In his characters Ziggy Stardust, the Thin White Duke, Aladdin Sane and The Man Who Fell to Earth, David Bowie has tried his utmost to alienate himself from the mundane realm of human life, while doing his best to entice those firmly planted within it. His musical career is comparable to that of an actor, and although in projects such as the Serious Moonlight tour in 1983 - when audiences saw a clean and happy Bowie stripped back to basics wearing a suit and no make-up - one can argue that as an audience we will never know the ‘real’ Bowie, or what makes up his basic human essence.
For a nineties generation kid the only way to view his career is retrospectively. To understand the significance of his latest offering, one must journey through his chameleonic career thus far, focussing on key moments between 1971 and 2013. The characters he created generally possessed an essence, including their own histories and motivations that he designed alongside their appearances to create a particular image, in cohesion with the associated album. But what is David Bowie’s essence? Does he exist within the same comprehensible dimension as these characters, or is he much more complex than we can begin to understand?
Making a lasting impression upon our culture was something that Bowie was always very conscious that he wanted to do. By holding back in interviews, throwing out posters into the audience at his gigs to be plastered on walls, discovering unknown and unconscious aspects of himself while continually and always presenting himself with an overarching sense of allure and mystery; Bowie was turning himself into an icon. He used different genres as mediums for his artistic expression, collecting characters and personalities in his quest to be idolised in his every form. Comparable to the enigmatic Andy Warhol in this sense, he had an idea of how he wanted to be perceived at any given moment. When he visited New York in the early seventies to sign with RCA Records, David Bowie actually met Warhol and wrote a song for him but this was shunned, thus proving the elusive nature of these deeply complex and artistic men, each setting out to make their own mark on pop culture.
Arguably the beginning of David Bowie’s alternative world was with his fourth album Hunkydory released in 1971, which saw a new awareness in him that he was beginning to become a cultural icon. Memorable tracks from the release include the anthemic “Life on Mars”, “Changes” which addresses the nature of changes within a person’s core (a subject easily relatable to Bowie’s own progression as an artist) and The Velvet Underground inspired punk offering “Queen Bitch” with a heavily made-up look and orange hair which hinted at the shape of things to come with album The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars. This album saw Bowie collaborate with guitarist Mick Ronson and make use of a heavily-honed image with a sound which took influence from the likes of Lou Reed and Iggy Pop (as described by Trevor Bolder - bassist on this album). Here, lyrics were about the experience of ‘rockstardom’, and in singing about the process he became a rockstar himself in the form of Ziggy Stardust, in an extraordinary example of self-actualization. Alongside his music, Bowie manipulated his own image to make people want more of him and described this new character of his as a “mythological priest figure”. Alongside the title track were incredible songs such as “Starman” and the epic opening track “Five Years” about the end of the Earth, altogether making for one hell of an album. But if his audience began to think they could grasp at any concept of who David Bowie, the musician, was, their complacency was soon to be corrected.
In 1973 Ziggy was essentially killed off and the idea that there was no definitive David Bowie was becoming more prevalent in his audience’s albeit vague ‘understanding’ of him. Now in Philadelphia where soul music was rife, Bowie’s influences were fast-changing and by 1975 he had released his first soul/funk album (but his ninth studio album) Young Americans, which saw him collaborate with Luther Vandross and perform at the notorious Apollo in Harlem. With tracks such as the unconventionally soul song “Right” and others such as “Footstompin”, made all the funkier by guitarist Carlos Alomar, it seemed as though Bowie had really arrived as a cult artist. Particularly in the track “Right” Bowie demonstrated a take on soul music that had never been seen before, and was meticulous in ensuring that the final result possessed a sound that he was confident in. Forever evolving, Bowie then took Alomar’s riff from the track “Right” and worked with fellow icon John Lennon to create the massive hit “Fame” which was then added to the album.
The next big move for Bowie was the Thin White Duke. This look’s associated album is Station to Station, which was produced while he was in Los Angeles. With a deadly, dark title track and a new German-influenced sound in songs such as “Golden Years” this album saw Bowie at his weakest. At this point and while heavily dependent upon cocaine, he in his own words, was really “psychically damaged”. The character he formulated for this album was a European Duke character, in the USA wanting to get back to Europe.
As farfetched as these images begin to sound, they were surpassed entirely by the concept of creating a new language which was explored in the album Low, recorded in Paris with David Bowie’s musical soul-mate Brian Eno. Taking on inspirational new ways of making music, this was groundbreaking. A half-instrumental record was a risky move, particularly exemplified in the track “Warsawa”, which uses non-words. Despite its unconventionality, the release is still considered a blues album mostly because David Bowie is expressing his sadness in ways which broke the musical formalities of the genre. In “Breaking Glass”, it is apparent that he is dealing with deep and personal issues by singing about them in a cathartic, creative process. Despite all of this, it was labelled as one of the 500 greatest albums of all time by the Rolling Stone and is considered thus by many.
Continuing to work with Eno with the addition of guitarist Robert Fripp and having reached a much better place in his life, back to basics was the next movement of David Bowie’s music. The album Heroes was released in 1977 and contained the unforgettably brilliant title track and “Beauty and The Beast”, proving that in order to make incredible music, Bowie did not need drugs. With the backdrop of the Berlin Wall for his studio, as an artist he began to really see the light at the end of the tunnel and in his own words “went naked”. But from a cynical perspective – was this just another of David Bowie’s calculated guises?
The album Scary Monsters released in 1980 saw the inclusion of romantic ideas fashionable at the time. The memorable “Space Oddity” introduced us to the credible character of Major Tom and funky, fantastic tracks such as “Fashion” made all the more “out-there” by the aforementioned Robert Fripp. From here on, after a dabble in the West End, David Bowie apparently wanted to strip back the confusion about his musical identity and so worked with producer Nile Rogers to create the jazzy cool superhits “Let’s Dance” and “Chinagirl”, from athe album Let’s Dance. These songs alongside the Serious Moonlight Tour of 1983 saw the progression from David Bowie the cult icon to David Bowie the mainstream superstar. With more obvious and positive lyrics, he allowed for this to happen. But having made it in every sense of the word, what more could be gained? Between this time and 2007, he produced 11 more albums and achieved global success... and all of a sudden, disappeared from the music world’s radar. Regaining his previous mystery and distance, his huge audience no longer knew who they thought David Bowie was, with him refusing to do interviews and reverting back to a Warhol-esque anti-mainstream attitude.
Whoever David Bowie, in his essence, may be, to come back with an album of such quality as The Next Day with the first single “The Stars (Are Out Tonight)” – yet another track about the concept of celebrity and a music video playing on sexual androgyny. This is a musician who commands the title of a national institution.
Considering the vast array of genres and continents he has covered throughout his musical and acting careers, one could even argue that Bowie is a universal institution, as an artist who has tried his hand at numerous genres to produce unforgettable tracks such as “Golden Years”, “Fame”, “Heroes”, “Chinagirl, “Starman”, “Changes”, “Let’s Dance” and tons more in London, New York, Paris, Los Angeles, Philadelphia and Berlin. Reinventing his image to play the characters of Ziggy Stardust, Aladdin Sane and the Thin White Duke, musically and visually, David Bowie has demonstrated a chameleonic ability unseen and perhaps even undesired in or by other musicians. There is no definitive David Bowie, but the one common denominator will always remain, that each of his projects has been and will be utterly and undeniably iconic.