What will David Bowie’s legacy be?
There is (rightly) much talk about Bowie’s impact on popular culture. His greatest achievement might be that he made it okay to be one of the tall-short people, or one of the the fat-skinny people. A Mistake, Mis-shape or Misfit. An outsider. “You are not alone! Give me your hands” he sang on “Rock ‘n’ Roll Suicide”: “You’re wonderful!”
Frankly, anyone who has the sheer brass neck to put on a dress and go walking about in Texas in 1971, as Bowie did at the time of “The Man Who Sold The World” deserves our admiration. To give you an idea how courageous that was in the USA and the South in particular, consider until the late ’60s Disneyland was still turning long-haired men away from their gates. Indeed, in Texas, one guy did pull a gun on Bowie, so threatened did he feel by the dress.
Bowie spoke of his sexuality in January 1972, before his fame sky-rocketed after the success of Starman. “I’m gay and always have been” he told Melody Maker’s Michael Watts, who was sceptical given Bowie had a wife and young child.
It didn’t matter. Bowie’s fluid sexuality was introduced to the mainstream, a remarkable situation given that only four and a half years earlier, homosexuality was still a criminal offence in England.
His “Starman” performance on Top of the Pops inspired future pop stars, including Ian McCulloch of Echo and the Bunnymen, who remembers his friends at school being scornful of Bowie’s effete appearance. He said, “I remember thinking “You pillocks” as they’d all be buying their Elton John albums…. It made me feel cooler…helped forge an identity”.
Bowie’s subsequent changes of persona, from Ziggy and Aladdin Sane, to a soul singer, The Thin White Duke, the Berliner and New Romantic all followed, and all remain hugely influential.
Yet Bowie had a slow start to his career. His first hit, “A Space Oddity”, had a long gestation period and might have been overlooked. George Martin was approached to produce it, and turned it down.
So Bowie approached Tony Visconti.
He turned it down too.
One of pop’s most extraordinary songs turned down by two of the most renowned producers in history. It’s equivalent to Dick Rowe of Decca records passing on the opportunity to sign The Beatles.
The BBC banned it, worried it might be in poor taste as a moon shot was being attempted. The first time the song was heard by the public was through the PA system in Hyde Park before The Rolling Stones played their July 1969 free concert there. It took three months to hit the Top 40.
Modern artists have been signed and dropped by their record companies in less time than it took for “A Space Oddity” to be a hit.
However, all of this passed me by.
Sure, I danced at the school disco to “Let’s Dance” and taped “Modern Love” from the radio onto a C90 cassette. Who didn’t?
But I was two years old when Ziggy Stardust was released. In 1977, my attention was too focused on a growing collection of football cards and the adventures of a young Luke Skywalker to pay much attention to whether Bowie’s two albums that year (not forgetting his contribution to Iggy Pop’s “The Idiot”) “Low” and “Heroes” represented a decline in quality or a career high.
The internet wasn’t around when I was in my teenage years. I knew nothing of orange hair, men’s dresses, platform soles and cocaine. Back then, Bowie was in the charts along with Tracey Ullman, Jo Boxers, Kajagoogoo and Toto. I didn’t know he was any more significant than they were. I didn’t know he dressed and looked “unusual”. But I did like the song.
Bowie’s impact on me has thus been almost purely through his music rather than his image. I was hopelessly late to the party, and it’s still the music I find most wonderful about Bowie. I’m writing this with a copy of Hunky Dory on the turntable. It’s an amazing album.
About three years ago, I bought all of Bowie’s ’70s albums as part of a series of articles for this blog. It cost just over £100 for original copies of the albums from “The Man Who Sold The World” to “Scary Monsters (and Super Creeps)”. It’s still the best £100-odd I have ever spent.
As well as the many hits there are gems in every album…
- The expansive rock of “The Width of a Circle” on The Man Who Sold The World.
- The riff on Hunky Dory’s “Andy Warhol” stolen by Metallica for their best song, “Master of Puppets”.
- “Rock ‘n’ Roll Suicide”, the inclusive and uplifting climax to the Ziggy Stardust album.
- “Watch That Man” is the best Exile on Main Street out-take I ever heard. Mike Garson’s piano on “Lady Grinning Soul” on the same Aladdin Sane album is extraordinary.
- How “Rock n Roll With Me” from Diamond Dogs avoided being released as a single I will never know.
- There’s the ten minute title track to “Station To Station” announcing the “return” of the Thin White Duke. A man, it must be pointed out, had never been heard from before.
- The (mostly) instrumentals “Speed of Life” from Low and “V-2 Schneider” from “Heroes”.
- There’s a song on Lodger (“Move On”) that is the melody from “All The Young Dudes” played backwards…
- Fantastic Voyage and Boys Keep Swinging are basically the same song structure, yet sound completely different, and the latter even had the musicians swapping their instruments.
And this is just Bowie in the ’70s… 2016’s Blackstar is every bit as inventive as any of those aforementioned LPs. What a song “Sue (Or In A Season of Crime)” is!
Bowie has left behind him both a more inclusive culture and some of the greatest music of the last fifty years – both his own and the music of those he has inspired.
On the day he died the streets of Brixton overflowed with thousands of people celebrating his life and singing his songs long into the night. They were all celebrating Bowie’s legacy and to each person that legacy may have been something slightly different. Some celebrated his style, some his ability to innovate, for others it was his sexuality, or his outsider status. For me it was his music. Bowie’s body of work is rivalled only by The Beatles in its scope and vision. We have lost an extraordinary man, whose music will outlast us all and I never felt so saddened by the death of someone I never met.