Crash Course for the Ravers
In progress on The Man Who Sold the World
I was getting along fine with Bowie’s third album when I lost my music player. I got it back, no worries. In the meantime, though, I took the opportunity to listen to some Anthony Newley.
Why Anthony Newley? It’d be enough to say because he wrote, co-wrote, performed, and/or midwived half the earworm tunes of the British 1960s and 1970s including that Oompa-Loompa-Doompity-Doo thing O GOD MAKE IT STOP.
But the relevant fact about Anthony Newley is that he was the exemplar bar none of the British All-Around Entertainer. And that was the model for every musical artiste coming up in the late 50s and early 60s.
He sang. He danced. He was funny. He was serious. He performed his own songs. He performed other people’s songs. He could sing jazz. He could sing pop. He could sing showtunes. He could especially sing showtunes.
Because he did all these things he could get all over stage, screen, and telly. He was a household name the length of the country. And he could keep the money from his own writing instead of splitting it with grasping managers or producers.
When Brian Epstein met the Beatles or Larry Parnes met anybody, their first thought was that these brash kids would never make it just performing pop songs. You gotta chat on chat shows, make films, branch out into the West End. We can thank this trend for A Hard Day’s Night and, er, Tommy the Toreador. Watch the surprisingly good film Expresso Bongo if you want a summary.
If all you read are the quotes from 1960s Brit rockers, you’d get the impression that all-around entertainment was the worst thing since National Service. John Lennon famously ranted (in hindsight) that the music died the day the Beatles donned matching suits. The Rolling Stones wouldn’t be caught dead sexing up a showtune. All-around entertaining meant selling out, like Herman’s Hermits singing to a dog.
But without that generation-gap attitude, all-around entertainment is a delight, and so is Anthony Newley. Of course, I can talk: I grew up hooked on Rodgers & Hammerstein long before I ever heard the Beatles. But just listen to this:
And now listen to this:
The time near David Bowie’s first album is widely referred to as his Anthony Newley period. In his case, it means not just that he was trying to hit that media jackpot as a multi-threat all-around performer, but that he was literally straining to sound like Newley. The deliberate lightness of inflection, the punctuation with giggles, the accent, geographically somewhere between (Bowie’s) Bromley and (Newley’s) Hackney.
Now, most commentators agree that Bowie did better when he tried to sound like somebody else, as long as it was somebody else of his own creation (e.g. Ziggy Stardust). The job of being Anthony Newley was already filled, after all. But Bowie’s earlyish songs are often just as much fun, and a lot more twisted, than any of the shiny mainstream things on Sunday Night at the London Palladium.
Yet there’s this sense that Bowie’s first album is bizarre, an outlier, not worthy of an incipiently great rock star. I shared that sense. Then I read this:
In fact, it might be just as well to stop referring to Bowie as a ‘rock’ musician at all. He has actually recorded very few lead-guitar-dominated albums, very few that would sit comfortably with those of pioneers of heavy rock….Even those records that have an earthier bluesy feel only have it in parts. Of the ten songs on…Aladdin Sane, only around half the tracks are rock songs….Bowie’s musical palette is in fact far broader, and this is what makes him especially interesting.”
– David Buckley, Strange Fascination: David Bowie, The Definitive Story
Suddenly it was OK to hear musical theatre when I heard ‘Space Oddity.’ It wasn’t a weird one-off. It was what he was trying for. David Bowie didn’t just start out to be an all-round entertainer. He was the only one who pulled it off for a staggering fifty years. And, in the process, he changed what entertainment was.
*Elvis Presley also sang to a dog. Yet somehow people call it selling out.