Shortly after the release of an acclaimed album Blackstar it was confirmed that David Bowie died on Sunday 10 January, aged 69 after an 18 month battle with cancer.
For many he was a rock musician of rare originality and talent; he was also, variously, a producer, painter, film actor, art critic and family man. He was a restlessly inventive and brave artist who pushed boundaries and challenged his fans with ever-changing musical and image styles. He produced astonishing music that, while original and uncompromising, still proved popular with multiple number one singles, albums and sell-out tours.
Bowie was born David Jones in January 1947. His mother, Peggy, had met his father, John, after he was demobilised from second world war service in the Royal Fusiliers. John subsequently worked for the Barnardo’s children’s charity. They married in September 1947, eight months after David’s birth, when John’s divorce from his first wife, Hilda, became absolute. In 1953 the family moved to Bromley, Kent, where David attended Burnt Ash junior school and showed aptitude in singing and playing the recorder. Later, after he failed his 11-plus exam, he went to Bromley technical high school and studied art, music and design. His half-brother, Terry Burns, nearly a decade older than David, introduced him to jazz musicians, such as John Coltrane and Miles Davis, and in 1961 David’s mother bought him a plastic saxophone, introducing him to an instrument that would become a recurring ingredient in his music. After a 1962 schoolyard punch-up, the pupil in David’s left eye remained permanently dilated, which gave him that slightly unearthly appearance. He remained friends with the thrower of the punch George Underwood, who even designed some of of David’s early album covers and was a member of his first band, The Kon-Rads. After further false-starts with with various bands David went solo and reinvented himself as David Bowie in 1966 in order to avoid confusion with the Monkees’ Davy Jones.
He released his first album, the World of David Bowie, in 1967, which included the novelty single, ‘The Laughing Gnome‘. Bowie later said of his debut album: “I didn’t know if I was Max Miller or Elvis Presley.” For a time he studied theatre and mime with the dancer Lindsay Kemp, and in 1969 he started a folk club at the Three Tuns pub in Beckenham, Kent. This developed into the Beckenham Arts Lab, and a variety of future stars, including Peter Frampton, Steve Harley, Rick Wakeman and Bowie’s future producer Tony Visconti, performed there.
But it was the title track of his second album, Space Oddity, which aroused more than passing interest. The atmospheric tale of an abandoned astronaut, Major Tom, orbiting the Earth, Space Oddity became a hit in 1969, the year of the first Moon landing. This was covered, with the permission of David Bowie by Commander Chris Hadfield, with an accompanying video featuring scenes from the International Space Station.
David Bowie’s early career
Bowie followed up this initial success with The Man Who Sold the World, a complex album, whose title track has been covered by artists as diverse as Lulu and Nirvana.
His second album of 1971, Hunky Dory, was arguably Bowie’s first great work. Its 11 songs, including the haunting Life on Mars? and Oh, You Pretty Things, redefined serious rock for the 1970s generation. It was an excellent collection that met with only moderate success, but that all changed with The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars later that year. Bowie played the role, with absolute conviction, of an intergalactic glam-rock star visiting a doomed planet Earth which sealed his reputation as a daring artist with a knack for giving the public what they didn’t realise they wanted with hit singles like Starman.
At this time, everything Bowie touched turned to gold with a his song All the Young Dudes which providing a career-reviving hit for Mott the Hoople, or Lou Reed’s album Transformer, which he co-produced with his guitarist Mick Ronson. He went on to produce further classic albums like Aladdinsane and Diamond Dogs, changing direction to produce the funk and soul of Young Americans in 1975 which gave him a US chart-topper with Fame (featuring John Lennon as a guest vocalist) and earned him a slot on the American TV show Soul Train.
After the release of Station to Station (1976), which introduced a new persona, the Thin White Duke, which Bowie had carried over from his performance as Thomas Jerome Newton, the melancholy space traveller, in Nicolas Roeg’s film The Man Who Fell to Earth.
At this time Bowie was getting slightly detached from reality with magazine interviews espousing the benefits of fascism and being photographed giving a Nazi salute at Victoria station.
By the end of 1976 he lived Berlin, where he was working on Iggy’s album, The Idiot – and Brian Eno, who would be the catalyst for another of Bowie’s musical leaps forward.
In Berlin, Bowie went on to produce the albums Low, Heroes (both 1977) and Lodger (1979), where he mixed Krautrock influences with Eno-driven synthesizer mood-music and spawned hit singles, Boys keep swinging, Sound and Vision and Heroes (only a minor hit at the time reaching no 24 in the UK). In 1980 Bowie released Scary Monsters (and Super Creeps) and its spin-off number one single, Ashes to Ashes. The accompanying video again broke new ground featuring several leading lights from the New Romantic movement, a collection of bands including Visage and Spandau Ballet, who owed much of their inspiration to Bowie.
He achieved another No 1 single with his 1981 partnership with Queen, Under Pressure, while becoming increasingly involved in crossovers between different media including German movie Christiane F (1981) and appearances in The Hunger (alongside Catherine Deneuve) and the second world war drama Merry Christmas, Mr Lawrence, both released in 1983. Bowie’s next musical collaboration was with Chic founder Nile Rodgers to produce the hugely successful Let’s Dance album with singles Let’s Dance, China Girl and Modern Love. Follow-up album Tonight (1984) was not nearly as successful, although it was Bowie’s appearance at the Live Aid concert that made a major impact with the song Heroes capturing the mood of the day (the less said about Dancing in the streets single with Mick Jagger the better in our opinion).
Bowie then appeared in the Julian Temple film Absolute Beginners, which was pretty awful, in stark contrast with the title track which was a rather lovely piece of work. He also wrote five songs for Jim Henson’s fantasy film Labyrinth, as well as taking the role of Jareth the Goblin King.
In 1987, the album Never Let Me Down, performed reasonably well commercially, Bowie himself described it as “an awful album”. The follow-up Glass Spider tour was castigated for its soulless over-production.
After playing Pontius Pilate in Martin Scorsese’s film The Last Temptation of Christ (1988), Bowie’s next move was the heavy-rock band Tin Machine, with which he sought to appear as a band member rather than as a solo star, releasing two albums and touring to a mix of moderate acclaim and complete bewilderment.
In 1993, he reunited with Rodgers to produce Black Tie White Noise and sprinkled elements of soul, electronica and hiphop into the mix. It topped the UK album chart and yielded a top 10 single, Jump They Say. The album Outside (1995) found him reunited with Eno and was another commercial success adopting of grungy, industrial sounds, while Earthling (1997) borrowed elements of the drum’n’bass style. His 1999 album Hours… was based around music he had written for a computer game called Omikron, in which Bowie and wife Iman appeared as characters. In 2001, he was nominated for a Mercury prize for his album Heathen played himself in Ben Stiller’s fashion industry spoof Zoolander (2001). Another album Reality was highly acclaimed but while on tour in 2004, Bowie was stricken with chest pains while performing at the Hurricane festival in Germany and underwent an emergency angioplasty procedure in Hamburg to clear a blocked artery.
He had to slow down a little but still found the time to appear on stage with Canadian art-rock band Arcade Fire and also David Gilmour to sing the classic Comfortably Numb and Arnold Layne at The Royal Albert Hall. In 2007 he co-wrote and performed a hilarious song on Rick Gervais’ comedy show Extras.
Bowie’s last two original albums, The Next Day and Blackstar were generally well-received and seal a fitting end to a stellar career.
If you’re ever sad, just remember the world is 4.543 billion years old and you somehow managed to exist at the same time as David Bowie.
— Dean Podestá (@JeSuisDean) January 10, 2016