‘More imaginative than Lennon or Dylan’? Come on…

‘More imaginative than Lennon or Dylan’? Come on…


norman lebrecht

January 12, 2016

On the day after John Lennon was shot, I was working at BBC News. I clearly recall the shock and excitement, the sound of decks being cleared to accommodate an historic event, but I do not have the impression that there was anything like the fuss which, last night, cleared the whole of the first half of the main news bulletin, for reflections and appreciations of David Bowie. That strikes me as excessive.

This morning in the Times newspaper, a critic who is described ‘as Bowie’s representative on Earth’ defines him as ‘more imaginative than Lennon and Dylan’, who broke their moulds a dozen years before Bowie made his mark.

In some respects, I suspect, Bowie moved into the vacuum left by Lennon and Dylan in a fallow decade. In others – far beyond the limits of music – he created his own legend.

Strictly from a musical perspective, I doubt that his originality was equal to theirs. Or that we will reach for his songs, as we do for Lennon’s ‘Imagine!, in times of public crisis.

Bowie was brilliant in his own unique way. Comparisons are superfluous.

Your views?



  • Chris Walsh says:

    Perhaps we shouldn’t use the media’s obsession with a “good” story as a yardstick to measure the worth of Bowie’s work. Frankly, I’ve heard rather too much of “Imagine” over the years; I’d be quite happy not to have a Bowie song dragged out to inappropriately mark events of the day.

    Time will tell, and that’s going to take…time.

  • Jenni Frazer says:

    Couldn’t agree more about media response to Bowie’s death which was so off the wall – I liked Bowie but the truth is that he was not venerated in his lifetime in the way reports would have us believe, and a visiting alien might have thought a Latter Day Saint had departed. Worst part was seeing Newsnight’s Evan Davis struggling through – with a makeshift panel – when he clearly knew nothing about Bowie, and just as clearly was being pushed into talking about him.

    • Douglas Lee says:

      Evan Davis is the worst presenter Newsnight has ever had – he knows very little about anything and, therefore, struggles through almost everything!

  • Holly Golightly says:

    From my memory, Bowie didn’t engage in bogus refulgences like Lennon, “all you need is love”: “give peace a chance” etc. ad nauseum.

  • Elizabeth Owen says:

    Well for once the news led with a story about an interesting and creative Dave instead of a boring no talent Dave, the politician!

  • M_von_Kolinahr says:

    A tough one. Dylan or Lennon I both adore – Lennon I personally always found the most interesting of Beatles, something which became ever clearer as the years went by, after the “lookalike moptop boys in matching suits” years faded away and their individual (musical) personalities and characters became more apparent. I was on my first visit to London in December 1980, aged 20, and was in Madame Tussaud’s and wondered why a wreath had been placed in front of the Lennon wax figure, and then I walked outside and saw the famous billboards: “John Lennon shot dead”. That left a big impression.

    As for Bowie, he cultivated his image and his diverse (stage) personas with such vigour that it’s maybe a little easy to overlook his purely musical accomplishments – yet on closer examination, they too were progidous, specifically during his peak years, 1970-80. These were kicked off by the bleak, extremely uncompromising album “The Man Who Sold the World”, which made little initial commercial impact, but is musically fascinating – hard, heavy rock cheek by jowl with reflective, fantastically melodic acoustic guitar-strummed numbers, with dark lyrics evoking themes of paranoia, alienation and madness, where his earlier work had been more upbeat and folky in typical 1960s fashion – this seemed to indicate a whole new direction for the 1970s, and was also highly articulate. (For the record, the similarly highly gifted Peter Hammill and Van der Graaf Generator underwent a similar metamorphosis, from the relatively poppy and Aquarian “Aerosol Grey Machine” album to the extraordinary, exhilaratingly dark 1969-71 trilogy of “The Least We Can Do is Wave to Each Other”, “H to He Who Am The Only One” and “Pawn Hearts”, three of the most articulate and literate (also classically influenced) art-rock albums ever released.) Bowie, meanwhile, followed through with two of his most celebrated albums, “Hunky Dory” (1971), lighter in texture than its predecessor, and the conceptual “Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars” (1972), the latter his blueprint for stardom; of the two, I think the former has the stronger and more varied songs (including the particularly poignant and ironic use of strings on “Quicksand”, in a medium where it is often particularly hard to incorporate an orchestra effectively); “Ziggy”, meanwhile, really made it as a whole. During this period of course, Bowie was highly controversial and gave intensely theatrical performances with outrageous costumes and also publicised his bisexuality, all of which made a huge impact.

    Following two more albums of original material in a broadly comparable vein (“Aladdin Sane” in 1973 and “Diamond Dogs” in 1974), Bowie ditched his highly theatrical glam persona and dark futuristic themes and dabbled for a while in white soul (“Young Americans” in 1975 and “Station to Station” in 1976, both very well received), but then turned to the electronically influenced “Berlin trilogy” of albums in collaboration with Brian Eno, “Low” (1977), “Heroes” (1978) and “Lodger” (1979). The first two of these are again among his most celebrated albums, especially “Heroes”, the anthemic title track of which is one of his best loved songs – Bowie’s own “Imagine”, if there is such a thing! Crucially, the focus was now more than ever on the music, although the accompanying tour to promote the albums still had a well-conceived stage presentation, but now with stark, monochrome modernist sets, strip lighting and Bowie himself in a plain shirt and jacket. With Eno’s electronics influences, the albums explored radically new soundworlds in particular (for rock and pop at least), and very much set the scene for much of the synth-pop and rock of the 1980s – their influence is still felt even today to the point of being ubiquitous – their importance in this regard is probably difficult to overstate. Finally, in 1980, “Scary Monsters” was issued, which in a way summed up much of the previous decade. Subsequently, Bowie probably never quite rose to these heights again, although there have still been many flashes of the old brilliance, and both his last albums, including the brand-new “Blackstar”, seem to have been very well received.

    For me, personally, then, I think Bowie was probably was more or less up there with both Dylan and Lennon in terms of scope and imagination, although it is indeed dangerous to compare him to them too closely. Dylan in particular followed a totally different musical path. Lennon of course never had a chance to carry on his work, but in purely musical terms, after “Strawberry Fields”, “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds”, “I Am the Walrus”, “A Day in the Life” (most of which came from him), even “All You Need is Love”, and also his two great solo albums “John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band” and “Imagine”, I’ve no further questions. Bowie, meanwhile, was one of those artists who effectively defined the 1970s, and with his versatility, theatrical sense, very strong musical and lyrical capabilities and technological savvy, I think he was a true innovator and trendsetter, and so in those ways perhaps he really was up there with the other two; people a couple of years younger than me would be even more inclined to agree, I think.

    … Comparatively little of the above relates at all to classical music per se, admittedly, but if I recall Pete Townshend’s statement (in Tony Palmer’s amazing 1968 rock documentary “All My Loving”) that “Pop music is crucial to today’s art, and it’s crucial that it remain as art”, then at least for the generation at least to which I belong, on the basis of the period 1970-80, Bowie was certainly one of the greats – and that can also be said without really needing to resort to hagiography of any kind.

  • Eric says:

    You can’t compare artists as if they are equals. In some cases, each artist’s unique talent and individuality leaves a different impression on different fans.

  • Dennis says:

    Bowie was certainly superior to the odious and vastly overrated Lennon. The genius and creativity of his total musical output dwarfs Lennon’s.

    And don’t get me started on the ghastly “Imagine” – a vapid, vacuous plea for a godless, secular humanist, utopia that would have fit right in at a Comintern rally.

  • Hank Drake says:

    I think the wall to wall coverage of Bowie’s death is more a result of today’s 24 hour news cycle than a reflection of his merits vs. Lennon’s or Dylan’s.

  • jack Rose says:

    I agree with Mr Tate – wall-to-wall glorifies every event significant or not. David Bowie was a terrific artist, one worthy of respect. But, I really have a problem with who glorify everything current as the “greatest ever” or “most significant”.
    It is not necessary to disparage one artist to glorify another.

  • Mark Shulgasser says:

    One can take the point of view that David Bowie was the exemplar of popular music’s catastrophic decline in the 70s.

  • Robert says:

    It is not so much a difference in scale of Lennon’s and Bowie’s death but difference in scale of the medias’ desire to create a story, then and now.

    Here in the US, Bowie’s death is noted but it hasn’t run any media outlet off the rails.

  • William Safford says:

    In reading various news reports in the wake of David Bowie’s death, I was struck by how much he was loved and respected by his peers and colleagues, such as Luther Vandross and Nile Rodgers.

  • Douglas Lee says:

    Yes, Lennon/McCartney and Dylan were uniquely imaginative in their own way, but then so was Bowie. He was certainly one of the most intelligent and innovative popular musicians of the last 50 years, and stands head and shoulders above most of his colleagues from that time. As such, I wouldn’t argue with the wall-to-wall coverage of his life at the time of his death.