When I awoke on the morning of the 11th January to the sad news that David Bowie had died, not only was I, like most of the world, shocked, but I turned to Twitter to read what people have written because there is nothing more up to date and the majority of tweets said things like ‘No words’ and ‘Shocked’. Very often you need more than that to express the enormity of the news but not today. The Prime Minister, David Cameron’s tweet was profound, he wrote “I grew up listening to and watching the pop genius David Bowie. He was a master of re-invention, who kept getting it right. A huge loss.”
Bowie, like Madonna and Kylie Minogue, was constantly re-inventing himself to keep himself at the top of his game. So few other pop stars could be described as a fashion and music icon at the same time.
David Robert Jones was born in Brixton and grew up in Bromley and at school his voice was considered ‘adequate’ but clearly disproved that over the years. He studied art, music and design but it was his half-brother, Terry Burns, who introduced him to jazz and John Coltrane became one of his favourites, so much so that, in 1961, his mother bought him a plastic saxophone which David exchanged the following year for a real one and formed his first band, The Konrads, playing local youth clubs and the occasional wedding. Within a couple of years he left the Konrads and joined the King Bees and later were credited to Davie Jones and the King Bees. Because of confusion with the Monkees member, David renamed himself Bowie after Jim Bowie who designed the fighting fixed-blade knife.
In 1967 he recorded a song modelled on another hero of his, Anthony Newley. The song was the Laughing Gnome which used speeded up high-pitched vocals recorded by David to make it sound like he was having a conversation with the gnome. It initially failed to chart and it’s well documented that David hated the song, however, it did belatedly chart in 1973 reaching number six.
His first success came in 1969 when Space Oddity became his debut single and arrived, co-incidentally, just three weeks after Neil Armstrong set foot on the moon.
His eponymous first album was released in 1967 and was followed by Space Oddity in 1969 and then The Man Who Sold the World in spring 1971. Three months later his then wife Angie gave birth to their son, Duncan Zowie Haywood Bowie.
From then on he became a huge innovator in glam rock, art rock and disco and in 1972 changed the face of music when he introduced the world to his new alter ego Ziggy Stardust and the amazing album The Rise And Fall Of Ziggy Stardust And The Spiders From Mars which went on to spend a total of 179 weeks on the UK album chart. His album sleeves were all unique and tens of thousands of fans went out, bought the album and then went out to acquire the costume he adorned so they could copy him.
Millions-selling albums followed throughout the seventies; Aladdin Sane (1973), Pins-Ups (1973), Diamond Dogs (1974), Young Americans (1975), Station To Station (1976), Low and Heroes (1977) and Lodger (1979). Although he continued to chart albums in the eighties beginning with the chart-topping Scary Monsters and Super Creeps (1980) he dropped out of the public eye a little while he concentrated on film projects which saw him play the lead role, John Blaylock, in The Hunger (1982), Major Jack Celliers in Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence (1983), Vendice Partners in Absolute Beginners (1986) and the Goblin King Jareth in Labyrinth (1986).
Throughout his career, David released 26 studio albums, nine live albums, 46 compilation albums, 5 EPs and 111 singles, five of which were number ones.
He was constantly wanting to be innovative, in 1996 he became the first artist to release a song that was distributed only on the internet. It was called Telling Lies and was downloaded 350,000 times by fans in America.
In 1997 he celebrated his 50th birthday with a star-studded performance at New York’s Madison Square Garden which included, by personal invitation Lou Reed, Robert Smith, Sonic Youth, Billy Corgan and the Foo Fighters.
He kept a relatively low profile in the 2000s and following heart surgery in 2004 he made just a couple of performances, one in Central Park in 2005 and the other at New York’s Radio City Hall in 2006 which became his last live appearance.
In 2013, an exhibition of his life, career and influences began a tour at London’s Victoria and Albert museum. It contained 300 costumes, some handwritten lyrics, hundreds of photographs, set designs and performance material from his career. It is currently showing in the Netherlands.
On 8 January 2013, the day of his 66th birthday, he announced on his website that a new album, his first in a decade, called The Next Day was going to be released on different dates in March (Australia 8th March. United States 12th March and the rest of the world 11th March. Exactly three years later, the day he celebrated his 69th birthday he released what was to be his final album, Blackstar. Bowie’s producer said, “The entire album, which the singer recorded while battling the terminal illness, was the singer’s ‘parting gift’ and that he had made his death – as he did his life – ‘a work of art’. I knew for a year this was the way it would be. I wasn’t, however, prepared for it.”
David always did what he wanted to do and his death was as spectacular as his life because he wanted to do it perfectly. The fact that he had cancer for 18 months and virtually nobody knew was astounding. The last time the world was this moved and shocked was 35 years earlier when he learned of the death of John Lennon.
When you listen back to so many of David’s songs, the lyrics are so much more poignant. If he’s up in heaven then then Space Oddity’s line ‘Planet earth is blue and there’s nothing I can do’. On the day of his death, millions cried and there was a Twitter campaign for every radio station in the world to play at least one David Bowie song that day. Let’s hope that happened and if so, the line from Young Americans should have said it all, ‘ain’t there one damn song that can make me break down and cry?!
This is probably the song that had the most impact when it was first released in 1972.