David Robert Jones was born on 8th January 1947 in Brixton, a South London suburb in the UK.
While primarily thought of as a musician and singer/song-writer, David Bowie – as he became known in 1966 – is also an actor, painter, mime-artist, producer, writer, arranger, collaborator, father and husband – to name just some of the strings to his bow.
Never one to be accused of following a conventional path, Bowie, from forming his first band – The Konrads – at the age of 15, right up to his 24th solo studio album, The Next Day, released to a surprised world on his 66th birthday in 2013, has consistently been on the cutting edge of, well, everything. A bastion of cool, the original rock chameleon, the yardstick by which dudes of all ages measure themselves, he has kept us interested, inciting and inviting us…
Bowie was interested in music from an early age – taking up the sax from the age of 13 – being heavily influenced by his elder brother’s tastes. Terry Burns, nine years David’s senior, introduced him to beat literature and jazz music in particular.
At 16, David left Bromley Technical High School and went on to work as a commercial artist. He continued with his musical interests, pottering about in a few bands. He then fronted Davy Jones and the Lower Third, releasing You’ve Got A Habit Of Leaving in 1965.
Having changed his name to Bowie to avoid confusion with Davy Jones from US pop group, The Monkees, David went solo, releasing the then-unsuccessful David Bowie album.
There followed a few years where he dabbled in other artistic pursuits: living in a Scottish Buddhist monastery for several weeks in 1967 and starting a mime troupe, Feathers, in 1968. In 1969 he met the 19-year-old Angela Barnett, an American introduced to him by a mutual friend. They went on to marry the following year, having a son – Zowie, now known as Duncan – in 1971. They divorced in 1980.
In the summer of 1969, Bowie released the single Space Oddity on Mercury Records. The song, inspired by Stanley Kubrick’s film 2001: A Space Odyssey was used by the BBC during its coverage of the Apollo 11 moon landing. On a rerelease in 1972 it went to number 15 in the US charts.
David went on to release The Man Who Sold The World in 1970. Rockier than previous work, it brought the desired commercial success. Closely following it with the well-received Hunky Dory in 1971, he was now establishing himself as a star.
Now with a solid– and ever-expanding – fan-base, Bowie courted controversy and seemed to delight in keeping his fans guessing as to his next move. In 1972, he gave an interview to the Melody Maker claiming he was gay. Shortly after, he metamorphosed into Ziggy Stardust – his version of an ultimately-doomed glam-rock star with his outlandish outfits and flame-coloured hair, accompanied by backing band, The Spiders from Mars. The album, The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars, was released in 1972. Just as Ziggy was being adored by millions, Bowie killed him off.
In 1973, the album Bowie himself described as ‘Ziggy goes to America’, Aladdin Sane was released to an enthusiastic response on both side of the Atlantic.
Taking time out from his own music, he produced albums for friends Lou Reed and Iggy Pop, also writing and producing All The Young Dudes for Mott the Hoople.
Saying he had had enough of touring, in 1973 he released Pin Ups, an album of cover versions by British bands – including The Who and The Easybeats – that had influenced him over the years.
Around this time, David was composing pieces for a proposed musical adaptation of George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four which, due to the estate of Orwell’s refusal to authorise, was abandoned. Some of the songs were adapted and released on the subsequent 1974 album, Diamond Dogs. The album was showcased in a long and extravagant US tour.
By 1975, David had abandoned his wild outfits and outlandish make-up, sporting a sleeker, more tailored look. He released live album David Live in 1974, closely following it up with a new studio album, Young Americans, in 1975. The song Fame, taken from the latter and written with John Lennon, became Bowie’s first US number one single.
Station to Station was issued in 1976 and, as he was taking a lot of drugs, primarily cocaine, during its production, Bowie claims to remember very little of it.
In 1976, David made his film debut, starring in The Man Who Fell to Earth, a Nic Roeg film about an alien who crashes to earth while seeking water for his planet.
Bowie then went on to confuse and frustrate his record company by – rather than capitalising on his huge US success – moving to West Berlin, renting a flat with Iggy Pop and releasing a series of less accessible albums. Low (1977), Heroes (also 1977) and Lodger (1979) were all recorded in collaboration with former Roxy Music keyboard player, Brian Eno. David had by now developed a serious cocaine habit and its bleakness is mirrored in the subsequent recordings which became known as the Berlin Trilogy.
In 1977, Bowie appeared on a Bing Crosby’s Merrie Olde Christmas, performing Peace On Earth/Little Drummer Boy.
In 1980, Bowie, now living in New York, released Scary Monsters (and Super Creeps). It was a much-lauded album that showcased the single Ashes to Ashes which revisited the character of Major Tom from Space Oddity.
Three years later Bowie, now signed to EMI, released Nile Rodgers-produced Let’s Dance, an album that contained a clutch of hits including the title track, Modern Love and China Girl, David toured the album extensively, experiencing success on a huge scale.
An appearance at Live Aid in 1985 and a charity cover version of Dancing In The Street with Mick Jagger followed.
David married his second wife, the supermodel Iman, in Lausanne, Switzerland in 1992, with the couple going on to renew their vows in Florence, Italy later the same year after some doubt over the legality of their original ceremony. Their daughter, Alexandria Zahra Jones, was born in 2000.
As always, Bowie continued to experiment with sounds and styles, with occasional sojourns into acting (The Elephant Man on Broadway, Brecht’s Baal for the BBC and a vampire in film The Hunger being the most notable.)
However, after the massive success of Let’s Dance, subsequent releases were somewhat hit and miss. Other than a couple of modest hits, Bowie’s musical career pretty much languished. His rock albums with new band – Tin Machine (1989) and Tin Machine II (1991) – were not at all well-received, while his hotly-anticipated album Black Tie White Noise, released in 1993, and described as a wedding present for his new wife, was released with very little promotion by the record label.
Releases in this period included Tonight, released in 1984, which, while capitalising on the success of Let’s Dance and doing fairly well, was seen by critics to be very ordinary. In 1987, Never Let Me Down was comprehensively derided. The Glass Spider Tour hit the world’s stadiums in 1987 in support of the Never Let Me Down album. An extravagant stage show with massive props and dancers, it was roundly mocked.
Outside, released in 1995, saw David producing with Eno once again, but was no great shakes in regards to sales. Earthling in 1997 was somewhat more favourably received capitalising on Bowie’s foresight regarding the internet with a web-only release of the single Telling Lies. Hours, released in 1999, was the first album by a major artist to be available on the internet – in this case a fortnight prior to its physical release.
Bowie reunited with Tony Visconti on 2002’s Heathen, which featured a cover of Pixies’ Cactus. 2003 brought Reality, another Bowie/Visconti co-production which was toured over that and the following year.
In 2003, Bowie refused a knighthood, saying “”I would never have any intention of accepting anything like that. I seriously don’t know what it’s for. It’s not what I spent my life working for.”
In 2004, Bowie had an emergency heart operation after he developed a blocked artery. He recovered well and pretty much retired from public life, having only brief flirtations with other artistes’ work. He worked with bands such as Arcade Fire, and with the actress Scarlett Johansson in 2008 on her album Anywhere I Lay My Head, a collection of Tom Waits covers.
David was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1996. He also received the Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award in 2006. The same year also saw his last live appearance, where he performed with Alicia Keys at a New York charity event.
Deborah Vernon 2014.