Primer is The A.V. Club's ongoing series of beginners' guides to pop culture's most notable subjects: filmmakers, music styles, literary genres, and whatever else interests us—and hopefully you.
David Bowie 101
In the late ’60s and early ’70s, rock music faced a severe vacuum. Hard rock, progressive rock, pop saviors, and singer-songwriters abounded, but with The Beatles’ demise in 1970, no artist was left to truly straddle the aisles and unify the increasingly fragmented music scene. Did David Bowie fill that vacuum, or exaggerate it? To this day, his challenging, enigmatic image and music make it hard to say. What’s clear, though, is that Bowie’s emergence in 1969 with the earth-shattering single “Space Oddity”—a song sandwiched ingeniously between the release of Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey and the Apollo 11 moon landing—marked him as a rock auteur not only of his time, but of the future.
Bowie had been recording singles and trying to break into the industry for years prior to “Space Oddity.” But after that foot was in the door, he flourished. His fourth album, 1971’s Hunky Dory, wasn’t a huge hit when released, but it was his first true artistic triumph. Awash in sumptuous ballads, decadent lyricism, and even ripping proto-punk, the album was also a bold statement of intent. In addition to the anthemic “Changes”—a signal of the chameleon-like quality that became Bowie’s hallmark—the song “Oh! You Pretty Things” takes a poetic stand in favor of the freaks and geeks of society—all wrapped up, of course, in chilling, cryptic science fiction. When Bowie sings “Homo sapiens have outgrown their use,” he indirectly sets the stage for his subsequent persona—one that claimed to not be human at all.
Although he had a hippie-ish air in early in his career, Bowie made his first true transformation (of many) in 1972 with the release of The Rise And Fall Of Ziggy Stardust And The Spiders From Mars. Assuming the guise of an extraterrestrial rock star named Ziggy Stardust, Bowie laid the glitter and makeup on thick, and recorded classic songs like “Moonage Daydream” and “Suffragette City,” backed by a stellar band that included ace guitarist Mick Ronson. The album was Bowie’s commercial breakthrough, but it showed just how ambitious he was a songwriter, not to mention a conceptual shape-shifter who saw rock ’n’ roll as theater, pop art, and postmodern spectacle. It also cemented his notoriety as an androgynous, over-the-top performer—one who led the vanguard of the nascent glam movement even as he utterly transcended it. Case in point: The twisted, Burroughsian literary bent of the album’s soaring, lurid opening track, the apocalyptic “Five Years.”
Bowie’s next big transformation came in 1975, and it was a shocker. In a move that could have easily become a textbook case of rock ’n’ roll suicide, he ditched the big guitars and high heels of his Ziggy Stardust persona, trading them for blow-dried soul. Young Americans was partially recorded at Philadelphia’s Sigma Sound Studios, ground zero for the city’s soft-edged, sophisticated soul sound. Contrary to some categorizations, though, Young Americans is no Philly soul record. Instead, it’s a brilliant synthesis of cool, detached reserve, coked-up art rock, and sculptural funk. Perhaps to show how much he meant it, Bowie even appeared on Soul Train, lip-synching one of Young Americans’ most indelible tracks, “Fame”—a song co-written by John Lennon that tapped into Bowie’s endless reservoir of self-reference.
Bowie’s break from glam seemed to herald a new direction for the artist, a path that was made more obscure than clear with 1976’s frigid yet brilliant Station To Station. That new sound crystallized in 1977 with Low. Teaming with fellow glam survivor Brian Eno—formerly of Roxy Music and already well-established as an avant-rock visionary—Bowie made the kind of album the rock world had never heard before. While some tracks, including the haunting yet elegant “Sound And Vision,” pass as pop, Low’s entire second half is an atmospheric, synthesizer-based slab of icebound angst. Nothing about the album is easily penetrable, but the overall effect is equally harrowing and breathtaking. With the first installment of what would become known as The Berlin Trilogy, Bowie and Eno had found a way to refract Germany’s Kraftwerk-led electronic music to the masses—a move that would shape the sound of the coming decade.
As the Berlin Trilogy prophesized (or simply caused), the early ’80s saw an explosion of synth-pop acts and slinky New Romantics. But Bowie’s own children had to make room for daddy when he released Let’s Dance in 1983. The monstrously successful album spawned a handful of massive hits, including the title track, “China Girl” (a remake of a song he co-wrote with Iggy Pop for The Idiot), and one of his signature tunes, the impeccably sharp, oddly philosophical “Modern Love.” In spite of the album’s title, though, it was more than just dance-floor filler. With production and instrumental help from Chic mastermind Nile Rodgers, Let’s Dance reanimated disco’s warm corpse with rock swagger and debonair hooks. At this point, Bowie’s mystique had accrued a bit of tarnish; there he was, flashing grins and gladly playing the mainstream game. But really, he had every right to be happy. Almost 20 years into his career, the world had finally caught up with him.
Bowie’s ’70s heyday can easily be divided into a few distinct phases signposted by a handful of key albums. But some of his best work comes from the in-between phases. Featuring the same core musicians he’d worked with for a few years, Aladdin Sane arrived on the heels of Ziggy Stardust in 1973, and its weaker bits make it sound like a footnote. Its best songs, however, rank among the greatest Bowie ever recorded, offering a bleary, romantic, late-night depiction of early-’70s America as understood by a man who regarded it as alien territory. “The Jean Genie” and “Drive-In Saturday” became hits, but the preening “Watch That Man” and the unsettlingly apocalyptic “Panic In Detroit” are standouts as well.
Apart from drummer Mick Woodmansey, Bowie kept the Hunky/Ziggy/Aladdin lineup together for a final go with the covers album Pin Ups, also from 1973. For a man who’d become famous by looking to the future, looking back seemed almost like a radical act. While there’s nothing particularly radical about the songs themselves, it’s still worth a listen to hear Bowie try to reconcile inspirations from the past with the sound of the future.
The following year’s Diamond Dogs, on the other hand, focuses squarely on what was to come. The result of a failed attempt to turn George Orwell’s 1984 into a play, Diamond Dogs imagines a world in which dystopian forces of repression do battle with violence and chaos. The sound, courtesy of a new backing band, has one foot planted in glam, another in the soul-inspired songs of Young Americans. In spite of hits like the title track and “Rebel Rebel,” Diamond Dogs got an undeserved critical bad rap for years, but today, it sounds both moody and moving, the rare concept album that finds a tone and sustains it to a haunting end.
On the other side of Young Americans is 1976’s Station To Station, which mixes its predecessor’s plastic soul with the repetitive krautrock-inspired sounds Bowie and Eno worked their alchemy on in the Berlin Trilogy, with some leftover dystopian science-fiction themes thrown in for good measure. It’s the definition of a transitional album, but all the more interesting for being stuck between two styles. For proof, look no further than its biggest hit, “Golden Years,” which mixes funk repetition, yearning vocals, and the cold clank of Neu! and other German contemporaries.
Heroes and Lodger fill out the somewhat misnamed Berlin trilogy. Only Heroes was recorded there in its entirety, but the feel of the city permeates all three albums, both in the sounds adapted from krautrock and in the mood of a place filled with specters of the past and facing an uncertain future. They’re tense albums that break an uneasy mood with moments of transcendence. Sometimes those moments come in the form of the soaring title track to Heroes, other times in the ambient beauty of instrumentals like “Moss Garden.”
The Bowie/Eno collaboration is an instance of two restless artists unexpectedly arriving at the same place at the same time. They were already starting to head in different directions after partnering for a few years; that’s evident on Lodger, a fine 1979 album that’s also a notch or two below the towering classics that precede it. Songs like “Boys Keep Swinging” eye the pop charts a little more than Bowie had in recent years, and other tracks indulge in a bit of recycling. (Fans of Iggy Pop’s Bowie collaboration “Sister Midnight” could be forgiven for feeling déjà vu upon arriving at the album-closing “Red Money.”)
With punk and new wave in ascendance, Bowie seemed eager to offer his own spin on the styles he’d help create on his next album, 1980’s Scary Monsters (And Super Creeps). The result was a Bowie take on pop that left all the edges intact. Powered by the same sense of experimentation and distressed energy that drove the Berlin albums, it fit right into the nascent ’80s music scene that drew so much inspiration from Bowie. It also felt like the closing of a chapter. “Fashion” and “Ashes To Ashes” became hits, the latter putting the character of Major Tom to rest. He floated happily toward the unknown, but here, he’s described as a junkie. It was a tremendous decade for Bowie creatively, but personally, he’d been through the wringer, spending much of it strung out and paranoid, when not battling his way out of a bad record deal, or getting torn apart by the press over his indeterminate sexuality (a story he helped stoke) or bizarre, British tabloid accusations of fascism (a story he had a hard time squelching). The good might have balanced the bad, but it surely seemed like time to move on.
Before Bowie unleashed his full genius all over Hunky Dory and Ziggy Stardust, 1970’s The Man Who Sold The World hinted strongly at the otherworldly sounds to come. A moody yet dynamic mix of folk-rock, latent psychedelia, and metallic heaviness, the album dabbles in occult mysticism and one of Bowie’s other pet predilections at the time, Nietzschean philosophy. It’s a pretty off-kilter snapshot of the formative Bowie, but the title track stands as an early warning of just how far he’d be willing to stretch and subvert the whole idea of rock music, while coloring entirely inside the lines. The song struck a chord with a new generation when Nirvana recorded a stunning cover of it for Unplugged.
Bowie’s mega-stardom in the ’80s seemed to leave him with the urge to reach out, become more accessible, and install himself in the rock establishment. That might have been the reason behind a triptych of duets he recorded that decade: a cover of Martha And The Vandellas’ Motown classic “Dancing In The Street” with Mick Jagger; the title track of his lackluster 1984 album Tonight, sung with Tina Turner; and the duet that would become one of the most popular rock anthems of all time, “Under Pressure.” A collaboration with Queen, another trailblazing act that rose above the glam fray, “Under Pressure” also features one of Bowie’s most impassioned, go-for-the-throat vocal performances. Left to his own devices, Bowie’s music tended toward emotional detachment; singing with the extroverted, heart-on-his-sleeve Freddie Mercury spurred Bowie to reach deep and belt it out from the gut.
Tin Machine is a divisive project among Bowie fans. Some lauded the fact that Bowie bucked the slickness of the ’80s, wiped off the makeup, got a small band together, and put his nose to the grindstone for Tin Machine’s self-titled debut in 1989. Recruiting guitar whiz Reeves Gabrels as well as brothers Tony and Hunt Sales—the rhythm section that played on Iggy Pop’s Bowie-produced masterpiece, Lust For Life—Bowie packed Tin Machine with stark, angry, almost universally tuneless hard rock. But there’s something admirable, even heroic, about the aggressively uncommercial album—even when, in “Under The God,” Bowie rages against racism in an almost painfully strident way. This marked the last time Bowie would be ahead of the curve on anything; two years later, grunge would mark a full-scale return to gritty, unflashy guitar rock.
In 1995, Bowie released Outside, a reunion with old cohort Brian Eno and his first concept album in ages. In other words, Outside had “return to form” written all over it—and although the self-styled “Gothic Drama Hyper-Cycle” didn’t live up to that expectation, it at least rebooted his career credibly for the encroaching 21st century. Its follow-up, 1997’s electronic-injected Earthling even contained a latter-day hit: “I’m Afraid Of Americans,” whose remix by Nine Inch Nails’ Trent Reznor wound up getting all the play. Portions of the album sound woefully dated just 15 years later, but while not all the experiments work a patient listening of Earthling, particularly tracks like “Little Wonder,” reveal some of the strongest hooks and absorbing moods he’d delivered in years.
No one in their right mind expected David Bowie—artist, icon, elder statesman—to have anything as pedestrian as a comeback so late in his career. Yet he did exactly that with 2002’s Heathen and 2003’s Reality. Solid and almost unassuming, this is as vulnerable and personal as Bowie has ever been; including covers of everything from Pixies to Jonathan Richman, the two albums, as a whole, are playful and intimate without ceding an inch of Bowie’s magisterial voice and poise. On Reality’s “Never Get Old,” he even sings about aging in a way that underscores rather than undermines his immortality.
Bowie had already sung about changes and cut a theatrical figure onstage, but here, he committed to a persona—a pansexual alien who might be messiah, martyr, or destroyer—who channeled everything he hoped to accomplish with glam rock. Even today, now that Bowie has become a smiling rock eminence, Ziggy remains a disconcerting, mysterious figure on record and in vintage concert clips. It’s also undeniably one of Bowie’s best albums, influenced in equal parts by musical theater and primal rock ’n’ roll sounds that lay dormant for years in the psychedelic and progressive eras. It’s a brilliant, rocking, moving album, one that other artists might have spent a career trying to top rather than moving on to discover what else could be done.
Listen to Bowie’s albums in order, and it’s not hard to hear the evolution from one style to the next. But even in context, and after the stage-setting of Station To Station, Low sounds like a step away from what’s come before. Side one attempts to reconcile human emotions like love (“Be My Wife”), self-destruction (“Breaking Glass”), and hope (“A New Career In A New Town”) with the new electronic sounds of the day. Side two creates ambient landscapes that find common ground between Eno’s instrumental albums and the chilly drama Bowie favored.
Before sinking into personas, Bowie offered his arch take on a singer-songwriter album. The first side offers tributes to misfit youth (“Changes,” “Oh! You Pretty Things”) and young lives shaped as much by pop culture as real life (“Life On Mars?”). The second contains a trilogy of tributes to counterculture heroes (“Andy Warhol,” “Song For Bob Dylan,” and the Lou Reed homage “Queen Bitch”). It’s the sound of a man surveying the landscape of a world he was about to take over.
Sometimes a man gets lost. This is an album recorded in a holding pattern between styles and influences, but no less fascinating for it. It’s also an album of contradictions, summoning up the merciless character of The Thin White Duke with the epic opening track, then slipping into high romantic mode with “Word On A Wing” just before offering “TVC 15,” a song about a TV set that devours viewers.
The second installment of the Berlin Trilogy would be a classic if it only contained the stunning title track. It has that and much more, taking the sounds and themes of Low in unexpected directions.
Miscellany: Bowie as actor
Bowie has sidelined as an actor for decades in roles both sizable—anecdotal evidence suggests his performance as Jareth, the goblin king in Labyrinth, helped a generation of girls enter womanhood—and small. Some of his most memorable moments have been little more than cameos, like his performance as Pontius Pilate in The Last Temptation Of Christ, or Nikolai Tesla in The Prestige. He’s always good, but only one role, a rare starring part, can be considered as essential to his career as any album: Thomas Jerome Newton in The Man Who Fell To Earth.
Walter Tevis’ 1963 novel about an alien who travels to Earth seeking resources for his home planet uses science-fiction themes to portray how experience and human desires tend to corrupt genius. Nicholas Roeg’s film chases the same themes while bringing in elements of the Ziggy story and pushing Roeg’s love of non-linear editing to an extreme. It’s a one-of-a-kind film that found in Bowie the perfect star, letting us see the world through the eyes of a man who seems not quite of it, as he gets drawn deeper into its corruption and disappointment with every passing moment.