On January 8, 1947, David Robert Haywood Jones was born in London, England. By the 1960s, Jones had changed his name and launched one of the most diverse and long-lasting music careers of any artist ever. David Bowie transcended genres, reinvented himself numerous times, and continued to make relevant music for six decades. Few musicians have or ever will match his creative output. On what would be Bowie’s 74th birthday, let’s take a look back at the Thin White Duke’s amazing career.
David Bowie – Space Oddity
David Bowie played in a few trendy bands that never made it during his later teenage years before going solo in the late ’60s. He studied the dramatic arts at an avant-garde theatre, and its influence would stick with him for his entire career. Bowie immersed himself in different personas, whether by his own physical appearance or the themes of his music.
1969’s Space Oddity, Bowie’s second album, is a folk-rock album inspired by director Stanley Kubrick’s 2001:A Space Odyssey. The album introduces his first character, a fictional astronaut named Major Tom. The interpretation of Major Tom ended up taking numerous turns throughout Bowie’s career as he revisited the character. However, the album and its lead single paired perfectly with the times. The single utilizes a full countdown to launch sequence in the song’s introduction. And its iconic lyrics of “Ground Control to Major Tom” resonated, especially since Apollo 11 launched only five days after the album’s release.
The Man Who Sold the World
Following his mostly acoustic second album, his third album took a different musical turn. 1970’s The Man Who Sold the World traded in folk-rock for a more bluesy heavy rock sound with a backing band. The lyrics are much darker as well. They explore themes of insanity, religion, war, and technology. In addition, Bowie references schizophrenia, paranoia, and delusion.
By this point, Bowie’s appearance had become androgynous. He featured his ambiguity in a somewhat controversial album cover photo for the times. The pop singer is reclined on a chaise lounge in a cream and blue satin full-length dress. He took the dress with him and wore it in promotional interviews. He also wore it in the streets at times with mixed reactions. Rolling Stone‘s John Mendelsohn described Bowie as “ravishing, almost disconcertingly reminiscent of Lauren Bacall.”
Years later, the legendary grunge rock band Nirvana covered the title track during their famous 1994 MTV Unplugged performance.
The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars
For Bowie’s fifth studio album, he went back to space and combined hard rock with experimental pop elements. His newest alter ego was of a fiery-haired alien rock star who came to Earth before an impending apocalyptic disaster. The satirical Ziggy Stardust character propelled Bowie into stardom.
Bowie’s wild fashion as Ziggy Stardust made the character and the artist himself staples of the glam rock scene. His influence lasted well into the 1970s and defined what the genre would become. The success of the character and its iconic look, along with rave reviews for his live performances, helped the album become the second best-selling record of his entire career.
In 1973, Bowie killed off Ziggy Stardust and had moved on to his next persona, the edgy Aladdin Sane. Yet, the British musician took an even larger leap musically after going to the United States and diving into the sound of Philadelphia soul.
His ninth studio album, 1975’s Young Americans, moved away from the glam rock style of Bowie’s previous albums. Instead, it highlighted his newfound interests in soul and R&B. The album featured a roster of funk and soul musical talents that included guitarist Carlos Alomar and a young Luther Vandross. Young Americans was a complete change for Bowie and showed off how diverse of a talent he had become. The album’s exuberant dance floor-filler single “Fame” reached No. 1 on the Billboard charts, which was co-written by the iconic Beatles frontman John Lennon.
1976-1979: The Berlin Era
After living in Los Angeles, CA for a while, the artist spiraled out of control with a cocaine addiction. Bowie decided on a change of scenery and followed the burgeoning German music scene to West Berlin. While in Berlin, he cleaned up and revitalized his career – once again.
He worked with famed producer Brian Eno while sharing an apartment with punk rock legend Iggy Pop. His idea of musical composition shifted, and he began to focus on minimalist, ambient music for his next three albums. Bowie moved away from narration in his songwriting to a more abstract musical form. Song’s lyrics became sporadic and even optional at times. The three albums Bowie made in Germany are Low, “Heroes” and Lodger, and became known as his Berlin Trilogy.
1980’s Bowie – Let’s Dance and a Collab With Queen
Bowie went into the ’80s by transforming his music once again, and even collaborated with another famous British rock group. The Starman himself paired with Queen for 1981’s one-off single, “Under Pressure.” The duet with Queen’s iconic lead singer, Freddie Mercury, shot up the charts. It became Bowie’s third UK No. 1 single.
Following his Queen collaboration, Bowie reached the peak of his popularity and commercial success with his 15th studio album. 1983’s Let’s Dance is Bowie’s highest-selling album of all time. The album earned platinum status in both the UK and America. The three singles off the album all became Top 20 hits in both countries, and the title track reached No. 1.
For arguably the first time since he was a teenager, Bowie embraced the mainstream on Let’s Dance. The album followed and excelled at utilizing many of the musical trends often heard in ’80s pop. Many consider the album to be Bowie at his absolute best musically. That said, some consider this to be the last great period of his music career. Rolling Stone later called this “the conclusion of arguably the greatest 14-year run in rock history.”
Blackstar – The Last Days of David Bowie
Bowie continued to release albums throughout the next few decades to mixed reviews. Yet, a surprise album release on Bowie’s 69th birthday saw Bowie continue to explore new sounds. His jazz-induced journey on Blackstar – his 25th and final studio album – stunned fans and was met with critical acclaim.
He even shot a music video for the title track, which released in unison with the new album. A blindfolded Bowie offered words on both life and death; a foreshadowing of his own death that shook fans only two days later on Jan. 10, 2016. Bowie had been fighting a private battle with cancer and passed away at age 69. Music writer Graeme Thomson summed up how millions of Bowie’s fans felt after hearing of David Bowie’s abrupt death.
“We were so thrilled to have him back, we failed to notice he was saying goodbye,” Thomson wrote.