David Bowie was one of the greatest musicians of the last 50 years. He produced some of the most iconic music of his era, but also some of the most innovative and challenging. A cultural chameleon; he became quickly bored with one style and leapt headfirst into another. He pioneered glam rock, punk rock, ambient music and new wave and tried his hand at soul, drum & bass and disco along the way. His music came with a cast of characters, from the infamous Ziggy Stardust and Major Tom to the more obscure Nathan Adler and *ahem* Jareth the Goblin King (hey, it was the 80s!)
Bowie’s music can be hard to pin down and, with such a formidable catalogue, it’s hard to work out where to even begin. In the wake of a death which touched music fans across the globe, it’s time to understand the hype: here are some suggestions on where to start.
Rather uniquely, one of the best entry points into an artist’s work is a recent release: the 2014 compilation Nothing Has Changed. Compilations are designed to be introductions but normally focus solely on hits and sap a body of work of the energy that made them great… But Bowie had a hand in making this one and unsurprisingly the result is creative, and weird. It starts off with brand new song ‘Sue (Or In A Season Of Crime)’, which was perhaps his most avant-garde ever, and then works backwards through his career. Song choices include work with others like the fantastic 1986 soundtrack hit ‘Absolute Beginners’ and his iconic 1981 Queen collaboration ‘Under Pressure’, remixes of original tracks, deep cuts and ends with his very earliest release: 1964’s ‘Lisa Jane’, released under the name ‘David Jones and the King Bees’ when he was just seventeen. As well as encapsulating his whole career, it also has a stretch of 26 of his singles from the 70s and early 80s which might well be one of the best collections of songs ever put to wax, showing his pop power and cultural impact.
Because of his ability to produce singles upon singles, Bowie is not known as an album man; despite having produced some of the most acclaimed LPs of all time – but these can be good introductions to a Bowie beyond the hits. 1972’s The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and The Spiders From Mars is a no-brainer because pretty much every track on it could have been one. It follows a bisexual alien who fell to Earth and became a rockstar; and it set the template for five years of glam rock frenzy to follow. Hunky Dory, the album that preceded it, boasts one of the greatest musical triple shots of all time, opening with ‘Changes’, ‘Oh! You Pretty Things’ and his most beautiful blend of pop songwriting and eccentricity: ‘Life on Mars’ (recently named as Pitchfork’s Best Song Of The 70s). The album then leads into a tribute to his influences: the likes of Bob Dylan, Andy Warhol and Lou Reed.
1976’S Station To Station meanwhile features his finest balance of the avant-garde, a soul music obsession and his most potent balladry. Written on a diet of milk and cocaine; Bowie says he doesn’t remember composing its ten minute opening salvo, his best soul smash ‘Golden Years’ nor ‘Word on A Wing’; his most virtuosic vocal performance and a surprisingly sincere search for spiritual truth.
Bowie’s career really started with the release of his first hit, the wonderfully expansive ‘Space Oddity’, and his 1969 second solo effort (originally titled David Bowie but later renamed after its biggest hit) saw him honing his songwriting identity on heartfelt cuts like ‘Letter To Hermione’. His early start as a quirky singer songwriter was tossed out the window in 1970 though when he met first wife Angie, started wearing dresses, and made The Man Who Sold The World. The title track’s filthy riff was a forerunner to the heavier rock of the seventies and the album is an overlooked gem, making Kurt Cobain’s list of his favourite 50 albums of all time.
1973’s Aladdin Sane came in the wake of the end of Ziggy Stardust and was essentially an American repackage of the character, but that doesn’t mean Bowie didn’t bring an entirely different sound to the LP: featuring barber shop quartets and cabaret piano and, in ‘Time’ and ‘Lady Grinning Soul,’ some his most left-field songs. It was at this time that the BBC Documentary Cracked Actor was made and captured Bowie in creative crisis, skeletal and struggling with international fame. It’s an enlightening watch.
1975’s Young Americans saw him emerging from the rut with a brand new soul sound. He was the first white artist to perform on Soul Train and with gorgeous tracks like ‘Fascination’ and the title track it’s easy to see why he made the cut. It also features the likes of John Lennon and Luther Vandross.
Perhaps Bowie’s most infamous creative outreach was his Berlin Trilogy – the albums Low, Heroes and Lodger indeed bring with them a whole new voice. Working with Brian Eno, the first two records saw their second halves filled with ambient, internationally-flavoured grooves. For a pop artist of Bowie’s commercial stature this was insane, but they still yielded stunning hit songs. ‘Heroes’ features innovative guitar from Robert Fripp or, in the case of ‘Sound And Vision’, some fascinating studio experimentation – including having all the session musicians swap instruments. His 1980 record Scary Monsters (And Super Creeps) saw him drop back into pop music and in ‘Ashes To Ashes’ he forged a new sound for the 80’s.
On 1983’s Let’s Dance Bowie shot in the other direction; cashing in on his artistic standing and collaborating with Chic guitarist Nile Rodgers to produce some mammoth hits which set him off on a decade of world tours. ‘Modern Love’ and the title track rightly became disco classics.
Uniquely for an older musician, 2013’s comeback release The Next Day stands strong among his catalogue. It came as a surprise after nearly a decade’s worth of silence and saw Bowie playing with his legacy on tracks like ‘Where Are We Now’, and producing some of his darkest material yet. It was all a warm up however for 2016’s stellar Blackstar, which proved him capable of producing both highly experimental material, and music of the quality of his career peaks. The thrashing ‘Tis A Pity She’s A Whore’ is one hell of an adrenaline rush, while ‘Lazarus’ fits sublimely into a contemporary sound, featuring lyrics which hit home a little too hard when he passed away three days later.
What In The World…
Bowie’s debut in 1967 was a strange affair featuring a song called ‘The Laughing Gnome’, but it’s worth checking out just to see where he started, and there are some great songs on there. The same goes for his 1973 release of covers Pin Ups, which was mostly made to sate his studios demands for new material but does contain some fascinating reworkings. His 1995 industrial rock record Outside meanwhile saw Bowie recovering from a decade of creative emptiness; and on it he dabbles both in new styles and character work again. It features a tale of a dystopian 1999 in which Nathan Adler, an art thief, determines which music is of worth and which isn’t… It’s a bit nutty and on the nose but there are some fine songs, and it’s worth a listen to hear him collaborating with Brian Eno and pianist Mike Garson again.
Unbelievably, Bowie was also an acclaimed actor. His broadway turn in The Elephant Man won him rapturous acclaim but his best cinematic performance came in the 1976 film The Man Who Fell To Earth, where Bowie’s alien artistic persona earnt him the eerie lead role.
It’s A God Awful Affair
When Bowie produced Let’s Dance he famously said “it was great in a way, but it put me in a corner in that it really fucked with my integrity.” Having signed to EMI who only really wanted the hits, Bowie ended up spending a decade fulfilling contractual obligations, performing ridiculous rock operas and producing impossibly tepid pop records like Tonight and Never Let Me Down which are, frankly, atrocious. His efforts after regaining his individual flair weren’t much better: he joined a band named Tin Machine and performed in tiny venues, which might have been a blast for him but was fun for pretty much nobody else. Then his 1990’s ventures into drum and bass and the internet age saw him doing what he never used to; following, rather than leading. Albums like Black Tie White Noise and Earthling have aged horribly because of it.
Oh and then there was also his lead role in the 1986 sci-fi movie Labyrinth – and I’ll leave you with an image from that, and let you decide for yourself if you want to dabble…
Theodore J. Inscoe