No one in Rock was more consistently influential than David Bowie. His contributions were not only musical but encompassed lyrics, concepts, stage presence and the persona of Rock stardom. Starting with Ziggy Stardust, David Bowie effectively adopted (and discarded) images and styles creating an incredible and varied body of work.
Hyped on his father’s Little Richard records, an eight year old David Jones announced he would grow up to be England’s greatest Rock ‘n’ Roll star. If he didn’t succeed, he came extremely close. In mid ’60s, with bands Mannish Boy (named after a Muddy Waters song) and the Lower Third, the future David Bowie got his start. While with the Lower Third Bowie changed his name after discovering that fellow Brit with the same moniker was appearing in the U.S. television series The Monkees (a weekly rehash of The Beatles’ “A Hard Day’s Night”). To avoid any confusion he opted for Bowie. It wouldn’t do for a serious artist to be associated with some pop fodder.
By ’66, Bowie was a solo act. Probably a wise decision. It would have been difficult for a group to keep up with Bowie’s creativity or chameleon nature. In ’67, he started wearing stage make-up, an idea copped from Pink Floyd’s Syd Barrett. The following year The Beatles’ Apple Records passed on the opportunity to sign Bowie. Not to let rejection get in the way, he later recorded “Fame” with John Lennon (who also co-wrote the song) on backing vocals. The ’75 release was Bowie’s most successful U.S. single.
Bowie signed with the Deram label for his first releases. His career didn’t do much until he recorded a demo version of the haunting ballad “Space Oddity” for Mercury Records. The idea of space travel might have fit into the novelty category if it weren’t for the song’s well-defined character – good old Major Tom.
Mercury signed Bowie with the final version going Top 5 U.K. – a re-issue reached the U.S. Top 20 in ’73. Bowie then formed a backing band initially called The Hype with guitarist Mick Ronson. He was integral in the next phase of Bowie’s career. Starting as a popular session guitarist, he was recruited to add some muscle to Bowie’s sound. His work on “Suffragette City” with its blasting multi-note opening and “The Jean Genie’s” biting riff were two exemplary demonstrations of Ronson’s handiwork. On stage Ronson was the perfect foil. Bowie looked frail and delicate, while Ronson had a road warrior appearance.
Bowie’s worldwide breakthrough came with “The Rise and Fall Of Ziggy Stardust And The Spiders From Mars” LP. Except for “It Ain’t Easy” the entire album was composed by Bowie and included the fictional story of Ziggy Stardust – the pale Rock ‘n’ Roll star’s rise and eventual demise. It was a totally brilliant album that at times, considering Bowie’s ’70s drug addiction, seemed prophetic.
The landmark album was hugely influential. In fact, more than three-decades after its release “Ziggy Stardust” was voted the greatest, gayest album of all time by a panel assembled by Out magazine. 100 actors, comedians, musicians, writers, critics, performance artists, label reps and DJs were asked to list the most important albums of their lives. “At a time when social and sexual taboos were just starting to break down, Bowie as Ziggy created a world where the possibilities were limitless,” explained the Culture Club’s Boy George.
“Aladdin Sane” followed and had a stark raving version of the Rolling Stone’s “Let’s Spend The Night Together.” But the best tracks were the pulsating “The Jean Genie,” the driving “Panic In Detroit” and the side one closer, a very hard Rockin’ “Cracked Actor.” In July of ’72, Bowie appeared at a London charity concert and proclaimed, by way of a self-introduction, “I’m Ziggy,” forever blurring the line between the creature and the creator.
Exactly, a year later an exhausted Bowie announced he was retiring. Soon he slightly reversed himself claiming it was the Ziggy persona that was going. And then, apparently after waking in a foul mood, Bowie announced in ’75, “I’ve rocked my roll. It’s a boring dead end. There’ll be no more Rock and Roll records or tours from me.” Of course there were, but Bowie had to kick a heroin addiction first.
When the ’80s arrived Bowie was there with “Modern Love” and “China Girl,” (the latter co-written by drug abuser/recovery partner and collaborator Iggy Pop). In the late ’80s/early ’90s, Bowie fronted the Tin Machine, a thrash Rock outfit that proved to be an uneventful sidebar.
Bowie was deeply involved in Internet music delivery having several songs released on-line. He also sold stock in himself with shareholders sharing future royalties. That’s Bowie, always an innovator.
He marked the ’02 release of the “Heathen” album by appearing on a live cable T.V. program. Viewers called in “requests” for Bowie and his band to perform. Not surprising most of the requests were for songs from the “Ziggy” period. A year later, the prolific Bowie issued the reflective “Reality.”
A Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award came in ‘06 but just month later Bowie announced, “I’m taking a year off-no touring, no albums.” He did perform alongside Alicia Keys, at the Black Ball, a New York benefit event for Keep a Child Alive. That performance marked the last time Bowie performed his music on stage.
Still, Bowie’s music kept being released. On the 40th anniversary of the ‘69 moon landing “Space Oddity” was re-issued by EMI. “A Reality Tour,” a double album of live material from the ‘03 tour, was released the following year. Then came “Toy,” Bowie’s previously unreleased ’01 album. Leaked online, there was material used for “Heathen,” along with B-sides and versions of his early back catalogue.
When a legendary performer makes a comeback it is usually with a lot of hoopla. There are breathless reports that the artist is going into the studio, endless album updates and the erroneous statement that the new material rivals the ‘classic’ tracks.
Bowie had none of that. Rather, he recorded in secret and on the occasion of his 66th birthday Bowie released his first song in a decade, “Where Are We Now?,” via iTunes. The track was produced by Bowie’s long time collaborator Tony Visconti and the accompanying video was directed by Tony Oursler. The clip revisited Bowie’s late-70’s residency in Berlin.
“Where Are We Now?, topped the UK iTunes Chart and debuted at #6 on the UK Singles Chart – Bowie’s first Top 10 hit in two decades. That song and a second single, “The Stars (Are Out Tonight)” were on his album “The Next Day.” According to Visconti, over two-dozen songs were recorded.
Bowie ruled out any interviews or concerts to promote “The Next Day.” All “he wants to do is make records,” stated Visconti, acting as Bowie’s “voice on earth.”
“The Next Day” sold 56,000 copies on its first day in the U.K. to claim the top spot on the album chart.
To hardly anyone’s surprise, Bowie was voted the best-dressed Briton in history in a ’13 poll conducted by BBC History Magazine. He garnered nearly half of the 4,000 votes beating out the likes of Queen Elizabeth I; Georgiana Cavendish, Duchess of Devonshire; and Beau Brummell.
Fans were then treated to “Nothing Has Changed,” a ’14 collection spanning Bowie’s career. It also contained new tracks and previously unreleased material.
Bowie released “Blackstar,” consisting of original material, on his 69th birthday. But just two days later, January 10th, ’16, he passed away. “David Bowie died peacefully today surrounded by his family after a courageous 18 month battle with cancer,” read a statement posted on the artist’s social media accounts.