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Art vs Chart: David Bowie, Bob Dylan and the fake success stories of cultural history


They say that history is written by the victors, well, the same can be said when it comes to culture. The course of cultural history requires an angle, some sort of arc that allows us to follow it through neatly. That angle is usually a pack of fat lies and we barely even know it. 

Ask any critic, cynic, auntie or earthworm and all of them would indicate that David Bowie and Bob Dylan are two of the most influential musicians in recent history. This particular critic would go one step further and wager that they are arguably two of the most important artists ever. Their narratives, however, rightfully incorporate a slow uptake—a sort of struggle out of the gates before they blitzed to the front of the pack in the home straight and blazed a trail for others to follow. 

This simply isn’t true. Bob Dylan’s record that changed the world, The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan, reached a disappointing 22 in the US charts and while it took the number one spot in the UK this wasn’t until the year after its release. The vision of him taking Greenwich Village by the scruff of the neck and serenading a million future liberation protestors with ‘Blowin’ in the Wind’ only truly exists in retrospect.

Ten years later, Bowie apparently bestrode the 1970s like a kaleidoscopic colossus. Ostensibly the single that smashed the hinges off of things and thrust him into the spotlight was ‘Space Oddity’. In reality, it charted at a hardly earth-shattering number five in the UK. It was kept off the top spot by Thunderclap Newman’s ‘Something in the Air’, which in retrospect is like Muhammad Ali being fended off by a light spring breeze.

Likewise, The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars reached number five in the UK charts and a mind-bending 75 over in the US. Both Dylan and Bowie’s albums are in with a solid chance of being crowned the greatest of all time, and once more any open-minded music fan may well agree with that verdict, but that is far from reflected in the numbers they garnered. Bowie only had one album in the 50 best selling of the ’70s and it was Spiders from Mars lingering down in 42nd place alongside Leo Sayer.

As it happens, although Bowie wasn’t known for his financial wherewithal in the ‘70s, he was essentially broke by the end of it. In fact, as we celebrate the 39th anniversary of ‘Let’s Dance’ today, we have his paltry bank balance to thank for the song. Bowie essentially said, I need some money and I need a hit: get me Nile Rodgers! While a selection of arseholes decide to somehow turn a deaf ear to the brilliance of the bop and choose to consider it as the start of a commercial cash-grab, there is no doubting that the song finally made Bowie a mainstream threat. 

However, even us rightminded Let’s Dance fans would have to concede that the album was his last truly great work for two decades. Despite that fact, during those creatively fallow years, his star didn’t wain, it grew. People now began to look back at everything that had gone before and recognised the magnificence that the charts first failed to fully appreciate. 

Dylan’s narrative was similar. His US chart performance in the 1980s reads as follows: 24, 33, 20, 33, 54, 61, 30. Those numbers amount to an artist that you’d probably never have heard of or struggle to remember if it hadn’t been for what came before them. Yet leading alternative acts of the era still touted him as a major influence. 

In fact, Frank Black of the Pixies, the band that Bowie conveniently called the most important of the decade, opined: “Bob Dylan is quite a songwriter, and a great singer and musician. I won’t bother with comparing myself to him, but I will say that I heard his records at a very young age, and I still listen to all his records.” You see, Black loves his discography so much that he’s even willing to questionably venture that Dylan’s a great singer. I mean I adore him, but if he’s a great singer, what does that make Nina Simone?

This cultural phenomenon isn’t purely limited to music either. Recently, Martin Scorsese took the chance to use the celebratory occasion of his hero Federico ‘Il Maestro’ Fellini’s birthday to attack Marvel and the rise of commoditised content on streaming channels. He fondly remembered the glory days of 1963 when Fellini’s  blew his mind in some bohemian independent cinema in an artistically booming New York City. 

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However, if Scorsese had glanced at the US box office’s commercial revenue figures in 1963, he wouldn’t even find 8½in the top 25. In fact, according to IMDb, grossed only $195,950 worldwide. Whereas the 1963 equivalent of a Marvel sequel, Son of Flubber, the long-awaited follow-up to beleaguered Professor Ned Brainard’s goofball antics in The Absent-Minded Professor, grossed $22,129,412 in the US alone, according to box office archive site The Numbers.

The simple reality is that great art doesn’t always get off the ground too quickly, but gladly it endures. The reason that this is important to remember beyond a few titillating surprise figures is that it is ever-vital to recognise the lie of cultural narratives and support independent industries so that great art does, in fact, get the chance to endure and we can look back with glossy-eyes at a lie we remember fondly and the right influences shape the future.