Martin Newell’s Joy of Essex: Still sparkly at 60? Nah. My days of glam rock are over

The many faces of David Bowie. Graphic: Annette Hudson.

The many faces of David Bowie. Graphic: Annette Hudson. - Credit: Archant

The Latitude Festival this year will turn over one of its stages to Bowiefest, a celebration of David Bowie’s 1973 work which will be curated by the London ICA.

The telephone call came early one evening last week. There’ll be films, talks by people who were there at the time, and an all-star live band will play a tribute concert. It was very nice of them to ask me to take part. But I turned it down. I could possibly have managed Bowie’s 12-string parts and, two years after stopping smoking, I can once again sing Life on Mars pretty much note-for-note.

Oh, don’t think that I didn’t consider doing it. A toxic cocktail of nostalgia and vanity nearly overcame my common sense. But not for long. Why was I turning it down? Because I am 60. And it doesn’t really matter whether or not I could still wear the clothes or hit the notes. The fact remains: I am 60 years old and – let this be my mantra – there’s a fine difference between clever and wrong.

It doesn’t mean I have to surrender entirely, don the faded denim and only ever perform ghastly old beardy songs like every other pub-rock mug. But let’s consider this matter.

Ziggy Stardust and Bowie’s other stage characters of the time were androgynous, lissome and, crucially, in their mid-late 20s. Right now, somewhere out there, I reason, is a young male – possibly a female – of the age, looks and talent to method act their way through that Bowie show. But it ain’t me, Babe.

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As I write these words, David Bowie is at the top of the album charts, as well as being the subject of an exhibition at the Victoria & Albert Museum. If I envy him, even mildly, either of those achievements, I don’t envy him the pressure, his compulsory attendance at the fame menagerie or the heart attack he suffered in his mid 50s.

His new album has enjoyed effusive, if not downright fulsome, praise from the London critical coterie. My own opinion, having listened to most of it, is that the album’s okay really. It hasn’t grabbed me so much that I’d buy it. But so what? If David Bowie had made only the albums Hunky Dory, Ziggy Stardust, Aladdin Sane, Low and Heroes this past 45 years, it’s still a better track record than almost everyone else of his generation. If his new album is not in that class, who cares? It’s only pop music.

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I did cast my mind back to 1973, however. Because it also dawned upon me that it was 40 years ago next Thursday, aged 20, that I played my first professional gig with the Mighty Plod in Chigwell, Essex.

Plod might have been Colchester’s answer to the Sweet – if the Sweet had been a question. That night in Chigwell, we plastered ourselves in make-up, got royally tarted up and stormed the place. We were mobbed by girls. It was thrilling at first. Then it became scary. During a break, we had to be locked in a room for our own safety.

In the end we didn’t do quite as well as Bowie. We weren’t even in the same league. But, as we used to say in pop groups, it was better than working.

The year 1973 was the height of what is now referred to as the Glam Rock period, although I don’t remember it being called that back then. In glam rock, there were two quite distinct camps. (I’m sorry, I couldn’t resist that.) The first was your artsy brigade, consisting of people like Roxy Music, David Bowie and, later, Cockney Rebel and Sparks. The second was your brickies-in-BacoFoil, such as Slade, Sweet and your correspondent’s band.

The thing is that, back in 1973, it took a fair dollop of courage for a bunch of skinny boys from the Colchester suburbs to primp themselves up and go stomping around in front of fearsome-looking bikers and their molls in village halls all over Essex.

Come to think of it, at that time we did do one David Bowie cover. The meat and potatoes of glam rock music, however, was actually old rock’n’roll, which we cannibalised and then thrashed out at breakneck speed in order to keep the dancefloor full.

So what happened to the band? Over the following two years, from a shaky start, we became better and, eventually, pretty good. Finally, we were signed to a London record label, before breaking up, in early 1975. Glam rock by then was over.

Over the ensuing decades I never lost my love of making records and, like an industry outlaw, held out here in Essex for years, writing and recording the music which comprised part of my living.

Unlike many of my contemporaries, I haven’t toured, as such, for almost two decades. In the end, I suppose, I believe that unless you’re playing jazz, classical or some kind of roots-based music, anyone over about 40 should think very carefully indeed before they go flogging their tired old mutton around the world’s stages. We don’t want a Peter Pan-demic, do we?

David Bowie’s remained glamorous for a very long time now. But I don’t want to actually be him. Not even for a night. After all, if he’s not getting up there to do his old stuff, it would be a bit silly if I tried to. Alas, I shall never play the Dave.

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