Bowie, change, chance and bottling success


How can you bottle success? How can you sustain a winning streak into ongoing triumph? In most cases, the answer is not to be found in seeing what worked before, extrapolating the recipe for success, and repeating. It’s about change and the taking of chances.

I love this simple definition of success from Dior Couture chief executive Sidney Toledano in this weekend’s Lunch with the FT article in the Financial Times:

“My father taught me it’s better to have no explanation for success than a
lot of explanations for a failure. Success is intuition, action,
decision and take some risks.”

In music, success that comes from intuition, action, decision and risk-taking tends to come early. The greatness of almost any great band tends to rest on a foundation of just a few years’ peak creativity.

In his hugely enjoyable book 1971: Never a Dull Moment (which looks at the preposterous number of creative peaks achieved in the titular calendar year), David Hepworth writes about the Beach Boys’ early-70s crisis of confidence. What relevance would a band whose success was all about clean-cut, all-American tales of beaches, California girls and little deuce coupes have in the era of beards, Vietnam, and somewhat less clean living? Their response was to pen an album entitled Surf’s Up, which Hepworth describes thus (italics mine):

“It was probably the first case of a band making a tribute album to
itself. It was a celebration of the band’s own aura, an attempt to
painstakingly recreate as adults what they had once instinctively done
as teenagers

Things did not end for the Beach Boys in 1971. Incredibly, you can still go and see the Beach Boys live in 2016. Their career has endured for more than half a century. But, as Hepworth notes, “most of that half century has
been spent tapping into a legacy that was established in a very short
period of time.”

How many people lie instead of talking tall?
David Bowie enjoyed sustained success nearly a half century, for the most part without compromising
on intuition, action, decision and risk-taking. Bowie arguably prized change and the thrill of creativity above all else. Like the man said way back in 1971 (on the godlike Hunky Dory album), it’s all about “ch-ch-ch-changes.”

His recent career retrospective was knowingly entitled Nothing Has Changed.

His final album Blackstar is an extraordinary parting gift to the world. Written in the full knowledge that his time was almost done, it’s a beautiful meditation on life, death and one’s legacy*. The music marries an undimmed desire to explore and embrace the new with nods to what went before. Even the end is a time of change.

For example, the horn section that arrives a few minutes into the title track of Blackstar seem consciously to echo those at the start of Changes from way back in 1971.

Swedish director
Johan Renck was one of Bowie’s final

collaborators. Renck worked closely with Bowie throughout Summer 2015 on the video for the song Blackstar. Speaking on Adam Buxton’s epic BowieWallow podcast, Renck argues that Blackstar “deals with reflections on mortality and on aftermaths and on legacy and trajectories.”

Renck’s views on creative trajectories are fascinating. He says:

“When you’re a young songwriter, everything you write has a forward trajectory. But at some point in life if you’re creative, I have a feeling that at some point you start reversing that process and become more contemplative and reminiscent. Your work sort of becomes rather backwards-directed. And I don’t mean that in a negative way. I mean it becomes reflective. You come to a point in life when you have to reflect. And I think also, being that type of artist, you come to a point where you will think of your legacy.“

There’s a world of difference between reflection and
painstakingly to recreate what you once did instinctively.

Anything and everything you did before can (and perhaps) should inform what you do going ahead. By all means learn from what went before, from your mistakes and your successes. But never lose sight of the need for intuition, action, decision and risk-taking.

Creativity shouldn’t be something you remember from when you were young.

Even the end is a time of change.

Now is a time of change.


* Blackstar would be a great album without the tragic circumstances surrounding its release. I was very excited about the title track back when Bowie was still with us.

  • Bowie Nothing Has Changed image via Wikipedia. This album is as good a Bowie starting point as any other – just look at that tracklisting! But clearly I make no claim to the copyright on this image, and will remove it from this post immediately if required.

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