David Bowie, 1947-2016: an extraordinary life at the cutting edge

A restless re-creation of his artistic persona helped David Bowie to makea cultural impact across six decades

Over the course of six decades David Bowie released 111 singles – including five UK number ones – 26 studio albums, 46 compilation albums, five EPs and three soundtracks, along with 51 music videos. He also starred in many feature films. He will be remembered, however, not for the longevity of his career or the quantity of his output but for the deep and lasting impact that his best work had on the reinvention of popular culture and on music.

David Robert Jones was born on January 8th, 1947, in Brixton, in south London. He was first introduced to jazz and rock’n’roll through the record collection of his older brother, Terry, and he went on to form a number of bands as a teenager. He later led a group as “Davy Jones”, but he changed his name to David Bowie to avoid confusion with Davy Jones of The Monkees.

He had always shown signs of preferring a solo career, but his first three solo singles and a debut album in 1967, David Bowie, did not achieve the success he had hoped for. (One song, the novelty number Laughing Gnome, was to become a hit in 1973.)

Space Oddity

In 1968 and 1969 he took some time away from music to experiment with mime and performance, helping to create the Beckenham Arts Lab in 1969 before releasing what was to become his first UK number one,


Space Oddity

, on July 11th. The song, about the astronaut “Major Tom” disappearing into space, was cannily timed to coincide with the first moon landing. But it also foreshadowed several themes that were to recur later, loneliness, alienation and extraterrestrial experiences among them.

In March 1970 he married Angie Barnett and the pair had a son, Zowie Bowie – now known as Duncan Jones, a successful film director.

Success seemed to liberate Bowie creatively. His next album, The Man Who Sold the World, revealed a powerfully imaginative and often very dark songwriting talent, with a title track that was to become one of his most enduring songs.

The album's UK cover, showing Bowie elegant in a long dress, introduced the gender ambiguity that was to be such an important part of his imagery. Bowie told the media that he was bisexual, although he later suggested that his sexual explorations were just part of a broader cultural experimentation. "I was always a closet heterosexual," he told Rolling Stone magazine in 1993.

Ziggy Stardust Hunky Dory

, a quixotic pick 'n' mix of sweet pop melodies, hard-rock anthems and elaborate wordplay from 1971, sold only moderately, but the following year saw the birth of his most commercially successful creation. The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars, featuring the eponymous alien rock star, allowed Bowie to conquer the US market with highly theatrical stage shows and TV appearances.

At the same time he produced The Stooges' Raw Power, which would become an inspiration for the nascent punk movement a couple of years later, and Lou Reed's New York demi-monde classic Transformer. (Reed's previous band, the Velvet Underground, had been a formative influence.)

To keep the British band Mott the Hoople from splitting up he gave them a song he had not yet recorded, All the Young Dudes, which promptly became a huge hit for them, and a glam-rock anthem.

In 1973 Bowie told a shocked audience at the Hammersmith Odeon, in London, that Ziggy Stardust was being retired. He released Aladdin Sane (1973), the cover album Pin Ups (1973) and the commercially successful Diamond Dogs (1974; featuring the classic boot-boy stomper Rebel Rebel) before taking another unexpected swerve, into what he described as "plastic soul" with Young Americans (1975), which gave him his first US number one, the John Lennon collaboration Fame.

Yet another persona, the Thin White Duke (based on Bowie's performance as an extraterrestrial in the Nicolas Roeg film The Man Who Fell to Earth), was introduced on the Station to Station album (1976). The cocaine-fuelled paranoia that seeps through that album reflected Bowie's increasingly troubled state of mind, exacerbated by legal and financial battles with former managers. His difficulties were illustrated and amplified by a controversial interview in which he expressed support for fascism.

Berlin Bowie fled, first to Switzerland, then on to West Berlin, where he found a new home and a new source of creativity in the c

old war and the city that exemplified it.

Inspired by the example of the new wave of Krautrock emerging via bands such as Neu! and Faust, he began working again with Iggy Pop and was joined by the visionary producer Brian Eno. The resulting trilogy of albums – Low (1977), Heroes (1977) and Lodger (1979) – have since come to be regarded as a foundation stone for much of the electronic and art- rock music of the succeeding decades.

In 1980, after his divorce from Angie Bowie, he released Scary Monsters (and Super Creeps) and its spin-off chart-topping single Ashes to Ashes, whose video featured several well-known faces from London's burgeoning new-romantic scene, a nod to the fact that post-punk pop culture owed more to Bowie than it did to punk.

It appeared that he could do no wrong; his performance as John Merrick in The Elephant Man on the Broadway stage was ecstatically received. But, in retrospect, this was the point at which his ability to remain at the cutting edge began to wane.

Creative springs dry up

He had huge success by moving into the pop mainstream with the infectious

Let’s Dance

(1983), which sold millions and led to lucrative global tours, and continued his acting career in

Merry Christmas, Mr Lawrence


Absolute Beginners

and other films.

But the creative springs were drying up. The Glass Spider tour, which included Slane Castle as one of its venues in 1987, underwhelmed audiences, and they reacted no more positively when Bowie launched a new band, Tin Machine.

A return to solo performance with Black Tie White Noise (1993) yielded only modest success, and attempts to tap into new musical genres such as drum and bass began to appear increasingly desperate.

He continued to tour, and the albums Heathen and Reality, in 2002 and 2003, seemed to indicate a new energy. But a heart attack on stage in Germany led to a withdrawal from live performance, even as he continued to collaborate with artists such as Arcade Fire and acted as curator on festivals in the UK and US.

One hell of an exit

A live double CD,

A Reality Tour

, which had been recorded in Dublin in 2003, was released in 2010. “Nobody really knows if Bowie is hanging up the spacesuit for good,” said

Rolling Stone

. “But if so, this is one hell of an exit.”

In 2011 he released the album Toy, which dated back to 2001 and comprised tracks from Heathen and their B sides plus versions of older material. Everything seemed to indicate that Bowie had accepted his days of original material were over, but he hadn't quite lost his ability to surprise.

On his 66th birthday, in January 2013, Bowie revealed that he had been back in the studio and would be releasing his first album of new material. Simultaneously he released the single Where Are We Now? The full album followed in March that year. The record was received warmly by critics and fans, becoming his first in 20 years to reach number one.

He released his 25th and final studio album, Blackstar, last Friday. "He made Blackstar for us, his parting gift," said its producer, Tony Visconti. "I knew for a year this was the way it would be. I wasn't, however, prepared for it. He was an extraordinary man, full of love and life. He will always be with us. For now it is appropriate to cry."

He leaves his son, Duncan Jones, daughter, Alexandria, and wife, Iman.