David Bowie arrives at Tullamarine Airport, Melbourne, in November 1983
“Gimme your hands! You’re not alone!” It was Ziggy’s last, desperate plea in Rock’n’Roll Suicide that led me here. That’s what I’d tell the Sebel Townhouse security guys when they arrived to throw me down the wood-panelled elevator shaft.
The date was November 20, 1983. If the housemaid I’d just interrogated in the corridor knew her business, David Bowie was on the other side of this door.
Why she told me I can’t imagine. I was just one of millions of fanboys struck silly by the Serious Moonlight. I raised white knuckles to knock.
Georgia Fields says each Bowie album is a universe unto itself.
Georgia Fields says each Bowie album is a universe unto itself. Photo: Supplied
Yes, I know. From here, it looks a bit like a daft boy-crush crashing to its tragic conclusion. But there was something deeper between Bowie and me. Something these hair-gelled Bowie-come-latelies milling downstairs with their 12-inch mixes of Let’s Dance and China Girl didn’t get.
“It was definitely the tour of the year,” Andrew Duffield reflects today. His band, Models, had the support gig on the Australian leg of the Serious Moonlight tour: a seven-month phenomenon that turned an edgy art-rock shape-shifter into a global pop commodity.
For some of us, it was a deflating development that presaged a decade of vacuous celebrity and scant invention. Some comedown from the shocking pop crimes of the ’70s.
Andrew Duffield, left, with fellow Models James Freud, Barton Price and Sean Kelly in 1983, the year the band played support on the Serious Moonlight tour.
Andrew Duffield, left, with fellow Models James Freud, Barton Price and Sean Kelly in 1983, the year the band played support on the Serious Moonlight tour. Photo: Supplied
Duffield remembers the glam thunderbolts of Ziggy Stardust and Aladdin Sane that had hit Melbourne 10 years earlier as “a very heady time for music”. “There was an immediate [reaction] here, with Skyhooks and other bands riding on the back of what Bowie was doing, playing with gender and stuff. He was enormously influential.”
Come ’78, Duffield was among the nascent new wavers invading the ‘G for Bowie’s first Australian tour. Rowland S. Howard from the Birthday Party was there in his mascara. In Richard Lowenstein’s Dogs In Space, the scene would be enshrined as some kind of ground zero for Melbourne punk.
Soon the Models’ Sean Kelly and James Freud would be “using the William Burroughs cut-up lyric-writing technique that Bowie had promoted,” Duffield says. And, “well, Sean’s hair occasionally looked a little Ziggy Stardust to me”.
Steve Kilbey: ”As soon as you got into Bowie there were about five other albums to get your head around.”
Steve Kilbey: ”As soon as you got into Bowie there were about five other albums to get your head around.” Photo: James Brickwood
In my sleepier hometown of Canberra, Steve Kilbey was among the first to brave the flaming red spikes of the Ziggy mullet. He would borrow a lyric from Moonage Daydream to name his band the Church of Man Love – later simply the Church.
“It was a revolutionary take,” he recalls of his first exposure to Starman on TV in ’72. “It was a bit like punk, but obviously way before punk: it wasn’t to do with musical prowess; it was about an attitude.
“But Bowie was a very savvy songwriter too. He really knew his chord progressions, otherwise he couldn’t have written a song like Life On Mars?” Not that he’d ever bother writing another like it. “That was another thing. As soon as you got into Bowie there were about five other albums to get your head around.”
Something for Kate: (From left) Paul Dempsey, Stephanie Ashworth and Clint Hyndman. Dempsey was haunted by Bowie’s ”scary clown” in the Ashes to Ashes film clip.
Something for Kate: (From left) Paul Dempsey, Stephanie Ashworth and Clint Hyndman. Dempsey was haunted by Bowie’s ”scary clown” in the Ashes to Ashes film clip. Photo: Janie Barrett
Keeping up was critical. In the summer of ’76-’77, I’d managed to assimilate the greatest hits record ChangesOneBowie – the folk-rock of Space Oddity, the Broadway elegance of Changes, the metallic flash of Suffragette City, the Philly soul of Young Americans, the cold funk of Golden Years – when the ground shifted again.
“Guess who this is,” my brother said, pinning me to the backyard gum tree with transistor radio screeching Sound and Vision. I had no idea. Guitars like pogo sticks. Texture of scrubbed aluminium. Was this even a song?
“It’s the new Bowie single.”
Oh, no. Not again.
I was too young to sleep out with the fledgling punks but I did manage to buy a ticket ($12.50) to that ’78 tour at Sydney Showgrounds. With an older friend, I was allowed to catch the train up to my first big rock show.
In a cage of fluorescent tubes, Bowie greeted us with the forbidding electronic instrumental Warszawa, followed by his latest hit, Heroes, and more from his newfound refuge in Berlin. We got some Ziggy and Thin White Duke later: already footnotes to this year’s man.
“It was huge for us,” says Buzz Bidstrup, drummer with that tour’s support band, the Angels. “For me personally, and Doc [Neeson] as well, we were big Bowie fans, so it had its own reward.
“Through that whole ’70s period he was able to combine music and art and culture like nobody else was doing … Doc was particularly into the fact that he was an actor as well, playing out the parts on stage.”
It was partly that dramatic attraction that made the Angels my gateway to the Aussie pub rock boom. My favourite, Flowers, covered Jean Genie, Lou Reed, Iggy Pop, T-Rex, Brian Eno and other creatures of Ziggy’s underworld. They soon changed their name to Icehouse, eventually to make the biggest-selling Australian rock album of the ’80s.
Ah, the ’80s. By the miracle of music video, Bowie was in every home in Australia then. Paul Dempsey was four when he caught Ashes To Ashes on TV. He can’t say it directly influenced his later musical direction with Something for Kate, but “I was sort of addicted to it”, he says.
“It gave me nightmares but I couldn’t look away. Him strapped up in the padded room and all of those eerie clown people walking down the beach in front of a bulldozer…” Ever since, “he was always someone that haunted me”.
He told Bowie that story in 2004, when Something for Kate opened for his last tour of Australia. The scary clown turned out to be an “extremely welcoming and warm and funny bloke” who would barrel into their dressing room for a chat, Dempsey recalls, before striding onstage to play “this incredible history of art-rock”.
By that time, I’d had my moment of atonement too. Of course I didn’t knock on his door at the Sebel Townhouse that day in 1983. With blood singing and fist raised, I stood there just long enough to realise that whoever answered would, compared to Ziggy or the Duke, be neither here nor there.
Besides, “I would have been really pissed off with you,” Bowie confirmed as he autographed my copy of ChangesOneBowie on the umpteenth floor of Sony’s Madison Avenue HQ in 2002.
Looking back now, what impressed me most was his response to a slightly cheeky question about how he’d changed the world. The vapid ’80s and sometimes intriguing ’90s behind him, he was flogging an unexpectedly brilliant new album called Heathen. But he seemed entirely at peace with the idea that his work was done.
“I would like to think I opened up a lot of avenues for people to explore,” he mused. “More than anything else, I like the idea that what I did was a liberalising experience [that] took music away from a kind of claustrophobia; narrow-mindedness. It certainly opened it up a bit.”
A bit? Bowie’s ’70s were a series of electric shocks so bracing that even a kid in the cultural wasteland of Australian suburbia could feel the universe was wide open and beckoning him hither. “Gimme your hands! You’re not alone!” As Steve Kilbey notes, it’s hard to name an artist that didn’t succumb, in some way, to the Starman’s slipstream.
“He’s a giant. Every record from Space Oddity to Heroes is a milestone. After the Beatles and the Stones and Dylan, Bowie is one of the main secondary influences in rock. Everybody has been touched by him in one way or another. It’s inescapable.”
And so it remains. Until recently, Melbourne singer-songwriter Georgia Fields “knew nothing about David Bowie, except that he had this weird red mullet”. But whenever she was curious enough to inquire about some record her partner was playing, his answer always seemed to be the same.
She was finally smitten enough to perform a relic called The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars in its entirety. After she’d spent a few months painstakingly arranging it for classical string quartet.
“I hope I interpreted it right,” she says a little anxiously. “For a lot of people I guess his work is scripture but to me, it would seem weird to copy a Bowie album bar by bar. They’re each a universe unto themselves. That’s why I wanted to change it up; make it mine somehow.”
Bowie would no doubt have wanted it that way.
Georgia Fields will perform Ziggy with Strings for ACMI’s Bowie Late Nights on September 25. Michael Dwyer’s band, the Thin White Ukes, will perform at the Bowie Symposium on July 18, and Late Nights on August 28 and October 9. acmi.net.au/bowie-late-nights