I am not alone in saying that David Bowie changed my life. For so many of us that didn’t quite fit in growing up, the misfits, the eccentrics, the outsiders, the people that couldn’t crowbar themselves into conformity, Bowie was a beacon of hope, an inspiration. He made it alright for us to be ourselves. We can be heroes…
David Bowie was one of the most important musicians, performers and artists of my lifetime and had an impact on nearly every form of music I hold near and dear. Mourning him is like mourning a loved-one, for although I never had the chance to meet him, he was a big part of my life. A very big part. Golden years…
Below are some of my thoughts on a handful of his albums. I hope you enjoy reading them. I’m going to listen to Bowie all day today, maybe even all week. I suggest you do, too. Rest in peace David. Let’s dance…
My Bowie obsession began when I started seriously collecting and listening to records in my early teens. I had “The Bowie Wall” in my room, with photos painstakingly cut out and pasted as a mural-like collage. Like many teens trying on new personas in the process of discovering themselves, I was fascinated and could identify with the way he could exquisitely morph into a new character as easily as slipping on a new coat. I embraced the freakishness of Ziggy, Aladdin and the Thin White Duke as an eccentric and (let’s just say it) “misunderstood” teenager in the midst of a small and conservative New England town (at least I could mutter to myself, “Well, Bowie would understand…”).
However, essentially my fixation was with his music. Bowie wrote and performed in many different styles and genres, and he did it profoundly well and with great finesse. His songs may have been consciously sophisticated artifice but the emotions still ran high. I cried many times while listening to the song “Life on Mars” and recently read that Bowie himself cried in the studio when he finished recording the vocals to the song. Did he consider that the pulse of this overwhelming feeling would transmit through barriers of time and space and into the bedroom of a 15-year-old girl over a decade later?
At the time Bowie called it “A sensitive young girl’s reaction to the media” and later in 1997 he elaborated on the thoughts of the song’s protagonist, “I think she finds herself disappointed with reality … that although she’s living in the doldrums of reality, she’s being told that there’s a far greater life somewhere, and she’s bitterly disappointed that she doesn’t have access to it”. At the time, those lyrics aptly summed up my own desolate feelings of small town blues.
“Life on Mars” is one of the pinnacles of Bowie’s fourth album which I believe is the record that truly signified his artistic command of the album format. He had had a hit with the single “Space Oddity” and his third LP The Man Who Sold the World featured many great moments, however, it is really Hunky Dory that cemented Bowie’s position as a major pop player.
A cast of musicians was assembled and Hunky Dory became the first album to feature the band that would later become the Spiders from Mars with Trevor Bolder replacing Tony Visconti on bass, drummer Woody Woodmansey and legendary guitarist Mick Ronson (later coined by Bowie as his Jeff Beck). Ronno wasn’t only the axeman, but also came up with the orchestral arrangements, and proved his talent for quirky yet beautiful strings. Future Yes prog rocker and ice-skating accompanist Rick Wakeman lent his expertise on the ivories.
The style of the songs may have sounded rather conventional and this may have been somewhat purposeful as Bowie wanted to use the recordings to secure a new record deal. However, the lyrics were visionary and as the vocals were high in the mix, fans and critics took notice. Bowie also “performed” the songs as, much to Scott’s amazement, almost all of his vocals were recorded in one take with no punching in. Scott was also impressed with how Bowie had an ear for how all the parts would ultimately sound together and his quick working pace.
My favourite song on the album, “Life on Mars” had surreal, almost cut-up lyrics that were somehow emotionally resonant even if they didn’t make literal sense and these lyrics along with the melody were written quickly by Bowie in one afternoon. As a teen I didn’t know it was also a parody of the Paul-Anka-penned “My Way”. Both Bowie and Anka had written songs set to the tune of the French chanson “Comme d’habitude”, Anka bought the rights and Bowie’s was never released so he may have been somewhat disgruntled. The indefinitely held “Mars” on the chorus is a swipe at Sinatra’s choral beast.
There were also a few tribute songs on the album, my personal favourite being “Queen Bitch” in ode to the most referenced band in rock history, The Velvet Underground, as well as a quirky ode to their cohort Andy Warhol. Bowie also penned a song for Bob Dylan, lamenting the lack of a hero or icon in pop music. Of course Bowie would subsequently remedy this situation when he created the character that would ultimately nearly consume him, Ziggy Stardust. With these pop tributes and Ziggy, Bowie was taking a post-modern stance of commenting upon popular culture from within. He was the pop star as fan who performed a cover song on nearly every album. On Hunky Dory it was Biff Rose’s “Fill Your Heart” and two years later he followed Bryan Ferry’s lead by producing a full album of covers called “Pin Ups”.
The album’s most popular tune “Changes” alludes to his mutability of character, a foreshadow of his future role-playing. In the song he refers to himself as “the faker”, and he both recognised and embraced his sense of artifice. This again supports his post modern position as not only is he commenting upon pop culture, but is actually consciously enacting it. With Ziggy, Aladdin and the Thin White Duke, Bowie became the pop star playing the pop star. On the back cover he refers to himself as the thespian as in the credits he wrote “This album is produced by Ken Scott, assisted by The Actor.”
Through dissembling the rock charade, (and as he said, “Watch out you rock n rollers!”), Bowie distanced himself from the rock/pop mainstream and this inspired those of us who didn’t quite fit in. So many musicians have said that witnessing him perform “Starman” in full Ziggy regalia on Top of the Pops in 1972 changed their lives and inspired them to become artists themselves. So the reason many of us are still obsessed with Bowie is because he helped us define who we were. His music, artistry and characters encouraged us to transform into the people we would eventually become. Without the influence of David Bowie, I believe I would have been a different person. I suppose that is why Bowie still matters to so many of us.
The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars
Ziggy’s and Bowie’s gender bending stood in proud defiance against the overtly hetero cock-rocker posturing which dominated early seventies rock. However, Ziggy’s outrageous outfits and outre behaviour were backed by true musical and theatrical genius. The persona may have been carefully constructed artifice but it was the prodigious talent that spurred the dispossessed, the people who didn’t quite fit in, to loudly and proudly identify with Ziggy.
Bowie’s character inspired and continues to inspire people to enact their own vision of themselves and to pursue the people they would like to be, irrespective of social conventions. This is why Ziggy still matters to us today.
Conversely, the icon started to take over his creator’s own personal identity and as Bowie became more and more consumed by Ziggy, he realised he would have to kill him off.
Ziggy succumbed to ‘Rock n Roll Suicide’ (or was it murder?) and David Bowie was free to embark upon creating other personas and more importantly, a massively significant body of work up to this day (and “The Next…”). But in another sense, Ziggy did not truly die at all, as his character is immortalised in the grooves of this album forever.”
Heroes was released during the height of punk rock, a movement that was partly inspired by Ziggy Stardust and his outlandish attire and antics. Even the names Johnny Rotten and Siouxsie Sioux were redolent of Bowie’s most famous persona. But Bowie himself had already moved on. He recognised the punks as his children, but also reprimanded them for creating a style tribe that had strict uniforms and protocols.
The Berlin Wall looms large over this album both literally and figuratively as it represents Bowie’s break from his past and his desire to continue to push forward into new musical territory. Change has been the constant throughout Bowie’s career.
The title track sums up Bowie’s belief that we must each create and follow our own path and that we can all be heroes, even it its just for one day. He may have yearned for a rock hero in Hunky Dory‘s ‘Song for Bob Dylan’, created one with Ziggy Stardust and his other personas only to case them aside. But with Heroes he bestows that power upon each and every one of us. And although he was trying to divorce himself from rock, he inadvertently created one of its greatest anthems.
Let’s Dance is a particularly special album to me as it was the first David Bowie album I bought in the year in which it was released. I was 15 years old and had just started collecting records but only had ‘Changesonebowie’. I knew some of his earlier radio singles but once I heard Let’s Dance I knew I needed my own vinyl copy. I listened to the album over and over again and it inspired me to investigate his entire back catalogue.
I bought every Bowie LP I could get my hands on and fell in love with Hunky Dory through to Young Americans through to Low and Scary Monsters. As my teenage tastes grew increasingly obscure, artsy and and underground, I turned my back upon Let’s Dance because of its massive commercial success which did not sit well with the image of mystery I was presently culling.
However, I recently rediscovered Let’s Dance and now know I was right the first time around. With Let’s Dance Bowie returned to his modernist roots, recalling his youth when he frequented American jazz and blues clubs in London and started learning saxophone. He told Rodgers he wanted this to be a singer’s album and was inspired by jump blues. In a strange way he was both breaking from and aligning himself with his own musical past.
The interesting thing about Let’s Dance is that even though it had massive commercial appeal and was Bowie’s biggest-selling album, the songs are not blatantly formulaic pop hits. There were not many 1983 hits singles that featured horn solos with Coltrane-like runs or pounding Little Richard piano.
Let’s Dance is a truly clever album and while it may have looked back to earlier musical forms, the synthesis with modern pop music was forward-thinking and in tune with Bowie’s position as a pop pioneer. And thirty years later, I know commend myself upon my teenage tastes.
Highlights from our Bowie Special with guests Ken Scott, Tony Visconti and Nile Rodgers who gave us the low-down on working with David Bowie here.