Bowie, David (originally, Jones, David)

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Bowie, David (originally, Jones, David)

Bowie, David (originally, Jones, David), rock’s English master of image and sound manipulation; b. Brixton, London, England, Jan. 8, 1947. David Bowie has pursued an erratic career based very much on image, as opposed to musical substance. His successes have totally transformed the way in which musical heroes are regarded by the consuming public, in terms of shock value, cleverness, and timeliness rather than substance or talent. Tapping musical wellsprings as diverse as folk, pop, disco, and punk, Bowie has demonstrated the uncanny ability to exploit virtually every musical trend without mastering any. Nonetheless, Bowie can be seen as a genius of performance art and astute for his choices of musical collaborators, be it Mick Ronson, Brian Eno, or Nile Rodger s.

David Bowie achieved his earliest major success at the hands of producer-guitarist Mick Ronson, with the classic Hunky Dory, Ziggy Stardust, and Aladdin Sane albums and tours. Bowie was thereby established as the first star of glitter rock, with its ambivalent sexuality, bizarre costuming and cosmetics, contrived theatricality, and elaborate stage lighting and presentation. This achievement helped open rock and pop to artists unafraid to display their flamboyance (Kiss, The New York Dolls), androgyny (Boy George, Michael Jackson), and openly gay sexuality (Queen). During the 1970s Bowie established a vital link between music, dance, acting, mime, and street theater that presaged the development of performance art in the 1980s. His electronic and synthesizer experiments of the late 1970s opened the door for the synthesizer-dominated pop sound of the 1980s and the ambient sound of the 1990s. His 1980 album Scary Monsters inspired a new generation of performers such as Ultravox and Duran Duran, yet he garnered his most widespread popularity with 1983’s Let’s Dance album and Serious Moonlight tour, both in a more pop vein, thanks to the influence of producer Nile Rodgers. Abandoning more than 20 years of hits following 1990’s Sound + Vision tour, David Bowie explored heavy metal with Tin Machine before reemerging in 1993 with the jazz-soul-hip-hop sound of Black Tie White Noise.

David Jones took up saxophone at age 12, later forming a number of groups, including David Jones and the Lower Third. Scoring several minor British hits in 1967, he changed his name to David Bowie to avoid confusion with Davy Jones of the Monkees. After a first album heavily influenced by the British music hall tradition, Bowie shifted to a hippie image for his first episode in science fiction, Space Oddity, an album not released in the United States until 1972. The title song became a smash hit in Great Britain and eventually became his first major American hit in 1973. Nonetheless, he “retired” for 18 months to run an Arts Lab in Beckenham, South London, before reemerging with The Man Who Sold the World, recorded with guitarist Mick Ronson and drummer Woody Woodmansey. With the British cover (banned in the United States) depicting Bowie as a drag queen with a striking resemblance to Lauren Bacali, the album earned him the beginnings of an English following and introduced the concept of glitter rock. Switching to RCA Records, Bowie managed a moderate hit with “Changes” from Hunky Dory.

Arranged by Mick Ronson, The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars was the first of four concept albums that brought Bowie widespread publicity and acclaim and his first recognition in the United States. With Bowie becoming rock star Ziggy Stardust, and Mick Ronson, Woody Woodmansey, and bassist Trevor Bolder becoming the Spiders from Mars, the album featured the minor hit “Starman” and Bowie classics such as “Star,” “Suffragette City,” and “Rock ’n’ Roll Suicide.” The 1972 Ziggy Stardust tour of the United States introduced American audiences to Bowie’s peculiar, camp mixture of makeup, costume and set changes, and elaborate lighting and staging. The follow-up album, Aladdin Sane, generated a minor hit with “Jean Genie.”

At this same time David Bowie composed and produced Mott the Hoople’s first hit, “All the Young Dudes,” and produced Lou Reed’s Transformer and Iggy Pop’s Raw Power. Following his final album with the Spiders from Mars and the conclusion of his British tour of 1973, Bowie announced his retirement. However, he was soon back with Diamond Dogs, his first album without the services of Mick Ronson, and its minor hit “Rebel Rebel.”

Young Americans revealed another image shift, with Bowie embracing the sound of Philadelphia soul. With a new, sophisticated playboy look, he hit with “Young Americans” and “Fame,” coauthored by John Lennon. Bowie continued his soul persona with Station to Station and the smash “Golden Years.” Later in 1976 he revealed a talent for acting, in the title role of Nicolas Roeg’s The Man Who Fell to Earth, portraying a space voyager stranded on Earth.

Bowie’s next three studio albums featured a spare, minimalist sound created by avant-garde keyboardist Brian Eno. Although the albums failed to sell spectacularly, they influenced an entire generation of European rock bands who used electronic synthesizers and sparse arrangements in their playing. In 1980 Bowie received rave reviews for his performance on tour and on Broadway as the grossly deformed John Merrick in Bernard Pomerance’s The Elephant Man. He recorded Scary Monsters without Brian Eno, but with former King Crimson guitarist Robert Fripp. The album included “Ashes to Ashes,” promoted with one of the most expensive videos to date, and the minor hit “Fashion.” Bowie’s next major hit, “Under Pressure,” was recorded with Queen.

Bowie switched to EMI America Records and enlisted Nile Rodgers and Tony Thompson of Chic for his 1983 album Let’s Dance. The title song and hits “China Girl” and “Modern Love” featured Stevie Ray Vaughan on guitar. Playing stadiums rather than arenas, the subsequent Serious Moonlight tour established Bowie as a performing act, without the theatrical effects of earlier tours. In 1984 “Blue Jean” became a near-smash hit from Tonight, and the following year Bowie and Mick Jagger hit with a remake of “Dancing in the Street,” with all proceeds donated to Live Aid. Bowie later acted in the 1986 film Labyrinth and recorded its soundtrack.

David Bowie returned to his theatrics for the 1987 Glass Spider tour, supported by guitarist Peter Frampton, who played on Never Let Me Down and its two major hits “Day-In Day-Out” and the title cut. In late 1988 Bowie formed Tin Machine as an integrated band under the influence of punk and heavy-metal music. However, their albums generated little interest, and in 1990 Bowie conducted his Sound + Vision tour with guitarist Adrian Belew as a recapitulation of his career to date. He eventually reemerged with his first solo album in six years, Black Tie White Noise, but within months his new label, Savage Records, had ceased operations. Bowie attempted to woo a younger crowd by touring in 1995 with Nine Inch Nails; the audience seemed more interested in the young rockers, though, and Bowie’s new material was mostly ignored.


early david bowie:The World of D. B. (1967); Images, 1966–1967 (1973); Starting Point (1977); Love You Till Tuesday (1984); Early On (1964–1966) (1991). david bowie:Space Oddity (1969); The Man Who Sold the World (1970); Hunky Dory (1971). david bowie and the spiders from mars:The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars (1972); Aladdin Sane (1973); Pin Ups (1973). the spiders from mars:The Spiders from Mars (1976). david bowie:Diamond Dogs (1974); David Live (1974); Young Americans (1975); Changesonebowie (1976); Station to Station (1976); Heroes (1977); Low (1977); Stage (1978); Lodger (1979); Scary Monsters (1980); Changestwobowie (1981); Christiane F.(sountrack; 1982); In Bertolt Brecht’s “Baal” (1982); Golden Years (1983); Let’s Dance (1983); Ziggy Stardust: The Motion Picture (1983); Fame and Fashion (Ail-Time Greatest Hits) (1984); Tonight (1984); Labyrinth (sountrack; 1986); Never Let Me Down (1987); Sound + Vision (1989); Changesbowie (1990); Bowie: The Singles (1993); Black Tie White Nose (1993); Jump (1994); Outside (1995). david bowie/eugene ormandy and the philadelphia orch.: D. B. Narrates Prokofiev’s “Peter and the Wolf” (1978). tin machine:Tin Machine (1989); Tin Machine II (1991); Oy Vey, Baby (1992).


G. Tremlett, The D. B. Story (London, 1974); V. Clair, D. B.I The King of Glitter Rock (N.Y., 1977); D. Fletcher, David Robert Jones Bowie: The Discography of a Generalist, 1962–1979 (Chicago, 1979); Miles and C. Charlesworth, D. B. Black Book: The Illustrated Biography (London, 1980); Carr et al., B.: An Illustrated Record (N.Y., 1981); C. Charlesworth, D. B.: Profile (N.Y., 1981); K. Cann, D. B.: A Chronology (London, 1983); K. Lynch, D. B.: A Rock ’n Roll Odyssey (London, 1984); J. Hopkins, B.(N.Y., 1985); P. Gillman and L. Gillman, Alias D. B. (N.Y., 1990); A. Bowie, with P. Carr, Backstage Passes: Life on the Wild Side with D. B.(N.Y., 1993).

—Brock Helander