In a career spanning half a century, DAVID BOWIE changed the face of popular music. From space cadet to glam rock god, electro pioneer to song and dance man, his talent for reinvention dazzled and confounded critics and inspired devotion among his legions of followers. Paul Burston charts the many ‘ch-ch-changes’ of rock’s greatest chameleon.
He was, by his own admission, a “faker”, a magpie, a borrower of other people’s ideas. But in a career spanning half a century, David Bowie was also a glam rock god, a blue-eyed soul boy, an electro pioneer, an inspiration to many and a musical genius matched by only a few.
Fifty years separate his first album and his last, the jazz-influenced ‘Blackstar’, released two days before his death and riddled with clues about his liver cancer diagnosis and imminent departure. As his longtime producer Tony Visconti said at the time, Bowie died as he’d lived – making art.
He very nearly gave up on pop stardom. After several false starts in the ’60s, Bowie’s breakthrough finally came in 1969 with ‘Space Oddity’. Chosen as the official song of the moon landings, the single rocketed up the charts. But having tasted stardom, the curly haired space cadet failed to match its success. It wasn’t until the singer reinvented himself as an alien messiah from Mars that things really took off. In a bold move that would characterise his career from this point forward, Bowie created a fictional rock god called Ziggy Stardust – and then became him.
Released in 1972, ‘The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars’ is what one might loosely call a concept album. Musically, it’s rock opera meets drag show with a bit of proto-punk thrown in for good measure. Politically, it’s dynamite. Released at a time when many people thought the UK was going down the pan, torn apart by strikes and social unrest, Bowie’s vision of a dystopian future borrowed heavily from ‘A Clockwork Orange’ while embracing the emerging gay rights movement. Ziggy Stardust was a bisexual alien sent to Earth to warn people of impending doom. The fact that his message boils down to “let the children boogie” only added to his appeal.
When Bowie first appeared on ‘Top of the Pops’, performing as Ziggy and singing ‘Starman’, a youth cult was born. Fans turned up at concerts dressed as their idol. Graffiti proclaimed ‘Bowie is Ziggy, Ziggy Is God!’ Bowie toured America and Japan and released a second ‘Ziggy’ album, the iconic ‘Aladdin Sane’. His first album to reach number one, it spawned the hit singles ‘Jean Genie’ and ‘Drive In Saturday’. And then, just when he’d reached the level of success he’d always dreamed of, Bowie famously killed Ziggy off. “Not only is it the last show of the tour,” he told a shocked audience at the Hammersmith Odeon in July 1973. “It’s the last show we’ll ever do!”.
‘Bowie quits!’ cried the British music press, whereas in fact he was simply shedding last year’s persona before moving on to his next incarnation. This concept – of reinvention and rebirth – became a recurring theme of his work. Throughout the 70s, the only constant in Bowie’s career was change. He even wrote a song about it – ‘Changes’, which served as a kind of mission statement. He changed his image and musical influences. He changed his hairstyle and adopted a series of theatrical alter egos. After Ziggy and Aladdin he reinvented himself as Halloween Jack for 1974’s ‘Diamond Dogs’, The Gouster for the following year’s ‘Young Americans’ and, most notoriously, The Thin White Duke for 1976’s ‘Station To Station’.
Later, Bowie would describe The Thin White Duke as “a very nasty character indeed”. Painfully thin, with slicked back hair and a haughty demeanour, the Duke flirted with fascist imagery and was very much a product of Bowie’s fractured mental state at the time. By the mid ’70s, he was holed up in a mansion in Los Angeles, surviving on a diet of milk, peppers and vast amounts of industrial strength cocaine, a rock casualty waiting to happen. It’s a measure of just how far gone he was at the time that Bowie had no recollection of recording the ‘Station to Station’ album, regarded by many as one of the finest of his career. The epic title track became a firm favourite with fans, while the single ‘Golden Years’ led to an infamous appearance on the black American music show ‘Soul Train’, where he also performed his number one hit ‘Fame’. The singer’s altered state didn’t go unnoticed.
When the ‘Station to Station’ tour ended, Bowie moved to Berlin in an attempt to clean up his act, finally facing his demons and working with Brian Eno on the so-called ‘Berlin trilogy’ of ‘Low’, ‘Heroes’ and ‘Lodger’. Though 1977’s ‘Low’ album confounded critics at the time, its impact was enormous. Without it, it’s unlikely that we’d have seen the likes of Gary Numan, Ultravox, The Human League or any of the electro-pop posers who dominated the British charts in the late 70s and early 80s.
A decade into his career, Bowie had spawned many imitators and inspired a number of youth cults, most notably the so-called New Romantics. Comprised largely of former punks who hung out at the ‘Bowie Nights’ hosted by Steve Strange and Rusty Egan, the New Romantics dressed like their idol and shared his passion for reinvention – and pretension. Steve Strange famously turned people away from his club for not being stylish enough. When Bowie dropped by unexpectedly in late 1979, he was treated like royalty – unlike Mick Jagger, who was reportedly refused entry.
Bowie wasn’t simply there for a night out. He was also recruiting. His latest album ‘Lodger’ hadn’t exactly set the charts alight and he was planning a new look and album for the dawn of the new decade. 1980’s ‘Scary Monsters’ was a critical and commercial success. The album spawned several hit singles, the first of which, ‘Ashes to Ashes’, went to number one. The ground-breaking music video features Bowie in a pierrot costume, walking along a desolate beach with Steve Strange and friends following closely behind. The message was clear – Bowie was still the leader of the gang, the others merely followers. The second single, ‘Fashion’ cast a withering look at club culture but was also Bowie’s most danceable hit in years – and a hint at what was to come.
For many critics and fans alike, ‘Scary Monsters’ remains The Last Great Bowie Album. Few would make that claim for his next album, ‘Let’s Dance’. Having spent the ’70s one step ahead of the competition, Bowie now seemed content to tread water in an attempt to appeal to the mainstream. Produced by Chic’s Nile Rodgers, the title track was a monster hit – and deservedly so. But the album was patchy at best, with the only other standout tracks a cover of Iggy Pop’s ‘China Girl’ and a re-recording of Bowie’s earlier hit ‘Cat People (Putting Out Fire)’. The shortage of new material suggested that the master of reinvention had finally run out of ideas.
Later, Bowie described the enormous success of ‘Let’s Dance’ as a poisoned chalice. Suddenly he was competing with the likes of Phil Collins. The nadir came in 1987 with ‘Never Let Me Down’. The irony of that title wasn’t lost on the fans. As the 80s drew to a close, and in an attempt to free himself from the weight of public expectations, Bowie formed Tin Machine and declared himself to be “just one of the band”. It was a bold move, but the fans weren’t really buying it. In 1990, he caved in to public pressure with the ‘Sound and Vision Tour’, performing all the hits he swore he’d never play live again.
Nobody would suggest that Bowie’s 90s output was as consistently inventive as his run of albums in the 1970s. But by the mid 90s, he’d certainly got his groove back. Conceived as part of a trilogy with his old collaborator Brian Eno, ‘Outside’ marked a return to edgy, experimental form. Bowie then turned to drum ‘n’ bass for 1997’s ‘Earthling’ album. That year also saw him turn 50 – a milestone he marked with a major concert in Central Park. Guest performers included Lou Reed, Foo Fighters, Sonic Youth and The Cure’s Robert Smith.
By the new millennium, Bowie’s reputation was pretty much restored. The ‘Heathen’ album of 2003 and the following year’s ‘Reality’ were both well received, with many critics describing them as his best work since ‘Scary Monsters’. (It became a bit of a running joke that each new Bowie album from the mid 90s onwards was described as his best since ‘Scary Monsters’). The accompanying live concerts showed an artist more at ease with himself and his own legacy, happily playing songs he’d once sworn never to sing again. Then, following a suspected heart attack on stage, David Bowie disappeared from view. Some said that he’d retired, others that he was seriously ill or dying. The Flaming Lips even wrote a song about it – ‘Is David Bowie Dying?’.
Then in January 2013, to mark his 66th birthday, the old faker released a new single, ‘Where Are We Now?’ The title sounded like a typical Bowie joke. He hadn’t released a single in a decade. His last public appearance was in 2006. Fans had been left wondering where David Bowie was and what we were supposed to make of his disappearance.
‘Where Are We Now?’ was released without any advance publicity and shot to number one in the download charts, making it Bowie’s biggest hit in almost 30 years and prompting a resurgence of interest in a man who’d been making headlines since the early 1970s. The album, ‘The Next Day’ was similarly well received and opened with the singer apparently tackling those rumours of ill health head on. “Here I am, not quite dying” he sings on the title track. Bowie, it appeared, was back. But not for long.
Three years later, on his 69th birthday, he released his final album, ‘Blackstar’ – and by now, David Bowie really was dying. The lyrics are full of references to his own mortality. “Look up here, I’m in heaven” he sings on ‘Lazarus’. The announcement of his death from liver cancer came just two days after the album was released. In Brixton, south London, where Bowie was born, thousands gathered in the streets, singing along to ‘Starman’. Others were filmed by news reporters as they laid flowers at the memorial off Brixton High Street. People spoke about what he meant to them, this local boy who became a star and changed the face of rock music.
“I don’t know where I’m going from here,” Bowie once said. “But I promise it won’t be boring.” He wasn’t wrong.