David Robert Jones better known as David Bowie was a walking tapestry of imagination, creativity and human complexity. We lost him this week and the world immediately lost colour and warmth, two things he always encompassed. Bowie was a truly rare marvel of a human being who often didn’t seem human at all. Bowie originally derived from Brixton, London England; he was born in 1947 and musically active for the vast majority of his life. Bowie released 26 successful albums, many of which are considered revolutionary. He was a brilliant actor in several cinematically innovative films, acted on stage and painted stunning body’s of work. He challenged gender norms way before it was hip and visited various personas he completely committed to. He wasn’t just a brilliant musician, he was a man who inhaled the beauty of life and exhaled works of art.
The Early Stages
Bowie began his musical career at the ripe age of 15, the saxophone is the first instrument he experimented with. He then discovered the guitar and played in a Rock and Roll band called The Konrads, they performed mostly at weddings and social gatherings in and around London. He knew then that he wanted to be a pop star and declared this news liberally to those around him. His mother wasn’t enthused and encouraged him to become a electrician, which was luckily never considered on his behalf. Bowie was omni-presently committed to music and played in various bands throughout the duration of his adolescence.
He eventually went solo and released his debut album titled ‘David Bowie’ in 1967. Although it wasn’t a huge commercial success, it was critically acclaimed and certainly gained him some well deserved attention, especially due to the authenticity of the record. During this time Bowie started dancing and became well acquainted with Lindsey Kemp, an innovative choreographer who truly inspired young Bowie. Bowie described Kemp kindly stating “he lived on his emotions, he was a wonderful influence. His day-to-day life was the most theatrical thing I had ever seen, ever. It was everything I thought Bohemia probably was”. During this time Bowie learned miming, expressive satire, acting and wrote the album ‘Space Oddity’ (Also known As David Bowie), which was originally released in 1969. Space Oddity contains the title track which changed his career forever. The album contains mostly acoustic guitar and poetically diplomatic lyrics. Following the release he went on tour with T. Rex that year in and he did both a musical and mime performance (I know, I wish I was there too).
In 1970 he married Angela Barnett who had a huge impact on his success as an artist. This was a profoundly creative time for Bowie and he released the album ‘The Man Who Sold The World’. This album contains powerful lyrics on the subject of schizophrenia and paranoia along with electronic walls of sound. He was now arriving to interviews as a hot commodity in androgynous outfits. The very next year, 1971, Bowie released the album ‘Hunky Dory’ that contains several of his hits and is widely considered one of the most innovative Rock and Roll albums of all time. However, it wasn’t a commercial success at the time. Later that year Barnett and Bowie gave birth to their son Duncan Jones.
In 1972 Bowie released the revolutionary album ‘The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and then Spiders From Mars’. This record is Bowie’s first true concept album that was based on a persona he created. This was the album that made Bowie hugely popular and the base of the his Ziggy Stardust tour in which he always performed in character. Ziggy Stardust is a fictional extraterrestrial character personified by Bowie. This character was clad with short striking red hair, beautiful gender bending suits and feminine makeup. The album and character contains themes of sexual experimentation and social commentary, which was particularly powerful as it was the early 70’s and Bowie’s sexual orientation was unclear. What we need to remember is this was 44 years ago and there is continuing homophobia and gender binary prejudice in our contemporary age. The track Starman, Moonage Daydream and It Aint Easy are all featured on the album, upon it’s release each song topped the charts and people everywhere went wild for this fresh revival of music. Shortly thereafter Bowie produced his close friend Lou Reed’s second solo album ‘Transformer’. In 1973 (again, only the very next year) Bowie released another iconic album: ‘Aladdin Sane’. This album was completely groundbreaking for both Bowie and the world at large. Aladdin Sane is another concept album that features nothing but hits and an extension of the Ziggy Stardust persona known as “Ziggy goes to America”. Aladdin Sane is Bowie’s first album to top charts internationally and contains the notorious look we know as…
This look changed the fashion industry, the art world and Halloween forever. During this time Bowie explained “Offstage I’m a robot. Onstage I achieve emotion. It’s probably why I prefer dressing up as Ziggy to being David.” However, with satisfaction came severe personal difficulties with acting the same role over an extended period. Bowie later shared” It became impossible for me to separate from Ziggy Stardust, that’s when it all started to go sour, my whole personality was affected and it became dangerous, I had doubts about my sanity”. During this time Bowie was on an extensive tour, always performing in the Ziggy Stardust character. He would simulate oral sex to instruments, strip down nude and wear sumo wresting outfits on stage. In spit of exhaustion, later that year Bowie released the album ‘Pin Ups’ which was another commercial success.
Thin White Duke
Bowie left the Ziggy Stardust persona behind an he started experimenting with new sounds and released the album ‘Diamond Dogs’ which featured more Soul and Funk elements and the infamous song Rebel Rebel. The album was inspired by Orwell’s book 1984 and referenced a post apocalyptic city derived from the novel. The Diamond Dog tour was high budget and international. During this time Bowie struggled with heavy cocaine use and became temporarily mentally paranoid and emotionally disrupted.Bowie then moved to the U.S and recorded Young Americans , which contained even more funk and soul. It was explained rather eloquently by author Christopher Sandford as such explaining that “Over the years, most British rockers had tried, one way or another, to become black-by-extension. Few had succeeded as Bowie did now. The album’s sound, which the singer identified as “plastic soul”, constituted a radical shift in style that initially alienated many of his UK devotees” The album contains the track Fame which was co written with John Lennon,and became Bowie’s first number one single in the U.S. Lennon shared that “Bowie’s music is great but it’s just Rock and Roll with lipstick on”. In 1976 Bowie released the album ‘Station to Station’ which was also the official release of his new persona Thin White Duke. This is the fresh, slick, and inspiring look we know as…
Thin White Duke was another fictional extraterrestrial character. He is an extension of character Thomas Jerome Newton that Bowie portrayed in the film The Man Who Fell to Earth which was released that same year. This album introduced Bowie’s heavier use of synthesizer and “Krautrock” style of music. Simultaneously Bowie’s drug use was becoming more public and the media often called him incoherent. Bowie later admitted he had become “twisted by cocaine” and overdosed frequently before performing. Later that year, Bowie performed at Rock against Racism which was a benefit inspired by social justice. This was a cause he was committed to aiding. Bowie then went on an extensive tour across Europe and the US promoting station to station dressed as the Thin White Duke. During these sessions he would conduct intimate theatrical performances that highlighted his personal internal struggle at the time. Although the tour was highly successful it also led to legal issues, especially when Bowie shared the belief that “Britain could benefit from a fascist leader” and was detained at the Russian border for possessing assumed nazi paraphernalia. Shortly after this, he waved to a crowd in London which was interpreted by the paparazzi as giving a Nazi salute. Although Bowie had no intention of expressing Nazi ideologies, he recognized he was running into this trouble based from his statement about fascism and current troubles with addiction and mental difficulties. Bowie equates this dark period of his life to drugs and his personification of Thin White Duke so he decided to again change. Bowie later reflected on this time in saying”I was out of my mind, totally crazed. The main thing I was functioning on was mythology , that whole thing about Hitler and rightism, I’d discovered King Arthur”
The Berlin Trilogy
After getting cleaner and seeking emotional assistance Bowie moved to a chalet on Lake Geneva in Switzerland. He discovered his love for painting there and produced a series of post modern pieces. He brought his sketch pad on tour and found this outlet quite healing. Bowie then decided to move to Berlin, Germany and completely cleaned up his drug use. He lived in an apartment with Iggy Pop and started collaborating with Brian Eno and began experimenting with ambient and minimalist music. During this time he collaborated with Iggy Pop on The Idiot and Lust for Life.
In 1977 Bowie released the album ‘Low’ which was inspired by the likes of the band “Neu!” The album Low was much more abstract than his previous work and features far less lyrics. The album initially had low commercial success but was considered “genius” by Phillip Glass and gained Bowie a different demographic of fans. The album eventually became the basis of Glass’ Symphony No. 1. Low and Glass shared that the album contains “complex pieces of music, masquerading as simple music.” Low was the beginning of a trilogy and was followed by Heroes released the same year. The album Heroes is different again than anything Bowie had previously done. Heroes was inspired by the 1977 divide of Berlin and the zeitgeist of Cold War. The album is quite accessible and contains title track which is one of Bowie’s most successful songs of all time. Bowie was touring incessantly at this point and had completely beat his drug addition. A live recording from this tour was released in 1978 and titled Stage. The final piece of this trilogy is titled Lodger and was released in 1979. Lodger is a minimalist approach to music and features ambient new wave sounds. The album contains many collaborations from Brian Eno and Peter Schmidt.
“The Scary Monster and Super Creeps” album was released in 1980 and contains the hit Ashes to Ashes. The album features guitar synthesist Chuck Hammer and revisits the character Major Tom from Space Oddity. This album helped give birth to the New Romantic Movement in the UK. Later this same year Bowie starred in the Broadway production of the The Elephant Man. This performance garnered huge acclaim for his acting.
In 1981 Bowie collaborated with the band Queen and released the smash hit Under Pressure. In 1983 Bowie reached a new level of popularity with the album ‘Let’s Dance’ which went platinum in both the U.S and the U.K. This album contains title track, China Girl and Modern Love which were all massive singles paired with avant-garde music videos. In 1984 Bowie released another dance album titled Tonight which involves collaborations from Tina Turner and Iggy Pop. The album features a cover of The Beach Boy’s God Only Knows and the song Blue Jean paired with an excellent music video which earned him a grammy that year.
In 1985 Bowie performed in the benefit concert Live Aid which involved a duet of him and Mick Jagger performing Dancing in the Street which quickly became a massive hit. In 1986 Bowie portrayed his most successful film character-the Goblin King in Jim Henson’s Labyrinth. Bowie wrote the majority of the film score and starred in the film. Labyrinth is still one of the most popular cult classics of all time. That same year Bowie went on the Glass Spider tour which featured Peter Frampton on guitar.
Tin Machine, Iman and further experimentation
Bowie decided to retreat from his solo career and started a band with Reeves Gabrels, Tony Sales and Hunt Sales called the Tin Machine. Although the band released a relatively successful album and tour most people were interested in just hearing Bowie including Bowie himself. This disrupted the democracy of the band. Bowie then decided to go solo again before they recorded their second album. He then went on the Sound and Vision Tour as a solo performer and it was was a brilliant success.
In 1990, after Bowie has been divorced from Angela Barnett for a decade he met supermodel Iman and they were married in 1992. Later in 1992 Bowie decided to re establish the band Tin Machine, the tour was titled Oy Vey Baby. Unfortunately the tour was not a commercial successful. Later in 1992 Bowie performed at the Freddie Mercury tribute concert and sang Under Pressure with Annie Lennox. in 1993 Bowie released another solo album titled ‘Black Tie -White Noise’ which was Jazz and Hip-Hop influenced and became another commercial success. Later in 1993 Bowie wrote the Soundtrack for The Buddha of Suburbia which is an album of incidental music composed for the television adaptation of the Hanif Kereishi novel. Bowie and Eno started working together again and in 1995 released the album ‘Outside’. This record features industrial noise rock and is based on the premise from a short story written by Bowie about murder. The Outside Tour took place shortly after and Bowie selected Nine Inch Nails to share the bill with him across Europe and North America.
In 1996 Bowie was inducted to the Rock and Roll Hall of fame. The next year, he released the album Earthling which explores the likes of Drum and bass and jungle music. Earthling was another commercial success, the single from the album I’m afraid of Americans was featured in the film Showgirls and later remixed by Trent Reznor. In 1999 Bowie created the soundtrack for the popular computer game Omikron. Later that year he released the heavily electronic album Hours.
In 2000 Bowie and Iman had their daughter Alexandria Zahra Jones. In 2002 Bowie had a huge comeback album titled ‘Heathen’ which was his most successful since Tonight released in 1984. In 2003 Bowie released the album Reality and went on a extensive international tour. During this tour he had his first heart attack in Germany and the rest of his tour was cancelled. In the following year he spent time recuperating and working more on film scores, including an updated version of Changes for Shrek.
In 2005 he performed with the phenomenal upcoming bands Arcade Fire and TV On The Radio and also worked on the film score for the film Stealth. Later that year he did a commercial for XM radio with Snoop Dog then worked on the Danish band’s Kashmir’s album along with his friend Lou Reed.
In 2006 Bowie was given The Grammy Lifetime Achievement award where he announced he was taking the year off with no music releases and no touring. This was truly the only year in his entire career that Bowie stopped producing music. He did however make a surprise appearance at David Gilmour’s concert in London. In 2007 Bowie curated the High Line Festival which took Place in New York. In 2008 he sang on Scarlett Johansson’s tribute album to Tom Waits.
The Late Years
On the 40th anniversary of the US Moon landing in 1969 and Bowie’s commercial breakthrough with Space Oddity, EMI Records released the individual tracks from the original eight-track studio recording of the song. This included a contest inviting members of the public to create a remix.
‘Reality Tour’, a double album of live material from the 2003 concert tour, was released in January 2010. In late March 2011, Toy, Bowie’s previously unreleased album from 2001, was leaked onto the internet. This album contains material used for the studio album Heathen and most of the single B-sides as well as unheard new versions of his early back catalogue. This was followed in 2013 with another album titled ‘The Next Day’ which was a surprise release. The surprise was intentional on Bowies part. The album is a powerful body of work and is considered one of the most successful Rock and Roll comeback albums in history. It is an innovative, bold and dark album that gained almost exclusively positive reception. This same year Bowie worked with Arcade Fire again and provided vocals on their song Reflektor. Simultaneously, the BBC officially garnered Bowie the title of The Best Dressed Man Ever.
On Jan 8, 2016 Bowie Released the album ‘Blackstar’ which also celebrated the mark of his 69th birthday. Two days later we lost Bowie to a battle he had against cancer. He kept this 18 month battle intentionally private and out of the media. Bowie died peacefully in his New York apartment. Blackstar is a powerful body of work that is produced by Bowie’s longtime collaborator Tony Visconti. The single from the album Lazarus is a sonic masterpiece and features a chilling video of Bowie on a deathbed. Bowie never stopped dripping with genius, not for a moment and now he is truly stardust.