David Bowie (born David Robert Jones; 8 January 1947 – 10 January 2016) was an English singer, songwriter, multi-instrumentalist, record producer, arranger, painter, and actor.
Bowie was a figure in popular music for over four decades, and was known as an innovator, particularly for his work in the 1970s. His androgynous appearance was an iconic element of his image, particularly in the 1970s and 1980s.
Bowie’s first hit song, “Space Oddity“, reached the top five of the UK Singles Chart after its release in July 1969. After a three-year period of experimentation, he re-emerged in 1972 during the glam rock era with the flamboyant, androgynous alter ego Ziggy Stardust, spearheaded by the hit single “Starman” and the album The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars. Bowie’s impact at that time, as described by biographer David Buckley, “challenged the core belief of the rock music of its day” and “created perhaps the biggest cult in popular culture”. The relatively short-lived Ziggy persona proved to be one facet of a career marked by reinvention, musical innovation and visual presentation.
In 1975, Bowie achieved his first major American crossover success with the number-one single “Fame” and the hit album Young Americans, which the singer characterised as “plastic soul“. The sound constituted a radical shift in style that initially alienated many of his UK devotees. He then confounded the expectations of both his record label and his American audiences by recording the electronic-inflected album Low, the first of three collaborations with Brian Eno. Low (1977), “Heroes” (1977), and Lodger (1979)—the so-called “Berlin Trilogy” albums—all reached the UK top five and received lasting critical praise. After uneven commercial success in the late 1970s, Bowie had UK number ones with the 1980 single “Ashes to Ashes“, its parent album Scary Monsters (And Super Creeps), and “Under Pressure“, a 1981 collaboration with Queen. He then reached a new commercial peak in 1983 with Let’s Dance, which yielded several hit singles. Throughout the 1990s and 2000s, Bowie continued to experiment with musical styles, including blue-eyed soul, industrial, adult contemporary, and jungle. He stopped touring after his 2003–2004 Reality Tour, and last performed live at a charity event in 2006. Bowie released the studio album Blackstar on 8 January 2016, his 69th birthday, just two days before his death from cancer.
David Buckley said of Bowie: “His influence has been unique in popular culture—he has permeated and altered more lives than any comparable figure.” In the BBC’s 2002 poll of the 100 Greatest Britons, Bowie was placed at number 29. Throughout his career, he has sold an estimated 140 million records worldwide. In the UK, he has been awarded nine Platinum album certifications, eleven Gold and eight Silver, and in the US, five Platinum and seven Gold certifications. In 2004, Rolling Stone ranked him 39th on their list of the “100 Greatest Artists of All Time” and 23rd on their list of the best singers of all time. He was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1996.
David Bowie was born David Robert Jones on 8 January 1947, in Brixton, London. His mother, Margaret Mary “Peggy” (née Burns), from Kent, worked as a waitress, while his father, Haywood Stenton “John” Jones, from Yorkshire, was a promotions officer for Barnardo’s. The family lived at 40 Stansfield Road, near the border of the south London areas of Brixton and Stockwell. Bowie attended Stockwell Infants School until he was six years old, acquiring a reputation as a gifted and single-minded child—and a defiant brawler.
In 1953 the family moved to the suburb of Bromley, where, two years later, Bowie progressed to Burnt Ash Junior School. His voice was considered “adequate” by the school choir, and his recorder playing judged to demonstrate above-average musical ability. At the age of nine, his dancing during the newly introduced music and movement classes was strikingly imaginative: teachers called his interpretations “vividly artistic” and his poise “astonishing” for a child. The same year, his interest in music was further stimulated when his father brought home a collection of American 45s by artists including Frankie Lymon and the Teenagers, the Platters, Fats Domino, Elvis Presley and Little Richard. Upon listening to “Tutti Frutti“, Bowie would later say, “I had heard God”. Presley’s impact on him was likewise emphatic: “I saw a cousin of mine dance to … ‘Hound Dog‘ and I had never seen her get up and be moved so much by anything. It really impressed me, the power of the music. I started getting records immediately after that.” By the end of the following year he had taken up the ukulele and tea-chest bass and begun to participate in skiffle sessions with friends, and had started to play the piano; meanwhile his stage presentation of numbers by both Presley and Chuck Berry—complete with gyrations in tribute to the original artists—to his local Wolf Cub group was described as “mesmerizing … like someone from another planet.” Failing his eleven plus exam at the conclusion of his Burnt Ash Junior education, Bowie joined Bromley Technical High School.
It was an unusual technical school, as biographer Christopher Sandford wrote:
Despite its status it was, by the time David arrived in 1958, as rich in arcane ritual as any [English] public school. There were houses, named after eighteenth-century statesmen like Pitt and Wilberforce. There was a uniform, and an elaborate system of rewards and punishments. There was also an accent on languages, science and particularly design, where a collegiate atmosphere flourished under the tutorship of Owen Frampton. In David’s account, Frampton led through force of personality, not intellect; his colleagues at Bromley Tech were famous for neither, and yielded the school’s most gifted pupils to the arts, a regime so liberal that Frampton actively encouraged his own son, Peter, to pursue a musical career with David, a partnership briefly intact thirty years later.
Bowie studied art, music and design, including layout and typesetting. After Terry Burns, his half-brother, introduced him to modern jazz, his enthusiasm for players like Charles Mingus and John Coltrane led his mother to give him a plastic alto saxophone in 1961; he was soon receiving lessons from a local musician. Bowie received a serious injury at school in 1962 when his friend George Underwood punched him in the left eye during a fight over a girl. Doctors feared he would become blind in that eye. After a series of operations during a four-month hospitalisation, his doctors determined that the damage could not be fully repaired and Bowie was left with faulty depth perception and a permanently dilated pupil. Despite their altercation, Underwood and Bowie remained good friends, and Underwood went on to create the artwork for Bowie’s early albums.
1962–67: Early career to début album
Graduating from his plastic saxophone to a real instrument in 1962, Bowie formed his first band at the age of 15. Playing guitar-based rock and roll at local youth gatherings and weddings, the Konrads had a varying line-up of between four and eight members, Underwood among them. When Bowie left the technical school the following year, he informed his parents of his intention to become a pop star. His mother promptly arranged his employment as an electrician’s mate. Frustrated by his band-mates’ limited aspirations, Bowie left the Konrads and joined another band, the King Bees. He wrote to the newly successful washing-machine entrepreneur John Bloom inviting him to “do for us what Brian Epstein has done for the Beatles—and make another million.” Bloom did not respond to the offer, but his referral to Dick James‘s partner Leslie Conn led to Bowie’s first personal management contract.
Conn quickly began to promote Bowie. The singer’s debut single, “Liza Jane“, credited to Davie Jones and the King Bees, had no commercial success. Dissatisfied with the King Bees and their repertoire of Howlin’ Wolf and Willie Dixon blues numbers, Bowie quit the band less than a month later to join the Manish Boys, another blues outfit, who incorporated folk and soul — “I used to dream of being their Mick Jagger“, Bowie was to recall. “I Pity the Fool” was no more successful than “Liza Jane”, and Bowie soon moved on again to join the Lower Third, a blues trio strongly influenced by the Who. “You’ve Got a Habit of Leaving” fared no better, signalling the end of Conn’s contract. Declaring that he would exit the pop world “to study mime at Sadler’s Wells“, Bowie nevertheless remained with the Lower Third. His new manager, Ralph Horton, later instrumental in his transition to solo artist, soon witnessed Bowie’s move to yet another group, the Buzz, yielding the singer’s fifth unsuccessful single release, “Do Anything You Say“. While with the Buzz, Bowie also joined the Riot Squad; their recordings, which included a Bowie number and Velvet Underground material, went unreleased. Ken Pitt, introduced by Horton, took over as Bowie’s manager.
Dissatisfied with his stage name as Davy (and Davie) Jones, which in the mid-1960s invited confusion with Davy Jones of the Monkees, Bowie renamed himself after the 19th-century American frontiersman Jim Bowie and the knife he had popularised. His April 1967 solo single, “The Laughing Gnome“, using speeded-up thus high-pitched vocals, failed to chart. Released six weeks later, his album debut, David Bowie, an amalgam of pop, psychedelia, and music hall, met the same fate. It was his last release for two years.
1968–71: Space Oddity to Hunky Dory
Bowie met dancer Lindsay Kemp in 1967 and enrolled in his dance class at the London Dance Centre. He commented in 1972 that meeting Kemp was when his interest in image “really blossomed”. “He lived on his emotions, he was a wonderful influence. His day-to-day life was the most theatrical thing I had ever seen, ever. It was everything I thought Bohemia probably was. I joined the circus.” Studying the dramatic arts under Kemp, from avant-garde theatre and mime to commedia dell’arte, Bowie became immersed in the creation of personae to present to the world. Satirising life in a British prison, meanwhile, the Bowie-penned “Over the Wall We Go” became a 1967 single for Oscar; another Bowie composition, “Silly Boy Blue”, was released by Billy Fury the following year. In January 1968 Kemp choreographed a dance scene for a BBC play The Pistol Shot in the Theatre 625 series, and used Bowie with a dancer, Hermione Farthingale; the pair began dating, and moved into a London flat together. Playing acoustic guitar, Farthingale formed a group with Bowie and bassist John Hutchinson; between September 1968 and early 1969 the trio gave a small number of concerts combining folk, Merseybeat, poetry and mime. Bowie and Farthingale broke up in early 1969 when she went to Norway to take part in a film, Song of Norway; this had an impact on him, and several songs, such as “Letter to Hermione” and “Life on Mars?” reference her, and for the video accompanying “Where Are We Now?” he wore a T-shirt with the words “Song for Norway”. They were last together in January 1969 for the filming of Love You till Tuesday, a 30-minute film, not released until 1984, intended as a vehicle to promote him, featuring performances from Bowie’s repertoire, including an as yet unreleased “Space Oddity“.
After the breakup with Farthingale, Bowie moved in with Mary Finnigan as her lodger. During this period he appeared in a Lyons Maid ice cream commercial, but was rejected for another by Kit Kat. On 11 July 1969, “Space Oddity” was released five days ahead of the Apollo 11 launch, to become a UK top five hit. Continuing the divergence from rock and roll and blues begun by his work with Farthingale, Bowie joined forces with Finnigan, Christina Ostrom and Barrie Jackson to run a folk club on Sunday nights at the Three Tuns pub in Beckenham High Street. Influenced by the Arts Lab Movement, this developed into the Beckenham Arts Lab, and became extremely popular. The Arts Lab hosted a free festival in a local park, the subject of his song “Memory of a Free Festival“. Bowie’s second album followed in November; originally issued in the UK as David Bowie, it caused some confusion with its predecessor of the same name, and the early US release was instead titled Man of Words/Man of Music; it was re-released internationally in 1972 by RCA as Space Oddity. Featuring philosophical post-hippie lyrics on peace, love and morality, its acoustic folk rock occasionally fortified by harder rock, the album was not a commercial success at the time of its release.
Bowie met Angela Barnett in April 1969. They married within a year. Her impact on him was immediate, and her involvement in his career far-reaching, leaving manager Ken Pitt with limited influence which he found frustrating. Having established himself as a solo artist with “Space Oddity”, Bowie began to sense a lacking: “a full-time band for gigs and recording—people he could relate to personally”. The shortcoming was underlined by his artistic rivalry with Marc Bolan, who was at the time acting as his session guitarist. A band was duly assembled. John Cambridge, a drummer Bowie met at the Arts Lab, was joined by Tony Visconti on bass and Mick Ronson on electric guitar. Known as the Hype, the bandmates created characters for themselves and wore elaborate costumes that prefigured the glam style of the Spiders From Mars. After a disastrous opening gig at the London Roundhouse, they reverted to a configuration presenting Bowie as a solo artist. Their initial studio work was marred by a heated disagreement between Bowie and Cambridge over the latter’s drumming style; matters came to a head when Bowie, enraged, accused, “You’re fucking up my album.” Cambridge summarily quit and was replaced by Mick Woodmansey. Not long after, in a move that resulted in years of litigation, at the conclusion of which Bowie was forced to pay Pitt compensation, the singer fired his manager, replacing him with Tony Defries.
The studio sessions continued and resulted in Bowie’s third album, The Man Who Sold the World (1970), which contained references to schizophrenia, paranoia, and delusion. Characterised by the heavy rock sound of his new backing band, it was a marked departure from the acoustic guitar and folk rock style established by Space Oddity. To promote it in the US, Mercury Records financed a coast-to-coast publicity tour in which Bowie, between January and February 1971, was interviewed by radio stations and the media. Exploiting his androgynous appearance, the original cover of the UK version unveiled two months later depicted the singer wearing a dress: taking the garment with him, he wore it during interviews—to the approval of critics, including Rolling Stone ’s John Mendelsohn who described him as “ravishing, almost disconcertingly reminiscent of Lauren Bacall“—and in the street, to mixed reaction including laughter and, in the case of one male pedestrian, producing a gun and telling Bowie to “kiss my ass”. During the tour Bowie’s observation of two seminal American proto-punk artists led him to develop a concept that eventually found form in the Ziggy Stardust character: a melding of the persona of Iggy Pop with the music of Lou Reed, producing “the ultimate pop idol”. A girlfriend recalled his “scrawling notes on a cocktail napkin about a crazy rock star named Iggy or Ziggy”, and on his return to England he declared his intention to create a character “who looks like he’s landed from Mars”.
Hunky Dory (1971) found Visconti, Bowie’s producer and bassist, supplanted in both roles by Ken Scott and Trevor Bolder respectively. The album saw the partial return of the fey pop singer of “Space Oddity”, with light fare such as “Kooks“, a song written for his son, Duncan Zowie Haywood Jones, born on 30 May. (His parents chose “his kooky name”—he was known as Zowie for the next 12 years—after the Greek word zoe, life.) Elsewhere, the album explored more serious themes, and found Bowie paying unusually direct homage to his influences with “Song for Bob Dylan“, “Andy Warhol“, and “Queen Bitch“, a Velvet Underground pastiche. It was not a significant commercial success at the time but was ranked number 58 by voters on the All Time Top 1000 Albums list.
1972–73: Ziggy Stardust
Dressed in a striking costume, his hair dyed red, Bowie launched his Ziggy Stardust stage show with the Spiders from Mars—Ronson, Bolder and Woodmansey—at the Toby Jug pub in Tolworth on 10 February 1972. The show was hugely popular, catapulting him to stardom as he toured the UK over the course of the next six months and creating, as described by Buckley, a “cult of Bowie” that was “unique—its influence lasted longer and has been more creative than perhaps almost any other force within pop fandom.”The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars (1972), combining the hard rock elements of The Man Who Sold the World with the lighter experimental rock and pop of Hunky Dory, was released in June. “Starman“, issued as an April single ahead of the album, was to cement Bowie’s UK breakthrough: both single and album charted rapidly following his July Top of the Pops performance of the song. The album, which remained in the chart for two years, was soon joined there by the 6-month-old Hunky Dory. At the same time the non-album single “John, I’m Only Dancing“, and “All the Young Dudes“, a song he wrote and produced for Mott the Hoople, became UK hits. The Ziggy Stardust Tour continued to the United States.
Bowie contributed backing vocals to Lou Reed’s 1972 solo breakthrough Transformer, co-producing the album with Mick Ronson. His own Aladdin Sane (1973) topped the UK chart, his first number one album. Described by Bowie as “Ziggy goes to America”, it contained songs he wrote while travelling to and across the US during the earlier part of the Ziggy tour, which now continued to Japan to promote the new album. Aladdin Sane spawned the UK top five singles “The Jean Genie” and “Drive-In Saturday“.
Bowie’s love of acting led his total immersion in the characters he created for his music. “Offstage I’m a robot. Onstage I achieve emotion. It’s probably why I prefer dressing up as Ziggy to being David.” With satisfaction came severe personal difficulties: acting the same role over an extended period, it became impossible for him to separate Ziggy Stardust—and, later, the Thin White Duke—from his own character offstage. Ziggy, Bowie said, “wouldn’t leave me alone for years. That was when it all started to go sour … My whole personality was affected. It became very dangerous. I really did have doubts about my sanity.” His later Ziggy shows, which included songs from both Ziggy Stardust and Aladdin Sane, were ultra-theatrical affairs filled with shocking stage moments, such as Bowie stripping down to a sumo wrestling loincloth or simulating oral sex with Ronson’s guitar. Bowie toured and gave press conferences as Ziggy before a dramatic and abrupt on-stage “retirement” at London’s Hammersmith Odeon on 3 July 1973. Footage from the final show was released the same year for the film Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars.
After breaking up the Spiders from Mars, Bowie attempted to move on from his Ziggy persona. His back catalogue was now highly sought after: The Man Who Sold the World had been re-released in 1972 along with Space Oddity. “Life on Mars?“, from Hunky Dory, was released in June 1973 and made number three in the UK singles chart. Entering the same chart in September, Bowie’s novelty record from 1967, “The Laughing Gnome“, reached number six.Pin Ups, a collection of covers of his 1960s favourites, followed in October, producing a UK number three hit in “Sorrow” and itself peaking at number one, making David Bowie the best-selling act of 1973 in the UK. It brought the total number of Bowie albums concurrently in the UK chart to six.
1974–76: Soul, funk and the Thin White Duke
Bowie moved to the US in 1974, initially staying in New York City before settling in Los Angeles.Diamond Dogs (1974), parts of which found him heading towards soul and funk, was the product of two distinct ideas: a musical based on a wild future in a post-apocalyptic city, and setting George Orwell‘s 1984 to music. The album went to number one in the UK, spawning the hits “Rebel Rebel” and “Diamond Dogs“, and number five in the US. To promote it, Bowie launched the Diamond Dogs Tour, visiting cities in North America between June and December 1974. Choreographed by Toni Basil, and lavishly produced with theatrical special effects, the high-budget stage production was filmed by Alan Yentob. The resulting documentary, Cracked Actor, featured a pasty and emaciated Bowie: the tour coincided with the singer’s slide from heavy cocaine use into addiction, producing severe physical debilitation, paranoia and emotional problems. He later commented that the accompanying live album, David Live, ought to have been titled “David Bowie Is Alive and Well and Living Only in Theory”. David Live nevertheless solidified Bowie’s status as a superstar, charting at number two in the UK and number eight in the US. It also spawned a UK number ten hit in Bowie’s cover of “Knock on Wood“. After a break in Philadelphia, where Bowie recorded new material, the tour resumed with a new emphasis on soul.
The fruit of the Philadelphia recording sessions was Young Americans (1975). Biographer Christopher Sandford writes, “Over the years, most British rockers had tried, one way or another, to become black-by-extension. Few had succeeded as Bowie did now.” The album’s sound, which the singer identified as “plastic soul“, constituted a radical shift in style that initially alienated many of his UK devotees.Young Americans yielded Bowie’s first US number one, “Fame“, co-written with John Lennon, who contributed backing vocals, and Carlos Alomar. Lennon called Bowie’s work “great, but it’s just rock’n’roll with lipstick on”. Earning the distinction of being one of the first white artists to appear on the US variety show Soul Train, Bowie mimed “Fame”, as well as “Golden Years“, his November single, which was originally offered to Elvis Presley, who declined it.Young Americans was a commercial success in both the US and the UK, and a re-issue of the 1969 single “Space Oddity” became Bowie’s first number one hit in the UK a few months after “Fame” achieved the same in the US. Despite his by now well established superstardom, Bowie, in the words of biographer Christopher Sandford, “for all his record sales (over a million copies of Ziggy Stardust alone), existed essentially on loose change.” In 1975, in a move echoing Ken Pitt’s acrimonious dismissal five years earlier, Bowie fired his manager. At the culmination of the ensuing months-long legal dispute, he watched, as described by Sandford, “millions of dollars of his future earnings being surrendered” in what were “uniquely generous terms for Defries”, then “shut himself up in West 20th Street, where for a week his howls could be heard through the locked attic door.” Michael Lippman, Bowie’s lawyer during the negotiations, became his new manager; Lippman in turn was awarded substantial compensation when Bowie fired him the following year.
Station to Station (1976) introduced a new Bowie persona, the “Thin White Duke” of its title track. Visually, the character was an extension of Thomas Jerome Newton, the extraterrestrial being he portrayed in the film The Man Who Fell to Earth the same year. Developing the funk and soul of Young Americans, Station to Station also prefigured the Krautrock and synthesiser music of his next releases. The extent to which drug addiction was now affecting Bowie was made public when Russell Harty interviewed the singer for his London Weekend Television talk show in anticipation of the album’s supporting tour. Shortly before the satellite-linked interview was scheduled to commence, the death of the Spanish dictator General Franco was announced. Bowie was asked to relinquish the satellite booking, to allow the Spanish Government to put out a live newsfeed. This he refused to do, and his interview went ahead. In the ensuing conversation with Harty, as described by biographer David Buckley, “the singer made hardly any sense at all throughout what was quite an extensive interview. … Bowie looked completely disconnected and was hardly able to utter a coherent sentence.” His sanity—by his own later admission—had become twisted from cocaine; he overdosed several times during the year, and was withering physically to an alarming degree. Comments made by Bowie and others in 1976 led to the establishment of Rock Against Racism.
Station to Station ’s January 1976 release was followed in February by a 3 1⁄2-month concert tour of Europe and North America. Featuring a starkly lit set, the Isolar – 1976 Tour highlighted songs from the album, including the dramatic and lengthy title track, the ballads “Wild Is the Wind” and “Word on a Wing“, and the funkier “TVC 15” and “Stay“. The core band that coalesced around this album and tour—rhythm guitarist Alomar, bassist George Murray, and drummer Dennis Davis—continued as a stable unit for the remainder of the 1970s. The tour was highly successful but mired in political controversy. Bowie was quoted in Stockholm as saying that “Britain could benefit from a Fascist leader”, and was detained by customs on the Russian/Polish border for possessing Nazi paraphernalia. Matters came to a head in London in May in what became known as the “Victoria Station incident”. Arriving in an open-top Mercedes convertible, the singer waved to the crowd in a gesture that some alleged was a Nazi salute, which was captured on camera and published in NME. Bowie said the photographer simply caught him in mid-wave. He later blamed his pro-Fascism comments and his behaviour during the period on his addictions and the character of the Thin White Duke. “I was out of my mind, totally crazed. The main thing I was functioning on was mythology … that whole thing about Hitler and Rightism … I’d discovered King Arthur”. According to playwright Alan Franks, writing later in The Times, “he was indeed ‘deranged’. He had some very bad experiences with hard drugs.”
1976–79: Berlin era
Bowie moved to Switzerland in 1976, purchasing a chalet in the hills to the north of Lake Geneva. In the new environment, his cocaine use decreased and he found time for other pursuits outside his musical career. He devoted more time to his painting, and produced a number of post-modernist pieces. When on tour, he took to sketching in a notebook, and photographing scenes for later reference. Visiting galleries in Geneva and the Brücke Museum in Berlin, Bowie became, in the words of biographer Christopher Sandford, “a prolific producer and collector of contemporary art. […] Not only did he become a well-known patron of expressionist art: locked in Clos des Mésanges he began an intensive self-improvement course in classical music and literature, and started work on an autobiography.”
Before the end of 1976, Bowie’s interest in the burgeoning German music scene, as well as his drug addiction, prompted him to move to West Berlin to clean up and revitalise his career. There he was often seen riding a bicycle between his apartment on Hauptstraße in Schöneberg and Hansa Tonstudio, the recording studio he used, located on Köthener Straße in Kreuzberg, near the Berlin Wall. While working with Brian Eno and sharing an apartment with Iggy Pop, he began to focus on minimalist, ambient music for the first of three albums, co-produced with Tony Visconti, that became known as his Berlin Trilogy. During the same period, Iggy Pop, with Bowie as a co-writer and musician, completed his solo album debut The Idiot and its follow-up Lust for Life, touring the UK, Europe, and the US in March and April 1977.
The album Low (1977), partly influenced by the Krautrock sound of Kraftwerk and Neu!, evidenced a move away from narration in Bowie’s songwriting to a more abstract musical form in which lyrics were sporadic and optional. Although he completed the album in November 1976, it took his unsettled record company another three months to release it. It received considerable negative criticism upon its release—a release which RCA, anxious to maintain the established commercial momentum, did not welcome, and which Bowie’s ex-manager, Tony Defries, who still maintained a significant financial interest in the singer’s affairs, tried to prevent. Despite these forebodings, Low yielded the UK number three single “Sound and Vision“, and its own performance surpassed that of Station to Station in the UK chart, where it reached number two. Leading contemporary composer Philip Glass described Low as “a work of genius” in 1992, when he used it as the basis for his Symphony No. 1 “Low”; subsequently, Glass used Bowie’s next album as the basis for his 1996 Symphony No. 4 “Heroes”. Glass has praised Bowie’s gift for creating “fairly complex pieces of music, masquerading as simple pieces”.
Echoing Low ’s minimalist, instrumental approach, the second of the trilogy, “Heroes” (1977), incorporated pop and rock to a greater extent, seeing Bowie joined by guitarist Robert Fripp. Like Low, “Heroes” evinced the zeitgeist of the Cold War, symbolised by the divided city of Berlin. Incorporating ambient sounds from a variety of sources including white noise generators, synthesisers and koto, the album was another hit, reaching number three in the UK. Its title track, though only reaching number 24 in the UK singles chart, gained lasting popularity, and within months had been released in both German and French. Towards the end of the year, Bowie performed the song for Marc Bolan’s television show Marc, and again two days later for Bing Crosby‘s televised Christmas special, when he joined Crosby in “Peace on Earth/Little Drummer Boy“, a version of “The Little Drummer Boy” with a new, contrapuntal verse. Five years later, the duet proved a worldwide seasonal hit, charting in the UK at number three on Christmas Day, 1982.
After completing Low and “Heroes”, Bowie spent much of 1978 on the Isolar II world tour, bringing the music of the first two Berlin Trilogy albums to almost a million people during 70 concerts in 12 countries. By now he had broken his drug addiction; biographer David Buckley writes that Isolar II was “Bowie’s first tour for five years in which he had probably not anaesthetised himself with copious quantities of cocaine before taking the stage. … Without the oblivion that drugs had brought, he was now in a healthy enough mental condition to want to make friends.” Recordings from the tour made up the live album Stage, released the same year.
The final piece in what Bowie called his “triptych“, Lodger (1979), eschewed the minimalist, ambient nature of the other two, making a partial return to the drum- and guitar-based rock and pop of his pre-Berlin era. The result was a complex mixture of new wave and world music, in places incorporating Hijaz non-Western scales. Some tracks were composed using Eno and Peter Schmidt‘s Oblique Strategies cards: “Boys Keep Swinging” entailed band members swapping instruments, “Move On” used the chords from Bowie’s early composition “All the Young Dudes” played backwards, and “Red Money” took backing tracks from “Sister Midnight”, a piece previously composed with Iggy Pop. The album was recorded in Switzerland. Ahead of its release, RCA’s Mel Ilberman stated, “It would be fair to call it Bowie’s Sergeant Pepper … a concept album that portrays the Lodger as a homeless wanderer, shunned and victimized by life’s pressures and technology.” As described by biographer Christopher Sandford, “The record dashed such high hopes with dubious choices, and production that spelt the end—for fifteen years—of Bowie’s partnership with Eno.” Lodger reached number 4 in the UK and number 20 in the US, and yielded the UK hit singles “Boys Keep Swinging” and “DJ“. Towards the end of the year, Bowie and Angela initiated divorce proceedings, and after months of court battles the marriage was ended in early 1980.
1980–88: New Wave and pop era
Scary Monsters (and Super Creeps) (1980) produced the number one hit “Ashes to Ashes“, featuring the textural work of guitar-synthesist Chuck Hammer and revisiting the character of Major Tom from “Space Oddity”. The song gave international exposure to the underground New Romantic movement when Bowie visited the London club “Blitz”—the main New Romantic hangout—to recruit several of the regulars (including Steve Strange of the band Visage) to act in the accompanying video, renowned as one of the most innovative of all time. While Scary Monsters utilised principles established by the Berlin albums, it was considered by critics to be far more direct musically and lyrically. The album’s hard rock edge included conspicuous guitar contributions from Robert Fripp, Pete Townshend and Chuck Hammer. As “Ashes to Ashes” hit number one on the UK charts, Bowie opened a three-month run on Broadway on 24 September, starring in The Elephant Man. The same year, he made a cameo appearance in the German film Christiane F., a real-life story of teenage drug addiction in 1970s Berlin. The Christiane F. soundtrack album, which featured Bowie’s music prominently, was released a few months later.
Bowie paired with Queen in 1981 for a one-off single release, “Under Pressure“. The duet was a hit, becoming Bowie’s third UK number one single. Bowie was given the lead role in the BBC’s 1982 televised adaptation of Bertolt Brecht‘s play Baal. Coinciding with its transmission, a five-track EP of songs from the play, recorded earlier in Berlin, was released as David Bowie in Bertolt Brecht’s Baal. In March 1982, the month before Paul Schrader‘s film Cat People came out, Bowie’s title song, “Cat People (Putting Out Fire)“, was released as a single, becoming a minor US hit and entering the UK top 30.
Bowie reached a new peak of popularity and commercial success in 1983 with Let’s Dance. Co-produced by Chic‘s Nile Rodgers, the album went platinum in both the UK and the US. Its three singles became top twenty hits in both countries, where its title track reached number one. “Modern Love” and “China Girl” made number two in the UK, accompanied by a pair of acclaimed promotional videos that, as described by biographer David Buckley, “were totally absorbing and activated key archetypes in the pop world. ‘Let’s Dance’, with its little narrative surrounding the young Aborigine couple, targeted ‘youth’, and ‘China Girl’, with its nude (and later partially censored) beach lovemaking scene (a homage to the film From Here to Eternity), was sufficiently sexually provocative to guarantee heavy rotation on MTV. Stevie Ray Vaughan was guest guitarist playing solo on “Let’s Dance”, although the video depicts Bowie miming this part. By 1983, Bowie had emerged as one of the most important video artists of the day. Let’s Dance was followed by the Serious Moonlight Tour, during which Bowie was accompanied by guitarist Earl Slick and backing vocalists Frank and George Simms. The world tour lasted six months and was extremely popular.”
Tonight (1984), another dance-oriented album, found Bowie collaborating with Tina Turner and, once again, Iggy Pop. It included a number of cover songs, among them the 1966 Beach Boys hit “God Only Knows“. The album bore the transatlantic top ten hit “Blue Jean“, itself the inspiration for a short film that won Bowie a Grammy Award for Best Short Form Music Video, “Jazzin’ for Blue Jean“. Bowie performed at Wembley in 1985 for Live Aid, a multi-venue benefit concert for Ethiopian famine relief. During the event, the video for a fundraising single was premièred, Bowie’s duet with Mick Jagger. “Dancing in the Street” quickly went to number one on release. The same year, Bowie worked with the Pat Metheny Group to record “This Is Not America” for the soundtrack of The Falcon and the Snowman. Released as a single, the song became a top 40 hit in the UK and US.
Bowie was given a role in the 1986 film Absolute Beginners. It was poorly received by critics, but Bowie’s theme song rose to number two in the UK charts. He also appeared as Jareth, the Goblin King, in the 1986 Jim Henson film Labyrinth, for which he wrote five songs. His final solo album of the decade was 1987’s Never Let Me Down, where he ditched the light sound of his previous two albums, instead offering harder rock with an industrial/techno dance edge. Peaking at number six in the UK, the album yielded the hits “Day-In, Day-Out” (his 60th single), “Time Will Crawl“, and “Never Let Me Down“. Bowie later described it as his “nadir”, calling it “an awful album”. Supporting Never Let Me Down, and preceded by nine promotional press shows, the 86-concert Glass Spider Tour commenced on 30 May. Bowie’s backing band included Peter Frampton on lead guitar. Critics maligned the tour as overproduced, saying it pandered to the current stadium rock trends in its special effects and dancing.
1989–91: Tin Machine
Bowie shelved his solo career in 1989, retreating to the relative anonymity of band membership for the first time since the early 1970s. A hard-rocking quartet, Tin Machine came into being after Bowie began to work experimentally with guitarist Reeves Gabrels. The line-up was completed by Tony and Hunt Sales, whom Bowie had known since the late 1970s for their contribution, on bass and drums respectively, to Iggy Pop’s 1977 album Lust For Life.
Though he intended Tin Machine to operate as a democracy, Bowie dominated, both in songwriting and in decision-making. The band’s album debut, Tin Machine (1989), was initially popular, though its politicised lyrics did not find universal approval: Bowie described one song as “a simplistic, naive, radical, laying-it-down about the emergence of neo-Nazis”; in the view of biographer Christopher Sandford, “It took nerve to denounce drugs, fascism and TV … in terms that reached the literary level of a comic book.” EMI complained of “lyrics that preach” as well as “repetitive tunes” and “minimalist or no production”. The album nevertheless reached number three in the UK. Tin Machine’s first world tour was a commercial success, but there was growing reluctance—among fans and critics alike—to accept Bowie’s presentation as merely a band member. A series of Tin Machine singles failed to chart, and Bowie, after a disagreement with EMI, left the label. Like his audience and his critics, Bowie himself became increasingly disaffected with his role as just one member of a band. Tin Machine began work on a second album, but Bowie put the venture on hold and made a return to solo work. Performing his early hits during the seven-month Sound+Vision Tour, he found commercial success and acclaim once again.
In October 1990, a decade after his divorce from Angela, Bowie and Somali-born supermodel Iman were introduced by a mutual friend. Bowie recalled, “I was naming the children the night we met … it was absolutely immediate.” They married in 1992. Tin Machine resumed work the same month, but their audience and critics, ultimately left disappointed by the first album, showed little interest in a second. Tin Machine II ’s arrival was marked by a widely publicised and ill-timed conflict over the cover art: after production had begun, the new record label, Victory, deemed the depiction of four ancient nude Kouroi statues, judged by Bowie to be “in exquisite taste”, “a show of wrong, obscene images”, requiring air-brushing and patching to render the figures sexless. Tin Machine toured again, but after the live album Tin Machine Live: Oy Vey, Baby failed commercially, the band drifted apart, and Bowie, though he continued to collaborate with Gabrels, resumed his solo career.
1992–98: Electronic period
In April 1992 Bowie appeared at the Freddie Mercury Tribute Concert, following the Queen frontman’s death the previous year. As well as performing “Heroes” and “All the Young Dudes”, he was joined on “Under Pressure” by Annie Lennox, who took Mercury’s vocal part. Four days later, Bowie and Iman were married in Switzerland. Intending to move to Los Angeles, they flew in to search for a suitable property, but found themselves confined to their hotel, under curfew: the 1992 Los Angeles riots began the day they arrived. They settled in New York instead.
1993 saw the release of Bowie’s first solo offering since his Tin Machine departure, the soul, jazz and hip-hop influenced Black Tie White Noise. Making prominent use of electronic instruments, the album, which reunited Bowie with Let’s Dance producer Nile Rodgers, confirmed Bowie’s return to popularity, hitting the number one spot on the UK charts and spawning three top 40 hits, including the top 10 song “Jump They Say“. Bowie explored new directions on The Buddha of Suburbia (1993), a soundtrack album of incidental music composed for the TV series adaptation of Hanif Kureishi’s novel. It contained some of the new elements introduced in Black Tie White Noise, and also signalled a move towards alternative rock. The album was a critical success but received a low-key release and only made number 87 in the UK charts.
Reuniting Bowie with Eno, the quasi-industrial Outside (1995) was originally conceived as the first volume in a non-linear narrative of art and murder. Featuring characters from a short story written by Bowie, the album achieved US and UK chart success, and yielded three top 40 UK singles. In a move that provoked mixed reaction from both fans and critics, Bowie chose Nine Inch Nails as his tour partner for the Outside Tour. Visiting cities in Europe and North America between September 1995 and February the following year, the tour saw the return of Gabrels as Bowie’s guitarist.
Bowie was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame on 17 January 1996. Incorporating experiments in British jungle and drum ‘n’ bass, Earthling (1997) was a critical and commercial success in the UK and the US, and two singles from the album became UK top 40 hits. Bowie’s song “I’m Afraid of Americans” from the Paul Verhoeven film Showgirls was re-recorded for the album, and remixed by Trent Reznor for a single release. The heavy rotation of the accompanying video, also featuring Reznor, contributed to the song’s 16-week stay in the US Billboard Hot 100. The Earthling Tour took in Europe and North America between June and November 1997. Bowie reunited with Visconti in 1998 to record “(Safe in This) Sky Life” for The Rugrats Movie. Although the track was edited out of the final cut, it was later re-recorded and released as “Safe” on the B-side of Bowie’s 2002 single “Everyone Says ‘Hi’“. The reunion led to other collaborations including a limited-edition single release version of Placebo’s track “Without You I’m Nothing“, co-produced by Visconti, with Bowie’s harmonised vocal added to the original recording.
1999–2012: Neoclassicist Bowie
Bowie created the soundtrack for Omikron, a 1999 computer game in which he and Iman also appeared as characters. Released the same year and containing re-recorded tracks from Omikron, his album ‘Hours…’ featured a song with lyrics by the winner of his “Cyber Song Contest” Internet competition, Alex Grant. Making extensive use of live instruments, the album was Bowie’s exit from heavy electronica. Sessions for the planned album Toy, intended to feature new versions of some of Bowie’s earliest pieces as well as three new songs, commenced in 2000, but the album was never released. Bowie and Visconti continued their collaboration, producing a new album of completely original songs instead: the result of the sessions was the 2002 album Heathen. Alexandria Zahra Jones, Bowie and Iman’s daughter, was born on 15 August.
In October 2001, Bowie opened the Concert for New York City, a charity event to benefit the victims of the 11 September attacks, with a minimalist performance of Simon & Garfunkel‘s “America“, followed by a full band performance of “Heroes”. 2002 saw the release of Heathen, and, during the second half of the year, the Heathen Tour. Taking place in Europe and North America, the tour opened at London’s annual Meltdown festival, for which Bowie was that year appointed artistic director. Among the acts he selected for the festival were Philip Glass, Television and the Dandy Warhols. As well as songs from the new album, the tour featured material from Bowie’s Low era.Reality (2003) followed, and its accompanying world tour, the A Reality Tour, with an estimated attendance of 722,000, grossed more than any other in 2004. Onstage in Oslo, Norway, on 18 June, Bowie was hit in the eye with a lollipop thrown by a fan; a week later he suffered chest pain while performing at the Hurricane Festival in Scheeßel, Germany. Originally thought to be a pinched nerve in his shoulder, the pain was later diagnosed as an acutely blocked coronary artery, requiring an emergency angioplasty in Hamburg. The remaining 14 dates of the tour were cancelled.
In the years following his recuperation from the heart attack, Bowie reduced his musical output, making only one-off appearances on stage and in the studio. He sang in a duet of his 1972 song “Changes” with Butterfly Boucher for the 2004 animated film Shrek 2. During a relatively quiet 2005, he recorded the vocals for the song “(She Can) Do That”, co-written with Brian Transeau, for the film Stealth. He returned to the stage on 8 September 2005, appearing with Arcade Fire for the US nationally televised event Fashion Rocks, and performed with the Canadian band for the second time a week later during the CMJ Music Marathon. He contributed backing vocals on TV on the Radio‘s song “Province” for their album Return to Cookie Mountain, made a commercial with Snoop Dogg for XM Satellite Radio, and joined with Lou Reed on Danish alt-rockers Kashmir’s 2005 album No Balance Palace.
Bowie was awarded the Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award on 8 February 2006. In April, he announced, “I’m taking a year off—no touring, no albums.” He made a surprise guest appearance at David Gilmour‘s 29 May concert at the Royal Albert Hall in London. The event was recorded, and a selection of songs on which he had contributed joint vocals were subsequently released. He performed again in November, alongside Alicia Keys, at the Black Ball, a New York benefit event for Keep a Child Alive, a performance that marks the last time Bowie performed his music on stage.
Bowie was chosen to curate the 2007 High Line Festival, selecting musicians and artists for the Manhattan event, and performed on Scarlett Johansson‘s 2008 album of Tom Waits covers, Anywhere I Lay My Head. On the 40th anniversary of the July 1969 moon landing—and Bowie’s accompanying commercial breakthrough with “Space Oddity”—EMI released the individual tracks from the original eight-track studio recording of the song, in a 2009 contest inviting members of the public to create a remix.A Reality Tour, a double album of live material from the 2003 concert tour, was released in January 2010.
In late March 2011, Toy, Bowie’s previously unreleased album from 2001, was leaked onto the internet, containing material used for Heathen and most of its single B-sides, as well as unheard new versions of his early back catalogue.
2013–2016: The Next Day and Blackstar
On 8 January 2013 (his 66th birthday), his website announced a new album, to be titled The Next Day and scheduled for release 8 March for Australia, 12 March for the United States and 11 March for the rest of the world. Bowie’s first studio album in a decade, The Next Day contains 14 songs plus 3 bonus tracks. His website acknowledged the length of his hiatus. Record producer Tony Visconti said 29 tracks were recorded for the album, some of which could appear on Bowie’s next record, which he might start work on later in 2013. The announcement was accompanied by the immediate release of a single, “Where Are We Now?“, written and recorded by Bowie in New York and produced by longtime collaborator Tony Visconti. A music video for the single was released onto Vimeo the same day, directed by New York artist Tony Oursler. The single topped the UK iTunes Chart within hours of its release, and debuted in the UK Singles Chart at No. 6, his first single to enter the top 10 for two decades, (since “Jump They Say” in 1993). A second video, “The Stars (Are Out Tonight)”, was released 25 February. Directed by Floria Sigismondi, it stars Bowie and Tilda Swinton as a married couple. On 1 March, the album was made available to stream for free through iTunes.The Next Day debuted at No. 1 on the UK Albums Chart, his first since Black Tie White Noise (1993), and was the fastest-selling album of 2013 at the time.
The music video for the song “The Next Day” has created some controversy, initially being removed from YouTube for terms-of-service violation, then restored with a warning recommending viewing only by those 18 or over.
According to The Times, Bowie ruled out ever giving an interview again. An exhibition of Bowie artefacts, called “David Bowie Is,” was shown at the Victoria and Albert Museum in 2013. Later that year the exhibition began a world tour, starting in Toronto and including stops in Chicago, Paris, Melbourne, and Groningen (The Netherlands).
Bowie was featured in a cameo vocal in the Arcade Fire song “Reflektor”. A poll carried out by BBC History Magazine, in October 2013, named Bowie as the best-dressed Briton in history. At the 2014 Brit Awards on 19 February, Bowie became the oldest recipient of a Brit Award in the ceremony’s history when he won the award for Best British Male, which was collected on his behalf by Kate Moss. His speech read: “I’m completely delighted to have a Brit for being the best male – but I am, aren’t I Kate? Yes. I think it’s a great way to end the day. Thank you very, very much and Scotland stay with us.” Bowie’s reference to the forthcoming Scottish independence referendum garnered a significant reaction on social media. On 18 July, Bowie indicated that future music would be forthcoming, though he was vague about details.
New information was released in September 2014 regarding his next compilation album, Nothing Has Changed, which was released in November. The album featured rare tracks and old material from his catalogue in addition to a new song titled “Sue (Or in a Season of Crime)“.
In May 2015 it was announced that “Let’s Dance” would be reissued as a yellow vinyl single on 16 July 2015 in conjunction with the David Bowie is’ exhibition at the Australian Centre For The Moving Image in Melbourne.
Bowie wrote and recorded the opening title song to the television series The Last Panthers, which aired in November 2015. The show’s director, Johan Renck, said of Bowie, “His first response was precise, engaged and curious. The piece of music he laid before us embodied every aspect of our characters and the series itself – dark, brooding, beautiful and sentimental (in the best possible incarnation of this word). All along, the man inspired and intrigued me and as the process passed, I was overwhelmed with his generosity. I still can’t fathom what actually happened.” The theme that will be used for The Last Panthers will also be the title track for his January 2016 release Blackstar (★) which is said to take cues from his earlier krautrock influenced work. According to The Times: “Blackstar may be the oddest work yet from Bowie”.
Regarding his religion, in 2005 he said, “Questioning my spiritual life has always been germane to what I was writing. Always.” He added that he was bothered by being “not quite an atheist”. In the Esquire interview “What I’ve Learned”, he stated, “I’m in awe of the universe, but I don’t necessarily believe there’s an intelligence or agent behind it. I do have a passion for the visual in religious rituals, though, even though they may be completely empty and bereft of substance. The incense is powerful and provocative, whether Buddhist or Catholic.”
Bowie showed an interest in Buddhism that began in 1967. He frequently studied in London under the Tibetan Lama Chime Rinpoche before becoming a solo artist. During a 2001 interview, Bowie claimed that “after a few months of study, he told me, ‘You don’t want to be Buddhist … You should follow music.‘” Bowie later wrote the song “Silly Boy Blue” in tribute to Rinpoche on his 1967 album David Bowie. Bowie also became a student of the Crazy wisdom Tulku Chögyam Trungpa.
Speaking as The Thin White Duke, Bowie’s persona at the time, and “at least partially tongue-in-cheek”, he made statements that expressed support for fascism and perceived admiration for Adolf Hitler in interviews with Playboy, NME and a Swedish publication. Bowie was quoted as saying: “Britain is ready for a fascist leader… I think Britain could benefit from a fascist leader. After all, fascism is really nationalism… I believe very strongly in fascism, people have always responded with greater efficiency under a regimental leadership.” He was also quoted as saying: “Adolf Hitler was one of the first rock stars” and “You’ve got to have an extreme right front come up and sweep everything off its feet and tidy everything up.” Bowie later retracted these comments and blamed them on mental instability caused by his drug problems at the time, saying: “I was out of my mind, totally, completely crazed.”
On 10 January 2016, two days after his 69th birthday, Bowie died from cancer. He had been diagnosed with the illness eighteen months earlier.
Awards and recognition
Bowie’s 1969 commercial breakthrough, the song “Space Oddity”, won him an Ivor Novello Special Award For Originality. For his performance in the 1976 science fiction film The Man Who Fell to Earth, he won a Saturn Award for Best Actor. In the ensuing decades he has been honoured with numerous awards for his music and its accompanying videos, receiving, among others, two Grammy Awards and three BRIT Awards.
In 1999, Bowie was made a Commander of the Ordre des Arts et des Lettres by the French government. He received an honorary doctorate from Berklee College of Music the same year. He declined the royal honour of Commander of the British Empire in 2000, and turned down a knighthood in 2003.
Throughout his career he sold an estimated 140 million albums. In the United Kingdom, he was awarded 9 Platinum, 11 Gold and 8 Silver albums, and in the United States, 5 Platinum and 7 Gold. In the BBC’s 2002 poll of the 100 Greatest Britons, he was ranked 29. In 2004, Rolling Stone magazine ranked him 39th on their list of the 100 Greatest Rock Artists of All Time and the 23rd best singer of all time. Bowie was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame on 17 January 1996 and named a member of the Science Fiction and Fantasy Hall of Fame in June 2013.
Artist information provided by WikiMedia