Come with me now on a journey through time and space. David Bowie was a chameleon. An artist that few could match and none could keep up with. He took on many personae in career, a feature of his natural theatrical bent. His music was reflected in himself on stage, and occasionally off. So let’s take stroll through the decades via the music of David Bowie.
David Bowie’s Early Career
David Robert Jones was born on January 8th 1947 in London England. He had always been musically inclined and in the early sixties he announced to his parents that he intended to be a pop star. He joined numerous bands at the time under the name Davy, or Davie, Jones. He released several songs with the bands, though none gained any traction. By the mid-sixties he decided to change his name, due to concerns over confusion with the Davy Jones of the Monkees. He renamed himself after the 19th century frontiersman Jim Bowie.
In his early days Bowie didn’t have the theatrical edge that his later albums had, but the kernel of characters could be heard. His first major release as a solo artist was 1967’s “David Bowie”. The album bore little resemblance to what would come. More of a mellow, music hall pop record, the flamboyancy of Ziggy Stardust was a few years off. But he could still be picked out of a few tracks. “We Are Hungry Men” is sang by a self-styled Messianic figure, the same concept would return throughout David Bowie’s career, with Ziggy being the most famous example. The album was not a success and David was dropped from his label shortly after release.
The failure of his first record had a huge impact on him. He stopped making music to be a mime artist instead. It sounds ridiculous, I know, but it’s true. He even went on tour with Marc Bolan, of T. Rex fame, performing a mime act. It wouldn’t last long and in February of 1969 he produced an extended audition film, called “Love You Till Tuesday” to try to get another label interested in him. The video included an early version of Space Oddity.
The 1969 release of the confusingly titled “David Bowie” received a mixed reception. “Space Oddity” was a hit, but the rest of the album was an eclectic mix of styles and influences. It led to poor sales. With the benefit of hindsight we can hear the dichotomy of 1967 Bowie and 1972 Bowie fighting for supremacy in the record. The themes he would be famous for were there. The harder rock edge that would propel him to stardom were there. But the pedestrian dreariness of music hall pop Bowie was also still there. He would shed the baggage of his early mistakes with the 1970 follow-up. “The Man Who Sold The World”.
With themes of paranoia, schizophrenia and leaving the trappings of folk behind for a hard rock/heavy metal sound “The Man Who Sold The World” was by all accounts the real beginning of David Bowie’s career. The birth of glam-rock. The album drew inspiration from multiple sources, including H.P Lovecraft’s works and the proto-existentialism of Nietzsche. But still we don’t have that air of theatricality.
The album cover depicted David Bowie wearing a dress, the first step in to creating the androgynous rock star Ziggy Stardust. He wore it on the streets of New York, on one occasion having a gun pulled on him. He toured the States on the strength of the album, and it was here he would first see Iggy Pop. Ziggy would be based on the singer to some extent, along with Vince Taylor. During the U.S. tour he wrote “Hunky Dory”, an art rock album.
“Hunky Dory” would have a softer sound than “The Man Who Sold The World”. The lead single “Changes” performed moderately well, as did the album in general. It explored the ideas of artistic reinvention over time and continued Bowie’s look at Nietzsche’s Übermensch concept. The latter half of the record is a love letter to his influences, like Bob Dylan and Andy Warhol. The experimentation on the album would prove to be the final stepping stone.
David Bowie Ziggy Stardust
There we go, seven hundred words finally gets us to the first persona. Ziggy Stardust, the short-lived but most well-known of David Bowie’s on-stage characters. The album, “The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars”, was broadly a concept album. I say broadly because “Suffragette City” was written for another band, “Starman” was not originally intended for the record and “It Ain’t Easy” was a cover.
Remove those though and we have the story of Ziggy Stardust. Messianic rock star come to preach the arrival of the starmen during the end of the world. He sacrifices himself to allow the starmen to take physical form thus saving the world. Heady stuff. The album was a tremendous success and rocketed David Bowie to true stardom. But was it really Bowie who was the star?
Ziggy Stardust was more than a concept album. It was an extended play. David would be Ziggy on-stage and off. He in many ways became the androgynous drug addled glam-rock messiah that he was singing about. He had the cult of followers, he had the fame and he had the look. This would be his first dangerous dance with self-destruction. His stage shows were known for their outrageous acts, such as stripping down to a loincloth or simulating oral sex on a guitar. The influence of his actions were far-reaching, with the natural progression of social transgression coming in the form of Marilyn Manson years later.
His follow-up, “Aladdin Sane”, was written during the early part of the Ziggy Stardust tour. It was a spiritual successor to the previous record. Emphasizing Bowie’s continued loss of self to the character he was playing, Aladdin Sane was a faux-Ziggy slowly falling to insanity as he traveled America. The meta-commentary of Bowie being unsure about his new-found fame, the separation of character from self, saw representation with the iconic Lightning bolt splitting his face. Both the Ziggy and Aladdin character would be retired in 1973 at the Hammersmith Odeon.
His next album, “Diamond Dogs” was another concept album. The first half of the album was Bowie’s take on the post apocalyptic future, with Bowie as the lead Halloween Jack. The second half grew out of a failed project to make a musical of Orwell’s “1984”. The album occasionally veered into the funk and soul sounds that would be dominant on the next record, “Young Americans”.
“Young Americans” was David Bowie’s take on soul music, a genre dominated by black artists. David Bowie described the album as “the squashed remains of ethnic music as it survives in the age of Muzak rock, written and sung by a white limey”. He named the genre “Plastic Soul”. In spite of this, the album did well in the States, earning a number one single with “Fame”, co-written with John Lennon.
David Bowie The Thin White Duke
From the early seventies David Bowie had been a heavy cocaine user. This blossomed into full-blown addiction by the time he had finished recording “Young Americans”. What emerged from this would be his third major persona. The Thin White Duke. Oh what a grotesque little monster the Thin White Duke was. Impeccably dressed in a cabaret style wardrobe the beast was more cocaine than man. He became a decadent, fascist European and on “Station To Station” sang love songs devoid of emotion, too numb and jaded by the cocaine to feel anything but extremes. The racist comments he made in character in 1976 led to the formation of Rock Against Racism.
David Bowie cannot remember the recording sessions for “Station to Station” due to his drug abuse. He knew he had to make a change. So he moved to Switzerland to cut down on his cocaine use. He took a step back and spent his time painting and collecting art before moving to West Berlin to finally kick his cocaine habit and make some music, influenced by the growing electronic trends in Europe at the time.
The Thin White Duke would mark the end of David Bowie overtly playing characters. He believed the process was too dangerous to him. His next album was “Low”. The first in the critically acclaimed Berlin Trilogy with Brian Eno. Eschewing the rock and soul edge of previous albums in favor of minimalist soundscapes and almost optional lyrics, Low is widely considered to be one of his best albums. It was followed by “Heroes”, a blend of his older rock and the ambient sound of “Low”. It too was critically acclaimed. Rounding out the triptych, as David called it, was “Lodger”.
As the seventies moved into the eighties Bowie returned to pop, via the transition album “Scary Monsters and Super Creeps”. Scary Monsters was a terrific album, returning to the Major Tom Character last featured on “Space Oddity” the 1980 number one hit “Ashes to Ashes” could be interpreted as an allegory for David Bowie’s own experiences during the previous decade. The eighties returned him to a more commercially viable sound, and honestly it marks my least favorite era in Bowie’s back catalog. “Station To Station” may have starred a monster, but at least it was an interesting and voyeuristic look at the decline of an artist. He had a few hits during the time, such as “Let’s Dance” and the Queen collaboration “Under Pressure”.
David Bowie The Outsider
In the early nineties Bowie, in an effort to take a step back from the spotlight, returned to his Rock roots with the band “Tin Machine”. He wanted to be seen as just another member of the group, but it was obvious that Bowie was the dominating creative force. The released two albums before breaking up.
The nineties would be another trans-formative time for Bowie. He veered into to House music for the first time with “Black Tie White Noise” and was soon combining the sound of electronica with Industrial. “Outside” was a hard-hitting industrial concept album again returning to a dystopian future. It polarized the press and his new pop fans from the late eighties. He followed it up with the jungle, industrial, drum and bass record “Earthling” in 1997. Taking influence from the Prodigy and contemporary American Industrial bands there really isn’t anything else like “Earthling”. The opening track “Little Wonder” is one of my go to “Listen to this” songs for the sheer incongruency of it.
As I mentioned in the previous article, in 1999 David Bowie appeared in and did the soundtrack for a post-modern video game called “Omikron: The Nomad Soul”. The soundtrack was rewritten and later released as “hours…”. Truly an under rated album, though it didn’t have the punch of nineties Bowie, its softer side was the long overdue comedown to the bombastic prior albums. He followed it up with 2002’s “Heathen”. The album was influence by the growing unease in America before the 9/11 attacks and the subsequent feelings after it. His next album would his last for a decade. Called “Reality” it deals with the growing detachment from knowledge, the abstract nature of reality becoming the norm. Both records sold well and received moderate critical acclaim.
It would be ten years before David Bowie released a record after “Reality”. “The Next Day” was released in 2013 with the lead single “Where Are We Now?”. The single was a tragic look at the end of life, a man fast approaching the end with an air of ambivalent optimism. The song was similar enough to the tracks off “Reality” that it seemed the reinvention of self that David Bowie was known for had come to an end. The rest of the album revealed this to be wrong.
“The Next Day” is a look at who Bowie was, is and will be. The songs are filled with aural references to his back catalog with the artist questioning his own relevance, his own identity and the identities he has procured over his long career. Lyrically it touches on every concept he’s written on before, dystopian futures, war, drugs and fame. It marks his final character. The last time he would reinvent himself and honestly, where else can you go? He’s been the Messiah, a rock star cult leader, a monster, the outsider, the pop sensation and now he’s being himselves together and alone.
David Bowie discovered he had cancer the year after “The Next day” was released. Hard news for anyone to hear. He was working on what would be his final album at the time. It was released on January 8th, just a few days ago, on his birthday. He died two days later. Listening to it is difficult. It is a fine album, but I cannot analyze the music yet. How I feel about it is too colored by how I feel about his passing. But maybe that’s the point. “Blackstar” for me was well put together, a nice mixed of styles. Listen to it for yourself, it was his last gift to the world.