Imagine a being with different coloured eyes, thin and androgynous, changing its face, its hair, its clothes, its demeanor through the decades – conquering the airwaves with otherworldly music which spoke to all outsiders. A being who made life art, and death the greatest performance of all.
If such a creation did not exist in actuality, blowing the minds of generations of music-lovers, they would be a fascinating character from a story spanning two centuries – the work of a great storyteller.
David Robert Jones. David Bowie. Ziggy Stardust. Aladdin Sane. The Thin White Duke. The Man Who Fell To Earth… Pop legend David Bowie, born January 1947, died January 2016, was a true original. His music career spanned six decades and in each of those Bowie redefined himself and help define the cultural zeitgeist with his prescient and paradigm-shifting songs.
The first track on his eponymous first album, ‘I Dig Everything’, although naïve in style, could be seen as a foreshadowing of his eclectic magpie approach – his restless explorations and experimentations with musical styles and genres.
In the Sixties, after dabbling with Mod, folk and psychedelia, he introduced us to The World of David Bowie and Bowie’s first hit (reaching No. 5 at time; No. 1 when re-issued in 1975), Space Oddity, which, in the year when man landed on the moon, encapsulated the culmination of the Space Race, riffing on Arthur C. Clarke’s and Stanley Kubrick’s mind-bending 2001: A Space Odyssey and the footage of the Apollo missions beamed to new TV sets in living rooms across the West. Its luxurious soundscape, produced by Tony Visconti (who would remain Bowie’s key producer for decades), complete with Rick Wakeman on mellotron, would not have been conceivable at the start of the Sixties, but after the groundbreaking Sergeant Pepper’s, Their Satanic Majesties Request and a plethora of good and not-so-good mind-expanded psychedelia, all things were possible.
In the Seventies Bowie created the androgynous extra-terrestrial alter-ego Ziggy Stardust, in the hugely successful 1972 album, ‘The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars.’ The iconic look, with the flash of red lightning across the face, the skin-tight costumes, the red shock of hair, set the fuse of the Glam explosion. This was augmented by 1973’s ‘Pin-ups’ and ‘Aladdin Sane’ with its raucous ‘Jean Genie’ anthem. 1974’s Diamond Dogs heralded a darker, apocalyptic sound. By the time Glam had become cheesy cliché, Bowie had moved to Berlin and created a new sound, experimental and discordant, in a triptych of albums, Heroes, Low and Lodger.
And Bowie unforgettably heralded in the 80s with the spiky, eerie Ashes to Ashes, resurrecting and deconstructing his fictional astronaut, Major Tom, as a junkie. The video depicting Bowie as Harlequin leading a mournful procession of commedia dell arte characters and a bulldozer created a vogue for the form which became viral throughout the decade. The ‘Sci-Fi gothic’ feel of the song could not have harbinged the decade more prophetically, an aesthetic seen on the big screen a couple of years later with the release of Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner. The tech noir, as it became known, was ironically ‘quoted’ in Bowie’s own mid-decade restyling as the golden crooner surfing the airwaves of pop with ‘Modern Love’, ‘Let’s Dance’ and ‘Dancing in the Streets’. This was Bowie at his most commercial and successful. But the shapeshifting maestro had not finished with us yet.
Although subsequent albums saw a downward trend in his artistic stock (‘Never Let Me Down’; ‘Black Tie White Noise’; ‘Earthling’) with disappointing side-projects (The Tin Machine), Bowie bounced back with a classic performance at Glastonbury in 2000 and a recorded set for the BBC in the same year. Bowie’s back catalogue was the perfect post-modern soundtrack for the Millennium year. It evoked the genius loci of the last four decades when Britain went pop. When Bowie stopped performing in 2004 due to ill health it seemed like we’d heard the last from the Star Man. Had he finally fallen to Earth? But to everyone’s surprise he released a new album in 2013, The Next Thing, completely out of the blue – and it was full of killer tracks. This uncannily co-incided with a hugely popular exhibition at the V&A in London. Suddenly Bowie’s stock had gone stratospheric again. Compared to the attention-hungry posturings of many of his musical peers and imitators, Bowie’s self-imposed exile and lack of game playing had paid off. No one was cooler, no one was more versatile, and better at capturing the spirit of the times, as in his melancholic self-retrospective, ‘Where are we now?’ Then, a few days before his shockingly sudden death, Bowie released what was to be his final album, ‘Black Star’ which appears to be a conscious epitaph, with eerily resonant tracks, such as ‘Lazarus’. It had received critical acclaim even before his sudden death (in fact the climax of a devastating cancer which he had typically kept quiet). Once again, Bowie had caught us by surprise. Black Star fizzes with energy and invention. Even as he approached his 70th year, Bowie showed he still was a tour-de-force of creativity. A musical genius, a one-of-a-kind, and, going by the incredible world-stopping reaction to his death, adored by millions. His music touched lives, and gave us all permission to live creatively. He himself said his subject matter was always himself – and yet it was never narcissistic. Themes of isolation, abandonment, fear and anxiety, as well as a kick-ass joie-de-vivre, touched the hearts of countless bedsit misfits. His music literally reached orbit when astronaut Chris Hadfield performed Space Oddity aboard the ISS – the first music video to be made in space. As a musician he was out of this world.
David Bowie, Star Man, RIP 1947-2016