I know you shouldn’t speak ill of the dead, but there I was watching the David Bowie Five Years doc from 2013 on BBC4 the other night and I found myself thinking (for the umpteenth time in my life) what’s all the fuss about? I mean, this was by common consent Bowie’s purple patch, from 1975 to 1980 or thereabouts, when he recorded a clutch of albums (Young Americans, Station To Station, Low, Heroes, Lodger and Scary Monsters) that even I concede are pretty humungus, yet all the documentary served to do was remind me of the myriad reasons why Bowie and his followers annoy me, while pointedly ignoring his cocaine-fuelled flirtation with fascism.

We’ll come back to the fascism later. Let’s start with the last of those albums, Scary Monsters. I was suitably transfixed by its musical evolution as described by Carlos Alomar in the documentary, and I went scurrying back to my copy to remind myself how good it was. Only it wasn’t that good,. Side ONE is good, but side TWO is bordering on terrible. Teenage Wildlife is just a rehash of Heroes, literally, using the same music over (under?) new lyrics and adding nothing in the process; Kingdom Come is a pointless Tom Verlaine cover (more about Bowie and covers later) which is as irritating in its handclapping Bowie-does-Motown style as Modern Love would be on the subsequent album, Let’s Dance; Because You’re Young has Bowie struggling to find a melody among the cacophony, and It’s No Game (No 2) proves that you CAN have too much of a good thing, as it’s already been done better on side one. In fact, Scary Monsters is proof of the rule which applies to all Bowie albums up to 1980: fifty per cent brilliance, and fifty per filler. After that, it’s 99% filler.
Now, let’s rewind a decade or so. Most Bowie fans are uncomfortable with the hippy dippy shit like Memory of a Free Festival, which I actually think is one of the best and most beautiful songs Bowie ever wrote, but we can at least agree that Space Oddity is both a reasonably clever pun, channelling the zeitgeist of Kubrick and the moon landings, and a superbly constructed pop song, although really, who the fuck is Major Tom?
Let’s skirt over Hunky Dory, which is a masterpiece and thus not germane to the hatchet job I intend to do. Anyway, 1971 was an annus mirabilis in which every single LP was a masterpiece. Led Zep IV, LA Woman, Tago Mago, Tupelo Honey, Maggot Brain, In Search of Space… there must have been something very special in the water THAT year!
We move now into Bowie’s “glam” period, covering Ziggy Stardust, Aladdin Sane and Diamond Dogs, or Ziggy 1, 2 and 3, as I call them. Some people think this triptych represents the zenith of Bowie’s career but for me it’s almost as bad as what he did from the 80s onwards. First off, there’s the clothes. Sure, Bowie looked good in a dress, and it was a daring move, although the Mothers of Invention did it first on the cover of We’re Only in it for the Money, and if you wanna see really daring dress, check out the back cover of Gong’s Camembert Electrique, also from 1971, a full year before Ziggy. Someone needed to tell David that platform shoes are never a good look, and nor were Trevor Bolder’s sideburns. The music was intermittently great, “but it’s just rock and roll with lipstick on,” as John Lennon observed, and we’ve got Kiss for that. Mind you, Lennon (or someone) also said that Hawkwind sounded like Status Quo with synthesizers, so what did he know?

Then there’s the much-trumpeted concept of Ziggy Stardust. Which is….? Get this, people. Ziggy Stardust is not a character. Aladdin Sane is not a character. Major Tom is not a character. They are just names. There is no depth, no backstory, no CHARACTERISATION. Anybody can make up names. Even Hawkwind (Barney Bubbles, Liquid Len, The Flying Doctor) Anyway, this isn’t theatre, and if it is, Hawkwind do it better, as anyone who ever saw the Space Ritual tour, or Bob Calvert in his flying goggles and scimitar, can testify. Bowie is just a blank slate, a tabula rasa on which his adoring and uncritical fans write whatever they care to see and hear, like the simpleton played by Peter Sellers in Being There who ascends to US president.
The next album, Aladdin Sane (terrible pun), typifies Bowie’s consistently poor choice of covers to pad out his records (here it’s the Rolling Stones’ Let’s Spend The Night Together) while radically reinventing the Ziggy character (spaceman with streak of lightning on his face) as “a lad insane” (spaceman with streak of lightning on his face). The whole, Mike Garson’s piano aside (and Bowie always chose his side men well, once he’d got rid of the Spiders from Hull) is underwhelming, “a tinny, neurotic sound, like a Hollywood party where the cocaine ran out an hour ago,” as The Rough Guide to Rock puts it. Jean Genie, his most over-rated song, is mindless boogie, no better (or worse) than the Glitter Band.
Bowie was really stuck for ideas at this point. So he records Pin Ups, an entire album of covers, and – as with the Stones – not very good ones. It must be the side-effects of the cocaine, because he commits THE worst version of Knock on Wood to vinyl on 1974’s hideous David Live. Soon after,  film-maker extraordinaire Nic Roeg cast Bowie in his kaleidoscopic sci-fi movie The Man Who Fell To Earth, where he (Bowie) is effective enough, because he isn’t acting so much as simply “being” David Bowie, continuing his Ziggy Stardust the inscrutable alien shtick.

Bowie gave one other half-way decent performance on camera. And I’m not referring to Labyrinth, I’m referring to Nagisa Oshima’s unfairly neglected film of Merry Christmas Mr Lawrence, in which Bowie again does precious little, while the other actors – Ryuichi Sakomoto (Japan’s very own Bowie) “Beat” Takeshi Kitano and (God help us) Tom Conti – orbit around him, the way infinitely better musicians (actually, make that simply “musicians”) orbit around Bowie on every album he’s ever made, polishing his shit until it at least gleams with a sort of radioactive half-life. Everything in Merry Christmas Mr Lawrence is understated, controlled, repressed, and really rather good, although spoiled by some ill-fitting flashbacks, and Tom Conti.

But sorry, Bowie sheep and other folks, man still can’t act. Can’t sing either. On Young Americans (1975) he needs Luther Vandross to gift him a great song (Funky Music) and then sing backing vocals. Plus he makes another terrible decision, this time covering (and massacring) Across The Universe. Perhaps that’s the price you pay John Lennon for Fame. “I’ll write you a decent song, Dave, but you gots to record one of my old tunes as well, cuz I need to score some smack. A lot of smack.”

In the BBC hagiography that inspired this post, there’s a lot of fuss about Station To Station – rightly, cuz it’s one of Bowie’s best albums – but no mention of the coked-up Nazi salute he gave on his return to the UK, which in my book (“Why I Hate David Bowie”) is a watershed moment in the Bowie timeline every bit as significant as him touching Mick Ronson up on TOTP.  Why is being coked-up an excuse for Nazism anyway? Many of us have binged on the popular Bolivian soft drink and yet resisted the temptation to goose step around Paddington station like Bowie. I mean, who does he think he is? Prince Harry? This for me is the moment the mask fell away and Bowie the human, fallible and drug-addicted, crash-landed with a bump.
The UK being insufficiently authoritarian (or insufficiently welcoming) Bowie decamped to Berlin with Iggy Pop for two more over-rated albums, Low and Heroes, which like Scary Monsters are games of two halves, half top-notch songs and half boring instrumentals, lazily ripped off of Neu! and Kraftwerk, while the much-feted drum sound that Bowie & his producer Tony Visconti supposedly created with the help of an Eventide Harmonizer had already been used by Todd Rundgren (now THERE’S a genius!) on Steve Hillage’s L. So are the BBC making documentaries about Todd Rundgren and Steve Hillage? Answers on a postcard please to the BBC Factual Programmes Department.

Then, sandwiched between Heroes and Scary Monsters, is the album nobody mentions, Lodger. The BBC doc certainly doesn’t mention it, even though it’s one of his best, largely thanks to the quality of the musicians on show – the ever-dependable rhythm section of George Murray and Dennis Davis, plus Hawkwind’s Simon House slumming it with the alien between shifts on the mothership.
Lodger was followed by Scary Monsters, which I’ve already talked about, though I didn’t mention that Bowie borrowed shedloads of ideas, both musical and sartorial, from the New Romantics (later, Tories) whom he had once inspired. As with the body stockings and platform shoes of the Ziggy era, these did not constitute an advisable dress code at the best of times, much less in the 80s, and once again I point budding trailblazers in the direction of Gong if you want to see a truly radical dress sense (and New Medievalism) at play.
Bowie ditched the Pierrot get-up for Let’s Dance, which marks the total abandonment of any pretence of art with bad songs and awful covers, made only just bearable by the God-like Nile Rodgers on production duties, but only on the title track. Otherwise it’s all a bit Phil Collins: awful bleached-blond hair, awful suit, banal lyrics… this WAS the 80s after all, and Let’s Dance is the perfect soundtrack to Thatcherism, cuz that’s pretty much all that Bowie fans did.
Oh, I can’t go on. It’s all too awful to ponder what happens next. Tonight, an album even worse than Let’s Dance. And Dancing in the Street, with Mick Jagger! Mick Jagger, who managed to look more like his Spitting Image puppet than his Spitting Image puppet did. Dancing in the Street, with its garish, self-congratulatory, old-farts-at-play video, is a crime against humanity which alone cancels out the little good Bowie ever did.

And then the death, with its attendant outpouring of grief on a level unseen since Princess Diana’s final smash hit. Everyone rushed to recall that fateful night in 1972 when Bowie sang Starman on Top of the Pops, his arm slung around the grotesquely ugly Mick Ronson, and everyone’s lives changed forever, as if no man had ever placed his hand on another man’s shoulder in public before. “It was thrilling, dangerous, transformative,” says Dylan Jones in his 200-page book about that night, When Ziggy Played Guitar (two hundred pages! About one night!) But did this watershed moment really “create havoc in millions of sitting rooms all over Britain”, as Jones suggests? Not according to Joe Moran, who wrote in the Guardian in July 2012 that the TOTP performance “inspired no press coverage or public reaction at the time, simply vanishing into the ether to make way for The Goodies…”

In the words of the W.H. Auden poem, Musee des Beaux Arts, which we see on the page of a book in The Man Who Fell To Earth,  “the ploughman may have heard the splash, the forsaken cry, but for him it was not an important failure…. the expensive delicate ship had somewhere to get to and sailed calmly on.” Who cares about the things we post on Facebook, whether or not we like David Bowie or Hawkwind or both? Icarus plummets to earth (or rather, he plummets into the sea) and the ploughmen go about their business, blissfully unaware, for the most part, that somebody called David Bowie even existed; that he slung his arm around Mick Ronson or thrust it out in a Nazi salute.

Breughel’s painting has inspired other poems too. My favourite is by Edward Field, who imagines Icarus surviving the Fall, to lead a life of quiet, suffocating normality, a man who “had thought himself a hero (…) but now rides commuter trains, serves on various committees, and wishes he had drowned.” I don’t know what any of that has to do with David Bowie but it pretty much sums up the end of The Man Who Fell To Earth, not to mention my own life (apart from the drowning bit). As for Major Tom/Ziggy/Aladdin/The Grand Old Duke of the KKK, John Lennon had him pinned alright: it may be intermittently great, but it’s just rock and roll with lipstick on. So here are Hawkwind singing about Icarus instead….