It’s hard to believe that a year has passed since the world lost its beloved Starman – David Bowie. We look back on the legacy of one of Britain, and one of the world’s, most iconic musical prodigies.
Bowie was born David Jones in Brixton, London, on January 8th, 1947, to Haywood and Margaret Jones. Bowie moved to Bromley at the age of six, where he attended Bromley Technical High School, making friends with artist George Underwood and rock guitarist Peter Frampton. Underwood was responsible for one of David Bowie’s most recognised and striking features – his permanently dilated left pupil, which came as the result of a punch after a fight over a girl. However, this would not be the end of their friendship, and Underwood would go on to create the artwork for a number of Bowie’s early albums.
Bowie’s passion for music began at the age of 13, where, after being inspired by the jazz which serenaded London’s West End, he picked up the saxophone; a cream coloured Selmer alto saxophone with gold keys. He was taught to play by British saxophonist Ronnie Ross, who years later infamously played the saxophone on Lou Reed’s ‘Walk on the Wild Side’, a track co-produced by Bowie. David’s introduction to the world of pop music and showmanship began playing in a number of bands before finding his feet at the forefront of his own career. In his early years, he was a member of The Kon-Rads, The King Bees, The Mannish Boys and The Lower Third. David Bowie as he’s known today came in September 1965 at the age of 18, when he changed his name after fearing confusion with Davy Jones, who would later go on to front The Monkees. The name Bowie’s origins emanate from Bowie paying homage to Jim Bowie, a Texan rebel portrayed by Richard Widmark in 1960 Western, ‘The Alamo’, based on the historic siege by Mexican troops. Jim Bowie inspired the bowie knife, an instrument David described as being “the ultimate American knife. It is the medium for a conglomerate of statements and illusions.”
“Ground control to Major Tom…”
Under the guidance of manager Kenneth Pitt, David Bowie would release his first hit in 1969, “Space Oddity”, a song inspired by Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, which tiptoes across a plethora of genres, labelled prog rock by some, new wave/post punk by others and everything in between. Space Oddity peaked at #5 in the UK chart, and would be featured by the BBC as the accompaniment to the moon landing broadcast to the nation.
The album that followed, “The Man Who Sold The World”, was released in April 1971 through Mercury Records and has often been heralded as laying the foundations for both heavy metal and glam rock thanks to guitarist Mick Ronson’s signature guitar style. The Man Who Sold The World would take Bowie on his first trip to the United States of America, where he would promote the album throughout the Spring. Returning home to London upon the tour’s completion, Bowie would set about recording two albums in the space of months. December 1971 would see the release of “Hunky Dory”, an album recently voted in a poll as Bowie’s most popular work.
It was in the closing months of 1971 that Bowie would begin playing with his image, crafting and creating his future legacy. After telling British pop and rock music magazine Music Man he was gay in 1972, Bowie began work on a new theatrical persona.
“Ziggy played guitar….”
June 1972 heralded the arrival of “Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars”, where Bowie would embody the doomed messianic rock star from another planet, Ziggy Stardust, with his band, which then consisted of guitarist Ronson, drummer Woody Woodmansey and bassist Trevor Bolder becoming The Spiders from Mars. Performing live as Ziggy Stardust, Bowie and his band would take to the stage in futuristic costumes, extravagant makeup, and striking orange hair, subverting the rock ‘uniform’ of jeans. This new look proved to be extremely successful in both New York and London, and under the Ziggy guise, Bowie released “Aladdin Sane” in April 1973. This spawned the singles “Jean Genie” and “Let’s Spend The Night Together”, a collaboration with Keith Richards and Mick Jagger of The Rolling Stones.
On July 3rd, David Bowie retired the Ziggy character, informing a sold-out venue “Of all the shows on the tour, this particular show will remain with us the longest, because not only is it the last show of the tour, it’s the last show we’ll ever do”, an ambiguous announcement which was understandably met with a level of intrigue. The full set was filmed for a documentary entitled, “Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars.”
With a restless work ethic, David soon headed to France to record the follow up to Aladdin Sane, “Pin Ups”, a covers album where Bowie paid homage to artists he had admired and been influenced by throughout the sixties. Tracks included his take on the Easybeats “Friday on My Mind”, and Pink Floyd’s “See Emily Play.” In the Summer of 1974, Bowie returned to America for his grandest US tour with a spellbinding set and choreographed tableaus. The end product became known as “David Live”, a double album recorded at the iconic Tower Theatre in Philadelphia. This would be the last time Bowie would work with Ronson and Ken Scott overseeing the album’s production.
Throughout his time in America, Bowie showed a strong interest in soul music, and on 1975’s “Young Americans”, the authentic sound of the States was channelled and fused with a unique UK perspective. The album featured a cover of The Beatles’ song, “Across the Universe”, and spawned a hit single in the form of “Fame”, which Bowie co-wrote with John Lennon. With this collaboration, Bowie would achieve his first US #1.
The track, “Fascination” was co-written with a young and upcoming Luther Vandross. The album was recorded at Philadelphia’s Sigma Sound Studios, which was considered to be the capital of black music at the time. Forever changing his image, the sessions spent writing the album inspired Bowie to remove the dancers, sets and costumes of old for a spare stage, donning a pair of baggy Oxford trousers. He cut his hair and coloured it a natural shade of blonde.
Shortly after, David Bowie moved to LA and starred in Nicolas Roeg’s 1976 sci-fi, “The Man Who Fell to Earth.” In the same year, he released “Station to Station”, an album created with the same Young Americans band, following in the footsteps of his prior release. Here, he embodied the character of “The Thin White Duke.” This would go on to become his highest charting album, spawning a second Top 10 single in the form of “Golden Years.”
Bowie’s interest in LA soon faded, and citing that “life had become predictable”, the musical mystery returned to the UK, before once again moving overseas to Germany, living in semiseclusion with producer and artist, Brian Eno. While living with Eno, Bowie would release a trio of albums affectionately referred to as “The Berlin Trilogy.” These consisted of “Low” and “Heroes”, released in 1977. The Berlin Trilogy featured a much more avant-garde, electronic sound. Turning his hand to production, in 1977, Bowie worked closely alongside Iggy Pop, producing his first and second solo albums, “The Idiot” and “Lust for Life”, respectively. He joined Iggy Pop on his European and American tours, anonymously serving as the singer’s pianist. The rest of the year was spent with Bowie acting alongside Marlene Dietrich and Kim Novak in David Hemmings’ 1979 drama, “Just A Gigalo.” Bowie spent the following year on a huge world tour, recording his second live album while travelling across America, aptly entitled “Stage.” In 1979, “Lodger” was completed, the third and last album in The Berlin Trilogy.
“We know Major Tom’s a junkie…”
Now settled in New York, Bowie began work on a follow up album to “Lodger”, in the form of “Scary Monsters (And Super Creeps)”, released in September 1980. The track “Ashes to Ashes” serves as a spiritual sequel to “Space Oddity.” Bowie then returned to the stage, appearing in the stage show of The Elephant Man across Denver, Chicago and on Broadway. In 1981, he collaborated with legendary rock band Queen, singing on the track “Under Pressure”, and writing and lending his vocal prowess to the soundtrack for Paul Schrader’s 1982 horror, Cat People. In the same year, Bowie expanded his acting prowess, portraying Baal in a television adaptation of Brecht’s play, and 150-year-old vampire John Blaylock in Tony Scott’s 1983 horror, The Hunger.
In 1983, David Bowie moved from his label of RCA to EMI, where he recorded “Let’s Dance.” The album was produced by Nile Rodgers and featured virtuoso Stevie Ray Vaughn on guitar. Returning to Bowie’s soul sound, it spawned three singles – “Let’s Dance”, “China Girl” and “Modern Love”, followed by a sold-out “Serious Moonlight Tour.” However, all was not perfect – the album that followed, “Tonight”, released in 1984, spawned only one hit single in the form of “Blue Jean.” The following year, Bowie infamously dueted with Mick Jagger on a cover of Martha and The Vandellas’ “Dancing In The Street” for Live Aid. Meanwhile on screen, Bowie had been featuring in John Landis’ 1985 thriller, “Into the Night”, Julien Temple’s 1986 musical, “Absolute Beginners”, which featured a number of songs by Bowie himself, arguably his most famous role as Jareth The Goblin King in 1986 fantasy, “Labyrinth” and 1991 comedy, “The Linguini Incident”, where Bowie found himself thrust in the spotlight.
In the years that followed, Bowie would form a band named “Tin Machine”, releasing two self-titled albums, simply distinguished by the latter’s suffix of II. A change in direction, Tin Machine embodied a rougher, rawer, guitar orientated sound yet were sadly forgettable.
In 1992, David Bowie married Somalian supermodel Iman, and wrote and released “Black Tie White Noise” the following year, an album he described as “a wedding present to his wife.” The album seemed to fair well among critics, but did not receive the same appreciation from the public. Ever experimental in his nature, in 1995, Bowie released “Outside – The Nathan Adler Diaries: A Hyper Cycle”, a concept album which did not seem to draw much interest, however it introduced Bowie to Trent Reznor of Nine Inch Nails, who would open for the Outside tour while it travelled across the States. Two years later, Bowie celebrated his 50th birthday, celebrating the occasion with a sold out gig at the infamous Madison Square Garden. Here, he was joined onstage by Robert Smith of The Cure, Billy Corgan of Smashing Pumpkins fame, the Foo Fighters, Sonic Youth and many more globally recognised artists.
In 1997, Bowie entered the financial market, creating “The Bowie Bond.” These were asset-backed securities, using the current and future revenue created from the albums produced by the man himself as collateral. This collateral consists of the 25 albums recorded before 1990. From these, Bowie received $55 million dollars. The sale of these “Bowie Bonds” came on the eve of the release of “Earthling”, Bowie’s 20th album, released in February 1997. Earthlings blended drum and bass with modern rock, and as a result received mixed reviews. Trent Reznor created a remix of “I’m Afraid of Americans”, featuring keyboards, guitar textures and a rap verse by Ice Cube. The track soon gathered airplay across the radio and on television.
The album that followed, entitled “Hours…” was not particularly well received by critics, however it marked a further step in Bowie’s experimentation and the modification of the image of himself – the internet. The entire album was available for download weeks before its release, and featured an online exclusive track.
As the millennium broke, David Bowie reunited with Tony Visconti on “Heathen” in 2002, which featured a cover of The Pixies’ track “Cactus”, putting together an annual version of London’s Meltdown Festival. Here, he performed 1977 album ‘Low’ in its entirety.
The following year, Bowie released “Reality”, however during a busy touring schedule and due to heavy smoking, he had a mild heart attack on stage while performing in Germany. He fully recovered and was able to contribute a number of his songs to Wes Anderson’s 2005 deep sea adventure, The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou, some of which were translated into Portuguese by Brazilian singer Seu Jorge.
David Bowie remained in the spotlight in the years to come by singing on stage with Arcade Fire and lending his vocal talents to Return to Cookie Mountain, a 2006 album by TV On the Radio. In the same year, Bowie’s lifelong contributions to the music industry were recognised when he was gifted The Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award.
Bowie’s semi-final album, The Next Day instantly went to Number One in the UK chart, and Number Two in the States. The album had been recorded, drowned in secrecy and he had only made the announcement on his birthday. He made his last theatrical performance in Lazarus, an off-Broadway play, alongside Michael C Hall of Dexter and HBO’s Six Feet Under fame. This continued the story of Newton in The Man Who Fell to Earth. The soundtrack consisted of songs from Bowie’s past, with a number of new songs thrown in alongside.
On January 8th, on Bowie’s 69th birthday, David Bowie released ★, the 25th and final album he would release. The album explored Bowie’s ever changing interest in more and more expansive genres, in this case, Jazz and hip-hop. Speaking to The Rolling Stone, producer Tony Visconti commented, “We were listening to a lot of Kendrick Lamar. We wound up with nothing like that, but we loved the fact Kendrick was so open-minded and he didn’t do a straight-up hip-hop record. He threw everything on there, and that’s exactly what we wanted to do. The goal, in many, many ways, was to avoid rock & roll.”
On January 10th, David Bowie passed away after a long fight with cancer. He was 69.