by Nicholas Pegg
Billed as "the most comprehensive Bowie book ever published", The Complete David Bowie covers every facet of Bowie's career, from songs to albums to films to videos to the Internet. Every recording is analyzed from a technical and musical point of view, as well as being judiciously placed in the context of Bowie's chameleon career moves and constantly refined creative intentions.
Published October 5, 2000 by Reynolds and Hearn
Dara O'Kearney is a long time Teenage Wildlife contributor and well known Bowie Internet fan/historian. He wrote this review exclusively for Teenage Wildlife.
Although there is no shortage of books about Bowie, most of them of the sensationalist and lurid genre, there is a remarkable shortage of reference books. Apart from a few bits and bobs, Bowie has not attracted reference books in the same way that other major artists like Dylan or the Beatles (for whom there exists thousand page tomes where you can find out such vitals as what fish n chip shop George Harrison was spotted in at 5 past 4 on the 11th of July, 1974) have. Here at last, to start to redress that imbalance, comes Nicholas Pegg, big Bowie fan, witty and talented writer, with a flair for research.
I must admit I came to this book with very low expectations. Did the world really need another book that Bowie has not co-operated with, to retrawl the already fished out waters? Well, the answer is yes, the world did need another Bowie book, albeit one of a very specific type. What Pegg has essentially done is trawled meticulously through all the available material, both published and online, and collated it into the mother of all Bowie encyclopaedias. However, there's a lot more to this book than a dry collection of facts. Possessed of an excellent filtration mechanism to separate the bullshit from the truth, the uninteresting from the interesting, and possessed of an extremely witty and entertaining style of writing, Pegg has assembled a killer collection of interesting facts, amusing anecdotes and insightful opinions. He also possesses a vastly superior appreciation and feeling for Bowie the artist than any other published Bowie writer (with the obvious exception of Dr. David Buckley), which allows him to navigate through the crowded and confusing waters of Bowie's career without recourse to the usual stock of cliches (the fall from grace after Scary Monsters, the ch-ch-changes before). He's not that much of a fanatic to claim that everything Bowie released in, say, the 80s is brilliant, but enough to avoid dismissing the entire decade wholesale.
This is a book that makes no concessions at all to the casual fan or the interested non-fan, who will be put off both by the size and the look of the book. This is a big book that makes no concessions to visual style. At 350,000 words, this book is by far the longest Bowie book ever (about three times the size of, say, Chris Sandford's risible Loving The Alien), and cramming those 350,000 words into less than 450 pages translates into no pictures and a dictionary-size font that will have those of us whose eyesight is not what it was reaching for magnifying glasses. To give you an idea of the density of this book, you know that 4000-word-plus Introduction to the book you read online that looked about 12 printed pages long? Well, that's the first 4 pages of this 440-page book. Pegg clearly has no apologies and makes no bones about the fact that this book is aimed at hardcore Bowie fans and hardcore Bowie fans alone. You have to be a hardcore fan to be likely to have any interest in reading a War And Peace on Bowie's career that is singularly lacking in the type of prurient salacious rumours that other Bowie writers have used to spice things up for the general market. This is a great strength of the book as far as hardcore fans are concerned, but undoubtedly limits greatly the number of people who will want to read this book. For myself, I have to say it's refreshing to read a book aimed purely at me and my ilk, without having to wade through trash put in to keep the tabloid readers happy.
The meat of this book is a 170-page section that goes through each song ever associated with Bowie in detail, and as such reads like a wordier more comprehensive version of Ruud's online A-Z discography. The detail is quite staggering - any man who can write more than a 1000 words on, say, Can't Help Thinking About Me, deserves our awe. The A-Z organisation, explained in the preface as preferable to a chronological one as it removes the need for a separate index, also has the added attraction that it recontextualises Bowie's recorded output, emphasising the unity that underpins Bowie's entire career rather than the superficial ch-ch-changes that most Bowie writers choose to dwell on. This is followed by a 100-page section on the albums, which garners together all the known facts on the recording, and looks at the critical reaction at the time (which, as Pegg notes, was almost invariably totally at odds with the long term critical consensus - witness in particular the savage reviews Low was subjected to, and the glowing reviews that greeted Never Let Me Down). Then comes a 70-page section of Bowie live, which draws heavily on various online resources and Pimm Jal de la Parra's The Concert Tapes. Six pages of The BBC Radio Sessions sum up the known facts about that fascinating and until recently obscure corner of Bowie's output. Then there's 8 pages on the videos, 22 pages on Bowie's acting, 2 pages on Bowie the visual artist, 2 pages on his interactive projects, 2 pages on apocrypha, and a 40-page dateline which is the most detailed of its type, and a 6-page singles discography.
All well and good, but what of the drawbacks? I would have no hesitation recommending this book to anyone with a large interest in Bowie, or someone who wants to learn and is likely to enjoy this kind of intense detail, but for other souls, this is not the Bowie book for them. In a short section at the back, Pegg is dismissive of some of the existing Bowie books. However, he finds Dr. David Buckley's Strange Fascination admirable, while noting that the book is better on the big picture than the detail. The opposite can be said of his own book - it's all in the detail, and for readers who need a big picture they would be better reading this as a companion piece or follow-up to Strange Fascination than on its own.
Another potential drawback for many readers is that unusually for a reference book, this book does not hold back on the opinions of its author. I enjoyed this aspect immensely, and was almost speechless with laughter at, for example, his stinging and pointed dismissal of the Velvet Goldmine movie. But the risk, as ever, with expressing such strong opinions is that you will offend those who hold the opposite view, and the little cult that has built up around Todd Haynes flick may find the acerbic Pegg wit a little hard to swallow. Similarly, this book is written from an unapologetic UK-centric perspective that may jar with American readers used to having writers like Chris Sandford write from the US perspective. For example, readers who bought Chris Sandford's statement that Absolute Beginners was a total flop may be surprised to hear Pegg talking about it zooming up the charts and being Bowie's biggest hit since Let's Dance. However, as someone who is neither American nor British and therefore can make some sort of claims of impartiality, I must say that I think it is much more valid to look at Bowie's career from a UK perspective. It was the UK that spawned and shaped him, and it is the UK that has sustained his career when its fortunes have waned in other territories.
Finally, despite the logical lay out of the book, it still could have benefited immensely from a comprehensive index at the back. There is such a wealth of interesting stories, facts and anecdotes buried inside this book skilfully woven in with the relevant songs, albums or concerts that one would need an encyclopaedic mind to be able to remember what particular song or concert matches up to a particular anecdote.
Other than that, I have nothing but good things to say about this impeccably researched book. For a reference book, it's a surprisingly strong page turner. There may be little or nothing in here you haven't read before (though his exhaustive research does allow him to very usefully clear up a few very common misconceptions), but it's a major treasure to have it all in one well-organised place. If Bowie was the subject of a degree course at University, there's little doubt that this book would be the primary prescribed reference work. Thankfully though, this book is a million times more fun to read than the average University text. A book no serious hardcore fan can be without.