Wednesday, January 27, 2016

Bowie, the 'young' American

[An edited version of this story was initially published by Music Week.]

By Emmanuel Legrand 

By the time I got to New York 
I was living like a king 
David Bowie - Lazarus 

David Bowie may have sung "I'm afraid of Americans" in 1997's Earthling, the United States became his country of choice. He spent the last two decades of his life in the US, until his death on January 10, 2016, surrounded by his family in New York.

Like many British youngsters in the late 1950s, Bowie was fascinated and influenced by American rock'n roll pioneers Elvis Presley, Chuck Berry and Little Richard. But unlike many teenagers of his time, he also had a fixation for the likes of John Coltrane, who inspired him to play the saxophone, Miles Davis or Eric Dolphy.

Over the years, the US became a major market for his music. Overall, Bowie had 25 entries on the Billboard Hot 100, 39 albums on the Billboard 200 chart, including seven in the Top 10. According to Nielsen Music, through week ending 1/7/2016, David Bowie has sold a total of 7.4 million albums in the US since 1991 (when Nielsen SoundScan began tracking music sales). His total US digital tracks sales reached 6.7million, plus an additional 2 million digital tracks of Under Pressure, the single he recorded with Queen. US on-demand streams through December 31, 2015 reached 207.8 million.

In 1996, Bowie was inducted in the Rock'n Roll Hall of Fame and ten years later, in 2006, Bowie was bestowed with a Lifetime Achievement Grammy, in recognition of his contributions to music. Neil Portnow, President/CEO of Grammy's organiser The Recording Academy, said that David Bowie "was truly a Renaissance man and visionary artist with extraordinary talent as a singer, songwriter, performer, actor and producer, and was a musical hero to millions."

Bowie's American adventure only started in the early 1970s, when he signed to RCA, then owned by General Electric. The deal was engineered by his manager Tony DeFries, who was keen to break his protégé in the US, and knew that a US label would be key to achieving this goal. Before he embarked in his groundbreaking so-called "Berlin trilogy" would have spent most of the 1970s focusing on the American market.

“In 1974, I became bewitched by the USA. I have always been drawn to American literature and American music, but never made the jump. You can only fall in love with the US when you come from England,” said Bowie in an interview published in 1993 by French magazine Les Inrockuptibles.

After he disbanded the Spiders from Mars, Bowie set sights on the US market. He moved to New York in 1974, the year RCA released his last glam album, Diamond Dogs. He started touring the US in 1974 with a new band -- which included Michael Kamen on keyboards, Earl Slick on guitar and David Sanborn on sax -- for the Diamond Dogs Tour, which would morph halfway through into the Soul Tour.

A set of gigs from the tour would be recorded at Philadelphia Tower Theatre on July 14-15, 1974 and subsequently released as David Live, a album that captures Bowie's growing interest in R&B, exemplified by the track Knock on Wood, released as a single. The tour was captured in a documentary, Cracked Actor, which featured a less than healthy Bowie, more 'Think White Duke' than 'Ziggy'.

Crucial to his conquest of the US market was the album Young Americans, his first true post-Ziggy album, recorded in America with US musicians such as Carlos Alomar, and with a little help from friends such as John Lennon, who co-wrote Fame. Young Americans included sessions in January 2015 at Electric Lady (where Bowie cut a cover of the Beatles' Across the Universe) and Record Plant studios in New York, but some of it was recorded in Philadelphia at the Sigma Sounds Studio.

The stopover in Philadelphia reflected Bowie's new fascination for the R&B sound that was created there by Huff & Gamble. It would inspired songs such as Fame, which was going to become Bowie's first major hit in the US, breaking through R&B radio stations, and opening the doors to a performance on the much coveted TV show Soul Train.

Following the release of Young Americans, Bowie relocated to Los Angeles in May 1975 and started working on Nicholas Roeg's movie The Man Who Fell To Earth. Around the same time, Bowie starting legal proceedings to move out of the contractual relationship with Mainman, De Fries's management company, which controlled Bowie's management, publishing and recordings, a move that was successful but reportedly cost Bowie a large share of his earnings.

While in LA, he began recording at the Cherokee Studios what would become Station To Station, which he co-produced with Harry Maslin. The end-result -- with tracks such as TVC15 and Stay -- leaned as much on R&B as it did on krautrock, as if Bowie was already setting the stage for his next musical move. Following the release of Station To Station, Bowie embarked on yet another US tour, but also visited Europe.

Bowie left the US in 1976 and moved to Switzerland and then to Berlin. Subsequent recordings -- Low, mostly recorded in France at the Chateau d'Hérouville, Heroes and Lodger -- re-set his creative aura. It was only after Scary Monsters in 1980, and its hit Ashes to Ashes, that Bowie re-acquainted with the US, this time as a stage performer for the Broadway production of the play The Elephant Man.

His contractual obligations towards RCA being fulfilled, Bowie eventually signed with EMI in 1983. As part of the legal process against Mainman was Bowie's desire to reclaim the rights to all his recordings, which he eventually did -- at a cost. He then managed to ship around his catalogue to EMI, but also to Ryko, which did the first substantial re-release of all his recordings on CD (the Sound + Vision series). He also used his catalogue as a collateral to issue bonds, raising $50m in the process, which he used to fully buy back from DeFries his masters.

In the early 1980s, after picking Chic's creative force Nile Rodgers as producer, he started recording Let's Dance, an album that would become his biggest success in the USA (although not reaching No.1 in the Billboard Albums chart) and in the world, selling over seven million units, and leading to a massive stadium tour which established him as one of the main concert draws in the country. His recording and performing career in the 1980s was dominated by his stint with Tim Machine, whose absence of commercial success led to a split with EMI.

It was only in 1992 that David Bowie finally settled in New York, following his marriage with model Imam Abdulmajid. From New York, he would continue to record and tour throughout the 1990s. He would also get involved in local activities like joining the board of the Archives of Contemporary Music in the late 1990s. Speaking from San Francisco, Bob George, the Director of ARC, recalls, "In the late 90s David joined our Board of Advisors in support of an idea. We had no real prestige or power. Initially brought to us by Nile Rodgers who was already a big supporter, Davis saw the value in preserving the work of all musicians, regardless of their success in the business. When we needed help he was there, without an ounce of stardom, but plenty of stardust..."

At the turn of the Century, he signed to Sony Music's imprint Columbia,via his own company ISO. The first release through this deal was 2002's Heathen, followed by the Heathen Tour, followed by Reality in 2003, and his last proper global tour. Rick Dobbis, former President of Sony Music International, recalls that he was in Sydney when Donnie Ienner, who was the head of Sony Music North America, called him in Australia and said, “We can sign David Bowie, will you split the cost?”. A thrilled Dobbis responded, “Are you kidding, of course”.

"Music executives hope for the opportunity to combine their professional responsibilities with their fandom. This was one of those moments," Dobbis tells Music Week. "As a fan of music and a person fortunate enough to work on behalf of artists I always anticipated a new Bowie release or tour with the knowledge that the boundaries would be moved, that he would challenge and delight and that everyone who cared about music would be moved just a bit forward."

He continues, "When he made the Tin Machine albums I was lucky to have a small part in bringing them to market. For an artist who was otherwise always front and centre it was fascinating to see him be a support player working to bring another talent he supported to the forefront."

Dobbis also recalls that a few years later he was asked to MC a tribute to Lou Reed that Syracuse University was hosting. "We had both graduated from that school," he says. "Lou, with Honours. It was a fabulous night with lots of wonderful artists in attendance. I was handed a note to read from the stage, a beautiful tribute to Lou that was credited to David Bowie. Bowie was in attendance but did not want to take the stage. I wasn’t going to read a quote attributed to him without clearing it with him. I walked over to his table and showed him the quote. He said, 'I don’t know if I have actually said that before, but I am happy to have it said tonight.' An interesting moment for a man who created so much."

In 2004, as he was touring Europe, Bowie complained about pain in the chest and had to go through an emergency angioplasty. During the following years, he significantly reduced his activities, recording a few tracks for movies such as Shrek 2, and appearing on stage with Arcade Fire during the CMJ Music Marathon in 2005.

The Next Day, his first album since Reality, was recorded in New York with Tony Visconti album and released in 2013, to coincide with his 66th anniversary. He closed his US recording cycle with his last output, Blackstar, recorded in New York at The Magic Shop and Human Worldwide Studios, again with Tony Visconti. Ironically, Blackstar became Bowie's sole No.1 album in the US.

US performing rights society BMI, which represented some of his works in the United States, paid tribute to "a visionary" who was "the incarnation of media and musical prowess, always on the forefront of art, spurring us on to explore with him the angst, questions, and possibilities that come with everyday life."

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