For this writer, born 12 years after David Bowie, the musician was part of the daily furniture for the best part of 50 years. He erupted into my childhood, and while I was not a diehard fan, he was impossible to ignore. These few words attempt to explain his appeal to me and millions of others, the 10 reasons why Bowie matters.
Between 1967 and the early 1980s Bowie wrote and recorded some of the most enduring songs of rock and roll and pop’s back catalogue. Although success was not overnight and featured several false starts, Bowie touched gold with 1969’s Space Oddity and never looked back, starting an almost unbroken chain of hits up to Absolute Beginners in 1986.
His associates and choices
Bowie always seemed to get the best from his collaborators. Later on, fame meant he could insist on having the best, but he always seemed to make the right choices. Tony Visconti set up his sound along with Mick Ronson, then Brian Eno, Nile Rodgers, or Carlos Alomar would be hired for the next stage of the master plan. Many found golddust rubbed off on them after working with the boy from Brixton.
That was certainly true for at least two other master musicians in whose careers Bowie intervened and provided a welcome fillip when their fortunes were low: Iggy Pop and Lou Reed. Both were revitalised and produced valuable work after Bowie’s famous generosity came their way. Bowie shrewdly made the most of them, too.
His constant reinvention
From hippyish experimentation and a clinging to the English music hall, to metal guitars, to cool funk to protean electronic soul to disco pop, and ending with soundscapes and melancholy, Bowie never seemed to stand still. In fact he often seemed, uncannily, to be one step ahead of the game, another aspect of his mystique. Most artists find a trick that wins and stick to it for years. Not Bowie.
For some people this would have been their first sight of the soon-to-be social phenomenon.
It is 1970, and Bowie appears more or less in the hippy uniform of the age, with long pre-Raphaelite hair and bell-bottom trousers.
Fast forward two years and Bowie has shed the cocoon and is about to change the world on British early-evening TV show Top of the Pops. It is 1972, the family is gathered around the television. The Beatles have split and Britain is grey and boring.
Squeezed onto sofas around the country little boys and girls gaped and could hardly breathe lest their parents change channel. What on earth was that? Overnight the playground division was made, love or hate, no indifference allowed. Overnight short feather cuts were in, and hippies were square. Eyeliner and blush were no longer female preserves. Mick Jagger and Marc Bolan had dabbled with androgeny, but Bowie was busting it apart.
Every youth wave in history has its taboo-breaking hair and appearance medals, but Bowie was clearer than most about his ambiguity. And he seemed to offer something more fully realised than previous taboo-breakers, something more people could identify with. Intensely sexual, Bowie could be desired by both sexes without any devaluation for
either camp. In that way for the still mostly-closeted LGBT community, he blazed a trail.
Teenagers are different. Science is increasingly proving it, but Bowie knew it and knew he was different, too. By cultivating that difference he increased his appeal; the bi-colour eyes, the fascination with outer space – Was he an alien? This was seriously discussed at the time, and not overly-discouraged by the star. By identifying with Bowie you were joining up to that otherness, you were daring to be different— very different. Bowie made being different a bit safer for everyone.
His manipulative powers
Playing with his image and the media from the early 60s meant Bowie had seen it all when success struck, but his ability to manage image and mystique was unparalleled. He was virtually the first popular musician who determined that a successful career should be built on several distinct stages, and not relying on one genre, or one outfit.
As a leading man
Pop stars often think that because they can perform, they can act as well. Some can, like Sinatra. Others can’t, like Madonna. Bowie was again careful with his choices of directors, with Nicolas Roeg and Nagisa Oshima proper auteurs he entrusted his persona to.
Roeg cleverly built Bowie’s own self-mythology into The Man who Fell to Earth for his best big screen performance, but Bowie was also excellent in “Baal” for a BBC Brecht adaptation, for example.
Although 69 is young by modern standards Bowie crammed several careers and at least a couple of lives into his time with us. A 50-year career with 25 albums is no mean feat, and add to that numerous collaborations and side projects both in and beyond the world of music. One anecdote comes from no less an authority than Nile Rodgers, no novice musician or studio producer, who was astounded by the range and depth of Bowie’s musical and production skills when they worked together. Bowie lived hard but didn’t destroy his voice, and even after he had long since dropped out of the daily public eye, remained newsworthy, driving the sales of new and back catalogue material.
Providing the template for stardom
Previously, pop stars had been famous for what they did, not what they were. The Bowie UFO changed that, bringing shock and awe back into pop after some quiet years, and with glam rock providing the tide, he showed a host of future pop stars the way forward; use style, colour, a hint of danger, and dare to defy boundaries, and voila, you have a career. Bowie has had and will continue to have many imitators, further proof as if any were needed, of his importance.