“News guy wept and told us…”
Reporting on the death of David Bowie is almost impossible. It’s difficult to remain objective about a figure whose many incarnations so thoroughly transmuted pop, who seemed capable – right to the last – of identifying cultural fault-lines and making them sing to his so very unique vibration.
But he has died, and some words must suffice. First, the facts: born David Robert Jones in 1947, Bowie came of age in a Britain that was resolutely black and white. A teenage Mod, David Jones quickly developed a lust for fine couture, an awareness of fashion’s power to both shock and inspire.
Joining a succession of beat groups, a handful of solo singles followed but stardom evaded the South London talent. Falling away from the prevailing counter culture of the day, David Bowie was drawn towards performance art, towards the work of Lou Reed and other dilettantes. ‘Space Oddity’ may have been his first hit, but 1970 album ‘The Man Who Sold The World’ was the real step forward. Lush, luxurious and glam (before the genre became a buzzword) it was followed by ‘Hunky Dory’ – a work of under-stated genius that proved Bowie was capable of advancing rock culture into new realms of creativity.
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It was Ziggy, though, that changed everything. David Bowie was among the first to recognise that the 60s creative explosion had burned itself out, the first to make shapes amongst the ashes. Literally blasting rock’s iconography into space, ‘The Rise And Fall Of Ziggy Stardust And The Spiders From Mars’ turned Bowie into an icon, the accompanying stage-shows (and that Top Of The Pops’ performance) exploding definitions of gender and masculinity in the process.
But Bowie wasn’t content to simply rest there. Killing his Ziggy character off live onstage, 1974’s ‘Diamond Dogs’ then embraced apocalyptic themes. Flying out to Philadelphia, he immersed himself in funk and soul, returning to his roots for a typically flamboyant transformation. ‘Young Americans’ was sheer funk phantasia, prompting a rare (for a white act) performance on American TV institution Soul Train. Evolving into the Thin White Duke persona on ‘Station To Station’, David Bowie then side-stepped fans once more: by rejecting the rock entirely for synthesised sounds.
Moving to Berlin – then the centre of Cold War division – the singer took Brian Eno and a mountain of new equipment, exploring fresh sounds in a former ballroom. What followed is arguably the high point of his career. The Berlin Trilogy – ‘Low, ‘Heroes’ and ‘Lodger’ – re-invented pop yet again, helping spread the seeds for New Romanticism and the synth pop that would follow. Kicking his drug addiction, the resulting tours would see David Bowie bring some of the most experimental, avant garde pop music ever recorded to a global audience of more than one million people.
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After this, Bowie seemed to settle into super-stardom. ‘Scary Monsters’ showed the young acts clipping at his heels how to meld pop and art into something innately commercial, while ‘Let’s Dance’ borrowed Nile Rodgers for yet another multi-platinum success.
The 80s, though, found David Bowie drifting further and further away from music. Always keenly aware of the interplay between music and imagery, the singer’s videos won numerous awards with many – ‘Ashes To Ashes’, ‘Blue Jean’ for example – pushing back technical standards of the days. Alongside this, Bowie developed his acting career, starring in a broadway production of The Elephant Man, and film productions of Labyrinth and Absolute Beginners, all of which were to become cult documents.
After decades of stardom, the 90s would become David Bowie’s most divisive period. Two albums with the group Tin Machine split fans, while the solo albums ‘Black Tie White Noise’ and ‘Outside’ played with drum ‘n’ bass and industrial influences, to mixed effect. Plunging himself into the jungle’s left field, Bowie seemed to re-connect with his pop flourish on 1997’s ‘Earthling’, but the subsequent decade was marked by a retreat from the spotlight.
2004’s ‘The Reality Tour’ would prove to be his last on this scale, with David Bowie suffering a minor heart attack while performing in Germany. Freed from the constraints of touring, however, seemed to spur the singer on to renewed creative heights. An air of mystery soon descended on his every utterance, with his guest appearances – TV On The Radio’s ‘Providence’ – pored over for their significance. Returning in regal majesty in 2013 with ‘The Next Day’, Bowie seemed willing to (literally) scrawl over his own past. The cover art featured the same cover image used on ‘Heroes’ three decades before, but with a blank space scrawled over the front. A wonderful return, it appeared concurrently with the career retrospective David Bowie Is, an enthralling exploration of his stagecraft and imagery.
And then there’s ‘Blackstar’. Released on David Bowie’s birthday (January 8th) the record was received ecstatically, matching everything from crisp guitar rock to free form jazz in a series of sweeping, dramatic, enthralling tracks. The record’s significance has now been fundamentally altered, though, with ‘Blackstar’ moving from heralding a renewed creative era to the final blast of an incredible artistic force. Reflecting on the death of his friend and collaborator, Tony Visconti couldn’t help but marvel at his final act:
“I knew for a year this was the way it would be. I wasn't, however, prepared for it. He was an extraordinary man, full of love and life. He will always be with us. For now, it is appropriate to cry."
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