“IF YOU’RE sad today, just remember the earth is over 4billion years old and yet you somehow managed to be alive at the same time as David Bowie.”
This quote, rightly or wrongly attributed at the time to the comedy actor Simon Pegg, felt so perfect for how the world was feeling after Bowie’s untimely death in January 2016, writes James Iles.
The enigmatic genius’ final album Blackstar had been released just two days earlier and while its content (including the titular song and tracks like Lazarus) gave a sense of foreboding that Bowie may not have long left on this planet it did nothing to ease the shock and pain of his passing.
David Bowie influenced so many hit artists across five decades of recording music and was so often at the forefront of fashion it is hard to think of many who could say they hadn’t been inspired, even indirectly, by his broad spectrum of work.
He was the master of reinvention and such was his timespan that it’s likely a different Bowie era rings true for each of us. For me it was the 1980s that first piqued my interest in the Starman…
‘B’ is for David Bowie
I first recall David Bowie as a Pierrot-esque clown figure in a court procession of New Romantics parading up a beach for the video of 1980 smash hit Ashes to Ashes.
Here, Bowie “remembers the guy that’s been in such an early song” when he revisits the character of Major Tom from his first chart hit Space Oddity (1969) which later went to number one as a re-release in 1975.
The video was the most expensive ever made at the time and perfectly encapsulated the arts and music scene of the time, featuring club scene characters like Steve Strange who were key to the burgeoning New Romantics move that was erupting.
Bowie was the hero of this pop culture movement – 80s stars Duran, Duran, Spandau Ballet, Depeche Mode and so many others would all cite him as their big influence – but in one hit song and video he endorsed and reaffirmed their fashion and style as the current coolest thing on the planet.
He was both a leader and a follower of cutting edge trends.
Ashes to Ashes was (only) his second UK No.1 and though he is known for his 1970s ‘Golden Years’ with hits like Starman, Life on Mars, Rebel Rebel, The Jean Genie and Heroes, it’s worth remembering Bowie scored three more of his five UK No.1s in the 1980s.
Let’s Dance (1983) – brilliantly produced by Nile Rodgers – and duets with Queen on Under Pressure (1981) and Mick Jagger on Dancin’ in the Streets (1985) were to follow. Does commercial success eclipse credibility though? You decide.
It wasn’t just the number ones that defined the 80s for Bowie, he was one of the star turns at Live Aid in 1985 and his prolific career saw him release (often underrated) songs for movies like Cat People (Putting Out The Fire), Absolute Beginners and When The Wind Blows (remember Raymond Briggs’ apocalyptic cartoon film?). China Girl, Fame (with John Lennon) and Fashion are firm favourites from this decade too.
Moving into the 1990s and the Thin White Duke was once again on the front foot, embracing the new dance music rhythms of the time which underpinned his ‘comeback’ hit Jump They Say (from Black Tie White Noise) when he once again hired Nile Rodgers as producer and Bowie himself played saxophone on top of the funky single which got to number 9 in the UK in 1993, his only top ten between 1986’s Absolute Beginners and 2013’s Where Are We Now?
1993 also saw Bowie provide the nostalgic soundtrack to Hanef Kureshi’s brilliant Buddha of Suburbia TV series, the title track being a personal favourite of mine.
He gave an industrial/grungy sound to the Brian Eno-produced Heart’s Filthy Lesson of 1995 from the Outside album which also gave us another great single when Hallo Spaceboy was remixed and released as a co-performance with Pet Shop Boys, another group who acknowledge working with Bowie as a career high-point such was his influence on them.
Giving it more than a lashing of the PSB’s signature synth-dance sound, Neil Tennant also added a verse to the original Eno/Bowie song using one of Bowie’s methods of writing by taking sentences (in this case from Space Oddity), cutting them up and re-arranging them to make new lyrics. Thankfully Bowie approved and they performed it together at the legendary 1996 Brit Awards show.
Illness – Bowie suffered from a blocked artery on tour in 2004 prompting emergency heart surgery – saw a slowing down of his career in the 2000s though he did reunite his live band to record his penultimate album The Next Day in 2013.
The release of his 27th and final studio album Blackstar on January 8th 2016 – Bowie’s 69th birthday – preceded his death from liver cancer by two days.
It was a reflective release, critically acclaimed, and one last treat from an artist who is peerless in his influence and inspiration on contemporary music.
Like all the best pop stars, Bowie was androgynous and mysterious which only added to his appeal.
His other-worldly persona made it hard to fathom his journey to the stars and it’s difficult to see another who will ever come near his impact on either the popular music or popular culture.
My top David Bowie tracks
1. Ashes to Ashes
2. Life on Mars?
Underrated track = Absolute Beginners (Official video on YouTube)
Check out James’ David Bowie playlist on Spotify https://open.spotify.com/playlist/5jfkD0tVuZQ5SR22nwwLBB