Song of the Day: Space in Music (Day Four). “Hats Off, Hats Off to Mars, Let’s Align Our Footsteps with the Stars”.

Glam rock was the era in which music openly acknowledged its superficiality.  Originating in the United Kingdom in the early 1970s and characterised by artists wearing outrageous clothes, makeup and hairstyles.  Platform-soled boots and glitter were commonplace and the flamboyant costumes and visual styles of glam performers were often camp or androgynous.  Artists such as Marc Bolan and T-Rex, David Bowie, Sweet, Roxy Music and Gary Glitter enjoyed extraordinary success.  However, for every one of these artists there were scores of glam divas waiting in the wings.

Take for example, Jobriath, the first openly gay rock star, who released two wonderfully camp and epic albums in the early 1970s, Jobriath (1973) and Creatures of the Street (1974) before the few members of the public who had been turned onto him turned against him.  He lived out the rest of his days in the Chelsea Hotel, where he became one of the first rock casualties of the AIDs virus in 1983.

Whilst Jobriath briefly managed to release his music, the subject of today’s Song of the Day was dealt a more cruel fate.  That subject is Brett Smiley, who to all intents and purposes had the makings of a successful glam rock superstar.  Young, blonde, beautiful and androgynous, Smiley began his career as a child actor, playing Oliver on Broadway before being discovered by Rolling Stones manager, Andrew Loog Oldham at the age of 16 in 1972.  Two years later, he was given a $200,000 recording deal and recorded the album Breathlessly Brett.  The album was produced by Oldham and featured Steve Marriott on guitar.  The first single from the album was the glam-stomping rock thrash out, Va Va Va Voom.

Va Va Va Voom was filled with all the elements that should have made it a glam classic, including wonderfully noisy guitars and a masterful sax line as worthy as those found in Bowie songs such as Suffragette City (The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars, 1972).

The Bowie influence is also prevalent on Va Va Va Voom’s B-side, Space Ace.

Space was a regular theme in glam rock music, think T-Rex songs such as Spaceball Ricochet …

… and Ballrooms of Mars (both from The Slider, 1972) …

… and of course, probably the main source of inspiration here, Bowie’s most famous character creation, Ziggy Stardust.

The sound on Space Ace is suitably cinematic, fitting for the era in which it was born, whilst the lyrics, sung in Smiley’s distinctive and breathy voice, spiral like a freefall through outer space.

Around the time of the single’s release, Smiley appeared on the Russell Harty Plus TV programme, where he was interviewed alongside Andrew Loog Oldham and gave a startlingly over the top performance of Space Ace.

Unfortunately for a single that by all rights should have become a classic, it bombed and the album was shelved.  Smiley all but disappeared, save for a blink and you’ll miss it cameo in Paul Schrader’s American Gigolo (1980), as well as starring roles in a few ill-advised pornographic movies, and wasn’t heard from again until 2003 when RPM Records acquired the master tapes for the Breathlessly Brett album.  In the intervening 29 years, Smiley had been wallowing in a gargantuan drug addiction somewhere on skid row.  In 2005, Smiley was the subject of Nina Antonia’s book The Prettiest Star:  Whatever Happened to Brett Smiley.  Now free of his drug addiction, Smiley is back recording and performing, mainly around New York City.

Starman and Nine Other Songs About Aliens. David Bowie Releases The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars. This Day in History, 06/05/1972.

1.  Julian Cope ‘I Come From Another Planet, Baby’

(from the album Interpreter, 1996).

2.  Brett Smiley ‘Space Ace’

(from the album Breathlessly Brett, 1974).

3.  Ash ‘Girl From Mars’

(from the album 1977, 1996).

4.  David Bowie ‘Starman’

(from the album The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars, 1972).

5.  The Wedding Present ‘The Queen of Outer Space’

(from the album Hit Parade 2, 1993).

6.  Janelle Monae ‘Many Moons’

(from the album Suite I (The Chase), 2008).

7.  Radiohead ‘Subterranean Homesick Alien’

(from the album OK Computer, 1997).

8.  Pixies ‘Motorway to Roswell’

(from the album Trompe Le Monde, 1991).

9.  Blondie ‘Rapture’

(from the album Autoamerican, 1980).

10. The Carpenters ‘Calling Occupants of Interplanetary Craft’

(from the album Passage, 1977).

Song of the Day: Visual Artists in Music. Day One: “It’s Warhol, actually.”

Andy Warhol, David Bowie’s musical tribute to one of his biggest inspirations, from the album Hunky Dory (1971) is just one of the many Bowie songs influenced by the American counterculture of the 1960’s.  Bowie’s interest in Warhol was in no small part due to his love of The Velvet Underground, the band whom Andy Warhol managed and was, aesthetically, something of a svengali figure to.

Bowie was an avid Velvet Underground fan and the experimental art rock ethic of the music with its Lou Reed penned lyrical tales of New York’s dark underbelly was a key factor in influencing Bowie to ditch the whimsical pop style of his early years.  Bowie has performed the Velvet underground songs I’m Waiting For The Man (from their album Velvet Underground and Nico, 1967) and White Light / White Heat, (from the album White Light / White Heat, 1968),  at different points in his career, most notably in the early 70’s.

Bowie also produced and played on Lou Reed’s Transformer album in 1972. Transformer included Lou Reed’s own song for Andy Warhol, Andy’s Chest, a Dada inspired piece written for Andy following the artist’s attempted murder by Valerie Solanas in 1968.

Lou Reed would later go on to release a full length tribute album to Andy Warhol, Songs For Drella (1990), with Velvet Underground collaborator John Cale, following Warhol’s unexpected death in 1987.

As well as Bowie’s tribute to Andy Warhol, Hunky Dory also featured Queen Bitch, a self-proclaiming Velvet Underground pastiche (see the sleeve notes of Hunky Dory:  “Some V.U white light”) in tribute to the band and in particular, Lou Reed.   The sound of The Velvet Underground would provide a major template for the glam rock sound adopted by Bowie on Hunky Dory’s seminal follow up album, The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars (1972).

Whilst The Velvet Underground were important to Bowie’s sound, Bowie’s image was greatly influenced by Andy Warhol.  Andy Warhol understood the media like no other and showed Bowie how to use it before it used you.  This was done by consciously adopting an image.  The success of Andy Warhol also made it more important to have an image.  Bowie was at the zenith of his success when he displayed complete invulnerability, much like Warhol’s, which hinged on the sense that he wasn’t quite human.  There was no fixed personality, more an ever changing array of personalities, a myriad of masks created by the singer.

Bowie played his tribute song to Andy Warhol when he met him in 1971.  Warhol reportedly didn’t like the song as he thought the lyrics made fun of his physical appearance.  Speaking about his meeting with Andy Warhol, in a BBC interview in 2002, Bowie said:

“The only touch point that we had was a pair of shoes that I was wearing from Anello and Davide, they were real strange little jobs.  I think they were yellow.  As far as I remember they were yellow with a half, no, a two inch heel on them and he really liked them.  And of course it occurred to me that the reason that he was getting quite fascinated with these was that he used to be a shoe designer, or at least he used to do a lot of pictures of shoes anyway because I remember seeing them.  So I thought, oh he liked them then, let’s talk about my shoes.  It became quite a disillusionment in its way.  But on the other hand, it supported everything that I wanted to believe about him, that I was with Andy Warhol for an hour and he said nothing, except he liked my shoes.  Wow, that’s a real anecdote.  Because I’d bought the whole pop art thing that he wasn’t a real person, he was just a creation.  15 years after that, I would be looking at myself and thinking, ‘Don’t people realise that I’m a real person’”.

In 1996, Bowie would have the honour of playing Andy Warhol in the film BasquiatBaquiat is a film based on the life of another influential artist on Bowie’s work, Brooklyn born postmodernist / neo expressionist, Jean-Michel Basquiat.  Speaking of Bowie’s portrayal of Warhol in Basquiat after the film’s release, Paul Morrissey, the director of many of the films which Warhol produced told People Magazine:

“Bowie was the best by far.  You came away from Basquiat thinking Andy was comical and amusing, not a pretentious, phony piece of shit, which is how others show him … At least Bowie knew Andy.  They went to the same parties”.