Looking Back at David Bowie's Most Powerful and Influential Songs
The Thin White Duke has died at 69, leaving behind some of the greatest music of all time. Here are some of the VICE staff's favorites.
The Thin White Duke has died at 69, leaving behind some of the greatest songs of all time. Here, some of our writers choose their favorites and explain what he meant to them.
"Let's Dance" isn't necessarily my favorite David Bowie tune (although, needless to say, it is a tune), but in terms of remembering Bowie, I've chosen it because it's the centerpiece of one of his greatest achievements: the Serious Moonlight tour. With an artist like Bowie, whose work is about so much more than music, whose work is endowed with so much vision, it seems that maybe looking at the individual songs doesn't really tell the story of what he was trying to do.
And while most people seem to associate Bowie's greatest with androgynous alien creations like Aladdin Sane and Ziggy Stardust, for me his greatest moments are when he becomes David Bowie the great romantic. It's around this period in the early 80s that Bowie finally became the slightly-older pop star who sang love songs and wore suits, yet for me, it's the summation of his work, and maybe the closest thing we got to the real Bowie. With his bleached wedge and half-worn zoot suit, he looked like a high-fashion private eye, crooning about lost loves and lust into sold-out baseball stadiums and continental hippodromes. It has great trousers, great dancing, and great tunes. It's just about the coolest, most original, brilliant, honest, weirdest, sexy thing I've ever seen. Which is what saddens me most about Bowie's death: The fact that being weird and cool and sexy and original seems to be as unviable as it was when he first started out.
—Clive Martin, Writer
ALWAYS CRASHING IN THE SAME CAR
I have no idea if this song is really about Bowie ramming his car into his coke dealer repeatedly, but that's the myth surrounding it. Obviously the Berlin period means a lot to all of us here. This is as big a day as I can remember.
—Alex Miller, Global Head of Content
There are so many songs. There are so many styles. When you have an artist as beautiful and brilliant as David Bowie, how can you narrow it down to one? The melancholia of "Where Are We Now," the cool grandeur of "Heroes," and this blueprint for living from "Sweet Thing/Candidate/Sweet Thing (Reprise)": "We'll buy some drugs / and watch a band / and jump in the river holding hands." But I'll say "Modern Love," because it combines pinpoint cultural observation with an infectious beat, arrangement and Bowie's unmatched voice. And it has another blueprint for living: "I know when to go out / and when to stay in / get things done." He knew how to go out. He knew how to stay in. He got so much done.
—Oscar Rickett, Writer
I could spew some bullshit about why I like "China Girl" because it skewers Orientalism so well, or how the 80s video hilariously replicates every Asian stereotype going (including David Bowie doing "slanty eyes") but honestly? When I was growing up and listening to music, rock and pop weren't really made for people like me. It was singing about and for cute white girls with big hair and nice tits. Awkward queer Asian teenagers were not the pretty, lust-worthy girls that boys sung about; we weren't the people who even got on the mic. "China Girl"—and David Bowie in all his tenuously bisexual glory—showed me that you could be both.
—Zing Tseng, UK Editor, Broadly
"I'm the space invader / I'll be a rock and rollin' bitch for you." Have two sentences ever foreshadowed the concept for an entire album to come in better fashion than track three of The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars? No. The answer is aways no. Because when those delicate piano keys come dancing in, and Bowie screams about ray guns and space faces, and Mick Ronson's guitar cuts through like a revving chainsaw in an empty forest, then, at that point—at that exact moment thirty seconds in and for four minutes after—there is nothing else, only the Moonage Daydreams.
—Joe Zadeh, Editor, Noisey UK
Honestly, this isn't some jumped-up prick from VICE desperately trying to wave his cooler-than-thou flag in the face of the passing of one of the most important cultural icons this shitty little island's ever produced. My favorite David Bowie song really is the skronky, difficult, whining, and whirring "V-2 Schneider" from Heroes. Even though Bowie's voice is barely present on it, aside from few cooing, crooning intonations of the title. "V-2 Schneider" sounds like, well, a V-2 taking off, which means it sounds a bit like Eno's "Here Come the Warm Jets" which is basically the best song ever. It's a propulsive blast that still, 38 years on, sounds like everything you thought the future'd sound like. Oh, and that sax! That lewd, lascivious, downright dirty sax, courtesy of the man himself. It's an otherworldly testament to the man's otherworldly genius.
—Josh Baines, Editor, Thump UK
WHERE ARE WE NOW?
Some melodies are created, others are discovered, and David Bowie had an unearthly knack for the latter. There is no greater example of this, in my eyes, than 2013's "Where Are We Now?" A song that strangely sounded like it has existed forever, both in tune and sentiment. While "Lazarus" and many other moments on the very recently released Blackstar will likely offer far more in the way of obvious poignancy, to me, "Where Are We Now?" is a far more heartbreaking final testimony. The lyrics, specifically smattered with references to his days in Berlin, are a strangely mournful recollection of the years of revolution he largely helped to shape. Yet more generally, with the simple pairing "As long as there's me / As long as there's you," he evoked an idea that still makes me feel a bit sick with sadness if I hear it in the right mood. That all the time we spend looking back on past glories is meaningless if recollected alone.
—Angus Harrison, Staff Writer, Thump UK
Bowie's legacy is richly diverse, otherworldly, and incomparable, but for me he was crystallized by this first visual impression: spiked mullet, frosty eyeshadow, leggings packed with that eye-averting bulge. The mischievous Jareth, Goblin King, a wicked grin stretched as his muppet minions cavorted around pirate boot-clad ankles. "Magic Dance" is a perverse song to write about as a favorite—highly camp and ridiculous and anchored by those synth stabs that sound fantastically dated now. Certainly, there are far many more moving, era-defining efforts in his canon, but this is Bowie at his most playful, a song and dance that's full of joy, tongue firmly in cheek (note the oft-mentioned and no doubt improvised coke referencing choreography). And what an incredible jumping-off point—which this was for so many kids in single digits who watched VHS copies of Labyrinth, utterly entranced. It's Bowie as he always was: doing exactly what he wanted and surprising us every step of the way.
—Kim Taylor-Bennett, Editor and Producer, Noisey
ROCK 'N' ROLL SUICIDE
I could give you the music journalist line about how this song is the moment Bowie makes Ziggy Stardust into the washed-up rock 'n' roll has-been cliché, and what it all means... But I love this song because it's been the soundtrack to the morning after every great night of my life. It's a song that speaks to the fragility after excess, when you're hungover and broken and lost and asking yourself why you do it and what it's all worth. That moment when suddenly, you realize you're not immortal. Or, in the great man's words: "Time takes a cigarette, puts it in your mouth."
—Jenny Stevens, Managing Editor, VICE UK
"Heroes" is an obvious choice, and that's because it's undeniably the greatest Bowie track. Within its glamorous walls there's an immortal store of something burning and golden that every truly great song strives toward: a sense of wild possibility. It's as though the love of my life is waiting around the corner, and if I turn we could stumble into each other's arms. "Heroes" makes me feel alive, fills me with promise, has me yearning for moments I haven't yet experienced and to fondly relive others I have. It is a distillation of life's beauty, tugging on the heartstrings that tie together the all-too-brief moments we search for on our never-ending journey to understand what it means to be human.
Thank you for this feeling, Bowie.
—Ryan Bassil, Staff Writer, Noisey UK