David Bowie - Biography
By Michael Keefe
David Bowie has often been called a chameleon due to his ability to reinvent his image and sound. This quality, however, is only part of his greater, Phoenix-like power to achieve artistic rebirth. Throughout his career, David Bowie has enjoyed several periods of great success. In between, he's encountered periods of creative fallowness and personal pain. Still, Bowie has always risen up from these low times to create something exciting and new. Along with a slew of chart-topping singles on both sides of the Atlantic, Bowie's albums have topped the UK charts seven times over the course of three different decades. In 2006, he was given a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award. In addition to his extraordinary music career, David Bowie is also an accomplished actor, having starred in cult films and mainstream movies alike.
David Bowie was born David Robert Jones on January 8, 1947 in Brixton, England. His British father and Irish mother moved the Jones family to Bromley, in what is now Greater London, when David was six. His life as a musician began when David's mother gave him a plastic saxophone at age twelve. At Bromley Technical High School, he graduated to a real sax and studied the instrument there. In 1962, while still in school and living at home, David Jones began playing in local rhythm & blues-based rock ‘n’ roll groups. His first was The Konrads. The future David Bowie released his debut single, "Liza Jane" (1964 Vocalion Pop) under the name David Jones and The King Bees. The next year, while with The Manish Boys, he issued single number two, "I Pity the Fool" (1965 Parlophone), which was produced by Shel Talmy (who helmed many of The Who's recordings) and featured Jimmy Page on guitar. During this period of time, he also recorded as Davie Jones and Davy Jones.
In 1966, to avoid confusion with The Monkees’ lead singer, Davy Jones; David Jones became David Bowie, borrowing the surname from Jim Bowie – a hero at the Alamo and the popularizer of the Bowie knife. That year Bowie released three mod singles on Pye, beginning with (as David Bowie with the Lower Third) “Can’t Help Thinking About Me.” None of the singles charted. He released his debut album, David Bowie (1967 Deram) the following year. The music hall-influenced record was justifiably ignored at the time and remains little more than a discographical footnote for most. After the record flopped, Bowie was largely adrift for the next two years. He briefly practiced Buddhism and studied mime and theater with former Marcel Marceau student Lindsay Kemp. In 1969, Bowie started his own theater troupes, Feathers and then Bechenham Arts Lab. To help finance the latter, he released the song "Space Oddity" (1969 Philips) on July 11, just in time to coincide with the Apollo 11 moon landing. The gimmick worked, propelling the single to #5 on the UK charts. Finally, David Bowie's career was starting to come together.
The success of "Space Oddity" led to a record deal, resulting in Bowie's confusingly thrice-titled sophomore album, which was issued originally as David Bowie (1969 Philips) in the UK and Man of Words/Man of Music in the US (1969 Mercury). Most music fans know this LP best as Space Oddity, renamed for its reissue on RCA in 1972. The album failed to chart the first time around, but its prog and acid-tinged folk-rock more closely resembled a true David Bowie sound than its predecessor. The album was produced by Tony Visconti, who would work with Bowie again during two key periods of his career. Also of note, Yes keyboardist Rick Wakeman played Mellotron and electric harpsichord on the record. In that same year, Bowie married model and actress Mary Angela ("Angie") Barnett.
David Bowie's next album, The Man Who Sold the World (1970 Mercury), also missed the charts on its first issue. Guitarist Mick Ronson and drummer Mick Woodmansey had joined his band, leading to a harder rock sound. A dark and fuzz-toned record, Bowie's songwriting had sharpened and his band were honing their skills for future breakthrough success. This ascent began the following year when Bowie signed to RCA records. His debut LP for the new label was Honky Dory (1971 RCA), the first great David Bowie album. Wakeman returned and was featured prominently on the more acoustic-sounding record. Full of homespun charm and a much lighter heart than its predecessor, Honky Dory would hit #3 on the UK charts, but not until the middle of 1972. However, the US 45 release of "Changes" won David Bowie his first chart success since "Space Oddity," hitting #41 on the Billboard singles chart. In May 1971, Bowie's son, Duncan Zowie Heywood Jones, was born and the song “Kooks” was written for him.
In June 1972, David Bowie released the album that would make him an international superstar, Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars (1972 RCA). Bowie had already modeled the guises of teen pop star and androgynous hippie, only to fleeting success. Embodying the character of Ziggy Stardust, Bowie became a glam rock extra-terrestrial and an instant pop idol. Sonically, the album transported a classic, 1950s rock 'n' roll sound into a contemporary musical landscape informed by arty New York proto-punks like Lou Reed and the New York Dolls, much in the way Marc Bolan had done with T. Rex. Sexy, gritty, soulful and stadium-ready; the world embraced the new Bowie sound and identity. Ziggy Stardust peaked at #5 on the British charts, while hitting a more modest #75 in the US. The mostly acoustic "Starman" was the hit single, but nearly every track on LP is a classic. On the heels of this success, RCA acquired Bowie's Mercury/Philips albums and reissued them in quick succession. Now that the David Bowie name was burning bright in the minds of record buyers, Space Oddity, The Man Who Sold the World, and Honky Dory all made runs up the charts in both the UK and the US. That same year, Bowie also produced Mott the Hoople's All the Young Dudes (1972 Columbia), a record that (thanks in addition to the inclusion of Bowie’s “All the Young Dudes”) breathed life into a band that had previously been on the verge of calling it quits.
As often occurs with classic albums, the somewhat less worthy successors to Ziggy Stardust faired even better on the charts. The quite good and musically similar Aladdin Sane (1973 RCA) debuted at #1 in England and peaked at #17 in America. A mere six months later, the juggernaut named David Bowie issued another LP, Pin-Ups (1973 RCA), constructed of covers of '60s songs by The Kinks, The Who, Pink Floyd and others. Though not terribly inspired, the album marked Bowie's second straight UK #1. Bowie was also busy behind the scenes, producing The Stooges' Raw Power (1973 Columbia) and Lou Reed's Transformer (1973-RCA).
By the following year, Bowie was running on fumes. Still, the Orwellian Diamond Dogs (1974 RCA) is a better record than reviews at the time gave it credit for being. Though less accessible than Ziggy Stardust, it retained the glam appeal of the period and featured classic Bowie tunes "Rebel Rebel" and "1984," along with some worthy album cuts. Whether based on the LP's merits or Bowie's growing popularity, Diamond Dogs completed his hat-trick of UK #1 albums and reached all the way up to #5 on the Billboard charts, by far his best showing yet in the US. In October, David Bowie issued David Live (1974-RCA), a two-LP set that went Top 10 on both sides of the pond and yielded a hit single, a live cover of "Knock on Wood."
During the tour that resulted in David Live, Bowie abandoned his glammed-out Ziggy persona (as well as the follow-up albums’ similar characters, Aladdin Sane and Halloween Jack) and recast himself as a soul man. This began with Bowie discarding his elaborate stage setup and hiring guitarist and new bandleader Carlos Alomar, who would go on to become his longtime sideman. Musically he shifted from gritty rock 'n' roll to slinky soul, emphasizing lean R&B rhythms and horns. This is the sound that would pervade Young Americans (1975 RCA). Lead single "Fame" (which was co-written with Alomar and John Lennon) topped the Billboard singles chart, giving Bowie his first US #1 hit. The excellent title cut also made the American Top 40. Though the LP reached #2 in the UK and #9 in the US, the remaining six tracks are sluggish and hazy; belying the soulful feel Bowie was striving for.
One could say the Young Americans recordings sounded "druggy," and this description would be apt. The history of rock is filled with tales of musicians who, after rocketing to fame, plummeted into personal turmoil. This was certainly the case for David Bowie in the mid ‘70s, when he fell into a pattern of substance abuse, paranoia, and flirtations with devil worship and Nazism. So intense was Bowie's drug-addled mental state that he doesn't remember creating one of his better and most successful albums, Station to Station (1976 RCA). The classic Bowie tune "Golden Years" was Top 10 in the US and UK, but Station to Station pushed beyond the artist's recent trend of creating LPs built on a good single or two. The ten-plus-minute title track established the record's "plastic soul" sound, transporting Bowie's R&B leanings into a futuristic template that was somehow both more sterile and more exciting. It also introduced Bowie’s latest character, the aloof Thin White Duke. "TVC 15" is another killer cut from the record, as is his take on "Wild Is the Wind." Also in 1976, Bowie earned his first lead in a film, acting as an alien in The Man Who Fell to Earth.
Later that year, David Bowie took his forward-looking sound to Germany, where he would record his "Berlin Trilogy." The geographic change was partly an opportunity to break his drug habits, but also due to Bowie’s desire to work with influential krautrock producer, Conny Plank. That collaboration didn’t happen and Tony Visconti returned to the producer's chair for Low (1977 RCA), the first of two superb and innovative LPs Bowie issued in '77. Constructed of two distinct feels, Low's A-side featured seven short songs, including the UK #3 single "Sound and Vision." On these tracks, Bowie merged his "plastic soul" with art rock and synthesizer sounds. The latter component came to the fore on the LP's mostly instrumental B-side, which consisted of four, Eastern-tinged, ambient rock cuts. Guest musician Brian Eno co-wrote one song and played on others. The album was critically lauded and went #2 in England and #11 in the US. David Bowie's follow-up, Heroes (1977 RCA), repeated Low's arrangement, although the songs of side one were a little longer and more aggressive, seeming to anticipate post-punk. Eno guested again, as did King Crimson guitarist Robert Fripp. Despite strong reviews, American ears were generally less receptive to Heroes, taking it only to #35 on Billboard. Bowie's British audience remained loyal, however, and the LP hit #3 in the UK, where the magnificent title track and "Beauty and the Beast" were both Top 40 singles. Like 1973, Bowie was very busy in 1977. In addition to two albums of his own, he also produced two classic LPs for Iggy Pop, The Idiot (1977 RCA) and Lust for Life (1977 RCA).
The tour that followed Low and Heroes resulted in David Bowie's second live double-album, Stage (1978 RCA). His crack backing band was augmented by the guitar wizardry of Adrian Belew for a live show that displayed the great diversity of Bowie music of the time. The poorly edited and muddily produced album was originally given poor reviews. EMI's 2005 re-master corrected the running order and the sound, revealing the high quality of that tour.
The following year, Bowie issued the final chapter of the so-called "Berlin Trilogy," Lodger (1979 RCA). Departing from the bipolar nature of his two previous LPs, Lodger is a sonic departure and is most similar to its successor, Scary Monsters (And Super Creeps) (1980 RCA). Both records were again produced by Tony Visconti and meld rock to jittery melodies that were flavored with hints of Africa, Arabia and the Far East. Both albums also continued Bowie's steady assaults on the upper echelons of the UK charts, with Lodger peaking at #4 and Scary Monsters going straight to #1. These records showed a rebound in Bowie's US popularity, too. The former reached #20 on Billboard while the latter climbed even higher, peaking at #11. Lodger's singles, "Boys Keep Swinging" and "DJ," each had only mild popularity in the UK. Scary Monsters birthed the British #1 single "Ashes to Ashes" along with "Fashion," Bowie's first Top 100 US single since 1977’s "Sound and Vision."
David Bowie's next move was to collaborate with Queen on the single "Under Pressure" (1981 EMI), a miniature epic on which Bowie shared lead vocal duties with Freddie Mercury. The track went straight to the Top of the Pops in the United Kingdom and to #29 in the US. During this time, Bowie acted in the films Christine F and the vampire erotica cult classic The Hunger, as well as a stage production of The Elephant Man and a BBC showing of Bertolt Brecht's Baal. He released an accompanying five-song EP, David Bowie in Bertolt Brecht's Baal (1982 RCA).
David Bowie reinvented himself again the following year. Dispatching both RCA Records and the artier overtones of his late '70s records, Bowie emerged as a suave, MTV-ready pop star on Let's Dance (1983 EMI). Produced by Chic’s Nile Rodgers and featuring Stevie Ray Vaughan on lead guitar, the album was front-loaded with punchy singles "Modern Love," "China Girl" and the title cut. All were big hits in the UK and the US. "Let's Dance" became Bowie's only single to top the charts in both countries. The album's second half doesn't quite live up to the first, and critics were lukewarm on Let's Dance. Still, it went to #1 in Great Britain and #4 in America and has sold millions of copies worldwide. The album made David Bowie a huge star with a new generation of listeners and launched his "Serious Moonlight" tour. He also starred in the film Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence that year.
The man who once sang "fame puts you there where things are hollow" should have heeded his own warning. For the rest of the 1980s, David Bowie essentially coasted, resulting in his poorest work ever. His follow-up to Let's Dance was Tonight (1984 EMI), a pale reworking of familiar territory even by the standards of popular rock radio. The album's first single, "Blue Jean," was a decent tune and a Top 10 hit on both sides of the pond. The quiet, reggae-inflected title track, a duet with Tina Turner, was a nice number but didn't chart very high. Aside from the pretty and yearning "Loving the Alien," the rest of the album was lifeless filler. In spite of its dubious merits, Tonight rode the coattails of its predecessor to #1 in the UK and #11 in the US. Bowie followed this musical misstep with a role in Julien Temple's much-maligned, mod musical, Absolute Beginners. Later that year, he redeemed himself slightly with his role as a campy goblin king in Jim Henson’s fairy tale, Labyrinth. He contributed to the soundtracks of both. David Bowie went further off the rails with his next album, the atrocious Never Let Me Down (1987 EMI). A bomb with the critics, even its creator has referred to it as "awful." Still, the album hit #6 in England and #34 in America. Smartly, Bowie chose to base the ensuing "Glass Spider Tour" on his back catalog of hit singles.
David Bowie got back to basics in 1989 by forming the hard-driving rock band Tin Machine with guitarist Reeves Gabrels and the Hunt brothers. The group released two studio albums – Tin Machine (1989 EMI) and Tin Machine II (1991 EMI) – and one live LP, Tin Machine Live: Oy Vey, Baby (1992 EMI). Neither critics nor fans were terribly excited about this project, although the first album performed about as well as Never Let Me Down, and the driving "Under the God" was a hit on Billboard's Modern Rock chart. Most important, Bowie's time with the band reinvigorated him and was the beginning of a slow, uphill climb toward once again creating works of artistic value. In 1992, he married supermodel Iman Mohamed Abdulmajid (usually just referred to by her first name).
David Bowie left EMI and returned to recording solo, again produced by Nile Rodgers for Black Tie White Noise (1993 Savage). Heavily reliant on electronics, the record furthered the schism in his popularity between England and America. A UK #1, it reached only #39 in the US, while the British #9 single "Jump They Say" missed the American charts altogether. Later that year, Bowie signed to a new label and issued the electronica-heavy The Buddha of Suburbia (1993 BMG), a solid yet inessential album based on the BBC film of the same name (but not actually its soundtrack). Bowie regained his footing in the US alternative market with his next album; a dark, strange, and quite good concept album called Outside (1995 BMG). Produced by Brian Eno, the record fused rock and electronics to a futuristic detective story. It hit #8 in England and #21 in the US with the lead single, "The Heart's Filthy Lesson," scraping into the Billboard Pop charts. Its tour was a double-bill with industrial band Nine Inch Nails.
Following the strangeness of Outside, David Bowie settled into making a steady stream of good, alternative pop/rock albums. He released four albums between 1997 and 2003, each of which went Top 10 in England and did reasonably well in America. The first of these, Earthling (1997 BMG), was co-produced by Reeves Gabrels and mixed Tin Machine’s grit with jungle-influenced electronics and radio-ready rock. "Little Wonder" was a modest UK hit, while "I'm Afraid of Americans" was be Bowie's last single to make the American charts, reaching #66. Bowie jumped labels again for hours… (1999 Virgin). The album didn't rock as hard as Earthling, but offered plenty of buoyant melodies. The lovely "Thursday's Child" went Top 20 in England. Both of these late '90s records received mixed reviews.
The new millennium began well for David Bowie. His wife, Iman, gave birth to their daughter, Alexandria Zahra Jones, on August 15, 2000. Two years later, Bowie reunited with Tony Visconti, yielding two very good albums that got the critics back on Bowie's side. Heathen (2002 ISO) was moody, but varied and full of memorable moments. Standout tracks include the rockin' and strings-enhanced "Afraid," the quietly catchy "Everyone Says 'Hi'” and a cover of the Pixies’ "Cactus." Bowie followed a year later with the crisp and punchy Reality (2003 ISO). "New Killer Star" was classic Bowie. His cover of the Modern Lovers track, "Pablo Picasso," rocked out and the strummy "Days" offered an irresistibly bouncy hook. Mixing up the pace was the glacially slow "The Luckiest Guy" and the long, jazzy closing track, "Bring Me the Disco King." Bowie then launched a highly successful tour in 2004, but the European leg came to an abrupt halt when he suffered a heart attack in Germany on June 25.
Since then, David Bowie has kept a moderately low profile. He's recorded a couple of songs for soundtracks, performed briefly on stage with Arcade Fire in 2005 and David Gilmour in 2006, sung backup on studio recordings for TV on the Radio and Scarlett Johansson, and appeared in an XM Satellite Radio commercial.
On February 8, 2006, David Bowie received the Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award, duly honoring one of rock music's greatest talents and most recognizable icons. He was one of the greatest forces in rock music during the 1970s, releasing highly creative works with popular appeal, resulting in ten UK Top 10 LPs, three of which hit #1. Although his work suffered during the mid and late 1980s, Bowie remained extremely popular. He found himself again in the '90s, issuing a string of solid albums. His full artistic rebirth came in the early 2000s, but this period was cut short by a mid-tour heart attack. As of 2008, David Bowie is mostly on the sidelines of rock. With any luck, however, he will rise again.