Category Archives: Songwriting

George Michael: Still Listening Without Prejudice

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In September 1990, George Michael released “Listen Without Prejudice Volume 1”, the follow-up to the global monster that was his debut solo album “Faith.” My brother, a devoted George Michael fan for many years by that stage, bought the vinyl LP with its black-and-white cover shot of a crowd of immigrants. Brave move number one, where was that famous face?

I had bought the album “Faith” as a Christmas present for my brother several years previously and I decided to check out the new one. The needle dropped down on the record, the crackling began and I sat back to hear what I assumed was going to be Faith 2.

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The first track was his single release of the previous month, the anthemic “Praying for Time.” It was a good if unexpected song, but he didn’t appear in the video for it which hurt its sales. It has this sixty-ish horn section on it that indicates that this first single and first track on the album are going in a very different direction to “Faith.”

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In a new documentary both Elton John and Liam Gallagher agree (yes, George Michael’s music reaches and unites such disparate musical figures as those) that “Praying for Time” sounds like John Lennon’s “Imagine.” George admitted listening to Beatles albums at the time like “Revolver” and “Abbey Road.” Lyrically, the song echoes Phil Collins’ “Another Day in Paradise” and its socially-conscious struggle with rich white guilt. George was a very generous man during his lifetime, donating sometimes astronomical fees to charities in private which is true altruism. He clearly felt guilty about the immense wealth he attained and tried to do something to redress the balance. “And the wounded skies above” George sings in a beautiful poetic flourish that Sting would counterpoint in “Fields of Gold” with the line “we’ll forget the sun in his jealous sky.”

On to track two and straight into the superbly catchy “Freedom ’90.” Freedom was a constant theme in George Michael’s work and he’d already had a number one hit titled “Freedom” with Wham! in 1984. Freedom ’90 reevaluates what fame means to a more mature pop icon. It’s a seven-minute epic slab of funk that lays the ethos of the album bare for all to see:”Today the way I play the game is not the same, no way/Think I’m gonna get myself happy.” Once again, George would not the play media game by appearing in the video for this song. It instead featured the new wave of “supermodels” (the Kardashians of their day) – Naomi Campbell, Cindy Crawford, Linda Evangelista, etc. Directed by David Fincher (Se7en, Zodiac, Fight Club, Alien 3), it is difficult to hear this song now without seeing that iconic 1990 video in your head.

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The Man from Faith

In the video for Freedom ’90, George continues the violent deconstruction of his “Faith” image by blowing up his guitar, jukebox and setting fire to the BSA leather jacket he wore in the “Faith” video. It was reminiscent of the way David Bowie created the persona of Ziggy Stardust, it reached a crescendo of popularity and hysteria with fans and then Bowie bravely abandoned the image and created another one. Great artists do that though. They don’t want to become stale by pumping out the same stuff. They force audiences to grow and change with them by trying new things. The Beatles were the masters of that, of course.

“They Won’t Go When I Go”, a live recording of a Stevie Wonder song, is the third song on the album. If you want to hear a singer totally in control of his gift, then this is it. I had never heard the original tune, so I was literally listening without prejudice and I was blown away by it. It has the feel of an old spiritual song from the southern United States with that hymnal weariness seeping out of every groove in the vinyl. George’s voice goes crazily deep into bass territory and then right up to the top of his range and it is startling to hear it. It’s got a kind of Old Testament warning on the dangers of moral decay in the lyrics: “Unclean minds mislead the pure.” George covered many Stevie Wonder songs in his career and always made them his own. Stevie was like his spiritual and musical godfather. George had that quality that Elvis possessed of being a supreme interpreter of other people’s songs. Like The King, I thought every cover version he ever did was superior to the original and that’s a rare gift.

There’s some inevitable filler on the album like “Something to Save” and “Soul Free” but even they’re not bad. “Mother’s Pride” is an anti-war song that has its moments. George heard  Don McLean’s achingly elegiac anti-war song “The Grave” as a child and it stuck with him (he recorded it in 2003 as war in Iraq loomed.) “Mother’s Pride” has the line “his country’s eyes” and it made me wonder if he’d based it on the poster for “Born on the Fourth of July”, also from 1990.

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“Heal the Pain” is a gorgeous folky ballad that George claimed was influenced by Paul McCartney. Paul doesn’t feature on the 1990 version of the song but he did record a duet version of it with George in 2005: Listen here

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George Michael with Paul McCartney
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George and Paul perform at at the “Live 8” concert in 2005

George had received criticism from black artists like Gladys Knight and Public Enemy for winning prizes at black awards shows at the expense of black artists. It wasn’t his fault that these organisations deemed him worthy of inclusion and victory but George seemed to make a conscious effort with “Listen Without Prejudice” to veer towards the white influences of his youth. He even quotes The Rolling Stones’ “You Can’t Always Get What You Want” on “Waiting For That Day”, which resulted in a co-writing credit for Mick Jagger and Keith Richards.

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“Faith” displayed a wide variety of influences with urban RnB (“I Want Your Sex), Elvis-style 50’s rockabilly with a twist of country (the title track “Faith”) and even some Sinatra-style swing on “Kissing A Fool.” The production was super-slick and it became a monster George had created that he happily put to the sword on the follow-up. “Listen Without Prejudice” has a variety of influences too but the production isn’t geared towards the top 40 and multi-million album sales. George had gone up and up in that hot air balloon before and it terrified him. “Prejudice” is more mature and complex than “Faith.” It is more experimental and biographical. George has self-conscious things to say about fame and what it does to someone. He’s showing us the wizard behind the curtain that some of us might prefer to ignore and just hear the hits.

I didn’t like “Listen Without Prejudice” on first hearing it. A month later, after repeated listening, I thought and still think that it’s George Michael’s best album. It wasn’t the obvious sequel to “Faith” that I and a lot of other people were expecting. It challenged its audience to listen without prejudging what they assumed they were going to get. Now, in 2017, almost a year after George’s untimely and still shocking death, “Listen Without Prejudice” has a second coming in a deluxe remastered box set on October 20th. I will be getting it and reliving those shivery moments that George laid down so expertly for us. “”I believe I can leave songs that will mean something to other generations,” George said prophetically in the 80s . Indeed he did. The man was a true original and, yes, to use that overused word – a genius. We lost too many of those in 2016 – George, Bowie, Prince, etc.

I was lucky enough to see George Michael perform live in concert in Dublin twice on one of his last tours. He had one of the purest voices I’ve ever heard in my life. Like his idol Freddie Mercury, the songs George wrote were extremely high-pitched and difficult to sing live but he was note-perfect in the four hours in which I saw him. “I never heard him sing a bad note,” his pal Elton John said recently. I concur.

I worry for the future of music but it is a relief to know that no one can ever take away my memories of the great sounds of the past. “Listen Without Prejudice” happens to be one of them. Catch up with it now if you missed it the first time, kids. It’s a reminder of a time when albums were king, music meant something and creativity counted. Knock yourselves out.

“He was without doubt one of the greatest songwriters this country ever produced and certainly one of the best vocalists ever” – Elton John

© Stewart Stafford, 2017. All rights reserved.

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2016: George Michael’s Last Christmas

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George Michael died in his sleep on Christmas Day 2016 of suspected heart failure. I always associated him with Christmas because of his classic 1984 hit Last Christmas (written, produced and recorded by him when he was 21 years old, amazing) and to a lesser extent with December Song (I Dreamed of Christmas), one of his last releases in 2009. Now the anniversary of his death will always be December 25th, tying him to the festive season permanently and in a much bigger way.

So many of the 80s generation of stars I grew up listening to are gone now; George, Michael Jackson, Prince and Whitney Houston. And so many musicians have died this year including the great David Bowie (the first anniversary of his passing is in a fortnight), Prince, Rick Parfitt of Status Quo earlier this week (who sang on the Band Aid record with George) and now poor old George Michael is added to that tragic list.

The body of work of stars like those become the yardstick by which we measure our lives. Hearing a hit of theirs immediately transports you back to an earlier time in your life. George Michael had a 34-year career, but his legacy was really assured after about two decades. He was controversial, getting into legal battles with his record company, releasing songs like ‘I Want Your Sex’ in the era of the AIDS epidemic, being arrested for lewd conduct in a toilet in California, a string of car crashes, one of which lead to him spending time in jail and a series of health scares including an emergency tracheotomy to save his life when he got pneumonia on tour in Austria.

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Last Christmas is a classic for me as it captures the bittersweet feeling of the festive season. I’ve had Christmases of great joy and extreme sadness in my life. You just approach each one thinking ‘let’s hope it’s a good one’ like John Lennon cautiously wrote and sang in his Christmas song, ‘Happy Xmas (War Is Over).’ The song ‘Last Christmas’; and its memorable snowy video, deals with the trials and tribulations of young love and all the heartache and happiness that’s a part of it. It’s not automatically happy clappy, there’s a sadness there that echoes George’s own life.

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I’ve heard ‘Last Christmas’ four times in the past few days before news of George’s death was reported. The pilot of a plane I was a passenger on played it on the plane’s sound system as we landed in London, I heard it again half an hour later in Heathrow airport itself and twice more on a CD in a car I was travelling in, including Christmas Day 2016, just hours before his death. Little did I know its creator was about to leave us. There have been over 395 cover versions of Last Christmas and, no doubt, that will only grow and grow in the wake of George’s death.

George remembered Christmas as a child: ”I do love Christmas. I always have loved it, ever since I was a child. When I was young both my parents used to work so hard and they always seemed quite stressed to me. But at Christmas everyone would calm down and be nice to each other for a few days, and that used to make me feel very safe. It’s Frank Sinatra who reminds me of Christmas. During the school holidays, when I was a kid, I used to work behind the bar of my dad’s restaurant in Edgware [North London], and he’d always play Sinatra records for the customers. So that association is very strong for me. Why doesn’t it snow at the right time anymore, like it did in the ’60s? If it could snow on Christmas Eve or something that would be perfect.”

George nearly died of pneumonia at Christmas 2011 and he recalled how much he appreciated things that year: ”Best Christmas I can remember, surrounded by the people I love. And knowing that Christmas could have been very different this year for everyone at that table. As it was we stuffed and laughed ourselves silly. I’m such a lucky man! I hope you all had a great one.”

Sadly, he didn’t survive Christmas 2016.

I was lucky enough to see George in concert twice in Dublin within six months on his 25 Live tour. The first one in what’s now called the 3Arena was my favourite. He hadn’t toured extensively and his voice was still in great condition. At one stage, all the girls in the audience screamed simultaneously and a soundwave went right through my head, rocking me a bit. It was a little taste of what Beatlemania must have been like with that wall of screams filling the concert venue. The second gig was outdoors at Dublin’s RDS in the showjumping arena where I’d seen Prince fifteen years before (everyone I see in concert seems to die, I might bar myself from future shows to save lives.)

We need our musicians, the way we need all creative people to try and make sense of our lives and the world around us through their work. When they die, part of us dies with them. George Michael really was a genius. He was a huge fan of Queen and sang with them at the Freddie Mercury Tribute Concert, but he achieved what they did alone. There were four songwriters, producers and musicians in Queen. So George is more like Bowie in that respect, but George was producing his own songs by himself from his early 20s, whereas Bowie always had a co-producer helping him, so George’s achievements are even more impressive in light of that.

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Wham! were even starting to enjoy an ironic mini-comeback thanks to the year’s big hit movie Deadpool where the hero keeps mentioning them to comic effect throughout the movie. Sad that he won’t get the chance to take advantage of that as there are some great songs there. Predictably though, there will be an inevitable huge surge in sales of George Michael and Wham! songs in the coming days, weeks and months.

I was going to bed on Christmas night and checked my messages to see if British Airways had traced my missing luggage for my wedding (they haven’t!). That’s when I saw George had died and my heart sank. Then I reminded myself of his self-destructive nature and that we were lucky to have had him as long as we did. In this age of karaoke X-Factor wannabes stealing their 15 minutes of fame by parroting old songs, he was a true original. We really will never see another like him. Rest in peace, George.

© Stewart Stafford, 2016. All rights reserved

Remembering Freddie Mercury – The King of Queen

freddie-mercury-1974-2It was on this day, November 24th, a quarter of a century ago that the world lost Freddie Mercury. I remember the day well. I’d read in the newspaper (remember them?) in April 1991 that Freddie had a “mystery wasting illness.” It said he’d viewed some properties for sale in London and the owner was told to “be out” when Freddie arrived. He was seen being helped in and out of the car. As soon as I read that, I knew it was AIDS. Still, I thought he had a few years more to live.

On November 23rd, he put out the press release confirming he had AIDS. On Sunday the 24th, I was flicking through the TV channels before going to bed and Sky News were playing the Barcelona video. The newscaster, Scott Chisolm, said: “That’s how he’d want to be remembered.” I thought it was a bit premature to be talking about him in the past tense despite his AIDS diagnosis. Then he read the headline that Freddie had just died. Despite my suspicions, it was still a hell of a shock. I remember just sitting there stunned the next day, the wind howling outside. Queen guitarist Brian May said Freddie’s death was one of the grimmest memories of his life. It was one of mine too. An awful, frightening time. There was no cure for AIDS then and it appeared the virus was going to go on killing people indefinitely. Who would be next?

I was 20 then and Freddie seemed old to me at 45. I’m 45 now and, I can tell you, it isn’t old at all. He was still a young man with a long way to go, but we never get the best for very long. They come out of nowhere, shake up everything and then they’re gone, leaving us to wonder who they really were and where they came from.

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Most rock stars die suddenly without warning; Elvis, John Lennon, Jim Morrison, Jimi Hendrix, etc. Freddie, like his Under Pressure collaborator David Bowie, knew he was dying and had time to prepare for it. There are little hints and clues in the final albums released while he was alive The Miracle and Innuendo.

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His most famous work, Bohemian Rhapsody, was re-released and hit number one again over Christmas 1991 for five weeks (adding to the nine weeks it had spent at number one in the UK over Christmas 1975.) It’s been said that the success of Bohemian Rhapsody gave Freddie the money and fame to embark on the lifestyle that killed him. The song made him, remade him at Live Aid in 1985 and was a fitting epitaph to his career in late 1991.

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How good was Freddie Mercury? He named the band Queen, designed their logo, wrote their first top ten hit and their first number one single. Just look at the originality of Bohemian Rhapsody. There hasn’t been a song like it before or since. That’s why it stands so far apart and above most other contemporary songs. Freddie wasn’t only a genius songwriter, he was a superb pianist, arranger, producer and an unforgettable showman on stage (I was lucky enough to see him on his last tour with Queen at Slane when I was 14). Who else could walk on before a football stadium crowd and command them all effortlessly for two hours? There was that unique voice with the four-octave range. The groundbreaking and hilarious videos Queen made. He even danced with the Royal Ballet company for Christ’s sake. And all this before the age of 45. He crammed a lot of life into his short time on earth. May he rest in peace while conducting the choir eternal.

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I’ll leave the final words to Freddie himself, he said: “I don’t think I’ll make old bones and I don’t care. I’ve lived a full life. I really have done it all and if I’m dead tomorrow I don’t care a damn.”

© Stewart Stafford, 2016. All rights reserved.

Wuthering Heights & Its Influence on Vampire and Popular Culture

Wuthering Heights, the only novel by author Emily Bronte before her death at 30, has been highly influential on popular culture. It was published in 1847, the year of the great Famine in Ireland, Bram Stoker’s birth and exactly 50 years before he published Dracula.

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The book begins with the narrator Lockwood coming to stay at Wuthering Heights. He is given the former room of Catherine Earnshaw. During the night, he dreams that the ghost of Catherine or Cathy Earnshaw comes to the window, grabs his arm and begs to be let inside. Lockwood informs Heathcliff, the landlord, who opens the window to let the spirit enter but none appears. This supernatural appearance at the window is similar to how Dracula gains entry to the bedrooms of his victims, except he uses his mental, physical and/or erotic power to get in. In some vampire stories, it is necessary to invite a vampire in for them to gain access. It would appear to have at least partially originated in this standout scene from Wuthering Heights.

The story of Wuthering Heights is then told in flashback (Stoker also uses narrators to tell the story of Dracula but in the form of letters and journal entries). Heathcliff as a child is discovered wandering homeless by Mr Earnshaw on his trip to Liverpool. (Liverpool is a port and, as with Dracula, Heathcliff seems to have arrived in England by ship although that is never stated in the book. Judging by the ethnic description of him though and the location where he was found, it is a strong possibility.) The boy is described as “a dark-skinned gypsy in aspect.” Earnshaw names him Heathcliff and brings him home where his presence stirs up jealousy from Earnshaw’s son Hindley and infatuation from his daughter Cathy.

Heathcliff, like Dracula, is the mysterious, dark foreigner bringing his obsessive, destructive and ultimately lethal love to England’s stuffy upper classes. The theme repeatedly used in Wuthering Heights about eternal love even after death was one Bram Stoker would return to in Dracula five decades later.

Although they appear destined to be together, Cathy and Heathcliff grow up and marry other people and their relationship turns jealously masochistic with fatal consequences. Only after their deaths do they appear to fulfill their destiny and become soulmates at last.

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Sir Henry Irving
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Irish author Bram Stoker

Dracula author Bram Stoker was the manager of actor Sir Henry Irving. Irving was a fearsome figure who dominated Stoker. Many believe him to be the inspiration for Stoker’s vampire count.

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Laurence Olivier’s Heathcliff (1939)

Not only did Irving serve as inspiration for Bram Stoker but, indirectly, for actor Laurence Olivier who played both Heathcliff in Wuthering Heights and Van Helsing in Dracula onscreen.

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Olivier as Van Helsing in Dracula (1979)

When stuck for ideas on how to play Shakespeare’s Richard III in the movie he was directing, Olivier said: ‘I’d always heard imitations of old actors imitating Henry Irving. And so I did, right away, an imitation of these old actors imitating Henry Irving’s voice. That’s why I took that sort of rather narrow vocal address.’

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Olivier as Richard III (1955)
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Ralphie Glick returns as a vampire

Cathy’s ghost appearing at the window echoes the victory over death and return from the grave in vampire lore. Stephen King’s 1975 novel Salem’s Lot was inspired by Dracula. One night over supper, King mused what would happen if Dracula reappeared in the-then 20th century. Again, King makes the connection between Dracula and Wuthering Heights explicit when dead boy Ralphie Glick comes to his brother’s window after being preyed upon by the master vampire in the town. He also wishes to be let in as Cathy does.

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Kate Bush in the video for Wuthering Heights

In 1978, Kate Bush reached number one in the UK charts with her song Wuthering Heights. It was directly inspired by a 1967 BBC adaptation of Emily Bronte’s novel that Kate Bush saw when she was 18 (she even shares the same birthday as Emily Bronte). Bush specifically chose Cathy’s appearance at the window in the book to structure the song around and wrote from her perspective: “Heathcliff! It’s me, your Cathy, I’ve come home. So co-o-o-old, let me in at your window.” She definitely played up the scary, supernatural side of the scene and wasn’t afraid to potentially frighten away record buyers. Her bravery paid off with her first and only number one to date.

Kate Bush’s mother was from Ireland. With her high-pitched wailing and scary eyes in the video, it’s tempting to imagine Kate Bush shifting the setting of Wuthering Heights to Ireland and the ghost of Cathy becoming a Banshee coming in from a misty bog in the Irish countryside. Journalist Clive James famously stated in 1978 that he wasn’t sure ‘whether Kate Bush is a genius or a headcase, but she is definitely something else.’ Her ethereal, otherworldly performance spooked some people just as the original scene in Emily Bronte’s book had.

You can watch the two very interesting versions of her Wuthering Heights videos here;

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It just demonstrates how, when an author hits upon a striking and powerful image, it can permeate down consciously and unconsciously through many forms of artistic expression for decades and even centuries to come.

© Stewart Stafford, 2016. All rights reserved.

The Vorbing vampire novel by Stewart Stafford

A Hobbit, Four Beatles, a Queen and a Led Zeppelin: How Tolkien Influenced British Music In The 1960s and 7os

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Allow me to elaborate on my quote, dear readers. In the Second World war, Britain and Germany were gleefully bombing each other’s major cities into oblivion day and night. In the myopia of war, they thought they were engaged in a conflict to strengthen themselves, but were, in fact, destroying each other as major world powers. This created a vacuum into which stepped the new superpowers – the United States and the Soviet Union.

In the aftermath of the war, Britain was devastated physically, financially and mentally. Rationing was still in force and luxuries were unheard of for a whole generation of children. The war was before their time but the impact and implications of it were a daily fact of life. Ruined areas called bomb sites still pockmarked the land and the new kids played on them, including a young David Bowie.

Bowie’s biographer Paul Trynka kicks off his excellent book Starman with this illustration of grim post-war austerity from Peter Prickett: “Everything seemed grey. We wore short grey flannel trousers of a thick and rough material, grey socks and grey shirts. The roads were grey, the prefabs were grey and the bomb sites seemed to be made of grey rubble.”

Behold the constraints of reality! Glam Rock in the 70s was going to be the antithesis of all that childhood drabness and deprivation. First though, Tolkien would unleash the beast that was The Lord of the Rings. Despite being written in stages between 1937 and 1949, three volumes were published over the course of a year between 1954 and 1955 (The Fellowship of the Ring, The Two Towers and the Return of the king). There was a sudden glut of Tolkien product in the marketplace at just the right time. The books were manna from Heaven for a generation starved of good food, new ideas and hope. For the first time, they had in their hands an affordable escape and a template for a way out of their difficult situations. It was like the scene in the Wizard of Oz where the world goes from monochrome to eye-popping technicolor as Dorothy reaches Oz. John Lennon was one of many British kids who became a fan of Tolkien’s.

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The Beatles turned everything on its head when they shot to fame in 1962. As well as topping the charts with monster hits on both sides of the Atlantic, they also made some remarkable films including A Hard Day’s Night, Help and the surreal, Pythonesque Magical Mystery Tour. Kicking around for ideas for a new Fab Four flick, John Lennon suggested an adaptation of Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings.

Peter Jackson directed both The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings trilogies. In 2014, he said “The Beatles once approached Stanley Kubrick to do The Lord Of The Rings and he said no. I actually spoke about this with Paul McCartney. He confirmed it. I’d heard rumors that it was going to be their next film after Help.”

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It wasn’t just Kubrick who rejected The Beatles: “It was something John was driving, and J.R.R. Tolkien still had the film rights at that stage, but he didn’t like the idea of the Beatles doing it. So he killed it,” Jackson added.

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Lennon had published two books himself, A Spaniard In The Works and In His Own Write, his love of wordplay being evident in the titles. Lennon was fan of Lewis Carroll as well as Tolkien and his writing has been compared to Carroll’s, particularly I Am The Walrus.

 

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It is arguable that many of the prog rock concept albums of the 70s were an attempt to transfer Tolkien’s epic fantasy imagery to the album format. Rick Wakeman played piano on Bowie’s Life On Mars and was the keyboard player with Yes. Wakeman did a 70s concert at an ice rink with skaters playing knights on horseback jousting to the music he was playing. He admitted recently that he had gone too far but it was excess-all-areas in the 70s.

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Lord of the Strings

Robert Plant of Led Zeppelin was a serious Tolkien nerd, liberally sprinkling references to the books in his songs. Take these lines from Zeppelin’s Ramble On: “Twas in the darkest depths of Mordor, I met a girl so fair. But Gollum and the evil one crept up and slipped away with her.”

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Queen, in turn, were big fans of Led Zeppelin. They played Zeppelin’s Immigrant Song during soundchecks and Plant turned up at The Freddie Mercury Tribute Concert in 1992 to perform Innuendo and Crazy Little Thing Called Love. It’s possible that Freddie and the boys imbibed some of Zeppelin’s Tolkien imagery by osmosis. Seven Seas of Rhye was Queen’s first hit. It came out in 1974 and was written by Freddie Mercury. Rhye was a fantasy world that Freddie had created with his sister Kashmira. Freddie sings of “the mighty Titan and his troubadours” in Seven Seas of Rhye. On other Queen albums there was “Ogre Battle” and “Fairy Feller’s Master-Stroke.” The imagery of Brian May’s The Prophet’s Song on A Night At The Opera is very Tolkienesque, although the images came to him in a dream. Queen would also go on to do the music for fantasy films like Highlander and Flash Gordon.

Tolkien was probably horrified by the bands and music he inspired but that would have been a typical reaction from his generation. None of it was intended for him. He was unable to foresee the consequences of publishing his books but it is interesting to see how one creative act can inspire many similar and dissimilar ones, spreading out like ripples in a pond. We pass the torch of inspiration down the generations, it is not ours to keep but ours to maintain and pass on.

© Stewart Stafford, 2016. All rights reserved.

 

Queen at the Castle Part 2

Dawn. July 5th, 1986. The bus carrying my brother and I took off from Sallynoggin Church and our odyssey to Slane Castle to see the mighty Queen began. On the bus, we met a guy who went to our school. He’d formed a band and we chatted with him for a while.

Eventually, we left the outskirts of Dublin and entered the verdant area of County Meath where Slane Castle is located. The bus stopped, we got out and began the walk to the castle grounds. Along the route, we saw many people selling Queen paraphernalia. (You can see more about some of the counterfeit material on sale on the day in this clip here; https://youtu.be/amquOZpC2iA) The official merchandise was on sale inside the grounds. A t-shirt cost nearly twice the price of the concert ticket if I remember correctly. Crazy money.

The first big surprise of the day was that Slane is a natural bowl shape and wasn’t like a flat stadium venue (during Radio Ga Ga, I looked back to see this vast forest of clapping hands going up onto the hill in the sunset. I’ve never seen anything like it before or since)

We made our way downhill towards the stage and found a good spot about three-quarters of the way up the field (we were by the right spotlight tower at the front in this picture).

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I saw a guy in front of me wearing an army jacket with the four heads from Queen’s Bohemian Rhapsody video and Queen II album cover on the back of it. I got a flashback to the time Bo Rhap was number one in ’75. I remember asking my dad why that video was on at the end of the show every week. He told me it was because it was the best selling song of the week. It struck me how long their music had been in my life.

The show kicked off with long-forgotten Irish group, The Fountainhead. They started with their song The Rhythm Method and the sound system boomed into life and echoed in my chest like a fist pounding on it. It took a bit of getting used to. The rain started coming down and The Fountainhead were gone. A chap in front of us lay unconscious in the muddy grass with rain beating down on his face. I’ve often wondered what happened to him in the years since.

American girl group The Bangles appeared and the drunken male crowd leered into life, hurling anything they could lay their hands on at them (It was easily the roughest crowd I’ve ever been a part of at any show since.) They did their hit Manic Monday and another song called Going Down To Liverpool, which featured the line: “Where you goin’ with that UB40 in your hand?” Their blonde drummer sang that song and, upon seeing that a red shoe had landed on the stage, she rewrote the line so it went “where you goin’ with that UB40 in your FOOT?!” Someone hurled a 2-litre bottle of orange at them and it went up over their heads and spilled its sticky contents all over one of them. They were already standing at the back of the stage to avoid electrocution by the rain. Their set finished, The Bangles left the stage. 20 years later, Bangles singer Susanna Hoffs was asked what she thought of their brief Slane slot. “It was like Raging Bull,” she said, “like a Scorsese movie.” I concur.

We waited for the next act to take the stage. Another drunk guy in front of us was groping any female that went past as we ate some sandwiches from our cooler bag. Surreal wasn’t the word for it.

Chris Rea took to the stage and, to everyone’s surprise, the crowd calmed down and gave Chris a really warm reception. One journalist remarked that Chris Rea may have accounted for a sizable chunk of the ticket sales. I just sang along as I knew his songs and wanted to have a good time and I think most people were like that. I Can Hear Your Heart Beat was a particular crowd favourite with everyone singing loudly and clapping as the sun came out at last. Chris left the stage to rapturous applause. When it died down, we all knew it was time for Queen to rock us all.

Half an hour went past. It felt like three. More rain showers came down. Finally, the distorted sound of One Vision started up. Intoxicated people at the back reacted like cavemen and ran downhill towards the noise. The wave of people gathered momentum and bodies like a tsunami until it slammed into me. I was lifted off the ground and carried about ten or fifteen feet forward. My brother grabbed onto my bag strap so I wouldn’t get swept away and lost in the melee.

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Finally, the human wave seemed to stop as Freddie Mercury appeared with a crown on his head. (Freddie usually came out with his crown and ermine cape at the end as God Save The Queen played.)

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(But with political tensions of The Troubles in Northern Ireland at their height, it was wisely decided not to play it and end the show with We Are The Champions.) Here’s Freddie’s appearance on an Irish news report that I timer-recorded on our old Blaupunkt VHS recorder while we were at the show: https://youtu.be/9iPGiiAseAs)

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Queen were about to get their first taste of the dark side of the crowd. During Seven Seas of Rhye, Freddie said “Hold it, hold it!” to the rest of Queen. They stopped playing as Freddie pointed into the crowd at a young guy getting crushed. “Are you all right?” Freddie asked. It appeared that he was. Freddie took the opportunity to let the crowd know his displeasure. “We don’t like this,” Freddie said, “you guys are spoiling this concert for the rest of the people!” That got a loud cheer. About time someone tried to impose a little order on the chaos.

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It got worse before it got better. Down the front of the stage, several inebriated chaps were using a battering ram to smash through to the backstage area. The hoses that had been installed to cool the crowd in a heatwave were put to use as makeshift water cannon against the intruders. I could see the water sheeting off them down the front (you can see in the photo that their clothes and hair are wet and water is splashing on the ground as they’re running).

There was even a possibly apocryphal story of a passing drunk unplugging the live feed that Queen were recording for their Live Magic album which came out later in 1986 in December. (Or was Slane cut out in disgust by Freddie? That seems more likely.)

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One fan even managed to clamber up onto the stage as Freddie was singing and ran right at him. Freddie calmly put his arm around the boy’s shoulders and walked him to the wings where security took care of him.

The local Slane residents insisted on the show ending before dark, so Queen’s lighting effects lost a lot of their power in the fading daylight (just look at the Wembley show at night a week later to see what might have been.) The Olympic-style torches above the stage ignited during Bohemian Rhapsody to a big cheer from the crowd.

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During We Are The Champions, the whole crowd was swaying in unison at last as opposed to fighting everything. I found myself standing next to an old Hell’s Angel in a leather jacket. A dude swaying up on someone’s shoulders spilled cider on my head, a baptism in rowdiness at my debut concert. While he did apologise, I went home reeking of someone else’s alcohol. As the show ended, the Hell’s Angel asked me what I thought of the show. I was dumbstruck. “Now there’s a man of few words!” the Hell’s Angel said, “what did you think???” I managed a “great”, I think and we started the long climb up the natural hill of Slane’s auditorium. It had been a long, long day full of surprises, some good, some nasty, but the primary feeling was one of elation to have seen my idols at my first show.

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The drama didn’t end there. It’s conservatively estimated that 80,000 people attended Queen’s Slane show. I can tell you that there were at least 100,000 people, if not 120,000 in attendance. This is borne out by the crushing in the crowd and the fact that the exit wasn’t big enough to cope with the numbers trying to pour out through it at the end. My brother and I were forced off to the side by the jostling crowd and got pushed up against this barbed wire fence. We had to climb over it, balance on top of a wall and drop down several feet to the road below to get back to our bus (not easy when your legs are stiff from standing all day.). All of which had to be done in a split-second as another crush was forcing people over the barbed wire fence right on top of us. As a wide-eyed 14-year-old kid, I just went with the flow. Looking back, it’s a miracle I wasn’t seriously injured that day. Today, everything is Health & Safety. In ’86, it was Cheap & Cheerful. You sucked it up and got on with it and nobody sued for damages.

In the days before mobile phones and the internet, there was no way for us to contact home and let them know we were okay. By 10.30pm, my mother was getting frantic with worry and sent my dad out in his car to find us. (I never told my mother the full details of what happened that day as I knew she’d probably never let me out again and would be worried sick if she did.) Sure enough, we met my father at the top of Johnstown Road, he picked us up and we got home. Still buzzing from the concert, I checked the videotape to find out if it had recorded the news broadcast. It had and I still have that recording to this day (probably because it was recorded on an excellent German BASF tape.)

Next day, I woke up still tired but exhilarated. I couldn’t believe I’d seen Queen. During a lull in the Wimbledon tennis final between Boris Becker and Ivan Lendl, I went out on my bike to get the newspapers and see what they’d written about Queen at Slane. I naively thought they’d rave about the concert. The reviews rubbished Queen’s show. The Irish Sunday Independent review had the headline “Rhapsody on a Soggy Saturday.” “Queen pulverized every one of their songs with a heavy, turgid performance,” said another reviewer. I was wondering if they’d watched the same show I had.

Freddie was so enraged by the crowd’s behaviour that he vowed never to play live in Ireland again. That vow would never be put to the test as he was diagnosed with HIV nine months later and died in 1991 of complications from AIDS. Brian May apparently refused to go on for Queen’s Slane encore after being struck by an object thrown from the crowd. He did go on again after being persuaded by his bandmates. Asked about Slane in a 1989 interview, Brian diplomatically said that there was “an element of noisemakers” in the crowd but added that “the Irish crowd is wonderful to play to.” “It’s the nature of an outdoor gig that it becomes a kind of drinking party,” he said. Brian did play Ireland again in 1992 on his Back to the Light solo tour in the wake of Freddie’s death.

One possible reason for the crowd’s rowdiness at Slane ’86 is that Ireland was in recession at the time and jobs and hope were scarce. It was so bad that the Self Aid concert was organised in May 1986 to help Ireland’s unemployed. It featured U2, The Boomtown Rats and Elvis Costello among others. 30,000 people left Ireland looking for work in 1986, my brother being one of them. He was with me at Slane and, six weeks later, he was gone to America. In the year that followed, he was only home for four months. Luckily, Ireland’s Celtic Tiger boom was just a few years away in the 1990s and my brother was able to stay in Ireland and start his own successful business.

As for me, that boy of few words grew up to become a man of many words and I published my first book, The Vorbing, in October 2015.

Stewart Stafford, The Vorbing, The Vampire Creation Myth Begins, Horror

The only thing that remains is for Queen + Adam Lambert to do some Irish shows. They’ve performed everywhere except the Emerald Isle. What are you waiting for, guys? This story isn’t over yet.

© Stewart Stafford, 2016. All Rights Reserved.

Footnote:

Going through some Slane ’86 photos online, I somehow located my 14-year-old self in the crowd

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Queen+Adam Lambert HAVE announced an Irish date for late 2017 and I’ll be in attendance. The story continues…

 

 

Queen at the Castle Part 1

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It was on July 5th 1986 that I set out with my brother to my very first concert – Queen at Slane Castle in County Meath in Dublin, Ireland. The previous summer, I’d watched in awe as Freddie Mercury had stolen the Live Aid show right from under the noses of the creme de la creme of the rock and pop world. When Queen’s Magic Tour was announced in 1986, I knew I had to see them.

My brother and I saved up the money for the tickets and, in April 1986, he purchased our tickets in Golden Discs record store in Dun Laoghaire for 14.50 in old Irish pounds. We were going to see Queen live in concert. The Easter holidays ended and I went back to school knowing I had weeks of revision for summer exams to come.

We also had to figure out a way of getting there. I spotted an advertisement in the old Dunnes Stores in Cornelscourt for a bus service to Slane. We booked our seats. The last piece of the puzzle was in place.

July 4th 1986, the night before the show. The food and drink had been bought and all the preparations had been made. I remember watching a documentary on the renovation of the Statue of Liberty that was going on at the time. Then it was time for bed.

I woke up with that Christmas morning feeling – tired but high on adrenalin. We set off quietly in the dawn sunrise for our bus trip. The meeting point was Sallynogging Church where my parents had married 20 years before. My brother had also made his First Holy Communion there. Later, my mother’s funeral took place there, so it had great significance for my family. The bus arrived, we boarded and our great adventure had begun…

Copyright, Stewart Stafford, 2016. All rights reseved

His Name Was Prince

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The world lost the diminutive genius Prince earlier today. He had the moves of James Brown, the guitar virtuosity of Jimi Hendrix (just listen to the incendiary intro to When Doves Cry), the sexually ambiguous look of Little Richard, the songwriting talent of a shed load of Motown writers and the funk credentials of George Clinton and Earth, Wind and Fire.

I saw him in concert when the Diamonds & Pearls tour reached Dublin in the summer of 1992. The show was in the showjumping arena at the Royal Dublin Society (RDS), a place where Hitler’s brother once worked as a waiter (fact). The support acts were Curtis Stigers (remember him?) and Andrew Strong from The Commitments (remember him?). Then it was time for the main event at last.

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The band struck up, the lights came on and the whole thing reached a crescendo, setting the scene for Prince’s arrival. Then right in the middle of the stage, a little glass coffin rose up with his Royal Purpleness within. The crowd went apeshit and the soundwave went through my head. Prince stepped out, this tiny whirling dervish, and the show never stopped moving for the next two hours. “You’re too funky for me, Dublin!” he said at one stage (and we were, he he). It was a truly dazzling gig. One of the best concerts I’ve ever seen and I’m not just saying that to jump on the bandwagon now he’s dead.

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Then there’s all the hits he wrote; When Doves Cry, Kiss, 1999, Batdance (right back at the start of the current superhero craze in 1989), Purple Rain, Raspberry Beret, Sign O’ The Times, Gett Off, Cream, The Most Beautiful Girl In The World and so on. He also created classic hits for other artists including I Feel For You by Chaka Khan, Nothing Compares 2 U by Sinead O’Connor and Manic Monday for The Bangles (written under the pseudonym Christopher).

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His identity was as fluid as his dance moves and image. In dispute with his record company in the early 90s, he became Symbol (above) or T.A.F.K.A.P. (The Artist Formerly Known As Prince) and wrote the word “Slave” across his face.

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Manadatory Credit: Photo by Brian Rasic / Rex Features (396812dh) PRINCE VARIOUS

He owned his own recording studio Paisley Park which was apparently where his body was found earlier today. Prince Rogers Nelson was a true original and there will never be another. It was a privilege to have grown up with his music and it will be there forever now. We never do get the great ones for long, do we? May he funk in peace.

© Stewart Stafford, 2016. All rights reserved.

Indie Authors: The New Punks

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We’ve all heard about the self-publishing revolution in books in the last few years with Amazon Kindle and all the other e-readers and websites. I was watching a BBC documentary called ArtsNight last week and the presenter made an interesting point: punk rock bands were the first indie authors. They learned their three chords, set up their own bands and, in some cases, record labels and self-published their own music. They took control of their own destinies in the same way novelists did recently. Even the punk fanzines were do-it-yourself wonders; stapled together, photocopied and distributed through record stores, mailing lists, by hand and by word-of-mouth in those pre-pre-internet days.

It’s a very cogent analogy. As with the self-published books, some of the DIY punk music that was put out was awful, but some of it has reached classic status in hindsight. Self-publishing until recently was called “vanity publishing,” but writers were no longer prepared to sit on their hands waiting months for a form rejection letter. They too seized their own destinies through the technology that was around them and turned the publishing industry on its head.

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Movies are even being made from self-published books for the first time like Ridley Scott’s The Martian starring Matt Damon and a future fantasy film that 20th Century Fox has purchased the rights to called Fall of Gods (even after that movie deal was signed, the book was taken down from Amazon due to formatting issues, the bane of indie authors everywhere. Luckily, it didn’t impact on the movie deal and Fox could see the merit of what was there despite the flaws.)

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Punks and indie authors are strange bedfellows indeed, but both groups were and are pioneers in their fields. While the punk movement didn’t manage to overthrow the mainstream in the same way hippies in the previous generation hadn’t, they democratised their art form and showed others what was possible with self-belief and a little effort. Just as indie authors did. The shockwaves of the indie author revolution are still spreading out from the epicentre and nobody really knows where it will stop or what comes next. The most important thing is that books that would have gathered dust in drawers and on hard drives and memory sticks are now finding a worldwide audience. That can only be a good thing.

© Stewart Stafford, 2016. All rights reserved.

David Bowie – Anonymous Icon

“If you feel safe in the area you’re working in, you’re not working in the right area. Always go a little further into the water than you feel you’re capable of being in. Go a little bit out of your depth. And when you don’t feel that your feet are quite touching the bottom, you’re just in the right place to do something exciting.”

David Bowie

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David Bowie was all wrong for the 1960s for many reasons. Firstly, he tried to fit in with whatever trend was happening at the time. He hadn’t found his own look or voice yet. We’re all guilty of mimicking our influences until we find ourselves. (Some of Bowie’s 60s output has been compared to The Who. During the recording of Under Pressure with Queen in 1981, Brian May played a take and said it sounded like The Who. Sixties Bowie might have been pleased with the comparison but not the Bowie of 1981. He frowned and said to Brian May: “Well, it won’t sound like The Who by the time we’ve finished with it.” He was not an imitator anymore but an innovator pushing for perfection.)

David Bowie had been ignored in the 1960s. He had been trying since he was 15 in 1962 to break into music with various bands, images and sounds. He’d been a mod, an acoustic hippy and even tried putting out novelty records like The Laughing Gnome. After seven years, he had only managed one hit right at the tail-end of the decade in September 1969 with Space Oddity (he’d never be allowed that much time in today’s music business and the world would miss out on a spectacular talent). For nearly three years after that, nothing he tried worked.

The late sixties were all about Flower Power and everyone being one with each other and the Earth. Bowie, with his unusual eyes, was about the opposite – the outsider.

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Bowie wasn’t going to be ignored again and decided on a new strategy for the 1970s. He would push his outsider look about as far as it could go to become the gender-bending extraterrestrial messiah Ziggy Stardust in the 1970s. Whereas Elvis was himself, Bowie would play a character to become a superstar, an interesting twist on what The King had started. It was influenced by the androgynous look of Little Richard in the 50s and Bowie was a huge fan of that.

“It’s always time to question what has become standard and established,” he said.

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David Bowie wasn’t going to follow the crowd and try to fit in anymore. He was going to use shock tactics and press everyone’s buttons. He was going to wear a dress and publicly state that he was gay despite being married to Angie (the gay thing is no big deal these days, back then the impact of such a statement was seismic. Many Hollywood stars like Rock Hudson denied they were gay in interviews until the end as they were afraid it would ruin their careers. As Bowie didn’t really have a career at the time, it had the reverse effect and was the making of him).

Bowie was clever enough to figure out that there are two ways to get your message out there; advertising (which costs money) and publicity (which is free). He was going to make the press work for him by tossing them eye-opening quotes and posing for provocative pictures to make them do the work of drumming up interest in his career with headlines. While wearing dresses didn’t give him the breakthrough he craved, it gave him his first unique image and people started to remember him. Bowie was moving in the right direction.

To give an example of how brave David Bowie was, he decided to walk around TEXAS wearing A DRESS in the early 70s! A guy called him a fag and pointed a loaded gun at his head. Did it phase Bowie? Nope, on the contrary, it proved his shock tactics were working. He was getting noticed at last. He wasn’t following another trend, he was setting his own. Bowie would do exactly what he wanted in the 1970s and nobody was going to stop him and they didn’t. He was about to take things even further and really push the boundaries of what was acceptable.

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On June 17th 1972, Bowie performed mock fellatio on guitarist Mick Ronson at a show in Oxford. Bowie’s manager Tony De Fries took Mick Rock’s photo and had it made into a full-page advert in music paper Melody Maker. There were repercussions and paint was thrown on the front door of the house in Hull where Mick Ronson’s parents lived. Paint was also thrown on the car he’d bought them. Ronson left the tour but was persuaded to return. If Bowie was going to suffer for his art, so were those around him.

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On July 6th 1972, David Bowie appeared in what would be a life-changing performance of Starman on the now-defunct Top of the Pops. During his spot, guitarist Mick Ronson joined him to harmonise and Bowie draped his arm around him in a limp-wristed fashion. Bowie knew exactly what he was doing. A young Boy George remembered his grandmother saying “oh, he’s a poofter!” when she saw Bowie make that gesture and similar statements were uttered in homes all over Britain. Of course, anything parents didn’t like was automatically what kids were going to get into and they flocked to Bowie in their droves as new fans (concert audiences began to grow noticeably after this). It was a masterstroke. In a Stardust flash, David Bowie was a star after a decade of trying. Such was the power of television then. It had made Elvis a star in the 50s, saved his career with the ’68 Comeback Special and did the same for Bowie in 1972.

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The Ziggy Stardust image was such a hit, Bowie said “I thought I might as well take Ziggy out to interviews as well. Why leave him on the stage? Why not complete the canvas? Looking back it was completely absurd. It became very dangerous. I really did have doubts about my sanity. I can’t deny that experience affected me in a very exaggerated and marked manner. I think I put myself very dangerously near the line. Not in a physical sense, but definitely in a mental sense.”

While Bowie appeared to be telling all his most intimate secrets to the world, what he was really doing was projecting a fake image of himself and revealing nothing. In later years, long after he stopped playing characters, he retained that air of mystery even up until his death (especially after his enforced retirement following a minor heart attack on stage in 2004).

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Check the finger, Paparazzi!

 

It’s something he has in common with Freddie Mercury, both men hid in plain sight for decades. When you look at the information they left behind about themselves, it seems to tell you a lot but doesn’t. They showed but didn’t tell and perfected the politician’s art of doublespeak. That is why the public remain fascinated with them and will continue to be for the foreseeable future.

© Stewart Stafford, 2016. All rights reserved.