His original name – David Jones – sounded too ordinary. Besides it was too similar to Davy Jones, the vocalist of the already famous ‘Monkees’. One thing for sure, David never wanted to be confused with anyone. He never even wanted to be caught up with any of the characters he played. Instead, he took on the stage name David Bowie, soon gaining global recognition and changing music forever.
Text: Michalina Marczak
The dogged man
Though I’m past one hundred thousand miles
I’m feeling very still
And I think my spaceship knows which way to go
(Space Oddity, 1969)
David Jones, aka Bowie, was born in gloomy south London in the late 1940s. The same neighbourhood was soon to welcome the first wave of immigrants from Jamaica, marking the beginning of British multicultural society. From the very start of formal education, David showed above-average musical ability. His older brother exposed him to different kinds of rock’n’roll as well as beat literature, both of which had great influence on young David. However, it was the art teacher at the local high school who shaped his future as an artist.
David formed his first band at the age of 15 and pursued different projects for the next five years. Despite this, none of the singles recorded throughout this period granted him commercial success. It was someday then that he decided to rename himself David Bowie, after the famous Bowie knife used for fighting. His 1967 debut album David Bowie went unnoticed, and another two years passed without any releases. However, David remained active, writing songs for others and performing as a dancer and mime actor. Finally, in 1969, Space Oddity reached the UK’s top five hits after the BBC used it as a soundtrack to the Apollo 11 moon landing. Suddenly the whole world had heard about David Bowie.
The chameleon man
So I turned myself to face me
But I’ve never caught a glimpse
Of how the others must see the faker
I’m much too fast to take that test
From then on, Bowie’s road to stardom proceeded relatively smoothly. To escape the celebrity cliché, Bowie introduced a new incarnation of himself with almost every album. Utilising heavy rock sounds, The Man Who Sold the World (1970) portrayed Bowie’s androgynous character to the audience, causing much controversy over the long chic dress he wore on the album cover and during the US tour. With Hunky Dory (1971), he moved easily between kitsch and high-art, blending different pop styles. His friend’s mental breakdown – manifested in his belief that he was a mix between a god and an alien – as well as a quest for constant re-invention of his stage image, inspired Bowie to tell the story of an ill-fated bisexual rock star from outer space. This is how Ziggy Stardust, played by Bowie himself, was born. The release of The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars (1972) soon followed, and The Ziggy show presented by Bowie and his fellow musicians was exceptional.
During concerts, dressed mostly in unusual alien costumes, Bowie sang about a range of political issues, sexuality and the end of rock’n’roll as people knew it. This incarnation of Bowie became extremely popular, turning him into a superstar. Then, to escape the persona of Stardust, Bowie recorded Alladin Sane (1973), his first album to top the UK pop chart. It was this album cover that depicted Bowie with a lightning bolt across his face, one of the most memorable images in pop culture. During the Diamond Dogs (1974) tour, Bowie performed dramatic choreography full of special effects presented on an enormous stage built to resemble a city. His next albums saw him continue to transform musically from the so-called plastic soul of Young Americans (1975), through the controversial cabaret-style and hollow character of Thin White Duke singing on Station to Station (1976), to minimalist ambient sounds from the Berlin Trilogy – Low (1977), Heroes (1977) and Lodger (1979).
At the beginning of the 80’s, Bowie embraced new-wave culture on Scary Monsters (And Super Creeps) (1980) and followed with a typical pop style in Let’s Dance (1983), his best selling album. After releasing two more pop albums, Bowie decided to turn back to rougher sounds with Tin Machine (1989) and Tin Machine II, two years later. These albums very much announced the arrival of the grunge era. His later albums did not meet such commercial success, however many regarded them as a come-back to his artistic roots.
After a ten-year break, Bowie returned in 2013 with The Next Day, recorded in art rock style. His twenty-fifth album ‘★’ (or Blackstar), deemed by critics to be as far from pop as Bowie could get, was released on the artist’s 69th birthday, just two days before he died on January 10th, 2016.
The iconic man
I, I will be king
And you, you will be queen
Though nothing, will drive them away
We can beat them, just for one day
We can be heroes, just for one day
As much as David Bowie was a great hero of my parents’ generation, he remains one of the most influential figures in pop-culture, an absolute icon of popular music. The constant musical transformations stopped him from getting caught up in easy classifications, whilst the pursuit of moving on, constantly experimenting, rethinking what pop music is and reinventing the stage image, have served as inspiration for musicians all over the world. Taking into account all the musical genres he played with, one can see how far his influence stretches. Not-to-mention that Bowie is regarded as a pioneer of several different styles of music including glam rock, punk, grunge as well as of lavish pop concert shows. There probably wouldn’t be Madonna, Lady Gaga, Kayne West and the like, the way they are today, if it wasn’t for David Bowie. What’s more, through his queer incarnations and openness regarding his bisexuality – as early as the 70’s – he did a world of good to LGBTQ community.
My own exploration of Bowie started from hearing Nirvana’s cover of The Man Who Sold The World from their Unplugged in NY concert. Later I heard him singing with Placebo on the single version of Without You I’m Nothing. This was the point at which I decided to go to the original source, to Bowie’s own albums. I discovered a world of innovation, unobvious sounds intertwined with catchy melodies and visual shows leaving me in awe. No wonder his songs were covered by a whole spectrum of artists representing a variety of genres. Many will know The Smashing Pumpkins version of Space Oddity, Moonage Daydream covered by White Stripes or Warpaint’s cover of Ashes to Ashes. Some might have heard of the indescribably addictive Love Is Lost remix by James Murphy. Even though David Bowie is most recognised for his work in the 1970s as well as his 80’s pop hits, his last album, ‘★’ – influenced by modern hip-hop and electronica – is surely as good a bet as any for those hungry for a piece of truly good music.
There’s a starman waiting in the sky
He’d like to come and meet us
But he thinks he’d blow our minds
There’s a starman waiting in the sky
The fun fact is that without David Bowie there probably wouldn’t be me either. My parents met for the first time on a screening of Absolute Beginners, a film featuring Bowie and his music, yet another coincidence in the universe. Actually, much of Bowie’s inspiration came from outer space. This is why, shortly after his death, astronomers from the MIRA public observatory in Belgium registered a constellation shaped like the lightning bolt from Alladin Sane, in honour of the musician. What’s more, everyone can mark their favourite Bowie song in the constellation using Google Sky (www.stardustforbowie.be), a tribute to a musician with an unearthly talent.