David Bowie is dead. After sixty nine years and many changes of style, the great man – nicknamed ‘The Thin White Duke’ – has made his final transformation. In the great scheme of popular music, he make a massive impact. Bowie is famous for transforming himself, but he changed pop music and spawned a generation of musicians, all around the world, that were indelibly stamped with his musical DNA.
He had a string of huge selling singles and albums, but more than this he made the musical weather during the nineteen seventies and eighties. Like few others of his time, he had the ability to inspire and provide a generation of creative people into doing great work. His imagination was unmatched, and from this came several different ‘stage personalities’ with their very own styles – most famously the wild rock and roll star ‘Ziggy Stardust’ in the early nineteen seventies. Because of this, he was like a magnet for other greatly gifted people – everyone wanted to work with him, from John Lennon and Iggy Pop to Freddie Mercury and Bing Crosby.
His fans include the rich, famous, creative and cool – everyone from Bill Clinton and La Toya Jackson, Tony Blair, Kanye West and Elijah Wood, to the Rolling Stones’ Mick Jagger, Russell Crowe and Pharrell Williams. The German government recently credited him for helping to bring down the Berlin Wall, nearly three decades ago. Madonna called him “a genius”, and wrote, “Talented. Unique. Genius. Game Changer. The Man who Fell to Earth. Your Spirit Lives on Forever!” The BBC’s arts editor Will Gompertz described him as “the Picasso of pop”. Britain’s Prime minister David Cameron wrote, “I grew up listening to and watching the pop genius David Bowie. He was a master of re-invention, who kept getting it right. A huge loss.”
He was also a fine actor too. His best performance is in Nicholas Roeg's The Man Who Fell To Earth (1976), where he powerfully portrays an alien whose spaceship crash lands on Earth, who is secretly trying to find a way to ship water to his planet, after a severe drought. It was a natural progression after he wrote the brilliant Starman, about an intergalactic rock star visiting the doomed planet Earth. His fascination with space ran throughout his career – his first breakthrough single was Space Oddity, released in 1969 at the same time as the Apollo 11 moon landing. Here he introduced the character of Major Tom, an astronaut stranded in a spaceship far above the world. “Planet Earth is blue, and there’s nothing I can do”, he wrote. The character came back in 1981 – in Ashes to Ashes (1981), we found him in a weird, surrealistic dream-like state. Britain’s most famous astronaut, Major Tim Peake, has just said, “his music is an inspiration”.
David Bowie was unique in popular music, because he played so many roles. He imagined himself as many kinds of people, then wrote brilliant music from their points of view – which were quite different to his other personas. His fashion changed dramatically over the years, and often his choice of haircut or clothes influenced millions of fans around the western world. Despite all the changes though, he stuck with an elite team of musicians including producer Tony Visconti, guitarist Mick Ronson and the drummer Woody Woodmansey. Set behind his unique vocal style – Bowie sang in a clear English accent, when some British vocalists of his time used a subtly American one – the band gave him a highly distinctive sound.
There is no one ‘best’ Bowie song, or album. They are so diverse that it’s impossible to say. Many think Aladdin Sane (1973) to be a high point of his early career, while Heroes (1977) is a brilliant early-mid period album – the title track has become an anthem for many around the world. Ashes to Ashes (1981) was possibly the last truly innovative Bowie album, and Let’s Dance (1983) is certainly his most commercial. On this he teamed up with Chic’s Nile Rodgers to make an extremely powerful, catchy and danceable sound that’s more accessible than his earlier work. It was the heyday of MTV (American Music Television), and his striking videos for Modern Love, Let’s Dance and China Girl were huge international hits.
Until his final days, David Bowie was still capable of surprises. He realised his final album, Blackstar on his birthday, on the 8th January, just two days before his death – so never lost his dramatic sense! He leaves his wife Iman, their daughter Alexandria, stepdaughter Zulekha and son Duncan. He will be sorely missed, but his legend lives on.