If the 1970s are remembered fondly at all, it’s through the prism of stack heels, feathers, glitter and flares, yet on BBC TV you can have your memories of the glam rock era destroyed in half an hour by watching old episodes of Top of the Pops. It’s clear that Cliff Richard and the Wurzels spent more time in the charts than Roxy Music or T Rex, forming an incongruously bland soundtrack to years of political and industrial upheaval.
“The decade of David Bowie,” writes Peter Doggett of his latest subject, was fired not “by idealism or optimism, but by dread and misgiving.” The latter sentiments, along with bitterness and blame, comprise “the dominant folk memory” of the 1970s, the 1960s having ended sourly for those who had believed in the promise of social transformation.
Doggett’s previous book, You Never Give Me Your Money, was an account of how the Beatles, having preached spiritual investment and material divestment in the previous decade, spent years after their split in 1970 dragging each other through courts and accountants’ offices. In The Man Who Sold the World he retrieves this thread of disillusionment and applies it to Bowie’s “long Seventies,” which begins with his first hit, Space Oddity (1969), and ends with Scary Monsters (1980), for most fans his last truly satisfying album.
David Bowie remains a cult artist (though a hugely popular one) in a way the Beatles never were. There’s an extent to which you already have to be a pop music fan in order to be a Bowie fan, and his appeal in the 1970s did not extend across the generations. But his music and image-making are strikingly important to the notion of the British propensity for intense, unusual creativity in pop culture. Bowie’s originality is a source of pride, though Doggett’s detailed study reveals it to be more a genius for stealing the right bits from his rivals. He created Ziggy Stardust partly from how he perceived Marc Bolan to be at the height of his fame: spectral, imperious, out of control.
The book’s song-by-song format takes after Revolution in the Head, Ian MacDonald’s superb 1994 study of the Beatles. Doggett writes that MacDonald was under contract to write a similar analysis of Bowie’s work at the time of his death in 2003; he was asked by MacDonald’s editor to revive the project, which he does admirably.
His sharpest insights come in the discussion of what he clearly feels are the most important songs. Hunky Dory’s Oh! You Pretty Things, with its creepy exhortation to “make way for the Homo Superior,” is only in part a hymn to Nietzsche. It was also a way for Bowie, in his own words, to write his “own problems out”: the “crack in the sky” he witnesses in the first verse was reported by his half-brother, Terry Burns, incarcerated in a south London asylum for nearly 20 years before he killed himself in 1985. “According to Jung,” Bowie once observed with rare understatement, “to see cracks in the sky is not really quite on.”
Doggett discusses Bowie’s cocaine use, which left him “ravaged beyond belief” on his 1974 American tour, and his repeated references in interviews to the coming of a Hitler-like leader. It turns out that even in the 1960s he was harping on about this, which suggests that his notorious mid-1970s comments on the desirability of British fascism sprang as much from a genuine conviction that society was fragmenting as from his drug addiction.