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Bowie, David

Entry updated 29 April 2024. Tagged: Music, People.

(1947-2016) UK musician and actor, latterly resident in the US. Born David Robert Jones, Bowie was one of the most successful and famous pop stars of the 1970s, known as much for his often sf-themed role-playing as for his talents as a singer-songwriter. After some early unmemorable releases Bowie broke through with the single "Space Oddity" (recorded quickly and released in July 1969 to cash in on the Moon landing); it reached #5 in the UK charts, and after a successful re-release in the US in 1973 (where its highest chart position was #15) it was issued again in the UK, reaching the #1 spot in 1975. The song, in part inspired by elements in Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), follows the voyage of astronaut "Major Tom" through the elation of his launch to his elegant despair at being marooned in space. With some irony, it is used to propel a montage sequence, in Ridley Scott's The Martian (2015), designed to prepare viewers for the triumphant rescue of the stranded astronaut who dominates the film. Bowie's next project also embroidered a sf narrative: influenced by the Kabuki theatre's focus on stylized performative roles, meant to be enacted both on-stage and off, he created the persona "Ziggy Stardust" for the 1972 album Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars, and toured extensively with him in a stage-show thereafter. Ziggy is a Martian (see Mars) who foresees Earth's destruction and travels here to save the planet with the power of his left-handed guitar playing. Bowie's thumping, joyous rock-based music brilliantly accompanies the narrative of excess that leads this Messiah-figure through rock-and-roll hedonism to his inevitable doom. Attractive though this music is, arguably the most significant feature of Ziggy was Bowie's full embodiment, in performance and life, of a thoroughly-realized science-fictional persona.

The success of this album, and its tour, endangered Bowie's own sanity: "I fell for Ziggy too," he later said; "I became Ziggy Stardust. David Bowie went totally out the window. Everybody was convincing me that I was a Messiah, especially on that first American tour. I got hopelessly lost in the fantasy." Bowie publicly retired the persona at the end of 1973, replacing him with a similarly drug-addicted character called "Aladdin Sane" for a thus-titled album and tour. Diamond Dogs (1974) began life as a musical version of George Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949), but when Bowie was unable to obtain the rights to this title he reworked what he had (including a song actually entitled "1984") into a concept-album about a future Dystopian Britain. For many, the stomping rock-and-roll melodrama of this work represents Bowie's most significant achievement.

Bowie's credentials as a space Alien were so well established in popular culture that he barely had to act in the title character of Nicolas Roeg's film The Man Who Fell to Earth (1976). A new performance persona followed, spun-off from this role, "The Thin White Duke", who first appeared in Bowie's next album Station to Station (1976). The cover of that album featured a still of Bowie in character from Roeg's film, although the sf-ness of its songs has to do with a general musical feel rather than any genre-specific lyrical content.

Subsequent 1970s albums were concerned with a more earthly perspective on fame and alienation, and in later decades Bowie became a more mainstream and upbeat artist. The UK and US #1 single "Ashes to Ashes" (from Scary Monsters and Super Creeps, 1980) resurrected the character of Major Tom from "Space Oddity", but figured him now only as a trope for drug abuse ("We know Major Tom's a junkie / Strung out in Heaven's high"). Career phases as a purveyor of poppy dance music, of derivative guitar-rock (in his band Tin Machine) and of drum-and-base sample music have generated a large number of albums, but nothing to rival his most influential, and enduring, 1970s work. More recently sf has started to creep back into Bowie's output. The Mark Romanek video for "Jump They Say" from Black Tie White Noise (1993) visualizes his lyrics in relation to Chris Marker's film La Jetée, La (1962) and Jean-Luc Godard's Alphaville (1965); and Outside (1995) concerns, obliquely, a future Dystopia in which "Art Crime" dominates. 1997's Earthling might, perhaps, be seen as sf (although the outsider perspective of many of its songs could be read without recourse to the sf implied in the title), and Bowie's Omikron: The Nomad Soul (1999) (see The Nomad Soul), a Videogame he helped design and for which he also wrote the soundtrack, is set in a rather conventionally realized Cyberpunk futuristic City (some of the music on this was also released on the 1999 album "hours ...").

Bowie played other genre film roles after The Man Who Fell to Earth (1976), including Jareth the Goblin King in the Fantasy movie Labyrinth (1986) and, notably, Nicola Tesla in The Prestige (2006). He was inducted into the Science Fiction Hall of Fame in 2013. [AR]

see also: When the Wind Blows.

David Robert Jones

born London: 8 January 1947

died New York: 10 January 2016

works (selected)

  • Space Oddity (Mercury Records, 1969) [na/]
  • The Man Who Sold the World (Mercury Records, 1970) [na/]
  • Hunky Dory (RCA, 1971) [na/]
  • The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars (RCA, 1972) [na/]
  • Aladdin Sane (RCA, 1973) [na/]
  • Diamond Dogs (RCA, 1974) [na/]
  • Young Americans (RCA, 1975) [na/]
  • Station to Station (RCA, 1976) [na/]
  • Low (RCA, 1977) [na/]
  • "Heroes" (RCA, 1977) [na/]
  • Lodger (RCA, 1979) [na/]
  • Scary Monsters ... And Super Creeps (RCA, 1980) [na/]
  • Let's Dance (EMI, 1983) [na/]
  • Black Tie White Noise (Virgin, 1993) [na/]
  • Outside (Sony, 1995) [na/]
  • Earthling (Sony, 1997) [also as EART HL I NG: na/]
  • "hours ..." (EMI, 1999) [na/]
  • Heathen (Sony, 2002) [na/]
  • Reality (Sony, 2003) [na/]
  • The Next Day (Sony, 2013) [na/]

about the performer


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