Everything David Bowie did was news. Only a few days ago, he released his most recent album “Blackstar” to coincide with his 69th birthday, with the accompanying heavy media coverage quite normal for an artist of his stature. What hardly anybody outside of his inner circle knew was just how ill he was, until this morning when most of Great Britain woke up to the even bigger news that he had passed away, having been battling cancer for the past 18 months.
David Bowie was one of those very few artists whose appeal crossed over to music fans of all stripes; looking at the amount of tributes coming in it is staggering to see how many different people’s lives and careers he touched. You don’t have to be a devoted fan of his (I wasn’t – confession time – I have some of his albums yes, but didn’t follow his career slavishly) to recognise what a massive loss this is, not just to popular music but to popular culture. The very name itself – David Bowie – that name conjures up so much, in both music and imagery.
Since he broke through at around the turn of the 1970s with the single “Space Oddity” he has proved a fascinating, enduring figure. His music took many twists and turns; from glam rock, to blue-eyed soul, to synthpop, electronic dance and back to rock again with the late 80s band “Tin Machine”, he covered an incredible amount of ground. That’s probably why his passing today has impacted on so many – no matter your musical taste, there’s something by Bowie sitting in your record collection (or your music folder, for the newer generation).
Throughout all of this, he also managed to maintain the respect of both fans and critics, being one of the few artists from the early 1970s to come through the punk revolution unscathed (on a musical level at least; he had relocated to Berlin in order to battle a serious cocaine addiction), to be lauded as a huge influence by the synth-based New Romantic movement that followed. His 1983 album “Let’s Dance” was a massive seller, and his new image of short blonde hair and natty blue suit fitted in perfectly with the era of the ‘yuppie’. He found himself with a completely new audience, one that he later admitted he wasn’t totally comfortable with, but the music he was making (a fusion of rock guitar and funk, produced by Chic’s Nile Rodgers) at this time proved popular with his aspirational audience. By 1987 he was performing to large stadium audiences as his “Glass Spider Tour” broke box office records.
In later years his musical output slowed, as he branched out into other artistic ventures including acting and painting. A 1990 concert tour drew headlines, as he offered fans the opportunity to help choose the setlist from his back catalogue. This was spiked by music mag NME, who ran a campaign to get “The Laughing Gnome” (an early novelty song) voted into the set; once Bowie found out about the plot, he abandoned plans to include it.
He retired from live performance in 2004 after suddenly taking ill; when he discovered it was a blocked artery which required immediate surgery, he cancelled the remainder of his tour dates. He never performed live again, and many thought he had retired completely until the surprise release of the album “The Next Day” in 2013. Hopes for a live comeback were quickly dashed however, and he surprised his fans one final time by taking yet another musical direction with the “Blackstar” album, released to critical acclaim only days ago.
David Bowie leaves a massive void; he emerged at a time when musicians could take whatever direction they saw fit, but leaves behind an industry which seeks only to manufacture performers who fit a certain mould, who go along with the sure-fire hit formula. Today’s pop stars who dominate the radio and television all have their songs written by the same select group of hitmakers, who know all the right chords and hooks to satisfy the gatekeepers. Had Bowie appeared in 2016, it’s unlikely he’d get past the first door.
It is impossible to sum up Bowie’s musical career with only a few songs; I have chosen three of his best-loved, but very different, songs to close this post. If you really are unfamiliar with his work and looking for somewhere to start, the 2002 Best of Bowie double CD compilation is recommended as it features a broad selection of his hits over a 35-year period.
1973 – “The Jean Genie”. This performance from BBC Top Of The Pops was thought lost until rediscovered in 2011:
1975 – “Fame”. Appearing on American show ‘Soul Train’ showcasing his then-new soul direction:
1996 – “Hallo Spaceboy”. Live on BBC Later With Jools Holland: