Saturday 14 December 2019

David Bowie: 10 ways he sold the world...

There was something about the outpouring of grief and shock at the passing of David Bowie this week that was extraordinary, even by the standards of an age when fame and celebrity are excessively worshipped. What made this chameleon Picasso of pop so different? Our music critic on how he reshaped our culture

Ch-ch-changes: Bowie in the Point Depot (now 3Arena) in Dublin
Ch-ch-changes: Bowie in the Point Depot (now 3Arena) in Dublin
Bowie as Ziggy Stardust
Controversial: David Bowie was accused of giving a Nazi salute at London Victoria Station in 1976.
Bowie for the 1997 Earthling album cover.
David Bowie in a striped suit for the Aladdin Sane tour in 1973.
Bowie as Aladdin Sane
John Meagher

John Meagher

Anybody who wondered about David Bowie's status as one of the great cultural icons of the past 50 years, would have been left in no doubt about the esteem in which he was held this week.

From the striking front pages of newspapers around the world to the deluge of emotion on social media that reverberated for days following his death, it's clear that Bowie made an impact on people quite unlike anyone else.

But how did the former Davie Jones from Brixton, London, become such a totemic figure, one who engendered such adoration that Bono's tweet, referencing the "planet earth is blue" line from 'Space Oddity', would not smack of rock star hyperbole, but truly capture how bereft so many of us now feel?

Here, we break down the 10 factors that ensure that David Bowie will live on for as long as music is loved.

1 Bowie the pop star

The root of Bowie's genius lay in his ability to write truly great pop songs - and loads of them. He had 61 top 40 singles in the UK, five of them chart-toppers ('Space Oddity', 'Ashes to Ashes', 'Under Pressure', 'Let's Dance' and the Martha & the Vandellas' cover 'Dancing in the Street'). So many of his songs enjoy mass appeal: 'Starman', 'Rebel Rebel', 'Heroes', 'Fashion', 'China Girl'… the list goes on.

John Brereton, formerly guitarist with the Dublin band Sack, and now the organiser of the David Bowie Festival, which took place last weekend, says Bowie's run of albums through the 1970s is unparalleled. "The quality was exceptional," he says. "I can listen to everything from the 1960s right up to Scary Monsters [released in 1980], and not skip a single track. I can't say the same about the Beatles, great as they were."

RTÉ Radio 1 presenter John Creedon says Bowie's most popular songs transcended all boundaries. "I remember he'd be played on the dance floor in the late 70s/early 80s and everyone would stay dancing, no matter where their loyalties lay."

Musician Gavin Glass says Bowie's greatest songs will stand the test of time. "The brilliance of the likes of 'Heroes' and 'Life on Mars?' are unarguable," he says. "They're songs that will resonate through the generations - and they're just two from a brilliant back catalogue."

2 Bowie the avant-garde ­musician

Besides his ability to pen songs with mass appeal throughout his career, few have pushed the boundaries quite as spectacularly as Bowie did. Even his final album, Blackstar, offered an entirely different aural experience to his previous one, The Next Day. Few anticipated a direction informed by free-form jazz but as John Creedon points out, "he was two steps ahead of everyone for most of his career". "Like Samuel Beckett, Bowie had the capacity to keep us all guessing and his capacity to intrigue lasted until the very end," says Professor Eoin Devereux of University Limerick, whose book, David Bowie: Critical Perspectives, was published last year.

"Bowie was a well-read and informed artist who drew upon a deep well of influences such as Buddhism, German Expressionism, Mime, Oriental Culture and Jungian Psychology. His real strength was his capacity to synthesise complex ideas and make ample use of them in his art."

While others would have been happy to stick to the blue-eyed soul template of the album that broke the US, Young Americans, Bowie would soon change tack and release some of the most uncompromising - and best - music of his career.

3 Bowie the chameleon

Bowie began his career as plain old Davie Jones, and felt the urge to change his name because it was shared by a member of the Monkees. John Creedon believes it's possible that this early play with his identity would encourage him to explore other aliases and to change his sound constantly.

"We're living in a depressingly conformist age now," says Paul McLoone, "one where the likes of Adele - for all her merits - makes music that is safe and samey. Bowie was nothing like that, and there was a restlessness to him that made his music and look so exciting."

In the space of five years, Bowie went from the long-haired balladeer on Hunky Dory to the chilling figure of The Thin White Duke around the time of Station to Station, with the cosmic creations of Ziggy Stardust and Aladdin Sane, plus the very different Bowies of Diamond Dogs and Young Americans, thrown into the mix.

"He didn't know how to stay still," says Joe Donnelly, of the Dublin alternative music station TXFM. "He was constantly looking to try new things and it's remarkable how many different guises he went through in such a short space of time."

4 Bowie the collaborator

Although he was very much his own man, and one who followed his vision to the bitter end, Bowie collaborated with a dizzying array of very different musicians, filmmakers and artists for his entire career.

Not content with releasing acclaimed albums every year in the 1970s, he also found the time to produce Mott the Hoople's All the Young Dudes album (whose hugely popular title track had been written by Bowie), Lou Reed's transgressive masterpiece, Transformer, and a pair of acclaimed Iggy Pop albums, The Idiot and Lust for Life.

"It's extraordinary to think that during a short space of time in Berlin [in 1976 and 1977], he not only made brilliant albums in Low and Heroes, but also played such a huge part in Iggy's music too," says Paul McLoone, the Today FM presenter and Undertones singer. "That's four great albums in a year and a bit. It's an incredible work rate."

His constant shape-shifting continued to the end and for Blackstar, he worked with jazz musicians including Donny McCaslin, whom he had never made an album with before.

5 Bowie the actor

Just as the world was getting used to the Bowie who had embraced Philly soul on Young Americans, he went and starred in the dark sci-fi film, The Man Who Fell to Earth. The part of an alien was perfect for a man who had long been fixated on the notion of outsider art and it showed he could act.

He starred in a glut of films of mixed quality, including Merry Christmas, Mr Lawrence, The Hunger and Labyrinth, but he enjoyed some of the most glowing reviews of his career for his performance as the deformed John Merrick in The Elephant Man on Broadway.

His interests in theatre and film would combine brilliantly when it came to the then embryonic art of music videos in the early 1980s. Even his last video, for the eerily prescient 'Lazarus', was the work of a man who understood the visual medium like few others. Eoin Devereux says Bowie was fired up by the possibilities of the music video: "When I interviewed David Mallet, who directed the video for 'Ashes to Ashes', he explained the degree to which Bowie influenced the contents of the now classic video."

6 Bowie the fashion icon

The wildly popular David Bowie Is exhibition at London's Victoria and Albert Museum in 2013 demonstrated how daring the singer was when it came to his image. The skin-tight catsuits and knee-length platform boots are an exotic universe away from the dreary ordinariness of Ed Sheeran and his ilk.

"It was, arguably, a composite of various David Bowies presented to us in the 1970s in the form of characters - Ziggy, The Thin White Duke - and album covers like Hunky Dory, Aladdin Sane and Diamond Dogs which led to him securing an iconic status quite early in his career," Eoin Devereux says. "The trademark hairdo and flash make-up [of the Ziggy and Aladdin San years] are forever secured in the popular imagination and are now globally recognisable."

"There was no doubt that he was a fashion icon," John Creedon says. "But he had such style too. No matter what look he went for, he was able to pull it off. You can't get it right every time unless that sense of style is innate."

7 Bowie the provocateur

Few musicians have understood the power of television quite like David Bowie. It was on his third appearance on Top of the Pops, in July 1972, that he secured his place in British TV history. Few who saw that arresting performance of 'Starman' would forget the homoerotic way he engaged with his guitarist, Mick Ronson.

"He was dressed in a way that might have been seen as outrageous and he was draping his arm around Mick Ronson's shoulder," says Joe Donnelly. "Can you imagine how that would have went down in, say, a north of England mining town?" Homosexuality had been decriminalised in Britain in 1967, but the homophobia present in the media right up to the 1980s suggested Bowie was risking career suicide.

Four years later, in 1976, he was keen to provoke again with a look that veered dangerous close to fascism. On returning to London's Victoria Station, he was accused of delivering a Nazi salute that outraged those with lucid memories of World War II, which had ended just three decades before. "Bowie meant that it was OK to be different and to play with your identity," Eoin Devereux says. "His many looks, his ambiguity and his outrageousness strongly appealed to me."

8 Bowie the innovator

Although Bowie's work long led to accusations that he was a magpie who liberally borrowed from others, Paul McLoone believes it was his daring approach to music and yen for experimenting that should be celebrated. "He was a pioneer in many ways and his influence on musicians that followed can't be overestimated. He was always keen to try new things and work with new people and take a left-field turn, like the Tin Machine years [following a period where he was arguably at his most commercially popular]."

John Brereton says that unwillingness to repeat himself continued into the 1990s and beyond. "Even though he took his foot off the pedal in the 1980s and 90s, to a degree, there was always interesting and important work on his albums."

Bowie was always keen to embrace new technology and genres: from his use of the then rarely used synthesisers on Low and Heroes in the late 70s, to his infatuation with the short-lived drum-n-bass movement in the mid-90s. He was also one of the first artists to release music digitally: an online only single, 'Telling Lies' was released in 1996 when the MP3 was in its infancy and it went on to sell 300,000 downloads.

9 Bowie the media manipulator

A half-decade before Malcolm McLaren and the Sex Pistols played the British newspapers like a violin, Bowie knew exactly what to say in order to generate maximum publicity.

During the height of his Ziggy phase, he told Melody Maker that he was "gay, and always have been" and although he subsequently claimed to have regretted the comments, his words ensured there were few people who didn't know his name in the Britain and Ireland of the early 1970s.

He was a willing participated in two documentaries early in his career that would help seal his icon status: Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars by DA Pennebaker (who had been responsible for a seminal film on Bob Dylan), and Alan Yentob's Cracked Actor, which showed him struggle to cope with fame and drug addiction in the wake of the success of Young Americans.

More recently, he understood the benefits of keeping clear of the media - a move that would only accentuate his legend. Few artists of his stature could make an album (The Next Day) that almost nobody knew about; fewer still could keep the news that they were battling from cancer under wraps. Dying just days after releasing his most acclaimed album in years was, Paul McLoone says, "a typically clever and graceful Bowie coup."

10 Bowie the coolest of the cool

"He was one of the coolest people who ever lived," says Gavin Glass. "I cried when I heard [the news of his death]. It felt like we had all lost someone who had connected with so many people - whether it was the jock on the school rugby team or the hard-to-impress art school student. The only framed poster in our home that my partner and I could agree on was [the album image of] Aladdin Sane."

"He was effortlessly cool," John Creedon says, "right to the end. Maybe it was that sense that he was doing everything on his own terms.

His music is eternal and you just know that if you were transported to Tokyo in 180 years' time, his music would have survived and be playing there."

Eoin Devereux became infatuated with Bowie in 1977 when he was 12. "He was one of the few iconic rock stars who managed to survive punk and remain cool… I don't think that there have been any other (popular) music artists who have been as intellectually, musically and visually compelling as Bowie.

"I am certain that he is one of the few figures in popular culture who will be listened to and engaged with forever."

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