Tuesday 10 January 2012

30th Century Boys

As you may or may not know, Scott Walker and David Bowie (roughly) shared a birthday this weekend. Unsurprising, as they have quite a lot in common. David (Jones) was admittedly deeply influenced by Scott (Engel), not least in their respective capacity for reinvention, image modification, and (at their best) a lyrical yearning to step outside themselves. Both played with teenybop-friendly images to make their first splash; and had a far better grasp of using TV in the service of pop; unlike most of their peers, for whom it was the other way round. Both had an uncanny knack for appealing to very diverse audiences. They also built a mystique around conflicted sexual ambiguity, "that tearing ache of limitless desire" as William Burroughs would have it (note how many of Walker's own songs are crooned to boys). Bowie's would retract eventually, as he became fully embedded into the mainstream and a publicly happy marriage. Walker would go in stranger directions; emerging after long intervals with increasingly perplexed, inarticulate, and violently troubled statements. Tilt and The Drift appeared in accordance with an ever more uncertain New World Order, within which Bowie would settle into an incredibly wealthy (and musically conservative) old age. It was as though their eccentricities, and capacity for experimentation, went in opposite directions. 

Both of them are also very much concerned with the idea of 'Europe'; as a much darker, lonelier, uglier, perverse place than its Hegelian ideologues would have us believe. Restless children of the Cold War, the horrors that led to it lurk around their best work. A strangely passionate inertia emerging from empires collapsed, or in stalemate. Exile would become a key word in their biographies. Walker, an American, would hit heart-throb status crooning Tony Hatch arrangements in Britain. Bowie would score his first U.S. number one borrowing from James Brown and Philly Soul. They would both go into highly-publicised meltdowns shortly afterwards, before finding the distinct 'voices' that would make them canonical - as opposed to mere stars - in the ruins of an older world. Without them, British pop could have taken a very different course indeed; remaining transfixed on the other side of the Atlantic, while ignoring the other side of the Channel, and its recent history.

Literary, theatrical and cinematic influences on both would come to the fore; with themes of stunted desire, decay, decadence, alienation, totalitarianism, sexual confusion, and the irresolvable regrets of youth; common to any number of mid-century European writers and artists, from Isherwood to Fassbinder to Bacon to Pasolini to Beckett. The queering of British pop (in performative, rather than sexual, orientation) starts with Walker's bruised and haunted solo albums; before it was repackaged by Bowie with Warholian savvy (the difference between a modernist and a postmodernist, I suppose). It was always present in the business of post-war British pop, but mainly closeted behind an almost caricatured hyper-masculinity; its poses and voices borrowed from the U.S. Behind the carefully-crafted slickness of their sound, Walker and Bowie's lyrics frequently required double takes, or entendres. Walker continued to push that beyond mainstream acceptance; long after Bowie had jumped ship into safer waters. But the series of albums Walker closed the sixties with, and those with which Bowie ended the seventies, stand outside, subvert, and move ahead of the generic rock 'movements' that lazier critics defined those years with. It wasn't all working towards a collective telos of youthful abandon. The European canon was here.

(Note: Post re-edited at a more lucid hour)


JM said...

Scott Walker I should probably listen to, but in regards to Bowie, his last good album was Scary Monsters and Super Creeps although that one song New Star Killer from 2003 was kinda nice and poppy. My two favorite Bowie albums are Aladdin Sane and Low. Yours?

David K Wayne said...

Station To Station.

Anonymous said...

Please find three references which describe how the Western canon (via its cannons) has exhausted itself and is now more or less useless.