The Man Who Sold the World (5 page)

 

IV

While his head reeled with the restlessness of Kerouac's wanderers and the twitching pulse of rock'n'roll, there was little room in Bowie's consciousness for the demands of school—or, after July 1963, his new career in advertising. His employment lasted no more than a year, and on the rare occasions when he discussed it in interviews, he tended to dismiss it as either a bore or a disappointment. (“It was diabolical. I never realised that to be an artist meant buckling under so much,” he declared in 1971.) Occasionally, seeking to prove a point about the Orwellian nature of modern society, he would hint that he had witnessed advertising as a dark, controlling force, lending another interpretation to “diabolical.” “I've been in the media, I used to be a visualiser for an advertising agency,” he said in 1975. “They are killers, man. . . . They're dealing with lives, those ad agencies.”

The TV series
Mad Men
has lent advertising in the early 1960s a luster that Bowie might not have recognized. There was a clear gap between New York, where young admen were (in Tom Wolfe's memorable description of Wall Street's princes) the “masters of the universe”; and London, where most agencies were run in a frosty atmosphere closer to a law office than an adventure playground. In his move from technical school to a desk as a trainee commercial artist, though, Bowie represented the changing nature of the industry. As elsewhere in Swinging London, it was becoming possible for a working-class boy to attain a senior position in an agency. What agencies desired from their “creatives,” according to a 1963 survey, was a list of qualities that Bowie exemplified: “creative imagination, visual awareness, marked powers of analysis and synthesis, judgement, curiosity, clarity of thought and expression, observation, versatility, flexibility and psychological insight.” Almost all of those assets were evident in his later musical career.

Despite Bowie's insistence that his advertising employment was little more than a charade, he demonstrated enough promise during his year in the West End to be promoted from trainee commercial artist to junior visualizer. His first role involved illustrating other people's ideas, and as a trainee he would often have done nothing more creative than draw boxes around illustrations and insert lettering into existing designs. As a junior visualizer, however, he was being inducted into the world of what the American writer Vance Packard called, in a celebrated exposé,
The Hidden Persuaders
. Visualizers were creating the concepts and images that the commercial artists would illustrate; alongside the copywriters, whose territory was strictly words, they would bring alive the products and campaigns of their clients. “The basic purpose of visualization is to communicate,” noted an advertising handbook of the times. “Only elements that carry forward the advertising message should be included—all others should be discarded.”

In keeping with Bowie's “diabolical” verdict, Packard believed that advertising agencies “see us as bundles of daydreams, misty hidden yearnings, guilt complexes, irrational emotional blockages. We annoy them with our seemingly senseless quirks, but we please them with our growing docility in responding to their manipulation of symbols that stir us to action.” From there, reasoned Vance Packard and (in
Brave New World Revisited
) the novelist Aldous Huxley, both writing in the late 1950s, it was a comfortable step to using the tools of the advertising trade to control a populace in the service of political power, whether that was democratic or (the advertising ethos at its devilish zenith) dictatorial. “Find some common desire, some wide-spread unconscious fear or anxiety,” Huxley wrote; “think out some way to relate this wish or fear to the product you have to sell; then build a bridge of verbal and pictorial symbols over which your customer can pass from fact to compensatory dream, and from the dream to the illusion that your product, when purchased, will make the dream come true.” And so the public laps up a new soap powder, a magazine, a pop star, or, so Huxley reasoned, a Hitler. Small wonder that one mid-sixties advertising chief on Madison Avenue conceded: “The techniques of persuasion by which the Russians seek to subvert governments, win the allegiance of new countries, and turn every political situation to their own advantage, are fundamentally the same psychological devices that we apply daily in selling products to consumers, and selling ideas at home.”

Bowie's awareness of the malevolent power of the advertising industry would only crystallize as he experienced its effects at first hand, as a performer rather than a visualizer. More immediately, the agency ethos altered the way in which he viewed himself, and the Kon-Rads. “His main contribution [to the band] was ideas,” recalled David Hadfield. “He had thousands of them, a new one every day—that we should change the spelling of our name, or our image, or our clothes, or all the songs in our repertoire. He also came up with lots of black-and-white sketches of potential advertising campaigns for the band. Many of them were great ideas, but it was impossible to put them all into practice.” Hadfield's testimony suggests that much of Bowie's working day was devoted to selling and rebranding the Kon-Rads, rather than the agency's clients. It also confirms how seriously Bowie took the power of the hidden persuaders. For the remainder of the 1960s, he would present himself to the public in a bewildering variety of guises, as if he were still at his desk in Bond Street, presenting potential campaigns to his superiors. His willingness to pursue a dozen contradictory ideas at the same time, effectively damning them all, reflects the fact that he never moved beyond junior roles during his brief advertising career. Only in the 1970s did he realize what his agency bosses could have told him: to sell a product (or a career), it was not helpful to suggest that it was endlessly versatile but with no particular purpose. What he needed was to fix on a single brand, an image that would grab the public's attention and be burned indelibly into its collective memory.

 

V

In the mid-1960s, Bowie was too blinded by the idea of success to establish a single identity in a long-term campaign. Like Kerouac's “mad ones,” he was “desirous of everything at the same time,” and heedless of the effect that his single-minded pursuit of stardom would have on those around him. In just three years, he would work his way through six bands, repeating an often callous pattern of behavior. Each time, he would pour energy and enthusiasm into the project, and then abandon his comrades at the first sign of resistance. “David wasn't really prepared for failure,” reflected Hadfield. “He started to push for a breakthrough, and when it didn't come, he decided to leave.”

Bowie's intuition that the Kon-Rads were not a viable vehicle for his career was entirely correct; their image and their repertoire looked backward, rather than anticipating the rampant changes ahead. After seeing the Rolling Stones perform on the same bill as Bo Diddley and Little Richard at the Lewisham Odeon in October 1963, he was desperate to perform R&B rather than teen pop. He was several years younger than the Stones and their British blues contemporaries (though a full sixteen months older than the precocious Stevie Winwood of the Spencer Davis Group, and three years the senior of Little Stevie Wonder). If there was something faintly ridiculous about twenty-year-old Mick Jagger wading into the territory of full-grown bluesmen such as Muddy Waters and Howlin' Wolf, then the barely seventeen-year-old David Jones was an even less convincing messenger from the Deep South. Like thousands of his peers, however, the man who had yet to christen himself David Bowie soaked himself in righteous rhythm and blues, soul and gospel.

He began 1964 in a blues duo with his friend George Underwood, the Hooker Brothers, before the two teenagers formed a five-piece R&B band, the King Bees (named after a Slim Harpo tune that was already in the Rolling Stones' repertoire). He knew that the Beatles' success had been masterminded by the manager of a Liverpool music shop, Brian Epstein, and his agency contacts told him that no entrepreneur in London was sharper and more successful
*
than the Rolls-Razor tycoon, John Bloom. So Bowie sold himself as a good investment to Bloom, an approach so cheeky that, rather than discarding the boy's letter, Bloom passed it to show business manager Leslie Conn. After a year in which the Beatles and their ilk had rewritten the rules of the London music industry, no self-respecting impresario could afford to ignore an aspiring set of mop tops. Conn realized the appeal of the singer he described (exaggerating by an inch or two) as “a handsome six-footer with a warm and engaging personality,” and Bowie's persistence was repaid when the King Bees were offered a bottom-level recording contract with the ugly duckling of the Decca Group of companies, Vocalion Records. Though the group was ostensibly a collective, “Davie Jones” was picked out for special billing.

Although Conn announced that Davie Jones had “all it takes to get to the show business heights,” the King Bees' single, “Liza Jane” [A2], was lost among more convincing releases. Two months later, Conn introduced Bowie to the more proficient Manish Boys, who initially struggled to secure a record contract. David had been asked to leave his advertising job, having slept at his desk once too often. But his basic knowledge of branding, his father's PR connections, and Conn's unashamed gift for hype delivered a publicity coup. The specifics were Bowie's invention; John Jones then persuaded journalist Leslie Thomas (author of
The Virgin Soldiers
, the movie of which would later feature a momentary appearance from Bowie) to fashion them into a story for the
London Evening News
.

The pitch was simple. Teenager David Jones from Bromley was so tired of being insulted because he wore long hair that he had formed the International League for the Preservation of Animal Filament. (A week later it was the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Long-Haired Men.) “Anyone who has the courage to wear hair down to his shoulders has to go through hell,” Jones announced, with the conviction of a man who had recently been assaulted in Maidstone for his effeminate hair. “Everybody makes jokes about you on a bus, and if you go past navvies digging in the road, it's murder!” The story was picked up by BBC-TV's popular magazine show
Tonight
, and Bowie was duly interviewed alongside fellow members of his society (which was purely an invention).

As a ten-day wonder, the Long-Haired Men crusade satisfied its initial purpose to win Bowie publicity. As an advertising campaign, it lacked a vital ingredient, a physical product to sell: the Manish Boys didn't release a single [A4] for another four months. Yet the hype was instructive: Bowie had learned that by making an outlandish announcement, and risking an image that blurred the boundaries between feminine and masculine, he could command the attention of the media.

The following month, the Manish Boys were included on a brief package tour headlined by the Kinks—whose leader, Ray Davies, belied the jagged aggression of their records with the overt feyness of his demeanor onstage, twisting his wrists coyly and mincing in front of the microphone. It was a studied exercise in camp, the hallmark of which, said cultural commentator Susan Sontag, was “the spirit of extravagance. . . . The androgyne is certainly one of the great images of camp sensibility. . . . To camp is a mode of seduction.” Bowie quickly learned to mimic both Davies's arch, self-mocking persona and his idiosyncratic approach to songwriting. Bowie's fellow musicians recognized that his personality in front of an audience had altered, without quite understanding how or why.

In April 1965, Bowie auditioned for another R&B-inspired band, the Lower Third; within days of being recruited, he had ousted the existing vocalist and assumed control. The other band members were alarmed to discover, however, that their first record was credited solely to “Davy Jones.” Next time, they were assured, things would be different. Before then, another spate of rebranding was required. “Davy Jones” was signed to the Kinks' label, Pye Records, by producer Tony Hatch, who pointed out quite sensibly that there were already two singers of that name in the marketplace: a black American transplanted to Europe, and a Mancunian actor who had starred in
Coronation Street
and enjoyed West End and Broadway success as the Artful Dodger in Lionel Bart's stage musical
Oliver!
This was a level of fame beyond anything glimpsed by John Jones's boy, who took the opportunity to offer an alternative trade name, with which he had been toying since the days of the Kon-Rads: David Bowie.
*

 

VI

Every aspect of Bowie's career was now in constant flux. During 1965, he found a new manager—albeit on a low budget—called Ralph Horton. As a favored son, Bowie knew how to command affection where it was needed, and he began to stay at Horton's home regularly to cement their business relationship. A few months later, Horton told his successor, Kenneth Pitt, that David was “mixed up,” a polite way of suggesting ambiguity in the singer's sexual orientation. By presenting a persona that was at least open to the polymorphous, Bowie was broadening his prospects of acceptance, just as he would with his music.

During 1964 and 1965, Bowie updated his appearance with almost manic regularity. The slicked-back pompadour of the Kon-Rads was superseded in the King Bees by bouffant hair that was an exhibition of the stylist's art—teased, sculpted, blow-dried, and waved, and adding several valuable inches to his height. A first hint of the alien was apparent in the early summer of 1964, when alongside the more conventional mop tops of his colleagues Bowie's hair looked as if it had been created by the designers of a 1950s science fiction B movie to disguise the unearthly origins of the man with the pointed head. As he prepared to abandon the King Bees for the Manish Boys, his coiffure was reshaped into an exquisite fringe that ran along his eyebrows and down his sculpted cheeks, before falling across his shoulders like a lawn sweeping away from a stately home. For his television defense of the hirsute, his mop was softened and evened to look like a prepubescent schoolgirl's, but left to grow untroubled by the barber's scissors into the early months of 1965, it arrived a shaggy rebelliousness that was, probably by design, identical to the image cultivated by the aptly named Pretty Things, the Rolling Stones' primary rivals for media outrage and parental disapproval.

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