THE MAN WHO FELL TO EARTH – I was quite amazed last week to hear someone claim that there wasn’t one Bowie song they liked. “His full repertoire of varied styles and you can’t pick one out” I said, I don’t believe that. “Starman, Space Oddity, Fashion, Heroes” I recited a long list. “Oh did he sing Fashion, I did like that and Heroes”. “So you can’t say I don’t like any of his music”. But the conversation went further and I realised that Bowie maybe like Marmite, you either love him or hate him. How could anyone possibly not like his music, but then again how could anyone not like Marmite? A singer, songwriter, multi-instrumentalist, record producer, arranger, and actor. He is also a painter and collector of fine art. David Bowie has been a major figure in the world of popular music for over four decades, and is renowned as an innovator. He is known for his androgynous beauty, which was an iconic element to his image, particularly in the 1970s and 1980s Bowie has to be the most chameleonic artist the world has known and set the bar very high for generations with his art and showmanship. His career is long and varied and far too long for me to write about, so I’ve tried to condense it down into the highlights and add to them along the way some of my favourite tracks, so as usual I’m totally self-indulging.
David Bowie was born David Robert Jones on the 8th January 1947 in Brixton, London to working class parents. His family was made up of older half siblings. David was the only child of his parents who at the time of his birth weren’t married. He claimed that he “Never, ever felt like a normal child” and “Always felt different”. He blamed this on his family’s many and varied mental health problems. His older brother Terry in particular who was later diagnosed with Schizophrenia. In 1953 the family moved to the suburb of Bromley, where, two years later, Bowie progressed to Burnt Ash Junior School. His voice was considered “adequate” by the school choir, and his recorder playing judged to demonstrate above-average musical ability. At the age of nine, his dancing during the newly introduced music and movement classes was strikingly imaginative, teachers called his interpretations “Vividly artistic” and his poise “astonishing” for a child. The same year, his interest in music was further stimulated when his father brought home a collection of American 45s by artists including Frankie Lymon and the Teenagers, the Platters, Fats Domino, Elvis Presley and Little Richard. Upon listening to “Tutti Frutti”, Bowie would later say, “I have heard god”. David was fascinated with Little Richard and interview years later David claimed that Little Richard was his icon. Little Richard had broken all the rules of fame.
He was a black American with androgynous effeminate looks, outlandish performances and his outlandish lyrics with sexual references. He told his school friends at age 9 that he wanted to “Be the first white little Richard”. At this time David’s older brother Terry has returned from the army and took David to London and introduced him to art, poetry, jazz and Jakee Kerouac and his cultural interests began to flourish. Bowie joined Bromley Technical High School where he flourished under the tutorship of Owen Frampton.
In David’s account, Frampton led through force of personality, not intellect. His colleagues at Bromley Tech were famous for neither, and yielded the school’s most gifted pupils to the arts, a regime so liberal that Frampton actively encouraged his own son, Peter, to pursue a musical career with David, a partnership briefly intact thirty years later. While at this school Bowie received a serious injury at school in 1962 when his friend George Underwood punched him in the left eye during a fight over a girl. Doctors feared he would become blind in that eye. After a series of operations during a four month hospitalisation, his doctors determined that the damage could not be fully repaired and Bowie was left with faulty depth perception and a permanently dilated pupil. Despite their altercation, Underwood and Bowie remained good friends, and Underwood went on to create the artwork for Bowie’s early albums. In an interview David thanked his friend and said his injury had made him even more unique.
He began to experiment with his look. Growing his hair longer and wearing unconventional clothes for the era and his age. After a succession of bands which included The Konrads to the Riot Squad, The King Bees and the Manish Boys. Dissatisfied with his stage name as Davy (and Davie) Jones, which in the mid 1960’s invited confusion with Davy Jones of the Monkees, Bowie renamed himself after the 19th-century American frontiersman Jim Bowie and the knife he had popularised. David Bowie, an amalgam of pop, psychedelia, and music hall, met the same fate. It was his last release for two years. Bowie’s fascination with the bizarre was fuelled when he met dancer Lindsay Kemp “Studying the dramatic arts under Kemp, from avant-garde theatre and mime to commedia dell’arte, Bowie became immersed in the creation of personae to present to the world. It was then that first caught the eye and ear of the public in July 1969 when his song “Space Oddity” reached the top five of the UK Singles Chart. He had released the album unaware that it would coincide with the first man walking on the moon.
The biggest changes to Bowie’s career came after he met Angela Barnett in April 1969. They married within a year. Her impact on him was immediate, and her involvement in his career far-reaching. The studio sessions continued and resulted in Bowie’s third album, The Man Who Sold the World (1970), which contained references to schizophrenia, paranoia, and delusion. Characterised by the heavy rock sound of his new backing band, it was a marked departure from the acoustic guitar and folk rock style established by Space Oddity. Exploiting his androgynous appearance, the original cover of the UK version unveiled two months later depicted the singer wearing a dress, taking the garment with him, he wore it during interviews—to the approval of critics, including Rolling Stone ’s John Mendelsohn who described him as, “Ravishing, almost disconcertingly reminiscent of Lauren Bacall”.
During this tour Bowie first started mentioning Ziggy Stardust that he described as a crazy rock star. On his return to England he declared his intention to create a character “Who looks like he’s landed from Mars”. This became his signature and Bowie’s started acting out a role. He later told his fans that he had huge anxieties about performing as himself but taking on a persona gave him the confidence to perform, he could be anyone he wanted. The1971 Hunky Dory album saw the partial return of the fey pop singer of “Space Oddity”. Elsewhere, the album explored more serious themes. The most famous track from this album was ‘Changes’ which was a seen as lyrically autobiographical. About his chameleonic personality, the frequent change of the world today, and frequent reinventions of his musical style throughout the 1970s. This single is cited as David Bowie’s official North American debut, despite the fact that the song “The Man Who Sold the World” was released in North America two years prior.
His next venture challenged the core belief of the rock music of its day and created perhaps the biggest cult in popular culture when he introduced the world to Ziggy Stardust. Dressed in a striking costume, his hair dyed red, Bowie launched his Ziggy Stardust stage show with the Spiders from Mars, catapulting him to stardom as he toured the UK over the course of the next six months. “Starman”, issued as an April single ahead of the album, was to cement Bowie’s UK breakthrough: both single and album charted rapidly following his July Top of the Pops performance of the song and the album, which remained in the chart for two years. The Ziggy Stardust Tour continued to the United States.
Aladdin Sane ( A Lad insane) was released in 1973 and was another semi-autobiographical album. This is probably Bowie’s most recognised album cover, still iconic now decades later. It topped the UK chart, his first number one album. Described by Bowie as “Ziggy goes to America”, it contained songs he wrote while travelling to and across the US during the earlier part of the Ziggy tour, which now continued to Japan to promote the new album. Bowie’s love of acting led his total immersion in the characters, he admitted he preferred dressing up as Ziggy to being David.” With satisfaction came severe personal difficulties, acting the same role over an extended period, it became impossible for him to separate Ziggy Stardust and, later, the Thin White Duke from his own character offstage. It started to go sour and he said that his whole personality was affected.
It became very dangerous. I really did have doubts about my sanity.” His later Ziggy shows, which included songs from both Ziggy Stardust and Aladdin Sane, were ultra-theatrical affairs filled with shocking stage moments.
Bowie moved to the US in 1974, initially staying in New York City before settling in Los Angeles. He began work on Diamond Dogs which was released 1974, parts of which found him heading towards soul and funk. The album went to number one in the UK, spawning the hits “Rebel Rebel” and “Diamond Dogs”, and number five in the US. To promote it, Bowie launched the Diamond Dogs Tour, visiting cities in North America between June and December 1974. Choreographed by Toni Basil, and lavishly produced with theatrical special effects.
He then went to Philadelphia and recorded Young Americans in 1975 and then Station To Station 1976. These 3 albums saw another huge change in Bowie’s direction which he called ‘Plastic Soul’, something that no white British artist had ever done. Few had succeeded as Bowie did now. Young Americans yielded Bowie’s first US number one, “Fame”, co-written with John Lennon, who contributed backing vocals, and Carlos Alomar. Earning the distinction of being one of the first white artists to appear on the US variety show Soul Train, Bowie performed “Fame”, as well as “Golden Years”.
During his era of the thin white duke Bowie began to show signs of alarming drug addiction. His interviews became deranged and incoherent. Before the end of 1976, Bowie’s interest in the burgeoning German music scene, as well as his drug addiction, prompted him to move to West Berlin to clean up and revitalise his career. There he was often seen riding a bicycle between his apartment in Schöneberg and a music studio located near the Berlin Wall. While working with Brian Eno and sharing an apartment with Iggy Pop, he began to focus on minimalist, ambient music for the first of three albums, co-produced with Tony Visconti, that became known as his Berlin Trilogy. Low 1977, Heroes 1978 and Lodger 1979.
The album Low released in 1977 was, partly influenced by the Krautrock sound of Kraftwerk and Neu! Another change in Bowie’s song writing direction, to a more abstract musical form in which lyrics were sporadic. Although he completed the album in November 1976, it took his unsettled record company another three months to release it. It received considerable negative criticism upon its release. Despite these forebodings, the single “Sound and Vision”, went to number 3 in the UK charts. Leading contemporary composer Philip Glass described Low as “A work of genius” in 1992. Glass has praised Bowie’s gift for creating “Fairly complex pieces of music, masquerading as simple pieces”.
His career and music continued to change and each new era brought amazing music and a new league of fans. Scary Monsters (and Super Creeps) released in 1980 produced the number one hit “Ashes to Ashes”, featuring the textural work of guitar-synthesist Chuck Hammer and revisiting the character of Major Tom from “Space Oddity”. The song gave international exposure to the underground New Romantic movement when Bowie visited the London club “Blitz” the main New Romantic hangout, to recruit several of the regulars (including Steve Strange of the band Visage) to act in the accompanying video, renowned as one of the most innovative of all time.
While Scary Monsters utilised principles established by the Berlin albums, it was considered by critics to be far more direct musically and lyrically. The album’s hard rock edge included guitar contributions from Robert Fripp, Pete Townshend, Chuck Hammer and Tom Verlaine. As “Ashes to Ashes” hit number one on the UK charts, Bowie opened a three-month run on Broadway on 24 September, starring in The Elephant Man. The same year, he made a cameo appearance in the German film Christiane F, a real-life story of teenage drug addiction in 1970s Berlin. Bowie reached a new peak of popularity and commercial success in 1983 with Let’s Dance.
The album went platinum in both the UK and the US. Its three singles became top twenty hits in both countries, where its title track reached number one. “Modern Love” and “China Girl” made number two in the UK, accompanied by a pair of acclaimed promotional videos that, as described by biographer David Buckley, “Were totally absorbing and activated key archetypes in the pop world. ‘Let’s Dance’, with its little narrative surrounding the young Aborigine couple, targeted ‘Youth’, and ‘China Girl’, with its bare-bummed (and later partially censored) beach lovemaking scene (a homage to the film From Here to Eternity), was sufficiently sexually provocative to guarantee heavy rotation on MTV. By 1983, Bowie had emerged as one of the most important video artists of the day. Let’s Dance was followed by the Serious Moonlight Tour, during which Bowie was accompanied by guitarist Earl Slick and backing vocalists Frank and George Simms. The world tour lasted six months and was extremely popular. I remember my friend at school, her Dad took them to Edinburgh to see Bowie. I was irritated because she didn’t really like him. I felt cheated.
My own journey with Bowie started around this time for real, as an adolescent when my already Bowie smitten brother bought me his Ziggy Stardust album. I already knew this album well, but my brother had married and taken it with him to his new home. He continued to buy me albums each birthday until they mirrored his collection. Bowie’s career flourished and he also had personal happiness with a cleaner lifestyle and a new wife Iman. He has two children a son from his first wife and a daughter with Iman.
Bowie has undoubtedly had a phenomenal effect on world pop culture and his music is an art and his alter egos have and will live on for decades. He is in my opinion a pioneer of modern culture and an artist that has given me great satisfaction musically and artistically in my life as well as a whole host of fans worldwide. Throughout his career he has sold an estimated 140 million albums. In the United Kingdom, he has been awarded 9 Platinum, 11 Gold and 8 Silver albums, and in the United States, 5 Platinum and 7 Gold. In the BBC’s 2002 poll of the 100 Greatest Britons, he was ranked 29. Bowie’s innovative songs and stagecraft brought a new dimension to popular music in the early 1970s, strongly influencing both its immediate forms and its subsequent development. A pioneer of glam rock and one of punk’s seminal influences, he has influenced many new artists over the decades. Bowie’s record company sought to convey his unique status in popular music with the slogan, “There is old wave, there is new wave, and there is Bowie …….”