English singer David Bowie (born 1947) has been called a cultural chameleon throughout his long and colorful career. From music and film to art and the Internet, Bowie has challenged the perceptions of fans and critics alike with his many malleable personas which seemed to mirror the cutting edge trends of the day. In 1996, Bowie became the first artist of his stature to release a single, "Telling Lies," exclusively via the Internet.
Born January 8, 1947, and raised in Brixton, a poor section of London, Bowie claims to have mapped out his destiny at an early age. The son of Hayward Jones, a publicist, and Margaret Mary (Burns) Jones, a movie theater usher, Bowie turned to music as the way to change his life. After having heard a single by Little Richard, the nine-year-old Bowie decided he wanted to be one of Little Richard's saxophone players. A short time later, he got his first saxophone and began working as a butcher's delivery boy in order to pay it off. Upon learning that jazz player Ronnie Ross lived in the neighborhood, Bowie persuaded Ross to give him some lessons. After ten or so lessons, Bowie quit going to see Ross because he felt that he was ready to become a rock star.
Bowie immersed himself in music because of the lack of communication between his parents and himself. He told Hanif Kureishi of Interview that "I could never, ever talk to my father. I really loved him, but we couldn't talk about anything together. There was this really British thing that being even remotely emotional was absolutely verboten." Putting it down to the "classic case of British reserve," Bowie consoled himself by withdrawing to his room where he was alone with his books and music and thoughts.
While a teenager, Bowie plied his trade with numerous London area bands including the Kon-Rads, King Bees, Mannish Boys, and the Lower Third. During this time he flirted with a number of the musical styles and genres popular in Britain in the early-to mid-1960s, most notably folk and mod. Bowie also studied commercial art, worked briefly at an advertising agency, painted, and acted in some small stage roles.
The worldwide success of the made-for-television American pop band The Monkees forced Bowie to change his name in the late 1960s. The Monkees' lead singer was named Davey Jones and Bowie did not want to be confused with him, so he adopted the surname Bowie. Bowie started his solo career in 1966 and released his first singles about the same time. The singles were mostly unmemorable and easily forgettable until 1969. In that year, Bowie released his first classic signature song "Space Oddity," which eventually peaked at number five on the British pop singles chart. Two years later, his album, The Man Who Sold the World, was released. It has been claimed that the birth of the glam rock movement occurred when this album was released. Also that year, Bowie went on his first promotional tour of America and in the summer, his wife Angela Barnet gave birth to a son, Zowie, now known as Joey.
The year 1972 was a rather eventful one for Bowie. He went on another promotional tour of America, although this time it was to cement relations with his new label RCA. Hunky Dory, was culled from tracks on the demo that got Bowie his new recording contract. It contained the singles "Life on Mars" and "Changes". The follow-up to Hunky Dory established Bowie as a star. The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars gave Bowie not only the abbreviated title track but it also gave him his first and perhaps most beloved persona-Ziggy Stardust. On his chameleon-like character changes, Bowie told Kureishi of Interview that "I know now for a fact that so much of my ambition and drive came from wanting to escape from myself and from feelings of inadequacy and vulnerability and not feeling I was loved by anybody, particularly. I would drive those feelings out by throwing myself not only into work, but eventually into characters." The tour to support the album was a rock spectacle full of theatrics and innovations.
During this time, Bowie produced Lou Reed's Transformer album and Mott the Hoople's All the Young Dudes. He also discussed his bisexuality in an interview with the British music magazine Melody Maker. The resulting controversy lingered on for years. Later Bowie told Kurt Loder in Rolling Stone: "The biggest mistake I ever made … was telling that … writer that I was bisexual. Christ, I was so young then. I was experimenting."
Aladdin Sane was released in the spring of 1973, while the world was still enchanted by Ziggy Stardust. In June of that year, Bowie gave up the Ziggy Stardust persona which started a trend that would continue throughout his career. The shock of this announcement was heightened by the fact that it was made on the last date of the Ziggy Stardust tour and not even members of Bowie's band had known about it ahead of time.
Bowie then went to France and started to work on his next album Pin Ups, which was released in the fall of 1973. It was in homage to the artists who had influenced him when he was starting out in the music industry. Six months later saw the release of Diamond Dogs, which was a reaction to the disco music that was slowly starting to inundate society. The success of Bowie's biggest American tour to date was chronicled on David Live, a recording of the Philadelphia concert.
Bowie's fascination with America manifested itself on his 1975 release Young Americans. It gave Bowie his first American number one single, "Fame," which was a collaboration with John Lennon that barely made the album. Shortly after the release of the album, Bowie moved to Los Angles and began his film career with a role in the 1976 movie The Man Who Fell to Earth. Also that year, Bowie released Station to Station and RCA released his first greatest hits album Changes one bowie.
Not long after this, Bowie moved to Berlin and began collaborations with avante garde experimentalists Brian Eno and Robert Fripp. According to Bowie's official web site, the vibe of the Berlin recording sessions with Fripp and Eno featured "surrealism and experimentation [as] the themes of the day. The incorporation of cut and paste techniques into unique instrumentation birthed what are now heralded as luminary ambient sounds capes." Low, which was released in 1977, perplexed both RCA and Bowie's fans although the single "Sound & Vision" made it to number two on the British pop charts. During this time, Bowie also produced and collaborated on The Idiot by his friend Iggy Pop.
Stage was released in the fall of 1978 and featured material culled from Bowie's Berlin period and material from his most recent American concert tour. He then relocated to Switzerland before setting off on expeditions to the continents of Asia and Africa. His next album Lodger was recorded in France and released in the spring of 1979. In September of the following year, Bowie made his debut on a Broadway stage in the role of the Elephant Man. He received numerous positive reviews for his performance. Around the same time as his Broadway debut, Bowie divorced his wife, Angela Barnet.
Bowie chose to drop out of the music scene for awhile, in order to concentrate on acting. His first film role during his self-imposed sabbatical was in The Hunger, which was released in 1982. This was followed very closely by Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence. RCA released his second greatest hits package Changes two bowie in that year as well.
With the 1983 signing of Bowie to EMI came the release of yet another of his signature albums Let's Dance. Jay Cocks of Time called it a "record of shrewd and unsentimental dynamism." It introduced the former Thin White Duke and Ziggy Stardust to a whole new generation of fans through videos on MTV. Let's Dance included the hit singles "Let's Dance," "Modern Love," and "China Girl," which was a collaboration between Bowie and Pop from their time spent in Berlin. His next album, Tonite, was released in 1984. Three years later saw the release of Never Let Me Down.
In 1988, Bowie announced the formation of his new band Tin Machine. This was notable for two reasons. It was the first time Bowie would be part of a group as opposed to a solo singer with a backing band. Also, as Bowie was quick to point out, this was to be a collaborative effort, not a Bowie side project. Virgin released Tin Machine's self titled debut album in 1989. Tin Machine signed to Victory and released Tin Machine II in 1991. The following year, the live album Oy Vey Baby was released. In 1992, Tin Machine was put on indefinite hold as Bowie decided to revive his solo career.
Bowie toured the world in support of the Rykodisc box set Sound + Vision. This tour served as the long awaited and much anticipated greatest hits tour. On April 24, 1992, not far from his home in Switzerland, Bowie wed his second wife, the Somalian model, Iman. The following year brought the Virgin release Black Tie White Noise, which was informally called the wedding album in honor of his nuptials from the previous year. It marked the first solo Bowie record since 1987. Two years later, Bowie was once again collaborating with Eno, this time on Outside.
In 1995, Bowie toured the United States with the group Nine Inch Nails, and featured his songs from Outside. In 1996, he was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, starred in the film Basquiat, and released the Internet-only single "Telling Lies." One of the challenges Bowie faced in 1997 was the marketing and selling of the "Bowie Bonds." The sale of the bonds enabled him to obtain royalty money up front as opposed to waiting for it. The bonds were backed by the future royalties from his albums which were released prior to 1990. He also released Earthling in 1997.
Bowie has developed a solid reputation in the art world as an artist and writer. According to the Virgin Records website, during 1996 and 1997 Bowie had art exhibitions in Switzerland, Italy, and England. He also sold art exclusively through his "Bowieart" website, and his interview with the late pop artist Roy Lichtenstein was published in the January 1998 issue of Interview. In May of 1997, Bowie and three colleagues founded 21 Publishing in Great Britain. According to the "Bowieart" website, "21 aims to address the cultural issues of the 21st century and will create a platform for new words, new images and new ideas."
Nicholas Roeg, who directed Bowie in The Man Who Fell to Earth, summed up the Bowie mystique to Cocks of Time as "David's a real living Renaissance figure. That's what makes him spectacular. He goes away and re-emerges bigger than before. He doesn't have a fashion, he's just constantly expanding. It's the world that has to stop occasionally and say 'My God, he's still going on."'
Further Reading on David Bowie
Buckley, David, David Bowie, Omnibus, 1996.
Thompson, Dave, and Dave Thomson, David Bowie: Moonage Daydream, Plexus Pub, 1994.
Tremlett, George, David Bowie: Living on the Brink, Carroll & Graf, 1997.
Amusement Business, October 30, 1995, p. 8.
Billboard, August 2, 1997, p. 6.
CFO, April 1997, p. 20.
Entertainment Weekly, April 4, 1997, p. 26; November 14, 1997, p. 89.
Fortune, April 28, 1997, p. 50.
Interview, May 1993, pp. 92-97; February 1997, pp. 46-50.
People, May 18, 1992, p. 72.
Rolling Stone, May 12, 1983; October 25, 1984; April 23, 1987.
Time, July 18, 1983, pp. 54-60; February 17, 1997, p. 70.
"Bowieart," http://www.bowieart.com (March 9, 1998).
"David Bowie," Celeb site, http://www.celebsite.com/people/davidbowie/ (March 9, 1998).
"David Bowie," http://www.davidbowie.com/2.0/history/biography (February 13, 1998).
"David Bowie," http://www.virginrecords.com/artists (February 13, 1998).