Bruised by 17: the article that caused David Bowie to go “ballistic” (part 1)

In the last couple of days I’ve revisited the first two features I penned for Record Collector magazine – indeed, the first paid articles I ever wrote – which appeared in their November ’99 issue. The review of ‘hours…’ was a surprise additional commission to follow the main eight page retrospective, Art Decade, which attempted to cast “a critical eye” on Bowie’s previous ten years, or, as we were soon to discover, the Reeves Gabrels era from start to finish.

Press day at RC was fast approaching, and I assumed the job was done. I went to set up my first email address at an undesirable internet cafe on Kilburn High Road, purely so I could send my second piece in (the first I’d actually taken in person on a floppy, remember them?).

It was Thursday, September 23rd 1999, so yes, unlike the Thin White One, I was a sniffy and reluctant internetter, never expecting I’d make much use of my new ‘Yahoo’ at all. Hell, I didn’t even own a mobile phone.

I returned home and saw that Record Collector’s editor, Andy Davis, had left an answerphone message. Wow, that was quick, I thought. I hope he likes the ‘hours…’ review. I made it as polite as I could possibly muster, after all.

He was delighted with what I’d penned, but then dropped a bombshell: “You know EMI have just reissued most of Bowie’s back catalogue? Of course I did. I saw the first batch, which ran from 1969’s Space Oddity to 1975’s Young Americans, in HMV a week or so ago.

“You don’t have the new CDs?” I had to admit I didn’t. They were devoid of the bonus tracks that Jeff Rouge and Rykodisc had unearthed a decade before. In fact, the label’s plans to make each album a double disc set, as I had pushed for when EMI Premier’s Tris Penna had been in charge of the newly acquired catalogue, had been abruptly abandoned not long after Tris left the label. So these new ’24-bit digital remasters’ just didn’t seem like anything to make a fuss about.

“Well, do you think you can lay your hands on a set and dash off a quick review?” came the reply. “Make it a two-pager and we’ll place it straight after your other features.” My heart sank. Andy was unbelievably keen to bag this Bowie interview, evidently, but three features, one following the other, by the same writer, sounded excessive.

I ummed and ahed and couldn’t have sounded less indifferent. I’d purposely avoided including reviews of the Dame’s classic albums in the Crankin’ Out fanzine I’d published, ostensibly because most of them are so well known that everyone has already formed their long-held opinions and chosen their favourites. I felt I had little to add.

“We’ll bung you another 150 quid. How about that?” Considering they only offered 100 for the ‘hours’ review I was tempted. But on one condition: “If I were to do this I’d want to talk about the packaging. Because some of what I’ve seen so far I wasn’t too impressed with. That would be my angle.”

‘hours…’ felt like years, but you wouldn’t have known that from my review

“Alright, fine. I trust you to tell it how it is. But I must have it first thing in the morning, without fail. Okay?” I reluctantly agreed, knowing I had my work cut out for me in many more ways than one. I called Mark Adams, who’d been a close confidant and designer of the Crankin’ Out magazine since 1995, and asked for help. I wondered what time he was heading into work. He was on lates, so not due in til late afternoon.

I told him how unimpressed I was by what I’d seen of the new CDs in the racks, and was about to dash away a rather rushed article. I felt the main thrust should highlight the differences between the new artworks and the original albums, and to try and make sense of some of the blatant revisionism at hand. Mark had a whole room in his Harrow house devoted to vinyl, so was the perfect and logical source. An early adopter of compact discs, my record collecting, I explained, had ceased around 1986.

He agreed to lend a hand, with the proviso he wasn’t named in the article (long story), so I made my way on the Tube, from West Hampstead to Harrow-on-the-Hill station. After making a quick detour to the local HMV to pick up the 17 shiny and new discs, I found Mark waiting for me in the car park. I hadn’t seen him for almost two years (there hadn’t been an issue of the magazine in all that time – even longer story), but he was as charming and fantastically indiscreet as ever. Despite a crazy workload, he ultimately proved a huge help in spotting errors and omissions as we compared vintage first pressing to generic new CD, one by one.

Harrow HMV. Now closed

Mark asked me what I thought of the second batch of re-releases, which covered the period from Station To Station in 1976 to Tin Machine in 1989. They’d only been out a few days, so I was surveying them for the first time in front of him: “They don’t look too hot, do they? said I, ambivalently. “No. Kevin (Cann, the project’s vehemently anti-smoking designer) admitted to me he didn’t spend so much time on those. It’s not his period. He only really likes Bowie up to the mid ’70s, as you know”

I remembered. Mark had shown me early drafts of a book Kevin had been working on, covering the spottery minutiae of Bowie’s chronology up to 1974, some three years previously. So the Adams aside was disappointing if not surprising. I slightly resented having to do this write-up, but armed with that kind of information, as well as the copious notes I’d scribbled at Mark’s place, I felt like the age-old adage, “It’s a dirty job but someone’s gotta do it” couldn’t be closer to the truth. The question was could Bowie handle the truth? It’s something he’d been so masterfully good at avoiding almost his entire career.

I thanked Mark for his invaluable assistance and accompanied him as he drove into London, to the Express Newspapers building where he worked in production. We talked of travelling to Dublin to see the Dame the following month, which would turn out to be the last time Bowie and I spoke.

But before then I had an assignment to complete. I headed home and stayed up until I could barely keep my eyes open any longer. It was well past 3am. If I’m tired or hungry I have a tendency to be more than a little grumpy, and all diplomacy filters are well and truly set to off. I think you can probably detect that in the piece. Still, at least it was a hell of a lot more honest than the ‘hours…’ review.

When I awoke on the Friday, I read it back and thought aloud, “Blimey, DB’s not gonna like this much.” Nevertheless, there was no time to soften it now. I hadn’t even had time to play the actual CDs. The music, man: isn’t that’s what it’s all about? Not this time.

As I walked back to the Kilburn cybercafe – opposite the Gaumont State where Ziggy had sashayed in ’73, just three weeks and five miles away from his infamous ‘retirement’ on the Hammersmith stage – I had an ingenious idea: the byline can be cloaked in pseudonymity! An alias; that’s a very Bowie thing to do, I thought, feeling rather smug with myself. Anyway, with a flash of altruism, I justified it by deciding that three consecutive features by the same name across twelve pages looked more than a little odd anyway.

Bowie came back to Kilburn in ’89, with Tin Machine. I wasn’t there, but someone with a video camera was

The silver fox that ran the internet cafe, Stuart, knew my visits there were usually Bowie related, as he’d spied me bringing up a now defunct Damepage entitled Teenage Wildlife, and assumed it was a barely legal porn site. I felt almost sorry to disappoint him.

I casually mentioned my search for a pen name, and Stu suggested an anagram website. I had a play around, but didn’t like the look of any of the permutations of Steve Pafford it was conjuring up. So I threw an ‘n’ in there (for Steven, wouldn’t you know?), and, hey presto, a result I could live with! As I emailed Andy the outstanding artefact I told him in no uncertain terms, “For this piece I don’t want to use my own name, I’m going to be Peter van Doffs!”

I chuckled at the faux-Dutch name, not having the slightest idea that, three years later, I’d find myself (quite literally) living in The Netherlands. Anyway, here’s the actual article. Just last week I was surprised to find I still had my original unedited version, before the RC subs hacked it down. They didn’t change much, I’m happy to say; mainly edits for space purposes. The challenging tone remained the same. And so, for the first time online, here it is.

In a later post I’ll go into the aftermath of the article, and the wildly differing reactions upon publication from Bowie, his team, Mark, Kevin and anyone else and their dog that offered an opinion.

© Steve Pafford 2017