The King of Reggae- The Man- the Music – Birmingham Rep

The King of Reggae- The man- The music- Birmingham Rep

*****

‘The King of Reggae- the man- the music”  Is a  production by the Rush Theatre Company celebrating the life and music of Bob Marley. It features  live onstage musicians , the JA Reggae Band,  who  have played alongside the likes  of  Edwin Star, Jimmy Cliff, Aswad,  and Steel Pulse. Written and narrated by Jannette Barrett, aka Lyricist B, this new production follows a  narrated concert  format .

Marley has the definitive canon of reggae music, a canon which has transcended its origins like no other Reggae artist. No-one has bettered songs in the form since. “Get Up Stand Up” has evolved into one of the great protest songs, “I shot the sheriff” is a defining outlaw lament made famous  by Eric Clapton, “No Woman No Cry”  has become a classic love song with its lilting,  intro movingly  and faithfully recreated played by Mathew Graham.  I was fortunate enough to see Bob play at the Rainbow  Theatre in London in 1977, I had no idea that his songs and impact would be around 45 years later. Tonight did not simply capture the sound of Bob, it captured the spirit too.

We travel on a journey from a  Trenchtown to  worldwide Rastafari Icon, taking in his personal, spiritual and political life . Its style is self effacing, acknowledging the  role of backing band the Wailers, Bunny Wailer, Peter Tosh , Island Records’ Chris Blackwell, Jimmy Cliff and Desmond Decker on his road to fame.

His prodigious love life, and prolific resulting offspring, are warmly and gently remembered by Lyricist B on a back screen which   is skilfully used for atmospheric effect throughout an evening which features over 20 of his songs  with a running time in excess of two and a half hours. We are reminded  of how much great material he recorded during a recording career of under a decade  cut short by his premature death, of cancer   in May 1981 in Florida USA.  

The fourteen piece band of musicians were superb with  lead singer IKA taking on the role of Bob . A  brass section (Adrian Gibson, Trumpet, Anne Tinsley, Saxophone) and  fabulous backing singers contributed to the signature sound with which we are all so familiar courtesy of musical Director Reedbass.I t was a sound which drew the audience onto their feet from early on until the tumultuous finale  of “Three Little Birds” and “One Love “.

It was a wonderful show played to  a multicultural audience ,some of whom , by dint of their age, had clearly been devotees from the beginning. I had forgotten many of the songs, but was delighted to be reminded of them,  and was surprised by how immediate, and relevant they all were. Songs from the past, to be enjoyed in the present which will endure into the future – runs until Sat 24th Sept

Gary Longden

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It Runs in the Family – Highbury Theatre

It Runs in the Family – Highbury Theatre

“It Runs in the Family” is a classic  British farce written by Ray Cooney in 1987 in the mid Elizabethen era. Highbury Theatre  itself is well appointed and intimate making it an ideal setting for comedy.

The action is set in  the Doctor’s common room at St Andrew’s hospital London . We arrive   as chief protagonist physician Dr. David Mortimore  prepares to deliver the  prestigious Ponsonby lecture to a room full of visiting neurologists. A promotion and knighthood  is an impending  reward for a successful presentation.  However, things are not going smoothly. A past lover appears with shocking news of a love child. It is news he wants hidden from both his wife, and everyone else, including the hospital.

All the Cooney ingredients are here, mistaken identity, double entendres, surprise revelations, sexual innuendo, physical and visual gags,   windows, and lots of doors. Chaos ensues which probably makes this an accurate reflection of the 21st century NHS where poverty is claimed  to the visiting junior health minister, but not so much poverty as to affect the excellent job the doctors  are doing… Aficionados of the genre will not be disappointed by this excellent choice of production which is the  first play of the 2022/23 season, and is often regarded as Cooney’s best.

Phil Astle directs, and takes the principal part of Dr Hubert Bonney, Dr Mortimore’s friend and confidante, two responsibilities , an onerous and demanding undertaking, which he  acquits well. He is ideal as Bonney in an unusually well chosen cast. Suave, accommodating and urbane, he also has the satisfaction of the final plot twist. Richard Constable plays opposite him as a smug, angular, neurotic, Mortimore, who unwinds in front of us as events spiral out of control in a memorable comic performance reminiscent of John Cleese’s Basil Fawlty. But it is Jake Collyer,  playing Mortimore’s now grown up son Leslie, who steals the show. Physically imposing, emotionally needy, Collyer is outstanding as he desperately tries to comprehend the incomprehensible around him.

The supporting cast is equally strong. Sharon Clayton is demure and sassy  as Nurse Tate whose liaison with Dr Mortimore eighteen years ago in the sluice room precipitated this sequence of events. Mandy Yeomans convinces,  and is assured, as Mortimore’s long suffering wife Rosemary, a wife who it turns out knew a lot more than her husband was aware of.

Bhupinder Brown ekes the maximum out of her part as Dr Connelly, linking the action neatly, but enjoying both the comic opportunities as organiser of the hospital pantomime director and her familial association with the investigating Police Sergeant ( David Weller) whose  Final Act closing summary of the nonsense that has gone before is a comic gem. Pip Oliver has great fun as the blonde battle axe matron who inadvertently receives a dose of sedative. She is always keen to keep standards high, even when her bloomers are low, and stars in the memorable defenestration scene which is the comic highlight of the evening.

The disintegration of the delivery of the Ponsonby lecture is faithfully recounted by the ever increasing exasperation of Martin Walker’s  pompous, bombastic, blustering Sir Willoughby Drake. Proceedings are mainly watched by the  dementia suffering, wheelchair bound, Bill, laconically and humorously observed by Rob Phillips, albeit in a part that probably would not be written in this way today.  Becky Higgs has the distinction as a  Nurse Sister of being the only sane protagonist,  Yvonne Lee relishes her walk on cameo at the end as Mother, as does the audience.

The single set design ( Malcolm Robertshaw)  of the Doctor’s common room is simple, well lit ( Steve Bowyer) functional and, crucially, has doors and a window which open and close at the right time. Andrew Birkbeck’s sound ensures that the telephones ring at the right time. The costuming is generically credited to Highbury Wardrobe who have done a fine job. It is easy in amateur productions to be lazy with contemporary wardrobe, but not here. The Doctors look the part, Sir Willoughby looks every bit a knight of the realm, Nurse Tate’s dress is prim but beautiful, Rosemary Mortimore’s shoes stylish and eye catching. The detail does matter.

Producer  Sandra  Haynes  has worked hard to ensure this show is  fast-paced, high-energy , and most importantly, very  funny. The audience lapped it up.  If you like farce, you will love this, and if you don’t,  come along anyway as you will be won over by this production which runs until the 24th September.

Gary Longden

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Blood brothers- Wolverhampton Grand Theatre

Blood brothers- Wolverhampton Grand Theatre

****

Somehow, over a period of time, a musical seeps into the national consciousness. It cannot happen overnight. A combination of word of mouth, and return visits create a critical mass, and for some very fortunate shows legendary status is bestowed. I have seen this  show several times over the past forty years. Of course I wondered beforehand whether the magic remained. I was not to be disappointed.

It is a musical. It is also  a powerful narrative whose ingredients are timeless.  Each new cast has the opportunity to stamp their own personalities on the characters  and offer generational shifts. The pivotal figure is Mrs Johnstone, played by  X factor protégé Niki  Colwell Evans. She is fabulous in this show following in a distinguished lineage of actresses who have played the role.

The tale of two brothers, separated at birth, then reunited with tragic consequences, it retains a comic warmth which sustains the show through the bleak moments of heartbreak, with a musical score which lifts the spirits. Directors   Bob Tomson and Bill Kenwright, never allow the pace to drop, or the mood to sink too low.

As our country says farewell to one monarch, and welcomes a new one, at a time of national economic crisis, the divide between the haves and have nots  captures the zeitgeist of the moment. It is a snapshot of a bygone age , a time when skirts were ubiquitous, and grinding poverty and crisp laundry  existed side by side with  the Tally Man always on the doorstep.

Richard Munday imposes a mysterious gravitas to the role of narrator, “ So did you hear the story of the Johnstone twins? As like each other as two new pins.” His chiming rhyming couplets doom laden from the start.

The vastly experienced , Paula Tappenden excels as (Mrs Lyons), a part she has played many times before, while the bug eyed Timothy  Lucas offers Sammy a zany scouse persona. Carly Burns is sassy and scintillating as the multi-dimensional   Linda. The shift from micro skirted schoolgirl femme fatale to adult is challenging but Burns moves from cocky kid to world weary adult with ease.

 The striking cityscape of Liverpool set is imaginatively presented by Andy Walmsley, the Liver building looming over everything. Cheekily, longstanding Everton fan ( and past Club Chairman)  Bill Kenwright ensures that it is Everton graffiti on the street wall. The lighting is atmospheric and portentous skilfully executed by Nick  Richings  particularly in the iconic closing scene. Yes, there was a standing ovation at the end, and yes, “Tell me it’s not true” brings tears to the eyes. But that was what you expected wasn’t it?

“Blood brothers” continues in Wolverhampton until 17th sept and continues on nationwide tour

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The Shawshank Redemption- Derby theatre

The Shawshank Redemption at Derby theatre

****

For most of us this story will be remembered as a 1990’s film, which, after a slow box office start, was reappraised, enjoying considerable belated success on video rental re-establishing it as one of the essential pieces of that decade’s movie history.  Prison dramas can be a tough sell, but, its genesis as a Stephen King novella, with Bill Kenwright behind this stage adaptation, gives it an unusually strong pedigree, and in Joe Absolom a talented and recognisable lead. The opening night was sold out , a delayed start increasing the anticipation, further delayed by a minute’s silence for the late Queen Elizabeth 2nd, and an ovation for the national anthem.

The opening at curtain up is stark, three spot lit men stand naked, amongst them, Andy Dufresne, incarcerated for the  double murder  of  his wife and her lover, a crime he claims he did not commit. The play does not shirk the grim reality of prison life including actual and threatened homosexual assault, but it is the non sexual relationship between  Andy and veteran inmate Red which is at the centre of the story. Ben Onwukwe  ( of London’s burning fame) is  superb channelling the performance of Morgan Freeman who played the role in the film.

The ensemble, all male, cast is strong with gang members “the Sisters” providing the visceral  menace from the inmates, and the warden (Mark Heenehan)  providing the cerebral menace from the Prison authorities  as he pressures ex banker Andy into  manipulating  the accounting books.

 David Esbjornson’s   production is gritty, Gary McCan’s  set suitably austere ,and   Chris Davey’s  lighting monochrome with period music providing episodic breaks.

Whilst superficially the story is bleak, it is underpinned by a message of hope, friendship  and love. Andy is imbued with almost Christ like qualities. Turning the other cheek, eschewing violence and securing beer for his fellow inmates in return for offering a warder financial expertise in echoes of Christ and his disciples. Adapted by Owen O’Neill and Dave Johns, the dialogue is spattered with witty asides which ensure that the mood never becomes overbearingly heavy.

The second act whips along with plenty of plot twists, moments of tragedy but a satisfying ending to a pleasing production which continues on tour for the remainder of the year and plays in Derby until sat 17th. It is a credit to Derby that it continues to offer high quality plays in an era dominated by contemporary musicals, the sold out first night and strong sales for the remainder of the run vindicates that artistic confidence.

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Home Girl- Derby Theatre

n 2015  Derby theatre  staged “ Solace of the Road” the world premiere of Siobhan Dowd’s novel of loss and homecoming. “Home Girl” reprises an exploration of the Care system in visceral, essential style.

It is a new stage adaptation of Alex Wheatle’s  eponymous novel  and a collaboration between  Alex Wheatle MBE, Nathan Powell , Sarah Kolawole,  Anisa  Archer and a Derby Theatre creative team. The main cast, Lisa Allen, Andrea Davy, Martha Godber, Duane Hannibal, April Nerisssa Hudson, Helena Rimmer are unusually strong, augmented by an enthusiastic supporting ensemble.  Co directors Sarah Brigham and Bryn Holding have done a superb job to harness all of this energy to impressive effect. A “future creatives” young team have undertaken the  backstage  roles under experienced tutelage. Emma White’s set design, a versatile two storey interior is well lit by Sam Evans. Nicole Chang’s costume designs are fortuitously contemporary casual for a young cast used to wearing contemporary casual.

“You need to learn boundaries, rules are rules” is a maxim in any foster home.  Whether you are in Care, as young protagonist Naomi is ,or are a Prime Minister, adhering to it is just as difficult. The play explores, identity, belonging , love and what home is and means. Naomi’s circumstances  trace a familiar path within the system. She experiences personal loss then finds herself bounced from one person to another at a time when she desperately needs grounding and to be able to fit in, to belong, somewhere

Wheatle lived in a childrens’ home in Croydon. The production team have worked with children in the Derby  Care community to deliver a play with a powerful stamp of authenticity right across it.

Martha Godber is wonderful as Naomi, the counterpoint with foster parents Duane Hannibal  (Tony)and Andrea Davy ( Colleen) skilfully portrayed, embodying the precept that it is who you are, not what you are, that matters. Davy and Hannibal are terrific, Godber visibly grows in confidence opposite this formidably supportive duo.

The subject matter is weighty. Naomis’ mother committed suicide and her father was an alcoholic her placement as a white girl with a black family initially looks doomed, viewed  with  a mixture of  suspicion and scepticism . Yet despite her chaotic damaged history, with her  associated suspicion of those supposed to look after her, the narrative zips along  briskly underpinned by quickfire  dialogue and laced with humour to lighten a frequently heart-breaking story in which the human spirit can prosper in the most testing of circumstances. It is a story of struggle which is universal in its emotions. Underneath it all Naomi is an ordinary girl who likes horror films, drinking Coke, coffee with four sugras ,dancing and hanging out with her friends in the pupil referral unit and wants to belong in a world that seems to have abandoned her.

The play is delivered in two acts, the first of sixty minutes, the second of half that. The first culminates in an ebullient song and dance routine hosted by Tony at Naomi’s birthday party. It is superbly realised out of nowhere with a full primary cast and ensemble dance routine featuring the Disco classic “Car Wash”  thanks to movement directors Lucy James and Rukus. Its joyous effervescence brings the house down, credit to sound designer Thomas Massey.

 The second half seems to try to fit an awful lot into a brief space suffering marginally as a result It draws a parallel  between the estrangement from society of Tony’s parent’s Windrush generation and the alienation of Naomi’s Care home generation, both desperate to fit in, to belong , and to be accepted. It concludes with an “all you need is love” coda which Paul McCartney would be proud of.

This production was originally to be performed last year before being shelved due to Covid and its appearance  is a delight, well worth waiting for, and a credit to both the directing team and the young people who give their all. it finishes on Saturday 9th July

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It’s Hard to be a Saint in the City- song Springsteen / Bowie

“It’s hard to be a saint in the City”, is one of Springsteen’s finest compositions, a narrative and vocal tour de force. Live in Bruce’s hands  it was irresistible with Bittan central to the performance, but the album recording , “Greetings from Asbury park” had David Sancious on keyboards ( who would later go on to work with Peter Gabriel).

David had a NYC fixation in the early 70’s, the Velvet Underground and Lou Reed were established favourites of his. It is hardly surprising that the hottest  emerging rock n roll act from NJ were drawn to his attention. I am a huge fan of both artists, but for me, this cover is a bit of a misfire. David’s vocal veers between fey and twee, his delivery of the lyrics unconvincing.

The provenance of the  Bowie recording is legendarily obscure.

The Diamond Dogs-era version of ‘It’s Hard To Be A Saint In The City’ was first released in the Rykodisc box set Sound + Vision on 19 September 1989 and In April 1998 it was included in the compilation The Best of David Bowie 1974/1979. Both collections  described it as a Station To Station outtake. Bittan himself, and Slick, confirm Bittan’s presence at the Station to Station sessions, which are a matter of recorded record as Bittan appears on the album’s tracks. But….this has been denied by guitarist Carlos Alomar and producer Harry Maslin.

According to Tony Visconti, the recording likely dates from the Diamond Dogs era, but had further overdubs and was mixed at a later date. Visconti told Nicholas  Pegg:

“The playing style is distinctly different from the Philly players and, forensically, that is why I am certain at least two backing tracks exist. I think the drummer is Aynsley Dunbar, and the bass player sounds like Herbie Flowers. David is quite capable of that kind of guitar work. The strings sound like mine in parts. Two new signal-processing devices are overused on this mix, the Eventide Digital Delay and the Eventide Instant Flanger. They had just been on the market for a few months before I mixed most of Diamond Dogs. The mix is a teeth-grinding coke mix, and I have been guilty of a few of those. It would seem that this was part of the Diamond Dogs recording sessions, but worked on later. The added instruments, vocals and mixing sound like a couple of years later, because of the sonic fingerprints.”

Visconti also claimed that a second version of the song was recorded during the Young Americans sessions in Philadelphia, but remains unreleased and that the Philly version was just a backing track and did not feature lead vocals.

Roy Bittan is the link between Springsteen and David. Bittan  was staying at the Sunset Marquis in Los Angeles  on the Born to Run tour in 1975. David’s guitar player, Earl Slick, was a friend of Bittan’s, and he had suggested   Bittan for the “Station to Station” sessions. Slick invited  to the studio where  Bowie was recording the following day.

When he arrived the next day at the studio David asked him, ‘Do you know who Professor Longhair is?’ Bittan’s reply? ,’Know him? I saw him play at a little roadhouse in Houston about three weeks ago!’ he wound up doing an imitation of Professor Longhair interpreting a David Bowie song, beginning with ‘TVC 15’ and he  wound up playing on every song besides “Wild Is the Wind” on the album over  three days of recording. Bowie wanted Bittan for the  Isolar 1 tour , but Bowie fired manager Lippman  who also managed Slick in a row over touring money meaning that Slick was off the tour breaking the Bittan link. Furthermore E street band rehearsals were due to restart and the moment of opportunity passed, with Tony Kaye, ex of Yes, getting the gig as an unspectacular but competent alternative.

But the story does not end there. Immediately after Bittan finished touring with Bruce in 78 he was invited by Peter Gabriel to play on Gabriel’s second album. On guitar was Robert Fripp, who had then worked on “Heroes” resulting in Fripp returning to work with Bittan and Bowie on “Scary Monsters”.

And so a seemingly insignificant and often forgotten/unknown cover becomes a more important part of the Bowie story.

Drums: Clem Burke.  synths; Dave Formula,  piano; Roy Bittan, bass: Roger Waters, Lead guitar and vocals: Prince, Rhythm guitar and vocals: Buddy Holly

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The occasion of the Queen’s Platinum Jubilee

I have been asked to write and perform at two events celebrating this occasion. It is, and was, very easy to be ultra cynical, particularly from a child of the Silver Jubilee, the Sex Pistols and the “stuff the Jubilee” movement. But 45years on I thought i would surprise everyone, and “go native”.

Jubilation

It is with tremulous proud oration

That I urge you all across the nation

To join  in  this unique celebration

Of pride  and humble appreciation

To you this is my exhortation

Let all the streets be party filled

Let cakes be eaten and beverages filled

For our queen, sovereign  over near and far

Raise the roof and fill the bar

Mother to the Kingdom, Anne, Charles Edward and Andrew too

Let millions gather and not just a few.

Let beacons be lit in a sea of blazes

Illuminating her  subjects beaming faces
let  parades parade and church bells ring

Let grannies reminisce and children sing

All while eating candy floss

Let all admire the jubilee concert with Dina Ross

For there is no mountain high enough to obscure the nations joy

Of parents and of girls and boys

Nor valley deep enough to contain our  affection

Undiluted, pure without circumspection

When she was young she made a vow

That she would serve her country anyway, anyhow

No river would be wide enough to keep her from us

With elegance and diligence, without any fuss

Celebrated with wine and jelly

Waving from the balcony or carriage  on our telly

We wish her happiness, prosperity and health

From theses sceptred isles , and all the commonwealth

Commemorated on mugs and china

Let us  all cry “Vivat Regina”!

 70 years- Our time.

Seventy years, a sinuous thread

Connecting the living to the long gone dead.

Some say that this  is about the Queen

But it isn’t it is about you and me

Fourteen prime ministers have paid their respects

And just as many American presidents

All standing deferentially in line

It wasn’t just hers, it was our time

She saw the continent connected to us via the chunnel

We shared her anguish at Diana’s demise in a tunnel

We offered our support as our boys faced down the argies

We welcomed the commonwealth’s curries and bhajis.

With world cups and Olympics we celebrated with you

Proud to represent the red white and blue.

An occasion unique, which none again shall see

The sovereign’s Platinum Jubilee.

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David Bowie

What is the Ziggy Story?

Artwork Brian ward

There has been an interesting debate recently about “The Rise and fall of Ziggy Stardust” album. Is there a story? If there is what is it? Could it provide the basis for a stage musical?

Like  for many Bowie fans it is one of my favourites, but I have always struggled to identify a narrative thread. It overflows with great songs, many with tantalising  vignettes, but I have never felt they joined together much beyond being either side of a slab of vinyl. Several commentators, notably Marc Spitz and Peter Doggett have attempted to lay the story bare. But I have found their commentaries unconvincing and unsatisfactory.

So, after fifty years I thought I would give it a go, I would try and pick out what is actually happening in the songs. Mick Ronson and Woody Woodmansey were separately, and individually, quoted as saying that they had no idea what the album is about, but even if there is no big novel, there are some glorious novelettes.

The first challenge is one of chronology. The album has a running order, but there is no evidence that running order fitted a storyline. Instead it satisfies the practical demands two sides of vinyl, around 20 minutes maximum each side, composed and edited accordingly.

“Five Years” opens portentously as our protagonist declares that  five years is all we’ve got. Why is unclear. His reaction, and of those around him, is what is memorable.

“Soul love” an unknown figure mourns the loss of an unknown son, for an unknown slogan, is it Ziggy? Could be. Great love song though.

“Moonage Daydream” Three songs in,  we are introduced to the protagonist” I’m an alligator. I’m a momma poppa coming for you, I’m a space invader, I’ll be a rock n roll bitch for you” Make of that what you will. Great Ronno guitar solo though.

“Starman” is the first straightforward  narrative song, and the last original song, on the first side, we are almost half way through. It amounts to a  children’s fairy tale of a Starman waiting in the sky who would like to come and meet us, but doesn’t. he sounds a bit more benevolent than “The alligator” though. The song itself is sublime, but it is the chorus and melody which grab the attention.

“it Ain’t easy” closes side one and is a cover, the verses are quite long but have no connection with the songs that bookend it. Maybe  simply “it ain’t easy to find a song to complete the album with original material? The intriguing bit is the one line refrain “It ain’t easy to get to heaven when you’re going down” which anticipates  “Rock n Roll Suicide” at the end of side two. Bowie only played it live once, in Paris 3rd June 1971. I think that it is safe to assume that this is no hidden key to the album

“Lady Stardust” is a beautiful narrative song about a male singer, is it about Ziggy? Or is Ziggy the observer. Or is it, as most believe, a song about Marc Bolan and nothing to do with Ziggy Stardust at all? I think the latter.

The closing quartet of songs do at least hang together:

“Star” is Bowie’s own dream of rock n roll stardom

“Hang on to yourself” is Bowie living out that dream on stage ( and what an opener live  it was in the early days).

“Ziggy Stardust” is to my mind the story, in its entity, and magnificence containing  the  killer line, “When the kids had killed the man I had to break up the band”. And that is it…

“Suffragette City” is one of the great rock n roll songs, but it is not a physical place, it is a place where Ziggy and his fans inhabit  in his stardom and prevents the album closing on the downbeat “ Rock n Roll suicide.

“Rock n Roll suicide” when you listen  carefully, with its chev breaks snarling, is almost a reprise to “Five Years” and its cadillac in the same way that “Sweet thing” bleeds into “Candidate” on “Diamond Dogs” But because they are separated, on opposite sides of the album, first and last, are never listened to together.

Pic Newcastle Chronicle archive

The narrative and lyrics are terrific, but don’t link up with anything else other than offering a doom laden crescendo for an unknown person. Is it Ziggy, or is it Ziggy observing, or someone else observing? The Starman perhaps? Bowie would close the Ziggy shows withn the song and maybe it was simply a good dramatic way to get Ziggy, and David offstage and into the dressing room at the end of the show ( gimme your hands, your’e wonderful), neat eh?

Despite this being one of my favourite albums, and it being the one I have listened to longest, I had never before attempted to join up the songs. My conclusions?

The lyrics” of “It Aint easy” ( a song and recording I dislike), are far more resonant with the mood of Ziggy the character than I had realised.  “Five Years” and “Rock n roll suicide” are a sequence I had not previously spotted. The reason why David tried and failed to create a musical is that Ziggy is a character without a story. At a push you could try to shoehorn a few Hunky Dory songs (life on Mars) and Aladdin Sane songs ( “watch that man” and “lady grinning soul”) into the mix as they do not sound too discordant with the core album, but it wouldn’t help a story and complicates things rather than makes it easier.

Is Bowie Ziggy, or is Ziggy Bowie? Who knows?

Maybe the joy of the Ziggy creation is that it means different things to different people, its ambiguity being its strength? But it’s been fun revisiting it. What do you think?

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We Will Rock You- Wolverhampton Grand Theatre

*****

A jukebox musical of Queen hits with a libretto written by comedian Ben Elton. Since it opened at the Dominion theatre in London in 2002 it  has played to over 600,000 people there alone,  and over fifteen million worldwide. By any measure it is a popular success.

I took my seat as an admirer of Queen’s music, rather than a fan, the same being true of Ben Elton. As the show unfolded the reasons for its success were immediately apparent. The stage set, on two tiers, is imposing, the music is played by a live band and a cast of over 20 sing and dance with an unified, vibrant joy.

Visually the show is stunning courtesy of costumes by Kentaur. It borrows heavily from the look of the cast of the film, “Mad Max- beyond Thunderdome,” so much so that you half expect Tina Turner to pop out at any moment. The live band plays from the upper tier, sometimes behind screens, sometimes exposed for dramatic effect. They are excellent with bassist Neil Murray amongst their number, who is a stalwart of bands of Rocks’ illuminati.

The songs are not straight facsimiles of the original recordings, instead they are subtly adapted for their new dramatic context, and the various lead voices. Queen’s Brian May ensures that the original spirit is not lost, and doyenne of the West End Musical, and Royal Academy of Music associate, Stuart Morley ensures the songs work on stage. Morley deserves huge credit and appreciation for these arrangements which frequently bring some  songs of which I am not particularly fond to life.

Inevitably, Queen’s voluminous back catalogue results in a few personal favourites being omitted, I would have liked to have heard “Now I’m Here” , but that is more than compensated for by the inspired reimagining and reworking of so many songs as unlikely duets and choral pieces. It is the female lead vocals  which steal the show,  Jenny O’Leary as the Killer Queen and  Elena Skye as Scary bush (sic). Black Afro American DMJ is terrific as Brit, demonstrating both the personal versatility of his own vocal range and the versatility of the songs he sings to be reinterpreted.

Choreographer Jacob Fearey, who also acts as swing, eschews classic musical  dance shapes and forms in favour of bespoke ensemble gatherings , the gender ambiguous dancers are a brilliant invention, it doesn’t matter if they are a boy or a girl, they look great.

Vocally, the slower numbers work best, mainly because the lead vocalists  are so strong, “Who wants to live Forever?” and “These are the days of our Lives” are the pick of the bunch. The only relative dud was “Seven Seas of Rye” a great song hamstrung by poor stage direction.

As for the plot. Was there a plot?  Elton’s script, a succession of stitched together one- liners is preposterous, and  contrived,  but is occasionally quite funny, not least when the male and female leads reflect on the need for “protection” before going to bed. But it works as it holds together  a two hour show, even if the clunky eco aware and corporate phobic messages grate. However there is simple amusement to be had by identifying the numerous song lyric quotes which pepper the dialogue, which is handy, as there is very little real dialogue at all.

This is certainly amongst the very best of the jukebox musicals, essential for all Queen fans, and music fans, alike. A musical and visual spectacular, an evening of hugely entertaining musical theatre, playing at Wolverhampton  until 28th May, then continuing on nationwide tour.

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The Guitarists of David Bowie

The Guitarists of David Bowie- from Space Oddity to Diamond Dogs

Space Oddity, normally regarded as David’s first proper album post Deram featured two guitarists over and beyond David’s contribution.

Keith Christmas

In 1969 Keith Christmas had recorded his first album ‘Stimulus’ in Chelsea, London .

That same year because of the gigs he played as the main act at the Beckenham Arts Lab, then run by Bowie, he was asked to play the acoustic guitar on David’s first album ‘Space Oddity’. He played his Fender Palomino Acoustic guitar, while David played his 12-string on Letter to Hermione, God Knows I’m Good and Occasional Dream

That year Christmas was asked by Michael Eavis to appear the Glastonbury Festival and went on to support The Who, King Crimson ,Ten Years After, Argent, Captain Beefheart, Frank Zappa, The Kinks and Roxy Music’s .

The album has a distinctly folk feel, and Christmas helped with that vibe, but what is also significant when you look at Christmas’s subsequent support work is the distinguished circles he was moving in. Bowie had an eye, and ear, for talent right from the start.

Tim Renwick

With Visconti producing, Bowie recruited the Junior’s Eyes band – guitarists Wayne and Tim Renwick, bassist John Lodge and drummer John Cambridge (but without vocalist Graham Kelly) – as the main backing band for the sessions.

Renwick’s most distinguished work came with Sutherland Brother & Quiver s and Al Stewart. He also did session work for Elton John, Procol Harum, Andy Gibb, Mike Oldfield, Gary Brooker, Roger Waters, Eric Clapton, China Crisis, and Pink Floyd.

Once again it is a formidable roster of talent.

Recommended listening for anyone wishing to explore Renwick’s talent further is his work on Al Stewart’s hit album “Year of the Cat”

Space oddity is an album rarely explored, mainly because it is his oldest mainstream album for those working backwards through his back catalogue. But it has numerous gems, beyond the title track ( which Visconti allegedly disliked outsourcing the production work to Gus Dudgeon of subsequent renown for his work with Elton John. Strands from Donovan, Simon and Garfunkel and Dylan are all present. “Letter to Hermione” is beautiful folk, “Janine” rock and “Cygnet Committee” is as obtuse as “Stairway to heaven”.

Superficially the album can be dismissed as a bit of an incoherent mish mash of styles. But for me the talent that Visconti and the likes of Renwick and Christmas brought to the studio should not be underestimated in the quality of the individual tracks.

The defining guitar track is : “Letter to Hermione”, exquisitely arranged, a soulful vocal with an acoustic guitar backing which is painfully beautiful.

The Man Who Sold the World

This is the album which introduced Mick Ronson to the world. Visconti and David himself are also given guitar credits, but this is Ronson’s album as the axe man.

The defining guitar track: announcing Ronson’s arrival is “Width of a Circle” which became a firm live favourite immediately and remained ever present in the live set for the remainder the Spider’s existence.

Yet although Ronson’s wailing lead guitar lines from “Circle” are what stay in the mind, his haunting rhythm guitar on “After All”, and memorable signature guitar motif on “Man Who Sold the World” are no less important.

Hunky Dory

The first Spiders album, with Bowie and Ronson credited with guitars.

The folk rock influences are still strong, not least obviously with “A Song for Bob Dylan”, but also with the fey, sentimental, “Kooks”.

The defining guitar track: is “Life on Mars”, Ronson’s tour de force, not only for his lead guitar lines, but also for his arrangement and strings parts.

Ziggy Stardust

David on acoustic, Ronson on electric

The moment when Mick Ronson came to national and international prominence.

The defining guitar track: Is it “Moonage Daydream” with its infamous live guitar fellatio visuals,( my favourite Ziggy song)? The “call to arms “chords of the title track? The Rolling Stonesesque bar room boogie of “ Suffragette City” ( turned down by Ian Hunter for Mott the Hoople ) ? I would argue that it is the simple acoustic guitar of David and the fluid lines, with signature guitar motif, of “Starman”, not musically, but visually. This was the song which impacted a teenage audience. Pretty boy Ronson with his long blonde hair flanked by the other worldly David with his arm draped over Mick’s shoulder like girlfriend and boyfriend. Every playground was talking about it on Friday morning… It was the moment when Ronson and Bowie became a recognisable collective visual identity. How happy David was with the way that played out is another matter…

“When the kids had killed the man I had to break up the band”

Aladdin Sane

With Bowie on acoustic and Ronson on electric again. An album this time defined not by guitars, but by the arrival of Mike Garson on keyboards.

Defining guitar track: Hitherto Ronson had been Bowie’s on stage axe man and side man. Here he makes an astonishing musical contribution playing flamenco style guitar on “Lady grinning Soul”, a song so musically and vocally demanding that Bowie never played it live. Third parties have suggested that the part was played by a session guitarist. But no-one close to the recordings has ever substantiated that, I am happy to acknowledge the recording as testimony to Ronson’s unquestionable musical talents. On Steve Harley’s smash hit “Come up and see me” there is an acoustic guitar break for the middle eight which is similar in feel. Harley neither wrote nor played it, Jim Cregan was drafted to compose and perform ir, the end recording being a composite of three takes, a testimony to how hard Ronson’s guitar part is.

Otherwise; Jean Genie endures, the riff was immediately exploited again by The Sweet on “Blockbuster”. On stage I heard Bowie credit John Lee hooker with inspiring the guitar hook. Not only does Bowie cover the Stones’ “Lets Spend the Night together” he then uses them as the musical inspiration for his own,“Watch that Man”. The glorious funk of “Panic in Detroit” , which was always immeasurably greater live and exquisitely extended , is later revisited on “Stay” from Station to Station”

Pin Ups

In my view a much maligned album, and Ronson ( and the Spiders’) swansong.

The covers are all competently, and satisfyingly played, albeit unremarkably. Two Who songs, “Cant Explain” and “Anyway, anyhow, anywhere” are played, but Ronson chooses to leave the Townsend legacy untouched.

Defining Guitar track: “Rosalyn” by the Pretty things, Ronson’s distorted electric guitar is glorious.

But the standout track on the album features saxophone, not guitar, played by Bowie himself on the big hit single “Sorrow”. I am sure unintentionally, it was a statement that although Bowie was saying farewell to the band, he would prosper without them.

Diamond Dogs

The music gossip scene was awash with rumour as to whom David would choose to take on Ronson’s guitar duties. With Bowie’s Rolling Stones love in at its height, Ron Wood’s name consistently came to the fore. But all the speculation was wrong, as David chose himself.

He also produced the album himself With Scott’s departure, Bowie produced the album himself. But the Stones connection was never far away with his choice of engineer in Keith Harwood, who had worked previously with the Rolling Stones on numerous sessions, and on Led Zeppelin’s Houses of the Holy, handled engineering duties. Previously they had collaborated on Mott the Hoople’s All the Young Dudes and the original version of “John, I’m Only Dancing”. If you were curious as to where the dirty Stones style guitar sound came from there is your answer. And it is almost as if Keith and Ron are there, chugging away on “Diamond Dogs, the song.

It would be easy to assume that David would elect to have the guitars mixed low and placed deep in the rhythm track. Not a bit of it. Instead, the album produces not only one of his greatest signature guitar riffs, but one of popular music’s most identifiable in “Rebel Rebel”.

Bowie is the only credited guitarist apart from on 1984, in which Alan Parker receives a credit. That does not do Parker justice. Informally he is credited with “tidying up” “Rebel Rebel” and playing on it, and his signature “Shaft” style “Doo wah” effects on 1984 make the song.

This is not entirely surprising. Parker was trained by Julian Bream at London’s Royal Academy of Music and had a successful career as session guitarist starting in the late 1960s, with Blue Mink (Melting Pot) and CCS. He was the electric guitarist on Donovan’s “Hurdy Gurdy Man”, the Walker Brothers’ “No regrets” and the Top of the Pops theme music version of “Whole Lotta Love”.

Defining Guitar track: “Rebel Rebel” obviously, a signature riff, meets a cultural manifesto.

And that concludes this first instalment. “ Diamond Dogs” represents the natural break point , sans the Spiders, beyond which lies Alomar, Slick, Heydon, Fripp and many more beyond. But that is for another day, if people want it.

The Guitarists of David Bowie- from Young Americans to the Isolar 1 Tour

Two albums had elapsed since David’s last original album. “Pin Ups” provided a neutral coda to the Spiders and Ronson, “Diamond Dogs” had eschewed the need for any hired axe man. The new album inspired by Philly soul, offered no early clue as to who would be on guitars.

Young Americans recorded aug 74- jan 75

Credited guitarists: Bowie, Carlos Alomar, John Lennon and Earl Slick

Earl Slick

The Diamond Dogs tour only ever played America. Hip NYC gunslinger Earl Slick had made a name for himself with Mack Truck as a hot bar room guitarist and was called in to take lead guitar duties for the 74 tour. His versatility was immediately apparent and he was the default choice to join Carlos Alomar to record Young Americans whom had previously also been courted for the tour, which he subsequently joined for the second leg.

Carlos Alomar

Alomar’s credentials to deliver a white/plastic soul album were impeccable. The son of a Pentecostal minister, Alomar was raised in New York. He had performed during “Amateur Hour” at the Apollo Theatre, eventually joining the house band, backing Chuck Berry and many leading soul artists including James Brown and Ben E King. In 1969 Alomar formed a group called Listen My Brother with vocalists Luther Vandross, Fonzi Thornton (later to work with Chic offering a Nile Rodgers connection), and Robin Clark. Alomar met Bowie when Lulu was recording “Can You Hear Me” at Sigma Sound .

Defining Guitar track; “Fascination” funky, playful, soulful. A reworking of a Luther Vandross original song “Funky Music is a part of me” which he used to play as part of Mike Garson’s band. With Alomar at the helm musically this is bona fide credible soul.

John Lennon

Did some good work with the Beatles, but George Harrison was the better guitarist.

The only low point is John Lennon’s contribution on guitar and vocals with “Across the Universe” which has no redeeming features. A song ironically only included by the record company to boost sales with the Lennon / Beatles connection, and originally only recorded as a late night coked out jam.

Station to Station recorded sept Nov 75

The album which brought mainstream Bowie fans back on board. A conventional collection with Credited guitarists -Alomar and Slick alongside Bowie

Defining Guitar track– “Station to station” all howling guitars, wailing feedback and driving rhythms. “Stay”, on which Ron Wood was rumoured to have contributed, never confirmed, runs it a very close second.

It is the variety of the guitar work which distinguishes this album. The acoustic guitars on “Wild is the Wind” are lush, beautiful and were praised by Frank Sinatra, “Stay”, , runs it a very close second, but as it is, is Slicks’ finest hour, “Alomar’s” work on “Golden years” could only have come from a man steeped in Soul Revues, although Slick claims the credit for the signature guitar motif.

The Isolar 1 Tour

Stacy Heydon

The Spiders had been much loved, with Ronson seemingly the indispensable studio side man. His three subsequent post Spiders original albums had buried the idea of Ronson’s musical indispensability, Bowie grew without him and benefited from alternative collaborations, but his place on stage as David’s axe man and visual foil was another matter. On the Station to Station album Earl Slick had proved to be a musical upgrade, and he looked the part- but was unavailable for the tour after a row over money and the departure of Michael Lippman who also manged Slick, with the unknown Stacy Heydon getting the gig, a man who auditioned once, had only ever left Canada once, and didn’t know a single Bowie song , let alone the guitar parts. After successfully auditioning he was given a cassette player and tape for an afternoon with the tour set list. The first full band rehearsal was the following day. Bowie insisted on his set up including a Maestro Phase Shifter. hooked up, unusually to THREE 100 watt Marshall heads! Heydon asked Bowie whether David wanted a note for note reproduction of the album guitar solos, but was told no, and to “be himself”.

He had sacked manager Michael Lippman at the end of 1975 for failing to organise accommodation and a welcome when he arrived in New Orleans, Lippman’s defence was that Bowie had been uncontactable for weeks. Roy Bittan had left before rehearsals began to return to the E Street Band leaving tour manager Eric Barret to track down ex Yes keyboard player Tony Kaye with whom he had worked before to fill in . Barrett also peeled Heydon’s name out of his contact files as “a good guitar player”!

Heydon was terrific on the tour, his “Suffragette City” was the best version I have ever seen, but was out of sync for the new “Low” and “Heroes” material resulting in his stay being a short, if very, creditable one.

Here we take a break before the frenetic creative years of Eno and Fripp, The Berlin Albums to Scary Monsters.

The Guitarists of David Bowie- from the Berlin Albums to Scary Monsters

The Berlin Albums

For the purposes of this piece I am going to wrap Low, Heroes, The Idiot , Lust for Life and Lodger together. Although I would argue that Lodger is not a Berlin album at all, it keeps some Bowiephiles happy. I include the recording dates as evidence of Bowie’s amazing productivity at the time and to give a sense of how these albums are linked.

Low ( recorded sept-oct 76)

For the first time Bowie has no guitar credits which are instead shared by Alomar and Ricky Gardiner who themselves share lead guitar duties.

Ricky Gardiner

Ricky Gardiner appeared out of nowhere to appear on this album, but was an eccentric and distinguished presence on the progressive music scene.

Ricky Gardiner, a Glaswegian Scot, was only a year younger than Bowie and as a child learned operatic arias note for note. In 1969: Ricky formed Beggars Opera, a progressive rock band who toured the UK and Europe extensively and were signed to Vertigo Records recording four albums.

In 1976, while working on “Low” Ricky met Iggy Pop. Thus in 1977: Ricky went to Berlin for rehearsals with David Bowie and Iggy Pop. They were joined by Hunt and Tony Sales and toured the UK and USA to promote Iggy’s Idiot album. Following this tour the band returned to Berlin and recorded the “ Lust for Life” album. Ricky wrote The Passenger with Iggy Pop, and Neighbourhood Threat and Success with Iggy Pop and David Bowie. Family commitments prevented him from joining that tour ending his association with Bowie and Pop. But Eno engendered an interest in computers in music which influenced all of Gardiners’ subsequent musical work

Defining Guitar Track: “Be My Wife” with lead guitar lines eerily similar to Fripp’s work on “Heroes”, does Eno have a hand ( or ear on) in this?

But as with so much on this album the guitar sounds were so other worldly, and non rock n roll, that they spawned a myriad musical imitators and imitations, some good, some bad. Joy Division and Gary Numan were obvious disciples.

The Idiot ( recorded June – aug 76)

Credited Guitarists-Carlos Alomar and Phil Palmer alongside Bowie

Phil Palmer

Palmer is a nephew to Ray and Dave Davies of Kinks fame. He went on to have a stellar career working and touring with the likes of Eric Clapton, Bob Dylan, Dire Straits / Mark Knopfler, Tina Turner George Michael and Robbie Williams and Trevor Horn

Defining Guitar Track- “China Girl”, raw and raunchy lead guitar, a million miles removed from Nile Rodgers fey, effete interpretation on “Lets Dance”.

The entire album is a rock n roll tour de force.

Lust for Life recorded May-June 77

Credited Guitarists; Bowie, Ricky Gardiner, Carlos Alomar, Tony Fox Sales , guitar (“Fall in Love with Me”)

Tony Sales of Todd Rungren’s Utopia fame played bass on the album but for some reason also played guitar on “Fall in Love With me”. Sales had children with Taryn Power who was the daughter of Hollywood film star Tyrone Power.

Defining Guitar track: “The Passenger”, composed by Gardiner who was made rich by the ( very good) cover by Siouxsie & The Banshees and its ubiquitous use in advertising there after.

The album is packed with great songs, the title track, is much sampled, Bowie revisited “Neighbourhood Threat and “Tonight” on his subsequent album “Tonight”.

Heroes recorded July- Aug 77

Credited Guitarists; Bowie, R Carlos Alomar, Robert Fripp

Robert Fripp

Fripp was the guitarist, founder and longest-lasting member of the progressive rock band King Crimson creating several genre defining songs including ,”2!st Century Schizoid Man “ and “In the Court of the Crimson King”. He also worked extensively as a session musician and collaborator, notably with Blondie, Brian Eno, Peter Gabriel, Daryl Hall, Midge Ure, Talking Heads, and David Sylvian.

Defining Guitar Track: “Heroes”: Brian Eno remembers:” Robert arrived one evening from New York and we played him one unfinished song after another. There were no chord sheets and indeed no indications of song-structure at all. He reacted to each song with little or no direction from anybody else in the studio – and in each case discovered parts and moods that really were not implicit in the music. David, Tony (Visconti – the producer) and myself watched in awe – I think we were all dazzled. Nobody else would have come up with what he brought to the project. The title song of the HEROES album is a case in point: the guitar motif that underlies the whole song ( – and which is integral enough to its identity to be quoted in every other version of it I’ve heard) was entirely Robert’s invention. Without doubt much of the character of that song grows directly out of those elegant and unusual guitar parts, which in turn came directly from Robert’s imagination. The same is true of all his contributions on that record.”

“Heroes” now dwarfs everything else on the album which is full of gems. From a guitar point of view “Blackout” is terrific, and was a star turn live on the Isolar 2 tour, but rarely played live thereafter.

Lodger recorded in 78/79, released 79

Credited Guitarists: Bowie, Alomar, Tony Visconti and Adrian Belew

Adrian Belew

A multi-instrumentalist, Belew was a recommendation of musician/producer Brian Eno. After seeing a Zappa concert in Cologne, Germany, Bowie offered to hire Belew once the Zappa tour was finished. Belew then played on Bowie’s Isolar II Tour in 1978 before recording on Lodger, then touring again with him a decade later on the Sound and Vision tour. Belew was an unconventional side man on stage, the visual and stylistic antithesis of Ronson and Slick, wholly in keeping with Frank Zappa’s more quirky approach. It was an approach which served him well with sojourns in both Talking Heads and the Tom Tom Club, the latter of whom tired of his predilection for distorted guitar solos. Curiously he then went on to work alongside Robert Fripp in King Crimson for a very long time from 1981 to 2013.

His work with Bowie is showcased on the live Stage (1978) album of the Isolar 2 tour. Surprisingly his most memorable contribution is a mellifluous solo on “Soul Love”

Tony Visconti

Visconti’s work, as usual was primarily producing, engineering and mixing, but here he is also credited with guitar on “Boys Keep Swinging” and “Repetition” wholly in keeping with the fractured whole of the album.

Defining guitar track: “Look Back in Anger” a maelstrom of swirling guitar, with a fine lead solo from Alomar. In summer 1988 Bowie recorded a new heavier version with Reeves Gabrels on lead guitar, Kevin Armstrong on rhythm guitar, and Erdal Kizilcay on bass and drums; it was the first arrangement Bowie and Gabrels collaborated on, taking place shortly before the formation of the band Tin Machine.The recording was issued as a bonus track on the Rykodisc release of Lodger in 1991.

Live, Belew was never able to emulate the sinuous grandeur of Fripp’s recorded work, on “Lodger” his experimental style sets the album apart from pretty much everything else, let alone “Low” and “Heroes”.

Scary Monsters recorded feb-april 1980 released sept 80

Credited guitarists: Bowie, Alomar, Visconti, Townshend, Robert Fripp and Chuck Hammer

Probably Bowie’s most impressive array of guitar talent for any album. Visconti adds a bit of acoustic on “Scary Monsters (And Super Creeps)” and “Up the Hill Backwards”), Townshend adds trademark guitar licks to “Because You’re Young”, a neat coda to Bowie covering “I Can’t Explain” and “Anywhere, Anyhow, Anytime” on Pin Ups.

But it is Robert Fripp who once again steals the show, as he did on “Heroes”, with his contributions on “Fashion”, “It’s No Game”, “Scary Monsters (And Super Creeps)”, “Kingdom Come”, “Up the Hill Backwards”, and “Teenage Wildlife”. This is very much a Bowie and Fripp album

Chuck Hammer

Chuck Hammer is an American guitarist and soundtrack composer, best known for his textural guitar work with Lou Reed, David Bowie, and Guitarchitecture. He is also a leading NYC based soundtrack composer, having scored approximately 300 documentary films.

He recorded guitar-synth tracks with David including multiple textures across “Ashes to Ashes” and “Teenage Wildlife”, both of which marked the earliest use of guitar-synth in Bowie’s catalogue. The actual instruments utilized on these tracks included a Roland GR-500 with Eventide Harmonizer and multiple analogue tape delays. These recordings were ground – breaking.

Indeed “Ashes to Ashes” is so complex in its arrangement that live, Gail Ann Dorsey routinely swapped bass for guitar during performances.

Textural tracks such as “Ashes to Ashes” and “Teenage Wildlife” exhibited a highly experimental multi-layered, approach to recording and composing with the guitar. Hammer’s recordings with David represent one of the most influential and genre defining approaches to textural guitar layering. It opened the door to the textural guitar movement that followed.

The guitarist who didn’t quite make it: Tom Verlaine.

Verlaine’s work with Television had been stunning. It is rare that a band comes out with a new sound, but Verlaine had done that with Television. Inviting him to play guitar on his own composition “Kingdom Come” made a lot of sense. However when he arrived at the studios he took two days fiddling around with an array of amps that he had brought with him to achieve the right sound with no end product. At the end of day two Bowie gave up and asked Fripp to play lead instead- which he did very well. Studio time costs money. What the take would have sounded like with Verlaine’s guitar is a tantalising mystery.

Defining Guitar track: “Teenage Wildlife” absolutely made by Fripp’s guitar lines, and a musical tour de force, rarely performed live as it needed Fripp’s presence to make it work.

A brilliant album where the diverse guitar contributions coalesce in musical magnificence

Here we take a natural break before the commercial Nile Rodgers driven juggernaut of “Lets Dance” leads up to Tin Machine, which is for another day.

The Guitarists of David Bowie- from Lets Dance to Tin Machine

Lets dance 1983

Bowie, or more precisely, Nile Rodgers, goes pop. The choice of  Vaughan as the featured guitarist is, and was, odd. He  was a rising star as a blues guitarist who went on to have considerable success prior to his premature death, but Michael Landau who had played on the original “Cat people” would have been the more sympathetic choice to the overall sound. Nonetheless the association  with Vaughan was paydirt for both Bowie and Vaughan whose career was propelled by his work on the album

Credited guitarists Stevie ray Vaughan/ Nile Rodgers

Crucially, no Alomar, which must have hit him financially hard.

Nile Rodgers

The guitar sound of NY disco as expounded by Chic, a man who could spot a hit tune and riff at a thousand paces, and a Studio 54 regular with his ears, and feet, close to the ground of what was hot. Producer to the superstars, and soon to be superstars.

Stevie Ray Vaughan

guitarist, singer, songwriter, and record producer, best known as the guitarist and frontman of the blues rock trio Stevie Ray Vaughan and Double Trouble. His mainstream career only spanned seven years, and he owed his career to Bowie spotting him at Montreux.

In 1972 he began t playing gigs on the local club circuit. Vaughan joined forces with Tommy Shannon on bass and Chris Layton on drums as Double Trouble in 1978 and established it as part of the Austin,  music scene; it soon became one of the most popular acts in Texas. He performed at the Montreux Jazz Festival in 1982, where  Bowie saw him play. Bowie contacted him for a studio gig which resulted in Vaughan playing blues guitar on the album Let’s Dance (1983), before being discovered by John Hammond who interested major label Epic Records in signing Vaughan and his band to a record deal. Vaughan died in a helicopter crash in 1990.

Defining Guitar track – “Let’s Dance” simply because it is so well known and so identifiable as Vaughan’s work.

My personal preference is for “Cat people” which is complicated  by there being three versions. The first is the original with producer Georgio Moroder on guitar alongside Michael Landau and Sylvester Levay.

Michael Landau was a session superstar  whom I saw touring with Boz Scaggs. He cites his influences as The Beatles, Jimi Hendrix, Led Zeppelin, Cream, The Band, Weather Report, Pat Martino, and Jaco Pastorius. And used an unique guitar  rack switching system as favoured by Steve Lukather and Eddie Van Halen. He was synonymous with the LA Sound playing on many of the hit records made there in the 80’s and 90’s. he played with Joni Mitchell, Rod Stewart, Seal, Michael Jackson, Pink Floyd, Phil Collins on “Two Hearts” and “Loco in Acapulco”, Roger Daltrey, Stevie Nicks, Glenn Frey,, Whitney Houston, and Miles Davis.

The  second is the Lets dance album cut with Stevie ray Vaughan/ Nile Rodgers

The third  is  the  album version, remastered in 2018 as part of the Loving the Alien (1983–1988) box set.

Serious Moonlight tour 1984

Credited Guitarists, Bowie, Slick and Alomar

Defining Guitar Track: “Stay”- Slicky at his best, but with honourable mentions to “Star” and “White Light / White heat”.

Tonight 1984

Credited guitarists: Alomar, Bramble

Derek Bramble

Worked contemporaneously with Heatwave, Manhattan transfer, Jaki graham, Elaine Page and Whitney Houston, His guitar work on this album  reflected that.

Defining guitar track: “Loving the Alien” with some soulful guitar and synthesiser, although to my ears this recording stops short of it becoming the all time classic it should have been.

After eschewing rock   in the last album, Bowie now moves on to pop and soul courtesy of guitarist Derek bramble, and  producer Hugh Padgham’s reputation as producer of current pop hitmakers including the Police, XTC and Human League and past work with Mott the Hoople. The revisits to “Tonight” and “Neighbourhood Threat” add nothing to the originals, although the quaint cod reggae guitar on “Don’t look back” is strangely endearing.

Live Aid Appearance 1985

Kevin Armstrong on guitar

 A set list, and performance, that divides opinion. A cracking “Rebel Rebel”, but only Fripp can do Fripp on Heroes

Never let Me Down 1987

Credited Guitarists Frampton, McGinnis

 Peter Frampton

Frampton and Bowie go back to the age of 12.  whenFrampton played in a band called the Little Ravens. Both he and David Bowie, who was three years older, were pupils at Bromley Technical School where Frampton’s father was Bowie’s art instructor. The Little Ravens played on the same bill at school as Bowie’s band, George and the Dragons.Peter and David would spend lunch breaks together, playing Buddy Holly songs.

At the age of 14, Peter was playing with a band called the Trubeats followed by a band called the Preachers, who later became Moon’s Train, produced and managed by Bill Wyman of the Rolling Stones. In 1969 when Frampton was 18 years old, he joined with Steve Marriott of Small Faces to form Humble Pie.

He enjoyed stellar solo fame with “Frampton Comes Alive” and played on Bowie’s Glass Spider Tour.

Defining Guitar track: “Time Will crawl” one of Bowies’s best later years compositions.

Overall the album is a bit of a mess.

Sid McGinnis

 Best known for his work with the Tv channel CBS Orchestra.The Pittsburgh-born guitarist made his first appearance in the Late Night with David Letterman band in 1984 as a guest guitarist, and continued as a permanent guitarist with Letterman’s television shows until Letterman’s retirement.

McGinnis has also toured and/or recorded with numerous  diverse artists including Warren Zevon, Ashford and Simpson, Barry Manilow, Peter Gabriel, Carly Simon, Dire Straits, Robert Fripp, The Sisters Of Mercy,  Laurie Anderson, David Lee Roth, Bob Dylan,Leonard Cohen, Paul Simon, Simon & Garfunkel

Curiously it is McGinnis who appears to be the bigger influence on this album with Framptons’ undoubted talents  largely underutilised.

Glass Spider Tour 1987

Credited guitarists, Bowie, Frampton and Alomar

Defining Guitar Song ; “Time will crawl” Peter’s  enduring contribution to his collaboration with David

Bowie had always yearned  to be in a guitar band  akin to his favourites  the Velvet Underground or The Stooges, and on this tour  he played perennial live favourite “White light/ White Heat” and “ Now I wanna be your Dog”. Tin machine was only just around the corner…

Tin Machine 1 1989

Credited guitarists–  Reeves Gabrels , Kevin Armstrong, David Bowie

Reeves Gabrels,

  Bowie and Gabrels had initially met through Gabrels’ then-wife Sara Terry, who was part of the press staff for the North American leg of Bowie’s 1987 Glass Spider world tour. The two men had struck up a friendship when Gabrels visited at several tour venues. Notably, their relationship began as a social one, as Gabrels didn’t mention that he himself was a musician. Common interests in popular culture and the visual arts provided more than enough to talk about, Gabrels explained in later interviews, and also because he was in his wife’s workplace, he felt it wasn’t appropriate to bring up his own music. At the tour’s end, Bowie  asked Terry if he could do anything for her. In response, Terry gave Bowie a tape of Gabrels’ guitar playing. Months later, after listening to the tape, Bowie phoned Gabrels to invite him to get together to play and write. Bowie told him that he felt he had “lost his vision” and was looking for ways to get it back. After a month working together, Gabrels asked Bowie what he wanted of him, and, according to Gabrels, Bowie said “Basically, I need somebody that can do a combination of Beck, Hendrix, Belew and Fripp, with a little Stevie Ray Vaughan and Albert King thrown in. Then, when I’m not singing, you take the ball and do something with it, and when you hand the ball back to me, it might not even be the same ball.”

Kevin Armstrong

Kevin Armstrong  is an English rock guitarist, record producer and songwriter, best known for his work with David , Iggy Pop and Morrissey.

Armstrong was signed by Charlie Gillett’s Oval Records in 1980 and formed the group Local Heroes  going on tog record with Thomas Dolby on his first two albums The Golden Age of Wireless and The Flat Earth.

Armstrong took part in the recording of The Passions’third album, Sanctuary, produced by Mick Glossop. The first single from that album was “Jump for Joy”, which was released on 5 May 1982, followed by the album and the “Sanctuary” single on 18 September 1982.

Armstrong collaborated with David Bowie on the soundtrack for the film Absolute Beginners. He also played in the band for David Bowie’s Live Aid appearance in 1985 which included Dolby  and recorded the song “Dancing In The Street” with Bowie and Mick Jagger.

He played guitar on the Iggy Pop 1986 album Blah Blah Blah and was musical director for Iggy Pop’s world tour in 1986/87.

Armstrong joined Steve Nieve’s band for the Jonathan Ross Channel 4 chat show The Last Resort for two seasons in 1989, accompanying Paul McCartney

In 1989 David Bowie asked Armstrong to join Tin Machine as the fifth member after he played on the debut album recorded in Switzerland and the Bahamas.

In 1992 he co-wrote the title track of David Bowie’s Outside album, with Bowie.

Defining Guitar Track – “I cant read” a five-minute number toward the beginning of the record  with  deliberately out-of-tune guitars and half-hearted vocals.

Some claim that this album is the Godfather of Grunge. I disagree, it is where Bowie is able to live out his Velvet Underground/ Iggy and the stooges fantasy. It is notable for a terrific cover of “Working Class Hero”.

Sound and vision tour 1990

With Reeves Gabrels declining lead guitar, Adrian Belew was recalled playing alongside only Bowie on uitar in a tight five piece.

Defining Guitar track: “Modern Love” energetically performed  in a greatest hits set.

Tin Machine 2 1991

Credited guitarists-  Reeves Gabrels , Kevin Armstrong, David Bowie

Same guitar combination, less grungey sound, less focus with  13 songs on the album from a reputed thirty plus recorded, the balance due for a Tin Machine 3 which never came

 Reeves Gabrels  work is distinctive, playing   long textural notes that shift in pitch, volume and intensity,  and are not  on the beat, and  provide no signature motifs. “If there is Something” is stripped bare, cold and soulless. Bryan would not be pleased.

Which provides another natural break, beyond which lies the return of Mick Ronson, another two decades, and two of the best songs he has written…

The Guitarists of David Bowie- from Tin Machine 2 to Hours

My penultimate resume which takes us up to the 21st century. A fractious, contentious period of David’s writing and music., the guitar roster reflects that.

White tie Black noise 1993

 Credited Guitarists -Nile Rodgers, Alomar, Reeves Gabrels, Mick Ronson, Tony Springer

Tony Springer

Tony “Wild T” Springer is a Trinidadian/Canadian blues-rock guitarist who  played with a number of reggae and calypso bands .

Trinidadian guitarist Tony Springer (credited as “Wild T” Springer) appears on a cover of Morrissey’s “I Know It’s Gonna Happen Someday”, which originally appeared on Your Arsenal. Bowie had met Springer in Canada during Tin Machine’s It’s My Life Tour and invited him to record. Bowie recalled that “he was an absolute delight”, comparing his guitar style to Jimi Hendrix.

Springer later moved to Canada, settling in Toronto and playing local clubs in a Jimi Hendrix tribute band. He joined Rough Trade in 1986 as the band was becoming less active; they broke up in 1988.

In 1990 Springer took on the stage name Wild T, and launched his own band, Wild T and the Spirit. In 1992 Wild T was nominated for a Juno award as most promising male vocalist. That sparked  Springer to be invited  to appear as a guest musician on this album Black Tie White Noise.

Mick Ronson

Hasn’t he popped up somewhere before? Sadly this is no Great Return. He appears only on a cover of Cream’s “I feel free” somewhat uneventfully. He died not long after the album was  released.

Defining Guitar Track– “I Feel free” simply because it is Ronson’s last stand.

Stylistically  the album is a mess with Rodger’s commercial instincts, which he was recruited for, locking horns with David’s desire to do his own thing as unleashed on Tin Machine. Includes a smattering of soul. The resulting incoherence is entirely predictable.

Buddha of Suburbia

 Credited Guitarists -Bowie, Kizilcay, Kravitz

Kizilcay

Kızılçay started working with David Bowie in the early 1980s,  playing bass on a demo of Bowie’s 1983 single “Let’s Dance”, although he did not appear on the final recording. He  is a multi-instrumentalist; and  played every instrument except guitar on the song “Shades” on Iggy Pop’s album Blah Blah Blah (1986), which was co-produced and co-written by Bowie. Bowie biographer Chris O’Leary called Kızılçay a “godsend” for Bowie, as he allowed Bowie to “cut full studio demos without the bother of shipping in, and paying, lots of musicians.” Kızılçay and Bowie co-wrote the song “When the Wind Blows” for the 1986 film of the same name.[The two then co-wrote two songs for Bowie’s 1987 album Never Let Me Down: “Girls”; and “Too Dizzy”. For the album, Kızılçay played multiple instruments on virtually every song, including bass, drums, keyboards, organ, synthesizer, and violins. Kızılçay joined Bowie on the Glass Spider Tour in 1987 in support of Never Let Me Down,  In 1988, Kızılçay, Reeves Gabrels, Bowie and Kevin Armstrong collaborated on a project for London’s Institute of Contemporary Arts (ICA) in which the four of them re-arranged Bowie’s 1979 song “Look Back in Anger”. Gabrels and Armstrong would join Bowie in 1989 in the band Tin Machine, a project that Kızılçay was not a part of. In 1990, Kızılçay joined Bowie during his Sound+Vision Tour.

 Kizilcay and Bowie  spent the middle of 1993 at Mountain Studios in Switzerland, taking about three weeks to write, record and mix the album, for which many of the songs Kızılçay was the sole instrumentalist. Kızılçay also received a producer’s credit on several songs from the album.It was the cheapest album he ever made.

In 1994, Kızılçay joined other musicians including Brian Eno, Reeves Gabrels, Carlos Alomar, Mike Garson and Sterling Campbell in the creation of Bowie’s album Outside (1995).

After 1995, the relationship between the two fell apart, with Kızılçay later saying that Bowie “changed his way of being with me at the end of the recording of Outside. I don’t even know why, for what reason.” Bowie removed “Too Dizzy” from later re-issues of Never Let Me Down. Kızılçay said he was upset, and said that “from now on I don’t think I would wish to work again with David Bowie.” After Bowie died in 2016, his 1987 album Never Let Me Down was re-engineered and partly re-recorded and released as Never Let Me Down 2018 (2018). Kızılçay was unhappy with the new song arrangements and threatened a lawsuit as a result.

Lenny Kravitz

The man who was catapulted to the stars, and then fell to earth again. An American singer-songwriter, record producer, multi-instrumentalist, and actor. His style incorporates elements of rock, blues, soul, R&B, funk, jazz, reggae, hard rock, psychedelic, pop, folk, and ballads .An inspired  choice, with 1993 being the year of his global smash hit” “Are You Gonna Go My Way “

Defining Guitar track – “Buddha of Suburbia”, Lenny Kravitz

The album as a whole is not guitar based, with many of the songs almost incidental music, but is fascinating because in many respects it is an Kizilcay album.

Outside 1995

The Brian Eno reunion.

Credited Guitarists, Bowie, Alomar, Gabrels, Tom Frish, Armstrong

The trusty Alomar returns alongside Bowie, as does the more esoteric Gabrels. The unknown Tom Frish  provides  additional guitar on “Strangers When We Meet”,  and subsequently works on “Heathen”, the trusty Kevin Armstrong – additional guitar on “Thru’ These Architects Eyes” .

Defining Guitar track; “Halo Spaceboy” wonderful chaos  from Gabrels with help, and reinvention, and a new verse, from the Pet Shop Boys in a subsequent remix and release. The album version is Nine Inch Nails versus The Doors, and is amongst his finest post Scary monsters songs.

The album, and guitar, is bitty and episodic.

Earthling 1997

Credited Guitarits; Bowie, Gabrels

Defining Guitar track; “Little Wonder” arena rock v electronica

Drum and bass and crazed Gabrels guitar solos ,often a combination of stitched together solos, predominate Some have this album leading the way, others have it following contemporary trends. My own view is that Gabrels was running out of ideas, and so was Bowie.

Hours 1999

Credited Guitarists, Bowie, Gabrels, Plati on 12 string

Mark Plati

Mark Plati was  a New York–based musician, record producer, and songwriter, with a reputation of being at the top of his game. He had  worked with , The Cure, Duncan Sheik, , Robbie Williams, Lou Reed, Fleetwood Mac, and Natalie Imbruglia. He knew what quality and commercial success sounded like.

Defining Guitar track: “Seven” for its restraint and sublime composition

An album which included the exquisite “Seven,” and serene  “Thursdays Child,” alongside  some pretty average material. I suspect that Plati’s role was to inject a bit of commercialism into proceedings and rein in Gabrels. The songs have not worn well beyond the above.

“Thursdays Child” is a fitting farewell to this section. The final instalment  taking us to Blackstar follows.

The Guitarists of David Bowie from Heathen to Blackstar

Heathen 2002

 Heathen reunited Bowie and Tony Visconti  for the first time since 1980.

Credited Guitarists; Bowie, Visconti, Alomar, Pete Townshend, Gerry Leonard, David Torn, mark Plati, Garry Miller, Dave Grohl

David Torn

Torn is an American guitarist, composer, and producer. Specialising in combining electronic and acoustic instruments and for his use of looping.

He contributed to recordings by  k.d. lang, John Legend, Madonna, Tori Amos, Bill Bruford,  David Sylvian, and Don Cherry.

Film scores are a significant part his work  Friday Night Lights, Velvet Goldmine, Adaptation, The Big Lebowski, The Departed, Fur, The Hoax, Kalifornia, Traffic, Reversal of Fortune, Tibet, and Three Kings.

His credentials to work with Bowie were impeccable. I believe he plays a significant part in the feel of the album.

Gary Miller

Miller was born  in Kingston upon Hull, offering a Mick ronson connection. And is an English music producer, songwriter, arranger and multi-instrumenalist who  worked for the London production house Stock Aitken Waterman as staff producer, mixer, and songwriter. His credits include Donna Summer, Lionel Richie, Kylie Minogue, Bananarama, and Simply Red. Here he   produces and plays guitar on” Everyone Says ‘Hi’.

Gerry Leonard

From Clontarf in Dublin, he worked as a tape operator in Lombard Sound studios in Dublin, where one job was recording a demo tape by a sixteen-year-old Sinéad O’Connor, where he got to see U2 and Phil Lynott at work. He then studied classical guitar for five years at the Municipal College of Music in Dublin, particularly interested in exploring the instrument’s harmonic possibilities. In 1989 he moved to Copenhagen, where he formed the band Hinterland with Donal Coughlan. Leonard handled guitars and production and Coughlan sang and played bass and keyboards, with writing duties shared by both. The band released an album with Island, Kissing the Roof of Heaven in 1990 and toured in Ireland, the UK, Germany and Switzerland. The last Hinterland release was an EP, Resurrect, in 1992.

In New York’s East Village he established himself as a solo performer, producer, and as a session player he recorded and toured, usually as lead guitarist, with  Laurie Anderson, Cyndi Lauper,  Avril Lavigne and Chris Botti, Suzanne Vega and Rufus Wainwright. He has worked on numerous film scores.

His pairing with Torn was inspired.

Dave Grohl

Plays on “I’ve been waiting For you” in a satisfying Neil Young cover with Grohl stamping his identity on the song. Grohl has long championed Rock’s greats with the Foo Fighters.

Defining Guitar track– “Slowburn” wonderfully augmented by some Townshend licks

An astonishing roster of talent.Visconti , Alomar, Plati and Townshend are back, Gerry Leonard and Dave Grohl add further lustre

The entire album feels more contented, the disparate guitar parts complimenting each other not parts in an experimental exercise. Few realissed that “I took a ride on a gemini Spaceship”, with some exquisite guitar parts ,was a cover of the Legendary Stardust Cowboy song.

Reality 2003

Credited Guitarists-David Bowie ,Gerry Leonard, Earl Slick ,David Torn, Mark Plati,

Tony Visconti

The now trusted team on guitars

Defining Guitar Track – “New Killer Star”, a deceptive start before a kiler groove akin to “Diamond Dogs”

The inclusion of George Harrison’s “Try Some, Buy Some” is a surprising, but very welcome, inclusion

The Next Day2016

Credited Guitarists-David Bowie ,Gerry Leonard,Earl Slick ,David Torn, Visconti

Bowie knew who he wanted to work with, and the sound he wanted, now.

Defining Guitar track– “Dirty Boys”-, for Slick’s guitar.

“Where are we now” is poignant, doleful and reflective, “Boss of Me” is a good indicator as to where the collaboration with Leonard would have gone in the future.

Blackstar 2018

Credited Guitarists – Bowie and Ben Monder

Ben Monder

Monder is an American modern jazz guitaris, who trained on the violin  and guitar and  attended the Westchester Conservatory of Music, the University of Miami, and Queens College.

His record prior to working with Bowie was with a plethora of jazz musicians whom I have never heard of, and neither will you.

As of August, 2021 he is a member of the Minneapolis-based jazz quartet The Bad Plus.

Defining Guitar Track – none. Monder offers tasteful jazz guitar accompaniment. It is he sound of the saxophone which laces this album, not the guitar. The elegiac “I Cant give everything away” its most touching and affecting moment.

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