Ever since the astonishing adulation heaped on David Bowie after his death on 10 January I have been mulling over the musical influences on my own life. Bowie meant absolutely nothing to me: his music did not appeal. When the Guardian made his portrait a full front page I, and most of my friends, were astonished. Yet Robert Peston, the former BBC reporter recently moved to ITV, said Bowie would “ have his vote as the most important Briton of our age.” Recognising that what he was writing might be dismissed as “sentimental pap”, Peston felt he could fairly say that Bowie “ probably had as big an influence on me as anyone, not just in respect of music and fashion, but also gender politics and identity.”
This set me thinking: while Bowie meant nothing to me, perhaps some other musician had a big influence on me. Bob Dylan maybe. I came to love some of his songs and I regard him as the greatest popular musician of my generation. But I am not sure he had any influence on me. Maybe he accentuated my natural cynicism. He wrote very little that was sentimental. Who else might have influenced me? I liked James Taylor, Kris Kristofferson, and a host of blues musicians such as Muddy Waters and Big Bill Broonzy. But, try as I might to identify a musician who I could say was “ probably as a big an influence on me as anyone”, there is just a blank.
Peston says he was hooked on Bowie when he was just twelve years old. That was in 1972. I had a look at the charts when I was twelve back in 1957. All the songs are very evocative: Tommy Steele Singing the Blues, Lonnie Donegan Cumberland Gap, Elvis Presley All shook up, Paul Anka Diana and Buddy Holly That’ll be the day. My father sometimes listened to Pete Murray’s Radio Luxembourg show with me when I was in bed and would mumble “they’re all masochistic songs.” I did not buy a record until 1960 when I got a Saturday job selling paraffin in a local store. When I got in I had to soak in a bath to wash the paraffin off and the record I bought still evokes a whiff of it. I cannot remember now why I chose Fats Domino’s Walking to New Orleans but that is the 45 I asked my mother to buy with my paraffin money and it was there for me when I got out of the Saturday bath. I was then fifteen and about to become hooked on folk music and the blues: at sixteen I was learning the guitar and hanging out in coffee bars.
By that time I think my taste in music, such is it became, was influenced earlier by the records played on BBC children's radio. I have asked a number of friends who are of a similar age to me–say mid-sixties to early seventies–and they instantly start humming and recalling the songs of our childhood: The runaway train, How much is that doggie in the window, The teddy bears picnic, I’m a blue toothbrush etc. Of these I would say The runaway train was the one that got me interested in blues and folk music. It was sung by a Texan called Vernon Dalhart, born in 1883 who had performed in opera before he pioneered recordings which became known as “country music”.
Others were clearly taken with other songs from that era. On his interview on the BBC’s Desert Island Discs, the cookery writer Nigel Slater chose the Teddy Bears’ Picnic as the favourite of the eight records he was allowed to take with him to imaginary isolation. Perhaps more surprising was Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher’schoice in 1987 in an interview with the pop magazine Smash Hits: her all-time favourie was the 1953 hit How much is that doggie in the window. The American version sung by Patti Page was number one in the US charts when Thatcher was in her twenties. It was also a hit in the UK with a cover version by Lita Roza which made her the first female vocalist to top the singles chart. According to legend Roza hated the song so much that she refused to sing it again.
There is no doubt that music evokes memories of childhood as well as adolescence and emotional times in our adult lives. But do they influence us in the way Robert Peston wants us to believe Bowie influenced him. I still find it difficult to accept that Peston would have lived a different life had it not been for the excitement of seeing Bowie on Top of the Pops dressed like a clown and calling himself Ziggy Stardust.