“A chameleon changes the colour of its skin to fit into its environment. I think I’ve done quite the reverse”. So said the mercurial David Bowie, who has died of cancer. There really isn’t a better quote to describe the life and career of this singer, songwriter and actor, and perhaps only words from the artist himself can do justice to his achievements. Born David Jones in Brixton, South London, in 1947, you wonder at what point those who knew him got the sense of what an immeasurable contribution to music, art, and culture he was to make.
He showed early signs of talent for singing and recorder at junior school, and he would later take up the saxophone. His half-brother, Terry Burns, introduced him to experimental jazz artists such as John Coltrane and Miles Davis. It was to become evident that hearing abstract music at such an impressionable age was to have a profound effect on Bowie’s creativity. In 1962 he was left with a permanently dilated left pupil after a fight at school, with the hidden benefit of leaving him with a signature otherworldly appearance. On top of his translucent skin and near flawless bone structure, his resemblance to the ethereal fairy-like character Ariel from Shakespeare’s The Tempest was now complete.
From the age of 15 onwards, Bowie was in a string of bands: rock and roll group the Kon-rads, the King Bees, and the Manish boys. His restlessness was due to both his bandmates' lack of ambition and hunger for success. After a successful audition, he joined Margate-based R&B outfit the Lower Third, who were left bemused when their new singer went a little above his station and issued a press statement, saying, “this is to inform you of the existence of Davie Jones and the Lower Third.” He left shortly after a single, written by himself, failed to chart. It was at this time that he pronounced himself David Bowie, to avoid mix-ups with Davy Jones of The Monkees. He advertised for a band, making it clear he needed musicians “to accompany a singer”.
1967 saw him form the Buzz, who would secure Bowie’s first record deal. The release of the album David Bowie was preceded by novelty single The Laughing Gnome, which at the time performed badly, but would later become a top 10 hit when reissued in 1973. The most significant aspect of David’s self-titled LP was the beginnings of his touching on the issues of gender, childhood, and fame, which are now famously the cornerstones of his lyricism.
Another pivotal moment came when Bowie took up lessons in theatre and mime with the dancer, Lindsay Kemp. The style and eccentricities of mime can very often be seen in his performance style. This interest led him to set up a folk club at a pub in Kent, quickly developing into Beckenham Arts Lab, where the likes of Peter Frampton, Steve Harley, Rick Wakeman, and Tony Visconti (Bowie’s long term friend and producer) performed.
His solo breakthrough moment finally came in July 1969, when he released Space Oddity. The decision to coincide the release with the Apollo 11 moon landing proving genius – rarely has music hauntingly captured the unknown, solitude, and outer space so perfectly. But of course with the highs came the lows. The following year his half brother Terry was sent to a psychiatric institution, and his father passed away.
Despite such tragedies in his personal life, his drive was seemingly undiminished. 1970 saw the release of The Man Who Sold the World, arguably his first album that materialised his enormous talent. It bore the fruit of the title track, one of David’s signature songs. Bowie expanded his lyrical themes yet more, and sang of insanity, immortality, and murder. It was becoming all too clear now that this singer was driven by a need to exist as far from the mainstream as he could physically be. He also continued pursuing his fascination with gender, the album artwork depicting him in a long flowing dress.
While his follow up, Hunky Dory (1972), was only partially successful, he was elevated to the next stratosphere of stardom with The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars in 1972. The creation of his new alias, Ziggy Stardust, triggered fan obsession on a scale not seen since The Beatles. The combination of the smash hit, Starman, his outrageous stage costumes, and sexually tinged performances, all combined to produce a generation needing to look like, or just simply be David Bowie.
He then released his first UK no.1 album, Aladdin Sane (1973), before shocking a concert audience, and subsequently the world, with the announcement that the character Ziggy Stardust was no more. We were now seeing that Bowie’s ingenious knack for reinvention would hold his fans and non fans alike under a spell. As powerfully relevant as ever, he unveiled hit single, Rebel Rebel, along with the concept album, Diamond Dogs, based on George Orwell’s 1984. However, the pressures of international fame and a growing dependency on cocaine were beginning to gnaw away at David’s mental health.
The reinvention was kept up at a dizzying pace with the move into his self-created genre, 'plastic soul'. The album Young Americans (1975) and single, Fame (featuring John Lennon), further solidified his recent mass-appeal in the United States. A new onstage persona was quickly developed – the Thin White Duke, introduced in 1976’s Station to Station. His acting career was also fully underway at this time, with a starring role in The Man Who Fell to Earth. However, fears for his grip on reality grew when he spoke freely and positively about fascism in a Rolling Stone interview.
1976 saw another big moment in his life and musical direction with a move to Berlin, and collaborations with Brian Eno. The release of hit single, Heroes, heralded the new deft blend of Bowie’s pop sensibilities with Eno’s synthesizers providing the underscoring. It has been said that around the release time of Scary Monsters (1980) and its single, Ashes to Ashes, was the time where Bowie’s utter dominance of almost all culture began to diminish. His commercial success, however, did not, scoring a number one single with Queen in 1981 with Under Pressure. In fact, while he may have become less cutting edge, this proved to be his most commercially successful period – the album Let’s Dance (1983), and its lead single of the same title performed immeasurably well, in no small part thanks to co-production from Chic’s Nile Rodgers.
His following albums sold only reasonably well, but his profile remained very high with a huge performance at Live Aid in 1985, and another number one hit with Dancing in the Street, featuring Mick Jagger. He also appeared in the Jim Henson fantasy film, Labyrinth, his portrayal of Jareth the Goblin King going on to be treasured by many. He was then content to promote his back catalogue with the Sound + Vision tour in 1990.
Throughout the nineties and noughties, Bowie remained ever active, however the frenetic amount of collaborations suggests that his constant quest for a new sound was perhaps beginning to spiral. Nonetheless, he was still always the name chosen for momentous events such as Concert for New York City, shortly after the 9/11 attacks. His massive contribution to the world of fashion was also given a nod with his appearance as himself in the 2001 comedy, Zoolander. Following health scares, he scaled back his touring, with a performance next to Pink Floyd’s David Gilmour at the Royal Albert Hall in 2006 being his last.
“Once you get sucked into the middle of the mainstream, it’s tyrannical in there, it’s despotic. I don’t want to be ruled by that blandness.” Thank goodness David Bowie chose the opposite, instead opting for one of the greatest ever contributions to music, art, culture, and fashion yet seen. A consummate artist in the truest sense of the term, he passed away on January 10th 2016, releasing his final album, Blackstar, two days prior.
He left us with a typically brilliant quote: “I don’t know where I’m going from here, but I can promise you it won’t be boring”.
RIP Starman. What a legacy you have left behind.