Donald's Encyclopedia of Popular Music


BOWIE, David

(b David Robert Jones, 8 January 1947, Brixton, South London; d 10 January 2016, London) UK rock singer and songwriter, the unrivalled success story of the 1970s. He advanced the theatrical aspect of pop music, but always with substance; his mercurial ability to chart trends escaped the venom of the punk rock movement '76-7 and he was also one of the most successful of rock stars making acting careers. His first influence was his idolized older step-brother Terry Burns, who introduced him to Beat poets, jazz and rock'n' roll of the '50s. Their mother and three of her sisters had suffered from mental illness; in Jan. '85 Terry lay down in front of a train in Surrey, a suicide at age 47 (he was the subject of songs such as 'All The Madmen', 'Bewlay Brothers', 'Aladdin Sane'). There are two views of David Bowie: he is a pseud, with 'a genius for nicking other people's ideas' (Ian Hunter), and he is a genius, 'one of the first rock and rollers to consciously approach music as art' (film director John Landis). At any rate his fear of mental illness, the apparent void at the centre of him and his constant changes of image and identity were made to order for confusing decade of the 1970s.

He began with sundry '60s beat groups: King Bees, Manish Boys, Lower Third, the Buzz; he changed his name '66 to avoid confusion with Monkees' Davy Jones, taking 'bowie' from the knife popularized by Jim Bowie, who died at the Alamo. His early singles were collected on London/Deram two- LP Images 1966-67. He had bit work on UK TV, spent time in a Buddhist monastery (he said), then with the Lindsay Kemp mime troupe '69. He signed with Mercury; debut album Man Of Words, Man Of Music included his first top 40 UK hit 'Space Oddity', inspired by the Kubrick film 2001: A Space Odyssey, the hit coinciding with the Moon landing of '69 (the album reissued on RCA '72 as Space Oddity). The Man Who Sold The World '70 included 'All The Madmen'; the original sleeve with Bowie in drag had to be changed in those far-off days. He seemed set as a fresh-faced pop star like his friend Marc Bolan, but serious influences discernible included Jacques Brel and the Velvet Underground (Anthony Newley a vocal influence, e.g. 'The Laughing Gnome' '67, 'Ashes To Ashes' '80). From the beginning he found good sidemen such as Mick Ronson, Rick Wakeman; album Hunky Dory '71 (his first on RCA and first to chart in the USA) included an important theme 'Changes' and tributes to mentors ('Song For Bob Dylan', 'Andy Warhol'), the underground-ish swagger of 'Queen Bitch'; also 'Oh You Pretty Things', covered for a UK hit by Peter Noone. A change of managers from Ken Pitt to Tony DeFries coincided with a USA tour to promote his second RCA LP The Rise And Fall Of Ziggy Stardust And The Spiders From Mars '72; RCA were talked into lavish support of the glam-rock monster/persona Stardust and it paid off: the show was a hit (a D.A. Pennebaker film was released '83 with two-disc set Ziggy Stardust: The Motion Picture) as well as the album, including 'Suffragette City', 'Rock'n'Roll Suicide', UK top ten hit 'Starman'. (The inspiration for Ziggy may have been rock musician Vince Taylor, b Maurice Brian Holden, 14 July 1939 in West London, d August 1991 in Lausanne, whose undercurrent of violence led to self-destruction as an artist.) Having become the only important star of the glam-rock movement, Bowie characteristically threw away Ziggy before he got stale, at a London 'farewell' concert '73.

The next album Aladdin Sane '73 inevitably seemed to disappoint at the time, though including hits 'Jean Genie' (about Jean Genet/Iggy Pop), 'Drive-In Saturday', and Bowie histrionics in 'Cracked Actor' and 'Time'. Pin Ups the same year celebrated pop's lost innocence with covers of seminal hits of the Who, Them, Yardbirds, Pink Floyd, the Merseys (whose '66 hit single 'Sorrow' was a hit again for Bowie). Diamond Dogs '74 was rewritten from an adaptation of Orwell's 1984, thwarted by the author's estate; the patchy result included the classic, sleazy 'Rebel, Rebel'. He became less extravagant in his 'thin white duke' period; the obligatory live two-disc set now followed but David Live '74 was a rush job, later disowned by its author.

By now he was the biggest act of the era: always good copy, with ambiguous sexuality, tempestuous marriage to Angela Barnett '70 (son Zowie b '71), fashion metamorphoses; he was an ideal '70s pop figurehead. Based in Los Angleles at this time he often appeared on USA TV. Young Americans '75 began the 'Plastic Soul' phase, including the hit title track and 'Fame', co-written with John Lennon, who played on the album. Station To Station was transitional; tracks included 'TVC15', 'Golden Years'. His first substantial film role, as the androgynous alien in Nic Roeg's The Man Who Fell To Earth won praise '76; his return to the UK that year was controversial: he vehemently denied making a fascist salute at Victoria Station. A period of reclusiveness in Berlin, collaborating with Brian Eno and Robert Fripp, ended with a new leap into the avant garde with electronic/synthesizer LPs in which he seemed to find himself, confronting the reality he had blocked out for years using drugs and role-playing: the 'Berlin trilogy', Low and Heroes '77 followed by Lodger '79 may have been his best work. Inevitably, songs like 'Sound And Vision', 'Warszawa' and 'Heroes' influenced synth bands such as Joy Division, Human League, Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark etc, which were usually less original.

His experiments included diversification, e.g. producing LPs for others: Iggy Pop's Raw Power '73 and Lust For Life '77; Lou Reed's Transformer '72; Mott the Hoople's All The Young Dudes '72. A one-off single with Queen 'Under Pressure' was a no. 1 UK hit '82. He did lyrics and vocal for Giorgio Moroder's title theme for '82 remake of classic horror film Cat People; also score for Christiane F., a film about a young heroin addict '81 (and appeared in it), contributed vocal to Pat Metheny's 'This Is Not America' for film The Falcon And The Snowman '85. His film Just A Gigolo was low point '79, but the new decade saw revitalization: single 'Ashes To Ashes' '80 revived Major Tom from 'Space Oddity' for a worldwide no. 1; eclectic album Scary Monsters (And Super Creeps) was well received that year, as was a long Broadway run in The Elephant Man. He starred in the Bertolt Brecht play Baal on BBC TV '82 and had a duet Xmas hit with Bing Crosby 'The Little Drummer Boy'. The RCA contract expired and old recordings salvaged for 'new' LPs; he signed with EMI '83 for a huge sum and proved value with hit LP Let's Dance, including four hit singles. Serious Moonlight, the first Bowie tour for six years, was seen by over two million fans; his best film to date Merry Christmas Mr Lawrence rounded off a good year. Tonight '84 was a lacklustre album despite guest Tina Turner, with dodgy covers (Beach Boys' 'God Only Knows'), but also addition to Bowie canon 'Blue Jean'; Never Let Me Down '87 included Peter Frampton on guitar, was regarded by critics as tired comeback; Bowie acknowledged that Prince was his logical successor in the '80s. Meanwhile a duet with Mick Jagger from Live Aid concert 'Dancing In The Streets' was released by popular demand '85 for an instant megahit. Bowie appeared in films Absolute Beginners (contributed theme), Labyrinth '86 (five new songs included top 20 'Underground'); he also produced a new Iggy Pop LP. The Glass Spider tour '87 included Frampton.

He rang the changes for nearly two decades, but didn't sell all that many records in his best years; ironically, when he ran out of new images, his superstar status guaranteed sales. Tin Machine '89 was a two-guitar straight rock band, an attempt at anonymity (not listed under Bowie's name), with Reeves Gabriels, brothers Tony and Hunt Sales (sons of comic Soupy Sales) on bass and drums; it got good reviews because Bowie's last two hadn't and went top 30 USA, but Tin Machine II '91 flopped. Black Tie, White Noise '93 was more interesting; Outside '95 seemed almost a renewal, perhaps because produced by Brian Eno. Earthling '97 was a patchy attempt to address the techno-dance palette. ChangesoneBowie '76 and ChangestwoBowie '81 are RCA compilations of '70s material; Stage '78 was an orthodox tour souvenir; Rare Bowie '82 an imaginative compilation. Among many books: Murray and Carr's David Bowie: An Illustrated Record; Cann's David Bowie: A Chronology; Stardust: The Life And Times of David Bowie '86 by Henry Edwards and Tony Zanetta (ex-President of MainMan, the company that managed Bowie for some years), will probably be superseded as Bowie reaches 50: new books '96 included George Tremlett's David Bowie: Living On The Brink and Christopher Sanford's Bowie: Loving The Alien

He portrayed Andy Warhol in a film '95, floated himself on the stock market '97 and was worth over £500m. A new single 'Telling Lies' '96 was released on the Internet only, later included in Earthlings '97, an album drawing on hard-core industrial and drum'n'bass styles. He used to invent styles, then he seemed to borrow them. Albums Heathen and Reality appeared in 2002-3; a new biography, Bowie, by Marc Spitz, was well reviewed in 2009, dealing in part with Bowie's silence for several years. Then a new album The Next Day in 2013 continued the boy-in-the-band identity, with Henry Hey (piano), Steve Elson (sax), Gerry Leonard (guitar), Tony Levin (bass), Zachary Alford (drums), produced by Tony Visconti.

In December 2015 he was in New York City for the opening of a musical, Lazarus, based on his music; on his birthday he released two videos (including 'Lazarus') and his 25th album, Blackstar, jazz-tinged and one of his most atmospheric; he died two days later. He had been secretly fighting cancer for 18 months.