Having lost Lemmy Kilmister to the Heavens only late last year, 2016 has begun with the loss of yet another of music’s greatest titans, David Bowie. A man who defied convention in every way possible – from his distinctive voice and malleable songwriting to his chameleon-like ability to adopt outlandish appearances – the rock and roll pioneer’s illustrious career is as expansive as it is unfathomable. While many mourn in tribute and others refuse to believe the news of his passing, Bowie’s legendary feats have imbued him with a legacy that even death can’t extinguish. We recount some of the Starman’s most iconic eras and personas over the course of almost 50 years of music.
“Space Oddity” from David Bowie (1969)
Stepping away from his quaint and genteel 1967 debut, Bowie’s second eponymous release revealed the Bowie that the world would soon come to love. Adopting the fictional persona of Major Tom – inspired by the Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey – the singer-songwriter’s story of an astronaut slipping into space was only the beginning of his interstellar fascination that would later characterise his narrative.
“Life On Mars” from Hunky Dory (1971)
Affecting an androgynous aesthetic and a greater rock and roll presence for his third album, “Life On Mars” remains one of the artiste’s finest masterpieces for its compositional complexity and lyrical ingenuity. Scathing in its criticism of popular culture and society, Bowie’s tune echoes the yearning of anyone who dared to dream bigger, wandering if there’s more to life beyond the repetitious human cycle on Earth.
“Ziggy Stardust” from The Rise And Fall Of Ziggy Stardust And The Spiders From Mars (1972)
Without a doubt his most iconic and alluring character, Bowie’s tall red hair and metallic makeup were the trademarks of the “ultimate pop idol” – supposedly inspired by American stars Iggy Pop and Lou Read. Confronting for his sexual ambiguity, the iconic guitar riff that precedes the story of Ziggy Stardust’s self-destructive ego takes aim at the artificiality of rock and roll music as a whole.
“Rebel Rebel” from Diamond Dogs (1974)
Adopting the sonic signature of The Rolling Stones while carrying over aesthetic remnants of his previous alter-ego, Diamond Dogs marked Bowie’s farewell to glam before venturing into soul and Krautrock. Taking on the identity of his new protagonist, Halloween Jack, Diamond Dogs’ nihilistic narrative made it no less difficult to dance to, while predicting the coming of the punk movement that would soon be championed by the likes of The Clash and The Sex Pistols.
“Fame” from Young Americans (1975)
A far cry from the overdriven guitars that had coloured Ziggy and Diamond Dogs, Bowie’s next musical focus was the sound of Philadelphia soul, referring to his interpretation as “plastic soul”. Recorded with a full band and in continuous takes for each track, “Fame” – featuring John Lennon and Luther Vandross – showcases Bowie’s ability to dress up serious subject matters, like the side effects of celebrity, in an infectious, upbeat package.
“Heroes” from Heroes (1977)
After detoxing from his coke-fuelled lifestyle as the Thin White Duke during his Station To Station era, Bowie’s “Berlin Trilogy” – namely Low, Heroes, and Lodger, on which he worked with Brian Eno in West Berlin – saw a revitalised Bowie exploring abstract concepts, in contrast to the fictional alter-egos he previously created for himself. Introducing synthesisers and taking elements from Krautrock, Bowie’s passionate and unrestrained voice evidences the difficult time he faced in breaking his drug addiction.
“Ashes To Ashes” from Scary Monsters (And Super Creeps) (1980)
Moving towards a more commercial sound following the Berlin Trilogy, Bowie spared no substance with Scary Monsters (And Super Creeps), delving into deeply personal matters and social critiques, from politics to imprisonment. Donning the guise of pantomime character, Pierrot, Bowie revisited his early character of Major Tom in the form of a nursery rhyme, recontextualising the astronaut as an outer space junkie while pointing the mirror towards his own missteps.
“Let’s Dance” from Let’s Dance (1983)
Before branching out into hard rock with the side project, Tin Machine, Bowie explored commercial pop further with the help of Chic’s Nile Rodgers on Let’s Dance. Donning a suit and dyed blonde hair, the artiste adopted a more accessible look and sound – unbeknownst to Bowie, who was aiming for an experimental hybrid between dance and blues-rock. Despite its surprising success, it would lead to a creative chasm in Bowie’s career in attempting to continue a commercially viable trajectory.
“I’m Afraid Of Americans” from Earthling (1997)
Returning to heavier, grittier characteristics with the introduction of industrial and electronic elements, Bowie’s return to a more outwardly aggressive sound channeled his unsettled lyrical content. Never one to shy away from putting society and personal experiences under the microscope, Earthling’s urgency is evident on “I’m Afraid Of Americans”, heightened in its remix by Trent Reznor of Nine Inch Nails for its disturbed undertones.
“Heathen (The Rays)” from Heathen (2002)
Visibly older but no less creatively weathered, Heathen saw Bowie at some of his most emotional performances on record yet. Although widely misappropriated as being about the 9/11 terror attacks, the introspective album is not without moments of trauma and sadness, as is abundantly clear in his tear-jerking performance of the album closer, “Heathen (The Ray)”, that seems to question his own mortality and purpose.
“Lazarus” from Blackstar (2016)
Released on the date of Bowie’s 69th birthday and only two days before his death, Blackstar ventures further into experimental territory than Bowie had ever been before. Sonically haunting and visually unsettling, Bowie’s final incarnation was both unexpectedly abstract and shockingly creepy. While the filmic expressions of “Blackstar” and “Lazarus” are sure to send shivers down your spine, it’s hard to miss the catharsis in Bowie’s swan song that seems to suggest he was writing his own eulogy.
“There’s a starman waiting in the sky
He’d like to come and meet us
But he thinks he’d blow our minds”
And blow our minds you did. Rest in peace, David Bowie.