News of his death shocks the music world as his struggle with cancer had previously not been made public knowledge
The world of music was left reeling this morning with the news that David Bowie has died, just a couple of days after his 69th birthday. His death comes after a hitherto undisclosed 18-month battle with cancer.
Born David Robert Jones in Brixton on 8 January 1947, he began his musical career as the teenaged singer in 60s mod/R&B outfits The Konrads, Davie Jones & The King Bees, The Manish Boys and David Bowie & The Lower Third. For the latter band he changed his name to Bowie to avoid confusion with Monkees singer Davy Jones, taking ‘Bowie’ from the famous knife used by pioneers in the wild west, and this was the name he would stick with when embarking on a solo career in the late 60s.
Early albums David Bowie, Space Oddity, The Man Who Sold The World and Hunky Dory garnered him a loyal cult following and spawned several hit singles, but his career really took off internationally with 1972’s The Rise And Fall Of Ziggy Stardust & The Spiders From Mars, which saw him at the very apex of the early 70s glam rock movement. The albums Aladdin Sane, Pin Ups and Diamond Dogs followed a similar musical path, before 1975’s Young Americans saw a move to a smoother, more soul- and funk-influenced sound, to which he would add the synthesizers and ‘motorik’ rhythms of Krautrock on 1976’s Station To Station.
A move to Berlin in the late 70s saw him working with Brian Eno and Tony Visconti to produce three of his most experimental and most critically acclaimed albums: Low, Heroes and Lodger, commonly referred to as ‘the Berlin trilogy’. But 1980 saw another change of direction, as the synth-led Scary Monsters & Super Creeps helped usher in the new romantic era. Lead single Ashes To Ashes also featured a striking video (featuring a brief appearance by none other than Steve Strange) that is widely regarded as an early high watermark for the artform.
1983’s Let’s Dance marked a move into more mainstream pop territory – this period was the most commercially successful of his career, though Bowie would later describe it as a low point artistically. So another shift in direction was on the cards in the late 80s, as he formed the rock band Tin Machine. He continued to experiment throughout the 90s, notably with 1997’s Earthling, which saw him dabbling in drum & bass, and 1999’s Hours, the first complete album by a mainstream artist to be sold as a digital download.
After 2002’s Reality he took a break from recording, but in 2013 he made a triumphant surprise return with The Next Day. That was followed in 2016 by Blackstar, released on his 69th birthday just two days before his death – an album that, even before the sad news broke, was already being hailed by many critics as the best of his career.
As a songwriter, Bowie is perhaps most famous for his use of ‘cut-ups’, whereby he would write phrases and words on pieces of paper and rearrange them until he was happy with the (seemingly random) results. Though he freely admitted borrowing the technique from the avant garde author William S Burroughs, it’s thanks to the lad from Brixton that this method of finding inspiration is often mentioned in many songwriting courses to this day.
His musical influence more generally is impossible to overstate, with everyone from Joy Division to Kanye West citing him as a key inspiration. His 1972 Top Of The Pops appearance with Starman alone – which you can see below – is often mentioned by leading musicians as being the moment they first got the urge to pursue a career in rock ’n’ roll.
The musical landscape will truly be the poorer for his absence. RIP a genuine legend of British music.