I thought that David Bowie's last album, "The Next Day", was rather odd. Now I view it rather differently. As a concept album, it is actually rather clever.
The sudden appearance of a new, unexpected album in March 2013 made some kind of obvious marketing sense given that it coincided neatly with the high-profile retrospective, "David Bowie Is", which was held by the Victoria & Albert Museum between March and August of that very same year. Bowie is nothing if not adept, and few artists could resist profiting from such staggeringly good publicity. Besides, as revenue from album sales dries up in the post-apocalyptic reality that is internet piracy, then an artist must eke out a living from somewhere, especially when said artist is unable [or unwilling] to tour.
Famously, income streams from album sales have plummeted, and there is little sign that things will improve in the near future. The only way for musicians & artists to claw income from their own back catalogue is to go out on tour. The sheer scale of the return of so many semi-retired artists & musicians to the public stage has been truly astonishing. It has been a near Biblical exodus. Never have so many sang for so few.
Just take a glance at poor old Kate Bush. Rarely has there been an artist less inclined to emerge from the safe shadows back into the judgemental public spotlight than the reclusive Catherine Bush [estimated 'worth' £30m, according to that vile rag, the Daily Mail]. For 35 years stage-shy Kate avoided touring but then suddenly in March 2014 she surprised millions of middle-aged, cardigan-wearing dullards with the announcement that she would be touring in 2014.
But Kate isn't touring for the money, though. No, as the Daily Male faithlessly points out, Kate is 'worth' an estimated £30m. Indeed, an unnamed 'friend' is quoted as saying:
"It's not about the money, because she could have done bigger venues, and in any case she is wealthy."
So, that solves that mystery then.
[Turns to camera and winks.]
Incidentally, Kate Bush's announcement led to another nauseating stampede for tickets by her most pathetic fans, reminiscent of the one involving Led Zeppelin a couple of years ago. Gah. If just one type of music fan deserves to be skewered and roasted slowly over the open burning pit of Hell for all eternity [and I fear that there are, alas, many such music types], then it is surely the music fan who scampers about pleading his or her case as to why they should receive priority treatment for ticket allocations, and ooh, isn't it a cruel and awful world when a badge-wearing superfan can't qualify for a gold Willy Wonka ticket, blub blub blub.
Hmm...where was I? Oh yes, Bowie. I claimed that the surprise release of an unexpected album in 2013 was odd, despite the fact that the V&A was holding a retrospective exhibition of his life and work, and that it consequently made good commercial sense.
I am perhaps more than passingly familiar with Bowie's work. I pestered my parents to buy me 'The Best Of Bowie' when I was 13, having discovered 'Space Oddity' by pure radio-listening chance. 'Scary Monsters' came out when I was 14, and it changed me into the creature I now am. Over the next five years I scoured Bowie's back catalogue, ranging as far afield as The Mannish Boys and The Lower Third. Bowie became the mystic portal who guided me towards The Velvet Underground and Nic Roeg. My bedroom wall became adorned with lyrics from 'Cygnet Committee', cut and pasted punk style from newspapers. To this day, I still attempt to run through the entire lyrical content of "Ziggy Stardust" in the shower.
[Except for 'It Ain't Easy', which isn't a proper Bowie song anyway.]
Given this amateur knowledge, I personally found it odd that "The Next Day" was released in such a perfunctory manner. It was certainly odd that no advance news had leaked out, and that there was to be no accompanying tour, given that touring is the obvious income generator for musicians. I actually think there was no album. I think that Bowie has been slowly producing the odd piece of work here and there over the last decade, and that he simply slapped it together as the V&A retrospective came along, and passed it off as a new album.
Bowie has a track record of continuously producing work and just putting it on a passing album rather than appropriating it more correctly. This certainly happened early in his career. 'Life On Mars' should have been held over for "The Rise & fall Of Ziggy Stardust & The Spiders From Mars" rather than slapped on to "Hunky Dory". From every perspective it would have made artistic sense. Indeed, had 'Life On Mars' been on "Ziggy" - along with 'All The Young Dudes' - and had 'It Ain't Easy' been bumped - then it would quite easily qualify as one of the greatest albums ever made.
Anyway, I don't believe that "The Next Day" was an album in the sense that his previous albums were albums. I think that Bowie simply drew together the various odd bits that he had been working on over he last decade and stuck them into the same songbook. This is what I find odd about the album.
Odder still was cover, which simply repeated the original artwork from "Heroes", over which had been pasted a plain white square, along with the album title in plain black print.
Odd, that is, unless, perhaps, you consider it from an heraldic perspective......
[This is my own idea. Stay with me.]
Now, in the history of popular music, let alone that of just David Bowie, there are few images as iconographic as the cover for "Heroes". The record company tagline for this ground-breaking album was:
"There's old wave. There's new wave. And there's David Bowie."
The striking photograph above was taken by Masayoshi Sukita. As with the cover for Iggy Pop's "The Idiot", Bowie claimed to have drawn inspiration from the work of the German Expressionist, Erich Heckel, and in particular, his 1917 print 'Roquairol'.
Back in 2003, two interesting things happened. Firstly, Bowie released his penultimate album "Reality". Secondly, he declined a knighthood. Ten years later he released "The Next Day" which coincidentally featured his most iconographic image, the famous "Heroes" album cover, blanked out in the centre by a perfect square. My contention is that Bowie knew that he wasn't treating his audience to a new album in the conventional sense, and he may have felt slightly awkward about the idea of slapping a few bits and pieces together just to cash in from the V&A publicity.
In heraldry, there are eight theoretical 'abatements', as laid down in the fabulously rare work, 'The Accedens Of Armory' by Gerard Leigh [pub. in London, 1562]. An 'abatement' is a visible alteration to a knight's heraldic emblem, so that others might know why their chivalric reputation has been blighted.
In the case of a 'delf tenné', the heraldic device by which the holder is known features a plain blanked-out square pasted over the top, symbolising the fact that having issued a challenge, the holder [typically a knight] then revokes it.
For me, this makes the album something of a subtle concept, since it acknowledges its own failings in a manner which is particularly chivalrous. All the more so when the combatant issuing the challenge has elsewhere refused not just one - but two - knighthoods. [Bowie - long a resident of New York and Switzerland - said he couldn't understand what they were for].
Now, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, the verb 'revoke' is defined as:
"[To] Officially cancel (a decree, decision, or promise)"
My theory is therefore this: David Bowie deliberately chose an album cover which reflected the delf tenné abatement because he knew that, although billed as a bona fide new piece of work, "The Next Day" was not by his standards a proper conventional album. He then selected the image from "Heroes" to be his heraldic device and then blanked it out in recognition of the fact that he had, in releasing a faux album, revoked his own challenge - perhaps while cocking a wry snook at the British Establishment that had tried to buy his fealty with titles.