When David Bowie died at the beginning of last year it felt as though everybody in the world was traumatized by his sudden demise. Part of that sadness came from the fact he was back to his best, which was no mean feat. Coming just two days after he'd released ★ (Blackstar), his most vital record in over three decades, the idea he'd passed into the next bardo seemed impossible. The whole theatre of it was very Bowie, though. I felt foolish mourning him as if he was a relative, because I didn't know him. There was no knowing him, but I, like many, still loved him—or the idea of him at least.
There have been around 200 books written about Bowie: some of them good, some of them awful, but tellingly none with the Brixton-born singer's co-operation. Many more arrived in the wake of his death—some trying to make sense of his legacy and others only causing further obfuscation. Paul Morley's The Age Of Bowie hit shops that July and bombarded us with abstract slogans: Bowie is Man Ray singing Billy Fury; Bowie is not David Jones; Bowie is giving birth to himself over and over again... But while Morley's book prompted head scratching and little else, he was right about one thing: David Bowie is a figment of imagination, a concept of your own choosing. As the cliche goes, he is many things to many people.
In interviews he was often diffident and obliging, agreeing with whatever the interviewer said in order to allow them to project their own exegeses onto him and then go away and write up their own versions of him. No rock star was ever more image conscious, yet he was happy for others to perpetuate the myths once he'd introduced the concept. A voracious reader who was unquenchably curious and artistically suggestible, his personas were often an amalgam of other people's thoughts. His lyrics often lead you down labyrinthian corridors of arcane literature, problematic philosophy and scary religion, too—an elaborate patchwork of all his influences.
"What happens if you transplant the French chanson with the Philly sound?" he asked the Berklee College of Music on accepting his honorary doctorate in 1999. "Will Schoenberg lie comfortably with Little Richard?" He was a magpie who stole myriad shiny objects and built masterworks worthy of Gustav Klimt. He is a vessel, a fount of knowledge and a gateway to other cultural experiences. As such, he is never short of fascinating once you have a foot in. At this stage you may only know deceased Bowie, the colossal cultural deity whose music you've heard bits of but which hasn't resonated yet. Maybe you're wondering what all the fuss is about. This article may serve as an in, but there can only ever be one version of David Bowie and that's your own.
So You Want To Get Into: Bisexual Alien Rockstar Bowie
After years of drifting between genres and never quite appearing comfortable in his own skin, Hunky Dory is the record where everything seemed to come together. The epic, abstract ballads ("Life On Mars?"), the idolatry ("Andy Warhol", "Song For Bob Dylan"), the Velvet Underground pastiche ("Queen Bitch"), the obscure cover ("Fill Your Heart) and the achingly personal folk song wrapped up in a conundrum (The Bewlay Brothers")—this album is a great place to begin, and I know this, because that's where I started.
When promoting the record in January 1972, Bowie told Melody Maker, "I'm gay and always have been, even when I was David Jones". It's hard to imagine how much consternation this caused just five years after homosexuality had been legalized, especially as the singer had a wife, Angie. It's also difficult to imagine what a lifeline it was for kids who'd been hiding their sexuality; who hitherto assumed it was just them and Are You Being Served? comedy actor John Inman.
Like the Beatles before him, Bowie took on the persona of an imaginary artist, though he extended it to lengths that would later be exacerbated by excessive cocaine use. Sitting at the pinnacle of this persona, a counterparts of sorts to Hunky Dory, is The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars. In many ways, the album is Bowie's Sgt Pepper—for years regarded as his indelible masterpiece, it has fallen out of favour somewhat with the albums from his Berlin trilogy (we'll get to those in a bit). But with songs as wonderful as "Rock 'n' Roll Suicide," "Five Years," "Soul Love," "Hang On To Yourself," and "Moonage Daydream," one can only surmise familiarity breeds contempt. "Starman" is great too, and the story goes that when he performed it on Top of the Pops, he looked so unashamedly effete that your granddad put his foot through the TV.
For an added treat, add in the live version of "Moonage Daydream" on the Santa Monica '72 album and luxuriate in Mick Ronson's unworldly and unwieldy guitar theatrics live as one of the Spiders (I wish we had time to talk about Mick Ronson. You definitely need to Google Mick Ronson).
Playlist: "Queen Bitch" / "Andy Warhol" / "Rock 'n' Roll Suicide" / "Suffragette City" / "Moonage Daydream (live)" / "Drive-In Saturday" / "The Jean Genie" / "Sweet Thing" / "Young Americans" / "John, I'm Only Dancing"
So You Want To Get Into: Furtive Experimental Electro Pioneer Bowie
How Bowie managed to make a record as good as Station To Station in 1976 while cooked out of his nut is anyone's guess—but there it was. Keeping his own urine in the fridge to ward off evil spirits and bringing up Hitler in interviews more often than Ken Livingstone does, his world was coming apart at the seams in Los Angeles, and so with just a suitcase and Iggy Pop in tow, the Thin White Duke returned to Europe. Counterintuitively, he and Iggy made the decision to get straight in Berlin. Broke, denuded of space-alien makeup and enamored by the electronic innovation of groups like Kraftwerk and Can, Bowie embarked on the most productive 18 months of his life.
With Brooklyn-born producer Tony Visconti and nerdy conceptual soundscape dilettante Brian Eno, he pushed the limits of what a pop record could be, firstly with Low and then Heroes. With its (broadly speaking) more conventional side one, and side two full of avant garde instrumentals, Low sounds like it was fashioned as some bold statement, but the way it was made was more accident than design. Part of the reason many of the tracks don't have vocals, or only fragmentary vocals, is because a sober David Bowie was finding it difficult to express himself verbally. Many of the tracks fade in and out, causing the listener disorientation, but stick with it and you'll be rewarded. Music journalist Charles Shaar Murray made the mistake of giving it a stinker of a review because he didn't understand it. I bet he regrets that now.
As the follow-up to Low, Heroes is also essential. Featuring the title track, perhaps Bowie's best known song, listening to the album may just banish associations with the London 2012 Olympics. The third Berlin album, Lodger, turned out to be a more important record for Eno than it ever was for Bowie. Despite this however, it has some tremendous, underrated songs ("DJ," "Boys Keep Swinging," "Yassassin"). What some might not realise though is that Lodger was recorded in Switzerland where David was then living, and mixed in New York, making it a fairly iffy inclusion in a trilogy of Berlin albums.
Playlist: "Station To Station" / "Always Crashing In The Same Car" / "Breaking Glass" / "Heroes" / "Joe the Lion" / "Sons of the Silent Age" / "D.J." / "Yassassin" / "Boys Keep Swinging"
So You Want To Get Into: Cunning Collaborator and Uber Producer Bowie
Perhaps more worthy of inclusion in the unofficial Berlin Trilogy is Iggy Pop's The Idiot—an album Bowie produced, or even Lust For Life, recorded at the Hansa Studio actually in Berlin. The more electronic The Idiot is a Bowie record in all but name, and laid the groundwork for Low, while Lust For Life was half written by Dave with his pal Jim Osterberg (that's Iggy's real name) strumming a ukelele.
It's perhaps worth pointing out at this point that you can't really get into David Bowie without also checking out some of his remarkable collaborations. In the 70s, he fast-tracked more than one sleeping giant of rock back into the limelight: the aforementioned Stooges legend, as well as seminal pop grump Lou Reed of the Velvet Underground. Bowie and Mick Ronson (Google him already!) oversaw Reed's second solo album Transformer, and what a gender bending monument of poetic beauty it is too. And then there was Mott the Hoople, on the verge of splitting up when Dave tossed them "All The Young Dudes" from his exalted cloud and bestowed great success upon their ungrateful Herefordian shoulders.
There are also those amazing moments in the studio with celebrated guest musicians: Robert Fripp's leary funk on "Fashion" from Bowie's superb Scary Monsters (and Super Creeps) album, plus 90s collaborations with Trent Reznor and the Pet Shop Boys, and weirdest of all, Lenny Kravitz soloing all over the outro on the reprised version of Buddha Of Suburbia, the soundtrack Bowie wrote for the BBC adaptation of the excellent Hanif Kureishi novel.
Playlist: "Walk On The Wild Side (Lou Reed)" / "All The Young Dudes (Mott the Hoople version)" / "Nightclubbing (Iggy Pop)" / "Lust For Life" / "Fame" / "Fashion" / "Shades (with Iggy Pop)" / "Buddha of Suburbia (feat. Lenny Kravitz)" / "Hallo Spaceboy (Pet Shop Boys)" / "I'm Afraid of Americans"
So You Want To Get Into: International Superstar Bowie
Stung by a terrible contract with manager Tony Defries, Bowie took the opportunity to keep tabs on his own finances, signing with EMI for a reported $17.5 million in 1983. In that same year he released Let's Dance, his most successful album to date, recorded with midas touch producer Nile Rodgers. Perhaps because of its popularity—in fact, certainly because of its popularit—Let's Dance has often been unfairly derided over the years by the supposedly serious Bowie fans who can all suck a dick. No album containing that title track, "Modern Love" and his version of the Iggy Pop collaboration "China Girl" (earning Iggy some much needed bucks at the time too) can be half bad. It's a great, jubilant pop record. It was only when Bowie tried to follow up success by doing something similar that things went pear shaped artistically.
"The minute you know you're on safe ground, you're dead," said Bowie presciently in 1976, "You're finished. It's over. The last thing I want is to be established." The days of artistic infallibility may have deserted him, but how many other artists can keep that up for more than one album, let alone for ten years? The 80s weren't barren, but filled with sporadic moments of greatness, often on soundtracks: the majestic theme to Absolute Beginners, "Underground" on the Labyrinth soundtrack, "Cat People (Putting Out Fire)" with Giorgio Moroder.
Although many of his albums from the 80s are easily dismissed, I listened to Never Let Me Down yesterday and would like to rescue it from the fire. I'm going to put my neck on the line and say it's really good. You might find this too, so ignore the received wisdoms and embrace Tin Machine if you want to.
Playlist: "Cat People (Putting Out Fire) single version" / "Modern Love" / "Let's Dance" / "Loving the Alien" / "Underground" / "Day-In Day-Out" / "Never Let Me Down" / "Glass Spider" / "Absolute Beginners" / "Jump They Say"
So You Want To Get Into: Enigmatic, Stealthy, and Stupendous Latterday Bowie
In 2002 and 2003 David Bowie made two perfectly serviceable albums in Heathen and Reality respectively, but his mystique had seemingly diminished and, quite frankly, we all didn't quite appreciate him enough at the time. A massive heart attack on stage in Germany and also a lollipop in the eye thrown by a fan in Norway didn't help and he retreated from public life soon after. Living the quiet life in New York with his wife and daughter, rumors persisted about his health, and the possibility was often raised that he'd given up making music for good.
Then something extraordinary happened on January 8, 2013, Bowie's 66th birthday. He dropped a new track—"Where Are We Now?"—onto YouTube with no fanfare and no campaign. It took everybody by surprise. It ended up being so successful that it started a trend in the way new music would be released for the next few years. Bowie was innovating again, others were following and the music that emerged wasn't playing catchup. He didn't do interviews either, but he'd show up in his own videos next to Tilda Swinton—a good in-joke, as they look alike. The Next Day was magnificent, but the pièce de résistance, ★, was still to come.
And so we arrive where we came in. Bowie was on course for his first US number 1 album when news broke of his death. His final album—released on his birthday again, this time in 2016—went to number 1 everywhere, and it probably would have done so anyway, becoming critically and commercially lauded. Bowie was on top of the world again.
His dedication to privacy during his last days ultimately piqued everyone's curiosity about him. Songs as good as "Girl Loves Me" and the title track certainly helped too. How a star as big as David Bowie managed to keep the fact he was recording again under wraps (aside from the heavy confidentiality agreements given to his musicians) and how he kept his illness out of the papers are both indicative of a man who, for the most part, controlled his artistic destiny right to the very end. David Bowie is a star of the like we'll never see again so don't be a stranger. Hop onto the playlist that looks most appealing and then go and find your own Bowie.
Playlist: "Slip Away" / "New Killer Star" / "Where Are We Now?" / "Valentine's Day" / "The Stars (Are Out Tonight)" / "Love Is Lost - Hello Steve Reich Mix by James Murphy" / "Blackstar" / "Girl Loves Me" / "I Can't Give Everything Away" / "No Plan"
You can find Jeremy on Twitter.