David Bowie's The Next Day & Why Looking Back Is The Way Forward

The most interesting moments in current culture are looking back, and nobody does that better than The Thin White Duke...
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The most interesting moments in current culture are looking back, and nobody does that better than The Thin White Duke...

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“Recycling the sleeve of the '"Heroes"' album with 'The Next Day' stuck over the front of it says interesting things about looking back. Maybe it's saying that the latest idea to go forward is that you have to go back - that's kind of what is happening in culture at the moment."

Jarvis Cocker. NME

Jarvis Cocker has a point.  The most interesting ideas in culture at the moment are looking back. Not in a nostalgic sense, like Midwives on the BBC, or a reliving-of-youth sense like The Angelic Upstarts reforming.  These ideas are bolder than that, they are trying to create something new out of the old.  The most exciting things that are happening right now look back to go forward.

David Bowie has looked back at his own past to create an album that taps the zeitgeist to such an extent that it debuted at number one in 12 countries and topped the iTunes chart in 60.

Bowie has long been described as a great assimilator of culture, creating startlingly futuristic concepts out of numerous influences.  His genius is that the references are always oblique and never direct, more essence than ingredient.  Now he has assimilated his younger self.  The Next Day draws mainly from the alienation of the Berlin years but it also has the upbeat energy of the soul phase and the dark dystopia of Diamond Dogs.  A friend even detects something of Tin Machine in there.

Tom Waits did something similar two years ago with Bad As Me, which was like a greatest hits of new songs.

Like Waits, Bowie has long been inspired by experimental modern music.  Its there on The Next Day in the chanting chorus of Heat – my father ran the prison, my father ran the prison - in the general industrial backdrop of synths and guitar fuzz and it is all through the Berlin originals - Low, Heroes and Lodger. Modern music is currently being celebrated by the year long The Rest is Noise festival at the Southbank Centre in London and modernism is a big clue as to what is going on in culture.

Bowie’s Berlin period was in the late seventies but that was a city trapped in time, out in the cold since 1945.  It was a mid-century modernist island surrounded by East German communism that in turn abutted the triumphant post-war, postmodern consumer west.

Consumerism has taken a battering since the credit crunch and there’s not much appetite for playful postmodernism in these chastened times.  Mid-century modern is again the mood of the day.

Mid-century modern is found in coffee shops that are springing up in cities everywhere with their stern lines and muted colours where the industrial-style light shades match the Luxist headphones worn by the clientele who scribble in Moleskin notebooks just like the ones Hemingway used and read Zadie Smith’s NW, which has been compared to Ulysses and have seen last year’s zeitgeisty movie, The Artist - black and white and silent winner of three Golden Globes, seven BAFTAs, and five Academy Awards.  Along the street vintage fashion stores will sell spivs and flappers gear to those who go to White Mink nights and dance to electro-swing, which is pre-war jazz with a modern dance beat.

“Original Modern” is how designer Peter Saville, creative director of Manchester, describes that city.  That is the essence of the place, its brand, the promise to those who live and work there and those who may visit or invest.  It is a positioning and a vision based on its centrality to the industrial revolution and the birth of modernity.  Looking back to define tomorrow, this is a city hosting a conversation between its past and future.

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Footage of a fire in the Manchester branch of Woolworths in 1979, a video of sixties girl-band the Shangri-La’s and a description of the meaning of church design were cut together in the video installation which won Elizabeth Price the Turner Prize last year.  The Woolworths Choir of 1979 2012 was haunted and discomfiting.  The Shangri-Las sang and danced.  In the burning store, girls waved for help from a barred window.  The Shangri-Las danced and the fire danced.  The layout of the store is described.  The layout of the choir area of a church is explained.  Every aspect of the church design has significance.  The significance of the store layout is that the fire started in a storeroom in the middle of a floor.   The girls danced.  The girls waved. The connections are random, melancholic and evocative of something that has been lost.

Potsdamer Platz…The Dschungel…Nurnberger Strasse…KaDeWe.   Lost time evoked by Bowie’s checking of Berlin street names and clubs on “Where are we now?

Will Self’s Umbrella revisits the difficult modernist novel and is also a warning about the detrimental effects of technology on our minds. His Encephalitis Lethargica sufferers compulsively re-enact the motions they went through operating lathes and vertical drills in munitions factories during the First World War.  Like some of us compulsively reach for our smart phones every few minutes.

Digital technology has monopolised novelty for two decades.  Wired is a fashion magazine and the old fashion magazines are now irrelevant.  But the internet is mature, social networks are no longer exciting and smaller tablets and watch-phones are not revolutionary.  3-D printing is exciting.  It is where digital innovation comes out from behind the screen creating a new cottage industry that could be the future of manufacturing and a source of elusive economic growth.   Again, an old idea recalibrated for today.

We look back beyond digital to analogue.  Beck trumps the vinyl revival by releasing an album of sheet music.  The charts were originally based on sheet music sales.  The “covers” of the songs turn up on YouTube and are performed at a gig in Rough Trade east while the “original” Beck versions are as yet unheard.   It is a new way of experiencing a new album courtesy of an old medium.

Brutalised by stock markets, dreams put on hold, entrepreneurial drive frustrated, creative energy suppressed, we look to previous hard times, make do and mend times, for clues as to what comes next.

We are trying to geo-locate ourselves in time. Standing in the ideological desert of the second decade of the twenty-first century we draw a line back to the middle of the last century, measure the angles and try to plot a path into the future.  Triangulation in time not space. This is temporal mapping.

The simultaneity of postmodernism seemed like a good game for a while.  Everything was present at the same time and it was fun.  Dizzy disorientation has given way to a plain and simple feeling of being lost.

Now we are looking back to pick up on some good ideas that we left behind and see if they can be recalibrated for today.  Hence Modernism, which was about progress and an ultimate destination where everyone was better off.  Hence the renewed interest in Marx among both activists and the chief economists of banks and hence the revival of communism as an idea by some philosophers.

J.G. Ballard described art as the future’s early warning system.  Bowie is our man lost in time, walking the dead, asking where are we now.  The Next Day will soon be out on vinyl and it will sound even better on that old format.