If David Bowie had a nickel for every time someone called him a musical chameleon, he’d be a very wealthy man.
What’s that? You say he is a very wealthy man? Well then, I rest my case. But the cliché also happens to be true. Bowie changed characters more often than Mr. Rogers changed sweaters.
From wide-eyed, perm-headed acoustic troubadour to dress-wearing, Lauren Bacall doppleganger. From rock ‘n’ roll space invader to spaced-out coke inhaler. From sax-playing plastic soul brother to tear-stained junkie Pierrot.
He brought us Major Tom. Ziggy Stardust. Aladdin Sane. The Thin White Duke. Major Tom again. The Goblin King (“You remind me of the babe”). And, of course, his greatest creation of all: David Bowie.
Little Davy Jones grew up loving early rock & roll, R&B, and musicals. Beginning in 1964, he put all of those styles to use as he worked his way through numerous bands and countless failed singles. He also changed his last name to Bowie in order to avoid confusion with the future Monkee. After flopping again with his first solo releases (the less said about “The Laughing Gnome”…..well, I’ve said too much already), his manager encouraged him to study acting — possibly with an eye towards cabaret and musical theater; possibly with an eye towards dropping this whole pop star notion, dear boy.
A few years and a few albums later, at long last, Bowie launched himself into the stratosphere when he combined rock & roll with theater, wearing elaborate costumes and stage makeup, and losing himself completely in a character called Ziggy. Playing the part of a rock star finally allowed him to become a rock star. And David played hard.
Shown a photo of himself—many years after the event—with John & Yoko and Simon & Garfunkel at the 1975 Grammys, an interviewer asked for Bowie’s thoughts. He replied, “I don’t remember it.” “The photo?” asked the interviewer. “No,” said Bowie, “1975.”
Somehow, he still managed to produce brilliance during these chemically altered years, even while looking like a bleached skeleton in an Armani suit. After finally cleaning himself up, Bowie recorded both his most challenging and most commercial albums. This time, as himself.
He has always moved easily between genres (and genders), blending them together when necessary, but also unafraid to tear them apart. Others struggled to stay ahead of the curve — David Bowie was the curve.
The sun machine is coming down, and we’re gonna have a party. Here’s the least you need to know:
Hunky Dory (1971) On his fourth album, Bowie becomes BOWIE. A quantum leap forward as David finally finds his voice. A colorful cast of characters parades through his catchiest songs to date. Turn and face the strange. Check: Changes & Life On Mars?
The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars (1972) Glam rock is born when Bowie creates Ziggy Stardust, a red-headed, albino, Christ-figure space alien with a serious jones for rock & roll, mullets, and saving humanity. Or entertaining humanity. Or warning them. It’s not entirely clear. Spoiler: he gets ripped apart by other aliens at the end. Check: Starman & Ziggy Stardust
Station To Station (1976) In the grip of deep paranoia and wavering at the edge of madness, David darkly croons over mechanical disco beats and all manner of churning and funky guitars. Unorthodox rocks. Check: Station To Station & Golden Years
Low/Heroes/Lodger (1977-1979) Where can you go to record music and have zero fun? Cold War era Berlin! Bowie scales back the excess, focuses on the texture of sound, and pens lyrics both revealing and direct. Pushing art-pop into the future and paving the way for everyone else’s 80s. Check: Sound And Vision & Heroes & DJ
Best Of Bowie A good distillation for a single-disc collection. The best overall set is the double-disc Singles 1969-1993 (but you’ll have to find it somewhere other than Spotify). Unless you become a completist, this is how you’ll want to hear the cream of Bowie’s uneven 80s oeuvre. Check: Space Oddity & Let’s Dance
The rest of his 70s albums not mentioned above are all classics, or near to it. Any of them could easily slide onto an essential list. Albums from other decades should only be attempted after the classic period has been thoroughly explored.
Hunky Dory and Station to Station are probably my favorites. Recently I almost just listened to them on loop. Nice post. I’ve always been interested in the Thin White Duke phase even though he basically was going insane at the time like you said. interesting how insanity breeds excellent creations.