It’s now one year since David Bowie suddenly departed from this planet and the dust still hasn’t settled. It probably never will, such has been the impact on the millions of lives he touched. With an outpouring of grief matched only by John Lennon’s assassination 35 years before, the homages keep coming, along with the ongoing tsunami which has gripped social media more than any other event since it started exerting its stranglehold on the 21st century.
After he metamorphosed from searching folkie to the alien messiah of Ziggy Stardust in 1971, Bowie was always above the normal laws of rock stardom and rules of tradition that say an artist’s career, creative powers and ability to shock their audience can only dissipate with the passing of time. Whether making great pop records, forging into the sonic unknown or bringing a musical to the New York theatre in his dying days, Bowie lived his life as a consummate and all-consumed artist, even making sure he was going to leave us with one of the most fearlessly beautiful albums of a recording career spanning nearly 50 years.
No star burned so brightly as Bowie’s, although its various incarnations created a new, ever-growing constellation years ago. Once inside Bowie’s universe, it was easier to understand the restless changes he was going through, initially at a relentless velocity. But fantasy could always become a reality after Bowie unlocked the door and told his fans they could do anything, even if he was still declaring, “I can’t give you everything” on the final song on his final album.
Now the initial first thought obituaries have died down, even if the shockwaves, global outpourings and new ways of paying tribute never can, Clash has asked me to present its own acknowledgement of David Bowie’s life and impact. I was lucky enough to have been born at a time that meant I grew up with Bowie’s ever-unfolding art, sometimes witnessing it from very close quarters.
Here’s what happened, as it happened, and how it looked…
PHASE 1: GROUND CONTROL
Even if Bowie was the biggest cultural instigator and originator of both the 20th and 21st centuries, he had to start somewhere. The first music that excited him was jazz, whose panoramic liberation and free-flowing emotional expression inspired him to take up the saxophone in the early-’60s. Its ethos of ever-evolving progress would motivate him and manifest throughout his career, from Charles Mingus’ ‘Oh Yeah’ providing the “Wham bam thank you, m’am” for ‘Suffragette City’ and recruiting New York jazz pianist Mike Garson for the Spiders From Mars, to the final studio band he assembled out of young New York jazz musicians for ‘Blackstar’.
However, after an initial grounding in mod-flaunting R&B bands, Bowie tried his luck with several strains of ’60s pop (even writing novelty ditties such as prison break singalong ‘Over The Wall We Go’, credited to Oscar, which I remember hearing on the Radio London pirate station in 1967), before making a first album which now sounds quaintly of its time. His breakthrough came when he astutely soundtracked 1969’s moon landing with ‘Space Oddity’, included in the BBC’s coverage. Its attendant LP showed a fascinating talent emerging on ambitious outings such as ‘The Cygnet Committee’.
When it sneaked out in 1970, ‘The Man Who Sold The World’ can now be seen to have invented glam rock and heavy metal, though few knew it then. Produced by Tony Visconti, the album was his first to feature Mick Ronson (who gained a future stage vehicle in ‘The Width Of A Circle’). The set clawed desperately through songs about insanity, rogue computers, government-sanctioned war and Aleister Crowley, dripping with lust and predicting the arrival of ‘The Supermen’. I remember gawping at my mate’s copy, whose cornflakes-spluttering cover showed a blond-tressed Bowie in his Mr. Fish “man’s dress”. This was his image when I first saw Bowie, at Aylesbury’s Borough Assembly Hall in September 1971.
The upcoming ‘Hunky Dory’ basked in the impact of meeting Andy Warhol and Lou Reed in New York (with the latter’s ‘Waiting For The Man’ now in his set). After the vociferous welcome he received from the Friars Aylesbury crowd, an excited Bowie told me that next time he played our club would be as something completely different and we would see it first. He was true to his word.
PHASE 2: ZIGGY PLAYED GUITAR 1971-’73
“Memories are everything, apparently, and I have only great ones of the fabulous Friars,” said Bowie in the text he sent for Friars Aylesbury’s Bowie night, which was held at the local museum in 2014. He did come back and play his first ever gig as Ziggy Stardust at our club the following January, coming on in a blaze of strobes to Walter Carlos’ Beethoven from A Clockwork Orange, sporting his futuristic new look and unveiling his new album, ‘The Rise And Fall Of Ziggy Stardust And The Spiders From Mars’. For the first time, Bowie changed lives that night, including my own. “I told you I’d be back!” he told me in the dressing room afterwards.
Ziggy proceeded to conquer the world, which I witnessed from the inside through helping with Bowie’s fan club, before starting one for Mott The Hoople after he benevolently rescued their career with ‘All The Young Dudes’, the greatest anthem of the early-’70s. Nothing can describe witnessing Ziggy in the extra-terrestrial flesh. Bowie gave glam rock substance, musical depth and a perfect hero, who would now shape the way people looked and dressed for decades to come. At the same time, he inspired countless lonely teenagers to be true to themselves and wear whatever they pleased, make music or even come out after his simple flinging of an arm around Mick Ronson on Top Of The Pops somehow made being gay no longer something to be ashamed of.
Mott weren’t the only individuals Bowie gave a boost. He got his manager Tony Defries to sign Lou Reed for his Mainman stable, then produced ‘Transformer’, resulting in the massive hit, ‘Walk On The Wild Side’. He resurrected Iggy Pop, allowing him and the Stooges to forge 1973’s ‘Raw Power’ (then co-wrote and produced 1977’s ‘The Idiot’ and ‘Lust For Life’). After moving on to the schizophrenic, much harder figure of ‘Aladdin Sane’, which presciently displayed America’s impact on Bowie, he killed Ziggy off onstage in July 1973 (although I did also witness his final throes at October’s The 1980 Floor Show filming at the Marquee club).
PHASE 3: DIAMOND DOGS AND PLASTIC SOUL (1974-’75)
With Ronson leaving after 1973’s water-treading ‘Pin Ups’ covers set, Bowie was already starting his maniacal descent into cocaine’s icy caress when he recorded the bleak but inspired ‘Diamond Dogs’, which was originally going to be an adaptation of George Orwell’s 1984 until the author's estate objected (its theme song unveiled at the afore-mentioned 1980 Floor Show).
With Bowie’s own ragged guitar perfectly fitting the album (whose working title was ‘We Are The Dead’), Tony Visconti returned to produce an often-overlooked widescreen epic, with ‘Rebel Rebel’ the perfect glam-trash kiss-off (This was the album on Sid Vicious’ turntable when I went round his Shepherds Bush squat in 1976). Bowie then hit the American road with the biggest stage set ever seen, morphing into the almost deranged alien character portrayed in the Cracked Actor documentary.
By the end of the tour, the Hunger City stage set had been scaled down after he rediscovered soul music, entering Philadelphia’s legendary disco factory Sigma Sound with crack musicians and singers including a young Luther Vandross to realise his new “plastic soul” obsession. It was astoundingly brave of Bowie to embrace black music when disco was being so mindlessly derided, but his homage ended up predicting the next decade too.
The LP’s working titles included ‘Shilling The Rubes’, ‘The Gouster’, ‘Somebody Up There Likes Me’, ‘Fascination’, ‘Dancin’’ and ‘One Damn Song’, but ended up as ‘Young Americans’. Unfortunately, Bowie’s new friendship with John Lennon resulted in their ill-judged take on ‘Across The Universe’ nudging ‘It’s Gonna Be Me’, Bowie’s finest ever soul vocal performance, off the album (although it also resulted in Carlos Alomar’s ‘Fame’). Included in later reissues, the track now stands as a profoundly moving cry from the wracked actor’s increasingly precarious psyche. But creatively he was on fire, as shown in 2003 when Sigma closed and donated 6,200 tape reels from the sessions to the archive of Philly’s Drexel University.
PHASE 4: THE THIN WHITE DUKE (1976)
Born in a blacked-out mansion in the Hollywood Hills and fuelled by a diet of milk, peppers and top grade bugle, Bowie started hatching the terrifying ice king persona of the Thin White Duke, who made his unforgettable grand entrance in the opening title track of ‘Station To Station’. After commenting how few people picked up on the album’s real heart of darkness, Bowie later described ‘Station To Station’ as “the nearest thing to a magick treatise I’ve written.” “It’s not the side effects of the cocaine,” he sang, as if to boldly declare that even the current incoming blizzard wasn’t going to dampen his rampant latest muse.
Although mainly performed on traditional instruments, ‘Station To Station’ sounded like the aftermath of ‘Diamond Dogs’’ nightmare future with the cold majesty of its ballads ‘Word On The Wing’ and Nina Simone’s ‘Wild Is The Wind’, and dark, throbbing rockers such as ‘Stay’ and ‘TV15’. But it also boasted another era-defining single in ‘Golden Years’ (the album’s original title track), which Bowie performed on legendary US TV show Soul Train.
The album and subsequent persona unveiled on the accompanying tour saw Bowie take his music, and the warped extremes of a wildly bending mind, as far as they could go. Glacial, megalomaniac and futuristic, nothing had been seen like this in 1976. Bowie was now so influenced by Kraftwerk that he asked them to support, although they turned him down, leaving the evenings starting with a screening of Luis Bunuel’s 1929 film Un Chien Andalou, complete with graphic eyeball slicing scene.
Witnessing the show at London’s Wembley Arena, me and the other future punks littering the audience knew they were witnessing the future again as stark white lights illuminated the lean, smart-dressed figure commanding yet another stage.
PHASE 5: BERLIN (1977-’80)
The crash had to come and Bowie knew that, if he carried on as the Thin White Duke, he would simply die. He ended up dealing with his addiction and trying to straighten out his besieged brain by repairing to Berlin with Iggy Pop. Here he fearlessly eschewed his own past formulas to follow his always-unpredictable muse into the electronic soundscapes of ‘Low’ and ‘Heroes’. In the process, he greeted the punk era with his most defiantly uncompromising experiments, which owed something to German electronic music but more to focus his recovering mind on producing something more personal yet as startling as anything he had done before. (It may be worth noting that The Clash’s ‘1977’ picked up the baton raised by Bowie’s ‘Five Years’ in 1972, their final countdown ending on a ringing ‘1984’, the year of the ‘Diamond Dogs’.)
Appearing in January 1977, ‘Low’ (which had started with the working title ‘New Music Night And Day’) had initially morphed from Bowie’s rejected soundtrack to ‘The Man Who Fell To Earth’, in which he had made such a unforgettable appearance. It was truly astonishing to traverse the short, sharp shocks of side one then fall into the sweeping, near-instrumental stratas of side two, created in cahoots with Visconti and Eno, which traversed the deeply haunting soundscapes of ‘Warszawa’, ‘Art Decade’, ‘Weeping Wall’ and ‘Subterraneans’.
It was an audacious move, even from Bowie, consolidated by ‘Heroes’ later that year on tracks such as ‘V-2 Schneider’ and ‘Neukoln’. The album was named after a track called ‘Hero’ on krautrock pioneers NEU!’s ‘NEU!’75’, and it’s obviously the title track which reared up to become one of Bowie’s ultimate timeless anthems, elevated by Robert Fripp’s soaring guitar and underscored by Bowie’s own keyboard explorations. Amazingly, he pulled it off live, as I witnessed at Earls Court and heard on 1978’s ‘Stage’ live album.
With the ensuing ‘Lodger’, the Berlin Trilogy mischievously and unwittingly forged templates for the future – starting with the next decade, when Bowie found himself reigning over the synth-pop movement with 1980’s ‘Scary Monsters’ (although another great thing about Bowie was he always seemed to have much bigger fish to fry than Steve Strange’s shiny bloomers).
PHASE 6: LET’S DANCE (1983)
After ‘Scary Monsters’ could have ensured a healthy career in synth-pop, Bowie instead delighted in taking a swift re-route to unashamedly embrace the mainstream. Harking back to his love of black music, he could appreciate Chic as one of the most misunderstood but innovative bands of the previous decade, and was also listening to a lot of James Brown and Louis Jordan when he embarked on recording a new album in late-1982 at New York’s Power Station with the mighty Nile Rodgers at the controls. The creative sparks flew, with the untouchable Chic rhythm section and future blues guitar giant Stevie Ray Vaughan on board. Out popped ‘Let’s Dance’, one of Bowie’s biggest ever successes, spearheaded by the celebratory title track.
With bleach blond quiff and sharp suits, Bowie took this one around the world (which he announced at a press conference I attended at a posh London hotel). It was the slick show that took Bowie into the stadiums, although I also saw him defiantly take the show to Hammersmith Odeon, scene of Ziggy’s suicide, for a secret charity gig and shine more brightly than he did at Milton Keynes’ gigantic Bowl.
Bowie was no longer a figure of mystery and imagination, now one of the world’s biggest rock stars, on similar footing to his ‘Dancing In The Street’ collaborator mate, Mick Jagger. The departure of Carlos Alomar led to meeting unknown guitarist Reeves Gabrels and appearing in a band called Tin Machine, mainly to break out of the diminishing rut of his ’80s albums and trample what he called his “Phil Collins years”.
He could have continued starring in films, after a strong performance in Oshima’s Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence but turned down the part of a Bond baddie in 1985’s A View To A Kill, saying “I don’t want to watch my stunt double falling off mountains for five months.” He enjoyed a mutual respect with surreal genius David Lynch, appearing in 1992’s Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me, and supplying a song called ‘I’m Deranged’ to 1997’s Lost Highway.
PHASE 7: OUTSIDE (1990s/21st Century)
After clearing the decks with Tin Machine, Bowie released several albums that remain less-feted but showed that incorrigible muse still bent on embracing the new and loving the alien. Bowie wanted to be a contemporary artist, not a jukebox, as shown by 1993’s ‘Black Tie, White Noise’ (trailered by Leftfield’s trouser-tastic remix of lead single ‘Jump They Say’).
Eno returned for 1995’s futuristic concept album ‘Outside’, after Bowie had given him a tape of his new experimental stuff when they’d rekindled their relationship at his wedding to Iman. The Montreux sessions saw Bowie and Eno improvising for hours with Gabrels and Mike Garson. Bowie returned to Burroughs-style cut-up lyrics, but using his Apple Mac, emerging with his bravest, most personal statement for years, including mercurial delights such as the yearning ‘Strangers When We Meet’ and cheeky ‘Hello Spaceboy’, all heralded by abrasive, industrial-flavoured single, ‘The Heart’s Filthy Lesson’.
Bowie continued this confrontational stance by touring with Nine Inch Nails, to decidedly split crowds. Now firmly at home in the electronic modern world, Bowie recorded his next album, ‘Earthling’ at Phillip Glass’s Looking Glass Studio with Mark Plati producing, with friends such as Lou Reed and David Lynch popping in. Having experienced a night at Goldie’s Metalheadz, Bowie was keen to inject drum ‘n’ bass grooves. He was also influenced by Mick Jones’ BAD and Underworld, while ‘Little Wonder’ would be remixed by NYC mega-DJ Junior Vasquez.
Much of 1999 was spent recording ‘Hours…’, a low-key (now extra poignant) look at ageing and mortality, which kissed off the 20th century he had helped define. After 2002’s ‘Heathen’, which dealt with the horror of 9/11 more sensitively than most, and 2003’s ‘Reality’, Bowie retired after a heart attack in 2004. He lived quietly while he and Iman brought up their daughter Lexi in New York and their home in Woodstock, enjoying an extended break and normal life.
PHASE 8: COMEBACK AND FINAL CURTAIN (2013-’16)
On the morning of January 8th 2013, the world was stunned when Bowie delivered a brand new single called ‘Where Are We Now?’, which commenced the mother of all comebacks with ‘The Next Day’. This vibrant but oddly autumnal album saw Bowie taking stock, playing with his legend and reigniting his unique grasp of melody to show that he was still very much alive and kicking.
Then came ‘Blackstar’, trailered by the incandescent title track, which showed how Bowie had moved on again musically as he utilised young New York jazz musicians to realise his torrent of ideas. Then he died, just hours after the album was released on his 69th birthday, leaving it as one last colossal supernova.
‘Blackstar’ was now David’s death letter, imbued with his knowledge he was possibly making his last grand statement and epitaph. His death obviously gives the album poignant new resonance, after initially suggesting Bowie was entering a whole new phase of creativity. But, unlike 1973, when he killed off his Ziggy persona, Bowie was now facing down his own mortality, choosing to transmit his dying message through a soaring sonic monolith.
While other artists have made albums when they’ve known death isn’t far away (Johnny Cash’s unbearably poignant performance of Nine Inch Nails’ ‘Hurt’ springs to mind), nobody else has encrypted their final statement in such gloriously ambitious music (or ignited such a huge burst of death-art fever on the Internet as an obscure Elvis song of the same name about death, and another name for cancer lesions, were wheeled out and so on and so on). Bowie would have chuckled at the furore he caused but, more critically, was safe in the knowledge he had poured his last energy into his final love letter to a real life world he knew really loved him.
“I’ll be free / Just like that blue bird,” he sings. But he always was and, as just seen, dealt deftly and elegantly with every cage that loomed around him, whether drugs or fame. As with many things, like only David Bowie could.
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Words: Kris Needs