You couldn’t do David Bowie justice in 140 characters (he must have invented more himself), but his singularity was obvious once the debut album, David Bowie, emerged on Deram in 1967. Produced by Mike Vernon, it’s certainly quirky, but tracks such as ‘We Are Hungry Men’, ‘There Is A Happy Land’ and ‘She’s Got Medals’ contained themes ranging from messiah figures to androgyny and philosophically dubious statesmen that filtered through his later work.
The second self-titled album (issued in some countries as Man Of Words/Man Of Music, and latterly known as Space Oddity) was even stranger in its shift from mod posturing to curly mopped über-troubadour, with Tony Visconti’s sonically challenging production and a gifted cast of players including Rick Wakeman, Mick Wayne, Keith Christmas, Terry Cox (from Pentangle), Herbie Flowers and Tim Renwick.
The rebooted ‘Space Oddity’, ‘Cygnet Committee’ and the manic ‘Wild Eyed Boy from Freecloud’ took listeners on a scattergun journey that came to rest in the euphoric chants of ‘Memory Of A Free Festival’ (“The sun machine is coming down/And we’re gonna have a party…”), homage to a Beckenham Arts Lab event that Bowie played at during the summer of ’69.
The Man Who Sold the World was where his next phase truly started. The “man dress” that Bowie sported on the cover ushered in another image change; new bandmates, guitarist Mick Ronson and fellow Hull-ite Mick Woodmansey, helped work up a proto-heavy metal sound that suited the apocalyptic writing of songs that dealt with Nietzschan supermen, padded-cell insanity and gun-running terrorists.
Like its predecessor, 1971’s Hunky Dory featured cover art that depicted Bowie in an androgynous pose, as he came to embody the glam and glitter of the new decade. Stylish to the nth degree and with Trevor Bolder joining line-up, Hunky Dory gave us Bowie as “The Actor” who produced the album with trusted former Beatles sound man Ken Scott (a man that Bowie was declared was “my George Martin”). This is one of those albums that everyone should own. ‘Changes’, ‘Oh! You Pretty Things’, ‘Life On Mars?’, ‘Quicksand’ and the unsettling commentary on life with his schizophrenic brother Terry, ‘The Bewlay Brothers’, were rooted in Bowie’s London locale, whereas ‘Queen Bitch’, ‘Song For Bob Dylan’ and ‘Andy Warhol’ fixed Bowie’s growing love affair with New York City – and The Velvet Underground in particular. The “chameleon, comedian, Corinthian and caricature” oft-quoted in Bowie’s image was more about brother Terry, but it also showed us how Bowie himself would inhabit an ego and a landscape, and, like the Victorian painter Richard Dadd, fuse imagery of beauty and lunacy by turn.
With its narrative subtext, The Rise And Fall Of Ziggy Stardust And The Spiders From Mars was a masterpiece: a virtual rock’n’roll opera with an inbuilt anti-hero passing commentary on life lived in English market squares, aliens waiting to land, and the self-styled “leper messiah” who would be sucked up and spat out by parasitical devotees. Its follow-up, Aladdin Sane, a travelogue of debauchery in America, was cool, calculated and brilliant. It also gets better with age, though some felt that Bowie was retreading past topics in ‘Panic In Detroit’ and ‘Cracked Actor’, which, in hindsight, seems fair. Musically audacious, however, the album benefitted from the arrival of avant-garde pianist Mike Garson, who added baroque flourish to an album suffused with sci-fi menace.
Aladdin Sane’s cover of The Rolling Stones’ sleazy ‘Let’s Spend The Night Together’ was a forerunner to Pin Ups, on which Bowie paid his dues to The Pretty Things, Them, The Easybeats, The Merseys, The Who and The Kinks. He hadn’t quite kissed the 60s goodbye, but treated them to a rousing farewell.
Released in 1974, Diamond Dogs – loosely based on aborted plans to stage a theatrical version of George Orwell’s 1984 – signalled the true end of the Ziggy era via the title track and ‘Rebel Rebel’. Bowie described it as “a very political album, my protest… more than anything I’ve done previously”, but the oblique (and bleak) nature of the material wasn’t to everyone’s taste.
An American soul sojourn commenced with David Live (recorded in Upper Darby, Pennsylvania) and continued with Young Americans and the gothic art-funk of Station To Station, wherein the Thin White Duke celebrated his role as Thomas Newton in the cinematic adaptation of The Man Who Fell To Earth by embarking on a musical and personal binge as he attempted to integrate the Stations Of The Cross into an album of undeniably edgy passion, quite at odds with the fleshier pleasures of its predecessor.
Bowie’s return to Europe – what he called “that continent pulling me back” – resulted in the so-called “Berlin Trilogy” of Low, “Heroes” and Lodger (though Low was partly conceived in France, and the latter was actually recorded in Switzerland and New York City), released across 1977-79. Tony Visconti and Brian Eno helped to channel his new crack band, including Carlos Alomar, Dennis Davis and George Murray. Bowie could do little wrong: just as “Heroes” was voted NME’s Album Of The Year in 1977, so Lodger would later be rescued from the somewhat lukewarm reviews of the era.
Presaging (or riding the coattails of) the New Romantics, 1980’s Scary Monsters (And Super Creeps) was a final art-rock masterpiece before a three-year silence. When Bowie re-emerged with Let’s Dance, it was a much lighter affair that meshed just about every style, from disco to motorik beats, pure pop to soundtrack (it included a re-recording of his dark 1982 Giorgio Moroder movie collaboration ‘Cat People (Putting Out Fire)’), and raced up the charts.
Now Bowie was posed to go mainstream. Following the acclaimed Serious Moonlight tour, the Tonight album was more soul and smoke, with Iggy Pop in the mix and a Pin Ups-styled cover of The Beach Boys’ ‘God Only Knows’.
The vaudevillian rock’n’roll of Never Let Me Down was followed by a more concerted effort on Black Tie White Noise. Though neither are not his most essential moments, the latter features a poignant last meeting with former foil Mick Ronson on Cream’s ‘I Feel Free’, while Mike Garson is back at the piano on the jazzy ‘Looking For Lester’.
Soundtracks along the way included Labyrinth (1986) and the cut-up techniques applied to The Buddha Of Suburbia (1993): further proof that the man would not be pigeonholed. He’d also flirted with the standard rock band format when he formed Tin Machine, but seemed far happier working with Brian Eno again on 1995’s Outside, on which a new range of characters emerged but ultimately rather fell through the cracks.
Expanding on Outside’s more pronounced electronic experiments, drum’n’bass was the order of the day on Earthling (there’s that space motif again’, while on ‘hours…’ Bowie confronted old friends and foes on the track ‘The Pretty Things Are Going to Hell’, as if to say that his personae could be killed off and resurrected at will.
Visconti returned for 2002’s Heathen, Bowie’s first stab at the new millennium. The album includes an homage to an old hero, Neil Young, in a sterling cover of ‘I’ve Been Waiting For You’, a song that that Tin Machine had performed back in the day. He quickly followed up with 2003’s Reality, whose lead single, ‘New Killer Star’, was a partial address to Middle Eastern politics. Elsewhere, covers of George Harrison’s ‘Try Some, Buy Some’ and Jonathan Richman’s ‘Pablo Picasso’ (originally slated for an unreleased sequel to Pin Ups) indicated that, while Bowie was happily ensconced New York, he hadn’t lost his playful nature.
A first official release of the much-bootlegged Live Santa Monica ’72 captured the metamorphosis that took place between Ziggy and Aladdin, while the undercooked VH1 Storytellers and live DVD A Reality Tour were souvenirs of a thoroughly modern David.
And then silence. After suffering a heart attack live on stage in 2004, Bowie retreated from the public eye in what, over time, seemed to be a graceful retirement. The odd guest appearance aside, it wasn’t until 2013 that he fully emerged. Dropping ‘Where Are We Now?’ as a surprise single on 8 January, his 66th birthday, Bowie’s return was rapturously received, and the good will extended to the single’s parent album, The Next Day, which, despite growing unease over the man’s health, suggested that Bowie was still looking to the future.
A sprawling compilation, Nothing Has Changed, seemed to be saying, “Look, I am fine and this is some of what I do.” Further retrospective glories came courtesy of the box set Five Years, which, among remasters of his earliest albums, included the Re:Call 1 rarities collection, among whose glories were the mono single mix of ‘Holy Holy’ – itself something of a Holy Grail track for Bowie completists – as well as the original jaunty single release of ‘The Prettiest Star’, which featured Marc Bolan on guitar.
Then the unthinkable.★, ostensibly Bowie’s own epitaph, was released two days before his death, in January 2016. Possibly the most wept-over album in rock history, what many saw to be a tortured immortality was achieved via the album’s title track, along with the likes of ‘I Can’t Give Everything Away’ (one of his many mantras) and the impending doom of ‘Lazarus’: the man unable to die. The latter was also the cornerstone for a musical of the same name, which opened in New York in December 2015 before travelling to London: back where it all began for a man whose vast talents will surely shine and live on. He was always unique. He rang the changes.
David Bowie's first ever LP -- the 1967 set that introduced the world to the likes of "Rubber Band" and "There Is a Happy Land" -- is an intriguing collection, as much in its own right as for the light it sheds on Bowie's future career. Nobody hearing "She's Got Medals," for instance, can fail to marvel at the sheer prescience displayed by a song about gender-bending. Even within Bowie's subsequent world of alligators, starmen, and astronettes, however, there are no parallels for the likes of "Please Mr. Gravedigger," with its storm-swept lament for a murdered little girl, or "Uncle Arthur," the archetypal mommy's boy, whose one stab at snapping the apron strings shatters when he realizes his new love cannot cook. There's also a frightening glimpse into future Bowie universes, served up by "We Are Hungry Men," a tale of a world in which food is so scarce that the people have resorted to cannibalism. Not all of the songs are such sharp observations of human frailties and failings, while the distinctly family-entertainment style arrangements make it clear that, whatever audience Bowie was aiming for, rock fans were not included among them. But songs like "Love You Till Tuesday" and "Maid of Bond Street" have a catchy irresistibility to them all the same, and though this material has been repackaged with such mind-numbing frequency as to seem all but irrelevant today, David Bowie still remains a remarkable piece of work. And it sounds less like anything else he's ever done than any subsequent record in his catalog. Words: Dave Thompson
Originally released as Man of Words/Man of Music, Space Oddity was David Bowie's first successful reinvention of himself. Abandoning both the mod and Anthony Newley fascinations that marked his earlier recordings, Bowie delves into a lightly psychedelic folk-rock, exemplified by the album's soaring title track. Bowie actually attempts a variety of styles on Space Oddity, as if he were trying to find the ones that suited him best. As such, the record isn't very cohesive, but it is charming, especially in light of his later records. Nevertheless, only "Wild Eyed Boy from Freecloud" and "Memory of a Free Festival" rank as Bowie classics, and even those lack the hooks or purpose of "Space Oddity." Words: Stephen Thomas Erlewine
After the freakish hard rock of The Man Who Sold the World, David Bowie returned to singer/songwriter territory on Hunky Dory. Not only did the album boast more folky songs ("Song for Bob Dylan," "The Bewlay Brothers"), but he again flirted with Anthony Newley-esque dancehall music ("Kooks," "Fill Your Heart"), seemingly leaving heavy metal behind. As a result, Hunky Dory is a kaleidoscopic array of pop styles, tied together only by Bowie's sense of vision: a sweeping, cinematic mélange of high and low art, ambiguous sexuality, kitsch, and class. Mick Ronson's guitar is pushed to the back, leaving Rick Wakeman's cabaret piano to dominate the sound of the album. The subdued support accentuates the depth of Bowie's material, whether it's the revamped Tin Pan Alley of "Changes," the Neil Young homage "Quicksand," the soaring "Life on Mars?," the rolling, vaguely homosexual anthem "Oh! You Pretty Things," or the dark acoustic rocker "Andy Warhol." On the surface, such a wide range of styles and sounds would make an album incoherent, but Bowie's improved songwriting and determined sense of style instead made Hunky Dory a touchstone for reinterpreting pop's traditions into fresh, postmodern pop music. Words: Stephen Thomas Elewine
Pin Ups fits into David Bowie's output roughly where Moondog Matinee (which, strangely enough, appeared the very same month) did into the Band's output, which is to say that it didn't seem to fit in at all. Just as a lot of fans of Levon Helm et al. couldn't figure where a bunch of rock & roll and R&B covers fit alongside their output of original songs, so Bowie's fans -- after enjoying a string of fiercely original LPs going back to 1970's The Man Who Sold the World -- weren't able to make too much out of Pin Ups' new recordings of a brace of '60s British hits. Ziggy Stardust and Aladdin Sane had established Bowie as perhaps the most fiercely original of all England's glam rockers (though Marc Bolan's fans would dispute that to their dying day), so an album of covers didn't make any sense and was especially confusing for American fans -- apart from the Easybeats' "Friday on My Mind" and the Yardbirds' "Shapes of Things," little here was among the biggest hits of their respective artists' careers, and the Who's "I Can't Explain" and "Anyway Anyhow Anywhere" were the only ones whose original versions were easily available or played very often on the radio; everything else was as much a history lesson, for Pink Floyd fans whose knowledge of that band went back no further than Atom Heart Mother, or into Liverpool rock (the Merseys' "Sorrow"), as it was a tour through Bowie's taste in '60s music. The latter was a mixed bag stylistically, opening with the Pretty Things' high-energy Bo Diddley homage "Rosalyn" and segueing directly into a hard, surging rendition of Them's version of Bert Berns' "Here Comes the Night," filled with crunchy guitars; "I Wish You Would" and "Shapes of Things" were both showcases for Bowie's and Mick Ronson's guitars, and "See Emily Play" emphasized the punkish (as opposed to the psychedelic) side of the song. "Sorrow," which benefited from a new saxophone break, was actually a distinct improvement over the original, managing to be edgier and more elegant all at once, and could easily have been a single at the time, and Bowie's slow version of "I Can't Explain" was distinctly different from the Who's original -- in other words, Pin Ups was an artistic statement, of sorts, with some thought behind it, rather than just a quick album of oldies covers to buy some time, as it was often dismissed as being. In the broader context of Bowie's career, Pin Ups was more than an anomaly -- it marked the swan song for the Spiders from Mars and something of an interlude between the first and second phases of his international career; the next, beginning with Diamond Dogs, would be a break from his glam rock phase, going off in new directions. It's not a bad bridge between the two, and it has endured across the decades. Words: Bruce Eder
Taking the detached plastic soul of Young Americans to an elegant, robotic extreme, Station to Station is a transitional album that creates its own distinctive style. Abandoning any pretense of being a soulman, yet keeping rhythmic elements of soul, David Bowie positions himself as a cold, clinical crooner and explores a variety of styles. Everything from epic ballads and disco to synthesized avant pop is present on Station to Station, but what ties it together is Bowie's cocaine-induced paranoia and detached musical persona. At its heart, Station to Station is an avant-garde art-rock album, most explicitly on "TVC 15" and the epic sprawl of the title track, but also on the cool crooning of "Wild Is the Wind" and "Word on a Wing," as well as the disco stylings of "Golden Years." It's not an easy album to warm to, but its epic structure and clinical sound were an impressive, individualistic achievement, as well as a style that would prove enormously influential on post-punk. Words: Stephen Thomas Erlewine
Following through with the avant-garde inclinations of Station to Station, yet explicitly breaking with David Bowie's past, Low is a dense, challenging album that confirmed his place at rock's cutting edge. Driven by dissonant synthesizers and electronics, Low is divided between brief, angular songs and atmospheric instrumentals. Throughout the record's first half, the guitars are jagged and the synthesizers drone with a menacing robotic pulse, while Bowie's vocals are unnaturally layered and overdubbed. During the instrumental half, the electronics turn cool, which is a relief after the intensity of the preceding avant pop. Half the credit for Low's success goes to Brian Eno, who explored similar ambient territory on his own releases. Eno functioned as a conduit for Bowie's ideas, and in turn Bowie made the experimentalism of not only Eno but of the German synth group Kraftwerk and the post-punk group Wire respectable, if not quite mainstream. Though a handful of the vocal pieces on Low are accessible -- "Sound and Vision" has a shimmering guitar hook, and "Be My Wife" subverts soul structure in a surprisingly catchy fashion -- the record is defiantly experimental and dense with detail, providing a new direction for the avant-garde in rock & roll. Words: Stephen Thomas Erlewine
Repeating the formula of Low's half-vocal/half-instrumental structure, Heroes develops and strengthens the sonic innovations David Bowie and Brian Eno explored on their first collaboration. The vocal songs are fuller, boasting harder rhythms and deeper layers of sound. Much of the harder-edged sound of Heroes is due to Robert Fripp's guitar, which provides a muscular foundation for the electronics, especially on the relatively conventional rock songs. Similarly, the instrumentals on Heroes are more detailed, this time showing a more explicit debt to German synth pop and European experimental rock. Essentially, the difference between Low and Heroes lies in the details, but the record is equally challenging and groundbreaking. Words: Stephen Thomas Erlewine
Borrowing heavily from Marc Bolan's glam rock and the future shock of A Clockwork Orange, David Bowie reached back to the heavy rock of The Man Who Sold the World for The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars. Constructed as a loose concept album about an androgynous alien rock star named Ziggy Stardust, the story falls apart quickly, yet Bowie's fractured, paranoid lyrics are evocative of a decadent, decaying future, and the music echoes an apocalyptic, nuclear dread. Fleshing out the off-kilter metallic mix with fatter guitars, genuine pop songs, string sections, keyboards, and a cinematic flourish, Ziggy Stardust is a glitzy array of riffs, hooks, melodrama, and style and the logical culmination of glam. Mick Ronson plays with a maverick flair that invigorates rockers like "Suffragette City," "Moonage Daydream," and "Hang Onto Yourself," while "Lady Stardust," "Five Years," and "Rock 'n' Roll Suicide" have a grand sense of staged drama previously unheard of in rock & roll. And that self-conscious sense of theater is part of the reason why Ziggy Stardust sounds so foreign. Bowie succeeds not in spite of his pretensions but because of them, and Ziggy Stardust -- familiar in structure, but alien in performance -- is the first time his vision and execution met in such a grand, sweeping fashion. Words: Stephen Thomas Erlewine
Say this for David Bowie: he has a flair for drama. This abiding love of the theatrical may not be as evident in the production of The Next Day as it is in its presentation, how Bowie sprung it upon the world early in 2013 following a decade of undeclared retirement. Reasons for Bowie's absence were many and few, perhaps related to a health scare in 2004, perhaps due to a creative dry spell, perhaps he simply didn't have songs to sing, or perhaps he had a lingering suspicion that by the time the new millennium was getting into full swing he was starting to be taken for granted. He had settled into a productive purple patch in the late '90s, a development that was roundly ignored by all except the devoted and the press, who didn't just give Hours, Heathen, and Reality a pass, they recognized them as a strong third act in a storied career. That same sentiment applies to The Next Day, an album recorded with largely the same team as Reality -- the same musicians and the same producer, his longtime lieutenant Tony Visconti -- and, appropriately, shares much of the same moody, meditative sound as its predecessor Heathen. What's different is the reception, which is appropriately breathless because Bowie has been gone so long we all know what we've missed. And The Next Day is designed to remind us all of why we've missed him, containing hints of the Thin White Duke and Ziggy Stardust within what is largely an elegant, considered evocation of the Berlin Bowie so calculating it opens with a reworking of "Beauty & The Beast," and is housed in an artful desecration of the Heroes LP cover. Unlike his Berlin trilogy of the late '70s, The Next Day is rarely unsettling. Apart from the crawling closer "Heat" -- a quiet, shimmering, hallucination-channeling late-'70s Scott Walker -- the album has been systematically stripped of eeriness, trading discomfort for pleasure at every turn. And pleasure it does deliver, as nobody knows how to do classic Bowie like Bowie and Visconti, the two life-long collaborators sifting through their past, picking elements that relate to what Bowie is now: an elder statesman who made a conscious decision to leave innovation behind long ago. This persistent, well-manicured nostalgia could account for the startling warmth that exudes from The Next Day; even when a melody sighs with an air of resigned melancholia, as it does on "Where Are We Now?," it never delves into sadness, it stays afloat in a warm, soothing bath. That overwhelming familiarity is naturally quite appealing for anyone well-versed in Bowie lore, but The Next Day isn't a career capper; it lacks the ambition to be anything so grand. The Next Day neither enhances nor diminishes anything that came before, it's merely a sweet coda to a towering career. Words: Stephen Thomas Erlewine
It's difficult to separate 2016's Blackstar from The Next Day, the album David Bowie released with little warning in 2013. Arriving after a ten-year drought, The Next Day pulsated with the shock of the new -- as Bowie's first album of new material in a decade, how could it not? -- but ultimately it was grounded in history, something its cover made plain in its remix of Heroes artwork. Blackstar occasionally recalls parts of Bowie's past -- two of its key songs, "Sue (Or in a Season of Crime)" and "'Tis a Pity She Was a Whore," were even aired in 2014 as a supporting single for the Nothing Has Changed compilation (both are revamped for this album) -- but Bowie and producer Tony Visconti are unconcerned with weaving winking postmodern tapestries; now that they've shaken free their creative cobwebs, they're ready to explore. Certainly, the luxurious ten-minute sprawl of "Blackstar" -- a two-part suite stitched together by string feints and ominous saxophone -- suggests Bowie isn't encumbered with commercial aspirations, but Blackstar neither alienates nor does it wander into uncharted territory. For all its odd twists, the album proceeds logically, unfolding with stately purpose and sustaining a dark, glassy shimmer. It is music for the dead of night but not moments of desolation; it's created for the moment when today is over but tomorrow has yet to begin. Fittingly, the music itself is suspended in time, sometimes recalling the hard urban gloss of '70s prog -- Bowie's work, yes, but also Roxy Music and, especially, the Scott Walker of Nite Flights -- and sometimes evoking the drum'n'bass dabbling of the '90s incarnation of the Thin White Duke, sounds that can still suggest a coming future, but in the context of this album these flourishes are the foundation of a persistent present. This comfort with the now is the most striking thing about Blackstar: it is the sound of a restless artist feeling utterly at ease not only within his own skin but within his own time. To that end, Bowie recruited saxophonist Donny McCaslin and several of his New York cohorts to provide the instrumentation (and drafted disciple James Murphy to contribute percussion on a pair of cuts), a cast that suggests Blackstar goes a bit farther out than it actually does. Cannily front-loaded with its complicated cuts (songs that were not coincidentally also released as teaser singles), Blackstar starts at the fringe and works its way back toward familiar ground, ending with a trio of pop songs dressed in fancy electronics. These don't erase the heaviness of the opening quartet but such a sequencing suggests Blackstar is difficult when the main pleasure of the record is how utterly at ease it all feels: Bowie's joy in emphasizing the art in art-pop is palpable and its elegant, unhurried march resonates deeply. Words: Stephen Thomas Erlewine