‘Chameleonic’ is a word often used to describe David Bowie, and the way he shifted styles and persona to suit his art. But it’s an inaccurate phrase.
Chameleons camouflage to blend in with their surroundings. David Bowie did everything he could not to.
He died on January 10, just two days after his 69th birthday, and the release of his most recent album, Blackstar.
While there had been rumours for years that his health was failing - rumours perpetuated by his ‘retirement’ around 2006 and fleeting public appearances - the announcement of his death was nothing but an unwelcome surprise. Perhaps it was a mistake?
For an artist who always seemed so vibrantly alive, it was unthinkable that one day he might not be with us. Among the outpouring of grief on social media and across radio and TV, light-hearted remarks floated around suggesting Bowie, who conquered the world in the Seventies in character as bisexual alien rock superstar Ziggy Stardust, hadn’t died, but had merely chosen to go back his home planet.
For somebody who pushed so many musical and cultural boundaries, however, and never stopped - this year’s Blackstar is proof of his unquenchable appetite for the new - he seemed incredibly down to earth in real life, particularly in his later years. One of my favourite images of Bowie sees him with a broad grin, sitting on a train, engrossed in a copy of Viz.
There goes Bowie, a man who showed the world other realities, but loved nothing better than a bit of schoolboy toilet humour...
Bowie, or David Robert Jones, was born in Brixton on January 8, 1947. The South-London area responded to news of his death with a huge street party singalong in his honour. Hopefully, he would’ve approved.
Aged six, he moved with his family to the suburb of Bromley, later joining the Burnt Ash Junior School choir (school reports had his voice down as “adequate”). Like so many of the great stars of the Sixties and Seventies, it was early rock ‘n’ roll that first caught his ear, comparing hearing Little Richard’s Tutti Frutti with ‘like hearing God’, and recalling his cousin getting up to dance to Elvis Presley’s Hound Dog, and being amazed by music’s power to move people.
Around the same time, Bowie’s own teachers were impressed with his wild imagination and one remarked, during music and movement classes, that they’d never seen a child with such poise.
By 11 he was in a skiffle group and, after going on to Bromley Technical High School, was taught and encouraged by Owen Frampton, father of musician and Bowie collaborator Peter. Development here came at a rapid pace and by 15, Bowie - now well-versed in jazz, thanks to his half-brother introducing him to the likes of John Coltrane - could play saxophone too.
He released his first single, Liza Jane, under the moniker Davie Jones And The King Bees. It failed to chart, leading the singer, with dreams of becoming Mick Jagger, to leave and join a heavier rhythm and blues outfit, The Manish Boys. Then he joined The Lower Third, moved on again to The Buzz, then The Riot Squad, all of whom failed to find success and satisfy their talented lead.
In 1967, Davy Jones became David Bowie, named after the 19th century American huntsman Jim Bowie, and released The Laughing Gnome and a self-titled debut album.
Neither were a success, and it was the last anyone heard of the Brixton boy for two years, while he went away and, under the tutelage of dancer and choreographer Lindsay Kemp, who would later instruct Kate Bush in the same way, immersed himself in dance, mime and the creation of personae to bring to life bigger, bolder ideas.
He returned in 1969 with his second album - confusingly also called David Bowie, as if he was starting again, although it was later reissued as Space Oddity and features the introduction of his Major Tom character, who slipped in and out of Bowie’s work throughout his career.
From here on in, he seemingly never wasted a second, releasing at least one album a year between 1969 and 1977 - impressive enough on its own, and positively staggering when you consider the musical ground covered in those eight years. Not even The Beatles, regularly cited as the most inventive and restless musicians, experimented as freely or as widely.
From the relatively straightforward pop of Space Oddity, he simultaneously drew a curtain on the Sixties and invented glam rock on The Man Who Sold The World and Hunky Dory, released in 1970 and 1971, bent the lines of gender on 1972’s Ziggy Stardust And The Spiders From Mars, broke America with 1973’s Aladdin Sane, and by 1974, had retired his most successful character, Ziggy, and moved on to a post-apocalyptic world featuring Halloween Jack on 1974’s Diamond Dogs. Looking back now, it’s hard to keep up with such a wealth of ideas. At the time, it must have been a whirlwind.
A year later, it was all forgotten when Bowie released Young Americans, showcasing his obsession with smooth soul sounds from Philadelphia and utilising the talents of Luther Vandross, who sang and helped arrange backing vocals on the album. 1976 saw the release of Station To Station, and the introduction of Bowie’s last great character, the Thin White Duke. Bowie, due to his diet of almost nothing but cocaine and glasses of milk throughout the making of the album, was said to recall almost nothing about the recording, but a classic it remains.
From here, and due to crumbling physical and mental health, he decided to move away from Los Angeles to Europe, where he went on to make Low, Heroes and Lodger in succession, with Brian Eno and Tony Visconti. The so-called ‘Berlin Trilogy’ of albums saw him clean up, while embracing classical literature and the Krautrock of Neu! and Kraftwerk, revitalising his career and imagination once again.
Into the Eighties, and yet more reinvention, first with Scary Monsters (And Super Creeps), which gave us Ashes To Ashes and Fashion, and on to 1983’s Let’s Dance, the title track of which became one of Bowie’s biggest hits just as MTV was starting out (needless to say, Bowie embraced videos too).
More albums followed, all pushing on in different directions to the last, even touching upon drum ‘n’ bass (1997’s Earthling), showing Bowie was afraid of nothing and would draw inspiration from the most unlikely of sources.
Throughout all of this, he also had the sort of acting career most actors would dream of, and even though it was something of a sideline, still managed to work with some of the greatest directors, including Nicolas Roeg (The Man Who Fell To Earth), Martin Scorsese (The Last Temptation Of Christ), David Lynch (Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me) and Jim Henson (Labyrinth).
Indeed, it was as Jareth the Goblin King in Henson’s peerless 1986 fantasy film that many people will know Bowie. Or perhaps it was giving the introduction to Raymond Briggs’ The Snowman as Older James, or as the Lord Royal Highness, ruler of Atlantis, in SpongeBob SquarePants.
No matter your age, you’ll have a Bowie memory in there somewhere. His work will have entered your life in some way. And long may it live on.