I'm informed that Lady Gaga soloed a Bowie tribute at the Grammys. I have not seen it. I watched the opening with the face-tracking projector effect, then winced and turned it off. I'm pretty vocal in my dislike of her; I don't wish her ill, but I do wish she'd spontaneously decide she was rich enough already and retire to a tropical island somewhere. I have no problem with her being as weird as she wants, and I even concede her right to be weird specifically in order to sell records even if I'm not going to buy them, but I find her insistence that this claptrap is meaningful to be pretentious at best.

If you ask me, and nobody did, the tribute should have been given to a handful of artists instead. Perhaps one of them would have butchered his songs less than people are telling me she did.

And if you'd insisted on handing it over to a solo artist, I'd have scared up Brian Molko, with or without the rest of his band.

Molko is frontman for a band called Placebo. He sings and periodically picks up other random instruments when they're needed. Wikipedia lists their genre as "alternative", probably because whoever wrote the article wasn't a francophone -- there's at least one interview en français where they trace their origins straight back to glam rock. They jump around quite a bit and are generally rubbish at ever making any two albums sound quite the same, aside from Molko's distinctive voice. While the band as a whole are interesting, Molko personally is, in no particular order: very intelligent; very well-read; very pretty; inclined towards dramatic eye makeup and black nail polish; openly bisexual and periodically regretting having run his mouth about it to the press; cheerfully filthy, especially when encouraged; and possessed of a terrifyingly catholic curiosity that is probably going to get him killed someday, especially if he keeps needing to see what all the drugs do firsthand.

If you are still wondering why I think he'd be qualified to run a Bowie tribute number, you have not been paying attention.

Placebo more or less has a career because of David Bowie. Bowie was looking for a band to open for him on his Outside tour in the mid-'90s, and he fished their demo out of a pile of stuff sent in by total unknowns. (Having spent time in the shit end of the industry, Bowie was big on helping new artists. There's a foundation out there somewhere that gives out grants and other boosts to musicians, visual artists, and I think theatrical groups.) They hadn't even managed an album yet. To hear them tell it, they spent a fair amount of time hyperventilating because OMG DAVID BOWIE KNOWS WE EXIST, but they did go, and they were quite the success. Bowie discovered that not only did he like the band, he liked the kids in the band, and they became a pet project of sorts.

Bowie made the friendship very public. Once he aged into some perspective on the matter, he was known to note that he'd been fairly bad at showing affection in his youth; it just wasn't the done thing in the time and place where he grew up, and it took him a while to learn. It tended to come out either too low-key for his liking, or as a sort of obsessive limerance that he even knew was a bad idea at the time. He'd gotten it down by the time he married Iman, and the two of them were famously squishy in love for like twenty-five years. Before that, it was generally there, but manifested mainly in word choice and tone when he spoke of (or to) one of the people he was particularly fond of. He may have originally been from Alpha Centauri, but he definitely learned all his human manners in post-war England.

While Bowie was remarkably good at sharing the stage for someone who had been that famous his entire life, he was not very apt to share space with people, apart from wives and offspring. The number of people whose feet I've seen him stand on can be counted on fingers. One of them was Mick Ronson, lead guitar for the Spiders From Mars. Homoerotic guitar antics aside, they used to lean on each other like a couple of teenage drunks when on stage, and probably off it as well. Announcing that Ronson had passed away in the early '90s was the closest I ever saw Bowie get to tears on camera.

Reeves Gabrels, lead guitar for Tin Machine and session/tour guitarist through the early '00s, had a frightening focus on his instrument when on stage and was apparently not to be disturbed when playing, but they sat shoulder to shoulder in interviews, and spent a lot of time laughing at each other. I've no idea what happened to the Sales brothers, but if you wanted to talk to one guy from Tin Machine, you got Bowie, and if you wanted two, you got Gabrels as well. The backing band did not often chatter in live shows, but Gabrels occasionally stepped up to his vocal mic during banter breaks to pick on his frontman. Bowie thought it was hilarious.

He was less literally touchy-feely with Gail Ann Dorsey, his favorite bassist for albums and live shows through the end of his touring days in the mid '00s, but Bowie occasionally wandered over to hover in her playing space, and she seems also to have had teasing privileges. She adored him. It took him a long, long time to put "Under Pressure" back on the live setlist after Freddie Mercury died, but when he did, he gave her the second vocal part. It might be my favorite version.

In light of this, his interactions with the kids in Placebo are interesting. Get him in the same room as Brian Molko and they tended to play clever-brain-things ping-pong until stopped by an outside influence. Bowie was notoriously fussy about collaborators; he worked with some unexpected people (Bing Crosby) because he liked the idea, and turned down some famous ones (Coldplay) because he didn't. By Placebo's second album, he'd agreed to a duet, and they ran it live at least once. He spends half the performance trying to coax Molko over to share his vocal mic. They snap together like magnets when the song is over. Bowie even starts it by reaching out to ruffle his hair. Their joint cover of Marc Bolan's "20th Century Boy" goes similarly. There's a huge amount of open affection there, and Bowie wants everyone to see it. Probably partly because he's been on that merry-go-round himself, and wishes to make it known that this time the pretty boys have one of the old rich white guys in power watching their back, but also at least a bit because Molko's more demonstrative in general, and it matters enough for him to adapt.

So if there is a direct line of succession for all the glitter, there's a more than fair argument to be made that it goes through Placebo, and I continue to be annoyed that nobody thought to call them. I suppose Lady Gaga is a much hotter property right now, but that doesn't make her better-suited to the job.

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  1. ...And suddenly i understand at least part of why Indochine had Brian Molko as a guest artist. (If I remember correctly it's even for a song about space, though that may be incedental.)

    I have a residual fondness for Lady Gaga, but she's not someone i'd pick for a bowie tribute. Their musical styles don't seem super compatible, even setting aside the matter of lineage

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    1. Well, that and Molko conveniently speaks fluent French. It's definitely his second language -- when he loses a phrase it comes out in English and he has to take a second to produce a calque -- and he has a bit of an accent that I've never heard before, which I'm guessing is Luxembourgish. But once you get him going he rolls along almost as happily, and unstoppably, as he does in English. The rest of the band generally just lets him talk until the interviewer interrupts him for time.

      I have an awful lot of Indochine around here somewhere. I still occasionally get "3 nuit par semaine" stuck in my head out of nowhere.

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    2. Yeah, I can see how that would also be helpful. Given Nicolas Sirkis's tendency to drop English into his songs, I could see them quite happily wandering between both languages and either confusing or entertaining everyone around them.

      Indochine is pretty much the soundtrack to my life. Paradize was the first CD I ever owned, and I've been enamored ever since. They're the only band whose music I make a concerted effort to find hard copies of, rather than just grabbing mp3s.

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    3. Is he spelling it with the -s on the end now? That was very confusing when I first looked them up.

      My taste in music tends toward either things that are fun to sing or things that trigger one of my various musico- forms of synaesthesia. Indochine bounces around in style so much that only one, maybe two songs on any given album will ping one or the other. (Conversely, most of Placebo's Sleeping With Ghosts hammers on the musicospatial and musicovisual buttons very very hard. "Protect Me From What I Want" is especially vivid.) I think 3 and Paradize have the best hit rate in that regard; the rest of the stuff I have does not grab my attention and wrench it around. Off the top of my head, "Electrastar", "Mao Boy", "Popstitute", "Paradize", "3 Nuits Par Semaine", and "3ème Sexe" are the ones I remember well enough to name. Should I be looking for any other Indochine album in particular?

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