“And I cried for all the others till the day was nearly through
For I realized that God’s a young man too”
Some groups took to glam rock with such ease that it’s hard to imagine them doing anything else, others looked uneasy as if they just wanted to run off stage and get changed, Bowie however simply became glam rock. He didn’t seem to wear the makeup or the clothes or put on the style, it was as if he had emerged fully formed from some music/style cocoon. Even though I could hear someone with the same name singing a cringe worthy song called “The Laughing Gnome” on Ed Stewpot’s Junior Choice it didn’t seem possible that Bowie had a past – especially one as embarrassing as that.
But the thing that most impressed me about Bowiewasn’t the makeup or the image, it wasn’t even the singing or the music, it was the song writing. He was the first person I heard that used references I knew in his songs – I remember listening to “Life On Mars” for the first time and on hearing the line “from Ibiza to the Norfolk Broads” thinking to myself “There must be a Norfolk in the US, he can’t be singing about something in England”.
Bowie’s famously reinvented himself through the years and dragged me through a number of styles as I’ve held onto his musical coattails. However I only have to hear the start of Queen Bitch and I’m a teenager once more watching Bowie and wondering what planet he came from.
Born David Jones, Bowie began his music career at the age of 13 learning to play the saxophone and playing with a number of school groups. It was also while at school that he obtained one of his most famous features, the permanently dilated pupil, after being stabbed with a school compass. On leaving school at the age of 16 he became a commercial artist while continuing to play sax in a number of bands including Davey Jones and the Lower Third, the King Bees and the Manish Boys. While they were all good enough to record singles, none of them troubled the charts.
It was in 1966, at the age of 19, that Davey Jones became David Bowie in order to avoid confusion with the famous Davy Jones of the Monkees. The change of name did not unfortunately lead to a change in fortunes, Bowie played with styles including the release of a number of Mod-ish singles on Pye and various music hall / cabaret style recordings on Deram but nothing brought him commercial success – although “The Laughing Gnome” would come back to haunt him in later years. Ever the performer Bowie briefly studied with a mime troupe before forming the Feathers, his own mime company, in 1969 and then moving on to experimental art with Beckenham Arts Lab.
Bowie’s break into the charts came in September 1969 with his classic “Space Oddity”. The tale of Major Tom merged perfectly with the public fascination with space (the first moon landing had only been 2 months previously) and saw Bowie reach number 5 in the charts. Success however could not been maintained and when his follow up failed Bowie was seen commercially as a one-hit wonder.
Away from the charts Bowie changed his musical direction (obviously not for the first or last time!) and began his relationship with, amongst others, guitarist Mick Ronson (aka Ronno). With Ronno’s guitar playing allowing Bowie to take on a heavier sound, the album “The Man Who Sold The World” was recorded. Combining Bowie’s love of controversial, but intellectual, themes with a this new sound produced what many argue to be the first heavy metal album. It contained songs that were destined to become classics (“The Width Of A Circle”) and a later hit for Lulu with the title track but nothing that would put Bowie back in the charts. It also showed Bowie starting to play with an androgynous image, appearing on the cover wearing a dress.
Signing for RCA, Bowie’s next album “Hunky Dory” was a lighter, more acoustic affair with Ronno firmly on board arranging half the songs. Containing its fair share of classics (“Changes”, “Life On Mars?”) the album pointed in the direction of greatness and commercial success. It was at this point Bowie took off, a subsequent UK tour saw him move from an artist playing with imagery and musical styles to a fully formed, and cracked, rock star soon to be christened Ziggy Stardust.
Released in June 1972 “The Rise And Fall Of Ziggy Stardust And The Spiders From Mars” was a revelation and made Bowie a star. It wasn’t just the songs, or the image, or the live show, it was the perfect mix of all three that resulted in Bowie making the headlines (and never really leaving them). The resulting tour gave rise to one of the most iconic photos of the seventies with Ronno playing “Suffragette” city while Bowie knelt provocatively in front him – such was the sexual power of this image that Ronno briefly quit the tour while his parents’ front door and car were daubed in paint.
While others may have taken time out to enjoy their fame riding the crest of the glam wave, Bowie and Ronno spent time with Lou Reed producing and crafting his classic “Transformer” album. “Walk On The Wild Side”, “Vicious” and “Perfect Day” owe as much to them as they do to Reed.
Following the Ziggy album with “Aladdin Sane” (i.e. A Lad Insane) Bowie and the Spiders were at the top of their game when Bowie announced his retirement live on stage at the Hammersmith Odeon on July 3rd 1973. The effect this had on his fans cannot be understated, when the announcement’s made (you can see and hear it on “Ziggy Stardust: The Motion Picture”) there’s an audible intake of breath from the audience before cries of “No!” ring out, interviewed years later Annie Nightingale said that when she heard the news she cried herself to sleep – she was meant to be at the concert but couldn’t make it and never thought she’d see Bowie again.
In fact Bowie was referring to the retirement of Ziggy and returned to the fray with “Diamond Dogs”. An adaptation of “1984” this was originally touted as a theatrical production until the Orwell estate deniedBowie the rights. Without Ronno’s guitar work the album lacked the continuity of sound with its predecessors but still managed to produce the classic “Rebel, Rebel”. While the Diamond Dogs tour of the US and Canada was a massive spectacular it lacked the spontaneity of Ziggy and was plagued by production problems. On returning to the UK Bowie moved away from his glam rock style and became the great white hope of the American Soul scene with “Young Americans”.
Bowie’s career was just starting and while his glam rock period was my personal highlight there’s no doubt that he’s added much, much more to the world of music over the years. Whether it’s the birth of electronic music (alongside Eno) that started with “Low”, his massive commercial success with “Let’s Dance”, his step back from the limelight with “Tin Machine”, his approach to “drum and bass” or just his 46 top 30 singles since 1969 Bowie has been (and arguably remains) a musical force to be reckoned with.