On 20th November, David Bowie released the titular music video from his upcoming album, Blackstar, set for release January the 8th. The video features (amongst other things) a woman with a feline tail, a diamond-encrusted skeleton in a space-suit, gyrating scarecrows and cult-like rituals as Bowie sings blindfolded with half-naked dancers manically convulsing to his words. It’s also 10 minutes long. It’s no doubt a bewildering display for the uninitiated, and is unlikely to gain him much traction among casual listeners, but that was clearly never his intention. Whilst practically all his living contemporaries have either retired, vanished into obscurity, or are still milking the success of their heyday over 40 years ago, Bowie is still experimenting, pushing boundaries and making music that demands you listen and pay attention. He’s not only putting other ageing popstars to shame, he’s showing a few of the kids how it’s done as well.
The striking images of Bowie’s new video and indeed elements of the music itself, hearken back to the very beginnings of his time as a fully fledged artist. After frustrating early endeavours with rather quaint rock ’n’ roll fare on his eponymous debut album-one that now barely even registers on his discography-Bowie got his first taste of success with Space Oddity, inspired by the impending Apollo 11 moon landings in 1969. This song was first of many concerned with space, spacemen and all things otherworldly that would launch his career to similar heights. Bowie became enamoured with the American counter-culture centred around such figures as Andy Warhol, Lou Reed and Iggy Pop, and followed growing trends subverting gender and sexuality. He was heavily involved with performance art along with his then wife, Angela and quickly began developing into the embodiment of all these disparate influences of image and sound. With The Man Who Sold the World (1970), Bowie first established himself as a controversial and singular figure in music, appearing on the cover more as woman than man with flowing locks and flowered dress. Repeating this aesthetic on the cover of his next album, Hunky Dory (1971) gave him another hit single in Changes and brought him together with a group of musicians called, The Spiders from Mars (including the late great lead guitarist Mick Ronson). Using the band as a vehicle, Bowie transformed himself into one of the most iconic figures in music history, crystallising glam rock and space opera into the messianic figure of Ziggy Stardust.
It may seem rather innocuous from a modern perspective, but the short embrace between Bowie and Ronson on the performance of Starman on Top of the Pops in 1972 was one of a number of moments that captured the sexual suggestiveness so crucial to the hype surrounding Ziggy (the persona almost completely taking over Bowie’s life both public and private). The image of him fellating Ronson’s guitar goes down in rock history alongside those of Hendrix and The Clash vandalising their instruments. In the drab grey of working class Britain in the early 1970s, Ziggy Stardust was a shining beacon of light that transported his young followers to other worlds, methods of artistic expression and ways of life.Music and the way it is performed would never be the same again.
In July 1973, back when the charts actually mattered and were reflective of musical taste and talent of the times, Bowie had 5 albums in the top 40, 3 of them in the top 15. This kind of success was unprecedented for a solo artist. After a tour of America which saw Bowie develop a heavy cocaine habit and spend exorbitant sums of money to project an image of stardom, the pressures of maintaining his fantasy life both on and off the stage were overwhelming. Before the closing song of their historic tour-closing show at the Hammersmith Odeon on 3rd July, Bowie announced that this would be the band’s last ever show. As quickly as they exploded onto the scene Bowie and co. fulfilled the prophecy of their breakthrough album, The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars.Eclectic as ever, Bowie’s next project was an attempted adaptation of Orwell’s 1984 into a stage musical of all things. Unable to obtain the rights, the songs (including proto-punk hit Rebel Rebel) eventually made their way into 1974 album Diamond Dogs. Next came the Thin White Duke, with slicked back hair and impeccable suits, exploring his love of rhythm & blues, soul and funk on Young Americans (1975) and Station to Station (1976). These albums brought him mainstream American success and helped resolve the deep financial problems he had caused himself with his cocaine addiction and elaborate touring production. He also stepped into the movies, playing the lead role in The Man Who Fell to Earth and garnering critical acclaim for the performance. Images from the film would provide the cover art for Station to Station and Low (1977), the first album of what has become known as Bowie’s Berlin Trilogy.
In an attempt to kick his addiction, Bowie left the white haze of 1970s LA and moved to Berlin. Holed up in an apartment overlooking the Berlin Wall with Iggy Pop, Bowie channelledCold War anxiety, rehab and influences from the ‘Krautrock’ scene to record three albums. These three albums would go on to have a huge influence on the subsequent New Wave and post-punk genres in the late 1970s and early 1980s (the original nme chosen by the band Joy Division was Warsaw, named after the haunting ambient track on the mostly-instrumental second half of Low, collaborating with Brian Eno). The trilogy of Low, Heroes and Lodger was groundbreaking in its exploration into the possibilities of incorporating electronic/synthesised music into pop sensibilities. One example being producer Tony Visconti claiming that the Eventide Harmonizer used on Low “f***s with the fabric of time” to generate the distinctive harsh and abrasive drum sound on the album. Despite the dense and experimental nature of these albums, they would produce another hit for Bowie: the soaring title track from Heroes.
After 10 albums of significant original material in a decade, plus an album of 60s covers and considerable work with other artists, Bowie began the 1980s with Scary Monsters and made his mark on the increasingly important music video, revolutionising the medium. Still not free from drug addiction, Bowie revived the Major Tom character that dates back to Space Oddity and exorcised this demon in an unforgettable expressionistic performance in Pierrot costume and disturbing religious imagery in Ashes to Ashes. Having finally kicked his drug habit, Bowie’s Midas touch would now embrace the mainstream with Let’s Dance (1983), going platinum in 8 weeks and touring to millions of fans over the world. Whilst the 80s were by far the highest point of his career commercially, it is generally regarded as his lowest creatively and certainly critically. Bowie himself admits to “giving people what they want” rather than following his personal creative passions. His announcement that he was now exclusively heterosexual points to an overarching ‘cleaning up’ and normalisation of his public and creative identity after the turbulent 70s. It’s become a running joke in music journalism that each new album in the 1990s and beyond is his best since Scary Monsters. Sobriety and a healthy family life ironically appeared to have dulled his unstoppable innovation but after the overwrought and bloated Glass Spider tour production, Bowie turned back to those personal passions that made him such a unique and singular figure.
After rounding off the 1980s with the often-overlooked and underrated rock project Tin Machine, Bowie released his first original solo material in 5 years with Black Tie White Noise in 1993. This begins a new chapter in his career that, whilst not blazing new trails like his 1970s work, nevertheless produced some of his most interesting and challenging takes on contemporary music. Influenced by the growing electronica and Drum ‘n’ Bass genres populated in the early 90s by acts like Nine Inch Nails and Moby, Bowie’s 1. Outside (1995) and Earthling (1997) saw a return to the creative ambition of his past even if they went relatively overlooked commercially. Bowie was forced to cut short his tour of 2003’s Reality due to a blocked artery that required surgery. This began an indefinite hiatus, largely retreating from the public eye aside from occasional minor acting roles and appearances alongside the new indie golden boys Arcade Fire and TV On the Radio. To the dismay of generations of fans, with each passing year as Bowie aged it appeared as if he simply had nothing more to say, his career tragically ended by the body he had so carelessly abused for years in his youth.
Then on his 66th birthday, 8th January 2013, Bowie dropped the lead single from his first album in 10 years, The Next Day. It came out of nowhere, with no interviews, fanfare or planned tour dates, Bowie now focusing purely on making new music. The contemplative stocktaking of Where Are We Now? is a short look back in an album that is rooted in the present with an eye to the future, something seen less and less not only in Bowie’s aged contemporaries but much of modern music. There are so few bands and artists going today whose every release is meaningful and demanding of attention, demanding that you mark the date on your calendar. Running out of ways to say how amazing he is and how you should definitely listen to (almost) everything he’s ever done, I can you that even if you don’t like a particular track or album, there is an undeniable artfulness, theatricality and soul in every effort. David Bowie is one of the few individuals undoubtedly deserving of the much-overused title, ‘musical genius’.