Wednesday, January 13, 2016

The Late Great David Bowie: He Really Made the Grade

Legendary rock star and actor David Bowie died on January 10 2016 at the age of 69 after an 18 month battle with cancer. In a music career that spanned over fifty years he produced such hits as "Space Oddity", "Changes" "Fame", "Heroes", "Ashes to Ashes", and "Modern Love" and such classic albums as Hunky Dory (1971), The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars (1972), Aladdin Sane (1973), Diamond Dogs (1974), and "Heroes" (1977). His film career included such films as The Man Who Fell to Earth (1976), The Hunger (1983), Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence (1983), Labyrinth (1986), and The Prestige (2006).

David Bowie was born David Robert Jones in Brixton, London on January 8 1947. Until age six he attended Stockwell Infants School in nearby Stockwell. It was in 1953 that young Mr. Jones's family moved to Bromley, Kent. There he attended Burnt Ash Junior School. While at Burnt Ash Junior School David Jones proved to have an aptitude for playing the recorder and participated in the school choir. It was while he was attending Burnt Ash Junior School. that he developed an interest in American rock 'n' roll and rhythm and blues acts, including Fats Domino, Frankie Lymon and the Teenagers, The Platters, Elvis Presley, and Little Richard.  He learned to play the ukulele and tea-chest bass, and later the piano, and participated in skiffle sessions with his friends.

Young Mr. Jones went from Burnt Ash Junior School on to Bromley Technical High School (now called Ravens Wood School) where he studied music, art, and design. He studied music under Owen Frampton, the father of another future rock star Peter Frampton. David Jones earned his only O-Level in a subject (music) under Owen Frampton and became friends with Peter Frampton. It was while he was at Bromley Technical High School that David Jones's half brother Terry Burns introduced him to modern jazz such as the music of Charles Mingus and John Coltrane. His interest in jazz led his mother to give him a plastic alto saxophone in 1961. The following year he would get a real saxophone. It was also while at Bromley Technical High School that David Jones got into a fight with George Underwood that ultimately resulted in damage to young Mr. Jones's left eye. Its pupil was permanently dilated. Despite the fight George Underwood and David Jones would remain friends for their rest of their lives. Mr. Underwood would go onto become a well-known illustrator, not only designing covers for David Bowie's albums, but also Tyrannosaurus Rex (later known as T. Rex), Procol Harum, and Mott the Hoople.

David Jones was fifteen years old when he formed his first band, The Konrads. After leaving Bromley Technical High School Mr. Jones left The Konrads to join another band, The King Bees. Eventually David Jones would enter into a management agreement with Leslie Conn . His first single was "Liza Jane", credited to Davie Jones with The King Bees. Despite appearing on shows such as Top of the Pops (David Jones's first ever television appearance) and Beat Room, "Liza Jane" failed to chart. David Jones left The King Bees to join another band, The Manish Boys. With The Manish Boys he recoded a cover of Bobby Bland's song "I Pity the Fool". The B-side was "Take My Tip"  by David Jones, making it the first "David Bowie" song to appear on a single. Sadly, "I Pity the Fool" would not prove to be successful either.

David Jones then left The Manish Boys and his contract with his contract with Leslie Conn also ended. He then joined The Lower 3rd and got a new manager, Robert Horton, who had been a tour managers for The Moody Blues. The single "You've Got a Habit of Leaving", written by David Jones, was released under the name "Davy Jones & The Lower 3rd". Unlike "Liza Jane" and "I Pity the Fool" it was written by David Jones himself, making "You've Got a Habit of Leaving" the first "David Bowie" song to be the A-side of a single. Unfortunately "You've Got a Habit of Leaving" failed to chart

Following the failure of "You've Got a Habit of Leaving" David Jones left The Lower 3rd. He adopted a new stage name. Quite simply there was a Manchester born performer also named David Jones who performed under the name "Davy Jones". He had played the Artful Dodger in the stage musical Oliver! and attained greater fame with The Monkees.Tiring of being confused with Davy Jones of Oliver! and Monkees fame, David Jones took the stage name of David Bowie, taking the surname from American frontiersman Jim Bowie.

Having left The Lower 3rd and adopting a new stage name, David Bowie also got a new backing band, The Buzz. It was with The Buzz that his first single was released under the name "David Bowie". Unfortunately, "Do Anything You Say" failed to chart. David Bowie then joined The Riot Squad. While David Bowie recorded with The Riot Squad, the tracks would remain unreleased until only recently. As to his manager Robert Horton, he failed to secure a music publishing deal. David Bowie left The Riot Squad and hired Ken Pitt as his manager. Ken Pitt had worked with both Mel Tormé and Manfred Mann.

Ken Pitt was able to get David Bowie a contract with Deram Records. His first single with the label, "Rubber Band", received good reviews, but did not chart. The second single was "The Laughing Gnome". The single not only failed to chart, but is considered by some to be the worst David Bowie song ever recorded. It was six weeks after the release of "The Laughing Gnome" that David Bowie's self-titled debut album was released. The album was a mishmash of styles, ranging from "Love You Till Tuesday", which could have easily been performed by Herman's Hermits, to "Maid of Bond Street", a music hall sounding song in waltz time.  A little over a month after the release of the album, "Love You Till Tuesday" was released as a single. Despite good reviews the song did not make the charts. With David Bowie's singles failing and the album David Bowie failing to chart, Mr. Bowie was dropped from  Deram Records.

In attempt to draw attention to David Bowie, his manager Ken Pitt then arranged for the filming of the short film Love You Till Tuesday. Love You Till Tuesday contained mostly songs from his debut album, but it had one new song that would be a sign of Mr. Bowie's new direction. "Space Oddity". While Love You Till Tuesday would remain unreleased until 1984, "Space Oddity" would prove to be his first hit. Mercury Records and its British subsidiary Phillips heard a demo tape featuring "Space Oddity" and a few other songs. Ken Pitt was then able to negotiate a one album deal (with an option for another one or two albums) with the label. "Space Oddity" was released as a single on July 11 1969, just in time to take advantage of the Apollo 11 mission (the first lunar landing). The single proved to be a hit in Britain, where it peaked at no. 5. In the United States it stalled at no. 124 on the Billboard singles chart. "Space Oddity" was re-released in 1973. It then became David Bowie's first no. 1 in the United Kingdom and reached no. 15 on the Billboard Hot 100, making it his first hit single in the U.S.

"Space Oddity" was followed by the release of the album David Bowie (released as Man of Words/Man of Music in the United States and later retitled Space Oddity) in November 1969. While the album received good reviews at the time, it failed to chart despite the success of the song "Space Oddity". Today it is looked upon by many as the first true David Bowie album. Upon its re-release in 1972 (when it was retitled Space Oddity) in the wake of the success of The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars, the album went to no. 17 on the UK albums chart and no. 16 on the Billboard albums chart.

David Bowie/Space Oddity was followed by the release of the album The Man Who Sold the World in November 1970. The Man Who Sold the World received good reviews and also proved much more successful than David Bowie's first album with Mercury. The album ultimately peaked at no 26 on the UK albums chart and no. 105 on the Billboard albums chart. The album also marked a stylistic shift for Mr. Bowie. It marked the beginning of his "glam rock" period and featured songs that were on the whole heavier than David Bowie had done before. The subject matter was also diverse, ranging from the upbeat rock 'n' roll of "Black Country Rock" to a song influenced by H. P. Lovecraft ("The Supermen") to a song about a sentient computer ("Saviour Machine") to the introspective "The Man Who Sold the World".

Following The Man Who Sold the World David Bowie moved from Mercury Records to RCA. His first album with RCA would be Hunky Dory, released in December 1971. With Hunky Dory David Bowie continued to perform heavy glam rock, but included on the album were songs that were lighter, near folk rock ("Kooks") and even pop rock ("Oh! You Pretty Things"). Once more the subject matter was varied, from tributes to Bob Dylan and Andy Warhol to the Golden Dawn influenced "Quicksand". The album proved to be fairly successful on both sides of the Atlantic. It peaked at no. 3 on the British albums chart and at no. 93 on the Billboard albums chart. The single "Changes" would even see some initial success on the Billboard Hot 100, peaking at no. 66. When it was re-released in 1975 it peaked at no. 41. The single "Life on Mars?" went all the way to no. 3 on the UK singles chart.

David Bowie's next album would be one of his most famous albums, if not absolutely his most famous album. The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars was released on June 16 1972. It was a concept album centred on rock star Ziggy Stardust, who serves as the messenger for an alien being to the people of Earth. The album received good reviews over all and proved very successful in the United Kingdom. It went to no. 5 on the UK albums chart. It also proved to be David Bowie's highest charting album in the United States so far, peaking at no. 55 on the Billboard albums chart. Since then it has become David Bowie's second best selling album of all time. The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars also remains highly regarded. In 1998 Q magazine ranked it at no. 24 among the best all time albums. In 2012 Rolling Stone ranked it at 35th in their list of the "500 Greatest Albums of All Time". In 2013 NME ranked The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars at no. 23 in their list of the "500 Greatest Albums of All Time".

David Bowie followed The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars with Aladdin Sane, released in April 1973. The album proved to his most successful so far, peaking at no. 1 in the United Kingdom. In the United States it proved to be his first hit album, going all the way to no. 17 on the Billboard albums chart. Aladdin Sane was followed by the album Pin Ups, a collection of cover songs ranging from The Easybeats' "Friday on My Mind" to The Who's  "Anyway, Anyhow, Anywhere". Pin Ups performed very well on the charts, hitting no. 1 in the UK and going to no. 23 in the US.

With Diamond Dogs, released in May 1974, David Bowie began incorporating more of a soul and funk sound with the glam rock of his past few albums. Diamond Dogs was another concept album, this one influenced by George Orwell's dystopian concept album 1984. The album produced the hit singles "Rebel, Rebel" and "Diamond Dogs". David Bowie's following album, Young Americans, released in March 1975, completed the shift to what David Bowie called "plastic soul" that he had begun with Diamond Dogs. Young Americans proved to be very successful. It peaked at no. 2 on the British albums chart. In the United States it proved to be his most successful album yet. It peaked at no. 9 on the chart. It also produced the hit single "Fame" (co-written by both Carlos Alomar and John Lennon), which went to no. 1 in both the UK and U.S.

With his following album, Station to Station (released January 1975), David Bowie adopted what is considered his last great persona, the Thin White Duke. While Station to Station continued his trend towards "plastic soul", the album also saw David Bowie move towards electronic music of the sort Kraftwerk was known for. The album produced a hit single in the form of "Golden Years", which went to no. 8 in Britain and no. 10 in the UK.  His next album, Low, also did well. It moved further into the area of electronic music. It peaked at no. 2 in the United Kingdom and no. 11 in the U.S.

While David Bowie's albums and single continued to perform well in the United Kingdom, his next two  albums did not perform as well as the previous few in the United States. "Heroes" peaked at no. 3 in the United Kingdom, but only no. 35 in the U.S. Lodger performed better in the United Staes than "Heroes" had, going to 20--it peaked at no. 4 in the UK.  While the two albums performed less well than David Bowie's albums of the mid-Seventies, both saw some of his best work, including the songs "'Heroes'", "Blackout", and Boys Keep Swinging".

David Bowie would see much more success with his final album for RCA, Scary Monsters...And Super Creeps, released in September 1980. The album peaked at no. 1 on the UK albums chart and at no. 12 on the Billboard albums chart. It also produced several singles that were hits in the UK and number among his best known songs worldwide: "Ashes to Ashes" (which went to no. 1 in the UK), "Fashion" (no. 5 in the UK and no. 70 on the Billboard Hot 100), and "Scary Monsters (And Super Creeps)".  In 1981 David Bowie teamed up with Queen for the single "Under Pressure", which went to no. 1 in the UK and no. 29 on the Billboard Hot 100. The following year he released the single "Cat People (Putting Out Fire)", which was from the movie Cat People (1982), a remake of the Val Lewton classic.

Arguably his creative peak ended with Scary Monsters...And Super Creeps.While the albums he recorded in the Eighties and Nineties would have a number of great songs and would perform very well commercially, his new material did not quite seem quite so revolutionary as that he produced in the late Sixties and the Seventies. Strangely  enough, he sometimes saw more success commercially than he had in the Seventies. The album Let's Dance, released in December 1982, went to no. 1 on the UK albums chart and no. 4 on the Billboard albums chart. It singles also did well: "Let's Dance" (no 1 in both the UK and U.S.), "China Girl" (no. 2 in the UK and no. 10 in the US), and "Modern Love" (no. 2 in the UK and no. 14 in the U.S.).  The albums Tonight (1984) and Never Let Me Down (1987) also performed very well.

Strangely enough given the success of his albums as a solo artist in the Eighties, it was in 1988 that David Bowie formed the band Tin Machine with guitarist Reeves Gabrels, bassist Tony Sales, and drummer Hunt Sales. Tin Machine was meant to function as a democracy, although David Bowie tended to be the dominant songwriter. With Tin Machine David Bowie returned to a hard rock sound, with songs that were heavier and more aggressive than those he had recorded as a solo artist earlier in the decade. Tin Machine released two albums, Tin Machine (1989) and Tin Machine II (1991). The first album performed relatively well, peaking at no.3 in the UK and no 28. Unfortunately the second album sold more poorly, peaking at only no. 23 in the UK and doing even worse in the U.S., where it peaked at only no. 126. A live album, Tin Machine Live: Oy Vey, Baby, released in 1992, did not chart at all. The band broke up in 1993.

From 1993 to 2002 David Bowie continued to release solo albums that generally performed very well on the charts: Black Tie White Noise (1993), Outside (1995), Earthling (1997), 'Hours...' (1999), Heathen (2002), and  Reality (2003).  In 1998 he actually launched an internet service provider,  BowieNet, which lasted until 2006.

Following a heart attack in 2004 David Bowie reduced his activities and there would ultimately be a long hiatus before his next studio album. In 2013 the single "Where Are We Now?" was released. The song proved to be a hit, going to no. 6 on the UK singles chart. It was followed by David Bowie's 25th studio album, The Next Day. The album marked a return to rock music, more specifically art rock. It proved highly successful, reaching no. 1 in Britain and no. 2 on the Billboard albums chart.

Sadly in 2014 David Bowie would be diagnosed with cancer, although it would be kept secret from all but a few friends. On November 19 2015 his latest single, "Blackstar" was released. In December 2015 an off-Broadway musical, Lazarus, created around the songs of David Bowie and featuring the new song "Lazarus" opened.  On December 17 2015 the song "Lazarus" was released, making it the last single to be released before David Bowie's death. It seems quite probable that both songs may rise rapidly on record charts throughout the world.

David Bowie's final album, Blackstar, was released on January 8 2016, only two days before his death. The album has received widespread critical acclaim and appears set to top the charts in both the UK and the U.S., as well as elsewhere. It has generally been agreed by observers that Blackstar deals with Mr. Bowie's own demise. CNN stated that the album "reveals a man who appears to be grappling with his own mortality". Long time friend, collaborator, and producer on many of David Bowie's albums (including Blackstar) Tony Visconti appears to confirm this, stating on Facebook, "He always did what he wanted to do. And he wanted to do it his way and he wanted to do it the best way. His death was no different from his life - a work of Art. He made Blackstar for us, his parting gift. I knew for a year this was the way it would be. I wasn't, however, prepared for it. He was an extraordinary man, full of love and life. He will always be with us. For now, it is appropriate to cry."

Throughout his long career in music David Bowie collaborated with many other artists, even producing their albums. He not only wrote the song "All the Young Dudes" for Mott the Hoople, but produced their album and of the same name as well as playing saxophone and providing backing vocals on the album. He  produced and played on Iggy Pop's first two solo albums (The Idiot and Lust for Life) and later co-produced Iggy Pop's album Blah Blah Blah.  He appeared on a number of other artists' albums, from playing saxophone on Steeleye Span's "To Know Him is to Love Him" to singing guest vocals for artists ranging from Mick Ronson to Lou Reed.

Unlike many rock stars, David Bowie also had a very successful career in film. His career as an actor actually began in the Sixties. His film debut was in the short "The Boy" in 1967, a full two years before he would have his first hit with "Space Oddity". In 1968 he appeared in an episode of Theatre 625, which is now sadly missing. He appeared in an uncredited bit part in The Virgin Soldiers in 1969. In 1970 he appeared in the short television film "Pierrot in Turquoise or The Looking Glass Murders".

In the early Seventies David Bowie would be occupied with his music career, but in 1976 he starred in one of his best known roles, that of the alien Thomas Jerome Newton in The Man Who Fell to Earth. While it received mix reviews upon its release, the film is now regarded as a cult classic. He followed The Man Who Fell to Earth with the poorly received Just a Gigolo in 1978.

Arguably the Eighties was the height of David Bowie's acting career. In 1983 he starred in the vampire movie The Hunger. The film received mixed reviews upon its release, but has since developed a cult following. David Bowie's most famous film may well be Labyrinth, released in 1986. In the film David Bowie plays Jareth the Goblin King, who grants young Sarah's (Jennifer Connelly) wish that her baby brother would go away. The film received mixed to positive reviews upon its release, but has since come to be regarded as a classic. In 1983 David Bowie starred in the film Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence. The film received largely positive reviews upon its release and is still very highly regarded today. In the Eighties David Bowie also appeared in the films Christiane F. (1981--in a cameo as himself), Yellowbeard (1983--in a cameo),  Into the Night (1985), Absolute Beginners (1986), and The Last Temptation of Christ (1988).  He also provided narration in the re-release of the classic TV special The Snowman.

In the Nineties David Bowie appeared in the films The Linguini Incident (1991), Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me (1992), Basquiat (1996), Everybody Loves Sunshine (1999), and Mr. Rice's Secret (2000). He appeared in an episode of the TV show Dream On and was the host of season 2 of the TV show The Hunger. He provided the voice of Boz and music for the video game Omikron: The Nomad Soul. In the Naughts David Bowie appeared in the role of historical figure Nikola Tesla in The Prestige (2006). He had cameos in the films Zoolander (2001) and  Bandslam (2009). He starred in the film August (2008) and provided voices for the animated feature film Arthur and the Invisibles (2007) and the animated TV movie SpongeBob's Atlantis SquarePantis (2007). He guest starred as himself in the TV show Extras.

There can be no doubt that David Bowie revolutionised rock 'n' roll. Alongside Marc Bolan of T. Rex, David Bowie has been credited with inventing the subgenre of glam rock. Indeed, some of David Bowie's work in the mid-Sixties prior to "Space Oddity" could even be considered precursors to glam rock. Certainly by the time of The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust he had fully embraced the subgenre. While David Bowie was one of the inventors of glam rock, he would also have an impact on punk and New Wave. Particularly as Ziggy Stardust, Mr. Bowie would have a lasting influence on punk acts from The Stranglers to The Sex Pistols. David Bowie's impact would be felt on more than just glam rock, punk, and New Wave. It can be found in such diverse subgenres as heavy metal, hard rock, and power pop, among others. Ultimately David Bowie was one of the few artists to influence rock music as a whole.

Indeed, the extent of how David Bowie changed rock music can be seen by looking at the genre as it was in the late Sixties and early Seventies. In the late Sixties and early Seventies rock music was dominated by blues influenced acts that sometimes had guitar solos that lasted as long as eleven minutes and progressive rock acts whose songs could range up to twenty minutes. David Bowie and other glam rock artists of the early Seventies returned rock music to pop songs of three to five minutes. In many respects David Bowie was responsible for returning rock 'n' roll to something closer to its original form.

That is not to say that David Bowie remained with one style his entire career. If anything he was a chameleon, not only constantly changing his image but his style of music as well. In the late Sixties through the Seventies alone he went from the folk rock of the album David Bowie/Space Oddity to the glam rock of The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders of Mars to the plastic soul of Young Americans to the electronic music of the Berlin trilogy (Low, "Heroes", and Lodger). Despite David Bowie's constant changes in persona and style, his music always remained recognisably "David Bowie". Quite simply, Mr. Bowie had a knack of changing styles, sometimes quite dramatically, while still insuring that he was immediately recognisable.

While David Bowie had an impact on rock 'n' roll, his influence was much more immediate upon those many artists for whom he wrote songs and produced albums. What is remarkable about Mr. Bowie is that as a collaborator he was very supportive, to the point that it seemed as if he had no real ego. When he and Iggy Pop were guests on Dinah Shore's talk show Dinah in the Seventies, David Bowie was a much bigger name than Iggy Pop. Regardless, when Dinah interviewed them it was Iggy Pop, not David Bowie, that Mr. Bowie talked about. David Bowie's many collaborators over the years always commented on how supportive of them he was and how generous he was to them he was.

Of course, it was not enough that David Bowie was a legendary rock star; he also displayed some talent as an actor as well. While some of Mr. Bowie's films were not exactly masterpieces (critics and viewers alike have characterised Just a Gigolo as "bad"), he performances were usually very good. Certainly his most memorable turn as a actor remains Thomas Jerome Newton in The Man Who Fell to Earth and the Goblin King in Labyrinth, but he delivered other impressive performances as well. In fact, his role as Celliers in Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence may have been the best one of his career, and his turn as Tesla in The Prestige was very convincing despite the fact that he looked very little like the man.

Throughout his long career David Bowie remained very active. He was nothing if not prolific. He continued to release albums throughout the Eighties and Nineties and did not slow down until his heart attack in the Naughts. What is more, while many rock stars of the Sixties and Seventies would have been content to churn out run-of-the-mill albums with little in the way of originality, David Bowie's music continued to change and evolve. He moved into dance music in the Eighties and with Tin Machine he returned to hard rock. In the Nineties he blended electronic instruments with soul and jazz for the album Black Tie White Noise. Throughout the Nineties and into the Naughts David Bowie continued to experiment and continued to work in different styles.

Indeed, this was true even of his final albums, The Next Day and Blackstar. With regards to Blackstar, it is to David Bowie's credit that he even created the album at all. At the time it was recorded he had already had cancer for some time. Many artists would have foregone releasing a new album given the circumstances. Instead David Bowie forged onward, ultimately leaving one final album for his fans. That it is a truly great album makes his achievement even more impressive.

David Bowie was truly one of a kind. In many ways he was a continuation of such multimedia stars as Bing Crosby, Frank Sinatra, and Elvis Presley--a talented singer who also had a career in other media. Unlike Bing, Frank, or Elvis, however, David Bowie's image was constantly changing. He was Major Tom. He was Ziggy Stardust. He was Halloween Jack. He was the Thin White Duke. David Bowie's ever-changing personas not only kept him from ever going stale, it also helped those who grew up thinking of themselves as outsiders. After all, if David Bowie could be successful as someone as outré as Ziggy Stardust, then certainly the average teenager could see success simply being himself or herself. Of course, David Bowie would not have been a success if not for his enormous talent. He was a talented singer and an extremely talented songwriter. He leaves behind an oeuvre that only a few others can approach in terms of quality. If the outpouring of grief for David Bowie has been so enormous, it is perhaps because he was a very remarkable man.While the word "legend" is often thrown about indiscriminately these days, it truly applied to David Bowie. It is perhaps why so many of us have trouble believing he is really gone.

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