For previous generations it might have been seeing Elvis or The Beatles on The Ed Sullivan Show. For many of my generation, growing up in the early 1970s, our musical epiphany was on Thursday, July 6, 1972 – the night David Bowie sang Starman on Top Of The Pops and changed rock music forever.
It was, given the huge audience and influence that TOTP had in those pre-cable, pre-internet, pre-gender fluid days, a jaw-dropping performance. With his spiky orange hair, space-age clobber and androgynous appearance, Bowie looked and sounded like no pop star had ever done before. Shocked Middle England (TOTP was a weekly, almost religious prime-time family ritual back then) had certainly seen nothing like it. I remember my father saying he was “not sure if he was a boy or a girl” (a prescient observation that I like to think Bowie swiped a few years later for Rebel Rebel). For a 14-year-old, it all seemed thrillingly subversive.
Bowie was not completely unknown to us, of course. He’d had a big chart hit with Space Oddity three years earlier and his 1971 album Hunky Dory, featuring Bowie in flowing shoulder-length locks on the cover, had made a critical stir. But it was the followup, The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust & The Spiders From Mars, from which Starman was taken, and Bowie’s startling transformation into his alter ego Ziggy that made him a phenomenon.
Modern, futuristic and impossibly glamourous, Ziggy was a brash and flashy antidote to the pretentious self-indulgence that much of rock music had become at the time. It is still one of my top ten albums of all time and to this day rarely a month goes past when I don’t play something from it.
More important to kids my age, who tried (usually with laughable results) to ape that feathered hairstyle, he was ours. We had missed out on the Swinging Sixties so as great as The Beatles and The Stones were, they belonged to our older brothers and sisters. Bowie was undeniably a genuine 70s star, both of his time and – as he would prove again and again over the next 40 years or more – frequently beyond it. For the next 10 years, his music was the soundtrack to our lives.
Whatever other music we liked – and there was a ton of great stuff around at the time – Bowie was always The Man, a true artist, sharply dressed, enigmatic, acutely intelligent and always, it seemed, several steps ahead of everyone else. When punk and new wave laid waste to the rock landscape in the late 70s, Bowie was one of the few superstars to emerge with his credibility not only intact but enhanced as a major influence on a new generation.
Even before the historic TOTP appearance, he was a legend at Friars, an unlikely trendsetting club in the market town of Aylesbury near my home of Chesham in rural Buckinghamshire. Bowie loved Friars and it was in its sweaty little hall that he premiered Hunky Dory in 1971 and in January 1972 played one of the early Ziggy gigs – both are still spoken about in reverential tones by anyone lucky enough to have been there (You can hear the full 1971 gig here and view clips from the 1972 show here). I wasn’t old enough to go to Friars until I was 15 but all of us still felt a special connection to Bowie. You can’t tell any of us that on Five Years, one of the great tracks on Ziggy, that Bowie wasn’t writing about Aylesbury when he was “pushing through the Market Square”.
What set Bowie apart then and ever afterwards was that he was never content to stay in one place artistically. For long-term fans, keeping up with him has been both exhilarating and infuriating. We were distraught when he killed off Ziggy; shocked then mesmerised when he released a funk-soul album, Young Americans; bemused then bewitched by the Berlin trilogy of Low, Heroes and Lodger.
His prodigious body of work from Hunky Dory (1971) through to 1983’s Let’s Dance – 11 albums (plus covers album Pin Ups), is staggering for its sheer creative breadth, let alone output and success. Few artists in history have covered so much ground in such a short period – and that’s not including his acting career.
While his subsequent output was less memorable, his return after a 10-year absence with The Next Day in 2013 and Blackstar (released just two days before he died) was both unexpected and triumphant. Even pushing 70, he was still exploring new ground and the remarkable results were arguably his best work in 30 years.
I was lucky enough to see him in concert (at Wembley on the Station To Station Tour in 1976) and met him briefly here in Bermuda, managing a nervous nod and “Hello David” at the old Surf Club in Hamilton in the late 1990s. Had I tried to say more, it would only have been an embarrassing gush “…ohmyGod – Imoneofyourbiggestfans – Ivegoteverythingyouveeverdone (except for The Laughing Gnome and that crap you did with Tin Machine of course)”.
He and wife Iman rented Seaview, on Cambridge Road, Somerset for a few years and he recorded part of his 1999 album Hours in a home studio there with legendary Bermudian drummer Andy Newmark among the musicians. We tried to interview him for RG Magazine during that period but were politely rebuffed by his management. By this stage of his career, Bowie valued his privacy more than ever and, like John Lennon before him, found that Bermuda afforded even a star of his magnitude a degree of anonymity and respectful respite from the harsh glare of celebrity. [For more about Bowie’s time in Bermuda, see The Royal Gazette’s coverage.]
For so many of us David Bowie was The Prettiest Star. Few artists have ever burned as brightly and left such a legacy of memorable music. We won’t see his like again.
Look up here, I’m in heaven
I’ve got scars that can’t be seen
I’ve got drama, can’t be stolen
Everybody knows me now
(from Lazarus, 2016)