Des de Moor
Press Cuttings: Darkness and Disgrace

Speed of Life David Bowie fan website June 2005
Darkness and Disgrace

He Sang All Night Long- An interview with Des de Moor
by Heather M, June 2005

It has now been two years since Des de Moor and Russell Churney amazed the world of Bowie fans when they recorded and released their album "Darkness and Disgrace." A tribute in the most spiritual of senses, the songs chosen were reworked, reinvented, and recreated to bring forth new dimensions.

It has also been about the same time since Darkness and Disgrace saw its last stage performance. Until this past Friday, the 24 of June, when Moor performed them again in Blue Hours at New Greenham Arts.

Beaming with excitement over the prospect of bringing the full theatre piece to life again, Des de Moor talks about the work that went into the production, as well as the unexpected impact on the Bowie fan community.

Heather M: Letís talk about "Darkness and Disgrace", and the work that went into it. You are obviously not a stranger to the stage, and there have been other artists whose material you have presented in your own style, it seems though that "Darkness and Disgrace" was the first major re-interpretation that you have ever under taken. So my first question is rather obviously, what inspired this project, and why choose David Bowie?

Des de Moor: I suppose the real inspiration to get the project going was Russell's enthusiasm. I'd been thinking for quite a while of developing whole sets of material by particular songwriters, and the first ones that came to mind -- no surprise here for people who know my wider work -- were Jacques Brel and Bertolt Brecht. But then I thought at some point I'd like to do a set of David Bowie songs too. Bowie was the first musical artist I really got into back in my teenage years, and it was partly through Bowie that I started to get into material like French chanson and German theatre songs, with the result that I largely lost interest in rock music. But the Bowie interest never went away and all the songs were still there in my memory.

Like, I think, most musicians I tend to walk around with music in my head that I sing along to very quietly, and once I thought of the Bowie idea I just found his songs in my head more and more, thinking how I could interpret them in a cabaret-chanson-jazz format. I decided I'd particularly like to do Time, partly because it's already a Brechtian pastiche and therefore easier to interpret in that style, and partly because it was a watershed song for me when I first heard it at the age of 12, just after it first came out on Aladdin Sane. I think it was a key moment in shaping my aesthetic sense. It's interesting because I've since found that song on that album really divides people -- there's the people like me who really liked Time and Lady Grinning Soul and the title track and will probably be more sympathetic to Darkness and Disgrace, and the people who like Watch That Man and Jean Genie and hate those other songs, and will probably not like Darkness and Disgrace very much either

Russell and I then had a gig to do together and at the rehearsal I asked him if he knew Time because I was thinking of doing it. He immediately sat down at the piano and we started busking through it, and it quickly became clear that was he was also a Bowie fan. He also shared with me an admiration for the pianist Mike Garson who makes such a contribution to that album and of course has gone on to work extensively with David over the years. I think it was hearing Garson's playing on Aladdin Sane and Diamond Dogs that shaped my feelings about the expressive possibilities of the piano -- if you listen to jazz pianists from the 1950s onwards and especially to Latin jazz players like Eddie Palmieri you realize Garson's approach isn't unique, but he was the first person I'd ever heard playing the piano like that, and one of the few to bring that sensibility into a rock context.

With Time going so well I tried out Russell on the idea of doing a whole show of Bowie songs and he was immediately enthusiastic, which meant that Bowie leapfrogged Brel and Brecht in the queue for the dubious honour of a whole Des de Moor show. There was the added attraction that doing Bowie songs would also be both more surprising and, to be honest, a bit of an easier sell.

Originally I was thinking of an in concert performance, but thought it would be useful to bring in a director to give the whole thing more shape and present it in a more polished way. I mentioned this to my friend Barb Jungr, who is herself, an outstanding cabaret and chanson singer and performer, and she put herself forward as director. It was Barb that pushed the project more towards being a theatre piece, not only the songs but also the lighting, the movement and the spoken word material. In the original version there were some spoken word sections -- for example we prefaced We Are The Dead with an extract from George Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four in which the phrase 'we are the dead' occurs, and we also used extracts from interviews with David. But there was also quite a bit of "talking to the audience between songs", although all this was actually scripted and learnt by heart. As the show evolved, these sections either evolved into carefully written monologues, or got taken out except for the section preceding the encore, and we included more interview extracts, a scene from The Man Who Fell to Earth, an extract from Robert Heinlein's Stranger in a Strange Land, W H Auden's Musée des Beaux-Arts poem with the reference to Breughel's Icarus and so on.

HM: You have a wide range selection from Bowieís extensive catalogue- what drew you to the songs that were chosen?

DM: There were several factors involved:

- songs that would work in the format, that had strong enough lyrics, where the themes of the lyrics seemed to fit and we could see a way to interpret them theatrically

- songs that would survive being performed in very simple arrangements with acoustic instruments. For example I don't think we could have done Rebel Rebel or The Secret Life of Arabia.

- songs that covered a wide period of Bowie's career -- although most of the songs are from the 1970s I was keen to include examples of the earlier Deram material and the more recent stuff. I'm not alone in having lost interest in his work after Let's Dance, but my partner introduced me to the Buddha of Suburbia/Outside/Earthling period where he found his muse again. I have to say that the two songs from the 1960s, London Boys and Please Mr Gravedigger, and the two from the 1990s, Buddha of Suburbia and I Have Not Been to Oxford Town, are real highlights of the piece for me.

-and obviously, songs we liked.

In the original version we deliberately excluded the obvious hits to avoid completely any whiff of tribute band material, although we did do Life on Mars? as an encore. When we came to rework the show for what I think is the definitive version, and the one reflected on the CD, we rethought a bit and put a few better-known songs in, including All the Young Dudes, Boys Keep Swinging and "Heroes", although we've radically transformed that last one. We also added the medley of Be My Wife and Always Crashing in the Same Car to beef up the Berlin-period content. That meant getting rid of a few -- Saviour Machine, the second half of The Width of a Circle, Sons of the Silent Age and Scream Like a Baby have been in there in the past but have been cut for various reasons.

HM: Russell Churney seems to fit perfectly as the choice for pianist, and Barb Jungr vocals harmonize very well. Was it hard to find other musicians/artists to collaborate with on this project?

DM: No. As described above, the whole thing just seemed to fall into place. What's hard now is for me to do the songs in anything other than a duo with Russell. As a singer I work with several different pianists, all freelance and with other, often better-paying, gigs on the go. But the D&D songs are such a collaboration between Russell and myself, with him not only playing but singing a lot as well, and we've played them together so many times, that it is nigh-on impossible to prise them out of the show and include them in sets I do with other pianists if Russell isn't available.

Incidentally, although Barb contributes some vocals to the album, she didn't sing in the live show. Since she was the director, and so important to the piece, I thought it was important to have her physically represented on the album, plus of course she has a great voice which I knew would add an extra dimension to the songs she's on.

HM: Recall and describe the first performance of "Darkness and Disgrace"- your state of mind, audience/fans' responses.

DM: For me the whole thing was overshadowed by the fact that the day before we opened, I'd been in an accident and cracked a rib. I saw the nurse at my GP's practice that morning and she said there was very little I could do except dose up on ibuprofen. It was painful to take deep breaths, a major problem when you're singing, especially on something like D&D. It's a really demanding show for my voice, with a big expressive range, a big dynamic range, and it's also at the absolute limits of my pitch range too, almost two and a half octaves from a low G to a high B-flat. The painkillers and the natural adrenaline of performing made it easier, but I didn't have time to get nervous -- I was too busy concentrating on my breathing, which was probably a good thing. I've also done the show with almost no voice at all, with a terrible sore throat, to a packed house at the end of a run, and nearly all of them Bowie fans who organized to come through Bowienet.

But audience reactions have been almost entirely positive- they laugh at the jokes, they get quiet and tense in the dark bits, and they join in the chorus of All The Young Dudes at the end. The things I've heard most often from audience members, and each of them many times over, are either: "I haven't been a big Bowie fan until now and I didn't realize his songs were this good so now I'm going to check them out again"; or "I'm a big Bowie fan and really thought I knew these songs, but you've brought out whole new dimensions in them for me". So we must be doing something right!

The audience I most remember was one night at the Edinburgh festival, a Saturday night and we had a midnight slot in quite a small space, all of them having already partaken generously of pints and drams. Everyone was rowdy and really out for a good time, and clearly not in the best of moods to explore the emotional depths of Tired of My Life and It's No Game with us. During London Boys, just after I sung the line "You're gonna be sick but you mustn't lose face" the whole audience collapsed in uncontrollable laughter, together with much scuffling. We just had to stop. It turned out that just at the moment I'd sung the line someone actually had vomited on the floor, so the whole show was stopped while the staff went to fetch a mop and bucket. Meanwhile we just chatted to the audience -- someone was asking Russell about what happened to Fanny the Wonder Dog (once part of the act of comic Julian Clary, whom Russell famously worked with). We restarted the show having found a new solidarity with our audience and it went very well indeed after that.

HM: Did you have a particular goal or aim in the production? And do you feel that expectations were met?

DM: First and foremost I just wanted to do a good show. I think the only guideline for an artist in these matters is to create something that you yourself would like to see, and hope there are enough people out there who agree with you, and that's what we did. And yes, I'm very pleased with what we achieved. I'm proud of the reactions I spoke about above. I'm proud of the fact that David himself seemed to like it, and I'm proud that we not only found interesting ways to approach these great songs but we also did something in a very unusual format that combined song performance with theatre in an interesting way.

I'm slightly more disappointed with some of the reactions to the album, which has had a couple of quite nasty reviews in the mainstream pop music press. I think in all honesty these people must have been expecting rock covers of rock songs, and when they got something different they didn't know how to react. Also, I think it's in the nature of the chanson and cabaret approach to find and emphasize the emotional content of the songs in the performance, and a lot of British rock fans aren't used to this and find it difficult to handle. Rock arrangements tend to swamp the emotional nuances of the material, and I think a lot of rock fans prefer it this way. It comes back to the fact that there are lots of people who love the Bowie of Hang Onto Yourself and would rather forget this was the same Bowie that sung Brel's My Death and Tiomkin's Wild is the Wind.

But I also think that even with the best of intentions, it's not easy to make sense of the album outside the context of the show. You think, "why are they doing Bowie songs with just voice and piano", whereas in the show the answer is obvious. I listened to the album the other day and I think we made the wrong decision in following the running order of the show so strictly -- the songs that really stand out as recorded versions, like "Heroes", Lady Stardust, Time, and the medleys of London Boys/Boys Keep Swinging and Be My Wife/Always Crashing in the Same Car, are too far down the running order. Diamond Dogs makes a great opener on stage but I can forgive people for listening to the record and thinking why are they doing this R&B stomper with just piano when Bowie did it with a band?

HM: And finally, what can fans of Des de Moor expect for the future?

DM: -- I'm hoping to do some more live shows of Darkness and Disgrace! I think there's life in it yet.

-- I'm now working on my own next album of original material, although probably won't be finished until next year. It's called Testing Times and it's long overdue.

-- Barb Jungr, Robb Johnson and myself are working on a complete English translation of Jacques Brel's final album Brel from1977, which Brel produced knowing he was dying of cancer and having not made an album of new songs for a decade. It's an extraordinary work. Robb and I have done the translations between us and the three of us intend to record them some time over the next year, also including five songs which were recorded for the album but didn't make the final cut, and weren't finally released until 2003.

-- I've recorded a song called Jackboot Democrats by Leon Rosselson, a veteran English chansonnier, for a various artists tribute album of Leon's songs that's due to be released in the autumn.

Contact Des de Moor by visiting his web site: www.desdemoor.com

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