At around about the time that punk rock hit Guildford and people who wouldn’t know a dole card if it bit them were beginning to drop their aitches when they talked about their records, an advert appeared in the music press. It said: “There is Old Wave, There is New Wave, and There is David Bowie…”
It was the kind of slogan one could imagine being intoned by a man with a husky voice during the trailer for a horror film and it seemed (on first reading) to be quite impressive. Various people I know cut out this ad and stuck it on their bedroom wall (“Jeremy! I hope you’re using blu-tac…”) as a kind of token of respect towards the last rock “superstar” whom it was still all right to like now that we were all born-again urchins with A levels.
Most young people of the punk rock generation had cut their teeth on the androgynous excesses of David Bowie (even though in later years they would claim they’d been listening to Motown all along) and it suddenly seemed (now that the Thin White Duke himself was doing vaguely punkish things in that frightfully punk city Berlin) that they needn’t drop their hero after all. Indeed, now that Bowie had toned down his image (we are talking late Seventies here), it was much easier to look like him without being told to change or having to endure embarrassing conversations about the nature of one’s sexuality.
But it wasn’t always like that, oh dear no. There was a time when David Bowie’s “look” (or “mask” if you are an intellectual) came across as both significant and dangerous. From a dubious underground incubator in which bisexuality had mingled with a host of eclectic cultural influences (most of which were later researched at length to spawn industrial quantities of dull art student dissertations), a beautiful monster called Ziggy Stardust emerged. Though obviously a stranger to the dentist, he was the nearest thing to heaven on earth that a generation of pasty European and American teenagers had ever seen. And that’s when the fun began.
We can laugh about it now (as we gaze pityingly at Brosettes or sneer at the Clanger-like tribes of short people who say “Aceed” for no apparent reason as they lollop down the high street pretending to be black), but do you remember the state of those early Bowie audiences? Of course you do. They were Tony and Kev, their fat little faces caked with foundation as they twirled their pearls and discussed the smell of Boots’ henna. And there were Jane, Trish and Judy, each with carefully drawn lightning flashes zooming across their noses and fingering their one earring. Not until New Romantics were the youth of Britain destined to look so silly. But it seemed so good at the time. There is many an estate agent joining the Wine Society now who was once slave to a style that involved crossing Aubrey Beardsley with Flash Gordon to look like Joe 90 in drag.
But Bowie (as we constantly reminded one another) was always one step ahead. Just when we’d all worked out how to put on nail varnish without looking as though we’d had a nasty accident with a tin-opener, Bowie appeared on the front of Diamond Dogs wearing nothing at all, with paws, and this defeated everyone. (I gather that in Idaho there was someone who removed to a kennel for the duration but if this is true, then it is too heartbreaking to dwell upon.) By now David Bowie was an International Legend and while the cloning levelled off a little, the world held its breath to see what the next image would be.
Well, would you credit it? Nice trousers, a fringe, just a hint of clear nail polish and a loose grey shirt. The girls went loopy with lust and Croydon found its place on the map as a place to listen to the white soul that Young Americans pumped into the suburbs. The cosmetics bar at Miss Selfridge was mercifully freed from the male contingent among its customers and it appeared that Bowie wannabees had been released from fashion demands that endangered their personal safety.
Not for long, however. It was dinner suits and white shirts (minus jackets) next, causing the proceeds of Oxfam to rocket, and then it was baggy white trousers with about 20 pleats which (no matter how hard one tried) would never have the cool elegance of those that The Master wore.
Although the shock factor in the Bowie look had been reduced to enter the opulent Eighties, not many of the fans (now, let’s face it, getting a little too old to copy their idol verbatim) could afford these new looks. Exquisite suits, platonically perfect leather jackets, Japanese shirts it was all too much for a 20 year old trying to make a start in advertising or pay off a bill from Mothercare that made the Bolivian national debt look manageable. The chain stores took over, and fashion did whatever it is that fashion does when nobody’s particularly interested in clothes for a while. But Bowie had one more card to play…
I know hardened merchant bankers who cannot resist the urge to weep when they see the Ashes To Ashes video. To the depths of their index-linked souls they feel that it is their youth that wanders off down that beach at the end, a curious pierrot, a Peter Pan left behind in Never-Never Land to be lost and frightened, bewildered and sad. If David Bowie is (or was) a genius (and I use the term with caution), then it is the Ashes To Ashes pierrot that affirms his status. We all know that he should have retired then, and God knows what the poor man must have suffered in the subsequent years of mediocrity, but if you ever get the chance to watch that video again, it is as touching and poignant as anything any of our best young artists have ever created.