per Kerry’s Calendar post for this week, "David Bowie: Space Oddity" releases on DVD. Come with us, won't you, on a genderbending journey through the seventies with Aladdin Sane... I submit my own Bowie journey through the 70s (and 80s)
First things first – I love Bowie. (pronounced boh-(long O- eee, please!) Say it with me buuuh-ee knife; david bOH-ee! He has a significant presence on my desert island list, as well as my sexiest men alive list. Just putting my bias out there up front.
Many consider Bowie to be a musical genius. He has been making music since before I was born, has crossed over rock, pop, rock-a-billy, instrumental, synth and other genres, and been producing hits for decades. Music insiders cite his innovations and many bands count him among their greatest influences. Rolling Stone ranked him 39th on their list of the 100 Greatest Rock Artists of All Time.
And yet?! Somehow when we1 think of Bowie, we think of the costumes, the weird androgyny, Ziggy Stardust, his bisexuality, his gorgeous wife Iman, his son Zowie, etc. We don’t think of his music first. We somehow don’t confer on him the status of musical genius and innovator that other rock and pop icons, deserving or not, have received. We, for example, don’t EVER mention him in the same heightened stratosphere as Jimi Hendrix, the Rolling Stones, Led Zeppelin, Elvis Presley, the Beatles…even Madonna, Michael Jackson, or Britney Spears. I bet most Americans could probably name more songs from The Eagles, AC/DC, Bon Jovi and/or Fleetwood Mac than they could name Bowie songs.
Why? Or better said, why not?
I might suppose that in the same sense that Michael Jackson’s weirdness has now overshadowed his earlier musical genius and contributions to define him as Jacko that Bowie’s super-large weird glam persona has overshadowed his music. While I think there is quite a bit of truth to that (as well as to the fact that he hasn’t died young), I believe the answer lies somewhere else –
It is precisely Bowie’s cross-over ability, his range, versatility and yes, chameleon-like qualities, that makes him under-appreciated.
In other words…the inability to peg Bowie into a specific genre or label along with his evolving musical styles, paradoxically, undercut his status as a luminary or rock legend. He is neither Hendrix on guitar nor even Wynton Marsalis on trumpet. He is not “the King of Rock and Roll” nor the “King of Pop.”
And yet…it is likely that the music of artists as diverse as Prince, Psychedelic Furs, Simple Minds, The Pixies, Nine Inch Nails, Suede, Beck and the video pageantry of Madonna, Kiss, even the Sex Pistols would sound and look very different if not for Bowie.
You can’t ignore the influence and theatricality of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars on glam stars, music videos, and concert production.
Bowie's masterpiece is the premier glam document: pretentious, theatrical, fairly absurd, and, most importantly, stocked with shimmering anthems from start to finish.
from Glam Rock 101
But Bowie’s influence on music is much richer and deeper than the Ziggy persona.
I won’t give you the whole anthology, but I will give you an overview of my personal relationship, as it were, with Bowie’s music and a guide to some of his best stuff (IMHO) and where/how you might see his influence in others.
I was first introduced to Bowie in 1980, by the first boy I ever loved – Marc (with a C, that may become important). This was seminal. To this point, my musical influences were limited to a collection of hand-me-down 45s including some Beatles, Dean Martin, Elvis Presley, Donny Osmond, and Mr. Jaws (yikes!) and some new album purchases – Andy Gibb, Shaun Cassidy, Saturday Night Fever soundtrack, and Michael Jackson’s Off the Wall and whatever pop-drivel was playing at Skate Country. Sad, but true.
So, Marc-with-a-C, with whom I would have an on-again, off-again, non-exclusive romance through high school and a couple of years beyond, gets me listening to Bowie. It was like magic. Of course, besides being cute (ok, hot!) and nice, Marc was smart enough to start off with the best and most mainstream album – ChangesOneBowie
If you own no other Bowie, this is the album to own (or download from iTunes). Released in 1976, it is his first compilation album
Track Listing from Wikipedia…
- Space Oddity (from Space Oddity, 1969) – 5:14
- John, I’m Only Dancing (from "John, I’m Only Dancing" single, 1972) – 2:43 (Sax Version - 2:41)
- Changes (from Hunky Dory, 1971) – 3:33
- Ziggy Stardust (from Ziggy Stardust, 1972) – 3:13
- Suffragette City (from Ziggy Stardust, 1972) – 3:25
- The Jean Genie (from Aladdin Sane, 1973) – 4:03
- Diamond Dogs (from Diamond Dogs, 1974) – 5:56
- Rebel Rebel (from Diamond Dogs, 1974) – 4:30
- Young Americans (from Young Americans, 1975) – 5:10
- Fame (Bowie, Carlos Alomar, John Lennon) (from the single RCA 2579, 1975) – 3:30
- Golden Years (from Station to Station, 1976) – 3:59
I would embed, if I could, but I can only link you to iTunes Changes-Bowie for sample listening (note: this is the compilation of both Changes One and Changes Two, which includes later songs from the 80s)
Of course, Space Oddity (also known as Major Tom), Changes, Young Americans, and Fame are classics. The song Changes was quoted in the movie, The Breakfast Club and Fame has been covered and remixed numerous times.
and these children that you spit on
as they try to change their world
are immune to your consultations
they’re quite aware of what they’re going through...
From an artistic standpoint, though, the albums Low and Heroes probably broke more ground than Space Oddity or Hunky Dory. Heavily influenced by Brian Eno, they have a low-key instrumental vibe, innovative for the time use of synthesizers and they showcase Bowie’s haunting baritone. We teenagers were drawn to the wonderful combination of darkness, mellowness and punk/pop melodics.
Re: Low, see the following article BBC Review of Low
The album is more montage than theme, though the special effects that cut through “Sound and Vision” chillingly reflect a drug induced breakdown. The jagged edges of Low are often attributed to the fragmentation that Bowie was suffering as a recovering cocaine addict. Self destruction is carried through the album by the icy, mannered vocals.
“Speed of Life” opens the album with a jolt thanks to Ricky Gardiner’s sharp guitar. The more lengthy and suspense-filled “Warszawa”, was used to open the 1978 and 2002 tours. It made sure that the audience were on tenterhooks until Bowie took to the stage.
With it’s texturing, layering and juxtaposing of random sounds and instruments, including an eventide harmonizer, Low is certainly an ambitious album and one that wasn’t well-received by critics at the time. Without Low we’d have no Joy Division, no Human League, no Cabaret Voltaire, and I bet, no Arcade Fire. The legacy of Low lives on.
Songs from Heroes and Low have been turned into symphony by Phillip Glass and have been used in Twyla Tharp’s dance. Along with Lodger, these experimental albums were part of Bowie’s Berlin Trilogy, which many consider to be a major influence on New Wave, post-punk rock, and probably modern dance/techno. It influenced British New Wave heavily, including artists like Gary Numan and New Order as well as the punk Sex Pistols and pop artists like Adam Ant.
Influential band Joy Division (who later became New Order after their lead singer Ian Curtis committed suicide) were originally called Warsaw, after the Low track Warszawa....
On the personal side, I was able to acquire early album versions of Heroes, Low, Hunky Dory, and Diamond Dogs from Harvard’s COOP bookstore while visiting a different friend in 1984 – Mark (with a K!) That Mark was more of a Billy Joel and Chicago fan and ran off and got married to someone else soon after that. Oh well.
The 80s also ushered in that weird mix of disco, dance, and pop explosion along with heavy metal and punk. Bowie recorded his most successful album, Let’s Dance, which included the hit single and two of my favorite songs, Cat People (Putting Out Fire), the movie which was filmed at the New Orleans Zoo and China Girl. Other tracks include Ricochet and Modern Love. I love this album for its 80s MTV glam and Bowie’s sexiness. Marc, of course, thought Bowie had sold out.
It was a small but significant irony that the Eighties, the decade whose pop seemed most sedulously constructed in his image -- or, more accurately, in his various images -- was both the one in which he scored his biggest hit album, Let's Dance, and the one in which he seemed most thoroughly adrift. Even leaving aside blatant Bowie wannabes like Gary Numan, The Human League's Philip Oakey and the whole Duran/Spandau contingent, two of the decade's biggest stars, Prince and Madonna, had memorised key pages from the Bowie how-to manual: a teasing emphasis on transgressive sexuality and a frenetic turnover of musical and sartorial styles.
In the meantime, Bowie himself adopted a new and more conservative persona. Produced by Chic honcho Nile Rodgers, Let's Dance started out as a Bowiesque take on classic brassy R&B and became a dancefloor magnet which sold 4m copies: easily Bowie's biggest hit to date. The former Nietzchean aristo rentboy from space now reappeared as a sort of alternative Prince Charles: a dashing English gentleman about the arts, clad in immaculate suits beautifully draped from his coathanger shoulders. The effect was only slightly spoiled by the fact that he appeared to be wearing a large lemon meringue on his head.
The ultimate charismatic outsider was now a quintessential corporate rocker.
The late 80s and the 90’s saw Bowie flounder quite a bit (and me lose touch with both Marc & Mark & marry someone not-named-Marc/k –) and I haven’t quite kept up with Bowie's music. I listen often to the early stuff and said husband and I do wake up to Space Oddity on the CD most mornings, though.
His 90s album Black Tie, White Noise was said to be pretty good, so I may have to check it out. I give him kudos for still singing, still experimenting, still creating.
I’ll close and sum up with the words of Charles Shaar Murray…(with which I just might happen to agree.)
So much of the pop and rock made during the last 35 years carries Bowie's thumbprint that he is a charter member of a small but select group who shortlist for the title of Most Influential Living Musician, alongside Dylan, McCartney, Stevie Wonder and -- if we throw heavy rock into the mix -- Jimmy Page. Who else's influence was apparent in both punk and soul, on Madonna and Jarvis Cocker; on Oasis and Phillip Glass alike? Who else has duetted with Bing Crosby and dabbled in drum-and-bass, recorded with both Stevie Ray Vaughan and the Pet Shop Boys, produced both Lou Reed and Lulu?
Oh yeah, I didn’t even mention Bowie singing with Bing or dancing with Mick in the streets.
update: OR Under Pressure with Queen - as Ablonde points out in her comment!
1. footnote – we being the average American who might be able to name him, two or three of his songs (Let's Dance), and knows he is that weird bi-sexual dude with the different colored eyes.