I See The Stars Crashing Down: David Bowie, Jeff Duff and the Rare Breed of Musical Chameleons


 

Early January marks the birthdays of some of my favourite performers. Both Elvis and Bowie were born on 8 January, David Johansen, Jimmy Page and Scott Walker on the 9th, Rod Stewart and Donald Fagan on the 10th, along with a whole stack of others sprinkled through the month such as Sam Cooke, Dolly Parton, Janis Joplin, Mick Taylor, Clarence Carter, Greedy Smith, Michael Hutchence, Johnny O’Keefe, and Doc Neeson.

 

Which is my way of dragging out one of the Bowie archive photos from my collection. This one dates from the China Girl video shoot in Sydney and is date stamped (12 September 1983) on the back. Bowie, who also shot the music video for Let’s Dance in Australia during the same period, is shown with Geeling Ng; a New Zealand actress, Ng was working as a waitress at one of my favourite hang-outs of the time, Dean’s in Kellett St, Kings Cross, when Bowie first met her.

 

Bowie and Ng made the China Girl video, romance bloomed (as it did for many of Bowie’s co-stars), and eventually Ng returned to New Zealand where she became something of a media celebrity. Although there’s no photographer credit on this, it was most likely shot by Patrick Jones.

 

Jeff Duff in concert, wearing a suit from his London days.

 

Bowie owned a Sydney apartment close to the Cross, in Elizabeth Bay’s historic Kincoppal building, and would spend several months at a time there. He only sold it after his marriage to Iman in the early 1990s and the realisation that a bachelor pad on the other side of the world was somewhat redundant for a married man.

 

Jeff Duff, the Australian entertainer, who fronted the jazz-rock band Kush before beginning a long and artistically diverse solo career, had known Bowie in the late 1970s. Duff had relocated to London where he terrified and energised the music scene. His notoriety attracted other artists who were comfortable on the very edge of society’s expectations and Bowie was certainly one of them.

 

Fast forward to the early 80s and Duff and Bowie became neighbours, with Jeff living next door to Kincoppal. They’d frequently run into each other in the neighbourhood and members of Tin Machine, Bowie’s band at the time (their second album was recorded at EMI’s 301 Studios in 1989), would turn up for Duff’s performances around Sydney.

 

Jeff Duff and friend in the green room at Sydney’s Camelot Lounge

 

Given Duff’s eclectic musical tastes, and immense talent, it’s no real surprise that he’s become well known these days for his Bowie tribute shows. He’s even played the Sydney Opera House a few times. He’s also mounted shows dedicated to Lou Reed as well as Scott Walker and the Walker Brothers.

 

But it’s Bowie that Jeff has become most celebrated for; he even conducted a thematically impressive experiment in mixing the styles of Bowie and Frank Sinatra. There’s some physical similarities between Jeff and Bowie, and his interpretation of the songs are well worth experiencing.

 

I’m lucky that, owing to Jeff being a friend of a friend, I’ve had a few opportunities to not only see Jeff in concert but spend time with him as well. An erudite gentleman (a description that, sadly, is much under-utilised these days) with an innate elegance, Jeff has a quick wit leavened with a refreshing self-deprecation, a world away from the onanism generally shown by those in showbusiness.

 

The author at the Camelot Lounge

 

Bowie life and musical career has been extensively charted and dissected, Jeff Duff much less so. His memoir, This Will Explain Everything (Melbourne Book, 2016), is highly recommended and you end up with the realisation that his contribution to music, and Australian culture in general, is most under-appreciated and unrecognised.

 

Fittingly, the book is dedicated to Bowie.

 

© Words and Photos David Latta 2020

Thanks For The Music: The Enduring Gifts of Alan Lancaster and Status Quo


Recently, at a friend’s birthday celebrations, I met Alan Lancaster, one of the founding members of Status Quo. The party attracted a fair representation of the arts, with a leaning towards musicians, songwriters and music industry personalities. Some performed, others shared their recollections during speeches, a few simply mingled and chatted, relaxed in their relative anonymity.

Alan spent much of the evening talking with long-time Quo fans. He is small, almost boyish, with the lean insouciance of a rock star and a shock of gray hair. His features recall the 13-year-old who, with fellow schoolmate Francis Rossi, honed their musical skills in the school orchestra at Sedgehill Comprehensive in Catford, a south London suburb that produced talents as diverse as guitarist Robin Trower, comedian Ben Elton and author Andy McNab.

At that tender age, Alan and Rossi formed a band that would evolve to become Status Quo in 1967. They were together through the hard-rocking period of chart dominance in the early to mid-1970s and when they racked up a fair proportion of Quo’s 64 UK Top 40 hits.

As is so often the case in the world of rock, Alan fell out with his partner and played his last gig with Quo at Live Aid in 1985. He’s been living in Australia since then.

At 64, he’s a little frail, a little unsteady on his feet, a result of his ongoing battle with MS, which was first diagnosed in 2002. Doubtless he’s been asked everything over the years so he’s heard it all. His recollections are mercifully free of the venom that would normally be excused from someone who has survived fame, fortune and the music industry.

Even a sideways swipe at the question du jour of pretty much every fan he talks to these days – the ignominious serving up for Coles supermarkets of Quo’s biggest hit like a slab of cold delicatessen lunchmeat, complete with current band members performing in giant red hands – diffuses the revulsion he must undoubtedly feel with a deliciously ironic sense of humour.

Alan Lancaster

As he was leaving, I shook his hand and asked if I could say something. He was probably expecting yet another request for a photo opportunity or some probing analysis of bass riffs on Piledriver.

Instead, I simply thanked him for the music, for being so much a part of my teenage years. If he thought it a strange comment, if he was taken aback, he hid it well, maybe a moment’s hesitation before he answered and maybe his eyes were a little brighter and a little shinier and maybe his handshake was a little firmer than it would ordinarily be.

It could be that a lot of people say what I did and it’s just another ordinary day for a former rock god. I don’t mind that much. I meant it. Music is so immensely important to me. It carries the full weight of my life, of the memories of all the years that have passed. There’s rarely a day that I don’t share with the music that means so much. My iPod turned high in the room where I’m writing, in the kitchen when I’m cooking, in the car while I’m driving. Each song is a hermetically sealed vessel containing emotions of a time and place and mood and sometimes even a person; vividly bright pieces of the jigsaw that is me.

Music unites our past and present, and most likely our future as well. I can listen now to a song that I first heard when I was young and callow and know that it may still be bouncing around my brain when I take my last breath. It will endure. It’s the same for those of us for whom music is more than just background noise.

Alan Lancaster (middle back row) and the classic 70s Quo line-up

My tastes meandered widely in those days, from Karen Carpenter and Van Morrison to Chicago, the Bowie of Ziggy Stardust and the Thin White Duke, Alice Cooper and Lou Reed. And while, as the 70s progressed, my nights were increasingly given over to disco, the long summer days were bracketed by Status Quo at their most potent, pounding out across a thousand hotel beer gardens and backyard parties.

I most likely had cassettes of Hello! or On The Level to play in my car. Quo were unavoidable and their songs seeped into my conscious like osmosis. Roll Over Lay Down, a song co-written by Alan, remains as vitally anthemic as it was then.

As is to be expected, the boffins have weighed in with a scientific rationale for why music means so much to us. In early 2011, researchers at the Montreal Neurological Institute found that people listening to their favourite songs experienced a rush of dopamine near the frontal striatum, the brain region associated with anticipating rewards, in tandem with a similar dose in the rear striatum, the brain’s pleasure centre. In essence, music activates the same pleasure responses as food and sex.

While music gives me such enjoyment, it can also take me to darker places. The weight of the past can become too heavy and there are those favourites I carried in my heart for decades, such as Bryan Ferry, that eventually came to represent my failures, far too painful to bear.

So while I was thanking Alan for his music, I was also thanking him for all the music. In essence, Alan was standing in for Karen and Van the Man and Peter Cetera and David Jones and Vincent and Lou and thousands more, everybody I’ve ever played more than a few times or nodded along to on the radio. I’ll never get the chance to personally thank all those great boys and girls so Alan had unwittingly become my conduit to the past and the person who grew up, for better or worse, with a love of the music of the times. For a moment, he was every singer of every song I hold dear.

He took it well, I thought. We shook hands, the barely heard echo of the passing decades gently faded and he wandered off into the night. I wish him well because a little bit of what make us all what we are travels with him.

Words © David Latta