Every time I hear ‘John, I’m Only Dancing’ I still recall that thrill
Lots of David Bowie memories came flooding back on the news of his unexpected death today. I’m not going to knit them into any kind of theme or draw an important conclusion (like a proper writer or something). I’m just going to set down what I remember.
In June 1971, between the initial success of Space Oddity and his transformation into Ziggy Stardust, I rediscovered Bowie on a BBC Radio 1 In Concert show which I listened to with my old friend Neil Meikle while we were babysitting one night. We were both 15.
As long-haired fans of what had not yet been called heavy metal (Zep, Purple, Sabbath) and prog rock (ELP, Yes, early Genesis), we had rather liked his song Saviour Machine when it came on the radio a few weeks earlier. But he didn’t play it on this John Peel-hosted show and apart from Queen Bitch, the rest all sounded a bit folkie and whimsical to us.
At this stage our adolescent ears were tuned to accept heavy,distorted guitars and little else. But by the time Ziggy Stardust came out a year later I was sufficiently interested to pay 50p to a school mate for a reject vinyl copy from the RCA pressing plant at Washington, a few miles up the road. This was a black-market sideline for people who worked there. All you had to do was trim a few excess black bits from the edges and it played fine.
Before I had even listened to it, I took this bare LP (you had to send off for the sleeve if you wanted one) to my friend Stewart Murrell’s house in Chester-le-Street. This was after school one night, and I recall him skipping through the start of every track on his parents’ posh Bang & Olufsen stereo. (The wood and leatherette radiogram at our house made a loud noise like a convection heater as soon as you turned it on).
In my recollection Stewart gave each song about 15 seconds before dismissing it out of hand and moving the needle to the next one. All the way from Five Years to Rock and Roll Suicide. (He doesn’t remember it that way at all, I discovered quite recently). But when I managed to listen to the album properly, I grew to love Ziggy Stardust, and it began a slow broadening of my musical horizons.
Soon after that I met my first real girlfriend, and it was our mutual liking of Bowie that pulled Dot Walker and I together. We were on an inter-schools field trip to the Lake District at the time and when John, I’m Only Dancing came on at a teacher-chaperoned disco we capered on to the floor together. Words were whispered and moves were made. And every time l hear that track I still recall the thrill.
Dot adored Bowie with a passion. She had already delved deeply into Lou Reed and the Velvet Underground’s back catalogues thanks to the Bowie connection and she even had a rare version of his Man Who Sold The World album with the American cartoon version of the cover. (His US label had rejected the man-in-a-dress picture on the UK original).
Soon, her best friend Joan Smith got together with my school pal Peter Downey, and with a few others we became an arty little clique of would-be fops, drinking Bloody Marys and smoking Sobranie Black Russians in the cocktail bar of the Royal Station Hotel in Newcastle.
We were all working-class Geordies but the enjoyable delusion that we were clever young sophisticates was entirely fired by our obsessions with the music and style of David Bowie and Roxy Music. I even had pictures of Bowie and Brian Eno side by side on my bedroom wall four years before they started recording together on Bowie’s Low album.
There’s one final memory from that period and I can’t remember its exact place in the timeline, but it’s the one with the most social, as opposed to personal, significance.
Just round the corner from our house lived a guy a little older than me. I had vaguely known him as a fellow music obsessive for a while without ever having a proper conversation. Then one day we were in the same pub and he came over and joined me and another friend. To our great shock, he told us that he was gay and had only recently come out. In the macho, football-obsessed north-east of the mid-1970s this was a startling revelation and in fact he was first ‘out’ gay person I ever knew.
He told us with some passion that it was entirely thanks to David Bowie that he could even think of telling the world who he really was, and that if Bowie did nothing else in his life, he had already liberated a whole generation. I think he was probably right about that.