David Bowie has been widely praised on the sad occasion of his death. Not since the death of John Lennon or Elvis Presley has the UK seen national radio stations dedicating whole periods of their airplay to an artist, or the almost universal love that has been poured out towards both Bowie and his music. But he went long periods of his career as a star with cult rather than mainstream success. So what is it that has made him such an influential figure?
Bowie’s first success, the song “Space Oddity“, came as something of an accident, when the BBC picked it up to back the moon landing, you could say he struck lucky to release a record at the right time with a space theme. He then found it somewhat difficult to repeat this success. He released a number of albums including Hunky Dory, which featured the songs “Life on Mars” and “Oh! You Pretty Things“. These tracks would go on to be significant sellers for Bowie, but at this point the album was a critical success but a commercial flop, and the single “Changes” peaked at number 66 (in the US only) at the time.
In the meantime Bowie joined a dance class that included avant-garde theatre and mime. Here he learned to develop characters. He turned into a performing artist. He also developed a taste for the avant-garde, for being ahead of the game, for being a leader rather than a follower, and for art that challenges audiences and breaks with traditions. He understood the value of newness and of becoming someone else onstage. To play a part you are willing to embrace influence, to find sources, to find other people, other stories and make them your own, mix them with yourself and your own experience.
In the USA, Bowie met two charismatic characters, proto-punks Lou Reed and most importantly Iggy Pop. Bowie came back inspired, and turned Iggy’s extremes into Ziggy. Also inspired by his wife Angie’s taste in clothes and style, this was to be an ensemble piece. Mick Ronson and the rest of the Spiders from Mars joined Bowie in outrageous costumes like a group of aliens who had landed on stage to beam the audience up. This anonymous band hired limos, turning up to early press events like they were already rock stars, presented an outrageous, sexual, provocative and theatrical show, and the press and audience lapped it up. The band told an onstage story, a complete performance that out-glammed the glitter rock of the day. Bowie could have made a long and rewarding career as Ziggy, but he quickly moved on. He created Alladin Sane, a variation of Ziggy, and then moved on, breaking up the band, immediately seeking a new approach.
When Bowie was competing with Marc Bolan to be the most outrageous thing in glitter, he was cutting edge, but he knew he needed to find a new direction. Bowie turned to (Young) American R’n’B and funk music, with an album featuring contributions from Sly Stone’s drummer and a young Luther Vandross. Soon he was on the move again though, and his next LP, Station to Station, offered up a new character, the Thin White Duke. This album saw him develop again musically. Brian Eno had discovered Krautrock bands Can, Neu! and Kraftwerk, and worked with Bowie to commence an era of experimental music that saw the music adopt minimalist, machine-like rhythms and synthesizers. Bowie understood the importance of finding edgey collaborators like Eno and King Crimson guitarist Robert Fripp, who could bring him new musical textures, and guide him to the edge of the musical map, often led by whatever was cutting edge in the recording studio. He grasped new technology wherever he came across it. Living in an apartment in Berlin with Iggy and Eno, his Low experimental soundscapes moved him further leftfield, exploring ambient techno at a time few had a clue what that meant.
Having been a key influence on punk, in the 1980s Bowie inspired a generation of New Romantic bands. Gary Numan’s Tubeway Army and Visage were almost Bowie clones, and Duran Duran, Culture Club, Wham and Spandau Ballet built their styles on various parts of their hero Bowie’s music. The man himself roared back into chart form with scary musical monster tracks, which put pop back in the centre of his electronic and funky sounds, with “Ashes to Ashes” and “Fashion“. He took this a step further when he recruited Nile Rodgers to produce and play guitar on his Let’s Dance album, which would be the high watermark of his commercial success, and see him fill stadiums with fans at his concerts. He had finally stepped out of the shadow of cult status to become a mainstream star. His had realised that his most powerful persona was David Bowie, that while David Jones was mortal, Bowie was a rock God, his single word name and handsome face instantly recognisable, much like Pele, Elvis, Picasso, Monroe, Kennedy, Hitler or Jesus. He had the critical and popular acclaim, as well as the financial independence, that showed iconic status.
He had created his mediapheme, his character and public image, to be somewhat hollow, allowing space for the public to identify with him. He never filled in all the pieces, leaving audiences to interpret his lyrics as they chose (they were often created using cut-up technique, drawing words out of a hat randomly). He did not give many interviews, keeping the public curious. By not specifying every detail of his life he allowed us to all consider that Bowie was essentially like me. Had we had a fly-on-the-wall-reality-series-Bowie, we might have twigged that actually we had no idea what Bowie was really like, we only knew his public persona, and he might actually be very different to what we expected. he know to give away so much detail made the star smaller. Gods need to be universal, not specific.
Actors play a part that is inherently false, we know they are acting, they are lying, pretending to be someone they are not, reading a script someone else had written. Bowie realised that unlike actors, people believed in the characters pop stars played, especially if they wrote their own music and lyrics, and performed them in real life at gigs, where we could see them in the flesh. We assume that rather than writing fiction, the lyrics, music and public characters in the pop world are at least mostly the personal stories of the authors, we suspend disbelief permanently and engage with authorial fallacy. Bowie understood the power of pop to create hollow icons, figures we could enter, fill, complete, live through vicariously, embracing fantasies that we would not have the courage to live out. He understood that such fantasies become jaded after a while. He knew that just as a new album needed new songs and music, it also needed new sounds, ideas, concepts and images, and he made the creation and development of new pop presentation an integrated part of his art form. His pop gesamtkunstwerks brought conceptual music theatre to the popular stage, integrating music and writing into a performance art whole dripping with experimentalism. He kept everything fresh, new, exciting and challenging.
Something of a futurist, Bowie’s beginnings were with space missions, he played the alien on film and onstage, he was the “Starman” waiting in the sky, the “Space Oddity” that kept us wondering if there was “Life on Mars”. He was homo superior, pointing to where humanity (or at least the music scene) was heading. He was metrosexual in the early seventies, he was tech-savvy before the computer, always one step ahead of the game. He went on to write increasingly technological music, always keeping us guessing. Having toured his greatest hits, and having had as much success as he needed, he formed Tin Machine, a band in which he was just one member, exploring a new format. He wrote great club music with the Pet Shop Boys on “Hello Spaceboy“, and chic drum’n’bass on songs like “Little Wonder“. He wrote music for a computer game, released the first single available for download by a major artist, and launched his own internet service provider, Bowienet.
Eventually his constant experimenting took him back to the cult status he perhaps preferred to the spotlight of media frenzy. His albums through the 1990s and into the new millenium all went top 10 in the UK charts, The Next Day in 2013 hitting number 1, but of the 53 singles he released in the 30 years since 1986, only two have crept into the UK top ten, and no single since his “Dancing in the Streets” Live Aid charity single with Mick Jagger has gone top 20 in the US. Bowie has continued to make music and his latest album, Blackstar contains some remarkable, stunning material, especially if you watch the videos for songs like “Lazarus“, the last single he released. Lyrically (“I know something is very wrong … Something happened on the day he died”) and visually it is gripping, particularly now we know how ill he was when he made it. Blackstar‘s title track is a 10 minute epic, showing a spacesuit with a jewelled skeleton, seeming to portray Colonel Tom finally meeting his end in the world beyond, a work of art as gripping as anything he produced in the seventies, and all available for free on Bowie’s YouTube channel. Perhaps his late period will in the long term be recognised as having as much quality as his early work.
Bowie started in space, on the cutting edge of technology, and his ability to keep sharp and new, his constant rebirth and recreation has made him a pop music legend. He has inspired punk’s Sex Pistol orange hair and Velvet Underground guitars; the New Romantics’ mix of funk and electronica; Madonna, Prince, Lady Gaga and every theatrical moment on X Factor; and novel guitar music from the Cure to the Happy Mondays, Radiohead, Pulp and Muse. His voice spans an astonishing range, he is a magnificent singer, a brilliant live performer, he invented the spectacular pop stadium tour, his studio production innovations live on, he was an astonishing songwriter, and managed to make songs that merged everything in a memorable popular sensibility rather than leaving the audience on the outside of an experimental cultural elite. Ultimately a man of his people, an original, he leaves behind a legacy few artists could equal. David Jones has left the building, but his life’s work, David Bowie will be there forever, the Starman, waiting in the sky.