Perhaps you’ve seen this:
He’s back! Earlier this month, David Bowie released a new album, The Next Day, along with two singles whose videos have gotten a lot of attention. It’s quickly become a good seller and has gotten lots of critical praise.
And, unless you’ve been living in a cave a hundred miles away from any teenagers or teenagers-at-heart, you may have also encountered a film featuring a climactic scene of a truck full of high school wallflowers dangerously driving through the Fort Pitt Tunnel with Bowie’s Cold War classic Heroes blasting on the radio. (A directorial cheap trick in my opinion; they could have been riding the T to the South Hills Village Mall with that song playing and I still would get chills.)
One of my favorite radio DJs, Pseu Braun, once said of the Who that they’re a classic rock enigma, a band equally beloved by geeky music nerd types and by the jocks who stuff them into their lockers. I think the same holds for Bowie. You’re as likely to hear his songs on WDVE‘s morning classic rock rotation as you are on the store stereo at a hip record store. I’m sure that this is partially because, like the Who, Bowie has had a long career. There’s likely to be something in there for everyone.
But what makes Bowie special — and probably the reason why, unlike some of his contemporaries, he hasn’t gone into semi-retirement by putting out covers records — is that he has continuously managed to put out records that make fans scratch their heads. It certainly doesn’t always work, at least from the standpoint of sales or critical praise. But it’s always interesting!
Bowie’s earliest stuff is mainly folk psychedelia (like Syd Barrett but not quite as strange), followed by some great glam rock that has continued to enjoy lots of airplay on commercial rock radio. Listening to a decent compilation, like the 2000 Bowie at the Beeb collection of his performances at the BBC between 1968-1972, you’ll begin to appreciate the skill with which Davey Jones became David Bowie, who rapidly morphed into Ziggy Stardust. The 1998 movie Velvet Goldmine is a fun, fictionalized account of these years in which characters representing Bowie, Iggy Pop, and Mark Bolan influence each other.
Bowie released some of his most popular albums in the early 70s. I think Aladdin Sane is the best example from this era — Bowie’s songwriting and voice are at their best, and Mick Ronson’s huge guitar sound is the perfect foil for Bowie’s restrained vocals.
And then, the second half of the 70s brought an astounding series of groundbreaking, intriguing, and hugely influential records. If the previous albums each represented a big step in his development of a musical style, Station to Station was like a big step onto a space ship. He then followed that up with a staggering statement, three Brian Eno-produced albums known collectively as the Berlin Trilogy. Low, Heroes, and The Lodger were recorded in Berlin in a fit of productivity that, in addition to yielding those masterpieces, also found Bowie helping to revive Iggy Pop’s career.
Bowie was a fixture on early MTV, with big hits from Scary Monsters and Let’s Dance. It was also during the 80s that Bowie gave us what is possibly his crowning achievement, the Magic Dance scene from Labyrinth.
The next 30 years, however, were sporadic. He put out some interesting records – Earthlings and Heathen had their moments, and his VH1 Storytellers is pretty incredible. But he certainly slowed down, which is what makes the new album such a treat.
Which David Bowie do you like best?