411 Music Hall Of Fame Class of 2010: David Bowie
DAVID BOWIE’S MAJOR ACCOMPLISHMENTS:
He is The Thin White Duke. Ziggy Stardust. The Man Who Fell To Earth. Nathan Adler. He has so many personalities that it’s almost impossible to count. They’re all there because David Bowie is much more than a pioneer. Bowie is a visionary who has perceived – and innovated – musical trends and adaptations to the times to such a fine point that artists ranging from Madonna to Lady Gaga have followed his lead, altering their public and artistic personae to flow with the era in which they perform. They have also struggled to keep up with Bowie’s five-decade output of thoughtful, brilliant songwriting and his instantly-recognizable voice.
David Robert Jones was born on January 8, 1947 and learned to play the saxophone at Bromley Technical High School at age 13. It was also at that time that Bowie would “earn” one of his most identifiable traits, when his left pupil became permanently dilated in a schoolyard fight. Bowie, after graduating at age 16, played sax in many local bands and many other up-and-coming musicians (including a young Jimmy Page in a band called the Mannish Boys). In 1966, after the Monkees became an international sensation, Bowie changed his stage name from David Jones (for obvious reasons) and went with the moniker he has been known by since.
After releasing several singles by himself and with other bands, Bowie signed with Mercury Records in 1969 and released his first album, Man Of Words, Man Of Music. That album contained the song “Space Oddity”, which would go on to become a hit in the UK then and one of the most easily identifiable songs ever played to this day. Bowie worked with his close friend Marc Bolan on his band, T. Rex, but the band members would soon go their separate ways. Bolan and Bowie remained close friends, and Bolan helped Bowie write and record his second album, The Man Who Sold The World.
Hunky Dory was next after that, and the fusion of pop and rock on that album helped steer Bowie toward the creation of Ziggy Stardust. Ziggy, in character, was an androgynous, bi-sexual rock star. To help that perception along (and to show future generations how to shock the media in to helping promote a record), Bowie claimed in a 1972 interview with Melody Maker that he was, indeed, gay. Bowie took the character to the point that he would wear orange wigs and women’s clothing when performing as “Ziggy Stardust”. Between the attention he’d gained with his antics and the glam-rock era starting to build steam as a result, The Rise And Fall Of Ziggy Stardust And The Spiders From Mars became a huge hit overseas and began gaining him notoriety in the US as well.
Bowie, going at a grueling pace throughout 1972 and ’73, broke up his backing band, the Spiders From Mars, and took a short break. Bowie came back with Diamond Dogs. Originally planned as an adaptation of George Orwell’s novel 1984, Diamond Dogs was received with less acclaim than his work as Ziggy Stardust – though the album did produce one of his biggest hits, “Rebel Rebel.” While touring with the album, Bowie became fascinated with Soul music – to the point that this became his new obsession. Young Americans was the result of that obsession, producing another hit with the title track overseas. The album also marked Bowie’s first charting venture in the US, partly on the strength of “Fame”, a song co-written with the Beatles’ John Lennon.
Bowie scored his first film role shortly after in The Man Who Fell To Earth and then relocated to Los Angeles for the recording of Station To Station. The album heralded the arrival of another persona, The Thin White Duke. The Duke didn’t work out quite so well, as Bowie’s cocaine habit led him away from reality so far that he caused a huge controversy when he gave a London crowd the Nazi salute. The backlash led to Bowie relocating to, ironically enough, Berlin, where he met Brian Eno.
It would be with Eno that Bowie would release three of the most influential albums in music – Low, “Heroes”, and Lodger. The records were spawned by Bowie’s fascination with electronic music, and became themselves a template for future forays into such, combining electronica, pop and other avant-garde touches in to a trio that was studied by many and eventually spawned an entire genre.
Bowie entered the 1980s with Scary Monsters, which begat several more hits (as well as innovative short-form videos) including “Ashes To Ashes”, his kiss-off to Major Tom and the pigeonholing he had seen himself a victim of as a result of arguably his biggest hit ever. Bowie also left RCA Records and concentrated on acting for a bit before releasing his biggest US commercial record, Let’s Dance, under the EMI banner. Working with Stevie Ray Vaughan, the title track became an international smash, leaving Bowie to hope he’d left the Major behind once and for all.
The success of Let’s Dance left Bowie at a loss, as he had never dealt with that level of fame before. Bowie recorded Tonight as a follow up, which was critically panned. Bowie, somewhat disillusioned, decided to remaster his early catalog into the Sound + Vision set which was received very well. The ensuing tour, Bowie said, was one that would see him perform as his “characters” for the last time. After that, he returned to Hollywood once again to make Absolute Beginners and the cult classic Labyrinth before returning to music – albeit in a completely different form.
Bowie partnered with guitarist Reeves Gabriels to form the band Tin Machine, incorporating the sounds of such bands as Sonic Youth and the Pixies. After both albums by the group were virtually ignored, Bowie returned to his solo career in 1993 with Black Tie, White Noise. The album was a slow build toward taking the electronic aspects of his output to new extremes, culminating in 1995’s industrial-flavored Outside (recorded with Brian Eno) and 1997’s Earthling, which earned Bowie his most rave reviews since Let’s Dance. Bowie also worked with Nine Inch nails frontman Trent Reznor for a series of remixes from both of those albums, as well as a tour that was an alternative fan’s dream. Around this time, in January of 1996, Bowie was also inducted in to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
In another move of irony, Bowie’s work on the video game “Omikron” led him away from the electronics and back to a more organic sound. The result was the trio …hours, Heathen, and Reality, which saw Bowie return to older form and claim his spot as one of the elder statesmen of the genre that has aged more than gracefully.
Why David Bowie Was Selected:
David Bowie’s outlandish personas, his penchant for adapting his music and appearance with the times (the term “musical chameleon”, now oft overused, was coined because of Bowie himself), and his use of the media to shock and generate attention have inspired generations of performers to do the same, spawning a musical landscape that is as much about personality as it is about music itself. As far as his music and lyrics are concerned, however, Bowie has incorporated many genres into his style over the years, producing material that is fresh and innovative while drawing on influences of old. Bowie has taken a lifetime of adaptation and staying ahead of the curve and carved a legendary career very few could hope to ever see their lifetime. Bowie has been inactive over the past few years, but here’s hoping that, no matter what persona he chooses or which genre he dabbles in, he can always return one more time to show the current generation how it’s done.