[10] David Bowie, ‘Blackstar’


What the world doesn’t need right now is another essay on Bowie’s swansong, his career, his influence, his grace, his mystery, his stage-managed exit, what he’s meant to me, how I went from China Girl to this and through much in between but still found he could surprise me. What it does need, naturally, is a transcript of three girls, aged 11, 8 and 6, working out what this song is and what it means to them. Well, what a coincidence.

[Juniors 2 and 3 are singing all the “Villa of Ormen” stuff before they get to wondering what they’re listening to]
J2: “Who is it?”
J1: “I like this one.”
J2: “I think it’s David Bowie. David Bowie is the best.”
J3 [singing “I’m a Blackstar”]: “Is it called ‘Blackstar’?”
J1: “How long is this? Nine minutes?”
[J2 is singing all the words now, having sponged them up throughout the year]
J3: “David Bowie is in Labyrinth.”
J1: “I like how they change all the voices. It’s echoey.”

We can all move on now.

[15] David Bowie, ”Tis A Pity She Was A Whore’


Well, it appears that Bowie put out a feeler last year, a sonic reconnaissance mission to check whether anyone still gave a flying. The Next Day’s a splendid, vital (for a guy in his late 60s, come on) piece of work on its own terms – and most others – but bravura experimental Dave wasn’t really coming out to play. We had muscular, occasionally a bit damaged Dave. And he’s a good guy.

This year he’s not doing an album, just plumping up a new best of, and he’s doing that with more gnarly excursions this time around. ‘Sue (Or In A Season Of Crime)’ was avant-jazz Dave, the kind of thing you find yourself protesting “but I really do like it! I’m not just saying it” about. (I really do like it! I’m not just saying it.) But ”Tis A Pity She Was A Whore’ is a nagging, hurtling, panicked, hovering thrill that – let’s face it – could’ve turned up on an album by our old pals TV On The Radio. They’ve got a mutual love-in thing going on anyway, and that’s fine with me because I’d like to be slap-bang in the middle of that sandwich. Figuratively. Sometimes not so figuratively.

So, I’m happy here. The Juniors? Absolutely not. “It wasn’t really loud or one of those rocky ones,” says Junior, as if that’s a good thing, “but it wasn’t that interesting.” Her younger sisters are even harder on it. “It hasn’t got much talking and it’s very boring,” points out Junior 2. “It’s a zero.” I think Bowie would quite like being called “a zero”. Junior 3 is more succinct: “I do not like it so thumbs-down.” He might not be so happy about that, but of course all reactions to art are equally valid.

[4] Arcade Fire, ‘Reflektor’


Speaking of misunderstood albums…

No, this is ‘Reflektor’ the track, the epic they had to come back with once James Murphy was in the room. Maybe a three-minute pop song would’ve been a more radical statement, but as soon as they all got together you imagine they wanted to show everything they could do. Absolutely everything. Junior is fascinated by Regine Chassagne singing in French, but the moment belongs to Junior’s mum who wins the Spot David Bowie game. It’s not just his signature baritone; it’s the point at which a pretty smart kinetic groove turns on the trombone-honking thrills to confirm this is more than just the Lo-Fidelity Allstars rebooted. Which counts as a compliment in 2013.

[11] David Bowie, ‘Where Are We Now?’


There’s been an awful lot written about David Bowie this year – I alone am responsible for an album review, reviews of all the new tracks on the deluxe reissue, a couple of celebratory pieces about his return, a 1200-word timeline of his triumphant year and a small insert or two in year-end pieces – so why bother with any more? Maybe just to relive the moment this wistful, hopeful track turned up on 8 January. I was working at home in my cold garden office and turned on the computer to find the internet alight. It had only been a year or so since NME had published my blog about it being right and timely that Bowie had “retired” because, simply, he hadn’t seemed capable of the really good stuff for a couple of decades or more. I was thrilled to be wrong. ‘Where Are We Now?’ was knowing but genuine, and wrenched at the heart for reasons hard to place. Just because he was alive? That he seemed as if he was being swallowed up by rolling tides of personal history? That he appeared nervous and frail in that brief cutaway? That he looked like a pasty teddy bear?

“Is it the two faces?” asks Junior, just listening to the audio. “The boy and the girl? Is he old?” She doesn’t like it, unmoved by those old Potsdamer Platz haunts. Junior 2’s a fan, Junior 3 shakes her head. That’s two out of three refusing to toe 2013’s party line. Mavericks.

[18] Boy George, ‘King Of Everything’


They all came back, David Bowie, Justin Timberlake, Adam Ant, Boy George, all these pretty things who still had something to say. Boy George’s This Is What I Do shared qualities with Dion’s Born To Be With You – shooting for redemption, cleaning up the old act – just with rather more sunshine reggae interludes. In King Of Everything (“Put down the booze/Let the demons win the fight/I drop my gloves to the ground”, “Tempting myself time and time again/Like self-destruction was so cool”), George was contrite but bombastic, with a tingler of a bridge and a gloriously lived-in voice to lift the song out of the Oasis swamp.

Some people don’t think he managed that. “It’s a bit slow and drooping,” says Junior. But surely that’s its stately power? Junior 2 shakes her head. Junior 3 has fallen asleep.

David Bowie, ‘Always Crashing In The Same Car’

Brian Eno and David Bowie

There are more obvious BowiEno collabs but when we got onto ‘Warszawa’ there was a pretty poor reception all round. I’m not wild about it myself. I prefer my glacial synths with Jim Kerr making an arse of himself over the top.

I don’t actually, but I liked saying it.

Anyway, to add to the – ahem – car crash of this whole experiment, I had meant to play ‘Sound And Vision’. The plan was scuppered by Junior arguing about which cereal she was going to have for its entire three minutes. We then trumped the futility of this row by debating who was playing guitar on ‘Always Crashing…’ – Robert Fripp or Carlos Alomar? – for its entire three and a half minutes. Turns out it was Ricky Gardiner.

Nobody’s a winner. But this, like most of Low’s first side, is crisply depressing and that’s about all you can ask for.

[5] Mott The Hoople, ‘All The Young Dudes’

Mott The Hoople

Anyone would think David Bowie was some sort of big noise in 1972, poking his otherworldly beak into all areas of the pop scene, spreading his message of galactic destruction. And of course he was. He was freaking the kids out with his proto-Kiki Dee hairstyle and doomy fantasies of Earth’s imminent demise, from ‘Five Years’ to ‘All The Young Dudes’. Yes, ‘All The Young Dudes’ – it might feel like the coolest record on the block, a rallying call for hip youth, but it’s really more baloney about dudes bearing bad planetary tidings. Downer.

We shouldn’t ignore Mott The Hoople, although let’s face it, they lucked out here with a giveaway that Bowie himself could have taken to No.1. Not No.3. Ian Hunter knows he’s on a winner with a sterling Dame impression and generally the Hoople carry off the swagger with skill, but you’d have to be some dog to muck it up.

Junior thinks she’s heard it before. Maybe she has or maybe, being one of those young dudes, she’s carried the message over from ‘Starman’. Or something. I fail to pursue the matter, because she’s soon breathlessly telling me all about Jurassic Park and Laura Dern putting her hand in some dinosaur poo.

[7] David Bowie, ‘Starman’

David Bowie

Speaking of Bowie snogging Mick Ronson, here’s Bowie snogging Mick Ronson. To the plotline of a “Starman waiting in the sky,” Junior says, “I’m scared.” The rest of us know she should be boogieing, but instead there’s a look of wide-eyed wonder (I think it’s wonder) as I explain how great Bowie is – or was – and wheel out my best Bard Of Bromley shaky croon.

Contemporary reports suggest this was a last-ditch addition to the Ziggy Stardust album, but it feels older, more organic, closer in intimate pitch to Hunky Dory or The Man Who Sold The World. Perhaps its delicacy is timeless, although – come on – Dave would never be tethered to any point in history. He’s a chronological chameleon, the Dame of Dates, a Time Lawd.

[8] Roxy Music, ‘Virginia Plain’

Roxy Music

They say there was playground uproar when Bowie appeared on Top Of The Pops, singing ‘Starman’ and snogging Mick Ronson. And obviously our nation was cramped with confusion at Boy George a decade later. So how did the public react when presented with preening peacock Bryan Ferry? Without bothering to research it, we can only guess: “Why’s Mike Yarwood doing Prince Charles doing Liberace?”

Obviously they all looked so staggering on TOTP that I’m thinking of dressing like Phil Manzanera right now, but the music was something else too. A runaway stallion of glam wrecks’n’effects, with a tune you can never quite nail because it’s always one second in the future.

Junior rolled the words “Roxy Music” around her tongue, trying them for size, then asked if she could dance. The dance involved a stiff-backed march around the room. You can just see those boys in the military, can’t you?

[1] LCD Soundsystem, ‘All My Friends’

All My Friends

Junior says: “I used to give this one [thumbs-up], but now I give it two,” which is the point, really. ‘All My Friends’ improves with age, as do LCD Soundsystem, as does James Murphy, as do we all, even if it feels as if all that youthful vigour is slipping away along with our cool and our relevance in this cultural tumult. None of that periphery matters in the end, none of those mistakes, none of those false friends, and nor does it amount to a hill of beans if a plan comes apart or you’ve worn away your edge. Because in the end you’ve made it, and you can celebrate that with the other survivors.

‘All My Friends’ is brushed with regret, but its pace and build is thoroughly rousing. From the stabbed pianos – which immediately launch Junior into a pencil-straight staccato dance – to the warm, coaxing bass to the headlong, delirious clatter as it hits full stride, this is an anthem for pelting towards 40 at full speed. Bring it on. For once Murphy escapes his influences, sublime as they are (“Heroes”, ‘Once In A Lifetime’, yeah, ‘Love Vigilantes), because this is absolutely natural, no slavish imitation. As a piece of music it shares qualities as insubstantial as mood. As a piece of poetry it has its own heart.

Best bit: At each peak, another layer is added. Just when you think you’ve got it, it moves on and you’re left holding the first 10 years.