David Bowie By the Threes: A 50-Year Retrospective, Part 1
David Bowie's career has been one filled with unparalleled changes, and no, that's not a pun on his hit song. The man has literally undergone so many career diversions and redirections that it's almost impossible to keep up with where he has been at any one point in time.
2013 marks the beginning of a new era for Bowie, a decade on from the end of the previous one. Not only is the release of his new record The Next Day and his reemergence into the public spotlight a momentous occasion, but that ten-year gap is a strange and unprecedented occurrence in Bowie's career.
Still, that got me thinking. Where was Bowie ten years ago? Where was he ten years before that? It seems that he stands in a wildly different position every ten years, and since decade-long increments seem to be the ones Bowie likes to employ lately, I thought it would be interesting to look at these snapshots in time from 1963 to 1973, from 1973 to 1983, and so on.
1963: Bowie's Beginnings
1963 marked a major turning point in the life of the man then known as David Jones. Just one year prior, a 15-year-old Bowie had picked up his first guitar and formed his first band, the Konrads. They were a rock and roll band in the old style, similar to the early days of the Beatles. This only lasted a short time and some stray gigs, however.
1963 was the turning point when Bowie left the Konrads because they didn't share his ambitious spirit, decided he was going to become a star, and formed Davie Jones and the King Bees. Separate from the King Bees, Bowie picked up a personal manager to promote his work.
This would all lead to the very first recordings of Bowie's life when he was still fronting the King Bees. Having picked up enough success in the year of '63 to move into the studio in '64, the band cut their first record: "Liza Jane" b/w "Louie, Louie Go Home."
Though it was a commercial failure and prompted Bowie to leave the band shortly after, "Liza Jane" is a stellar example of Bowie's early talent.
His screamed rock and roll vocals recall not only the early Beatles, but would have sat perfectly alongside Van Morrison and Roky Erickson just a few years later. The track is raucous and rowdy, and could have probably been a hit if it hadn't been released so early in the '60s.
Bowie would cycle through a few other bands before striking out as a solo artist, but even looking at these early recordings, one gets the distinct sense that he's just about to blow up if he can just find the right sound.
1973: Bowie Hits it Big
1973 was perhaps the most successful year of Bowie's career. In '73, Bowie had just released The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars a year earlier and it kicked off a seemingly endless string of hits throughout the days to come. Not only was Ziggy Stardust charting for two years straight, peaking at No. 5, but his previous record, Hunky Dory, had re-entered the charts, despite being unsuccessful upon its release.
A lot of this had to do with a Top of the Pops performance where Bowie introduced the Ziggy Stardust character to the world at large. People were captivated by his bizarre appearance and his unique and catchy music. In '73, Bowie would take Ziggy on the road for most of the year, thrilling crowds and producing a widely acclaimed concert film.
1973 also produced two records: Aladdin Sane and Pin-Ups. Aladdin Sane ended up being, in Bowie's own words, "Ziggy goes to America." The songs were written on the road in the U.S. and reflected the distinct flavor of Ziggy Stardust mixed in with the American rock landscape of the time.
It was a harder album, and also began to show some of the wear and tear that drugs, the road, and the Ziggy persona was having on Bowie. This especially stands out in my pick for the best track from this record: "Cracked Actor," which was what Bowie had come to see himself as.
The other record, Pin Ups, was a forgettable and disastrous cover album. Though it managed to net Bowie a hit in the Rolling Stones' "Let's Spend the Night Together," it was the end result of Bowie being overproductive and overambitious in a time when he was in a fragile mental and physical state.
It had to come to a head at some point, and in 1973 Bowie finally "killed" the Ziggy Stardust character, putting on one last Ziggy performance before moving on with his life and his career.
Outside the narrative of Bowie's career were two other bizarre hits that occurred in 1973. Though Hunky Dory failed to capture audiences in its initial release, it was charting again as mentioned above. Record labels chose to re-release "Life On Mars?" as a single that year and it ended up being a major hit and one of Bowie's most beloved songs.
On the other hand, the label decided to re-release an old novelty song Bowie had recorded in the '60s as well, titled "The Laughing Gnome." It became a hit in '73 as well, perhaps selling on Bowie's name alone, but it has long been considered an odd embarrassment to the artist.
Regardless, Bowie ended out the year as the UK's best-selling artist, with six different albums charting at once.
1983: Bowie's Return to Pop
After the magnanimous success of the early '70s, Bowie had cracked up. He couldn't handle the pressures of fame and the intense drug addiction he had developed. By the late '70s, he had retreated to decidedly experimental records which had little in the way of pop hits on them and had gone to live in Berlin in an attempt to maintain a low profile and kick his drug habits.
But by 1983, Bowie was ready to make a comeback. Having reinvented himself before as a tortured artists lost in the pursuit of a higher sound, Bowie now reinvented himself again as a slick, renewed pop star of the 1980s.
For his next work, Bowie recruited an incredible band, including producer Nile Rodgers, guitarist Earl Slick (who plays with him to this day), and an unknown master blues guitarist from Texas named Stevie Ray Vaughan. With his new band in tow, Bowie integrated synthesizers, disco beats, and a distinct flavor of 1950s bubblegum pop to create a mix of the pop and rock of his youth with new wave and disco sensibilities.
Of course, the album, Let's Dance , blew up and contained three of Bowie's biggest hits: "Modern Love," a re-recording of "China Girl" which Bowie had previously done with Iggy Pop in a much different style, and the title track.
With that, Bowie was off into the stars again as a major force to be reckoned with in the pop world. The album and its subsequent high grossing, massive production Serious Moonlight tour, set the tone for Bowie's 1980s, moving away from his experimental tendencies into pure pop and embracing stardom.
For the first time, Bowie even seemed to be enjoying his fame. Freed from the more intense throes of his addictions, Bowie was able to act in films, record pop music, get chased by the paparazzi, and record silly songs with Mick Jagger without the feeling of hollowness he had once had. Bowie was on top and loving it.
While few would argue the '80s were Bowie's best period musically, there's plenty to love about Let's Dance and his live performances were absolutely magnificent.
Let's Dance also contained re-releases of two other Bowie hits: "Under Pressure" with Queen (in the CD reissue) and his minor soundtrack hit "Cat People (Putting Out Fire)," which managed to garner a lot of new fans after it appeared in Quentin Tarantino's Inglourious Basterds in 2009.
Tomorrow: 1993, 2003... and future Bowie?
Get the Music Newsletter
Keep your thumb on the local music scene each week with music news, trends, artist interviews and concert listings. We'll also send you special ticket offers and music deals.