David Bowie Biography
David Robert Jones (born January 8, 1947), better known as David Bowie, is a British rock and roll musician, actor, and artist who has had a profound influence on rock and roll from the 1960s to the present. He is commonly known as the greatest chameleon of music history, constantly changing his musical style to suit the times, while always holding on to his own ideas and creativity.
1947 to 1967: Early years
David Jones was born in Brixton, an area of London, but grew up in the town of Bromley, in Kent (now part of Greater London). He's stated his earliest musical goal was to be a sax player in Little Richard's group. Initially a saxophonist, he, quite by accident, was discovered as a singer when he subbed in for a missing vocalist at a club in London. He initially played with various blues groups, such as 'The Lower Third' in 1960s. Bowie's greatest strength through his career has been his ability to adapt his public image to fit, and often anticipate, the prevailing musical trends. His early work shifts through blues and Elvis-esque music while working with many British pop styles.
In the spring of 1961, he and schoolmate George Underwood got into a fight over a girl. Underwood was wearing a ring and when he struck at David, it hit him in the eyes. He was forced out of school for 8 months and had several surgeries, but the doctors could only save the right eye, leaving the left pupil permanently dilated. (Underwood later did artwork for Bowie's album covers.)
Heavily influenced by the dramatic arts, from avant-garde theatre and mime to Commedia dell'arte much of his work has involved the creation of characters or personae to present to the world. David needed to use a different stage name to avoid confusion with Davy Jones of The Monkees, so he chose the last name Bowie after the Alamo hero Jim Bowie and his famous Bowie Knife. (David rhymes 'Bowie' with 'Joey').
David Bowie released his first solo album in 1967, simply called David Bowie. It was an odd amalgam of Psychedelic Rock and Easy Listening. Also released was a single, The Laughing Gnome, with the cult-classic B-side, The Gospel According to Tony Day. None of these managed to chart; the 1967 album is scantily available nowadays, although it exists in counterfeit copies. However the materials of both the album, the single, and several other works were later recycled in a multitude of compilation albums, and the Laughing Gnome, much to Bowie's embarrassment, was rereleased in 1973, selling over 250,000 copies to become one of his best selling singles.
1969 to 1973: Glam rock and Ziggy Stardust
His first flirtation with fame came in 1969 when his single Space Oddity was released to coincide with the first moon landing. This hippy-style song was the renowned story of what was often called Bowie's first dual-subject and role, Major Tom, an astronaut who becomes lost in space. A failure the first time out, it later became a UK hit record. Its corresponding album was originally titled David Bowie, and has caused some confusion, as both of Bowie's first and second albums were released with that name in the UK. In the U.S. the second album bore the title Man of Words/Man of Music. In 1972, the second album was re-released as Space Oddity. The album is not as lost as the original David Bowie, however, the highlights of the album are hardly well known.
His first album with notable overall material, The Man Who Sold the World (1970), rejected the acoustic guitar sound of Space Oddity, replacing it with the heavy rock backing provided by long-term collaborator Mick Ronson. On Bowie's part, the album provided some interesting musical detours, such as the title track's use of very latin sounds to hold the melody. The track provided an unlikely hit for UK pop singer Lulu and would later be covered by many bands, including the classic cover by Nirvana, who are often miscredited with having written the song. The cover of the first release of this album, on which Bowie is seen reclining in a dress, was an early indication of his interest in exploiting his androgynous appearance.
His next record, Hunky Dory (1971) saw the partial return of the fey pop singer of Space Oddity, with light fare such as the droll 'Kooks' (dedicated to his young son known to the world as Zowie Bowie but legally named Duncan Jones) and 'Oh! You Pretty Things' alongside the verbose philosophising of 'The Bewlay Brothers'. Lyrically, Bowie also took the time to pay tribute to some of his influences on 'Song for Bob Dylan', 'Andy Warhol' and 'Queen Bitch', dedicated to The Velvet Underground. The next year Bowie would produce Lou Reed's solo breakthrough Transformer. Supported by another hit single in 'Life on Mars?', Hunky Dory sold tremendously well and lifted Bowie into the first rank of stars. The first track on the album, 'Changes', is quite possibly Bowie's most well-known hit, and made the album into an ultra-success. Bowie then had four top 10 albums and eight top ten singles in the UK in 18 months between 1972 and 1973.
Bowie's androgynous image was taken a step further with his next record, the seminal The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars. Ziggy Stardust was a concept album relating the career of an extraterrestrial rock singer. The album contained many great Bowie singles, including 'Ziggy Stardust', 'Starman', and the fast paced 'Suffragette City'. Bowie's Ziggy Stardust character became the basis for Bowie's first tour beginning in 1972, where Bowie donned his famous red, flaming hair and wild outfits. The tour featured a four-piece band called the 'Spiders from Mars', which contained himself, Mick Ronson on guitars, Trevor Bolder on bass, and Mick Woodmansey on drums. Bowie's show was an ultra-theatrical and wildly overproduced tour, filled with some rather shocking stage moments, such as Bowie stripping down to a sumo wrestling loin or committing acts of fellatio with Mick Ronson's guitar. Bowie took the character to extremes, touring and giving press conferences as Ziggy before a dramatic and abrupt onstage 'retirement' in 1973. The record contained some of Bowie's most acclaimed work, much of it a reaction to his own fame and the conflict between his beliefs and the reality of stardom.
These themes were further explored, with the same musicians, on 1973's Aladdin Sane, another conceptual work about the disintegration of society. The album is commonly called his 'On the Road' album, because all of the songs (except for a new version of an old single, 'The Prettiest Star') were written on the bus or trains during the tour. The album's cover, featuring Bowie shirtless with Ziggy Stardust hair and a red, black, and blue lightning bolt across his face, is one of the most famous covers of all time. It included the hit Jean Genie and a cover of The Rolling Stones' 'Let's Spend the Night Together'. Mike Garson joined Bowie to play piano on this album, and his performance has been called the album's highlight. To this day, Garson often plays in Bowie's band.
Pin Ups, an indifferently received collection of cover versions of 1960s hits, was released in 1973. By that time, the 'Spiders from Mars' were long split, and Bowie was trying to escape from his Ziggy persona.
1974 to 1976: Soul, R&B, and the Thin White Duke
1974 saw the release of Diamond Dogs, another ambitious album with some spoken-word passages and with a song-cycle ('Candidate'). Diamond Dogs was the product of two distinct ideas - a musical based on a wild future in a post-apocolyptic city, and setting George Orwell's 1984 to music ('1984', 'Big Brother', 'We Are The Dead'). Bowie had planned on actually writing a musical to 1984, but his interest waned after encountering difficulties in licensing the novel, and he used the songs he had written for Diamond Dogs. The album shows Bowie headed toward the genre of soul/disco music, the track 1984 being a prime example. With the album came tremendous success, and Bowie launched a new world tour that lasted from 1974 to 1975, the Nineteen-Eighty Floorshow, better known as the Diamond Dogs world tour. Wildly overproduced and filled with theatric wonders, Bowie performed no encores in this extremely high-budget stage production, which has been noted as extremely memorable.
Although still slowly morphing out of his Ziggy Stardust glamour, in 1975 Bowie made a sudden and very jolting step in a new direction, having taken the genderless-alien-cum-rock-star to (and possibly beyond) its limit, culminating in the lead role in Nicolas Roeg's film 'The Man Who Fell To Earth'. He shed the glam rock trappings and, with Young Americans, explored Philadelphia soul with backing from a young Luther Vandross. Young Americans also contained his first number one hit in the U.S. 'Fame', cowritten with John Lennon (who also contributed backing vocals) and one of Bowie's favorite guitarists and band members, Carlos Alomar. The hits from Young Americans were inserted into the Diamond Dogs tour as it ran its course, thus the new leg was named 'the Philly Dogs tour'.
1976's Station to Station featured a bleaker verson of this soul persona, called The Thin White Duke. By then Bowie was heavily dependent on drugs, especially cocaine, and had become notorious for a supposed fascist salute given at London's Victoria Station. Many have attributed the chopped rhythms and emotional detachment of the record to the influence of the drug, and often Bowie has blamed his addiction on a lack of judgement while being introduced to the substances in America. Nonetheless, there was another large tour in 1976, the Station to Station World Tour, which featured Bowie's soul hits. However, Station to Station presented an interesting new direction in Bowie's music, with interesting use of synthesizer and electronic sounds and a lean towards German pop music.
1976 to 1980: Brian Eno and the Berlin era
Bowie's interest in the growing German music scene and his drug addiction prompted him to move to Berlin to dry out and rejuvinate his career anew. Sharing an Apartment in Schöneberg with his friend Iggy Pop, he produced two more of his own classic albums, as well as aiding Iggy Pop in taking off his solo career, helping him forge two of Iggy's classic early punk albums, Lust for Life and The Idiot.
The brittle sound of Station to Station was a precursor to that found on Low, the first of three recorded in collaboration with Brian Eno. Heavily influenced by the Krautrock sound of Kraftwerk and others, the new songs were relatively simple, repetitive and stripped, a clear and typically perverse reaction to punk rock, with the second side wholly instrumental. (By way of tribute, proto-punk Nick Lowe recorded an EP entitled 'Bowi'.) The album provided him with no real hits, only a few favorites such as Sound and Vision and Always Crashing in the Same Car. However, it was renowned for having been far ahead of its time, and fascinates many to this day. Many have called it Bowie's best album. It was produced in 1976 and released in early 1977.
The next record, Heroes, was similar in sound to Low, but slightly more accessible. The mood of these records fit the zeitgeist of the Cold War, symbolised by the divided city that provided inspiration. The title track was a worldwide hit and remains one of Bowie's best known, a classic love story about two lovers who met at the Berlin Wall. Also in 1977, Bowie appeared on the ITV music show Marc, hosted by his close friend and fellow glam pioneer Marc Bolan, with whom Bowie had regularly socialised and jammed since before either became famous. He turned out to be the show's final guest, as Bolan was killed in a car crash shortly afterwards and Bowie was one of many superstars who attended the funeral. There was a brief world tour in 1978 which featured the music of both Low and Heroes. A live album of this tour was released, known as Stage.
Lodger (1979) was the final, and most accessible, of Bowie's so-called 'Berlin Trilogy'. It featured the hits 'D.J.', 'Boys Keep Swinging', and 'Look Back in Anger', and it did not contain any instrumentals. However, the album is renowned for being quite a contorted mix of punk rock and world music, and pieces such as African Night Flight and Yassassin were surprising detours even by Bowie's standards. This was Bowie's last album with Eno until 1995's 1. Outside.
In 1980, Bowie did an about-face and made an unabashed bid for commercial success. Scary Monsters (and Super Creeps) included the #1 hit Ashes To Ashes, revisiting the character of Major Tom from 'Space Oddity'. The imagery Bowie used in the video was seen by many as that which gave international exposure to the underground New Romanticism movement and, with many of the followers of this phase being devotees, Bowie visited the London club 'Blitz' - the main New Romantic hangout - and recruited several of the regulars to act in the music video, renowned as being one of the most innovative music videos of all time. Scary Monsters clung to the principles that Bowie had learned in the Berlin era, however, it was very fresh considering the brutal transformation Bowie had gone through during the experience. Bowie had divorced his wife Angie, gone through withdrawl from the drugs of the 'Thin White Duke' era, and his conception of how music should be written had totally changed. The album had a very hard rock sound with many innovations, and it laid much of the foundation for rock music in the 1980s.
The 1980s: Bowie the superstar
In 1982, Bowie released 'Under Pressure', co-written by and performed with Queen. The song was a hit and became Bowie's third number one single as well as one of Queen's all time classics. The song appears on the Queen album Hot Space.
Bowie then scored his first truly commercial blockbuster with Let's Dance (1983), a slick dance album with co-production by Chic's Nile Rodgers. It was a departure from Scary Monsters for which Bowie received a bit of inside criticism; rather than joining the musical revolt against 1980s dance music, he had definitely joined the scene. Its title track has become a standard, and the album also featured the singles 'Modern Love' and 'China Girl', the latter causing something of a stir due to its suggestive promotional video. Oddly enough, 'China Girl' was actually a new version of a song which Bowie had written for Iggy Pop in Iggy's The Idiot album. Let's Dance is also notable as a stepping stone for the career of the late Texan guitar virtuoso Stevie Ray Vaughan, who played on the album and was to have supported Bowie on his new world tour for the album: the Serious Moonlight Tour. The tour was a huge success, and one concert actually scored Bowie a million dollars on its own. Stevie Ray Vaughan, however, left the tour over a pay dispute and was replaced by Earl Slick on the guitar duties.
The 1984 followup album Tonight, became his next big dance album, featuring collaborations with Tina Turner and a cover of the Beach Boys' 'God Only Knows'. Critics slammed it as a lazy effort, dashed off by Bowie simply to recapture Let's Dance's chart success. Yet the album bore the minor hit 'Blue Jean', whose long-form video, a 22-minute short film directed by Julien Temple, reflected Bowie's long-standing interest in combining music with drama. It also featured the minor hit 'Loving the Alien'. The album also has numerous dance version rewrites of old songs Bowie wrote for Iggy Pop, such as 'Neighborhood Threat' and 'Tonight', both of which originally appeared on Iggy's Lust for Life.
In 1985, Bowie performed several of his greatest hits in a memorable performance at the Wembley leg of Live Aid. At the end of his set, he introduced a film of the Ethiopian famine, for which the event was raising funds, which was set to the song 'Drive' by the Cars. At the event, the video to a fundraising single was premiered - Bowie duetting with Mick Jagger on a version of 'Dancing In The Street', which quickly went to Number 1 on release.
In 1986 Bowie contributed the theme song to the film Absolute Beginners. The movie was not well reviewed but Bowie maintained for many years that the song, a UK Number 2 hit, was one of the best and most professional he'd ever written. Also, after taking a role in the film Labyrinth, he wrote songs for the film, some of which became singles.
The final of Bowie's dance albums was Never Let Me Down (1987) which drew some of the harshest criticism of Bowie's career, condemned by critics as a faceless piece of product and ignored by the public - and Bowie himself openly apologised in an interview for the album being so bad; defenders of the album maintain that many of its songs are underrated and that Bowie at this time was simply facing the inevitable backlash of an overexposed superstar. Actually, many believe that its singles, 'Day-In, Day-Out' and 'Time Will Crawl', were actually rather good songs. The album, however, was disastrous. The Glass Spider World Tour sought to market the album, however critics slammed it as being too silly, overproduced, and pandering in its special effects and dancers.
1989 to 1991: Tin Machine
In 1989, for the first time since the early 1970s, Bowie formed a regular band, Tin Machine, a hard-rocking quartet obviously influenced by Pixies, that released two studio albums and a live record. The band received mediocre reviews and was ignored by the public, but Tin Machine heralded the beginning of an ongoing collaboration between Bowie and guitarist Reeves Gabrels.
The original album, Tin Machine (1989), was actually a success, holding the number 3 spot on the charts of the UK. Along with Reeves Gabrels, Tony Sales, and Hunt Sales (note, the Sales brothers Bowie had met in Iggy Pop's band), the group produced a decent rock album with the singles 'Prisoner of Love' and 'Under the God'. Tin Machine launched its first world tour, featuring a now unshaven David Bowie, that year. Despite the success of the Tin Machine venture, Bowie was mildly frustrated that many of his ideas were either rejected or changed by the band; it was a real collaborative group project.
Bowie began the 1990s with a stadium tour in which he played many of his biggest hits. The Sound + Vision Tour (named after the Low single, 'Sound and Vision') was quite acclaimed on Bowie's part, however, he said that this would be the last time he had did any solo work. He surprised no one when he later reneged on that promise.
In 1991, Tin Machine launched its second album, Tin Machine II. Less of a commercial success, the album was probably stunted by its infamous cover containing four uncovered nude male statues. The cover was censored in many places. Two singles were released from the album, 'Baby Universal' and 'You Belong in Rock 'n' Roll'. A third single, 'One Shot', was to be released, however it was shelved. The album had not been much of a success, only taking the 23rd spot on the UK charts.
Nonetheless, there was a new Tin Machine tour. The 1992 release of Oy Vey, Baby, the oddly named Tin Machine live album, was a complete failure. The album did not chart at all. Bowie, tired of having to work in a group setting where his creativity was limited, finally disbanded Tin Machine to work on his own. But the Tin Machine venture did show that Bowie had learned some harsh lessons from the previous decade, and was determined to get serious about concentrating on music more than commercial success.
1992 to today: Contemporary Bowie
1993 saw the release of the soul, jazz and hip-hop influenced Black Tie White Noise, which reunited Bowie with Let's Dance producer Nile Rodgers. Though considered by some critics to be musically far superior to Let's Dance, the public was still unsure whether or not it was ready to be receptive to Bowie again. The album, however, met the number one spot on the UK charts with singles such as 'Jump They Say' and 'Miracle Goodnight'. However, until rereleases later in the 1990s, the album was extraordinarily rare after the fledgling Savage Records on which it had been released suddenly went belly-up. The album is often considered Bowie's oddest departure.
Undaunted, Bowie explored new directions on albums such as 1993's The Buddha of Suburbia (built on incidental music composed for a TV series). The album still contained some of the new elements introduced in Black Tie White Noise, except with more of a twist in the direction of nineties rock. The album's odd success later led to a 1994 rerelease in the United States, and Bowie heralds it as being an album of entirely his own, original, and newly created work.
1995's ambitious, quasi-industrial 1. Outside (supposed to be the first volume in a still-unfinished nonlinear narrative of art and murder), which reunited him with Brian Eno. The album introduced the characters of one of Bowie's short stories, and was quite an interesting success. It was one of Bowie's most complicated concept albums yet. The album put Bowie back into the mainstream scene of rock music with it singles such as 'Hallo Spaceboy' and 'The Heart's Filthy Lesson'. In September of 1995 Bowie began his the Outside Tour with Gabrels again joining Bowie as his live band's guitarist. In a move that was equally lauded and ridiculed by Bowie fans and critics, Bowie chose Trent Reznor's Nine Inch Nails as the tour's opening act. Reznor has gone on record numerous times as being heavily influenced by David Bowie, and further collaborated with Bowie by remixing 'The Heart's Filthy Lesson'.
1997's Earthling (incorporating experiments in jungle and drum and bass and including a single released over the Internet). There was ultra-sustained energy in this album, along with experiments in techno drum rhythms, while still holding to Bowie's own musical concepts. Singles such as 'Little Wonder' and 'I'm Afraid of Americans' were the forefront of the album. A world tour was announced which was fairly successful.
1999's hours..., featuring 'What's Really Happening', the lyrics for which were written by the winner of an Internet competition. Bowie also performed live again extensively throughout the 90s. The decade also saw him launch a branded ISP (BowieNet) as well as a novel and quite successful fundraising scheme to raise cash on the strength of future royalties, called Bowie Bonds.
The 1998 Todd Haynes film Velvet Goldmine drew its title from an Ziggy-era Bowie song and contained many events paralleling Bowie's life on and off stage. The tagline 'The Rise of a Star... the Fall of a Legend' obviously recalls the name of one of Bowie's most famous albums. In an interview with the band Placebo, Bowie noted that he liked the story, but the movie felt more like the early 1980s than the early 1970s. Also, he forbid using his own songs in the film.
The 2002 album Heathen reunited him with Tony Visconti, producer of many of his best 1970s efforts, and won critical acclaim for his best chart performance in years. It also included a cover of the Pixies song 'Cactus', which was another off-shoot of Bowie's consistent interest in the band. Earlier in 1998, he had also reunited with Visconti to record a song for The Rugrats Movie called Sky Life. Surprisingly, it was edited out of the final cut, and did not feature on the film's soundtrack album.
In 2003, a report in the Sunday Express named Bowie as the second-richest entertainer in the U.K. (behind Sir Paul McCartney), with an estimated fortune of £510 million. Later that year, Bowie released a new album, Reality, and announced a world tour.
In 2004, taking the market by surprise, 'A Reality Tour' was the best selling tour of the year. However, it was cut short after Bowie suffered chest discomfort while performing on stage in the northwestern German town of Scheesel, on June 25. Originally thought to be a pinched nerve in his shoulder, and later diagnosed as an acutely blocked artery, an emergency angioplasty was performed at a hospital in the region. He was then released in early July and continues to spend time recovering. The tour was cancelled for the time being, with hopes that he would go back on tour by August. Although these hopes, as time has shown, did not materialise into more live shows, Bowie released a live DVD of the tour, entitled 'David Bowie - A Reality Tour', in October 2004, which included songs spanning the full length of Bowie's career, although mostly focussing on his more recent albums. David Bowie is considered as one of music's most influential and famous artists, after selling 136,000,000 records in 38 years.
See David Bowie discography for details.
Bowie the actor
Bowie's first film major role in The Man Who Fell To Earth earned acclaim, as did his performance on stage as The Elephant Man. He had appeared in 1969 in an avant garde film as a mime. Since then his acting career has been sporadic. Nagisa Oshima's film Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence, based loosely on Laurens van der Post's novel The Seed and the Sower, was released in 1983. Bowie played Jack Celliers, a prisoner of war in a Japanese internment camp; another famous musician, Ryuichi Sakamoto, played the camp commandant. Bowie has a small part as a hit-man in 1984 film Into the Night Bowie also played a sympathetic Pontius Pilate in Martin Scorsese's The Last Temptation of Christ.
Mr. Lawrence impressed some critics but his next project, the rock musical Absolute Beginners (1986), was both a critical and box office disappointment. The same year he appeared in the Jim Henson movie Labyrinth, playing Jareth, the king of the goblins.
Along with numerous appearances as himself, Bowie also appeared in The Hunger, a revisionist vampire movie with Catherine Deneuve and Susan Sarandon; Basquiat, a biopic of the artist in which Bowie played Andy Warhol to great acclaim; and as mysterious FBI agent Phillip Jeffries in Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me. He also made a cameo appearance as the judge of the walk-off in the 2001 movie Zoolander.
This biography is published under the GNU Licence
Items to buy by David Bowie