Mar 16

Of Was And When

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rebel rebel Rebel Rebel, by Chris O’Leary (Zero Books)

One of the many remarkable things about David Bowie’s career is that it came so close to not happening. Bowie seems like an archetype of individual genius – even his most misguided detours have something interesting about them, as Chris O’Leary’s blog (collected in part in this book) patiently shows. But his career had a multiplicity of false starts – even once he’d scored a big hit, five years in, there was no particular sense he’d become a constant presence in pop. Let alone rewrite or dominate it.

The strength of Rebel Rebel, and of O’Leary’s work on Bowie in general, is that he never takes his subject for granted. Writing about a canonised act it’s easy to take their rise and talent as inevitable. But Bowie constantly interrogated and pushed his own abilities, and a good critic follows suit. The contingent nature of Bowie’s career – the almost-failure of him to come into being – is a constant theme in the blog and book, which fills up with parallel Bowies. Not just the familiar cast – Ziggy, Aladdin, the Thin White Duke – but alternate world Bowies whose fame flickered or stalled, doppelgangers and future selves he meets in song, and evanescent personae who he moved on from before they really got their shot. O’Leary loves to find these alternate Bowies under the skin of his songs, and is never happier than when squirreling after some half-thought-out project or other, like the fragmentary rock operas and sci-fi musicals that became Diamond Dogs. In Rebel Rebel, the song that kickstarts the Bowie we know isn’t really “Space Oddity”, it’s “The Man Who Sold The World”, where Bowie meets himself on a staircase and maybe strikes a deal.

Turning a corpus of songs into a blog, entry by entry, week by week, is a punishing task at times, easy to slack off on. A sense of pacing is very much required – which songs get casual overviews, which are the tentpole entries, where you let the readers take up the slack, where you impose yourself on them. On the blog, digressions abounded – O’Leary reminds me a bit of Greil Marcus circa Lipstick Traces, happy to use his subject as a skeleton key to talk about anything else. In Rebel Rebel the side trips feel more reined in, partly because there are fewer illustrative quotes and no pictures to open the story out even more. And some of O’Leary’s tarter judgements have been toned down (“Love You Til Tuesday” is no longer “catchy and rancid”, sadly) though he is happy to roll his eyes at Bowie when the man deserves it. Set against that there’s more emphasis on the music – the bones of the song. Rebel Rebel is stronger on this – and on Bowie’s collaborators and their contributions – than any other similar book about anyone, except possibly Rebel Rebel‘s avowed model, Ian MacDonald’s Revolution In The Head.

Rebel Rebel isn’t just for musicologists, though. O’Leary is perceptive and generous as well as informed, and a lot of the pleasure is in his crisp side observations and similes – Ziggy Stardust, for instance, as a rock’n’roll album where the rock’n’roll “takes place offstage, like naval battles in Shakespeare”. And the pacing remains superb in its balance of short, informative pieces and big critical workouts, critic and artist raising their games in unison – the book’s climax, an extended look at “Station To Station” framed by Bowie’s personal Hollywood apocalypse, is particularly compelling. “Station To Station” also creates an obvious break point between Rebel Rebel and O’Leary’s promised second volume. The two together will be one of the great achievements of single-artist rock criticism.


  1. 1
    Champiness on 24 Mar 2016 #

    Excellent timing (for myself if no one else), since this book just arrived at my doorstep today! I’m already loving it, and glad that the “Station To Station” entry was suitably embellished from its already amazing stature (I’m gonna miss the inevitably-redacted personal anecdotes in “Changes” and “Sound And Vision” when I reach them, though).

  2. 2
    lonepilgrim on 25 Mar 2016 #

    I keep looking for a copy of the book in flagship bookshops in Oxford and London and can never find one. There were none in Rough Trade yesterday for instance. Either they are selling fast or the publisher doesn’t have the resources to promote the book.

  3. 3
    lonepilgrim on 27 Mar 2016 #

    to return to (my interpretation of) the content of Tom’s original post: one thing I didn’t fully appreciate in my early engagement (as a teenager in the 1970s) with Bowie was how equivocal his work could be. I was really only aware of his persona as filtered through his singles – where he came across to me as cocksure and confidently trendsetting. Once I started listening to the albums I heard a more endearing insecurity and a willingness to be unfashionable and imperfect (something that contrasts,with Bryan Ferry, for example).

  4. 4
    Phil Sandifer on 28 Mar 2016 #

    I suspect part of the problem with finding it in bookstores is that the publisher rather overpriced it on initial release. They’ve cut the list price a bit now, but it’s still a $30 paperback, which is just a rough price point. So yes, the publishers kinda screwed up on this one. Probably one to grab on Amazon.

  5. 5
    Matthew K on 31 Mar 2016 #

    I hope a very large chunk of that goes to Mr O’Leary, because otherwise it looks like necro-profiteering. At least the blog site is free, and of course the cool images he chooses to set the period are pretty wonderful.

  6. 6
    Neil C on 20 May 2016 #

    Just finished this – absolutely wonderful. I’ve been dipping into the “Pushing Ahead Of The Dame” archives since January, pretty much at random, but I was surprised at how much the entries lend themselves to a conventional narrative in the book – I was left with a much better appreciation of not just the music, but Bowie himself.

    The level of detail is absolutely spot on – Chris obviously knows his music theory but it never feels dry, and the choice of metaphor is frequently inspired and often very funny (the entries on Saviour Machine and Time in particular had me choking on my lunch). He’s also made me appreciate the impact of each and every instrument, whereas previously I might have focussed mainly on the lyrics, the chords and the riffs. Mike Garson comes across as particularly inspirational – the description of his Aladdin Sane solo is probably my favourite single entry. And it should go without saying that I’ve listened to a whole load of Bowie albums I’ve never really bothered with before (particularly Young Americans) and it turns out they were great after all!

    I’m eagerly awaiting the second volume, but I have a feeling it’s going to be colossal – 40 years of songs to cover, about 3 or 4 times as much as what’s here! One for the Kindle I think.

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