The 13 faces of David Bowie: from Ziggy Stardust to icon
Artist went from androgyny to outer space, before becoming elder statesman of British music
For an artist as wide-ranging as David Bowie, it’s not so much a question of who he has influenced, it’s rather who he hasn’t. Direct lines include the new romanticism of Boy George and Adam and the Ants, the new wave of The Cure, the fey britpopisms of Suede and Pulp, the shock rock of Marilyn Manson, the 00s electro-indie of The Killers, the danceable indie anthems of Arcade Fire, the stomping theatrical pop of Scissor Sisters, and three contemporary pop icons who draw directly from his paintbox: Róisín Murphy, Lady Gaga, and Janelle Monáe.
There’s a reason that Bowie remains so influential. The iconography he constructed around various styles of music over the decades was part of his ability to innovate and reinvent himself. For a musician to have a seismic impact on popular culture and society, as Bowie did, they need to bleed beyond the record player or the music video or the poster. Bowie had an impact on the most basic of things: how people looked, how they dressed, how they held themselves, how artists performed. Discovering Bowie now is unearthing a treasure trove of visual and musical concepts, across some very distinct stages.
After performing in a series of unremarkable bluesy folk acts, Bowie embraced his androgyny at the beginning of his career proper. After the eclectic David Bowie/Space Oddity record and the glam rock of The Man Who Sold The World, Bowie released Hunky Dory with androgyny front and centre on the cover, influenced by another icon who would be referenced again in his Thin White Duke period: Marlene Dietrich. On the opening track, Bowie sung about changes and turning to face the strange.
The 1972 Top of the Pops performance of Starman that beamed into homes across the UK was a game changer for a generation. Freddie Burretti’s design of an outfit that positioned Bowie as some kind of Clockwork Orange alien coloured what would be Bowie’s most famous person: all pale skin, shock of red hair and otherworldliness.
This Ziggy Part Deux stage gave us arguably the most iconic image of Bowie: his cheekbones cutting almost as sharp a point as the red and blue lightning strike over his left eye, his pupils displaying his condition of anisocoria with one permanently dilated. The inspiration to endless fancy dress outfits, Aladdin Sane also gave us one of Kansai Yamamoto’s iconic outfits: the ballooning black and white striped pants.
Glamour was intrinsic to Ziggy and Aladdin Sane, but Glam Bowie entered a trashier stage, with Diamond Dogs and the stomping Rebel Rebel, alongside that mid to late 1970s obsession with dystopia in popular culture, which saw Bowie take his cues from George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four for that 1974 record.
Plastic Soul Bowie
Blue-eyed soul might be the term that outlasted plastic soul, but plastic was what Bowie proudly called his 1975 record Young Americans. Incorporating funk and soul, there’s a sense of knowing cheesiness to the whole thing. But this, and the previous Live album saw his dress sense moving towards a cartoonish, suited one, subsequently influencing the aesthetic of Talking Heads and others, and eventually evolving into . . .
The Thin White Duke
Otherwise known as the cocaine years, beginning with the bridging album Station To Station, where plastic soul faded out into the far more interesting space of the Berlin trilogy. There are shades of both Patti Smith and Marlene Dietrich in the Thin White Duke’s style: crisp white shirts, black waistcoats, black trousers, and blacked shoes with slicked-back blond hair. Cocaine use also contributed to his startling thinness.
The Berlin Years
Between 1977 and 1979, Bowie released the Berlin Trilogy: Low, Heroes and Lodger. Berlin looms large in Bowie’s music, and his music in it. The congregating of Bowie, Iggy Pop, Brian Eno and Tony Visconti in the city, and the records that yielded has created a mythology so intense that a lot of the imagery of Bowie at that time still informs people’s ideas of the city, long after the wall came down: the grey expanses of a city divided. Both Low and Heroes are masterpieces of avant garde innovation, simultaneously ahead of their time and timeless.
New Romantic Pierrot
Bowie’s appearance as the clownish mime Pierrot in the video for Ashes To Ashes again flipped his image in the public’s mind. This imagery was accompanied by the excellent Scary Monsters (and Super Creeps), which rang in the 1980s. It contained a couple of his hookiest pop songs, including Ashes To Ashes and Fashion. Visually, Bowie was right at the zeitgeist of the gender-bending new romanticism peaking around that time.
Bowie’s Piece On Earth/Little Drummer Boy duet with Bing Crosby and his introduction of the animated film The Snowman snapped people out of the Bowie fantasy, presenting him as a “normal” wholesome guy. But there was something eccentric and curious about the whole thing, especially as he recounts a childhood in The Snowman, pottering around an attic in a jumper and slacks.
With Let’s Dance, Bowie had some of his biggest hits: the title track, China Girl and Modern Love. Nile Rodger’s production set him off on a pop trajectory, which was less successful or creatively meaningful, with Tonight and Never Let Me Down two of his least inspiring albums. That said, the success of Pop Bowie made him a heartthrob all over again and introduced him to a new pop audience.
Jareth the Goblin King
The film Labyrinth gave Bowie one of his most recognisable, if strangest looks. Bowie is perfectly off-putting in a creepy-kids-movie kind of way, all fantasy hair metal mullet and upturned eyebrows. The film has gradually gained affectionate cult status.
Elder Statesman Bowie
While the 1990s yielded patchy albums for Bowie, he began to be seen as the elder statesman of British culture. Bowie released five albums in the 1990s (six if you count Tin Machine) exploring various genres including drum and bass, but it wasn’t until 2002’s Heathen was released that he began to be seen as back on form
The Ultimate Icon
The Next Day, Bowie’s surprise comeback album 10 years after Reality was released, coincided with an exhibition of the V&A that solidified Bowie as the most significant living British cultural figure. Both events plunged Bowie back into popular consciousness. Every year people wondered if he’d play Glastonbury. The meta approach to the cover of The Next Day was a knowing summation of his iconography: Bowie was now so significant that he was referencing himself. But he still remained unattainable. In an era where the walls around celebrity kept crumbling, nobody knew what Bowie had for breakfast or thought of Taylor Swift. Releasing Blackstar two days before his death saw him innovating to the end with his parting gift.