The Man Who Finally Fell to Earth


David Bowie: 1947-2016

Yes, it’s been a while hasn’t it? Call this sudden unexpected return our ‘The Next Day’, a tribute to a man without whom Pop Lifer would never have existed.

Kate Bush. The Smiths. Madonna. The Sex Pistols. Blondie. Depeche Mode. The Weekend. The Human League. Prince. Pet Shop Boys. Wu-Tang Clan. Suede. Eurythmics. Siouxsie & The Banshees. Nine Inch Nails. Goldfrapp. Eminem. Nirvana. Pulp. Lady Gaga. Lana Del Rey. What do all of these acts have in common, other than their brilliance? It’s impossible to imagine them existing if David Bowie, that nuclear bomb in the form of a pop singer, hadn’t detonated in the early seventies and blown open the whole idea of what pop stars could do, of what pop could be.

For the next few days the universe will belong to Bowie again, just as it did during his imperial period in the seventies. Newspapers will print vast obituaries and double page photo tributes, television news will pump out snippets of his biggest hits, blogs like this will paint the internet purple with prose and Facebook and Twitter will be flooded with testaments to his genius and his personal impact on almost everyone who has ever cared about music. And the thing is, it still won’t be enough, still won’t do justice to what this extraordinary uber-human achieved. Despite what some polls have said, he probably isn’t the most influential pop star of all time – Chuck Berry or Little Richard or John Lennon or some other rock pioneer probably deserve that title – but as far as Pop Lifer is concerned, he’s by far the most interesting.

If you want to imagine a world where Bowie never existed, imagine one where the only songs you ever heard were by Sam Smith and Adele. And if that feels a little bit too close to our actual world for comfort, then that just shows how badly we need another Bowie. But as the impossible news begins to sink in – that the star man, the man who fell to earth, who so many of us seem to have thought might actually be immortal, is gone – so too does the fear that there can never be another like him.

There’s a line in a song by the sadly forgotten Britpop also-rans Subcircus where the singer dreamily moans “there’s a hole in the sky where Bowie dripped through”, and that’s how he always felt, like an otherworldly genius who squeezed his way into this planet from another dimension. The justly celebrated Bowie exhibition at the V&A in 2013 hammered home that he was an even more extraordinary visual artist than most had realised, with the most interesting and eclectic magpie mind in all pop.

But for all of our strange fascination in his chameleonic shapeshifting, if that was all he had done, he’d be forgotten by now, with a thousand other performance artists. What really made him matter, what it really comes down to, is the songs, those amazing, indelible and impossibly varied songs. Speaking personally, they are entangled in my life for as long as I can remember, from dancing to “Starman” in my aunt’s living room at age 6 to my teenage swoons to “Suffragette City” to my obsessive replaying of “Life On Mars?” in my stormy twenties to the ecstasy of dancing to “Young Americans” in London’s glorious Duckie nightclub in my 30s.

He is the first person I have never met who has died and who I feel I will miss for the rest of my life.



George Harrison described being a Beatle as a trauma. As he got older, he rather sank into himself and sought to overcome this trauma with meditation and a country pad the size of a modest county. Harrison was the reluctant Beatle, a man for whom fame was unwelcome, recognition inconvenient and the idea of being ‘George’ a baffling concept he never wished to wrestle with, let alone accept.

David Bowie, on the other hand.

Bowie didn’t wrestle with the idea of fame, the idea of persona, he took it to bed and had all sorts of roundabout sideways fun with it.  He took the gaps between perception, persona and his creativity and carved a unique space where he could demand our attention and control its response. How David Jones, the man felt about his fame is something that is difficult to guess, though his seventies retreat behind a glaze of drugs, as well as the lyrics to the song “Fame” itself, suggest it could be as poisonous for him as other superstars, and yet – even in his darkest years – he always found ways to play with it, to use it. And so it was through his various personas and projects in the 70s, the oddly lurching eighties which he seemed to enjoy more than some of his fans, the intrigues of the nineties and then finally silent in plain sight in New York. Bowie was always able to craft and curate his own image and output like the Wizard behind the curtain, only he wore the red shoes.

When I heard the hollow hideous past tense being applied to David Bowie this morning, my usual Monday fog cleared immediately, sadness burning it out. As I made breakfast, I let my children know that Bowie had died. They responded with a Flight of the Conchords Bowie impression and hummed out a few of his big hits over their Weetabix. Honestly, I’m not referencing this to make my kids look like mini hipsters but it prompted the line of thought I’m trying to articulate now. Everyone has a Bowie voice, many artists have Bowie references, many pop stars are effectively a Bowie reboot.

However, David Bowie was the best David Bowie out there. By a country fucking bisexual mile.

In being the best Bowie, he managed to perform a remarkable feat – David Bowie won. He beat fame –  he conquered this hysterical, hypocritical, ugly beast. In his later, sober years he was utterly in control of his environment, practicing a poise, grace and good humour that was as extraordinary as it was unique. Has anyone held such talent, such fame, such adoration so comfortably? While David Jones remained clear headed, determined, private, loving and loved, David Bowie overwhelmed us with his talent but was never overwhelmed by what he got back from us – our respect, our attention and our love.

And why such love? It wasn’t because he looked as good in a suit as a dress – though that helped without question. No, it’s fairly simple. It was the songs. Always the songs. Such songs.

Thank you, David, for the gift of sound and vision.


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“In an ideal world I wouldn’t be doing this” – Tom Daley takes the plunge

At this very moment – thanks to the weird wildfire of the web – millions of people across the world are finding out that Tom Daley, the 19 year old British Olympic Diver, is in a relationship with a man. He joins the ranks of Frank Ocean, Orlando Cruz and Zachary Quinto in declaring that they are bisexual or gay at the very height of their careers and fame, when they have most to lose and the world has most to gain.

It’s a very 21st century moment. For one thing, Daley hasn’t been co-erced into a public declaration on the front page of a tabloid, like Stephen Gately or Will Young before him, despite the fact he could surely have earnt a small fortune by offering his story up as an exclusive. Instead, he’s released it via YouTube, in a low key, dignified and utterly charming video. He may not be able to control how people respond, but – brutalised by years of unpleasant dealings with the media, not least through gossip about his sexuality – he can at least control how his story is told.

The other thing which makes this a very 21st century moment is the public response. At the time of writing, Daley’s “coming out” video has 21,050 likes and 305 dislikes (more on these later), a ratio of 98.5% support to 1.5% disapproval. Most of the comments left on his YouTube page range from those who are, well, unsurprised, to those who are surprised that it’s a big deal. Others have praised his courage, although our favourite is Lay Yar’s optimistic outburst, “OMG OMG OMG OMG ! I HAVE A CHANCE  NOW! OMG OMG OMG.”

Compare this affection with the hate  which greeted footballer Justin Fashanu, arguably the most well known British athlete to come out as gay or bisexual before Daley, 23 years ago. Betrayed and attacked by managers, colleagues, fans and his own brother, Fashanu never recovered, and eventually committed suicide in 1998.

It’s worth remembering that this is what the UK was like back then, when Tom Daley was 3 and first learning how to swim. It’s worth remembering that as he started school, our current Prime Minister was still finding it politically usefully to attack Labour for abolishing the notoriously discriminatory Section 28 law, smearing Tony Blair as “anti family” for his support for gay equality. When Daley took his first dive, at age 7, The Sun still employed Gary Bushell as their chief columnist, giving the country’s biggest bully pulpit to a man whose pathological loathing of “poofters” poisoned the public well for decades.

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Dr Who isn’t the only national icon capable of regeneration. Russell Brand has flitted between drug addict and campaigner, MTV cult, Daily Mail bette noir, widely praised journalist, Hollywood actor, best-selling author, Mr. Katy Perry, and now, political rabble-rouser. Not forgetting of course, stand up comedian – which is what he was doing when Pop Lifer caught up with the funny bunny Booky Wooky fella. 

Che Guevera and rimming to a disco beat – Russell Brand performing his Messiah Complex, seen by Pop Lifer at Leicester’s De Montfort Hall (photo courtesy of the Guardian)

Che Guevera and rimming to a disco beat – Russell Brand performing his Messiah Complex, over seen by Jesus C and Malcolm X  and seen by Pop Lifer at Leicester’s De Montfort Hall earlier this week (photo courtesy of the Guardian)

And then he arrives.

The libido driven free-wheeling, recovering heroin addict and spokesperson for the Zammo generation of the disaffected and disappointed –  Russell Brand. He strides on to stage for his Messiah Complex set, bound as much by his tight leather trousers as he is by the reputation that precedes him as the loin king with the way and the sway. At once incisive and rambling, egotistical and giving, he is a self-made paradox who dances unapologetically on the hypocrisy of what he says, how he lives and what he represents. He makes you think a little and laugh a lot and stirs up jealousy and admiration as much as he attracts and repels.

His set switches at sharp right angles from audience cuddles to political polemic, each description of his four iconic heroes concluding with a description and/or celebration of debauchery. His slant is as much a critique of modern capitalism as it is a confession to his own susceptibility to its allure.

The set works very well but whether Russell Brand is a good thing or not is a tired, well-worn path which has become particularly overcrowded since he broke the surface as a non-voting, revolution inducing, Paxman baiting, establishment wrecking ball. Why is Russell Brand so liked and listened to is another question and maybe the more interesting one. It may not be of course, but Pop Lifer has a theory anyway.

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Stilted, ridiculous, predictable, perfect: the genius of Breaking Bad

Pop Lifer, in an almost spoiler free attempt, tries to explain why Breaking Bad is just so good.


Jesse & Walt. In the desert looking daft and not saying much meanwhile perfecting the art of crystal meth mass production and less is more perfect TV. Image courtesy of AMCTV.

Pop Lifer has tried to write a blog on Breaking Bad for sometime, and in the last few weeks this effort has been redoubled as the last few episodes have been uploaded onto Netflix every Monday. And yet every time we settle on a neat point or a decent theory to wrap up the five series of ever escalating tension and moral decline, an hour sat around the laptop on a Monday ends up laughing in the face of any conclusion recently reached.

Breaking Bad is one slippery fucker.

Breaking Bad has now slotted itself into the binge watching consciousness of those other great modern TV classics –The West Wing, The Wire, Mad Men and The Sopranos to name a few.  With all of these there is a discernible and noble reason to come into existence – a political ideal, a searing sense of injustice, a retelling of history, gender politics, a debunking of masculine and cultural cliché. Try as you might to find one, there isn’t a conspicuous intellectual, political or social reason for Breaking Bad to exist.

Breaking Bad is not Trojan Horse drama in any Dickensian tradition. It is a about man breaking bad for a reason which isn’t good enough (a resolution we settle on very early). It is not therefore a scathing attack on the US health care system. The writing is working nothing out nor making a point. This is not, like The Wire, a perfect alignment of commentary and narrative.

So Pop Lifer has given up trying to provide a clever wraparound theory to answer the question ‘what is Breaking Bad?’ Instead Pop Lifer has settled on a very simple answer to this question. Breaking Bad is simply very good. No, really. It’s the bomb.

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Can ‘Les Revenants’ pull off the pay-off?

We’ve re-uped in B’more, cooked blue meth in New Mexico, corridor walked in DC and arrested half the population of Copenhagen in a surprisingly flattering woolly jumper. Now, we have mixed feelings for a band of Alpine zombies competing for attention with a Mogwai soundtrack. Oh, yeah. TV has struck gold again but as we approach ‘Les Revenants’ finale, is it going to go all bat shit crazy like Homeland, frustratingly elusive like Lost, or actually carry off the pay-off like The Wire? Cross les fingers mes amies.

the returnedNice candles. Lovely bespoke bookshelf. Cracking lamp. Stunning views. Must have zombie in a foetal cuddle second from the left. (Furniture courtesy of IKEA; Picture courtesy of Canal Plus)

“Les Revenants” is beautifully shot, wonderfully told and has two episodes before series 1 concludes on Channel 4. It is set in a modern alpine French town of fresh tarmac, neat gardens and gated communities. Its look and feel is surprisingly reassuring to an English audience who didn’t think the French dealt in that English speciality of burby bland, but no fear, they do. (Except bland happens to be in the Alps and the characters speak French, which just sounds, like, way better and always will. Oui, c’est vrai.)

Cultural references are all very ‘Anglo’. Mod jackets, the ‘Lake Pub’, American diners – all tequila, no vin rouge. And of course, there is the little matter of The Returned themselves. The walking, talking, breathing, never sleeping, always eating, often horny, living dead – so obviously real in their depiction but so fantastical in their mere existence – producing screeching false notes in every cold, modern room they occupy.

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Only connect – Frank Ocean brings hope to the Brixton Academy (review)


Frank's Emotion, Frank Ocean at Brixton Academy, by Jaime GIll

Frank Emotion, Brixton Academy, by Jaime GIll

There’s a moment tonight which may be the most hopeful, beautiful thing I’ve seen in 20 years of gig-going at the Brixton Academy. Frank Ocean stands on the stage, almost nakedly vulnerable in a fierce red spotlight, singing the heartbroken words to the lush, trembling “Bad Religion”. And he’s joined on every bruised note by almost 5,000 people, audibly aching with him as he describes the pain of trying and failing to make a man a love him back.

Big deal, you might say, particularly if you’re in your late teens or early twenties, like the vast majority of tonight’s fervent audience. But let’s just take a moment to record what a big deal it really is, how far we have come. Practically the first gig I went to was Suede in 1992, when the dissipated glam rockers were rowdily taunted by the crowd for their homoerotic flirting (which the band soon abandoned, chastened). 12 years later, I found myself in a furious argument with three drunk Northerners at Leeds Festival after they spent most of Franz Ferdinand’s set jeering anti-gay idioicies at the band, who’d made the mistake of addressing one lusty song to “Michael”.

So watching Frank Ocean being not just accepted but adored by tonight’s crowd – which is so young and so eclectic, drawn from every race and background – feels like nothing less than utter vindication. Maybe The Beatles were right, after all. Love is all you need. Well, that and remarkable courage. Long time Pop Lifer readers will know that it was Ocean’s love letter to his first, male love that first inspired this blog, so tonight felt particularly special to us, seeing his courage rewarded with love and success, not the hate and failure he must have feared.

Having taken a moment to celebrate this beautiful victory, let’s move on. Because another part of Frank Ocean’s triumph is that he has managed to make a public stand over his sexuality without letting it define him. The radiance of his all-conquering album “Channel Orange”, with its extraordinary emotional and musical range, has won him a devoted fanbase which reaches out into every permutation of sexual and racial identity imaginable. Given the fact he’s yet to score a proper hit single, the hysteria which greets him tonight is startling: the foot-stomping chants of “we want Frank!” before he takes the stage, the shrill Beatlemania screaming between songs, the warm swells of love when he shines his shy smile down from the stage.

Frank Ocean, Brixton, by Jaime Gill

Frank Ocean, Brixton, by Jaime Gill

His ability to connect with so many people, to topple walls with such quiet grace, is clearly connected to his most extraordinary gift as a songwriter, his empathy. He can be a confessional singer when he wants – as on “Bad Religion” or the stunning suicide daydream of “Swim Good”, which he sings accappella joined by the whole crowd. But he’s just as emotionally powerful when singing from within other people’s lives. On the stoned stroll of “Super Rich Kids” he sings about aimless existences cushioned by money and numbed by drugs, while on “Crack Rock” he turns to the opposite end of the social spectrum, singing of crack addicts living gutter lives with real anguish and understanding.

Tonight is not a perfect performance. Ocean is not a natural stage performer, and spends as much time staring at his feet as looking out at his audience, although his occasional awkwardness is part of his charm. When this unshowiness is coupled with less sharp songs, like the meandering “Sierra Leone”, the early part of the show drags. But a stunning closing half – which takes in the lovely lope of “Forrest Gump”, the piercingly beautiful “Wise Man” and a rapturous, adventurous “Pyramid” – more than compensates.

In one of the few moments when Ocean talks in between songs, he talks of a Church he once went into New Orleans, where people were encouraged to tap their neighbours shoulders and tell them they love them. He encourages us to do the same right here. There is a moment of acute hesitation and awkwardness – this is London, after all, not New Orleans – and then people tentatively do it. A tall, blonde, young-Daryl-Hannah-lookalike next to me taps me and says “I love you, man”, and I grin, then pass it on to the dark haired older woman next to me. It’s a measure of trust and belief in Ocean that everyone braves the embarrassment and for the second time that night, I feel awash in hope.

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