THE HIGHS AND LOW OF David Bowie
Yet behind Ziggy Stardust, behindbe the Thin White Duke, behind David BowieBo even, wasn’t an alligator, a starman or an alien, but David Robert Jones, a restless creative soul who created work so fantastical and inspiring that it made us forget he was a flawed, passionate human being like us.
1947 to 1966
David Robert Jones is born on January 8, 1947 in Brixton, UK. He’s obsessed with American culture as a young man. After quitting school, David becomes a designer at an ad agency. When he agrees to paint his manager’s office, the other painter is a musician named Marc Bolan; the two become fast friends. By 1966, David is working with Kenneth Pitt, his first devoted manager. On Pitt’s advice that there are too many David Joneses, he adopts a new name: David Bowie.
Pitt travels to New York to speak with Andy Warhol about representing his then-unknown new group, the Velvet Underground, and returns with an acetate of the unreleased The Velvet Underground & Nico. Bowie later writes that the album “was savagely indifferent to my feelings. It didn’t care if I liked it or not. It was completely preoccupied with a world unseen by my suburban eyes.”
1967 to 1970 Pitt signs a deal with Deram Records; Bowie's self-titled debut is released without fanfare. An employee at Bowie’s publishing firm gives David Bowie to 23-yearold musician and producer Tony Visconti from New York. Visconti and Bowie start recording soon after. In late 1967, Deram drops him. The end of a relationship in 1968 is creatively good for Bowie, and inspires some of his best material yet, including a song that merges his sense of isolation with the space travel theme that Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey has made ubiquitous. “Space Oddity” convinces Mercury Records to finance the song’s recording, and the demo earns him a deal at the label. He records a full studio version featuring a Mellotron part played by studio keyboardist Rick Wakeman (later of Strawbs and Yes). Although the single rockets to number 48 almost immediately, it lingers on the outskirts of the charts.
In 1969, Bowie meets Mercury employee Mary Angela Barnett (aka Angie); she's smart, well-read and ambitious. A new marketing executive makes “Space Oddity” a priority; the single hits number five and earns Bowie his first appearance on Top of the Pops in October.
Bowie’s second self-titled album — a dark, psychedelic folk-rock suite that would finally announce him as a vital new voice — is released in November 1969. (It will later be re-released as Space Oddity.) Bowie and Angie wed in March of 1970. Around this time, drummer John Cambridge, who played on Bowie’s 1969 album, convinces Mick Ronson to join their band, the Hype.
When Bolan’s T. Rex take off, Bowie is depressed and jealous; no longer feeling his manager capable of keeping up with the changing culture, David decides to part ways with Kenneth Pitt. Bowie, Pitt and a lawyer named Tony Defries meet in May, 1970 to finalize the split; Defries sees Bowie’s potential, and assumes the manager role. Bowie will later admit that Visconti and Ronson shaped much of the sound of The Man Who Sold the World, Bowie’s hardestrocking record, in the studio, but it’s Bowie’s lyrics about mental illness and war that add the album’s sense of darkness. It’s released in November, 1970.
1971 to 1972 In January, 1971, Bowie embarks on his first American press tour. The Man Who Sold the World isn’t exactly a hit, but Mercury is intent on introducing Bowie to the right people. Back in England, Angie gives birth to Duncan Zowie Haywood Jones. Bowie lays down a series of demos at London’s Radio Luxembourg Studios, including “Life on Mars?,” “Oh! You Pretty Things,” “Hang On to Yourself,” “Moonage Daydream” and others that will appear on his next two albums. Ronson writes string arrangements and many of his best are written, according to his wife, “In the loo. Without even a keyboard. Only by ear.” The more piano-based Hunky Dory is the sound of Bowie hitting his stride, and Defries successfully shops Hunky Dory to RCA in New York.
In January 1972, Bowie sits for a pivotal Melody Maker interview in which he drops a bombshell: “I’m gay and always have been, even when I was David Jones.” The ambiguity, given Bowie’s wife and son, is irresistible to the press, and the story is picked up widely.
The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars is released in June 1972. Ziggy Stardust, an anti-hero for a dystopian world, perfectly embodies the decadent, debauched ’70s. The Ziggy Stardust tour garners rave reviews and Bowie returns to Top of the Pops to play “Starman,” a performance that will inspire the formation of bands like Joy Division, Echo and the Bunnymen, the Smiths and Siouxsie and the Banshees.
By late October, the Ziggy tour hits the American West coast; a recording of one of their successful Santa Monica shows will become a famous bootleg.
1973 to 1974 In January 1973, Bowie returns to London to begin recording the songs he’d written in America, under immense pressure to follow up Ziggy Stardust. A second U.S. tour kicks off in February, ending in Hollywood in March. While in L.A., Bowie invites groupie Lori Maddox, then 13 years old, to have dinner; afterwards, they return to the Beverly Hilton hotel. While Maddox claims “I was very aware of what was going on,” the fact remains that she was 13 at the time.
Released in April 1973, Aladdin Sane is perhaps even more nihilistic and glammy
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than its predecessor. Tensions are high when the Spiders return to England from a tour in Japan due to infrequent and inadequate payment. Bowie takes their asking for money as an insult and secretly makes a decision to kill off Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars. Only Ronson knows; the rest of the band find out when Bowie tells a crowd, “Not only is it the last show of the tour, it's the last show we'll ever do.” Within the hour, future Sex Pistols guitarist Steve Jones is stealing their gear out of the back of the venue.
A week later, Bowie flies to France with Mick Ronson to record Pinups, a record of covers from the 1960s and earlier. By this point, Bowie has become addicted to cocaine, a substance that, in the early '70s, is ubiquitous. By the time Pinups is released in October 1973, Bowie has already recorded new songs and is planning a theatrical production of George Orwell's novel 1984. When Bowie is denied the rights to the book, he refashions the songs into a loose narrative about a dystopian future world called Hunger City, in which nihilistic, violent teenagers run the streets. Bowie plans for a tour with an elaborate stage setup that reflects the themes of the forthcoming record, Diamond Dogs.
RCA provides a huge budget for the tour, his most extravagant yet; it features a theatrical set of a city, complete with streetlights, towers and a bridge that moves up and down. Bowie's management company, MainMan, financially drained from the limos, studio time, expense accounts and cocaine, needs money, so he rushes out a single, “Rebel Rebel,” in February. Diamond Dogs, Bowie's darkest album yet and his last to flirt with glam rock, is released in May, 1974. The Diamond Dogs tour kicks off in Montreal in June: he never addresses the audience, or mentions the city he's in; there are no breaks between songs; and he leaves without taking a bow. It's a phenomenon largely unseen in rock, and yet, Bowie tires of it; when the first leg of the tour wraps, he retires the spectacle, opting for a strippedback soul revue that reflects the direction of his next album.
Bowie befriends RCA studio guitarist Carlos Alomar, and in August, begins recording Young Americans, a “blue-eyed soul” tribute to American funk, soul and R&B, at Sigma Sound Studios in Philadelphia. Alomar brings in a then-unknown singer named Luther Vandross to contribute. He co- writes a song called “Fascination” with Bowie for Young Americans.
When the second leg of the Diamond Dogs tour begins in September 1974, it's now titled Philly Dogs and features Bowie backed by his ace soul band, including Vandross singing backup. David Live, a live album that captures a night of Bowie's Diamond Dogs tour, is released at the end of October.
1975 to 1976 In January 1975, Bowie invites John Lennon to New York's Power Plant, where he's recording a version of “Across the Universe”; while there, Carlos Alomar plays a riff for the two singers, who make up lyrics to new song, “Fame,” on the spot. Around this time, Bowie is growing more paranoid; he has little access to or control over his funds, and begins asking questions of his manager, Defries, about where his money is going. He hires a lawyer and, on January 29, heads to the RCA offices to tell them he's breaking with Defries, who sends RCA an injunction to stop them from releasing Young Americans. The reported settlement is that Defries will own a piece of all of Bowie's recordings from 1972 through 1982.
Young Americans is released in March; produced mostly by Tony Visconti, it's a sinuous, swaggering record that continues Bowie's flawless streak of innovative, stylish records. In April, he leaves New York for Los Angeles; left to his own devices, Bowie stops going out and his only visitors are couriers, drug dealers and groupies. “If you really want to lose all your friends,” Bowie will later say, “that's the drug to do it with. Cocaine severs any link you have with another human being.”
Bowie takes the lead in Nicolas Roeg's The Man Who Fell to Earth, an allegorical film about the corruptive power of greed that begins filming in July; working on the film keeps Bowie fairly sober. Upon the film's completion, Bowie returns to L.A. in songwriting mode, assuming he is writing the film's score; when he finds out ex-Mamas and the Papas musician John Phillips is composing it, he continues writing anyway. The songs mix the funk and soul of Young Americans with the motorik rhythms of Neu! and the robotic synth-pop of Kraftwerk.
Following the release of Station to Station in January 1976, Bowie plots the Isolar tour. The design is austere and minimalist; Bowie, dressed in a sharp black suit, introduces himself with the intro to “Station to Station”: “The return of the Thin White Duke, throwing darts in lovers' eyes.”
When Iggy Pop hits rock bottom, puking mysterious colours, Bowie asks Pop to accompany him on tour. Bowie returns to London for a series of sold-out shows; on May 2, he arrives from Victoria Station in a Mercedes, from which he waves to fans and issues a Nazi salute. After newspapers report the incident, Bowie unfortunately follows it up by claiming, in an interview with Cameron Crowe, that “Britain is ready for a fascist leader.” He adds, “Rock stars are fascists. Adolf Hitler was one of the first rock stars.” Though he'd later admit that his mind was addled by cocaine, the incident, along with a racist tirade by a drunken Eric Clapton a month later, leads to the formation of the Rock Against Racism campaign.
Bowie brings the remnants of his film score for The Man Who Fell to Earth to France's Château d'Hérouville to record his next album with Visconti and former Roxy Music keyboardist/producer and solo artist Brian Eno. Eschewing schedules and traditional writing methods, Bowie delves into the painful experiences of the last few years during these sessions; encouraged by Eno's Oblique Strategy Cards (a deck of inspirational cards, each with a suggestion like “Honour thy error as a hidden intention”), he indulges his most left-field impulses. The result is a mix of spiky, abrasive and vibrant songs that address Bowie's cocaine anguish, and more ambient, instrumental compositions. As such, Low is split into sonically distinct halves: the more traditional songs comprise the first side; the second houses Bowie's ambient pieces. Bowie and Iggy Pop move to West Berlin, where Low is mixed. Though the record is submitted before the end of 1976, RCA are hesitant to release it for the Christmas season.
1977 to 1979 Low is finally released in January, 1977. In Berlin, Bowie meets with Visconti and Eno at Hansa Studios regularly, where they continue to adhere to the creative philosophies that birthed Low; he's also working with Iggy Pop on Lust for Life. The Berlin Wall, visible from Hansa Studios, casts a shadow over city life in 1977, and the sense of constantly being monitored heightens the emotional charge of the sessions. Bowie writes a song that imagines a couple living on either side of the divided Germany, forced to meet at the Berlin Wall. Eno and Visconti set to work fleshing it out, and King Crimson guitarist Robert Fripp is flown out to contribute; his looping guitar riff provides the driving force of one of Bowie's greatest songs, “Heroes.”
In summer 1977, Bowie joins Iggy Pop on his North American Lust for Life tour as a keyboardist; he stays seated throughout the shows. When Bowie returns to Berlin after the tour, he refocuses on Low followup “Heroes”. On September 16, Bowie's childhood friend Marc Bolan dies in a car crash. “Heroes” is released on October 14.
Bowie spends the rest of the year reconnecting with his son and rehearsing for his 1978 Isolar II world tour. A set is recorded and released as a Tony Visconti-produced live album titled Stage in September, around the same time that Bowie heads to Mountain Studios in Montreux, Switzerland to beginning recording the third and final album of his so- called “Berlin triptych.” Lodger is only slightly more accessible than its predecessors: studio experiments include reversing tracks and using identical chord progressions on different songs. The recording of Lodger is finished in New York City in early 1979. It's released on May 18. In New York, Bowie discovers new wave, and falls in love watching new artists like the Human League and Klaus Nomi.
1980 to 1983 On January 5, 1980, Bowie makes his debut on Saturday Night Live. With Klaus Nomi's help, Bowie performs captivating, high-concept renditions of “The Man Who Sold the World,” “TVC15” and “Boys Keep Swinging” that feature a solid plastic tuxedo, a pink stuffed poodle and an oversized Bowie head atop a flailing puppet, respectively. In early 1980, Angie and David divorce.
At recording studio the Power Station in New York, Bowie is fusing his inventive Berlin style with elements of new wave and big, brash pop production. Single “Ashes to Ashes” is his first number one in the UK since “Fame” in 1975. Bowie releases Scary Monsters (and Super Creeps) in September, 1980, to great acclaim.