Over 40 years, David Bowie has repeatedly reinvented himself, pursuing the idea that all pop is artifice. Graeme Thomson surveys the career of a revered innovator
Forty years ago this month, David Bowie made his first ever appearance on Top of the Pops, singing "Space Oddity" from Lime Grove Studios in west London. Despite a performance that travelled some light years beyond fey, suggesting that he would have trouble opening an umbrella, never mind traversing far-flung galaxies, the single climbed to number five. It was the first step in a career that would position Bowie as the shape-shifting, gender-hopping, zeitgeist-jumping pop star in excelsis.
The central image in "Space Oddity", with Major Tom cast adrift in his "tin can", has proved particularly resonant. Bowie's music is one long song of dislocation, disconnection and recurring identity crisis. Haunted by a genetic predisposition to mental illness that led his half-brother Terry into schizophrenia, asylums and suicide, he has always seemed afraid to sit too long in one place. Aged 22 in 1969, the erstwhile David Jones had already bolted through several undistinguished incarnations - quiffed R'n'B band leader, king mod, hippie, sub-Anthony Newley vaudevillian, mime artist - before landing somewhere between Bolan and Bob Dylan, yet another London art-school boy with crazy hair, a 12-string guitar and a penchant for forming "Arts Laboratories" in the function rooms of Beckenham pubs.
In some respects "Space Oddity" was a false dawn, widely regarded as an opportunistic novelty number timed to coincide with the moon shot. Bowie, meanwhile, never felt at ease playing the winsome acoustic troubadour. Bored by the "denim hell" and frayed authenticity of the likes of Led Zeppelin, he eventually hitched his wagon to the overt theatricality of glam rock, creating Ziggy Stardust, the quintessential Bowie construct. Incorporating elements of mime, kabuki and the droogs as portrayed in Stanley Kubrick's Clockwork Orange, Ziggy was the ultimate representation of pop-star-as-alien, driven by the robust buzz-saw guitar riffs of Mick Ronson. Three years after the first, Bowie's second appearance on Top of the Pops was genuinely iconoclastic, his performance of "Starman" denoting 1972 as Year Zero for a generation of punks, Goths, new wavers and New Romantics.
Having achieved lift-off, Bowie followed through on his promise to make a "wild mutation" as a rock'n'roll star. Only five years passed between 1971's Hunky Dory and the corrupted Aryan beauty of Station to Station, but in that time Bowie bounced from hokey folk to glam to hard rock to frigid Eurodisco, mutating en route into Aladdin Sane, Hallowe'en Jack and the Thin White Duke.
Falling on each emerging trend - disco, Philly soul, electronic minimalism, new wave - as it stole into view, he was a magpie with a priceless knack for pinching ideas from the cultural margins and siphoning them into the mainstream through his own work. One biographer defined him as a "style vampire", a mannequin dressed in a series of beautiful, borrowed clothes. "Some people say Bowie is all surface style and second-hand ideas," said Brian Eno, his on-off collaborator for three decades. "But that sounds like a definition of pop to me."
He certainly looked and acted the part. Sexually voracious - when he met his first wife, Angie, in 1969 they were famously "fucking the same bloke" - he was impossibly thin and vampiric, those fangs and odd, mismatched eyes emitting an unearthly vibe. Like all great pop stars, he contrived to paint the grim grind of sustained drug-taking as a vaguely noble quest, a way of seeking new dimensions rather than making emergency repairs to a fractured psyche. In Bowie's case, mired in cocaine addiction, those dimensions involved dystopian visions where the occult, the Holy Grail and fascism met in some futuristic, Ballardian hell.
Recovering in Berlin from these nightmares in 1976 and 1977, Bowie made the most influential records of his career. Low and "Heroes" were dense, pensive, occasionally hilarious works marrying US R'n'B with the electronic Euro pulse of Neu and Kraftwerk. Lodger (1979) and Scary Monsters (1980) concluded his journey from secluded drug dependency to boisterous commercial rejuvenation, but after that his creativity crumbled. The hugely successful Let's Dance (1983) and his triumphant performance at Live Aid in 1985 marked a commercial pinnacle, but everything had become too bright, brash and easy to digest. He later formed Tin Machine, a blokey, democratic, four-to-the-floor experiment in rock orthodoxy that was the stubbly antithesis of every hope he ever stood for.
The 1980s and early 1990s were a creative waste ground from which, perhaps not coincidentally, Bowie salvaged a degree of personal stability. He cleaned up his act - no drugs, no alcohol - and married the Somali model Iman in 1992. He found new ways to be creative and remained a devoted early adopter, harnessing the power of the internet in the early 1990s while the world was busy doting on the reductive joys of grunge. His two most recent albums - 2002's Heathen and Reality in 2003 - were easily his best in 20 years.
The gathering momentum of Bowie's third act was halted abruptly in June 2004 when he suffered a minor heart attack. In the five years since, his profile has steadily diminished. There are whispers that, at 62, pop's Dorian Gray is at last succumbing to the vagaries of ageing. Sightings are rare, all interview requests are politely rebuffed, and his press office confirms there are no plans on the horizon for any new material.
If he has indeed slipped off into unannounced retirement, Bowie leaves plenty on which to chew. Pop's foremost individualist, he is not a man whose life and music encourage neat conclusions. There are few clear lines: the divisions between gay and straight, innovator and thief, bright'n'bouncy pop star and experimental outsider artist are often blurred. His determination to incorporate elements of theatre, literature, sci-fi, visual art and computer technology into his work ensures his artistic legacy is both complex and hard to overstate.
His rich basso profundo was appropriated wholesale as the voice of Goth; his style, glamour and pale androgyny made him the godfather of the New Romantics; his blend of electronics and guitar virtually invented new wave. Gary Numan and Brett Anderson owe him the kind of blood debt that can never be repaid, while everyone from Kurt Cobain, Placebo and Of Montreal to Philip Glass, Lady Gaga and the Killers has cited a direct influence.
Bowie is easy to parody (witness the recent superb spoof by Flight of the Conchords) but essentially inimitable. It can be forgotten that underneath the dazzling visual incarnations and sometimes dubious aesthetics lies a singularly talented singer and musician. Nobody writes songs like Bowie, strange affairs with unconventional chord patterns and bizarre, unpredictable melodies, held together by that imperious voice, leaping across keys or slipping into a meticulously contrived sarf Lahndan twang.
We needn't blame him for the many atrocities committed in his name, nor linger too long on his own misdemeanours. Observing the high-concept albums, contemporary art shows and existential lyrics objectively, it is easy to accuse Bowie of peddling ideas above pop's station. Although he has often made himself seem ridiculous, I must confess to cherishing his stumbles almost as much as his giant steps. They are part of the package, further expressions of an admirable fearlessness.
Above all, I love how Bowie has never succumbed to peddling "sincerity", the dread, dishonest concept that creeps into the body of pop and calcifies its bones. All great pop is artifice, and Bowie stands as the Platonic ideal: a glorious, fluid, preposterous, inspired, contrived fabrication that changed the outline of our cultural terrain permanently.
“In art you can crash your plane and walk away from it. If you have that chance, you should take it." Coming from anyone else - Madonna, or, more likely, Bono - this would be laughably delusional. From Bowie's lips, amid the carefully calibrated doses of pretension and preciousness, it has the sharp tang of truth. If he has destroyed more conceptual jumbo jets than he or we may care to recall, that is simply the price of flying so high, so far, for so long.
“Space Oddity (40th Anniversary)" is out now on EMI
Graeme Thomson's biography of Kate Bush will be published next May by Omnibus