A Newcomer’s Rough, Incomplete Guide To David Bowie
Posted on January 11, 2016
January 11, 2016 | by Bryne Yancey
It’s impossible to comprehensively contextualize or measure David Bowie’s impact on popular culture. It is sweeping, indelible, all-encompassing, yet here we are, attempting to do so anyway.
Bowie, who passed away Monday, two days after his 69th birthday, a week after the release of his final LP Blackstar, 18 months after a previously undisclosed cancer diagnosis, died as he lived: unexpectedly, but also as classic Bowie, with a calculated, emphatic, perpetually forward-thinking—if a little strange—artistic statement.
Bowie released 27 albums between 1967 and 2016, many of them full of wonderful, beautiful risks a weaker, more complacent artist wouldn’t dare take. Lack of complacency, in his case, and lack of comfort weren’t mutually exclusive; if anything, Bowie seemed to be maybe the most comfortable of us all, gliding through persona after persona, one outlandish outfit after the next. He played up sexual ambiguity and androgyny long before any other bonafide rock star did. Rock ‘n roll, in its formative years, was likely considered dangerous by some of the general public, even if most of the bands were, in hindsight, full of straight white men writing fairly normal, structured pop songs. The only inherent danger was in how they were a little louder, I guess. The Beatles wrote hundreds of great songs, but until they started doing drugs and grew mustaches, they were total normies, man. Bowie came along in the following decade, but no one would’ve ever mistaked him for a normie. There was, is, something about him that no one could quite get a handle on. He wrote and recorded some of the catchiest, most emotionally vulnerable music of the 1970s and all time, but for all the affecting moments he created, there was still an innate aloofness about him. His oddness both made him the voice of a generation of weirdos unsure about themselves and their wants and emotions, but it also, in a way, made him unattainable. It’s hard to think of another artist who forged such a personal connection with so many people without sacrificing any of the characteristics that made them them.
It’s possible, likely even, that a lot of you reading this have only a superficial familiarity with Bowie. We’re all pretty young, I think. I wasn’t around for Bowie’s Ziggy Stardust period, the Berlin trilogy, the Thin White Duke, none of it. It’s fine. I’m a somewhat recent Bowie fan myself—southern rock, country and heavy metal were more common genres in my house growing up—but as I’ve gotten older, I’ve come to recognize and appreciate his aforementioned impact and influence. It is in nearly every forward-thinking, and even some backward-thinking, piece of art we consume now. Bowie’s discography is pretty rewarding across the board and worth seeking out, but if you’re unfamiliar, awash in tributes today and are unsure of where to start, I’d suggest 1970’s The Man Who Sold The World, which has a title track (and riff, Jesus, that riff) you probably recognize and is where he really began to come into his own as an artist. It’s considered by many to be the first real glam rock record, which was one of the most important progenitors to what would become punk rock. Listen to it through headphones if you can and try to wrap your head around how much is just happening throughout, but recognize how calculatedly spacial it is, how it never feels busy.
From there, it’s perfectly fine, encouraged even, to jump right into 1971’s Hunky Dory, arguably Bowie’s first avant-garde pop record. You’ll probably recognize “Changes,” but the album as a whole seems an abstract reaction to the commercial trappings of FM rock music of the era. “Life On Mars?” is maybe the weirdest piano ballad of all time; it’s ostensibly a love song, but you can pretty much decipher whatever you want from those lyrics.
1972’s The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars was Bowie’s first foray into dense, conceptual storytelling, inverted by some of the most accessible material of his career. You’ll probably recognize “Ziggy Stardust,” “Starman” and “Suffragette City,” some of the catchiest rock songs ever performed from the perspective of a fictional, androgynous, extraterristrial rock star.
1973’s Aladdin Sane was Ziggy’s more muscular companion. The riffs hit harder, in fact, the entire album is just louder, even as it veers into weirder territory for the era. Bowie’s vocal performance on “Panic in Detroit” is one of his best, wily, assured, but with a tinge of palpable, shaky uncertainty quivering underneath the surface.
1974’s Diamond Dogs was Bowie’s last real glam rock record, and is worth checking out for the sheer grandeur of “Sweet Thing” alone. This was Bowie at the height of his vocal powers. Shit’s wild. Diamond Dogs also features another song and iconic riff you maybe already know, “Rebel Rebel.”
1976’s Station To Station, Bowie’s defining LP under the Thin White Duke persona, will knock you off your feet, especially if you’re listening to its opening title track through headphones. In an era full of classic Lie On Your Bedroom Floor And Stare At The Ceiling songs, it’s one of the best.
From there, I always reach for 1977’s ‘Heroes’, and especially the title track, which despite being one of Bowie’s more ubiquitous hits, remains a dense, impossibly moving pop song. Bowie took many forms throughout his career, but his performance here, passionate, uplifting, vulnerable, is best played as loudly as you can stand it.