It was early December, 1995, a Saturday evening, and my parents had gone away on holiday, leaving me the sole occupier of the family home for a week. As a burgeoning rebellious teenager that meant only one thing: inviting the lads from sixth form round for a Saturday-night session of beers, smoke and music, specifically the stuff we’d recently been getting into: The Beatles, The Kinks, anything that had influenced the Britpop movement which had crested that summer with the Blur .v. Oasis chart showdown.
We weren’t fully aware that there was another British artist who’d had a major influence on both those indie heavyweights: Oasis were to cover Heroes as a B-side two years later while Blur faced legal intervention the same year after their single M.O.R was found to bear more than a striking resemblance to Boys Keep Swinging (Eno & David later received a joint songwriting credit for the track).
Back in my hazy living room that evening we were all well aware of Bowie, although he hadn’t quite made it onto our session A-list. Only two years previously I’d bought my first single of his – Jump They Say – enamoured by its funked-up Nile Rodgers vibes, chorus guitar wail and jazzy trumpet solo, all contrasting the morbid lyrical content. As my teenage ears were more attuned to modern production values it was tracks like this, rather than Changes, Space Oddity etc, that floated my boat. Appreciation of the older stuff would surely follow, but for now it would all be kept in the back seat even longer by what we experienced that evening.
David was scheduled to appear alongside Oasis and Aztec Camera on Later…With Jools Holland, which we decided to switch on for some visual diversion, but keeping the hi-fi on full amplification as the TV was wired up to it.
I'm usually reluctant to use the adjective “mind-blowing” but to this day I struggle to find a more fitting verbal alternative for what followed. We turned on just in time for Bowie and band to launch into the sci-fi rock juggernaut of Hallo Spaceboy from his latest album Outside: a chaotic but controlled blitzkrieg of guitar feedback and distortion, pounding drums and scattered lyrics about moondust and chaos, bisected by a virtuoso piano solo.
All I remember is our collective jaw dropping and eyes widening in a stoned trance as Dave’s musical wizards battered their instruments and sent swirling into our room the most strident, other-worldly barrage of sound we’d ever heard until that juncture in our existence. For those five fleeting minutes it felt like life had clicked into place.
As an amateur guitarist I was particularly fixated upon the nonchalantly delivered dual attack of Carlos Alomar and Reeves Gabrels, both wielding Parker Fly guitars, but the overarching upshot for me was an apotheosis of the frontman, his effortless nailing of that track followed by a characteristically insouciant interview with Jools as if that were an average performance, and then he played an equally spellbinding reworked version of The Man Who Sold the World which had appeared as a B-side to previous single Strangers When We Meet. I recall feeling slightly sorry for Oasis who had to follow it all with their stock rock, which shrivelled in comparison.
Unfortunately these were pre-digibox days so unless you’d had the foresight to videotape whatever you were watching then that was it – no rewinds, no iPlayer, no instantly reliving the moment as we would surely have done repeatedly. But that’s what made the moment more special, more unforgettable, undiluted.
I remember the following week rushing to HMV at the first opportunity to buy Outside, but feeling distinctly disappointed by the album recording of the song, which sounded bereft of the urgency and vigour of the live performance we’d witnessed. Then a couple of months later saw the release of the Pet Shop Boys’ disco version which, again, sounded relatively plodding and lifeless to my ears, spoilt by what they’d already heard.
It would be ten long years until I finally got to relive that formative viewing, when YouTube arrived on the scene. Until then I’d increasingly despaired that I’d never again have the opportunity to do so, a feeling of cultural sorrow surpassed only by hearing a certain breakfast newsflash one January morning another ten years later.
By that culminating point though, aged 37, I’d fully embraced the complete breadth of David’s canon, consuming a far vaster palette of music than I’d ever anticipated as a teenager. But if I had to distil my love for his artistry into one track, one moment, then it would surely be that mid-90s TV performance, beheld through a wispy indoor haze and received by ears and consciousness that felt more open and alive at that instant than they ever would again.
Blog post uploaded on first anniversary of David's death, part of a wider tribute piece written last January,
and is to appear in a new anthology book on Bowie entitled 'Starman', released later in 2017.
Published also at Medium