Bowie is a musician, but he works like a painter.
- Ed O'Brien.
No one has had a more varied or fascinating career in contemporary music than David Bowie, and he remains a huge talent as he enters the fifth decade of that career.
David Bowie (or is it Bowie?) is one of the pre-eminent rock musicians of the 20th Century. Combining a prodigious talent for songwriting with a taste for (sometimes bizarre) theatricality, Bowie developed a reputation for his chameleon-like series of stage incarnations: Ziggy Stardust, Aladdin Sane and the Thin White Duke being amongst the most memorable. Bowie pioneered glam rock in the 1970s and continues to innovate, though not perhaps with the same intensity that characterised his early creative years.
He's the chameleon of pop...the Thin White Duke. In a career spanning five decades he's been a mod, an all-round music-hall entertainer and a hippy; he's redefined glam rock, invented plastic soul, experimented with electronica and conquered the world with dance-pop. Bands from the 1970s onwards have made whole careers out of a single week of his pop life. He is of course David Jones, who later took the name Bowie after the equally famous Bowie knife. The Man Who Fell To Earth, the first artist to embrace music on the web with open arms - all wrapped up in a chirpy Brixtonian exterior.
The Brixton Lad
Born David Robert Jones in Brixton, London, on 8 January1, 1947, the family moved to Bromley when he was six years old. The young David went to Bromley Technical High School, which is now called Ravenswood School. One of his schoolmates was Peter Frampton. The pupil in David's right eye is permanently dilated - due to fighting with his friend George Underwood2 over a girl while they were still at school. He left school with just one 'O'-level, in Art.
David's first-ever release, under the name of Davie Jones, was 'Liza Jane/Louie Louie Go Home' in June 1964, with The King-Bees. He later changed his name to Bowie to avoid confusion with Davy Jones of The Monkees, who had registered the stage name first, and the powers that be couldn't allow two performers to share a name.
The name Bowie just appealed to me when I was younger. I was into a kind of heavy philosophy thing when I was 16 years old, and I wanted a truism about cutting through the lies and all that.
Bowie released his debut album, the self-titled David Bowie, in 1967 after playing in a host of pub and club bands. The same year he released the single, 'The Laughing Gnome', which many fans agree is the worst song he has ever recorded. 'Space Oddity' - Bowie's first hit in the UK, was used by the BBC in its coverage of the moon landing in July 1969.
Musical highlights of his career include 1972's The Rise And Fall Of Ziggy Stardust And The Spiders From Mars; the 'Berlin trio' from 1977 to 1979 in collaboration with Brian Eno, comprising Low, Heroes and Lodger; and 1980's Scary Monsters. The 1980s saw Bowie at a creative low (at least musically), however the 1990s saw something of a revival with 1. Outside in 1995 and Earthling in 1997.
What does all this add up to? Bowie's as near as they come to being an artist with music to suit nearly every mood. Feeling like some loud guitar rock? 'The Man Who Sold The World' or 'Aladdin Sane' should suit you nicely. Wish for some experimental synth-rock? Reach for Low or "Heroes". Need some hip, 80s-retro pop? Look no further than Let's Dance.
In 1970, Bowie formed a band called The Hype in which Mick Ronson played guitar, with John Cambridge on drums and Tony Visconti on bass. Visconti produced some of Bowie's best albums. The following year Cambridge was replaced on drums by Mick 'Woody' Woodmansey and work began on the album The Man Who Sold the World.
By his own admission, Bowie lost the plot during the 1980s. After Scary Monsters (And Super Creeps) in 1980, he didn't make another great album for the rest of the decade. Let's Dance was a good pop album and the title track was a killer single, but it was all a bit superficial by Bowie's standards. Bowie asked a previously-unknown guitarist, Stevie Ray Vaughan, to play on several songs on his Let's Dance album tour.
His next two albums are the ones that Bowie himself has cited as his worst work: 1984's Tonight and 1987's Never Let Me Down. On Tonight, his creative inspiration had run so dry that there are only four new songs on it, and two of those ('Tumble And Twirl' and 'Dancing With The Big Boys') were co-written with Iggy Pop. The rest of the album consists of covers - two old Iggy numbers ('Don't Look Down' and 'Neighbourhood Threat'), the 1950s standard 'I Keep Forgettin'', and a truly horrible massacre of The Beach Boys' 'God Only Knows'. Never Let Me Down did contain some more new Bowie songs, but none that many fans would judge to be among his best, and the brassy 1980s production has dated badly.
Tin Machine was a desperate attempt to break out of creative paralysis by doing something – anything - as drastically different to what had gone before as possible. That strategy of dislocation had worked for him before in the mid-1970s when he swapped Los Angeles, cocaine and the Thin White Duke for Berlin, cold turkey and minimalist electronica. Unfortunately, forming a graceless grunge band with two unreconstructed monsters of old-school rock like the Sales brothers was a far less successful strategy. Perhaps the best thing that came out of Tin Machine was that it cemented Bowie's partnership with the band's guitarist Reeves Gabrels, who has contributed to most things that Bowie has done since the Tin Machine era and has proved to be one of his most creative and enduring collaborators. There is one great Tin Machine song - 'I Can't Read', which is moving precisely because it sounds like an admission of creative paralysis. Bowie has named 'I Can't Read' as '...one of the best I have ever written', and he liked it enough to re-record it during the sessions for the Earthling album and release it as a single in 1998.
The Best of Bowie
The Man Who Sold The World3, a fantastically dark, dense album that should be played to anyone who thinks that all acoustic music is wimpish. 'All The Madmen' is an amazing song – would anyone else have thought of writing about someone who chooses to be shut up in an asylum because the 'lunatics' are saner than the 'normal' people outside? 'Hunky Dory' is in a similar musical vein, but with a little light creeping into Bowie's worldview, and some classic songs: 'Life On Mars?', 'Changes', 'Queen Bitch' and, in 'Kooks', one of the very few parent-to-child songs that doesn't seem nauseating to most non-parents.
On the other hand, what I like my music to do to me is awaken the ghosts inside of me. Not the demons, you understand, but the ghosts.
Ziggy Stardust is probably his most famous character and album, it has one of the most depressing songs ever, which is chillingly brilliant - '5 Years'. Bowie's method for writing lyrics is quite unusual - he'd cut up words and phrases from fan letters (and magazines) and then rearrange them, a trick borrowed from William S Burroughs. 'Life on Mars' and 'Jean Genie' (strung out on lasers and slash back blazers, ate all your razors while pulling the waiters, talking 'bout Monroe and walking on snow white) - perhaps his most famous single - are examples of this.
Diamond Dogs is from Bowie's glam-superstar era. It's aged better than Ziggy Stardust or Aladdin Sane; it has a stunning anthemic single in 'Rebel Rebel', but most of all it has the heartbreakingly gorgeous 'Sweet Thing'/'Candidate' medley, an irresistible mixture of drug-addled decadence and romance.
The title track of Young Americans is brilliant, but you can take or leave most of the products of Bowie's white soul/Thin White Duke phase. You can hear him straining to try to reach some kind of authentic emotion through narcotic numbness on 'Young Americans' and 'Station To Station'. Maybe he just about succeeds in getting there on 'Stay' and 'Word On A Wing' on the latter album. But Bowie really became compelling again when he got to Berlin and hooked up with Brian Eno.
Low is a masterpiece: icy electronic mood music for a shockingly bleak mood. It's a timeless record because it was utterly unlike anything else that was around in pop and rock at the time (1977) and not much has been like it since, certainly not anything made by stars as big as Bowie was at the time. Much of it is instrumental, and those parts that aren't - like the superb single 'Sound And Vision' - have only fragmentary lyrics, usually images of withdrawal and desolation. Yet somehow it achieves a kind of barren, bitter beauty.
"Heroes"4 is like the first light of dawn after the pitch blackness of Low, and of course it has its stunning title track. 'Sons Of The Silent Age' is recommended for its stirring melody and bitterly funny lyric, and there are some gorgeous instrumentals: the delicate 'Moss Garden' and the deeply ominous 'Sense Of Doubt'.
Lodger contains some great moments: 'Boys Keep Swinging' (which was accompanied by a truly brilliant and audacious video, involving our David portraying three different women); the gibbering, thrilling 'African Night Flight', and the exhilarating 'Red Sails'. It features what is probably Bowie's best song on a 'political' theme: 'Repetition' - a disturbing and convincing look at domestic violence.
And then came the virtually flawless Scary Monsters (And Super Creeps) – urgent and gripping from start to finish. It was as if Bowie had been galvanised by the British punk rock boom of the late 1970s into making his own most intense, fiery record. ('Teenage Wildlife' makes explicit reference to 'the New Wave boys'.) It has a unique sound, with Robert Fripp's distinctive guitar tone one of the most important ingredients. It's a record that seems driven by desperation; every song is a protest or a dry, sceptical commentary on something, be it fascism and merciless capitalism ('It's No Game'), the gullibility and fickleness of the general public ('Fashion'), the problems inherent in young love ('Because You're Young') or Bowie's own career ('Ashes To Ashes'). In many ways Scary Monsters is a bleak album, but it's also consistently intelligent, inventive and exciting. No wonder Bowie found it so hard to follow - and after that, as already discussed, things went sharply downhill for a decade or so.
Tony Visconti's influence
The Man Who Sold The World, Diamond Dogs, Young Americans, Low, "Heroes", Lodger and Scary Monsters were all produced by Tony Visconti; there was an acrimonious parting of ways after Scary Monsters, but they got back together to make Heathen and Reality.
The Laughing Gnome
As for 'The Laughing Gnome', he famously let fans decide what songs he should play on his 1990 world tour, and it was the most requested song. He didn't play it.
'ere, what's that clicking noise? That's Fred, he's a metra-gnome!
Back On Track
The most underrated period of Bowie's career is from the mid-1990s onwards. Lots of people know that he lost it big time in the 1980s. Not enough people know that he got it back in the 1990s, and even fewer appreciate that he returned to peak form in the 21st Century. The 1993 Black Tie White Noise contains some of Bowie's best excursions into soul styles, and its lead single 'Jump They Say' is one of his most moving songs (it concerns the suicide of Bowie's half-brother Terry). The ingenious and sometimes very funny black comedy of 1.Outside from 1995 – Bowie and Eno's sci-fi detective story in a song cycle, featuring some scorching industrial rock numbers like 'The Hearts Filthy Lesson' and 'Hallo Spaceboy'. Hear Bowie transformed by a vocoder into a 78-year-old man and a 14-year-old girl! Great fun - though considering the subject matter is ritual murder in the name of art, it's not exactly innocent fun.
It's a bit misleading to call Earthling 'the drum'n'bass album'. It does have a strong influence from that direction, and the rhythm tracks often sound a lot like The Prodigy, who were very prominent at the time (1997), but Bowie was still writing songs with fairly conventional melodies and structures to put over those rhythms. Sometimes it works very well, as on 'Little Wonder' and 'Dead Man Walking', and some of the best musical moments come from the way Bowie and his band blend in incongruous elements over the racing rhythms. It's great hearing Mike Garson drape elegant piano lines over the galloping jungle beats, and once again Bowie has the service of a superb and distinctive guitar sound, this time a cutting, corrosive fuzz-tone courtesy of Reeves Gabrels. There are two outstanding tracks placed together near the end of the album: the ominous 'The Last Thing You Should Do' and the dryly witty 'I'm Afraid Of Americans'. Not all the material on Earthling is that strong, but still it was a brave move for Bowie and a largely successful experiment.
...hours, from 1999, seemed like a bit of a retreat after that, returning to a more conventional soft-rock style, but it contains two absolutely gorgeous semi-acoustic songs - 'Survive' and 'Seven' – that return to the style of 'Hunky Dory' and throw in ravishing melodies and thoughtful lyrics, respectively about getting over a bad relationship and about the need to make good use of the limited time life allows. There's also Bowie's best glam-rock song in a quarter-century, 'The Pretty Things Are Going To Hell'.
Bowie's real modern masterpiece arrived in 2002. Heathen is an absolutely devastating album, one that draws from the best parts of Bowie's past without ever seeming like a mere remake. There are no dispensable tracks, there's tremendous stylistic variety, there's emotional and spiritual depth, and there are some songs that rank among Bowie's very best.
Lows and Highs
Bowie's mother Peggy Jones and one of his oldest friends, Freddi Burretti, both died during 2001, and Heathen is an album haunted by mortality and fear of an uncertain future. It opens and closes with two stark synthesiser-based tracks: 'Sunday' and 'Heathen (The Rays)' - that seem like the sound of Low, with a huge injection of the emotional expression that the numb, withdrawn Low, largely lacked. In between there's urgent rock on 'Slow Burn' (featuring some great Pete Townshend guitar), a fantastic epic ballad in 'Slip Away', another marvellous slice of stark electronica in the poignant '5:15 The Angels Have Gone', Bowie's best pop song in ages in 'Everyone Says "Hi"', and even some fun – an enthusiastic cover of cult singer The Legendary Stardust Cowboy's 'I Took A Trip On A Gemini Spacecraft'. There are two more very fine covers too, of The Pixies' 'Cactus' and Neil Young's 'I've Been Waiting For You'.
Heathen is an album that gives more and more to a listener with repeated attention. 'Everyone Says "Hi"', for instance, turns out to be addressed to someone recently deceased, and to concern the way people often simply cannot bring themselves to accept that the dead are gone. The yearning, soulful 'I Would Be Your Slave' initially seems like a submissive love song, but closer inspection suggests that it’s a desperate plea for a sign from God. The catchy, upbeat 'A Better Future' is, explicitly, a rather aggressive prayer, demanding what the title suggests, while 'Heathen (The Rays)' is a fear-laden song addressed to life itself. Heathen, overall, is an amazing album that anyone who has ever been moved by David Bowie should hear.
By common consent, 2002's Heathen was David Bowie's best album in ages. Even Bowie himself seemed surprised that he'd managed to create such a rich, emotive collection of songs so far into his career. Reality (2003) seems like a consolidation of the gains made by its predecessor. It is to Heathen as, back in the 1970s, the "Heroes" album was to Low: it fleshes out the earlier album's ideas and takes them a little closer to the mainstream.
Musically, Reality eschews the eerie, Low-like electronica of Heathen's darkest moments. It features superb high-energy guitar rock songs like the pounding, full-tilt title track, on which Earl Slick's guitar blazes away even as Bowie laments the cost of the rock'n'roll lifestyle: 'I hid among the junk of wretched highs'.
Reality also contains a couple of ballads as beautiful as anything Bowie has ever created. 'Days' seems to be about finding love in desperate times - in red-eyed pain I'm knocking on your door again - though given the spiritual anxiety Bowie has revealed in interviews, he may be addressing God. 'The Loneliest Guy' is also a thing of fragile loveliness, Bowie breathily acknowledging his good fortune whilst still sounding somewhat haunted.
Throughout Reality, Bowie's lyrics are as intriguing as they always have been when he's been on form. 'Fall Dog Bombs The Moon' is clearly an anguished song about destructive forces, but are there specific allusions to GW Bush here: There's oil on my hands.../There's always a moron, someone to hate/A corporate tie?
Though he looks and sounds highly healthy, Bowie seems to be feeling the Grim Reaper's scythe prodding him in the back. Reality, like Heathen, is riddled with reflections on mortality. But the bleakness is balanced with humour, like the spirited cover of Jonathan Richman's 'Pablo Picasso' and the wry 'Never Get Old'.
Long-term Bowiephiles can have great fun spotting the references to his back catalogue dotted through Reality, of which perhaps the most striking is the title track's stark observation: 'Now 'My Death' is more than just a sad song'. Those Reality purchasers who make the wise decision to invest an extra £2 and obtain the deluxe limited-edition version can also enjoy a bonus EP containing a highly effective radical reworking of Bowie's 1974 hit 'Rebel Rebel'.
But Bowie isn't living in the past on Reality. Here we hear a great recording artist still exploring the possibilities of music. He was the first major recording artist to release a song only on the Internet. There aren't many musicians half his age capable of sounding this excited and exciting.
'Under Pressure' with Queen; 'Tonight' with Tina Turner; 'Peace on Earth/Little Drummer Boy' with Bing Crosby; 'Dancing in the Street' with Mick Jagger; 'Let's Dance' with Cher; Bowie has had collaborations which have been good, bad and truly awful.
Bowie has also been a producer. He co-produced Lou Reed's Transformer album with Mick Ronson, and he's produced some of Iggy Pop's solo albums. His work with Lulu wrought a complete change of style and a barrel-load of new fans with her voice suiting 'The Man Who Sold The World' perfectly.
Film and TV
Not only is Bowie a gifted musician but he's also graced the silver screen - although the consensus, even among his most dedicated fans, is that he shouldn't give up his day job. Bowie complains: I get offered so many bad movies. And they're all raging queens or transvestites or Martians.
In The Man Who Fell To Earth (1976) Bowie was the alien being Thomas Jerome Newton.
In 1978 Sergei Prokofiev's Peter and the Wolf was narrated by Bowie with music by the Philadelphia orchestra, conducted by Eugene Ormandy. This recording is widely regarded as one of the best.
In Merry Christmas Mr Lawrence (1983) Bowie played Major Jack 'Strafer' Celliers.
In The Hunger, Bowie played the part of John, an ancient Egyptian vampire's lover. Susan Sarandon and Catherine Deneuve also starred in this 1983 neo-Gothic horror flick.
Bowie turned down the offer of a role in the James Bond film A View to a Kill playing villain 'Max Zorin' (given to Christopher Walken): It was simply a terrible script and I saw little reason for spending so long on something that bad, that workmanlike. And I told them so. I don't think anyone had turned down a major role in a Bond film before. It really didn't go down too well at all. They were very tetchy about it.
You wouldn't have wanted to have met up with 'Colin Morris' in Into The Night (1985) - that was Bowie playing a hitman!
In The Last Temptation of Christ (1988) Bowie was a convincing Pontius Pilate.
Bowie starred in an episode of the surreal drama Twin Peaks in 1992.
Bowie took the part of Andy Warhol in the 1996 film Basquiat.
Remember The Hunger, from 1983? Bowie as the vampire's lover was killed off in that, but the film reached such cult status that three years' worth of half-hour specials were made between 1997 and 2000. Bowie guest starred in three episodes over 1999 and 2000, not resurrecting his old character but creating an entirely new one - 'Julian Priest'.
In 2001, Zoolander, which was directed by Ben Stiller and starred Owen Wilson (later appearing together in the remake of Starsky and Hutch), Bowie guest-starred as himself, as a fashion judge.
Bowie played the main character 'Mr Rice' in the 2000 film Mr Rice's Secret.
In 2006, the Victorian drama The Prestige had Bowie starring as Tesla.
Bowie was deliciously deadpan in an episode of Extras - in fact he has a wicked sense of humour:
I think Mick Jagger would be astounded and amazed if he realized that to many people he is not a sex symbol, but a mother image.
Bowie made a stage appearance in The Elephant Man and received critical acclaim. His music has provided soundtracks for films like Shrek 2, Charlie's Angels: Full Throttle, Mr Deeds, Training Day, Godzilla, Starship Troopers, Trainspotting, Pretty Woman and Labyrinth (which he also starred in), and TV programmes such as Doctor Who, Life On Mars, Scrubs, Father Ted and Fame.
Bowie has produced several paintings, prints and sculptures, and supports emerging artists on his art gallery website. When he went to St Ives in Cornwall for a holiday, he had such a great time with the locals in the Golden Lion that he sent one of his paintings to them as a present. It's still on the wall today.
Bowie married Cypriot Mary Angela (Angie) Barnett in 1970. The Rolling Stones song 'Angie' was written by Mick Jagger for her. In a later magazine interview, Bowie stated that he met Angie when they were both dating the same man. But then in another interview he revealed that his bisexuality was really a sham, claiming he made the story up to create more mystery about himself.
Angie and David Bowie have a son, originally named Zowie, but later changed to Duncan Zowie Heywood Jones. David and Angie divorced in 1980. When David married Somalian model and actress Iman Abdulmajid in April 1992, David's son Duncan was their Best Man.
Iman has had few acting roles but what she's done has been spectacular. In the Michael Jackson video to 'Remember the Time', Iman was the beautiful Egyptian Queen Nefertiti lapping up the attention of the mesmerising singer/magician, much to the annoyance of her husband Pharaoh Akhenaten (Eddie Murphy). In Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country Iman played 'Martia', a shape-shifting alien who helps Kirk and McCoy escape from a penal colony. Iman was the last actress to kiss William Shatner in his role as the legendary Captain James T Kirk.
Martia: They'll respect you now.
Kirk: That's a comfort. I was lucky that thing had knees.
Martia: That was not his knee. Not everyone keeps their genitals in the same place, Captain.
Kirk: Anything you want to tell me?
David and Iman have a daughter, Alexandria Zahra, who was born on 15 August, 2000.
You would think that a rock star being married to a supermodel would be one of the greatest things in the world. It is!
- David Bowie.
Awards and Honours
In 1984 Bowie was the winner of the British Phonographic Industry Award for British Male Solo Artist. He was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1996, and he was given a star on Hollywood's 'Walk of Fame' in 1997. He was voted the 39th Greatest Artist in Rock 'n' Roll by Rolling Stone magazine. In VH1's 100 Sexiest Artists of all time, Bowie is ranked 12th. He was presented with an honorary degree from Boston's Berklee College of Music. Bowie has been offered honours in the form of a CBE (Commander of the Order of the British Empire) and a knighthood, but refused to accept them. 'I seriously don't know what it's for.'
Mortal With Superman Potential
Bowie was a 50-a-day cigarette smoker until he had a heart attack in 2004, and had to have an emergency triple bypass operation. As of the time of writing he hasn't toured or worked on a new album since, but he's still acting.
I'm not a prophet or a stone-aged man, just a mortal with potential of a superman. I'm living on.
David Bowie passed from this life to the next on 11 January, 2016, just after his 69th birthday. He had been suffering from cancer for 18 months.
The Complete David Bowie by Nicholas Pegg.