Young Americans. Let’s Dance. Space Oddity. David Bowie’s back catalogue features hit after hit. As one of the 20th Century’s most influential, prolific and critically acclaimed artists, it’s difficult to underestimate the impact he’s had on modern music. I mean, who hasn’t belted out Heroes’ iconic chorus at some point or another?
With the release of a new Bowie Tribute album, we thought we’d take the opportunity to re-examine a discography that stretches across the best part of six decades. If you’re just getting into the Thin White Duke and want to know where to start or you’re looking to dive a little deeper, our beginner’s guide to Bowie is for you.
Bowie in the ‘60s
Bowie spent much of the ‘60s flitting between blues, folk and rock and roll bands and dreaming of becoming the next Mick Jagger. Gigging under his given name, David Jones, he released a series of unsuccessful singles with several outfits, including the Konrads, the Manish Boys, the Buzz and the Lower Third.
Entering the second half of the decade, with success still a distant prospect, a disillusioned Bowie almost quit the music business to study mime. Fortunately for music lovers everywhere, he never followed through on the threat, opting to focus on a solo career instead. It was at this point, realising that sharing a name with the Monkees’ frontman put him in the shadow of a far more popular performer, that he adopted one of the most iconic stage names in music history and became David Bowie.
In 1967, Bowie released the much-derided single The Laughing Gnome (if you haven’t heard it, check it out - it hasn’t aged well) and followed it up with an eponymous debut solo album. Both failed to chart and a disheartened Bowie would spend the next two years studying and performing avant-garde theatre.
Then, in July 1969, a matter of days before the Apollo 11 moon landing, Bowie exploited the public’s growing fascination with the final frontier, releasing the single that would give him his first big hit. With its gravity-defying strings and ethereal, floating vocals, Space Oddity reached number five in the UK charts.
Bowie in the ‘70s
While Space Oddity didn’t propel Bowie to superstardom overnight, it was remarkably influential. Bowie would revisit the song’s central character, Major Tom, on several occasions later in his career and his obsession with the extra-terrestrial would manifest itself more completely in the Ziggy Stardust era. Meanwhile, inspired by Bowie’s sound and success, the ‘70s would see the release of a slew of space-themed singles, most notably Elton John’s Rocket Man.
After recording another two albums, 1969’s David Bowie (Space Oddity) and 1970’s The Man Who Sold the World, Bowie released Hunky Dory in 1971. Melodic, intelligent and playful, it was a commercial failure at the time of release but has since been reappraised and is beloved by modern Bowie fans.
Then, in 1972, an androgynous alien landed on-stage at the Toby Jug pub in Surrey and, together with his band, The Spiders from Mars, changed the face of music forever. The product of Bowie’s inquisitive mind and his ability to take influences as diverse as Japanese fashion, Beat literature, US proto-punk and religious symbolism and meld them into something truly special, Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars marked the birth of glam rock. It also gave us an early glimpse of one of Bowie’s most valuable and enduring qualities - his ability to successfully blend avant-garde and pop.
Immersing himself entirely in the character, Bowie spent two years touring Ziggy’s repertoire which, by 1973, also included his first number one album, Aladdin Sane. By the end of this stint, Bowie’s provocative shows had become legendary but the singer himself had serious concerns about the effect touring and portraying Ziggy was having on his mental wellbeing.
In July 1973, on-stage and in front of a shocked audience, Bowie abruptly announced Ziggy’s retirement. By 1974, he was living in the United States and refining a new sound that was increasingly influenced by the ubiquitous presence of funk and soul. Diamond Dogs, an apocalyptic album that married traditional rock with elements of soul, was released during Bowie’s first year in the States. This was quickly followed by 1975’s Young Americans, which realised the potential of this unique blend of styles and birthed a whole new genre in the process - plastic soul.
Having conquered the US and in the midst of serious substance addiction, Bowie chose to recreate himself anew and adopted his Thin White Duke persona. This coincided with the release of 1975’s Station to Station, which expressed a subtle shift towards the heavy synth-work that was prevalent amongst Germany’s popular Krautrock groups.
Bowie’s addiction issues came to a head in the mid-’70s and, after controversially flirting with fascist imagery and mythology, the singer moved to Germany. This marked the start of Bowie’s Berlin Era and would ultimately result in the release of the Berlin Trilogy: 1977’s Low and Heroes, as well as 1979’s Lodger. This was a period defined by the singer’s work with Iggy Pop and Brian Eno, as well as a focus on ambient sound and more abstract lyrics.
Bowie in the ‘80s
Entering the ‘80s, Bowie stepped back the Berlin Era’s ambient atmospherics but continued experimenting, both visually and aurally, on Scary Monsters (and Super Creeps). Both the look and sound of the album helped to popularise the emerging New Romantic movement and the LP also contained the number one hit, Ashes to Ashes.
In 1983, he worked alongside the funkiest man to ever pick up a guitar, Nile Rodgers, to record Let’s Dance. As well as featuring some of Bowie’s catchiest singles, Carmine Roja’s unstoppable bass lines and Rodger’s effortlessly cool guitar riffs, the album was also acknowledged for fully embracing an emerging artistic medium, the music video.
For much of the rest of the decade, Bowie would indulge his passion for acting and alternative art forms, starring in a Broadway production of the Elephant Man, the 1986 film Absolute Beginners and, perhaps most iconically, Jim Henson’s Labyrinth.
Though the 80s may have been a relatively quiet decade in terms of albums, Bowie did feature on some of the era’s biggest singles. In 1981, he duetted with Freddie Mercury on the ice-cold classic Under Pressure. Then, in 1985, as part of the Live Aid project, he collaborated with Mich Jagger on Dancing in the Streets.
Bowie in the ‘90s
After three decades of pursuing solo stardom, the ‘90s saw Bowie step back from the limelight and attempt to re-establish himself as a member of a collective. The result was Tin Machine, an experimental guitar group that went on to release two albums, both of which were met with a mixed critical reception.
Now firmly established as one of pop’s living legends, Bowie spent much of the decade experimenting with new genres and an industrial aesthetic - a sound typified by the drum and bass influenced Earthling and the Brian Eno collaboration, Outside. Bowie’s Black Tie White Noise LP also demonstrated a keen appreciation for jazz, while his championing of alternative rock bands, such as Nine Inch Nails, the Pixies and Sonic Youth, showed that he retained a good ear for emerging talent.
Bowie in the ‘00s and ‘10s
At the turn of the millennium, Bowie was entering his mid-50s and still releasing albums. However, the first half of the decade was most notable for several high-profile live performances, including a glorious return to Glastonbury Festival, the Concert for New York City in the wake of the 9/11 attacks, and his final live UK appearance at the IOW Festival in 2004.
Following health complications, Bowie stepped back from recording and touring until 2013, when he released The Next Day. The album ranked amongst the best of the year and seemed to solidify Bowie’s position as an elder statesman of pop who refused to allow age to get in the way of his endless evolution.
On Bowie’s 69th birthday, he released his final album Blackstar. Two days later, he passed away, leaving behind an enduring musical legacy and having changed the lives of music fans around the world. A complex, otherworldly album built upon eerie, electronic soundscapes that incorporated influences from contemporary artists like Kendrick Lamar, Boards of Canada and D’Angelo, Blackstar was intended as Bowie’s parting gift to listeners.
In the end, it was much more than that. It’s an album that encapsulates the ability of one of history’s greatest artists to create challenging, exciting and revolutionary music, time and time again. It was the perfect curtain call for a performer who defined the sound of the 20th Century.