Almanac Music: David Bowie – Still Ahead of the Curve

The world awakes this morning without David Bowie.

Following an 18 month, publicly unknown battle with cancer – and just two days after the release of his twenty fifth studio album Blackstar – the legendary British artist passed away surrounded by his family.

David Bowie, The Starman, The Thin White Duke, Ziggy Stardust and Aladdin Sane are no more.

I reckon popular music has known five artists who artistically liberated the potentials that could be contained within a pop song: Bowie, Bob Dylan, Led Zeppelin, The Clash and The Beatles. What makes Bowie stand out amongst this immortal group is that his influence goes beyond mere music and into the blending of external artistic styles. Bowie was a clothes designer, film maker, mime artist, actor and painter over the decades he spent in the public eye. When he began his musical career – in fairly modest circumstances that required considerable self-belief to overcome – musicians were just that. Crank out singles and albums. Aim for commercial success and artistic credibility. Bowie changed all that. Expanded pop’s universe.

Although serious Bowie devotees will point to his early works such as The Man Who Sold The World (1970) and Hunky Dory (1971) as his first major achievements, to the wider world Bowie first etched his name in the annals of popular culture in 1972 under the persona of Ziggy Stardust, the rock God from Mars who took the world by storm before imploding under a (leper) Messiah complex. After mixing, matching, experimenting and remodelling for years under various styles and genres, Bowie had unlocked the key to rock immortality by channelling taboo topics such as homosexuality, Western excess, feminism, sexual liberation, androgyny and societal inequality into four minute glam numbers that had hooks to burn. The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars contains singles like ‘Ziggy Stardust’, ‘Starman’ and ‘Suffragette City’ that have become radio standards. It is still his most famous album and one of the best and most important pop albums ever.

And it was just the beginning. While the glam stylings continued on the wildly successful Aladdin Sane (1973), Bowie was soon pushing into one of the most incredible sustained bursts of creativity by any musician ever. Between 1975 and 1980, pushing himself into styles that seemed foolhardy upon conception became Bowie’s calling card. His 1975 album Young Americans contained heavy strains of R&B, soul and funk and his next album… well, by now Bowie was too busy rewriting the rules to follow them. Hip music bloggers still try to out-clever each other with the best description for the music of 1976’s Station to Station. German kraut-rock? Fake plastic soul? Mechanic electronica? He was literally inventing entire genres on the go. And this was all done while being under a cocaine addiction so maddening that Bowie moved to protect his sperm under the understandable concern that a Los Angeles witch’s coven was out to create an Anti-Christ child with his seed.

In between all this, he saved the careers – and maybe the lives – of a couple of burned out drug addicts named Lou Reed and Iggy Pop, backing and producing the most commercially successfully albums of their careers with Transformer (1972) and The Idiot (1976) respectively.

 

Bowie’s famed ‘Berlin trilogy’, recorded between 1977 and 1979 with acolyte Brian Eno as producer, is my favourite period of his career. Low (1977) is his most extraordinary masterpiece, a fragmented opus with squiggly guitar bits, glistening synths, baroque vocals and extraordinarily unsettling soundscapes. In 1999, Rolling Stone writer Rob Sheffield perfectly described it as the sound of “an overstimulated mind in an exhausted body”.

Then there was Heroes (1978). The title track is, quite simply, the best love song pop knew, knows and will ever know. To a soaring piano loop and a steadfastly earthbound drum structure, Bowie commits to vinyl his interpretation of the story of two lovers he saw meeting by the Berlin Wall… directly underneath an armed guard. To relate the type of love you would need to risk it all so boldly, Bowie howls about being willing to jump walls, dodge guns and throw yourself away to be together “just for one day”. Because sometimes one day is all you need in love.

To understand Bowie’s importance to the music world, you have to understand the music world without him. The genres of rock ’n roll, punk, pop, dance, glam, R&B and electronica would be remarkably different to how we understand them today if it weren’t for the eccentric London boy born David Jones. Alternative artists like Arcade Fire, The Strokes, Roxy Music, R.E.M, Radiohead, Joy Division, The Smiths, Blur and The Cure are all heavily indebted. Virtually every New Romantic, dance and pop act of the 1980s had Bowie’s cheat sheet in their back pockets. When the nihilistic UK punk scene exploded out of the gutter in 1977, nearly all pre-existing major rock acts like Led Zeppelin, Yes, Pink Floyd, Queen and Elton John were put on notice as enemies of the ‘real’ meaning of rock ’n roll. But Bowie passed unscathed by the three chord scorch that the Sex Pistols and The Clash extolled. He was different. He was untouchable.

The music world was just coming to terms with the gleeful news of a new Bowie album when it was all blown out of the water by the entirely unexpected news of his death. It’s just too surreal for words. ‘Lazarus’, the debut single from Blackstar, opens with the stanza, “Look up here, I’m in heaven/I’ve got scars that can’t be seen/I’ve got drama, can’t be stolen/Everybody knows me now.” It could almost be interpreted as a cheeky final salute to the world he knew he was leaving behind. Leave it to Bowie to make death – that most universal of condition – ground breaking. Even in his final hours, David Bowie was still ahead of the curve. Scratch that – this cat was the curve.

About Callum O'Connor

Here's to feelin' good all the time.

Comments

  1. Peter Flynn says

    Thanks Callum,

    This was a Presley/Lennon type moment for me.

    A fave has passed.

    Bowie nailed pretty much everything and so have you with this fine tribute to him.

    Agree re Heroes and the start to Jean Genie is one of the best starts to a song ever.

    PF

  2. Mark 'Swish' Schwerdt says

    This is super Callum.

    Elizabeth High in the 70s was Bowie Central. About every six months we were treated to the latest shape-shifting chapter of his wonderful career. It was thrilling.

    The Life on Mars eye makeup
    The boots in the Jean Genie clip
    The Jean Genie clip
    Transformer
    Sorrow was a cover?
    The Laughing Gnome?
    The dog’s dick on Diamond Dogs
    Waddya reckon about Golden Years?
    Bucko regretting his purchase of Low
    David Live
    Adelaide Oval 1978

    Echo and the Bunnymen
    The Associates

    Little Fat Man

    Bing Crosby/Queen/Jagger

    Mr Lawrence

    New York Dolls
    Roxy Music

    Let yourself go

  3. Wonderful writing Callum. Bowie was huge. A genuine star, whatever that means. His music played often and loudly through our house in my formative years.

    Heroes is one of my all-time favourites. Also loved “Under Pressure” that he did with Queen. And Lou Reed’s “Transformer” album, that you correctly point out Bowie produced, was and still is a masterpiece.

  4. Great. Just great. Condolences.

    Bowie was just too early for me to get, the 10 yr olds were in to him when i was 8 and still lamenting the demise of the Beatles, and whining Angiiiiieeeeeiiiieeee. However I did do a fabulous karaoke Sorrow, or so I thought. Looking back it was the simplest of his songs at that stage – it was me holding us back, not him.

    We heard a compilation about 12 years ago and went wow, what a career. Then we saw a doco that explored these themes, how he was out ahead of the curve, immersing himself in Philly when nobody had ever heard of it, for instance. And making it his own. And the curve going, wow, we hadn’t thought of it like that before!

    So we bought the compilation. My fave bits are the rockers, like Jean Genie. But it lifted Heroes up where it belongs, a classic among classics. Great driving music.

    On a side note, we watched Labyrinth with the girls the night before. None of us had seen it. That, and the publicity around the new album, made we adults remark how well he was ageing, how amazing he always looked. Then this… as you say, maybe his final joke.

    Safe trip, Major Tom!

    A sad day for the planet, no doubt about it.

  5. I was about to actively campaign for him to be the new Dr Who. I thought he would be great : (

  6. Hunky Dory the standout

  7. Brilliant tribute Callum. You capture the creative genius of Bowie perfectly.
    Can’t say he was one of my faves, being more of a roots music man. I loved the early folk pop of Hunky Dory. Kooks, Changes, Life on Mars etc. But the glam rock and electronica stuff always seemed a bit excessive to my square sensibility. And yet, and yet – the songs were always brilliant. Somehow I didn’t love him, but he would serve up another genre and another impossibly catchy song like “Heroes” and ask “what about this one then?”
    On Sunday night I watched “20 feet from Stardom” again on the ABC and was blown away by the musical genius of “Young Americans” with a young Luther Vandross learning his chops at the feet of a Thin White Duke.
    Bowie put the ARTIST into recording artist, and I was shocked when his passing was tweeted yesterday afternoon. The excesses and intense creativity of his first 50 years seemed to have past into some sort of hard won middle-aged peace and reflection. But his art continued right up to his death. Nothing befitted him like the manner of his passing.
    The Duke is dead. Long live the Duke.

  8. Fantastic. Bowie and his music is unique for me in that it defined the memories and experiences of such a wide age group. Certainly I have a number of experiences growing up that are inexorably linked to one Bowie song or another..
    As you say, he was NEVER like anyone before him.
    Robbo.

  9. DBalassone says

    Thanks for this Callum.
    Bowie. Those two syllables just role of the tongue like Dylan or Lennon. You never need to say the first name. What an artist. The performance artist of the century. All the others are pretenders. You say he was always ahead of the curve, which is true. But I don’t reckon he tried to be ahead of the curve (like the pretenders do). He just was.
    Some random memories:
    How great was his set at Live Aid? Electrifying. He was a bright angel.
    The melody of ‘Modern Love’. Get me to the church on time.
    Ch-Ch-Ch Changes (surely Geldof ripped of this tune in ‘I Don’t Like Mondays’.)
    The magnetic pull of ‘Heroes’.
    And how great is that final song/clip ‘Lazarus’, posted above. Stunning.
    RIP.

  10. Dennis Gedling says

    This has genuinely cut me. To celebrate his birthday on the weekend I had on his Spiders from Mars concert on the TV full blast as I cleaned the house thinking to myself that with all chain smoking he did up until around 10 years ago jack the dancer never got him and how he was lucky. Obviously this wasn’t the case it seems.

    Whilst there were some misses (Tin Machine..what the hell was that) his creations were numerous and overshadowed any disparaging releases. Many of us were lucky to see him on that tour in 2004 where his voice was still showing it’s brilliance on a track like Life on Mars which he nailed live. The band was brilliant too, Gail Anne Dorcey on bass and vocals was Amazonian like and mesmerizing.

    Bowie also predicted how the Internet would come to dominate our lives, seemed affable more often than not in interviews being himself and sired a son Duncan (nee Zowie) who has become a fantastic movie director in his own right.

    Great stuff Callum. Everyone has there time but this one will sting for a while.

  11. Great work Callum putting that together so quickly. The list of acts who owed so much to his influence was the cream on the cake so far as Bowie’s legacy. I can’t believe he’s gone. And the way he went….

  12. Excellent summation Callum and not much more to add from your piece and comments.

    I wouldn’t make more of the mime artistry than need be but that’s to protect Bowie’s artistic integrity.

    I do want to challenge your point re the very short list of artist that (re)created the idea of the pop song. Elvis, Michael Jackson, Little Richard, Motown and many others did as much or more than the artists you listed. Today Kanye West and Jay Z are taking the pop song to another level altogether, carrying the lamp that Bowie and many others held before them.

    Cheers

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