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Time For Heroes: The Return and History of David Bowie

On the morning of the 8th January, 2013, the cultural world woke up to the astonishing, brilliantly kept secret that David Bowie had just released a brand new single, the stately, melancholic ‘Where Are We Now?’, which would be followed by an album ‘The Next Day’, his first in a decade. The cover, a postmodern, face-obscuring take on his 1977 classic ‘Heroes’, was one of the most enigmatic parts of the whole mystery. Subsequent news on the NME revealed that his longtime – and most successful – producer Tony Visconti had expressed surprise that Bowie at had chosen to go with ‘Where Are We Now?’ as the lead-off track, since the rest of the album was so much more unforgettably ‘rock’. Within a day and a half, the song had clocked up over 2 million YouTube plays, and shot straight to the top of the iTunes charts. The Imperial Return of David Bowie may well rule 2013…

David Jones was born in suburban south London in 1947, to a cinema usherette mother and charity entertainments officer father. His family, including his beloved half-brother Terry, were plagued with mental health problems, specifically schizophrenia in Terry’s case – after incarceration in a notorious asylum, leading to his eventual suicide in the mid-eighties by stepping  in front of a train. The shadow of schizophrenia would cover many of his later songs, as the then David Bowie explored his psyche through a uniquely skewed, lonely prism.

Through the late fifties and early sixties, Terry would take his brother David into central London to explore the new jazz and rhythm and blues clubs reinvigorating the post-war capital, The pair discovered alcohol, smoking, girls, and most notably the saxophone, which Davy Jones would expressionistically master in a number of r&b groups though the latter decade, including The Mannish Boys, The King Bees and The Lower Third. After some early demos and relentless gigging, the newly titled David Bowie – ostensibly to distinguish himself from The Monkees singer – found himself with a record deal, and released his debut album ‘David Bowie’, re-titled ‘Man of Words, Man of Music’ for the US audience. The debut was a quaint collection of music-hall style near nursery rhymes, reflecting the Carnaby Street inflected, fantastical whimsy of the time, and this period eventually spawned novelty single ‘The Laughing Gnome’, re-released at the height of Bowie’s popularity in the mid-seventies.

This period was quickly followed by Bowie’s biggest song ‘Space Oddity’, and its parent album of the same name. Timed to coincide with the US moon landing, the song remains a classic piece of acoustic rock psychedelia, and the album a rather underrated, orchestral gem in the nascent artist’s career. At this time he met and began co-habiting with future wife Angie Bowie, a transatlantic socialite from a rich family who would support him in his career and bear him his son Zowie Duncan. Their bohemian, ‘open’ relationship in the Haddon Hall mansion in Beckenham, south London, would inspire many image, costume, and conceptual changes into the early seventies.

Bowie’s next step was into hard rock, albeit in his lateral style on ‘The Man Who Sold The World’ album, whose title track was made well known by Lulu soon after, and then massively so by Nirvana in the early 90s. This album signaled the start of his stellar working relationship with the guitarist Mick Ronson, cohort-in-chief in The Spiders from Mars. ‘Hunky Dory’, widely considered his first truly classic album, followed in 1971. It also started a pattern of his bundling the strongest songs at the start of the album, with ‘Changes’, ‘Oh! You Pretty Things’ and ‘Life On Mars’ – subsequently voted the UK’s favourite song, over John Lennon’s ‘Imagine’ – never letting the audience drift in its jaw-dropping, gentle, yet powerful songwriting.

In 1972, on a critical role, Bowie solidified the Spiders from Mars, and with relatively unsung genius Tony Visconti producing released the seismic ‘The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars’. The album was a critical darling, a musical masterpiece and a commercial smash, elevating Bowie to glam rock superstar in the UK and the US. Generating some outrage for the time, he announced himself as proudly bisexual (later retracted), and his striking image of often scanty technicolour costumes, spiky orange red hair, and full prima-donna make-up made headlines across the world. The songs didn’t struggle against the din either, with ‘Starman’, ‘Moonage Daydream’ and ‘Rock and Roll Suicide’ beautifully and romantically conjuring the doomed rock star of the album’s title, while Bowie himself neared the edge of his own psychological precipice.

In 1973, the world at his feet, he released ‘Aladdin Sane’, basically subtitled ‘Ziggy in America’, where the character neared his baroque end. ‘Watch That Man’, ‘Time’, ‘Drive In Saturday, ‘Lady Grinning Soul‘ and the timelessly strange title track contributed boldly to a very complete set, tied together by the astonishing piano work of Mike Garson, never bettered in the rock genre. Bowie followed this up with the help-out-your-mates covers album ‘Pin Ups’, both of these records hitting number one internationally and solidifying his reputation as a brilliant, original artist.

Back in London and existing on cocaine, George Orwell’s dystopic novel 1984 provided the inspiration to the bowie1ambitious, conceptual ‘Diamond Dogs’, a dark urban ride of an album, almost solely self-recorded and subsequently supported by an expansive stage tour. ‘Sweet Thing’ and ‘Big Brother’ are intensely dramatic high-points on an enveloping, haunting set of songs. Spiralling downwards, Bowie relocated to Los Angeles to immerse himself in ‘plastic soul’, and produced the mannered yet utterly convincing ‘Young Americans’, featuring John Lennon guesting on first US number one ‘Fame’, and Bowie’s personal favourite, the mysteriously beguiling ‘Win’. Having sporadically appeared in films, in 1977 he starred as Thomas Newton in ‘The Man Who Fell to Earth’, his one truly captivating role.

In 1976, skeleton thin, divorcing Angie, and seemingly near death, Bowie decamped to his newly purchased home in Switzerland, and recorded firm fan favourite ‘Station To Station’. Apart from the joyous, teutonic, ten-minute long title track, the album also contained the colourful and darkly fun international hit ‘Golden Years’, and saw Bowie’s public image morph into über-chic chain-smoking existentialist, carried out with utter verve and charisma. In 1977 he began working closely with maestro producer Brian Eno, with Visconti still producing, on the massively influential, atmospheric and absorbing trio of albums ‘Low’, ‘Heroes’ and ‘Lodger’ in France and Berlin, producing a body of songs so powerfully written, performed and produced as to virtually bury the ghost of Ziggy he was so keen to escape. David Bowie’s seventies, a body of work only comparable to The Beatles’ sixties, was closed with the dramatic, highly produced rock of ‘Scary Monsters (and Super Creeps), featuring the part two of ‘Space Oddity’, ‘Ashes To Ashes’.

bowie6The capitalised 1980s killed many an artists reputation, with Bowie’s surviving by sheer legend. ‘Let’s Dance’, ‘Tonight’, ‘Never Let Me Down’, and a trio of let’s-try-to-be-relevant Tin Machine albums all made lots of money, but Bowie himself was seemingly nowhere to be seen. The 90s felt better, with a happily married Bowie (to supermodel Iman) releasing albums that he wanted to make, including 1993’s ‘Black Tie, White Noise’, 1995’s ‘1. Outside’, 1997’s ‘Earthling’. In the new century, he released 2002’s ‘Heathen’ and 2003’s ‘Reality’ to greater critical success, critics noting at least his best work since ‘Scary Monsters’.

And so, a decade on from ‘Reality’, Bowie lives with his family under the radar in New York and Bermuda, quietly planning a world takeover for 2013 – and his new album, ‘The New Day’; Tony Visconti, who produces again, claims it is ‘addictive listening’…and with a history as rich as his, David Bowie scarcely needs to try. With The Rolling Stones venally clowning about the world stadiums, U2 and Madonna mere desperate caricatures of their previous, more vital selves, we need Bowie like a shock to the system. Time to welcome ‘The New Day’ with open arms.

 Sean Bw Parker
listen to and watch compilation album ‘Scorpio Rising: SBW Parker 2002-2012’ here.

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