The Man who fell to Earth

FIVE YEARS AFTER THE DEATH OF DAVID BOWIE, XAV JUDD LOOKS AT HOW THE PERFORMER’S EXPERIMENTAL APPROACH SHAPED THE CULTURAL ZEITGEIST

I’m “gay and always have been, even when I was David Jones,” declared David Bowie in a Melody Maker interview in 1972. Being the first prominent male musical artist to come out (effectively as bisexual – he was married to Angie at the time) was a brave thing to do, because homosexuality had only been decriminalised in the UK in 1967. 

It was still very much a taboo subject and that admission could have completely finished-off the singer-songwriter’s career before it had truly got off the ground. Yet, throughout his over 45-years as a rock icon, it was just one example of how the Brixton-born multi-instrumentalist broke all the rules and reinvented the record industry. Such constant innovation was not a shock, if one considers his creative philosophy which he summed up in the 1997 documentary Inspirations: “If you feel safe in the area you’re working in, you’re not working in the right area. Always go a little further into the water than you feel you’re capable of being in.” 

UP THE HILL BACKWARDS

One reason Bowie frequently stood out from his peers was due to his ability to compose disorienting, disparate, evocative lyrics. Partly, this can be attributed to the songwriter’s use of the cut-up technique which, coupled with his revolutionary exploration of sound such as in the iconic Berlin Trilogy, made him a pioneer of art rock. 

In the simplest terms, the cut-up process involved taking a written text, slicing it up and arranging what was left into some other phrasing. Its origins can be traced back to the early 20th-century, European art movement, Dadaism, whose members chopped up newspaper articles into single words and reformulated them into poems. Artist Brion Gysin rediscovered their approach in the 1950s, which was further developed by his friend, the Beat Generation author William S. Burroughs. And once Bowie began reading Burroughs’ novels, he was inspired to employ the same tactic. In a 1997 conversation with the BBC, he enthused: “If you put three or four disassociated ideas together and created awkward relationships with them, the unconscious intelligence that comes from those parings is really quite startling sometimes.” Bowie took apart and reconfigured old songs, poems and diaries he’d written, as well as stories in periodicals. One tune that benefited from this enterprising treatment was the über-glamtastic, sci-fi influenced Moonage Daydream (1971). 

Nonetheless, Bowie didn’t just adopt the cut-up method from a purely lyrically standpoint. He believed it was a general strategy to get the creative juices flowing and ignite his imagination. Indeed, in a chat backstage with Bruce Kessler, on Bowie’s 1978 Isolar II World Tour, Carlos Alomar, the singer’s principal guitarist, revealed how the megastar employed his modus operandi in a more fundamental way: “We used to do a song called Footstompin’. But then after he heard [the studio recording of] it, he really didn’t like it too much. So, he took it apart and he cut it up into small pieces … he chunked it all together… and John [Lennon] put down the changes to chorus.” The result was the funky rock ode about the insanity of celebrity, Fame (1975) – Bowie’s first US Number One single. In later years, he elevated cut-up to another level, utilising a computer program to do the randomisation. A couple of albums that benefited greatly were the majestic Outside (1995) and Earthling (1997). 

LABYRINTH

The internet is one of the inventions that have most shaped modern society. As he was consistently at the cutting edge of technology, it’s no surprise that in 1996 Bowie was the first musician to issue a single as an internet-only release. The composition, the drum‘n’bass cracker Telling Lies, and the way it was launched highlighted the rock star’s mischievousness. He took part in an online chat session with two others (pretending to be him), where they all answered questions from the audience. However, the legendary songsmith spoke the truth, while the other participants told fibs. Then the viewers were asked to vote which one of the three was the real Bowie. It’s said that it took over ten minutes to download the actual track on the then snail-slow, dial-up connection. Two months later it was distributed in the more traditional vinyl format by his record label BMG, eventually reaching no.76 on the UK Singles chart. 

The former Bromley Technical High School pupil’s prompt foray into cyberspace meant he was also earliest to establish an internet service provider. BowieNet was initiated in 1998 and entry was gained by visiting davidbowie.com. It offered users a titular email address, a customisable home page, and access to songs, sports and news, for a low monthly payment

“CHANGES”

In July, 1973 at a gig in the Hammersmith Odeon, a palpable shock reverberated through the crowd. Why? Because it suddenly dawned on them that their hero, the red-haired vision of lithe androgyny that was Ziggy Stardust, had just retired. Bowie’s best-known persona, who was backed by the Spiders from Mars, was the ultimate hedonistic rock star. The singer had first emerged as the flamboyant bisexual character in a pub in Tolworth (Kingston upon Thames) in February 1972, but only around 60 people turned up. Yet, a few months later, this theatrical, “extraterrestrial” being had fired up the public’s imagination to such an extent that thousands flocked to see him in concert. And Bowie was selling more records than anyone else in the UK. Despite such adulation, he courageously killed off his other-worldly iteration at the height of its fame. 

Ziggy was just one of the brilliant, dramatic alter egos Bowie fashioned, as he redefined the music business. He explained why he chose this artistic route in an interview with Jeremy Paxman on BBC’s Newsnight in 1999: “I was not a natural performer.I didn’t feel at ease on stage, ever… I felt really comfortable going on stage as somebody else. And it seemed a rational decision to keep on doing that.” Such a conviction was why the rock ‘n’ roller devised another identity in the spring of 1973, Aladdin Sane (a pun on “A Lad Insane”), to tie-in with the same-titled LP. This gaunt figure, whom Bowie dubbed as “Ziggy goes to America”, was just as mysterious and striking as his soon-to-be predecessor: the blue and red lightning bolt bisecting his face symbolising his split personality, and the real musician’s ambivalence and angst about touring and celebrity. Over the years, other notable characters Bowie inhabited included the slick, shirt and waistcoat-attired purveyor of “plastic soul” that amounted to the Thin White Duke, and Major Tom, the astronaut adrift in the cosmos, initially introduced in the 1969 single 

“It’s no surprise that Bowie was the first musician to issue a single as an internet-only release”

SPACE ODDITY

Many other pop stars have adopted alter egos. For instance, Madonna, Bono and Lady Gaga (all three have acknowledged Bowie’s huge influence on their careers) with Madame X, the Fly and Jo Calderone respectively. Nonetheless, Bowie set the template and, while the fictional Doppelgängers of several of his contemporaries could come across as being more gimmick than substance. his didn’t, as he had an almost method-acting approach to them, often even staying in character during interviews. Not only that, but his were imbued with his hopes and fears giving them a universal appeal. In this way, they proved to be the perfect vehicle for his personal and artistic evolution, as he produced one original album after another. 

LOVNG THE ALIEN

Perhaps no singer in popular culture has helped to break down gender norms more than Bowie. As mentioned, he shook up the status quo by being the first male artist in his industry to come out, risking much opprobrium. Additionally, the occasional actor completely blurred the lines between masculinity and femininity by embracing androgyny. An initial example of this was in July 1972 on Top of the Pops, which was regularly watched by over 13 million viewers, when he turned up as Ziggy Stardust. Sporting a Technicolored jumpsuit and flaming scarlet mullet, the songster casually slung his arm over the shoulder of guitarist Mick Ronson during a rendition of Starman. In the dreary musical landscape of a conservative Britain, Bowie’s glammed-up, ambiguous sexual nature was a revelation. It challenged the straight sensibility of the mass audience and prompted many to consider nonconformist orientation. 

Other ways in which this quintessential maverick subverted heteronormativity numbered: simulating fellatio on Ronson’s guitar in concerts; wearing make-up, maybe most famously in the 1973 Life on Mars video; donning drag in the promo for Boys Keep Swinging in 1979; having gay or bi subtext in his lyrics in the 1972 compositions John, I’m only Dancing and Suffragette City ; dating Dutch transgender female entertainer Romy Haag in the mid-70s; and appearing on the LP covers of The Man Who Sold the World (1970) attired in a “man’s dress” , and Hunky Dory (1971) dolled up as if an actress from Hollywood’s Golden Age. 

Even so, in a 1983 Rolling Stone magazine interview titled Straight Time, Bowie backtracked somewhat with regard to his carnal proclivities saying his earlier disclosure he was bisexual was “the biggest mistake I ever made”. Consequently, there’s been a lot of conjecture concerning whether he was truly ever bi or if he’d just jumped on a bandwagon to further his career. Yet, in essence, it didn’t really matter, as his various personae and exploits in the 1970s and early 1980s established him as a trailblazer for queer representation, one that thousands of teenagers and young men who were struggling with their sexuality and thus felt like outsiders, could relate to. Finally, they had a role model who not only made them realise it was OK to be “different”, it could actually be rather cool. 

SOUND AND VISION

By the end of the 1970s, Bowie had had one Number One single each in the UK and in the United States. However, arguably, in a global sense, his outré personae, lyrics, and experimental musical style meant he remained something of a cult figure. This was set to change in the next decade and one reason was the emergence of MTV. The American cable channel was an overnight sensation when it launched (domestically) on 1 August 1981. Its novel concept was to attempt to promote recording artists using short music videos, which were played by video jockeys. 

Bowie had always been aware of the importance of merging sound with a hip visual aesthetic, so it was perhaps to be expected that two of his pop promos, Boys Keep Swinging and Fashion (1980), got heavy rotation on MTV’s first day. Notwithstanding, it was the video for the 1980 UK Number One single Ashes to Ashes that showed he was destined to become a true master of this recent image-driven format. In what was the most expensive such production of its time, costing over £250,000, the entertainer marched along in a Pierrot costume with a group of Blitz Kids. Like many later such shorts, it underlined his distinctive modus operandi as it was storyboarded; on this occasion, featuring the now “strung out” Major Tom persona initially seen in Space Oddity, endeavouring to stay ahead of a bulldozer that represented oncoming violence. The four-minute tour de force, which was shot in various locations in East Sussex, uniquely also contained solarised colour and stark black-and-white depictions. In 1999, it ranked Number 58 on MTV’s 100 Greatest Music Videos Ever Made. 

Nevertheless, Bowie wanted to raise the bar even further. In the 1983 Rolling Stone piece, he said: “Let’s try to use the video format as a platform for some kind of social observation, and not just waste it on trotting out and trying to enhance the public image of the singer involved.” Thus, the short for the hit Let’s Dance, a track on the eponymous 1983 album, was a subtle commentary on the plight of Aborigines, while the next mini-flick from the LP, China Girl’, also shot on location in Oz, similarly critiqued racism. With their alluring visuals, impactful subtext and, of course, most significantly, catchy shake-a-leg vibe, these vignettes meant Bowie was in the ideal place to profit from the promo boom MTV engendered. Hence, the Starman attracted a new audience and joined the mainstream, with Let’s Dance shifting over 10 million copies. 

BOWIE FACTS

He changed his surname to Bowie in the mid-sixties, to avoid being confused with Davy Jones from the pop band the Monkees.

His initial appearance on television in 1966 was as the founder of the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Long-haired Men

On the LP Never Let Me Down (1987), the actor Mickey Rourke does a rap on the tune Shining Star (Makin’ My Love).

He has had five UK Number One singles and 11 Number One albums.

He has graced numerous films such as Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence (1983), The Hunger (1983), The Last Temptation of Christ (1988), The Man Who Fell to Earth (1976), and The Prestige (2006).

Among the instruments he played were the guitar, the harmonica, the saxophone and the synthesiser.

Early influences included singers Little Richard and Vince Taylor.

And so, the man who experimented with electronica, progressive house, proto-punket al, couldn’t resist leaving the world with one more extraordinary artwork; this time, his own death. In the wonderful, jazz-infused album Blackstar (and accompanying videos), released just two days before he passed, Bowie contemplates his existence and impending departure.