The breadth of David Bowie’s influence on popular music (or should that be popular culture?) is difficult to measure – so many artists from the last fifty years cite him as the voice of the different, the channel between those on the fringes and everyone else.
He was the Minister of Freaks, the one who teased the press with his sexual ambiguity and exploited visual art and fashion to forge a musical path through pop music considered by many to be unrivalled in its colour and variety.
An artist, writer, singer and multi-instrumentalist, producer, actor and fashion icon – Bowie blazed a half-century trail of fearless flamboyance : an unmatched great in the art of reinvention. With estimated global record sales of 140 million and eleven UK No.1 albums, Bowie managed to capture the attention of a broad demographic – all ages, all tastes.
I had to be very exaggerated in the beginning, to defy people to put me into a category that would leave me room to work in.
He produced plenty of music that made mainstream radio (his most accessible album Let’s Dance sold 7 million copies alone) but also plenty that was obscure, just for the die-hard fans. But he could never be accused of being a generalist and this was the paradox: although he shapeshifted from one alter ego to another, the quality of the music was consistent. How many artists can manage such popular appeal while retaining control of their artistic output?
The 1970s was Bowie’s most experimental and diverse decade. Each new character was another embodiment, a new spark, from an imagination that could never rest. He didn’t just release albums, he developed personas to accompany each one.
From his arrival on the serious music scene of the late 1960s as Major Tom, a gentle, lost-in-space cadet, to the ballsy rock-in-a-frock of The Man Who Sold the World. From the beguiling simplicity of Hunky Dory to the gorgeous sass of Ziggy Stardust.
The killing off of Ziggy on July 3rd 1973 made way for the next move – Aladdin Sane. This was an album so different to its predecessor, one which demonstrated his ability to change direction at will.
The new wave vibe of Scary Monsters in 1980 marked the end of an era that had seen Bowie dabble in folk rock (Hunky Dory), hard rock (The Man Who Sold the World), glam (Pin Ups), soul (Young Americans) and ambient (Low). And all of it was credible.
From the slick, sharp-suited rock testaments of the nineties (Tin Machine) and noughties (Heathen) to that day in January 2016 – this dude downright did it all.
So many bands and musicians credit Bowie as an influence: Madonna, Dave Grohl, Annie Lennox, Nile Rodgers, Mark Ronson, Joy Division, Kanye West, The Cure, Kiss, REM, Paul Weller, Arctic Monkeys, The Smiths, Depeche Mode, Lady Gaga…You get the idea.
“Without David Bowie, popular music as we know it pretty much wouldn’t exist.” Moby
Right up until the end he retained a talent for a kick-ass rock tune, his quiet gentlemanly integrity brought a welcome relief from the vulgar narcissism of 21st century popular culture – remember he’d been there, done that already.
He was an artist who knew his survival depended on wandering through genres, collecting scraps and cast-offs and using them to construct new musical landscapes. In his words, “I’m a collector. And I always just seem to collect personalities, ideas.”
He had an ear to the ground, wandering eyes, a finger stuck to the pulse. An opportunist? Definitely. Does it matter? Absolutely.
Bowie’s critics used his eye for a new scene and ability to embrace new movements (consider the drum and bass on 1997’s Earthling) as a stick to spank him with while fans celebrate this cultural pickpocketing as the sign of an innovator. It’s not what you steal – stealing is nothing new – it’s what you do with it that counts.
Bowie was a master of adaptation – always flaunting his ability to gauge the mood of the time ; any artist who wants to survive knows this and Bowie’s disparate back catalogue charts the sinuous progress of one of rock music’s ultimate survivors.
You can be uncompromising year after year, decade after decade, facing your audience with your earnest schtick but where’s the evolution? Where’s the development of the artist? The experimentation. The curve ball. This artist kept us guessing.
He knew If we got what we were expecting, there was something wrong. And although we didn’t always like what we got, our curiosity was enough to keep us hooked.
Bowie was a man who had an inherent understanding of the visual. The V&A exhibition, “David Bowie is…”, a comprehensive celebration of Bowie’s standing as a master of style, music and performance, was the fastest-selling event in the London museum’s history. Annoyingly photogenic and always compelling, image had been hard-wired into his performance from day one. Consider the garish weirdness of the Ashes to Ashes vid or the unnerving narrative of Blackstar and it’s plain that it was never just about the music. Even when he simply stood there alone against white (Be My Wife) or bathed in dry ice (Heroes), it was hard not to engage.
But it’s David Bowie’s legacy in the cinematic world which has immortalised him as a considerable big-screen talent. Crossing the tracks from music to film has always been tricky at best but Bowie leaves behind a string of film appearances, directed by some of the most accomplished figures in the business – Christopher Nolan, Martin Scorcese, David Lynch, Luc Besson – several of which have met with critical acclaim: The Man Who fell to Earth, Merry Christmas Mr Lawrence, Basquiat and most recently The Prestige.
Interestingly, Nagisa Oshima – director of Merry Christmas Mr Lawrence – chose Bowie for the role after seeing him play John Merrick in The Elephant Man on Broadway in the early 1980s. Whether or not you are a fan of his acting style, his celluloid charisma has an undeniable charm and is well worth a look.
Poring over Bowie’s artistic output over the last forty years, one might be forgiven for thinking that work of such depth, intellect and imagination could only be the product of a relentlessly serious individual, the kind of person who might have disappeared up his own backside more than once (with his talent – who wouldn’t?).
But a thread runs through the achievements of the man who never thought he’d make it big. For an individual who on many occasions seemed to be more extra than terrestrial, more aloof than approachable, Bowie displayed a brilliantly deadpan sense of humour and gentle warmth (check out his intimate guest spot on BBC Radio One’s Star Special in 1979 and, much later, appearance playing his bad self on Ricky Gervais’ Extras). Indeed, examples of his self-deprecation, (“You know, what I do is not terribly intellectual. I’m a pop singer for Christ’s sake.”) can be found all over the internet, securing his status as a thoroughly charming and decent bloke.
David Bowie and his wife Iman have keenly supported many charities, more of which can be found here. Together with Bowie’s musical contributions to Live Aid and Warchild, two causes he helped were The Borgen Project which campaigns to combat global poverty and Keep A Child Alive, a charity co-founded by Alicia Keys and focused on combating AIDS.
Bowie’s final long player – Blackstar – is, in the words of his long-time producer and collaborator, Tony Visconti, his ‘parting gift’. A gift from a musician who, even in his late sixties, knew what music could and should be – fresh, challenging, passionate, puzzling. So From Major Tom to the quiet New Yorker of late via Ziggy, Aladdin Sane and the Thin White Duke, he finally cut the cord – leaving us earthlings with the white-hot remains of a star.
Tribute by Kieran Fahy