“The cliché about David Bowie says he's a musical chameleon, adapting himself according to fashion and trends. While such a criticism is too glib, there's no denying that Bowie demonstrated remarkable skill for perceiving musical trends at his peak in the ‘70s” (Erlewine). “Even when he was out of fashion in the '80s and '90s, it was clear that Bowie was one of the most influential musicians in rock, for better and for worse. Each one of his phases in the ‘70s sparked a number of subgenres, including punk, new wave, goth rock, the new romantics, and electronica. Few rockers ever had such lasting impact” (Erlewine).
“David Jones began performing music when he was 13 years old, learning the saxophone while he was at Bromley Technical High School…Following his graduation at 16, he worked as a commercial artist while playing saxophone in a number of mod bands” (Erlewine). He changed “his name to David Bowie in 1966 after The Monkees’ Davy Jones became an international star…The following year, he signed with Deram, releasing the music hall, Anthony Newley-styled David Bowie” (Erlewine).
Man Who Owned the World
His next effort was “Man of Words, Man of Music, a trippy singer/songwriter album featuring ‘Space Oddity.’ The song was released as a single and became a major hit in the U.K.” (Erlewine). Bowie then hooked up with his old friend Mark Bolan, of T-Rex, for The Man Who Sold the World. “Produced by Tony Visconti, who also played bass, [it] was a heavy guitar rock album that failed to gain much attention. Bowie followed the album…with the pop/rock Hunky Dory, an album that featured Ronson and keyboardist Rick Wakeman” (Erlewine).
“Bowie [then] began to develop his most famous incarnation, Ziggy Stardust: an androgynous, bisexual rock star from another planet” (Erlewine). “Taking cues from Bolan's stylish glam rock, Bowie dyed his hair orange and began wearing women's clothing. He began calling himself Ziggy Stardust, and his backing band…the Spiders from Mars” (Erlewine). “Bowie claimed in a January 1972 interview with the Melody Maker that he was gay, helping to stir interest in his forthcoming album” (Erlewine). “The Rise & Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars was released with much fanfare in England…it helped him become the only glam rocker to carve out a niche in America” (Erlewine). In the process, Bowie redefined “glam rock with [the Ziggy] persona” (Erlewine).
“Bowie quickly followed…with Aladdin Sane [and] produced Lou Reed’s Transformer, the Stooges’ Raw Power, and Mott the Hoople’s comeback All the Young Dudes, for which he also wrote the title track” (Erlewine). “After recording the all-covers Pin-Ups with the Spiders from Mars, he unexpectedly announced the band's breakup…during the group's final show that year” (Erlewine).
Orwell, Plastic Soul, and the Thin White Duke
“He retreated from the spotlight to work on a musical adaptation of George Orwell’s 1984, but once he was denied the rights to the novel, he transformed the work into Diamond Dogs. The album was released to generally poor reviews…yet it generated the hit single ‘Rebel Rebel,’ and he supported the album with an elaborate and expensive American tour. As the tour progressed, Bowie became fascinated with soul music, eventually redesigning the entire show to reflect his new ‘plastic soul’…Bowie refashioned his group into a Philly soul band and recostumed himself in sophisticated, stylish fashions” (Erlewine).
“Young Americans, released in 1975, was the culmination of Bowie’s soul obsession, and it became his first major crossover hit, peaking in the American Top Ten and generating his first U.S. number one hit in Fame, a song he co-wrote with John Lennon…Bowie relocated to Los Angeles, where…he recorded Station to Station, which took the plastic soul…into darker, avant-garde-tinged directions, yet was also a huge hit, generating the Top Ten single Golden Years. The album inaugurated Bowie's persona of the elegant ‘Thin White Duke,’ and it reflected Bowie's growing cocaine-fueled paranoia” (Erlewine).
The Berlin Trifecta and Scary Monsters
“Soon, he decided Los Angeles was too boring and returned to England; shortly after arriving back in London, he gave the awaiting crowd a Nazi salute, a signal of his growing, drug-addled detachment from reality. The incident caused enormous controversy, and Bowie left the country to settle in Berlin, where he lived and worked with Brian Eno” (Erlewine). “Bowie sobered up and…developed a fascination with German electronic music, which Eno helped him fulfill on their first album together, Low…[It] was a startling mixture of electronics, pop, and avant-garde technique…It proved to be one of the most influential albums of the late ‘70s, as did its follow-up, Heroes…In 1977, [Bowie] also helmed Iggy Pop’s comeback records The Idiot and Lust for Life” (Erlewine).
“During 1979, Bowie and Eno recorded Lodger in New York, Switzerland, and Berlin...[The album] was supported with several innovative videos, as was 1980’s Scary Monsters, and these videos — ‘DJ,’ ‘Fashion,’ ‘Ashes to Ashes’ — became staples on early MTV” (Erlewine).
The Pop Years
“In 1983, [Bowie] signed an expensive contract with EMI Records and released Let’s Dance. Bowie had recruited Chic guitarist Nile Rodgers to produce the album, giving the record a sleek, funky foundation, and hired the unknown Stevie Ray Vaughan as lead guitarist. [It] became his most successful record, thanks to stylish, innovative videos for ‘Let's Dance’ and ‘China Girl,’ which turned both songs into Top Ten hits. Bowie supported the record with the sold-out arena tour Serious Moonlight” (Erlewine).
“Greeted with massive success for the first time, Bowie wasn't quite sure how to react, and he eventually decided to replicate Let’s Dance with 1984’s Tonight. While the album sold well, producing the Top Ten hit ‘Blue Jean,’ it received poor reviews and ultimately was a commercial disappointment” (Erelwine), as was 1987’s “widely panned Never Let Me Down” (Erlewine).
“Bowie's next project was perhaps his most unsuccessful. Picking up on the abrasive, dissonant rock of Sonic Youth and the Pixies, Bowie formed his own guitar rock combo, Tin Machine [and] released an eponymous album to poor reviews” followed by a second album that was “completely ignored” (Erlewine).
The Innovator Returns
“Bowie returned to a solo career in 1993 with the sophisticated, soulful Black Tie White Noise, recording the album with Nile Rodgers and his now-permanent collaborator, Reeves Gabrels. The album…received positive reviews, but his new label went bankrupt…and the album disappeared” (Erlewine).
“In 1995, he reunited with Brian Eno for the wildly hyped, industrial rock-tinged Outside…Bowie supported it with a co-headlining tour with Nine Inch Nails in order to snag a younger, alternative audience, but his gambit failed; audiences left before Bowie's performance” (Erlewine).
“He quickly returned to the studio in 1996, recording Earthling, an album heavily influenced by techno and drum'n'bass…[It] received generally positive reviews, yet the album failed to gain an audience, and many techno purists criticized Bowie for allegedly exploiting their subculture. Hours followed…[Next] Bowie reunited with producer Tony Visconti and released Heathen” Erlewine) and Reality.