in the house.

So it goes. But I have my memories. And here are ten of my favourites to be going on with:

1) Station To Station (France RCA 7", 1976). Who'd be mad enough to try to make a single edit out of the epic, wandering Station to Station title track? Those gaga cuckoos at RCA France, that's who. This carved-up edit was withdrawn (probably at the behest of David himself, I should think) and only a handful of jukebox promo copies escaped the pressing plant. I found a copy for £2.50 at Brighton Record Fair, where the dealer had it labeled as 'France TVC 15 (the song on the b-side), picture sleeve missing'. Bargain.

2) Ziggy Stardust LP (UK first pressing, 1972). The very first pressing, with matrixes ending in -1E on each side. This is the one with the slightly different mix of Starman. The 'Wichita Lineman' bit is quieter than later pressings. This one sticks in my mind because of where I found it: at Woolworth's in Exeter, around 1979. It had clearly been sitting in the racks, unlooked at, for all those seven years, so immaculate was its condition when I bought it.

3) Knock On Wood (France RCA 7", 1974). Snapped up from a record shop in Brussels, this one stands out for its unique and very attractive picture sleeve: a live shot from the Diamond Dogs tour, David looking moody and mean in a Shakespearean cape.

4) The Prettiest Star (Germany Mercury 7", 1970). The original version, with Marc Bolan on lead guitar. The Germans released this in an aesthetically wonderful picture sleeve - a live action shot of our David, curly-haired and shiny-suited, clutching a 12-string guitar. Lovely stuff.

5) David Bowie Special (Japan double LP, 1976). A compilation album with a unique full-face cover snatched from a scene in The Man Who Fell To Earth. Japanese lyric inserts are always great entertainment, especially when the words are transcribed from guesswork, and Japanese pressings are always king. For such a determinedly throwaway society, our Japanese friends sure know how to build a record to last.

6) The Konrads - I Didn't Know How Much (Canada Decca 7", 1965). OK, so this is not a David Bowie record. He's not on it. But the record is interesting because it was uncatalogued until I managed to unearth a copy. This I did by searching for Konrads on eBay every bloody week. When this title, and the also-unheard of 'I Thought Of You Last Night' on the flip, turned up on a Canadian single and then an American promo, I really thought I had struck gold. Twice. Not quite, it turned out, but this post-Bowie Konrads single, seemingly rushed out without the band's knowledge all those years ago, was an interesting find nonetheless.

7) Drive-In Saturday (UK RCA 7", 1973). Nothing madly rare about this one... but the b-side, Bowie and the Spiders rocking through Chuck Berry's Round and Round? Spectacular! Mick Ronson's guitar solo is peerless on this.

8) Memory of a Free Festival (UK Mercury 7", 1970). Fantastic, hippy-free reworking of the fantastic and epic song on David's second album. This organ and guitar-heavy release was helpfully split into two parts. That's a very sixties thing to do (just about hanging on into the seventies).

9) Low (UK RCA LP, 1977). Just look at that sleeve. It's like... how more orange could it be? This delicious-looking record, with the song titles and credits confined to a tiny sticker on the back, is so bright and so seventies it can be seen from space. Almost. And, my God, it's a fantastic album.

10) Davie Jones and the King Bees - Liza Jane (Vocalion UK 7", 1964). In actual fact, I never owned one of these. It's always slipped through my fingers. It's David's official debut on record, and it resonates with me because it's my official debut too: I was born and the record was released on the same day, Friday June 5, 1964. Thanks mum. You done good!

Naturally, Liza Jane on Vocalion has always been a top dollar record. And I've always been too skint to buy one. But one day I might just bring my collector self back into play, and snap one up. One day. One day.

Wednesday, 13 January 2016

Life is a Circus Krone

Yesterday, I boasted of the ingenuity and bravery of the long-distance David Bowie fan. Getting into the smaller, more convincingly sold-out shows could take a great deal of imaginative effort. So I claimed. But it was all talk, no trousers. I should have offered an example, but I didn't.

Here's one...

It's October 12, 1991. Tin Machine are a week into their tour through the rain and snow of Europe. I'm part of a small travelling army of fans gearing up to enjoy gig #6 in Munich. Except we're running very, very late. A day off in Venice ended with our car being towed while we sight-saw, putting us way behind schedule and a considerable chunk of Lire lighter. By the time me and my two travelling compadres, Ali and Pete, pulled up outside the rotund Circus Krone it was pretty much curtain-up time.

We had no advance tickets. A glance up and down the strasse confirmed our fears: there were no touts. A hand-drawn sign on the door screamed that the show was "SOLD OUT. GUESTLIST ONLY".

We were in trouble. We stared at the sign. GUESTLIST ONLY. Hmm. GUESTLIST ONLY...Hmm...

"Hi, I'm on David's guestlist!" I heard myself blurting out to the man on the door, my English accent more pronounced than it had ever been. I was hoping for a little extra British-flavoured gravitas.

"OK, name?"

"Yes, it's Andy, er Alan, um Thomas, I mean Hughes..."

Teutonic head tilted, eyed the list, then me. Then shook. Nope.

Pete took over: "We're probably under a different name, can I see the list?"


"OK, he might know me as Richard. William, Willie, Bill..." oh God.

By this time, Pete had curled around my side to flank the bouncer. I could see his furtive eyes darting surreptitiously down the list, much of which had already been struck through.

"I think he said he'd leave it in the name Pop Rocky," said Pete.


"Oh yes, Pop Rocky. I'm Pop Rocky. And so are they." I nodded at Ali and Pete. This could get serious. We'd surely been caught out. This was ridiculous. We'd pushed this envelope a little too far.

The bouncer's steely gaze fixed mine, a little angrily. Then shifted to his clipboard, where fingers were detaching an envelope and pushing it into my quivering hand. The words 'Pop Rocky' were handwritten on the front.

"Enjoy the show," he said. We rushed forward to the ticket booth, tore the envelope open and - bless my fuckin' stars - THREE tickets. AND an all-areas photo pass. Which meant, ladies and gentlemen, that we all got in for free, and Pete was able to take his video camera with him. He got a good film out of it. I'll put a clip on Facebook.

Just don't tell Pop Rocky about this. Right?

Tuesday, 12 January 2016

David Live

Lucky me - I was born at the right time. I got to see David Bowie perform live. I got to see David Bowie perform live an awful lot, actually.

Pretty much all my young man's money went towards it. Europe and beyond was my playground from my late teens onwards. Newcastle, New York, Newport or Berlin Neueweld... if David Bowie was booked to play, I'd get myself there and get myself in. Somehow.

I made a lot of friends along the way, many of whom remain close to this day. We got to know each other somewhat intimately through sleeping on floors, in airport lounges, railway stations, shop doorways and the like. Once I slept with three other people in the frozen back of a mini-van. My friend John slept in a Victoria Station luggage locker, his feet sticking out the open end so he wouldn't get locked in by mistake...

We hitched, we drove, we stowed away on ferries - we did whatever it took to get to the gig. Ticket buying, trading and upgrading became akin to a full-time job on the bigger tours. And as for those rare private shows, secret gigs and closed-shop TV performances? We got into most of those too, by fair means and foul, and by employing bravado and ingenuity that would, I think, astound.

How many Bowie gigs did I chalk up over the years? I stopped counting a tour or two ago for the sake of my sanity. It's well into three figures though. And, to misquote Gigi: "Ah yes. I remember them well."

I'm genuinely sad that nobody will ever get to enjoy the sights and sounds of a Bowie gig again. I used to feel jealous of those slightly older, slightly more switched-on types who saw the Ziggy, Aladdin, Diamond Dogs, Soul and Thin White Duke shows. Alright, so I still am. But I am also truly happy and blessed with the lot that I got - and I only wish there could be more.

David Bowie was a performer like no other. He really was. To bone up on the history of the man, as laboriously documented in a mountain of books as well as in cuttings and titbits garnered through my own reasonably fastidious research, is to discover just what an intensely focused young man he was.

He worked hard, ridiculously hard, to hone his gallery of talents. It's fair, I think, to say that unlike some lucky bastards David Robert Jones was not born talented as such. He had to earn his stripes. He taught himself to read music from a self-help book. I have no idea how he learned to play guitar... probably the same way. Then he found a piano, learned the hard and long way how to play it, and had the balls to bash out a classic piano-driven album ('Hunky Dory') almost straight away.

Balls were in abundance, too, at the creation of Ziggy Stardust. It takes some front to step onto the streets of Finsbury Park, Epsom or Newcastle dressed in a rainbow suit, wrestling boots and more lippy than is befitting of a lady. In conservative old 1972.

It was such an immensely creative time for David. He was inventing and reinventing himself, diligently chiseling away at the character he wanted to present to the world in the basement rehearsal space of what is now a corner chemist's shop in Greenwich. But I digress...

To see David Bowie live is, or was, to see all these incredible disciplines set out in order. What a performer! I remember the gig following my 19th birthday (I was given the bumps outside the concert hall the previous night), seeing the man perform 'Fame' from my envious position right up front against the Birmingham NEC stage. David was miming, pretending to sign autographs and hand them out. As he shuffled along the stage, eventually meeting me square-on, eye-to-eye, his make believe pen scribbled on make believe paper and the make believe autograph was proffered to me in mime fashion. I did the decent thing: I reached out and took it, folded it in half and stuck it in my pocket. Where it magically disappeared.

It was a daft but captivating moment. One of many, for me. Mighty is the craic of seeing David perform a secret rehearsal gig with Tin Machine, as nominal support act to a local band in a Dublin pub, in front of no more than 100 people. I was upfront, my chest clashing with his micstand. It was punk as fuck.

 Transfixing it was, too, to watch David belt out 'Something In The Air' in New York, his giant voice expelling so much air it turned to a visible cone of steam in front of him.

I could, and undoubtedly will, go on (and on). But not today. Today, I'm just happy to reflect on some of the fun I had earning those caps for Bowie fandom. The last time I saw him play was his last UK gig at the Isle of Wight festival. Funny, the Isle of Wight is where he made his very first public performance, too. At Scout camp, aged 11. And it's where I live now.

David last toured in 2004, which means in practical terms that nobody in their mid-twenties or younger would have stood much chance to see him, even once. So I mean it when I say I am truly grateful for the times I did get to share with this brilliant man and his often brilliant bands.

You might be wondering what David made of us lot? He was asked about this in interview once. I can't find it right now, but the quote went a lot like this:

"I recognise a lot of the people who come to my shows. I consider them friends. We're like old friends."

Rest in peace, old friend.