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Spotlight: David Bowie

Spotlight: David Bowie

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The film director Duncan Jones announced via Twitter that his father, David Bowie, had died at home, surrounded by his family, after an 18 month battle with cancer. Bowie’s passing, three days after his 69th birthday and the release of his new album, Blackstar, comes as a seismic shock to the music world. It is – for once – no exaggeration to say that he was one of the most important figures in the history of pop. In terms of influence, he’s up at the very, very top and it’s a tribute to the reach of his music that social media outpourings of grief, at the time of writing, range from Madonna to The Weeknd to Gene Simmonds of KISS.

Bowie’s career beginnings gave few hints of what was to come. After a typical 1960s apprenticeship in minor blues-pop bands (under his birth name of Davy Jones) he changed his name to Bowie in 1967. He blossomed into a psychedelic mod in thrall to satirist songwriter Anthony Newley. His dizzy, Syd Barrett-esque debut single, ‘The Laughing Gnome’, later came back to haunt him but his first major hit, ‘Space Oddity’ in 1969, showcased a major songwriting talent. Over the next couple of years Bowie put out great music (‘The Man Who Sold the World’, ‘Hunky Dory’) but his career didn’t truly take off until, adapting the avant-Bohemian concepts of his mentor, the performance artist Lindsay Kemp, he adopted the outrageous persona of Ziggy Stardust and put together the riveting Spiders From Mars band. The music they made together, constantly competing with Marc Bolan’s T-Rex, was contagious, catchy, sexually ambiguous art-rock, the original glam, and the hits started coming.

Ziggy only lasted a couple of years and Bowie, ever the musical magpie, went to the States in 1974 for a succession of albums that brilliantly mined soul and funk for inspiration (‘Diamond Dogs’, ‘Station to Station’, ‘Young Americans’). He also developed a severe cocaine problem. Now a global megastar, he retreated to Europe in 1976, slowly put his health back together, and once again changed direction, with three albums made in Berlin with Brian Eno. Many regard ‘Low’, ‘”Heroes”’ and ‘Lodger’ as his crowning achievement

The Berlin albums skilfully amalgamated Krautrock with electronica, minimalism, abstraction and ambient music, predating and predicting styles that would become huge in future decades. Indeed, these albums heavily influenced the post punk synth pop acts and New Romantics and when Bowie returned to their midst in 1980 with the chart-topping ‘Ashes to Ashes’ he was the post-modern prince of all he surveyed, universally acknowledged as a master of the game.

The ‘80s saw Bowie cement his superstar status, initially with the gigantically successful Nile Rodgers album collaboration, ‘Let’s Dance’, but also with stadium tours, film work and the Live Aid charity chart-topper ‘Dancing in the Street’ (with Mick Jagger). He later put together the much-derided heavy rock unit Tin Machine. From the 1990s onwards Bowie continued to experiment. Albums such as the industrial-flavoured ‘Outside’ (1995), the drum & bass fusion of ‘Earthling’ (1997) and the queasily off-kilter ‘Heathen’ (2002) all boasted invigoration with new ideas and had resulting moments of juiciness. In 2004, following a health scare, Bowie pretty much went to ground, disappearing from the music scene to take a well-earned break and enjoy life with his Somali-American wife Iman, the model. He only returned three years ago, perhaps aware that time was starting to run out, with the critically acclaimed ‘The Next Day’ album. It gave him his first Top 10 single in 20 years.

The massed positivity at his return must have been gratifying but David Bowie had nothing to prove. His final two albums are an intriguing coda to an outstanding, ground-breaking career, for Bowie was a one-off who led the way throughout the 1970s and is still a key touchstone for a vast quantity of music made since. His passing leaves a giant hole in the fabric of pop music.

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