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Dylan Jones on David Bowie

Ed and Charlotte take a whirlwind tour through British culture with the man who’s been there, done that and seen it all

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Dylan Jones was the editor of GQ for almost three decades. He’s received 34 awards, been presented with an OBE and started Men’s Fashion Week. But that’s not everything. Dylan went to Chelsea Art School and Central Saint Martins to study graphic design, film and photography. He became editor of both i-D Magazine and Arena. He’s a prolific columnist and he’s written numerous books about everyone from Jim Morrison to Paul Smith and David Bowie. He’s also curating a show of photographs by the society photographer, Dave Benett. He is, in short, a phenomenal cultural force.

This interview was taken from our Break Out Culture podcast with Ed Vaizey and Charlotte Metcalf.

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Dylan Jones on David Bowie

Dylan Jones

Who are the great music voices of now?

I think things have changed so much that it’s possible to become incredibly successful and popular without having that army of support around you in terms of your visual representation. You don’t have the visual iconography associated with you quite so strongly as you did when there was music papers and record sleeves and videos. There are lots of people making fantastic music at the moment, perhaps more people making more fantastic music than has ever happened before.

But in terms of the personalities, they’re very few because if you look at the number of very famous, very interesting people who are making music at the moment, they’re a very small number. A lot of them tend to come and go quite quickly.

I hate those people who say that pop music was better in my time, however I do actually think there is a narrative arch to all of this. If you consider, or you accept that, popular music in the way that we understand it started in the early to mid ’50s, we’re reaching the end of that. You can look at the way that the ’60s has been written about and filmed and documented so often that you think that our enthusiasm has been exhausted. But I don’t think that’s true. I think that’s true for all of the three or four decades who followed the ’60s, that our fascination for that extraordinary period of pop culture, which started in the early ’50s, that is something which I think we’re all immersed in now.

Also, I think it’s kept alive by the fact that media now is completely flat. If you want to access anything from any period in time, all you have to do is punch your telephone or open your laptop or your desktop or your iPad. I think it’s a terrible thing because in a way, that’s had an effect on how people learn. Because a lot of people say and brazenly admit that they don’t need to learn all this stuff, whether it’s about culture or politics or travel or what have you, because if they need to know, they can find out. So that whole idea of curation and exploration and curiosity has somehow evaporated, which I think is very sad.

What was Bowie like?

He was great. He was one of these people that on the one hand was interested as well as interesting and went out of his way to charm you. On the one hand, he had a genuine curiosity and he would ask everybody he met what was going on, whether you were a makeup artist or a journalist or a politician or perhaps not a politician. But on the other hand, he had an innate way of talking to you and making you feel that you are the most important person in the room. He loved a dirty joke.

Like all bold face names, he had a huge ego. He was enormous fun to be with, but I remember once going to New York. It was 1995. He was just about to release a not very good album called Earthling. So we meet in this recording studio in Midtown Manhattan. One of the last things you ever want to do as the journalist is be with the artist when the artist is playing you their new product. Because all you really have to do is sit there and find a variety of adjectives to describe how amazing this thing is because in their mind, obviously, they’ve never done anything better. This is the very peak of their creativity. So he starts off. He plays the first song and it’s pretty good. Then I chip in with, ‘God, that’s incredible’ and ‘wow’. I’ve got all these superlatives. And the second one, pretty much the same. Third one.

But by track four, the quality’s beginning to dip. I wasn’t a young man at the time, but in my naivety, I actually really thought that he cared what I thought about this. Of course, I started being honest with him, which didn’t really go down so well. So by track six, I’m going, ‘Well, it’s all right, but it’s not really as good as the one at the beginning, is it?’ Of course, it’s not what he wanted to hear.

So, you put Men’s Fashion Week on the map. As you said, you’ve lived and breathed fashion for decades now because that was at the heart of GQ. Who are your favourite fashion designers?

Well, you could ask that question about anyone in the creative arts or indeed anybody full stop. They’re the people who have a sense of self-deprecation about them, who understand that what they’re doing is not rocket science and that’s even more rewarding when that person is truly talented. I think the two most important things I’d like to say about that is: London has a sense of regeneration, more so than any other fashion capital of the world. London will forever regenerate because there’s something in the water. If you are talking about music or art or fashion, any kind of street culture, youth culture, pop culture, it’s always about London. That’s one of the things that I hope for when we come out of all this mess that we’ve been in the last couple of years. I think it’ll be great for young people because I think there is platform there for people to be discursive, to be angry, and also a vacuum.

The second thing I’d like to say is that fashion’s a business. I remember we used to have all these fashions at Downing Street. We would encourage whoever was the prime minister at the time to make a rallying speech during Fashion Week. I remember once when [David] Cameron did it. Cameron made this speech saying, ‘I don’t know why I’m speaking – look at me, I’m just wearing a boring old suit,’ but he wouldn’t say that if it were a room full of people from the car industry – and the fashion industry makes a lot more money than the British car industry. I think people still, in politics, treat fashion in a very patronising way.

Tell us about Dave Bennett…

We all think that social photography is easy and pedestrian and prosaic because everyone has a mobile telephone now and we all take pictures of each other, but actually, it is an art. Dave has been doing it for a very long time and he is very adept at getting the shot. The title of the show was taken from Don McCullin, it was something that he said to Dave when Dave used to be a news photographer: to be a successful photographer, at some point you need to have worked for a newspaper. He spent many years working for newspapers before he moved into entertainment and celebrity. I do think that gives him an edge.

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