Henry Rollins: Bowie at the Beeb Is a Great Way to Rediscover Bowie's Genius

The new 4-LP box set of Bowie at the Beeb features all of David Bowie's classic BBC recordings.EXPAND
The new 4-LP box set of Bowie at the Beeb features all of David Bowie's classic BBC recordings.
Rhino/Parlophone

It took weeks for me to listen to the vinyl version of David Bowie’s Blackstar. I had a bag of LPs from a recent trip to Washington, D.C., next to bags of albums from my January trip to Europe and last week’s journey to Australia. I reached into the D.C. bag, thinking I would play the first album that hit my hand.

It was Blackstar.

I wondered if I was ready to engage with the seven-song, 41-minute work and not feel too beat up to keep the turntable spinning afterward. I reckoned that records don’t play themselves, so I put it on.

I am not aware of reacting to a record in the way that I have to Blackstar. It is so good, so thoroughly intimidating, it is almost unlistenable. My road manager Ward had written me days before, urging me to pay attention to the album’s drummer, Mark Guiliana. Ward was right, Guiliana is mindblowing. Actually, the whole band is.

My initial engagement was a mixture of marvel and mourning. I don’t know when I will be able to face it again. Bowie knew what he was doing. Bowie always knew what he was doing.

The reason I am telling you this is because I’m now listening to a newish release that is, for me at least, a far more approachable Bowie collection. In many regards, it’s the perfect way to spend time with the man and his music.

Several years ago, Bowie at the Beeb, a best-of collection of Mr. Bowie’s BBC recordings from 1968 to 1972, was released as a two-CD set. At the time I wondered, considering all those sessions were done on tape, why a pull-out-all-the-stops, multi-LP box set wasn’t released as well. Hopefully, it wasn’t David Bowie’s passing that finally induced the BBC to release the extremely cool, four-LP set that is filling my room at present.

This collection captures a young, rapidly evolving and morphing David Bowie. You can already hear that, without question, the man was very quickly going to be an absolute force in music and culture.

Unlike The Beatles, who early on were in love with their Buddy Holly and Chuck Berry records, and The Rolling Stones, who were finding their feet through the steam rising off Muddy Waters, Bowie made just a few brief nods to the masters, dashing by them as he busied himself acclimatizing to the stratosphere. I think he might have fired off the Pin Ups album, a collection of covers in 1973, between Aladdin Sane and Diamond Dogs, as a flare, allowing his fans to reset their compasses and check their gear — so when he went even further out, they had a fair chance to keep up.

The Bowie at the Beeb collection allows us mortals to experience Bowie when he was a semi-earthling, kinda like one of us. It is this exquisitely recorded and wonderfully raw Bowie that dominates this incredible collection. The collection is easily the best retrospective of any musician you will hear this year, or maybe ever. It is that good.

The relative austerity of the BBC studios forced artists to work quickly and proficiently. If you don’t have what it takes, your BBC sessions will show it, exposing your flaws to even your most devoted listeners.

It is in this environment that Bowie shines. He was an extraordinarily driven man, his great talent and nervy genius matched only by the inferno of his ambition. He wasn’t fooling around. He was great and he didn’t want you to forget it.

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I don’t think he minded one bit that so many people dug him with such obsessive devotion. I think he was able to distance himself briefly, and objectify the monster that fame creates, by making The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust, which fairly annihilates its incredible predecessor, Hunky Dory, burning it to the ground in a nihilistic conflagration that seems bent on annihilating rock & roll itself. A year later, he would further smash the rock archetype with Aladdin Sane, which contains a cover of the Stones’ “Let’s Spend the Night Together,” not so much a tribute as Bowie reaching over the table to take Mick and Keith’s lunches.

I might be getting all music critic with this, but I always thought Bowie came to show off and kick total ass. I think he pulled it off with almost complete perfection.

He saved some of his most powerful moments for Blackstar. It is as if he used the cancer that was slowly extinguishing his life to focus his abilities to laser intensity.

Over the last several weeks, I have been talking to people in more than a dozen countries, and often the topic of Bowie comes up, and the difficulty in processing the fact that he’s gone. After speaking at Soka University in Orange County last month, a young man asked for my help. He told me he was trying to deal with the passing of Bowie and, even weeks later, was still having a very hard time. He was so sincere, I almost hugged him out of empathy.

If you have been having a hard time busting out your Bowie vinyl because you’re still grieving, you might want to check out the Bowie at the Beeb collection. Clocking in at a little less than 2½ hours, it is a truly awesome ride. You think you’re a Bowie fan now — wait until you get this set digested.

Perhaps the aspect of David Bowie I admire the most was that he never made it seem easy. You can tell that the music was damn near killing him, that he knew he had to stay right at the edge to get what he knew was there. Without guts, talent is useless. Bowie had both.

Look for your weekly fix from the one and only Henry Rollins right here every Thursday, and come back tomorrow for the playlist for his Sunday KCRW broadcast.


More from the mind of Henry Rollins:
Let's Invade Canada

Bend Over, America — Here Comes President Trump
I Am Basically a Vinyl Cat Lady


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