I will forever remember waking up last Monday morning (January 11th, 2016.) Like most people, I picked up my phone to see the news agenda of the day and there it was – an alert announcing 69-year-old David Bowie had died.
Disbelief; I hadn’t known he had cancer? Is this a nightmare? Surely this was a hoax?
Worldwide mourning followed with many radio stations opting, in the early part of the day at least, to play his songs back-to-back in tribute. Listening to this struck me at how unique this moment must be. To hear an artist’s back catalog and not become disinterested. (The radio industry term being that songs ‘burn’ out after being heard too much.)
From ‘Space Oddity’ to ‘Let’s Dance’, there’s something to suit every musical taste. Not to mention how familiar his dulcet tones or riffs seem, even after a while of not hearing them. I’m not old enough, to have been there in Bowie’s heyday, when Ziggy Stardust took to the stage and from then on. Yet his music sounded as fresh last Monday as some of the most recent chart hits.
It got me thinking, is there anyone in pop culture these days whose ‘Sound and Vision’ will stand the test of time like that? By the very nature of the pop genre it needs to be a one-size-fits all. The concept of the industry is to appeal to as many people as possible in order to maximise sales.
That’s why all of Adele’s songs sound the same, it’d be too much of a risk to deviate from what’s expected. All credit to Justin Bieber; (I never thought I’d write that!) he’s done well in reinventing himself from a rebellious adolescent to someone whose music you don’t have to hide away and listen to secretly in the car (surely, that’s not just me??) Now you can play ‘What Do You Mean?’ loud and proud from those speakers – pump that looping flute up to 11!!!
….BUT will Beiber’s songs have longevity? Will they become anthems in years to come in the way ‘Heroes’, ‘Rebel, Rebel’ or ‘Fame’ is? I don’t have a crystal ball, but I don’t think so. However, maybe you need hindsight for these kind of things.
On top of Bowie’s music being as good as it was unconventional, for the time it was released anyway. It was his fearless approach to being different that cut through to other areas as well. Whether that be fashion or cultural influence to promote a shift of attitudes. I think it’s this that’s helped cement his status as a British pop icon. Bowie’s music can be related to something tangible that resonates beyond the songs you hear.
See this tweet by Preston’s Men Against Violence charity, as an example…
— Men Against Violence (@MAV_Preston) January 11, 2016
This is the antithesis of pop music; it needs to appeal to as many people as possible, remember. I wonder what we’d think if someone like an unknown Bowie released a song in today’s charts. It would probably do very well in the alternative arenas but would it cut through to mainstream?
I’m not saying I want someone to be a carbon copy of David Bowie; there will only ever be one of him, that’s the point. There needs to be someone daring enough to build upon and use their public profile to provoke social change. Who knows what might be able to be achieved.
It’s been a while since my last post and I was thinking of starting it up again. Before Bowie died my focus of the post was going to be Kate Bush. She has a similar unconventional allure that has made her too achieve legendary status. You only have to get past the heavy rotated hits like ‘Wuthering Heights’ (as wonderful an example that is) and listen to her albums. You realise just how beautifully outlandish her discography is too. Long may she release more! There may be many more artists in this vein too, but these are two striking examples, off the top of my head.
David Bowie – a hero for much more than just one day. He may no longer be with us, but his music is immortal. The Starman’s influence has helped drive social change. He has been one of the best ambassadors for British quintessential eccentricity we could ever have wished for.
Now let’s hope some of today’s pop stars use Bowie’s death and rise into social consciousness again to follow this lead. Be that extra bit different: “Turn and face the strange…”
As the brains behind Chic and many disco hits (with his late musical partner Bernard Edwards) I couldn’t miss the opportunity to see Nile in person when he was in conversation with Dave Haslam at the Zion Arts Centre in Manchester the other week. Nile is such a humble, genuine and likeable person it didn’t take long to become engrossed in the fascinating tales of his childhood and career. I found myself nodding along during the night, and that wasn’t just when he played some of his most famous guitar riffs and basslines, I was also agreeing with what he had to say.
Something struck a chord with me and it was this notion of “DHM”. Don’t get too excited; it’s not some lads’ mag spin off, DHM stands for ‘Deep Hidden Meaning’ within songs. Get listening because there’s a DHM in all Chic’s songs as well as the long list of songs that Nile has produced for other distinguished artists too.
In his autobiography Le Freak, Nile says:
We wrote for the masses, but worked tirelessly to make sure that there was a deeper kernel that would appeal to the savvier listener. (2011, pg. 145)
I’m not going to tell you what David Bowie’s China Girl or Sister Sledge’s Thinking of You means, I’ll leave the fun of discovering that to you, but it got me thinking: wouldn’t it be great if all songs were like that. Maybe I’m becoming cantankerously old if I were to say “They don’t make ‘em like they used to”, so I won’t. But with overly-saturated X Factor culture, cover albums and economies of scale impeding on the music industry it’s certainly a lot harder to find the good stuff nowadays. (Discovering brilliant hidden gems is all part of the experience though!)
Reviewing the latest chart releases has become a regular part of my week now for a feature that I do for Pure Radio and, more often than not, it’s a struggle to find something that I like. I often wonder why, but maybe – just maybe – it’s because of the lack of DHM? Think about it, was Rebecca Black thinking of a DHM when she unleashed Friday onto our ears? How about Cher Lloyd’s number 1 Swagger Jagger or any of Jedward’s latest offerings? They’re not exactly going to go down in the annals of music history are they… Well, not for the right reasons anyway.
Before the Rebecca Black fan club come to hunt me down, let me just say that of course this is all my subjective opinion. My childhood musical memories include the likes Aqua, The Cartoons and Vengaboys whose singles I bought with a big smile on my face at the time, so I am (hopefully) not a music snob. After all, we all love a bit of novelty. YMCA, anyone? But there just seems to be a bit too much novelty nowadays – that’s all.
Aside from this novelty, sampling has become very fashionable and Nile Rodgers knows that all too well. A great website that I like to procrastinate with is called http://www.whosampled.com/ If you type ‘Chic’ into the search box then you’ll see that they have sampled just one track [Duke Ellington’s It Don’t Mean a Thing (If it Ain’t Got that Swing) in 1977’s Everybody Dance, if you’re interested.] However, it’s astonishing to learn that Chic themselves have been sampled a whopping 145 times! It just goes to show that these modern day artists would only want to emulate that sound if it is good, which it certainly is.
Sampling is almost too easy to do; Nile, and countless other producers like him, have spent time and money arranging this music and recording it for it then to be ripped off by someone else. I’m sure it’s not too bad now though, especially when the royalties come rolling in. Of course, an advantage of sampling and covering songs is that it’s a fantastic way to introduce this music to a whole new audience who can then discover the DHM within the songs for themselves.
Does all this DHM stuff really matter? Maybe not initially when you’re dancing the night away, but DHM is what has given these songs longevity because you can listen again and again and hear different nuances within the songs every time. Something that any record producer could learn from, but that is why Nile Rodgers is one of the very best in his field.