David Bowie, a music legend that transcended time and genres
Issued on: Modified:
David Bowie, who died Sunday at the age of 69 after an 18-month battle with cancer, never failed to surprise throughout a career that spanned six decades and multiple genres, influencing not just music but also art, fashion and film.
Just two days before his death, Bowie released his latest and 25th studio album “Blackstar”, coinciding with his 69th birthday on January 8th. The critically acclaimed album was an example of Bowie at his genre-defying best, capable of reinventing himself and willing to break new ground even in the twilight of his career.
Born David Robert Jones in Brixton, south London, in 1947, Bowie changed his name in 1966 to avoid confusion with Monkees singer Davy Jones, an early example of the constantly morphing identity he would cultivate throughout his career. It was also the start of decades of heated debates over how to pronounce his last name properly.
His interest in music began early and was typically unconventional, taking up the ukulele and tea-chest bass among other instruments while still a schoolboy, while his teenage years were spent playing with a variety of different bands.
‘Space Oddity’ and the birth of Ziggy Stardust
Success initially eluded the young Bowie, however, with early singles such as his debut “Liza Jane”, credited to Davie Jones and the King Bees, and his solo effort “The Laughing Gnome” failing to chart. The latter, featuring an imagined conversation with a squeaky-voiced gnome, is regarded as perhaps one of the most lamentable Bowie songs of all time.
Bowie was already beginning to discover a penchant for the theatrical, however, taking up the study of dance, avant-garde theatre and even mime. It was the start of what would be a career-defining amalgamation of varying art forms into his performances and persona.
It was in 1969, with the space race at its apex, that Bowie first burst into the public consciousness with “Space Oddity”, introducing the world to the character of Major Tom for the first time.
That was followed up by “The Man Who Sold the World” a year later and then 1971’s “Hunky Dory”, featuring what would go on to become classic Bowie tracks such as “Life on Mars?” and “Oh, You Pretty Things”.
“Hunky Dory” would be seen as a pivotal moment in Bowie’s early career, seeing him move away from the post-hippy, ethereal acoustic sound of “Space Oddity” and the hard rock sound of “The Man Who Sold the World”, embracing instead accessible pop tunes with lyrics covering a diverse array of themes not normally associated with the genre, including art, gender and philosophy.
Many of these themes would be re-examined in 1972’s seminal follow-up, “The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars”, which saw a hefty dose of glam rock style and theatre thrown in for good measure.
The concept album was the artist’s first major commercial success and saw the birth of an enduring alter ego – the eponymous Ziggy Stardust, a flamboyant, androgynous, literally other-worldly character that Bowie not only created but also for a while seemed to inhabit.
Bowie’s life had transformed in other ways by this stage of his career. He had a wife, Angie Bowie (née Barnett), who he married in 1970 and would stay wedded to for 10 years while their son, Zowie Bowie, was born in May of 1971.
‘Fame’, film and the ‘Phil Collins years’
His style and music continued to evolve, however, with 1973 bringing the harder rock sound of "Aladdin Sane", which also featured tracks sprinkled with avant-garde jazz and other unusual genres.
The mid-70s saw Bowie branch into the “plastic soul” sound of albums like 1975’s “Young Americans”, a period that also gave rise to his first US No. 1 single, “Fame”, co-written with John Lennon and Carlos Alomar, before he changed direction once more for the triptych of albums “Low”, “Heroes” and “Lodger”, produced in collaboration with Brian Eno.
The ’80s brought with it Bowie’s most commercially successful album “Let’s Dance”, a diversion into a more concretely pop sound that won him a new generation of fans. His film career was also taking off, with starring roles in “The Man Who Fell to Earth” in 1976 and “Labyrinth” in 1986.
Not all Bowie’s attempts at innovation and reinvention paid off. The mid- to late-eighties saw what Bowie himself derisively described as his “Phil Collins years” as he attempted to placate his new pop following, while “Dancing in the Street”, his duet with Mick Jagger, and heavy metal side project Tin Machine will always rankle with many a fan and critic.
His drum and bass-influenced work in the ’90s will also feature in few people’s lists of their favourite Bowie tracks, but was yet another example of an artist never content to stand still.
Throughout it all, Bowie’s private life was no less intriguing than his music. There were rumours of an affair with Mick Jagger, dalliances with drugs and alcohol, and an interest in Buddhism. The pressures of fame and fortune mixed with the couple’s hedonistic lifestyle eventually took its toll, and Angie and David divorced in 1980.
In 1992 he married his second wife, Somali-American model Iman. They have one daughter together, Alexandria “Lexi” Zahra Jones, born in August 2000. Later that decade he invented what became known as a Bowie Bond – netting $55 million by floating his back-catalogue on Wall Street.
How Bowie changed his image over the years
His refusal to follow the mainstream was evident in 2000 when he declined a Commander of the Order of the British Empire, or CBE – one of the top British national honours – and again in 2003 when he turned down a knighthood.
Later years were quieter for Bowie. An emergency operation on his heart to treat a blocked artery in 2004 preceded a decade in which he released no new material, leading many fans and music journalists to assume he had effectively retired.
The unexpected release of the single “Where Are We Now?” and album “The Next Day” in 2013, therefore, took many by surprise. The album gave Bowie his first UK Top 10 hit since 1993, while also topping charts around the world.
“Blackstar” was hailed by one reviewer as “a spellbinding break with (Bowie’s) past” and by another as a mix of “warped showtunes, skronking industrial rock, soulful balladeering, airy folk-pop, even hip-hop”, will now be seen as an all-too-fleeting glimpse of another Bowie incarnation – one that confirmed that his capacity to delight, challenge and shock stayed with him until the end.