By guest contributor Tony Bravo
Ten years have elapsed since David Bowie’s last album Reality was released, but fear not fans: Bowie’s new release The Next Day is currently streaming on iTunes and will be available for download March 12, 2013! (Watch Bowie’s first music video from the album “The Stars (Are Out Tonight)” with his doppleganger Tilda Swinton). Since emerging on the music scene in 1969 with his commercial breakthrough “Space Oddity,” Bowie has experimented aesthetically and musically more than any other major commercial artist of the last half of the 20th and early 21st century. Before there was Madonna or Gaga’s constantly morphing melodies, costume concepts and hair colors, Bowie was transitioning from Alien Acoustic to Glam Rock to Berliner Cabaret Gigolo to whatever he was doing with Mick Jagger in this video. Here’s a look back at some of our favorite moments in Bowie’s constantly evolving artistry (Tina Turner hair from his Labyrinth period included).
Ziggy Stardust and Extraterrestrial Glam
Space has been a reoccurring theme for Bowie in both his music and persona. Major Tom, the fictional astronaut of 1969’s “Space Oddity” begat Bowie’s first fully realized character creation, rock ‘n’ roll alien messiah Ziggy Stardust, the star of 1972’s concept album The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust. Ziggy was flame-mulleted, platform booted, sexually liberated (bisexually liberated, actually) and every inch the personification of glam rock in everything from his over-the-top glitter stage wear to his decadent, transgressive lyrics (“making love with his ego” anyone?). With Ziggy, Bowie moved away from his earlier forays into acoustic and committed to electric hard rock in the vein of peers (and future collaborators) Lou Reed and Iggy Pop. The album not only produced the instant classic title track, but also the oft-covered “Suffragette City,” “Starman,” “Moonage Daydream,” and the accompanying concert film showing Bowie at the height of his Ziggy excess.
A Lad Insane
Aladdin Sane (a pun on the phrase “a lad insane”) has been described as an Americanized Ziggy Stardust: the glam look of the Ziggy years is still very present and the majority of the songs on the album were composed during Bowie’s 1972 tour of the States. The album, in addition to giving us “The Jean Jeanie,” “Cracked Actor,” and the forward looking doo-wop “Drive-In Saturday” also gave Bowie one of his most signature and lasting pieces of iconography with the lightning-bolt face paint featured on the album cover. The bolt dividing Bowie’s face was allegedly a commentary on Bowie’s feelings of duality as he struggled to come to terms with his fame. The album is also the first to deal with another reoccurring theme in Bowie’s career: the Brit’s mixed feelings on the American way of life. Christopher Sandford, in his Bowie biography Loving the Alien stated the album reflects that the Bowie of this period “was simultaneously appalled and fixated by America.”
Bowie Performing “Young Americans” on The Dick Cavett Show, 1975
Bowie ditched the glam look and sound for good in 1975 with his Philadelphia soul infused Young Americans, featuring not only the upbeat (but darkly worded) title track but also a cover of “Across the Universe” and the eternal “Fame” (co-written by John Lennon). Bowie described the sound of the album as “the squashed remains of ethnic music as it survives in the age of Muzak rock, written and sung by a white limey,” which is also an apt description of the Bowie look of the period. In television appearances for the album, Bowie is gaunt with scarlet hair brushed back in a pompadour sweep with stage wear consisting of retro dancehall zoot getups. After the sequined Ziggy Stardust, the sight of Bowie riding an early wave of bobbysocks nostalgia took some getting used to. The horn infused, funk-light album remains a favorite of fans.
Mein Liebling Duke
After his tenth studio album Station to Station at the end of 1976, Bowie, fighting the demons of his fame and cocaine dependency, moved to West Berlin in an attempt to revive his career and to explore his fascination with German Krautrock. Bowie’s Berlin years (chronicled by Thomas Jerome Seabrook in Bowie in Berlin) produced collaborations with Brian Eno and Iggy Pop and his acclaimed “Berlin Trilogy” of minimalist, experimental albums: Low, “Heroes,” and Lodger. The Bowie persona of this period was “The Thin White Duke,” a dapper performer recalling the glory days of the Weimar circuit and slightly reminiscent of Joel Grey’s Master of Ceremonies in Cabaret. Bowie played the persona to great effect in the 1976 film The Man Who Fell to Earth.
Ashes to Ashes Phoenix Rising
Bowie’s first megahit of the Reagan decade was “Ashes to Ashes” from 1980’s Scary Monsters (and Super Creeps), which let us in on the fate of an earlier Bowie persona with the line “you know Major Tom is a junkie.” As Bowie’s stardom reached greater heights and his sound further embraced the electronic influences of his Berlin years and the New Wave phenomena, his look reflected both his personas of past years (the tailored lines of the Thin White Duke, the “Boys Keep Swinging” color palette and the fashion trends of the era). While still embracing new sounds and looks, the Bowie of the 1980s had a firmly established mythology he referenced and reinvented at will.
As promised, David Bowie as Generation Y first encountered him: as the hairtastic, swashbuckling attired and codpieced villain of Jim Henson’s 1986 children’s film Labyrinth. Bowie’s performance as Jareth the Goblin King made little girls want to switch places with heroine Jennifer Connolly in the baroque “As The World Falls Down” ballroom scene and made little boys… curious. Although a box office disappointment at the time, the film has gone on to earn a cult following and is still acclaimed for its soundtrack which included “Underground,” “Within You,” and the fan favorite “Magic Dance.”
2002’s Heathen brought Bowie some of the strongest reviews of his career and brought back the sartorial, suited Bowie reminiscent of Young American and Thin White Duke years, but without the underlying hardness. Using images as fantastical as his early glam lyrics and electronic sounds from the best of his Berlin trilogy, Bowie proved that even in his fifth decade he was still an artist producing innovative and creative work. “Cactus,” “Slow Burn,” and “Slip Away” remain among the best songs in the later Bowie canon.
The Next Day
In terms of the more conservative (for Bowie) aesthetic and self-referential quality of leitmotifs and lyrical themes, 2013’s The Next Day already seems to have much in common with Heathen. The casting device of Tilda Swinton in “The Stars (Are Out Tonight)” video is a cheeky move: the oft commented on resemblance between the two artists has already been chronicled in the Tumblr blog Tilda Stardust. It’s nice to see that as Bowie comes back yet again, he’s doing so with a sense of humor.