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  • Writer's pictureMark Howitt

Songs in the Key of My Life: 15

Up The Hill Backwards, David Bowie (1980)

Last week I had the pleasure of watching Jack Docherty’s show David Bowie and Me: Parallel Lives at Edinburgh’s Traverse Theatre. In the course of 75 minutes, the BAFTA award winning writer and actor takes the audience on a journey from childhood to the memorable moment when hosting his Channel 5 chat show in 1997 he actually met the Thin White Duke. As you might expect from the former Absolutely star and the face of Scot Squad’s Chief Commissioner Cameron Miekelson, it’s a show packed with laughs. But at heart this is a love letter to our teenage years containing some painful truths to which, I suspect, everyone can relate.

Docherty’s first memory of David Bowie is watching him on TV singing Starman, on Top of the Pops, on Thursday (obviously a Thursday) July 6th, 1972. It’s certainly a mesmerising performance, Bowie with his shock of red hair pouting into the camera (“I had to phone someone … so I picked on you”), Mick Ronson - shoulder length blonde hair, gold lamé jump suit - gazing into Bowie’s eyes (and who can blame him), a pansexual display of glam rock the likes of which had never been seen before on BBC1.

Jack Docherty has a couple of years on me, so though I’m very familiar with that Top of the Pops clip, I never saw it when first broadcast. Unlike Jack I can’t say with any degree of authority when my first encounter with David Bowie or, rather, when my first exposure to his music might have been. I suppose I would have heard The Laughing Gnome in the late 1960s on Ed “Stewpot” Stewart’s Junior Choice or something, but that doesn’t count.

I remember being aware at least, of Lodger (1979), the last of the Berlin Trilogy, after Low and “Heroes”. Not so much for the music, but the artwork which depicted Bowie with his nose broken, possibly also a leg broken and lying splayed out on a bathroom floor, it just kind of freaked me out. So, I think the starting point for my not so parallel life with David Bowie must be the following year’s Scary Monsters (and Super Creeps).

Bowie’s twelfth album in 10 years - a phenomenal output for any artist - was more commercial than its predecessors. Yet again, the music took a change of direction as illustrated by the massively successful single Ashes to Ashes, a sequel to Space Oddity, with its accompanying bonkers video, Pierrot clown et al. But my favourite track on the album was and to this day remains, Up The Hill Backwards. Short it may be, but in slightly over three minutes, Bowie and producer Tony Visconti create an ever-changing wall of sound. There’s some wild, otherworldly guitar work from Robert Fripp, and longtime Bowie collaborator Dennis Davis pounds the drums as if his life depends on it. Listening to it today - 44 years on - I still find new sounds buried in there.

In 1980, Up The Hill Backwards didn’t have quite the effect on me that watching Starman on Top of the Pops in 1972 had on Jack Docherty. Even if it had done - and since there are three performances of his show left, no spoilers - I know I couldn’t tell the tale with the panache that he does. After that interview in 1997 Bowie and Docherty chatted for a couple of hours in the green room, Bowie leaving with the parting words, “Keep it real, Jack. Keep it true!” Even if reality and truth are impossible to quantify, Parallel Lives is story telling at its very best.

Earth keeps on rolling, witnesses falling

It's got nothing to do with you, if one can grasp it

Up the hill backwards

It'll be alright

David Bowie and Me: Parallel Lives tours to Inverness Eden Court (24 May), Perth Theatre (14 June) and Cove Burgh Hall (15 June)

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