19 Sep 2007
Bowie The Bowie Man
Timothy White speaks to David Bowie about his mod years.
Tell me about adolescence, your early teens.
I had the usual desire to break ties with home and parents, the general anger of youth. I have a half brother brother and a half sister, neither of whom I've ever been particularly close to, because they've never lived at home. I was brought up ostensibly as an only child, and they put in these lightweight appearances.
I lost contact with my stepsister Annette when I was 12 that was the last time I saw her she was quite a lot older than me and went to Egypt to get married.
We've none of us heard a word from her since, and we've tried to trace her.
I was living up in Brixton until I was 11 years old, and that was enough to be very affected by it. It left great, strong images in my mind.
Because the music that was first happening in my early teens was happening in Brixton, it was the place one continually had a relationship with.
All the ska and bluebeat clubs were in Brixton, so one gravitated back there. Also it was one of the few places that played James Brown records, other than two French clubs in town, La Poubelle and Le Kilt.
A friend of mine, Jeff McCormack, who ended up as Warren Peace in the Diamond Dogs band, had the big ska record collection, and it just wasn't worth competing with him, so I went straight into buying Chuck Berry, Little Richard and the blues stuff.
Were white teenagers welcome at the shebeens?
At that time it was cool. If you expressed an interest in the music and got off on what was happening in the clubs, it was a lot easier, I guess, than it is these days. Although I don't know; I haven't been to those clubs in years.
I've hardly been in London in a social, living way for so long that it's almost an alien city to me now which is unfortunate in some respects, but you lose some and gain some.
At the start of your career you spent a lot of time around the legendary Marquee Club, which had weekly R&B nights featuring twin bills like Sonny Boy Williamson and the' Yardbirds. What was that scene like in the early 1960s?
I got friendly with the owners; for me there were no rules at the door so I used to creep in and watch what was happening. The Marquee, the Scene, Eel Pie Island in Twickenham, they were all a circuit.
At the time 16 years old, for me when I was frequently in those places it was during the era of the first batch of mods. There were two batches of mods in England, the first lot being in 1962-63.
The initial crop called themselves modernists, which reduced itself down to the mods. That was excessively peacocky.
These weren't the anorak quilted, gabardine raincoated mods that turned up later on motor scooters. The scooter thing wasn't quite as big with the early mods at that time; it was still trains.
But the first mods wore very expensive suits; very, very dapper. And make-up was an important part of it: lipstick, blush, eyeshadow and out-and out pancake powder not Clearasil. It was very dandified, and they were the James Brown-lovers. Elitist. Pills always played an important part; everything was fast.
You weren't supposed to like bands like the Rolling Stones, and especially the Action, the Who and all that crowd who came along later these were the anorak boys in the later `60s because they weren't real mods.
I did secretly. But I felt sad the former fashion had died out.
I dressed the archetype: mohair suits, two-tone suits; the shoes were high pointers; Billy Eckstine shirts with big roll collars. You either had a pinned collar or button-down or roll collar.
How would you earn the money to dress up?
(Snickering, with a wink) You earned the money somehow or other, wheeling and dealing. Also, a popular thing was to go down the back of Carnaby Street late at night and raid the dustbins.
Because in those days if anything showed the slightest sign of deterioration, or a button was missing, or there was the least thing wrong with it, they used to throw it out, so you could pick up the most dynamite things down there I This was just as the street was becoming popular.
Indeed, there were only about four shops along there that sold clothes of that nature, so it wasn't a tourist thing at that time.
Also, you could get some good suits made in Shepherd's Bush. There were good tailors there that would knock up a suit quickly and inexpensively, out of material (big grin) which you didn't ask how they could get so cheaply.
So you'd get dressed, go round to the Marquee Club and just get looney and listen to rhythm `n' bIues. Fundamentally it was a rhythm `n' blues period, which had just hit the underground in a big way.
I wasn't a hundred per cent into performing music at the time of the mods, but I'd been playing saxophone since about 13 years old, off and on.
The things I'd considered doing once I left school were either to continue being a painter, start working in an advertising agency or be a musician if I could possibly get that good.
Entrepreneur Kenneth Pitt had seen you at the Marquee Club around the time you were 18 and led the band called David Jones & the Lower Third.
What kind of group was the Lower Third?
I guess it wanted to be a rhythm `n' blues band.
We did a lot of stuff by John Lee Hooker, and we tried to adapt his stuff to the big beat never terribly successfully. But that was the thing; everybody was picking a blues artist as their own. Somebody had Muddy Waters, somebody had Sonny Boy Williamson. Ours was Hooker.
It also was the first band where I'd started writing songs.
I think the first song I ever wrote there might be others but this is the only one that sticks out was called `Can't Help Thinking About Me' (breaks up laughing).
That's an illuminating little piece, isn't it? It was about leaving home and moving up to London.
`The London Boys' was another one about being a mod, it was an anti-pill song; I wasn't particularly pro the thing after a bit.