According to Wikipedia, David Bowie played the Phoenix Festival in 1996. This was the same year he received the Brit Award for Outstanding Contribution to Music (presented to him, bizarrely, by then Leader of the Opposition Tony Blair) and gave a fantastic, other-worldly performance with Pet Shop Boys. It was this that first piqued my interest in him – the next day I went to Our Price in Hamilton and bought ‘1.Outside’.
I can still remember the first time I listened to that album. A post-modern concept album that (I now know) is quite ‘out there’ even by his own standards, it was truly like nothing else I had ever heard before. It tells (very abstractly) a story about a government official investigating the murder of a young girl, a murder committed in the name of art. Heavy industrial beats mix with grinding techno and dark, jazz-influenced sound scapes to create a perfectly-realised world full of disturbing and disturbed characters. It would not be an understatement to say that it blew my mind. I was absolutely terrified listening to it, to the extent that I couldn’t listen to it for months afterwards without skipping certain tracks because they so disturbed me. Ironically, the chief culprit was the album version of ‘Hallo Spaceboy’, the track which had been remixed by and performed with Pet Shop Boys on the BRIT Awards. The single version’s camp nods to ‘Space Oddity’ and ‘Ashes To Ashes’ were completely absent in the pounding techno of the original, which offered no concessions to the listener.
I credit that album with really changing how I thought about music – its purpose, its possibilities. Yet it could have ended there as, while it led me to explore other artists related to it (Nine Inch Nails, Pet Shop Boys, Morrissey (support on the tour)), it had such a profound emotional effect on me that I wasn’t sure I wanted to explore the rest of Bowie’s work. Which brings me back to the Phoenix Festival. Bowie headlined as part of his ‘Outside’ tour, and it was broadcast live on Radio 1. The presenters were Mark and Lard, both huge Bowie fans whose excitement was audible and infectious. I sat poised with a cassette waiting to record it. The setlist was ‘1.Outside’ heavy with a smattering of his more obtuse classics like ‘Look Back In Anger’ and ‘Scary Monsters (And Super Creeps)’, and I enjoyed it immensely. It was the final song broadcast by Radio 1, however, that changed everything. Bowie performed ‘All The Young Dudes’, the glam classic he wrote for Mott The Hoople (but which I had never heard before). The song absolutely soared, Bowie clearly having the time of his life and the crowd joyously singing along to every single word. The legendary guitar riff sounded at once melancholic and celebratory, the lyrics spoke to me like no song I had ever heard before. By the time Bowie ended the song by shouting, ‘And remember…ALL YA NEED IS LOVE!’ I was close to tears. I listened to that one song over and over again, eventually wearing the cassette out.
The next day I returned to Our Price where, coincidentally, a lot of Bowie’s classic albums were part of a ‘2 for £10’ deal. I agonised over which ones to buy and each time I purchased two I would save up and return to buy two more as soon as I could. That Summer and the remainder of the year was one of the most wonderful musical journeys as I discovered Bowie’s back catalogue and experienced music in ways previously unthinkable.
Of course, the fact that I was going through my own journey of sexual discovery at the time and Bowie was the archetypal outsider proved to be hugely affecting too. But that’s another story.