David Bowie

Where to begin with David Bowie? The man has produced so much work over the years and changed his direction so many times, that it’s possible to start anywhere in his long story and treat it as a beginning. The man has never been one to rest on his laurels. Just when he’d create the Next Big Thing that would be imitated for years to come, he had already gone off and created five more Next Big Things. In his early days, he was a crooner, in his Ziggy Stardust days, he was shocking, and in the ‘80s he was a fucking hit machine. And now, in the present, he’s as fashionable as ever, still doing what he wants, and still selling tons of records to his fans.

He started out as David Jones, but quickly changed his last name to “Bowie” so as to not be confused with the then-current other Davy Jones of the Monkees. He released a number of singles and a self-titled album on the Deram label that featured music in an Anthony Newley-style of songwriting. From these sessions, “The Laughing Gnome” would come back to bite Bowie on the ass when it was re-released in the early ‘70s when Ziggy Stardust was taking over the planet. The odd old-timey pop sound didn’t change too much on his first recognizable album as David Bowie, on a self-titled affair (released Stateside as Space Oddity and Man of Words, Man of Music). Instead, it became just a bit twee-folk ridden, with “Space Oddity” being the standout track.

Bowie would start to find his legs with guitarist Mick Ronson on The Man Who Sold the World, but he’d really find the perfect chameleon formula on the dazzling Hunky Dory, which sported such classics as “Changes” and “Life on Mars?” By the time that album was starting to climb the charts, Bowie had already gone off and recorded The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars, the album that would thrust him into superstardom. Bowie went from looking like Lauren Bacall on Hunky Dory to looking like a freakish alien rooster on Ziggy Stardust. The album itself was a bit of a loose concept, but it opened the floodgates for glam rock, filled with glitter, twisting sexual mores, and giving the kids something entirely new that they had never seen or heard before.

In the meantime, Bowie was also resurrecting the careers of other artists, like his hero Lou Reed (for whom he produced the Transformer album), and Mott the Hoople (All the Young Dudes). Everything he did was a success, and a great one at that. But he got tired of his own shtick after Aladdin Sane and decided to bury Ziggy for good. After making this announcement during the live show caught on the Ziggy Stardust film and soundtrack, Bowie retreated, only to come back with Pin Ups, a collection of cover songs that would inspire countless other artists to create shitty cover song albums (Bowie’s is pretty good, though nothing amazing). Obviously, this was only a pit stop before his next big work and reinvention of image, Diamond Dogs, an album that started off being based on George Orwell’s “1984,” but when he couldn’t secure those rights, Bowie just went ahead and wrote his own futuristic, post-apocalyptic tale. It’s still one of his weirdest works, though it does contain the brilliant title track and the killer “Rebel, Rebel.”

During the tour for the album, Bowie found himself ready to switch gears again and go all Philly soul on his audience. So what started out as a huge show with all sorts of props and special effects became stripped down with song arrangements getting funkier and less glam. At the same time, Bowie was becoming increasingly obsessed with cocaine, and his visage began to wither dramatically. Somehow, he didn’t kill himself and issued the groovy plasticity of Young Americans, and appearing on “The Dick Cavett Show” to promote it, looking absolutely horrible from all the drug intake, acting weirder than usual during the interview, complete with a typical user’s constant sniffing and playing with his nostril. The Ziggy fans hated the album, but the hardcore were ready to follow along. No matter, because the soul thing was a one-off.

The next version of Bowie was the chilling Thin White Duke and the absolutely fascinating Station to Station LP. It only sported six songs, but the title track was stunning, and there was also a run for robotic soul on “Golden Years” and another paranoid trip in “TVC15.” After the album’s release, Bowie decided to go clean himself up off the drugs and retreated to Berlin with collaborator Brian Eno, who had recently split from Roxy Music and released a couple of his own glam albums, but was more interested in doing ambient works. The partnership spawned three albums of new material, Low, Heroes, and Lodger. Each was different from the other and sounded like nothing of their late ‘70s era.

Bowie entered the ‘80s with the abstract and fascinating Scary Monsters, an album that is still often held up as “Bowie’s last great achievement.” For the first time in his career, it seemed like Bowie was ready to just enjoy the fruits of his success and became what some might term as lazy, handing over production duties to Nile Rodgers and guitar work to Stevie Ray Vaughan for Let’s Dance, which was the biggest hit Bowie had to date. If you were listening to radio at the time, there was no escaping “Let’s Dance,” “Modern Love,” or “China Girl.” The follow up album Tonight sported the great “Blue Jean” and not much else, and was obviously just Let’s Dance Part Two, with diminishing returns.

Still, it wasn’t anything compared to the failure of Never Let Me Down, which honestly isn’t as horrible as everyone remembers. But the negative reaction was enough to make Bowie want to start thinking about becoming a leader again. So he teamed up with Hunt and Tony Sales and Reeves Gabrels and recorded under the band name Tin Machine. For the first time in his career, Bowie had successfully alienated all his fans, as no one gave a damn for the group or its music. Still, that didn’t stop them from releasing two studio albums and one live disc.

Around this time, Rykodisc had earned the rights to Bowie’s entire RCA back catalogue and started reissuing his albums in terrific remastered fashion with lots of bonus tracks to boot. There was also a Sound + Vision box set issued, and Bowie soon went on tour to promote these items, declaring that this would be the last time anyone heard the old hits, as he was ready to move on once again. When he did emerge with something new, he had married model Iman and recorded Black Tie White Noise on his own new label as a wedding gift to her. For Bowie, it was a radical new sound, filled with his sax playing and incorporating techno and dance beats, spawning the great “Jump They Say.” Unfortunately, the label soon found itself with monetary problems and was shut down. No matter, as Bowie was already off and running with some new concepts. After scoring music for The Buddha of Suburbia, he issued Outside, which was supposed to be the first chapter of an intended trilogy. It didn’t quite catch on, undoubtedly due to its length and lack of any real hit singles. So Bowie turned to the jungle dance movement and incorporated its style into Earthling, which fared much better with “Little Wonder” and “I’m Afraid of Americans,” the video of which featured then-buddy Trent Reznor, who also wound up remixing the track.

Though Earthling fared better than Outside, you could tell that Bowie was restless. He entered a slower phase of his career, issuing …hours and Heathen, which didn’t necessarily burn up the charts, although they did include fine songs like “Thursday’s Child,” “The Pretty Things Are Going To Hell” and “Everyone Says Hi.” Around this time, Bowie started embracing his old material once again and started performing the classics as encores to his live shows, before fully embracing them for his Reality tour, which sported a groovy revamping of “Rebel, Rebel.”

Where Bowie will turn and what he’ll do next is anyone’s guess. For the time it seems like he’s happy just making his own music when he likes, and running his successful online community. He might not be the dramatic leader he once was, but he’s earned his fortunes and deserves his contentment. The bottom line is that he’ll continue to be fascinating no matter what he decides to do, and will always be one of those entertainers well worth watching in a live setting. That the guy can still hypnotize his audiences with great music is saying something, and is undoubtedly worth being envious of if you happen to be one of his musical peers.

David Bowie passed away on January 10, 2016. R.I.P.

Check out our David Bowie Deep Cuts feature.

Quotable Bowie

On stardom:
“I’m an instant star. Just add water and stir.”

On his official web site:
“I wanted to create an environment where not just my fans but all music lovers could be a part of the same community.”

On himself:
“I’m always amazed that people take what I say seriously. I don’t even take what I am seriously.”