David Bowie: 40 Years

An anniversary retrospective
David Bowie as the Thin White Duke, 1976

Graeme Thomson reflects on the musical career of David Bowie, spanning four decades:
In some respects "Space Oddity" was a false dawn, widely regarded as an opportunistic novelty number timed to coincide with the moon shot. Bowie, meanwhile, never felt at ease playing the winsome acoustic troubadour. Bored by the "denim hell" and frayed authenticity of the likes of Led Zeppelin, he eventually hitched his wagon to the overt theatricality of glam rock, creating Ziggy Stardust, the quintessential Bowie construct. Incorporating elements of mime, kabuki and the droogs as portrayed in Stanley Kubrick's [AClockwork Orange, Ziggy was the ultimate representation of pop-star-as-alien, driven by the robust buzz-saw guitar riffs of Mick Ronson. Three years after the first, Bowie's second appearance on Top of the Pops was genuinely iconoclastic, his performance of "Starman" denoting 1972 as Year Zero for a generation of punks, Goths, new wavers and New Romantics.

Having achieved lift-off, Bowie followed through on his promise to make a "wild mutation" as a rock'n'roll star. Only five years passed between 1971's Hunky Dory and the corrupted Aryan beauty of Station to Station, but in that time Bowie bounced from hokey folk to glam to hard rock to frigid Eurodisco, mutating en route into Aladdin Sane, Hallowe'en Jack and the Thin White Duke.

Falling on each emerging trend - disco, Philly soul, electronic minimalism, new wave - as it stole into view, he was a magpie with a priceless knack for pinching ideas from the cultural margins and siphoning them into the mainstream through his own work. One biographer defined him as a "style vampire", a mannequin dressed in a series of beautiful, borrowed clothes. "Some people say Bowie is all surface style and second-hand ideas," said Brian Eno, his on-off collaborator for three decades. "But that sounds like a definition of pop to me."

He certainly looked and acted the part. Sexually voracious - when he met his first wife, Angie, in 1969 they were famously "fucking the same bloke" - he was impossibly thin and vampiric, those fangs and odd, mismatched eyes emitting an unearthly vibe. Like all great pop stars, he contrived to paint the grim grind of sustained drug-taking as a vaguely noble quest, a way of seeking new dimensions rather than making emergency repairs to a fractured psyche. In Bowie's case, mired in cocaine addiction, those dimensions involved dystopian visions where the occult, the Holy Grail and fascism met in some futuristic, Ballardian hell.

Recovering in Berlin from these nightmares in 1976 and 1977, Bowie made the most influential records of his career. Low and "Heroes" were dense, pensive, occasionally hilarious works marrying US R'n'B with the electronic Euro pulse of Neu and Kraftwerk. Lodger (1979) and Scary Monsters (1980) concluded his journey from secluded drug dependency to boisterous commercial rejuvenation, but after that his creativity crumbled. [Read More]

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