By Jack Neill
10th January 2021 marks five years since the untimely passing of David Bowie. Little can be said to describe Bowie that has not been said already. David Byrne of the talking heads labelling him as “a shrink, a priest, a sex object, and a prophet of doom”. Art rock legend Kate Bush merely paid tribute to Bowie’s “power, beauty and bravery” upon his passing. The term legend is often used excessively in our society but when used to describe Bowie ‘legend’ is perhaps even an understatement. His Kaleidoscopic 54 year career spanned a staggering 27 studio albums, 36 acting roles and a musical. While Bowie may have left us five years ago, his seismic impact on popular culture and music certainly has not, and will remain with us for years to come.
David Robert Jones was born on January 8th 1947 and would not change his surname to Bowie until 1967. Artistic talent was evident from Bowie’s early years; his competence in dance was often noted by his teachers. However, as American rock ‘n roll swept the nation with great fervour Bowie turned his attention to music, joining his first group, ‘The Konrads’ in 1962 – albeit with little success. Eventually, Bowie would begin to professionally record music and despite a tumultuous period finding an artistic direction, Bowie finally released his first timeless piece of work ‘Space Oddity’ in 1969.
From this point on Bowie seemed unstoppable, constantly breaking artistic ground with each new album. 1972’s ‘The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust” told the story of an alien messiah named Ziggy, sent from space to liberate earth from an apocalypse with his message of love and sexual liberation. You struggle to find someone who doesn’t recognise the title track of 1977’s ‘Heroes’, it has become an anthem, telling the story of two lovers divided by the Berlin Wall. His final album, 2016’s ‘Blackstar’ was recorded while Bowie battled cancer and released just two days before his death. An experimental fusion of jazz and rock, the album’s second single ‘Lazarus’ is particularly haunting, as Bowie, coming to terms with his own mortality, sings “Just like that bluebird, Oh I’ll be free”. Even haunted by the spectre of his death, Bowie still produced bold art.
Bowie was never one to shy from outrage. This was made quite evident by his July 1972 performance on ‘Top of the Pops’, promoting new single ‘Starman’. While by today’s standards the performance would be relatively inoffensive this was certainly not the case in the conservative England of the 1970s. The appearance of an androgynous Bowie sporting a flamboyant skin-tight jumpsuit and resting his arm on guitarist Mick Ronson’s shoulder as they sang the song’s infectious chorus sent shockwaves around England. Many were outraged but the performance, but it was a seminal moment in inspiring a new generation of musicians. Amongst those who have cited the performance as an inspiration are Johnny Marr of the Smiths, Noel Gallagher of Oasis and Siouxsie Sioux of Siouxsie and the Banshees fame. Post-punk legend Gary Numan praised the performance as “one of the pivotal moments of modern music”. From one performance alone, Bowie inspired a future generation of musicians.
While the performance and Bowie’s career in general has clearly changed the course of music history, I believe there was a deeper significance to the man and his career. No words are a better testament to Bowie’s legacy than the chorus of 1972 single ‘Changes’ where he encourages listeners to “turn and face the strange”. Even in the face of criticism Bowie constantly broke new ground, whether this was aesthetic, as he adapted new personas who brought with them new outrageous dress or musically, where Bowie never settled with comfort and pushed himself to experiment with new genres and styles. This was often to differing levels of success, but Bowie’s refusal to settle when comfortable and successful and his willingness to experiment is truly admirable. He would never listen to the critics and change his eccentric appearance. There is arguably something we can all learn from this.
Bowie may have left us five years ago, but it is clear to see his impact certainly has not. In these dark and uncertain days, many of us turn to music for a sense of comfort and escapism and Bowie’s message of love, hope and embracing the obscure can provide us with exactly that.
Image Credit: Jasmine Cash