David Bowie Biography

David Robert Jones, 8 January 1947, Brixton, London, England. One of the great enigmas of popular music and certainly the most mercurial, Bowie underwent a veritable odyssey of career moves and minor crises before establishing himself as a major performer. He began playing saxophone during his teens, initially with various school groups. School also contributed to his future pop star career in a more bizarre way as a result of a playground fight, which left the singer with a paralysed pupil (being stabbed in the eye with a school geometry compass). Consequently, he had eyes of a different colour, an accident that later enhanced his otherworldly image. In the early 60s, however, his style was decidedly orthodox, all mod clothes and R&B riffs. Over the next few years, he went through a succession of backing groups including the King Bees, the Manish Boys, the Lower Third and the Buzz. In late 1966, he changed his surname owing to the imminent emergence of Davy Jones of the Monkees. During that same period, he came under the wing of manager Kenneth Pitt, who nurtured his career for the remainder of the decade.

A contract with the fashionable Decca Records subsidiary Deram Records saw Bowie achieve some high-profile publicity, but subsequent singles and a well-promoted debut album failed to sell. Bowie even attempted a cash-in novelty number, ‘The Laughing Gnome’, but the charts remained resilient to his every move. Bowie persisted with mime classes while Pitt financed a television film, Love You Till Tuesday, but it was never shown on a major network. For a time, the star-elect performed in cabaret and retained vocal inflexions that betrayed a strong debt to his idol Anthony Newley.

As the 60s wound to a close Bowie seemed one of the least likely pop idols of the new decade. He was known only because of numerous advertisements in the British music press, and was regarded as an artist who had released many records for many labels without success. The possibility of reinventing himself as a 70s pop star seemed remote at best, but in the autumn of 1969 he finally broke through with ‘Space Oddity’, released to coincide with the American moon launch. The novel tale of Major Tom, whose sojourn in space disorientates him to such a degree that he chooses to remain adrift rather than return to Earth, was a worthy UK Top 10 hit. Unfortunately, Bowie seemed unable to follow up the single with anything similarly clever and when ‘The Prettiest Star’ flopped, most critics understandably dismissed him as a one-hit-wonder. Only weeks earlier, the American duo Zager And Evans had enjoyed a far bigger hit with the tedious transatlantic chart-topper ‘In The Year 2525’, the theme of which bore superficial similarities to Bowie’s tale, each dealing with possible future events and containing a pat moral. The fate of Zager And Evans (instant obscurity) weighed heavily over Bowie’s fragile pop career, while an interesting yet patchy album named after his hit provided few clues to his future.

A remarkable series of changes in Bowie’s life, both personal and professional, occurred in 1970. His half-brother Terry was committed to a mental institution; his father died and, soon afterwards, David married art student Angela Barnett; finally he dispensed with the services of his loyal manager Kenneth Pitt, who was replaced by the more strident Tony De Fries. Amid this period of flux, Bowie completed his first major work, an extraordinary album entitled The Man Who Sold The World. With musical assistance from guitarist Mick Ronson, drummer Mick ‘Woody’ Woodmansey and producer Tony Visconti on bass, Bowie employed an arrestingly heavy sound, aided by the eerie synthesizer work of Ralph Mace to embellish his chillingly dramatic vocals. Lyrically, the album brilliantly complemented the instrumentation and Bowie worked through a variety of themes including sexual perversion (‘The Width Of A Circle’), mental illness (‘All The Madmen’), dystopianism (‘Saviour Machine’) and Nietzschean nihilism (‘The Supermen’). All these leitmotifs were reiterated on later albums. The package was completed with a striking cover revealing Bowie lounging seductively in a flowing dress. The transvestism again provided a clue to the later years when Bowie habitually disguised his gender and even publicized his bisexuality.

With the svengali-like De Fries aggressively promoting his career, Bowie was signed to RCA Records for a reportedly large advance and completed Hunky Dory in 1971. The album was lighter in tone than its predecessor, with Bowie reverting to acoustic guitar on some tracks and exploring a more commercial, yet still intriguing, direction. There was the catchy ‘Changes’, the futuristic ‘Life On Mars’, tributes to Bob Dylan and the Velvet Underground, and the contrastingly celebratory ‘Kooks’ and sombre ‘The Bewlay Brothers’. Hunky Dory was a magnificent album, yet a modest seller. Bowie took full advantage of his increasingly hip media profile by embarking on a UK tour in which his outrageous costume, striking vocals and treasure trove of new material revealed the artist in full flow. Up to this point, Bowie had experimented with diverse ideas, themes and images that coalesced effectively, though not necessarily coherently. The complete fusion was revealed in June 1972 on the album The Rise And Fall Of Ziggy Stardust And The Spiders From Mars. Here, Bowie embraced the persona of an apocalyptic rock star whose rise and fall coincides with the end of the world. In addition to the doom-laden breeziness of ‘Five Years’, there were the now familiar space-age themes (‘Starman’, ‘Lady Stardust’, ‘Moonage Daydream’) and the instant encore (‘Rock ‘N’ Roll Suicide’).

By this point, Bowie was deemed to have the Midas touch and his production talents brought rewards for his old hero Lou Reed (Transformer and the single ‘Walk On The Wild Side’) and a resurrected Mott The Hoople, who had their first hit with ‘All The Young Dudes’. The track ‘Oh! You Pretty Things’ (from Hunky Dory) had already provided a hit for Peter Noone and an equally unlikely artist, Lulu, enjoyed a Top 10 smash courtesy of ‘The Man Who Sold The World’. Meanwhile, Bowie had undertaken a world tour and achieved a UK number 1 album with Aladdin Sane, another concept work, which centred on global destruction as its main plot. While still at his peak, Bowie shocked the rock world on 3 July 1973 by announcing his retirement from the stage of London’s Hammersmith Odeon. It later transpired that it was not Bowie who was retiring, but his now overused persona, Ziggy Stardust (the character made a brief reappearance in October as part of the 1980 Floor Show, a three day shoot filmed at London’s Marquee club for American television).

Taking stock, Bowie took an unlikely detour by recording an album of his favourite mid-60s songs. Pin Ups proved a patchy collection, although there were some memorable moments including a hit reworking of the Merseys’ ‘Sorrow’ and an interesting cover version of the Kinks’ neglected song ‘Where Have All The Good Times Gone’. Bowie returned to original compositions for his next work, Diamond Dogs. Having failed to receive permission to use the title 1984, he nevertheless adapted George Orwell’s famous novel as the basis for his favourite forays into dystopianism, sexuality and doomed love. There were even some delightful flashes from the novel neatly translated into rock by Bowie. Julia, described as ‘a rebel from the waist downwards’ by the book’s anti-hero Winston Smith, becomes the hot tramp of ‘Rebel Rebel’ (itself a hit single). What the album lacked was the familiar sound of the Spiders From Mars and, especially, the cutting guitar work of Mick Ronson. A massive tour of the USA and Canada saw the ‘Diamond Dogs’ spectacle at its most excessive and expansive, but the whole project was hampered by the production budget. Beneath the spectacle, the music tended to be somewhat forgotten, a view reinforced by the release of the critically panned David Live in 1974.

Bowie’s popularity was as great as ever in the mid-70s when he effectively righted the wrongs of history by taking ‘Space Oddity’ to number 1, six years after its initial UK chart entry. That same year, he also enjoyed his first US number 1, ‘Fame’, which featured the voice and co-composing skills of John Lennon. The song appeared on his next album, Young Americans, which saw the emergence of a new Bowie, successfully tackling Philadelphia soul. Meanwhile, there were significant changes in his business life, with Tony De Fries finally falling from favour amid an acrimonious lawsuit. During the same period Bowie, who had taken up residence in a Bel Air residence in Hollywood, was slipping dangerously into chemical dependency and occultism, while his often stormy marriage to Angie was falling apart. As ever in Bowie’s life, personal upheavals coincided with creative endeavour and he was busy working on Nic Roeg’s The Man Who Fell To Earth, in which he was given the leading role of the displaced alien marooned on Earth. The movie received mixed reviews. Returning to London, Bowie was reprimanded in the liberal music press for allegedly doing a Nazi salute and suggesting that his home country needed a ‘new Hitler’. His fascist flirtation was partly provocative and perhaps related to the self-grandeur stemming from his heavy use of cocaine during the period. The image was crystallized in the persona of the Thin White Duke, the icy character who came to life on his next album, Station To Station. An austere yet opaque production, the album anticipated the next phase of his career when he worked with Visconti and Brian Eno on the ‘Berlin trilogy’.

Bowie relocated to Berlin in mid-1976, where he was joined by Iggy Pop who had been a constant presence alongside the singer on the recently completed White Light tour. Bowie’s work in Berlin, a bohemian city dominated by the political machinations of the Cold War, captured him at his least commercial and most ambitious. The first stage of this musical rehabilitation was captured on Iggy’s The Idiot, produced and co-written by Bowie and largely recorded at the Château d’Herouville near Paris. The album’s abrasive and stark electronic sound set the stage for Low (recorded at the Château d’Herouville) and Heroes (recorded at Hansa, overlooking the Berlin Wall), both released in 1977. These predominantly instrumental works, whose mood was strongly influenced by Eno’s minimalist electronics, were not great commercial successes but would have a lasting impact on the new generation of synth-pop bands that were formed in the late 70s and early 80s. Bowie also found the time to collaborate with Iggy Pop on the singer’s Lust For Life, recorded at Hansa shortly before the Heroes sessions. Segments from Low and Heroes found their way onto a live album, Stage, a considerable improvement upon its predecessor, David Live.

Following a best-forgotten appearance in the movie Just A Gigolo, Bowie concluded his collaborative work with Eno on 1979’s Lodger. Generally regarded as the least impressive of the Berlin trilogy, it nevertheless contained some strong songs, including ‘Boys Keep Swinging’ and ‘Repetition’. In the spring, Bowie left Berlin and moved into a Manhattan loft apartment. His thespian pursuits continued with a critically acclaimed starring role in the Broadway production ofThe Elephant Man. During the show’s run in Chicago, Bowie released an album of new material that leaned closer to the rock mainstream. Scary Monsters (And Super Creeps) was adventurous, with its modern electro pop and distorted electric guitar, provided by Robert Fripp (who had also worked on Heroes). The album contained the reflective ‘Ashes To Ashes’, a fascinating track that included references to one of Bowie’s earlier creations, Major Tom.

The early 80s saw Bowie taking on a series of diverse projects, including an appearance in Bertolt Brecht’s Baal, surprise chart collaborations with Queen (‘Under Pressure’) and Bing Crosby (‘Peace On Earth’/‘Little Drummer Boy’) and two more starring roles in the movies The Hunger and the critically acclaimed Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence. A switch of record label from RCA Records to EMI Records saw Bowie release his most commercial work since the early 70s with Let’s Dance, produced by Nile Rodgers of Chic. In striking contrast to his recent excursions with Eno and previous doom-laden imagery, the work showed Bowie embracing a new positivism with upbeat, uplifting songs that were both slick and exciting. Even his interviews revealed a more open, contented figure, intent upon stressing the positive aspects of life, seemingly without ambiguity. The title track of the album gave Bowie his third solo UK number 1 and effectively revitalized his recording career in the process. The ‘Serious Moonlight’ tour that accompanied the album played to over two million people and garnered excellent reviews. That same year (1983) he had two further hits, both narrowly missing the top spot in the UK charts with a reworked ‘China Girl’ and ‘Modern Love’.

In the meantime, Bowie’s influence could be detected in the work of a number of younger artists who had fallen under the spell of his various aliases. Gary Numan, the Human League, Japan and Bauhaus each displayed aspects of his music and imagery with varying results. Similarly, the New Romantics, from Visage, Ultravox and Spandau Ballet to the New Pop of Culture Club, were all descendants of the one-time glam rocker and Thin White Duke. Bowie quickly followed up Let’s Dance with the anticlimactic Tonight, which attracted universally bad reviews but managed to spawn a hit single with ‘Blue Jean’. During 1985, Bowie was chiefly in demand as a collaborator, first with the Pat Metheny Group on ‘This Is Not America’ (from the movie The Falcon And The Snowman) and next with Mick Jagger on a reworking of Martha And The Vandellas’ ‘Dancing In The Street’ for Live Aid. The following year was dominated by Bowie’s various acting pursuits. The much-publicized film Absolute Beginners divided the critics, but the strong title track provided Bowie with a major hit. He also starred in the fantasy movie Labyrinth and sang the theme of the anti-nuclear war cartoon feature When The Wind Blows. In 1987 Bowie returned to his roots by teaming up with former classmate Peter Frampton for the ‘Glass Spider’ tour. The attendant album, Never Let Me Down, was again poorly received, as speculation increased that Bowie was at last running dry of musical ideas and convincing new personae.

Never predictable, Bowie decided to put a band together in 1989 and called upon the services of Reeves Gabrels (guitar), Tony Sales (bass) and Hunt Sales (drums) - the two brothers having previously worked with Bowie on Iggy Pop’s Lust For Life. Tin Machine took their name from the title of their new album, a set that displayed some good, old-fashioned guitar work, occasionally bordering on heavy metal. Bowie also took his band on the road with a tour of deliberately ‘low-key’ venues, Bowie expressing a desire to play in ‘sweaty’ clubs and return to his roots. It was an interesting experiment but neither the album nor the follow-up did much to increase Bowie’s critical standing in the late 80s. Ironically, it was the re-release of his back catalogue on CD that brought a more positive response from his followers, and in order to promote the campaign Bowie set out on an acoustic ‘greatest hits’ tour. Black Tie White Noise, released in 1993, was his strongest album in years and entered the UK album charts at number 1. Enlisting Nile Rodgers again as producer, the crisp production worked on stand-out tracks such as the romantic ‘Don’t Let Me Down And Down’, Cream’s ‘I Feel Free’ and Morrissey’s ‘I Know It’s Going To Happen Someday’.

A low-key album inspired by his work on the soundtrack to the BBC’s adaptation of Hanif Kureishi’s The Buddah Of Suburbia, brought Bowie further praise later on in the year. In 1995 Bowie released the bold 1. Outside, a collaboration with Brian Eno that received mixed reviews and disappointing sales. Fans were clearly not accepting Bowie’s wish to push forward and challenge. On the industrial noise-rock and dance music -inspired Earthling, the cracks were beginning to show - with this record, Bowie ceased to be an innovator; instead he merely became an imitator. If the dance beats were stripped away to reveal the real Bowie, it would have been a more satisfying album. In 1998, Bowie, ever looking towards the future, launched the first artist-created Internet service provider, Bowienet. In 1999, he worked and recorded with Placebo, and returned to a more conventional style of songwriting on ‘hours...’. This album had strong links with Hunky Dory’s construction of song and similar vocal inflections, especially with tracks such as ‘Seven’. It was his most satisfying and successful recording for some time, but was his final studio album for Virgin Records.

In December 2001 the artist announced the launch of his own independent label, ISO. His first release on the imprint, Heathen, saw Bowie working with Tony Visconti for the first time in over two decades. The duo teamed up again on the lesser Reality, which was released to mixed reviews in 2003. The following June, Bowie was forced to undergo emergency heart surgery in Germany to treat an acutely blocked artery.

Bowie has remained a major artist for many years even with indifferent material and long gaps between projects. He has the great element of surprise, and he maintains a cool persona that is always interesting, intelligent and very often exciting. Another extraordinary album from him could always be around the next corner.

Source: The Encyclopedia of Popular Music by Colin Larkin. Licensed from Muze.

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