LONDON — “I’m not a prophet or a Stone Age man. Just a mortal with the potential of a superman: I’m living on,” sang David Bowie in one early song, “Quicksand.”
If Bowie did have the potential of a superman, he certainly fulfilled it — and on his own terms. Without him rock music — and indeed pop culture itself — would have been very different, and much less fun.
While many artists struggle to define themselves in one genre, during his 1970s heyday Bowie danced between countless styles — glam, pop, soul, funk, electronic, ambient, metal — redefining both himself and the whole music world. And just when one image threatened to overwhelm him, like the “Ziggy Stardust” persona, he ditched it and moved on.
Success did not come immediately to Bowie though. After fronting a series of bands in the 1960s, dabbling with folk music, dance and even mime, the south Londoner emerged as a star in his own right with “Space Oddity,” released in 1969, just five days before the Apollo 11 launch.
Bowie was dismissed as a one-hit wonder, and his next two albums failed to make a significant commercial impact, despite heavy promotion in the United States that exploited his now androgynous appearance.
It wasn’t until he pulled the stops out and dumped the fey approach of “Hunky Dory” that his career really took off. His hair now dyed electric orange, and wearing a series of outrageous stage outfits, Bowie stunned the world with “The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars.”
Looking like an alien that had fallen to earth, it is difficult to underestimate the impact that Bowie made on a still fairly conservative world. When the singer appeared on the British pop show, “Top of the Pops,” in April 1972 with “Starman,” he swiftly entered the nation’s consciousness — his career never looked back.
The Ziggy persona was an amalgam of the music of Lou Reed and the stage wildman that was Iggy Pop, and it was no surprise that Bowie worked with both performers, propelling them to new heights. The decade also saw him collaborate with John Lennon, Mick Jagger, Freddy Mercury and bizarrely, Bing Crosby, to varying degrees of artistic merit.
Bowie embraced glam rock in the early 70s and the follow-up, “Aladdin Sane,” also featured a muscular sound that included the singles “The Jean Genie” and “Drive-In Saturday.” But his stage persona was threatening to get out of control, affecting his sanity — and in July 1973 he killed Ziggy Stardust, and as the song itself predicted, “broke up the band.”
Moving to New York and Los Angeles in 1974, his sound changed to the more soulful and funky sound of “Diamond Dogs” and “Young Americans.” These were massively commercial successes, especially in the United States, but saw Bowie descend into cocaine addiction and paranoia.
Despite his personal problems, he continued to develop both artistically and commercially: while many of his late 1970s albums were challenging or introspective, they always contained big hits, such as “Fame” and “Golden Years” from the “Young Americans” and “Station to Station” albums.
Bowie moved to Switzerland in 1976, and later to Berlin with his friend Iggy Pop in a largely successful attempt to clean up. There he embraced “Krautrock,” and collaborated on a “triptych” of albums, “Low,” “Heroes” and “Lodger,” with Brian Eno, Robert Fripp and Tony Visconti. Released during the “year of punk” in 1977, Bowie’s music label marketed “Heroes” with the phrase: “There’s Old Wave. There’s New Wave. And there’s David Bowie.”
By 1980, the newly clean Bowie was back with “Ashes to Ashes,” another No.1 hit in the UK and embraced the underground New Romantic movement in its video. A duet the following year with Queen on “Under Pressure,” gave him another chart-topper; “China Girl” hit the Top 20 around the world in 1983, and “Let’s Dance” became his most commercially successful album.
His output declined in the 1990s and 2000s before he reemerged from semi-retirement in 2013 with the “The Next Day.” The sound of the album was reflective, befitting a man who had frequently achieved greatness.
“Look up here, I’m in heaven,” sang David Bowie on Lazarus, one of the songs released on his final album, Black Star, which came out on his 69th birthday — just two days before his death on Sunday. “Oh I’ll be free. Ain’t that just like me.”
David Bowie always had exquisite timing.
By Peter Wilkinson