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David Bowie: The Songs That Made James McOnie’s ’80s Boarding School Bearable

For James McOnie and his fellow boarders in ’80s Hamilton, David Bowie was a lifeline to a more thrilling and artistic world. He remembers the songs that kept the schoolboys sane.

David Bowie was a surprising and ambiguous genius; his music gave common ground to people with polar opposite views and lifestyles. It also shocked an establishment which badly needed shocking.

I wasn’t the biggest David Bowie fan initially. I’d heard him on Radio Waikato or Ready To Roll and I remember thinking ‘Fame’ and ‘Fashion’ were weird songs, but I was almost oblivious to what Bowie was up to until I went to boarding school at the age of 12.

In the hostel at Hamilton Boys’ High there were Bowie purists, Bowie obscurists and Bowie bandwagon jumpers… but nobody dissed David Bowie. Nobody voted him off the island. He had permanent immunity.

You could put David Bowie on the ghetto blaster at the end of the dorm and no-one would unceremoniously stop the tape in its tracks. If, however, you played anything resembling chart-topping pop, it would be thrown some distance and replaced with something from the approved playlist: Led Zepp, Dire Straits, Iron Maiden, AC/DC, Black Sabbath and (on the weekends) Talking Heads or Violent Femmes. If there was ever a dispute between factions, Bowie would settle it.

Bowie was loved, revered or at the very least respected by this group of farm boys, middle-class wasters and achievers, under- and over-. Good old cross-dressing, possibly gay, Dave was OK with the future farmers of the Waikato.

To us younger boys, he was more than music. Playing Bowie usually meant your underwear would stay in one piece. I remember one boy with perfect hair being wedgied for putting Billy Idol on the stereo.

Bowie calmed those waters. He spoke to us in ethereal tones and gave the more artistic ones in the hostel – something unreal to cling to when all around us was Hamilton.

What I find hardest to believe is that all that time Bowie was the same age as my mum, herself also a musician.

There are more comprehensive and touching eulogies (from people who actually spent time with him), but here’s a list of David Bowie songs in no particular order that made an impact in a boarding hostel containing a minimum of pleasures.

Queen Bitch
Kudos to the Guardians of the Galaxy team for thrusting this song into the limelight. It was always a favourite of mine. I remember dancing and racquet-guitaring badly to this with my hairy mate Dave. No-one picked on us because Dave had a temper, and the strength of an orangutan, if not the glossy coat.

Space Oddity
“Ground control to Major Tom…” In 1969, Bowie set his stall as the foremost astro-lyricist in music and the master of the intro. A song that actually transports you to the place it talks about! Lesser musicians take note. This was also the one Bowie track you could learn from start to finish without a lyrics sheet. And learn it we did, “in a most-a peculiar way-hay”.

Starman
Good times from start to finish. This song is so powerful I believe it’s solely responsible for English people saying “booogie” instead of boogie.

Suffragette City:
Raw, urgent, crushing everything in its way. “Wham bam thank-you M’am!”

Ziggy Stardust
Iconic, primal. Prince clearly took his cue from this.

The Jean Genie
The blues! Only more fun. Dave (my hairy mate) knew all the lyrics and would sing them in my face while salivating. I could only make out the end of each sentence and to this day that’s my speciality.

Diamond Dogs
This track has swagger, and cowbell. It puts everyone in a good mood. If you play sport in 2016, add this to your psyche-up playlist (the radio edit).

Rebel Rebel
Brilliantly simple, but posing complex questions about gender. It’s very Rolling Stones and on reflection it was probably a sly message to his mate Mick Jagger that his schtick was very doable.

Life On Mars
A masterpiece, impossible to fault, and when you’re a teenager it’s the kind of song that makes you think the piano lessons might be worth persevering with.

Let’s Dance
A new sound, a new ‘do and in bloody Australia! Even though he had a hit on his hands he still threw in that discordant crescendo, “tremble like a flower!”, and he was still loving his word play. “Put on your red shoes and dance the blues.”

Modern Love
This song kicked ass from first listen, although some of the Bowie purists in the hostel disapproved. I remember listening to it with my sister’s best friend and we agreed it was an instant classic. Bowie’s new groove was basically nicked by Kenny Loggins with ‘Footloose’ a year later. Which was disconcerting.

Ashes to Ashes: Bitter-sweet and satirical, Bowie said it wrapped up the ’70s.

Time to move on. Easier sung than done.

 

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