No one in Rock has been 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.
Classic Bowie Side Jobs:
1) Disappointed at hearing Mott The Hopple was breaking up (due to a lack of success) he gave them "All The Young Dudes." Mott The Hoople re-grouped (briefly) and nailed a hit.
2) Bowie and Mick Ronson produced Lou Reed's classic "Walk On The Wild Side."
3) Bowie and Mick Jagger recorded their duet of "Dancing In The Streets" (originally recorded by Martha & the Vandellas) for Live Aid.
4) Bowie "recorded" (rather than "produced") Iggy Pop's "The Idiot" LP.
David Bowie Studio Albums:
1967 David Bowie
1969 Space Oddity
1970 The Man Who Sold The World
1971 Hunky Dory
1972 The Rise And Fall Of Ziggy Stardust And The Spiders From Mars
1973 Aladdin Sane
1973 Pin Ups
1974 Diamond Dogs
1975 Young Americans
1976 Station To Station
1980 Scary Monsters (And Super Creeps)
1983 Let's Dance
1987 Never Let Me Down
1993 Black Tie White Noise
1993 The Buddha of Suburbia
2013 The Next Day
The compilations "BowieChanges" and the Rykodisc release "The Singles 1969-1993" do the best job of encapsulating Bowie's magnificent career. But there is much, much more.
Following an uneventful late '60s career David Bowie stepped left of center and was rewarded when songs "Space Oddity" and "Man Who Sold The World" got noticed. But the masterstroke was just around the corner. The creation of a fictitious, androgynous Rock star named Ziggy Stardust may have been a case of art imitating life. "The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars" is Rock theatre driven by Bowie's adopted persona and Mick Ronson's guitar. What set Bowie apart from his contemporaries, aside from his appearance and demeanor, was his ability to create vivid images. His songwriting was easily his strongest card. The Ziggy persona seemed to be a place where he could delve and explore without repercussions. The lyrics cover aliens, stardom and sexual ambiguity. Those are the cornerstones of Ziggy Stardust's world. The unexplained, bizarre and the unexpected walk down the same street. "Suffragette City" is the album's best song with a wailing riff and Bowie's raver performance. The haunting Rocker "Moonage Daydream" and the rollicking "Hang On To Yourself" are hook laden, lyrical treats. Of course, "Ziggy Stardust" tells the tale.
After creating an exceptional album an artist often falls off. But the following year, '73, Bowie returned with the equally inspired "Aladdin Sane." The front cover featured a lightening bolt drawn across Bowie's heavily made-up face. This was Bowie's most Rock oriented album. Written while on tour (the sleeve lists the cities where each song was composed) the record reflects the various environments. The aggressive "Watch That Man" (New York) or Hollywood myth busting "Cracked Actor" (L.A.) are prime examples. Other standouts include the lazy sax riffs on the wistful "Drive In Saturday" and the guitar driven "Panic In Detroit," documenting a street revolution. Bowie manages a camp/butch remake of the Rolling Stones' "Let's Spend The Night Together" and Rocks the androgynous theme to the hilt with "Watch That Man," "Cracked Actor" and the album's premier track "The Jean Genie" with its droning-to-oblivion guitar line.
Not content to stand still, Bowie ended the Ziggy phase of his career and moved toward Funk-Rock. The "Young Americans" and "Station To Station" CDs best represent this period. He managed to score a couple of pop hits with "Golden Years" and "Fame." Bowie also started to dabble with experimental music. By the early '80s Bowie had adopted yet another persona - The Thin White Duke - and had hit songs with "Let's Dance," "China Girl" and the best of the lot, "Blue Jean."
Bowie had a fairly rough time in the 90s (thanks in part to the Tin Machine misadventure) and didn't regain his footing until the '97 release "Earthling." On "Heathen," Bowie is most comfortable and convincing with the pop oriented material like "Slow Burn" and "Everyone Says 'Hi'." The blurry and blaring cover of Neil Young's "I've Been Waiting For You" is worth a listen. But much of the album falls far short including the discordant Rocker "Cactus." With the line "sailing over Coney Island" the ballad "Slip Away" is "Heathen's" best track.
And while it might seem odd that the man who gave the world Ziggy Stardust would release an album entitled "Reality," there it is. As a resident of NYC, Bowie reflects on the post 9/11 environment and his place in that world. New Killer Star" and "Looking For Water" are acoustic tinged songs propelled by interesting percussion and intriguing arrangements. "She'll Drive The Big Car" has a great Bluesy feeling while the title track and "Pablo Picasso" are both rousing Rockers. The ballad "Try Some, Buy Some," with a definite Ziggy era feeling, has Bowie looking back to the '70s. He returns to the '70s for the album's closer "Bring Me The Disco King." This extended cocktail flavored ballad seems cast adrift. Despite that, the rest of the album is a fascinating work and comes off as his best effort in years.
After going MIA for a decade, Bowie is in full Thin White Duke mode for "The Next Day," and that's enough to make this set a success. "The Stars (Are Out Tonight)" illustrates Bowie's enviable grace under pressure - working the uptempo track rather than succumbing to it.
In Bowie's best work there is a sense of control over the uncontrollable matched with a genuinely unique yet unforced perspective. That is clearly evident on the wistful "I'd Rather Be High" and the tongue in cheek "Boss Of Me."