1947 - 2016
There are many things I was not expecting to do today, having to sum up why I rank David Bowie as one of the most influential musicians of my, and millions of others, life was not one of them. Songwriter, performer, poet whatever you deem him to be you could probably have made a good case for it as few musicians have ever had a career as successful, as defining or as unique as that of Bowie.
His first TV appearance was in 1964 with … an interview with the BBC because … he had just founded the Society of Gentlemen with Long Hair. Even at that level he was something different, something so utterly unique and separate from everything else that one can’t relay be that surprised by the career that would follow, not likely.
Bowie was a chameleon of music, he blended and experimented with more genres in just a decade than most musicians will dabble in for their entire careers. As his 1980 album Scary Monsters proclaimed with its tagline, he was ‘Often copied, never equalled’. His influence stretches across continents and you’d be hard pressed to find a successful musician working today that was not affected by his music in one way or another. Right at the beginning with Space Oddity he announced himself as something no one had ever seen or heard before, from the beautiful structure of the song to Bowie’s haunting and compelling vocals, it resonated strongly with a generation whose head was pointed directly to the stars.
‘The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders of Mars’. Now that is a title. You would buy that in a second when you first saw it in 1972, and the whole persona of Ziggy Stardust itself is something of an oddity when you consider how we were looking at science fiction as a fact based genre by now, not something to be melded with fantasy and treated like an outlandish trip. Also can anyone point to another album that has a better premise than a bisexual rock star who acts as a messenger for extra-terrestrial beings?
But despite that utterly irreplaceable album, it defines just one moment in Bowie’s career. Despite the sheer eccentricity of it, we don’t remember David Bowie just for Ziggy Stardust even though he character and his music broke boundaries in every way that a musician can (beyond just the boundaries of mere music), with its glam rock, sexual exploration and social commentary. Bowie somehow moved on from this to transcend genre and brand, just look at 1974’s, ‘Rebel, Rebel’. A far cry from his space-opera origins, something that you could hear from an angst fuelled Rolling Stones maybe? Then ‘Life on Mars?’ just feels like another artist all together, contrary to its title that may suggest another space based tale, it is remarkably down to earth and a surreal dreamscape simultaneously, the kind of power ballad that might be heard from The Beatles in their Sargent Pepper days.
That video for ‘Life On Mars?’ is remarkably hypnotic upon re-watching it. The way that Bowie just summarises those themes of alienation and youthful confusion through his appearance, the fact that it draws attention to his eyes is no accident as it further emphasises that point of being an outside in a world you didn’t create. This epitomises how Bowie was performing in every sense of the word, his image was crafted to reflect exactly what he was signing about every single time, from Ziggy Stardust to the Thin White Duke, they all told a story.
We get it then, he’s an outsider but what, you may ask, is really so special beyond a few bizarre songs and styles? In the mid-1970s he chose to radically reinvent himself again by travelling to Berlin to produce a trilogy of albums, ‘Low’, ‘Heroes’ and ‘Lodger’ went on to change the face of contemporary music, they were darker and more daring, taking many fans by surprise. Would any musician take such a risk now to nearly cut out half of their fan base? Just when you think he’s become grounded again Bowie made ‘Ashes to Ashes’ and … well just watch the music video and you’ll see my point. This success continued right up until his recently released, elegant swansong ‘Black Star’.
He went on to dabble in glam rock, prod rock, electric rock, soul, swing, existential, basically any genre you can think of, Bowie will have experimented at least once, and often more because it’s hard enough to reinvent yourself as an artist, even harder to make it work, and to do that consistently, year after year with success after success … there’s only one person that has done that.
When I first heard his music it changed a lot for me, it changed the part that music played in my life and how it could transcend simple noises and lyrics. It could be infinitely poignant and endearing and compelling. Bowie spoke to a generation of social misfits and then grew up with them through his music, every song has appealed to me in a different way at some point in my life and I have little doubt they will continue to do that forever. His music reached the weirdness in everyone and celebrated what was unique about everything.
David Bowie himself, just seemed out of place on this world, half the time you almost want to believe he was an intergalactic messenger, a starman, a man who fell to earth. And if he was then all I can say is this, thanks for paying us a visit and sharing your genius. We’ll miss you.