David Bowie: Ziggy and his golden years

David Bowie began by inspiring a generation. Now that he is 60, he is still a pioneer, says Andy Gill - as one of the few veteran pop stars who haven't lost their edge
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The Independent Culture

Thanks to advancements in medical science, and the demographic blip of the post-war baby-boom, it's no longer that much of a novelty when a rock star turns 60. What makes David Bowie's admission to his seventh decade remarkable, however, is that he has reached that milestone while still in the saddle, so to speak: unlike most of his contemporaries, he has never considered early retirement, and never ceased releasing music that paws away at the cutting edge of popular culture, wherever that might be at any particular point.

As evidence, one need search no further than the extensive tranche of Bowie albums, ranging from The Man Who Sold The World to Scary Monsters (And Super Creeps), being reissued to mark his birthday, a burst of sustained creativity unrivalled by any of his peers.

Most successful rockers of a certain age fall prey to the grumpy pessimism of changing fashion, grumbling about the young whippersnappers inevitably supplanting them in the public's affections, as they retire to their manor houses to wear green wellies and raise trout. The fortunate few whose legend has become deeply ingrained enough in the cultural consciousness (and whose band has not been too depleted by the Grim Reaper) occupy themselves with periodic pension-scheme performances of their former glories.

But it's hard to think of more than an elite handful of sexagenarian rockers who have remained artistically _engaged throughout their career. There is Bob Dylan, of course, and the supporting troubadour trinity of Neil Young, Leonard Cohen and Van Morrison; James Brown; and that's about it. Even such geniuses as Stevie Wonder and Brian Wilson have experienced deep sloughs of creative despond in the past few decades, but Bowie always managed to surf the crest of whatever wave was current, even managing to pique public interest with his ill-judged Tin Machine project.

The main reason commonly cited to explain Bowie's creative longevity is his shape-changing ability, the way he has switched guises, killing off such beloved characters as Ziggy Stardust, Aladdin Sane and the Thin White Duke in order to pursue some fresh direction - a strategy more recently aped by Madonna, albeit with rather less difference in the resulting product. But that would, in itself, only extend his appeal to somewhere in the mid-1980s, since when he has adopted the standard besuited mode appropriate to one of advancing years. Clearly, the affection in which he continues to be held goes somewhat deeper than mere clothes.

Bowie's enduring appeal probably has more to do with the literally life-changing impact of his early work on a generation seeking guidance, as the established verities of the peace-and-love counter-culture crumbled under the impact of the Altamont and the Manson Family. In an era whose dominant style-statement was the navy-blue ex-army greatcoat, his peacock presence offered a figurehead to the more fanciful, just as his daring gender-play helped thousands of gay men out of the closet.

But it wasn't just the fashion-conscious and gays who were affected. Unlike most of his fellow glam-rockers, Bowie had the intelligence to underpin his gaudy theatrical surfaces with substantial, thought-provoking content, introducing millions to writers like Jean Genet and George Orwell and art movements such as Surrealism and Expressionism. The effect on working-class culture was probably as profound as that of the post-war grammar-school system. There was suddenly an army of not-so-fey young things professing an interest not just in cosmetics and fabrics, but also in the likes of Friedrich Nietzsche and Andy Warhol and Kraftwerk and Werner Herzog. As with Bob Dylan in the previous decade, David Bowie helped countless former class-clowns, school failures and other late starters develop their own education, by offering pointers to artists and interests that might stimulate. A generation of autodidacts owes him a debt.

One of his most important and far-reaching effects was the way in which his role-changing introduced a meta-textual element to rock'n'roll. After Ziggy Stardust, it was almost impossible to hear rock music, or watch a pop performer, without (perhaps unconsciously) being aware of the underlying artifice, the role of the artist, the relationship of the star to their fans, and the various other factors that enabled the art to work. Back then, nobody used the term "demystification", because no-one had read Barthes and Foucault, but David Bowie had managed to instill the notion into millions of fans.

It was a double-edged achievement, however. From that point on, we could no longer simply enjoy a record or a performance, because we had been made painfully aware of the machinations that were necessary to create it. Almost overnight, the illusions that sustained so much of pop and rock were dissolved, leaving poodle-haired heavy-metal fantasists, earnest prog-rockers, and many of Bowie's fellow glam-rockers aground on their presumptions. It was the single most important factor in the subsequent development of punk, a genre so painfully self-aware and intrinsically critical that it swiftly became mired in Stalinist proscriptions and withered.

Not, of course, that any of this affected Bowie's popularity. For years he had been releasing records that served head, heart and feet equally, that satisfied the usually conflicting desires for a good tune, a danceable beat, and a thought-provoking lyric, and he continued to do so even under the scorched-earth reign of punk. This was only what he deserved, the punk constituency being about 99-per-cent composed of former glam-rock fans.

Indeed, it was during the punk era that he made the three albums on which much of his reputation continues to rest. Station To Station, Low and "Heroes" are Bowie's equivalent of Dylan's electric trilogy, the transforming peaks of his career, and the rarefied heights by which any subsequent work will forever be judged. With these albums, Bowie became the cultural barometer par excellence, feeding on the cutting-edge concepts of the day, from alienation to video technology to Krautrock, and transforming them, with no loss of aesthetic validity, into palatable, commercially lucrative pop of the highest order. They were the sound of the future being built, and we're still living in that future today.

The best of Bowie

Hunky Dory (1971)

The breakthrough album which, following the widespread bafflement that greeted the heavy rock of The Man Who Sold The World a few months before, announced Bowie as a significant artist. Alongside future pop classics such as "Oh You Pretty Things" and "Life On Mars?" could be found potted assessments of Dylan and Warhol.

The Rise And Fall Of Ziggy Stardust And The Spiders From Mars (1972)

As rock operas go, it has better tunes than Tommy and none of the grotesque bombast of Bat Out Of Hell, concentrating instead on delivering a simple tale dramatically and stylishly.

Station To Station (1976)

In which the Thin White Duke returned, throwing darts in lovers' eyes and bearing the luggage of his new-found fascination with Krautrock. Much of the album is rooted in a funky variant of the classic Neu! beat, and there's even a love song to his new video camera, "TVC15". But the album still retains, in "Golden Years", the slickest remnant of his retro-soul style.

Low (1977)

Bowie decamped to Berlin with Brian Eno, the man best equipped to effect a bridge between Krautrock's sonic avant-garde and Bowie's own unerring pop and funk instincts.

Heroes (1977)

The second of Bowie's Berlin trilogy is more visceral and positive overall than the melancholy Low, but repeats that album's format, with the rock tracks on one side and the more contemplative, atmospheric pieces on the other.

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