Blog – Can A Gig Change Your Life?

Jim Wilkinson one of the project’s Oral History Interviewers pictured speaking at the launch on 14th January 2017 about his memories of Bowie at King George’s Hall in 1973

Photographer Mick Rock writes the following in his introduction to ‘Moonage Daydream’ : his sumptuous coffee-table record of the phenomenonal rise of Bowie and his creation Ziggy Stardust in 1972 and 1973 including written reflections by Bowie himself:

‘As a seduction it was as good as it ever got in the field of popular entertainment. It was glamorous, raw, nervy, distinctive and multi-layered, and once he hit the big time he would never let go… Salut, Mr B …’

As a sheltered naïve northern fifteen year old boy attending the King George’s Hall Bowie gig on May 31st 1973 I was well and truly seduced from the opening strains of Beethoven’s 9th Symphony – aka the theme from the contemporary cult film ‘Clockwork Orange’ – to the closing moments of the concert – Bowie as Ziggy during ‘Rock’n’Roll Suicide’ imploring everyone:  ‘Gimme your hands, ‘cause you’re wonderful.’  Incidentally for some reason some of my friends and myself always replaced ‘wonderful’ with ‘Wonderloaf’ when singing along in homage to the most popular brand of sliced loaf at the time.  Whatever we were singing – throughout the concert the Bowie and the Spiders were as electrifying as all the reviews of 1972 and 1973 said they were at the time

Here is the artist Grayson Perry writing in the Guardian last year, two days after Bowie died on 12.01.16:

 ‘It’s difficult for people to appreciate now just how different the 70s were. Things were still terribly old fashioned, the social texture was very straight. To be this weird boy, one who experimented with androgynous, even feminine clothes and apocalyptic lyrics – it was pioneering. It felt like Bowie was giving me and a whole generation of kids permission to explore the dressing-up box. The sheer danger of it was what made it extraordinary. I would call it social bungee jumping. Terrifying but thrilling.’

Bowie on stage in 1973 with all his theatricality and glamour and a crack band arriving on stage under an opening sequence of strobe lighting was the most exciting thing this fifteen year old had ever seen…by some distance. Wishbone Ash, my first concert at Preston Guildhall was enjoyable but David Bowie and the Spiders at King George’s Hall knocked me sideways. It was also revolutionary…..

In March 1973, a couple of months before Bowie came to Blackburn, NME (New Musical Express) published an article called ‘The Revolution Is Here’ by the late Ian MacDonald, one of their core early 1970s’ ‘golden age’ journalists, in which he defends Bowie’s intellectual credentials against some critics’ accusations of Bowie being ‘all style over substance’

‘there are no two ways about it. ‘Life On Mars’ has more in common with Sartre than it has with Chuck Berry (or even Lou Reed) – despite what Pseud’s Corner will tell you

and

‘for the time being, David Bowie is incontrovertibly the most important figure in rock and I feel genuinely sorry for those people who can’t or won’t see why.’ 

As a fifteen year grammar school old boy studying ‘1984’ and ‘Nine Modern Poets’ for O Level English Literature I was very much enamored with this article. It certainly was useful ammunition when parents slagged Bowie off when he appeared on the ‘goggle box.’ The latter was a common term used at the time, often by people of an older generation who hadn’t yet come to terms with TV, a fairly recent mass phenomenon itself. Or it would have been useful ammunition – but teenagers weren’t in the habit of sharing the NME with their parents!  I was so taken with Ian MacDonald’s writing that I actually wrote to him around this time with a rather pretentious interpretation of ‘Aladdin Sane’ the new Bowie album in 1973. He generously ignored my level of earnestness and said, to my intense excitement, that he would ‘pass my thoughts onto David next time’ they met.  I didn’t hear any more about that.

Ian MacDonald recommended to me a technique he used whereby he created another version of the album where the tracks were in a different order to provoke new interpretations of the album for himself. This was well before the IPod shuffle and would have involved the painstaking task of recording tracks onto a cassette player from the record in different sequences.  Incidentally I think Ian MacDonald’s work still stands out now from most other music writing due to the level of its erudition and I strongly recommend a compendium of his writing –  ‘The People’s Music’ – as well as his celebrated musicological study of the Beatles ‘Revolution Of The Head.’

The genesis of this project is this revolutionary concert on May 31st 1973 – the only time Bowie played Blackburn. Much of the world was consumed with shock and grief on January 10th 2016 when Bowie passed away. This was the catalyst for a few of my old school friends to look back on this May 31st 1973 concert and the impact that it had on us.

This poses an interesting question: can one concert change your life? Wayne Hemingway, founder of Red Or Dead, has spoken publicly before and after David Bowie’s passing on how his attendance at the above as a twelve year old was a life changing event and had a massive influence on his future path as a designer. In this blog written shortly after Bowie’s death he talks of the huge influence of attending the gig:

http://houseofhemingway.co.uk/blog/david-bowie-rip/.

The show was highly innovative – Bowie used a persona, Ziggy Stardust, and and played out the character’s rise and fall through the performance of the music itself.  The musicians who attended other UK gigs on this tour in 72/73, were influenced and progressed later to musical fame included Kate Bush, Ian McCulloch, Peter Burns, Boy George, Holly Johnson, Marc Almond, Pete Shelley, Neil Tennant, Morrissey, and Ian Curtis.

The heritage of people can be created by many different kinds of experiences – working for a particular company for a period, living in a certain community or co-operating on a particular joint project. Sometimes one night in a person’s life perhaps can be as important as an extended time period in influencing the paths that they take.

Did it change my life? Well I certainly went on to buy virtually everything Bowie did subsequently, and previously, and saw him in concert on a further four occasions.  Only his 2000 Glastonbury appearance rivals Blackburn in 1973.  More than that I am not 100% sure….I didn’t go on to be a designer like Wayne Hemingway or a famous musician…..but rather at various times an English teacher, a Computer Software Consultant, a University Student Adviser, a Careers Adviser, a Disability Support Worker and now an Oral Historian.  I certainly changed jobs a lot.  Perhaps in my case, as in many others, as Charles Shaar Murray, another NME music critic who was dubbed ‘Bowie’s Representative on Earth’ because of his high level of access to ‘the Starman’ in 1972 and 1973, stated, Bowie did in fact provide ‘a template for people’s self invention throughout life.’   Or more likely perhaps it took me a while to find a good career path for myself.

After Bowie’s death, a number of us who attended the gig approached Dovetail the Change-Making Agency which has a history of facilitating community-based and oral history projects. The project then widened its focus and is about much more than this one Bowie concert – it focuses all the concerts at King George’s Hall in 1973 listed on this site. The project gained funding from the Heritage Lottery Fund with the help of Dovetail and was launched in January 2017. I need to also stress that despite what I have written above, it is not just about life-changing experiences. Many people will have seen Bowie, Queen, Mott, Status Quo, Kevin Coyne and all the other great bands / artists and not had their lives changed in any profound way..unlike Wayne Hemingway.  The heritage the project focuses on is the memories, experience, social history aspects. What did you wear on a gig night? Did you have any rituals? The King George’s Hall itself is Dovetail’s major partner and have been so helpful getting the project off the ground. It is also a creative collaboration with two local businesses McNally Music Tuition and The Bureau Centre For the Arts.  We are interviewing on film people who attended one or more of the 1973 gigs.  The interviews will be edited for inclusion into an exciting new film, 1973 The KGH Story, to be premiered on July 8th 2017 at King George’s Hall. Make a note in your diary!

The project has got off to a very healthy start. The launch at Blakey’s Bar on 14.1.17 was attended by 200 plus people. Attendees were treated to covers of songs by some of the 1973 bands by local musicians Teri Birtwistle and Sky Valley Mistress, organised by McNally Music Tuition, and also a very entertaining first-hand account of the 1973 Bowie gig by Jim Wilkinson aka blogger ‘Blue Eyed Boy – pictured above. Please see his 2013 blog on this very subject:

https://blueyedboy.wordpress.com/2013/05/31/when-bowie-came-to-blackburn-40-years-on/

Many people came with their 1973 memories and memorabilia.  We even had an electrician Ricky Smolenski who worked at the 1973 Bowie gig on the lighting coming along. This featured in the following Monday’s Lancashire Evening Telegraph:

http://www.lancashiretelegraph.co.uk/news/15026531.___I_fixed_heating_in_his_dressing_room_______hundreds_pay_tribute_to_David_Bowie_in_Blackburn/

I was truly moved on the night by a number of people who came up to me and shook my hand saying how much they appreciated the project’s attempt to record this heritage and share it.  Fortunately there was a great mix at the Launch of older people who saw the gigs and also younger people.  One of the project’s aims is to share this heritage with a wider often younger audience who are interested in finding out more about their cultural history and this great year in the history of King George’s Hall.  For any younger people who never got the chance to see Bowie in his Ziggy pomp, as Jim Wilkinson said on stage at the Launch, the D.A. Pennebaker documentary film ‘Ziggy Stardust and The Spiders from Mars’, widely available on DVD,  is a record of Bowie’s final Ziggy concert on 3.7.73 just over a month later from the Blackburn gig with an almost identical set list. Prepare to be seduced.

Blog by Ian Alderson – Oral Historian working on the project for Dovetail and one of the project’s originators