David Bowie: A career that shaped modern pop
- 11 January 2016
- From the section Entertainment & Arts
David Bowie changed music forever. Throughout his career, he reinvented not just his sound but his persona over and over again.
He was a proudly progressive composer, drawing on any genre that came to mind - from the hippy folk of Space Oddity to the crunching industrial rock of 1995's Outside album and his ambitious, jazz-flecked swansong Blackstar, released just last week.
His style shifted with the sands, but he was always recognisably David Bowie. That powdery voice - vibrating off the back of his teeth - is unmistakable; while his impressionist lyrics had a constant theme - he was an outsider, an alien, a sexually ambiguous spectre.
A trained mime, he embraced the theatre of pop music - combining Japanese Kabuki theatre, the science fiction of Stanley Kubrick and a truck-load of eye-liner to create his first great character, Ziggy Stardust.
"I am an actor," he once said. "My whole professional life is an act."
From the sexually liberated vantage point of 2016, it is easy to forget how bizarre and outrageous Bowie seemed in the 1970s.
In a drab musical landscape he was fey, colourful and androgynous. And his eye-catching performance of Starman on Top Of The Pops in July 1972, one arm draped around guitarist Mick Ronson, seems tame now, but it was scandalous at the time.
"Next day, all hell broke loose in the playground," recalled singer Marc Almond. "Bowie was a queer and if you liked him, you must be queer, too".
For others, though, Bowie's admission of bisexuality was a lifeline.
"Until he turned up, it was a nightmare," said Ian McCulloch, lead singer of Echo and the Bunnymen.
"In 1972, I'd get girls on the bus saying to me, 'Eh, have you got lippy on?' or 'Are you a boy or a girl?'
"[He] made me feel cooler... it helped forge an identity and a perspective on things, helped us walk taller."
Also paying attention was a young Stephen Morrissey, who later recalled: "Manchester then was full of bootboys and skinheads and macho-macho thugs. I saw Bowie's appearance as the ultimate bravery.
"He was so important to me because his vocal melodies were so strong and his appearance was so confrontational."
The star later hired Mick Ronson to produce his third solo album, Your Arsenal - and got the chance to discuss sexual politics on tour with Bowie in 1995.
"David quietly tells me, 'You know, I've had so much sex and drugs that I can't believe I'm still alive,'" wrote Morrissey in his autobiography.
"And I loudly tell him, 'You know, I've had so little sex and drugs that I can't believe I'm still alive."
It wasn't just British musicians who were inspired by Bowie's boundary breaking. Madonna, who has single-handedly reinvented the modern arena concert, says Bowie taught her everything.
Here is the speech she gave while inducting Bowie to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1996.
"Before I saw David Bowie live, I was just your normal, dysfunctional, rebellious teenager from the Midwest, and he has truly changed my life. It was the first rock concert that I ever saw and it was a major event in my life. I planned for months to go and see it. I was 15 years old, it was the end of the school year, and leading up to the week of the show, I begged my father and he said, 'I absolutely refuse, over my dead body, you're not going there, that's where horrible people hang out,' so of course I had to go.
"So my best friend spent the night at my house and when we thought everyone was asleep, we snuck out of my window, which was no mean feat, as I was wearing my highest platform shoes and a long black silk cape. Don't ask. We couldn't drive, so we hitch-hiked into Detroit and I don't know who was scarier... the drivers that picked us up, or us in our outfits. Anyway, we arrived and Kobal Hall and the place was packed and we fought our way to our seats. And the show began. And I don't think that I breathed for two hours.
"It was the most amazing show that I'd ever seen, not just because the music was great, but because it was great theatre. And here's this beautiful, androgynous man, just being so perverse... as David Byrne so beautifully put it... so unconventional, defying logic and basically blowing my mind. Anyway, I came home a changed woman, as you can see, and my father was not sleeping and he knew exactly where I went, and he grounded me for the rest of the summer.
"But it was worth every minute that I sat and suffered in my house that summer."
Bowie's innovative use of fashion, lighting, dance and imagery are an important part of his legacy - but that's not to underplay the influence of his music.
He had admirers in rock, punk, hip-hop and pop, while even classical composers like Philip Glass - who based two symphonies on Mr Bowie's albums Low and Heroes - were not immune to his charms.
Killers star Brandon Flowers attributes his musical career to Bowie, telling The Independent: "I still remember when I heard 'Changes' for the first time. I thought it was Bob Dylan because of the way he sings the verses. I found out it was Bowie and it was from this album called Hunky Dory.
"It's the most important record to me, ever. I appreciate that he's still able to write songs, because even when there's a rough album, there will always be that one song on there that grabs you. But Hunky Dory is the pinnacle - there's not one song I skip past."
U2 frontman Bono said his vocal style was inspired by Bowie - describing it to Rolling Stone magazine as going "beyond your 'man' voice into the feminine".
"It's not exaggerating to say what Elvis meant to America, David Bowie meant to the UK and Ireland," he added
U2 also owed a debt to Bowie's most experimental phase - the trilogy of records he recorded in Berlin with Brian Eno, predominantly instrumental and characterised by Eno's minimalist electronics.
The Irish band replicated Bowie's approach on their Achtung Baby album - recorded in the same studios (Hansa in Berlin) with Brian Eno in tow. It resurrected their career after the pompous, misfiring Rattle and Hum, and gave the band a second lease of life.
Bowie's Berlin cycle (Low, Heroes, Lodger) is probably his most influential. It's electronic soundscapes and dystopian lyrics led directly to Joy Division's Unknown Pleasures, while Radiohead have captured a similar sense of paranoia and alienation in their later albums.
Robert Smith of The Cure called Low "the greatest record ever made", saying his "whole perception of sound was changed" the first time he heard it.
"Everything on there, everything I heard was astonishing, really astonishing."
"David Bowie is easily the most influential and important artist to come out of the UK," noted Johnny Marr. "There are musicians who are influenced by him who don't even realise it.
"Ziggy Stardust and Hunky Dory liberated so many people from the straight sensibility in the suburbs. People who I grew up admiring, like Pete Shelley from the Buzzcocks or Ian Curtis, were hugely influenced by Bowie. No Bowie, no John Lydon - or lots of other people."
And the list goes on. Artists as diverse as Suede, Culture Club, Nine Inch Nails, Janelle Monae, Jay Z and the Arctic Monkeys have all cited Bowie as an influence.
But perhaps the musician's most obvious modern descendant is Lady Gaga. She has called Bowie her "alien prince," saying "Every morning I wake up and I think, 'What would Bowie do?'"
Crucially, she has applied Bowie's philosophy to her own creative vision - rather than slavishly recreating one of his sounds or personas.
"What I have in common with David Bowie is the way that I combine theatrics and the visual in all of my performances.
"The fashion and the imagery and what I am trying to say as an artist goes much further beyond the music… the intention for me is not to sound just like Bowie. It is to pull references from all these different people and create something fresh and new and futuristic and pop and different."
Bowie could hardly have put it better himself.