FEATURE: Life on Mars? Will We Ever See Another Icon Like David Bowie?



Life on Mars?


ALL PHOTOS (unless stated otherwise): Getty Images

Will We Ever See Another Icon Like David Bowie?


IT might not seem the timeliest of questions…


PHOTO CREDIT: Terry O'Neill/Getty Images

but David Bowie’s name is never too far from those who adore music. A couple of weeks ago, we had a bittersweet remembrance: on the 8th (January), we marked two years since Blackstar was released; two days later; we had to remember the two-year anniversary of Bowie’s death. In a distant world full of alienation (in our alien nation); there is an odd chill and loss following Bowie’s death. It is not as though we were all expecting something biblical back in 2016. Many could argue Bowie’s best days were past him: 2013’s The Next Day was a well-received album but it has been a while since a new Bowie album bowled critics over. His 2000s/2010s period is not considered his finest, I guess. Blackstar, however, changed the game. It was an extraordinary album (I should stop using the past-tense) that took everyone by surprise. We only had two days to absorb the album before Bowie’s death – a double-blow that people are still reeling from. 2016’s Blackstar was the last revelation and revolution from the wheel re-inventing songwriter. Although he was ailing and not long for the world; Bowie addresses death and vulnerability unlike any time in his career. It is one of the most experimental and ambitious records of his late-career cannon. Jazz horns and incredible sweep; epic songs that are among the most scintillating and stunning he has ever recorded. The fact he managed to record an album whilst suffering from cancer is amazing in itself.


The master did not want to let the illness to define him and rob his spirit! Of course, mortality and the afterlife were investigated by Bowie. In some numbers; he envisaged himself looking down from Heaven (or space) and viewing the world from the other side. It is heartbreaking to think we will not see another David Bowie album: a fresh incarnation that addresses a new phase in life. One of the biggest questions, following his death, is whether he can ever be replaced. Many see Bowie as a true original: a unique nebula that has changed music and popular culture but, in the manner he did it; meant there was nobody else who could match him. I am not saying we need a like-for-like Bowie clone: merely someone with the same endeavour, stylistic intelligence and evolutionary process I have chosen David Bowie because that evolution is not limited to the music: look at the fashion and ‘look’ of Bowie and here is a man who was always thinking about the next stage. Not only was the musician a talented actor but he was a painter and bit of a visionary. In early interviews; he forecast the effects the Internet would have on our lives; how it would change communications and take a much bigger role in society. Bowie’s meeting with Lindsay Kemp – who would have a big impact on Kate Bush’s life – introduced him to dance, theatre and the avant-garde.


This theatrical reawakening connected with a young man looking to forge a persona. It wasn’t until 1971’s Hunky Dory when we started to see the inventive and persona-led side of Bowie come through. His music was innovative before that – it was this album where we began to see sweeping Pop and that mix of low and highbrow. Sexuality, art and the kitsch were investigated through the album. Changes is, perhaps, the most autobiographical cut on the record: a song where strange and wonderful artistic revelations were blossoming inside the musician. Songs such as Life on Mars? and Queen Bitch opened eyes to a man who was unlike anything out there. He was, ironically, ‘out-there’ and on his own plain. 1972’s The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars is about a fictional androgynous, bisexual Rockstar who acts as a messenger for extra-terrestrial being. The character of ‘Ziggy’ is part-Iggy Pop and bits of British Rock ‘n’ Roll singer, Vince Taylor. Bowie wanted to create a character who was like an alien: someone who had dropped from Mars and was settling on Earth for the first time. The androgynous clothing and looks; the outrageous fashions and bold moves – another step forward and change from David Bowie. There has been changes and shifts prior to Hunky Dory: this creative period was the most experimental and radical of the songwriter’s career.


Glam-Rock and pantomime fed into; there was Heavy-Rock and Jazz-Folk – a heady brew and concoction of sounds and genres. Armed with Mick Ronson’s muscular guitar; Bowie and his band created something singular yet familiar. It was the work of David Bowie but it was a new incarnation. 1973 was not a time for Bowie to rest: the prodigious songwriter moved onto Aladdin Sane: its cover was one of the most iconic of his career. It was a less intimate record than Hunky Dory: it is an urgent and bracing album that took risks and chances. If the music was charged and new – songs like The Jean Genie and Cracked Actor were like nothing he had ever crafted – the image of the man was a slight upgrade of Ziggy Stardust. The lightning-bolt decals and radical hair was a similar alter-ego – it would be hard to make such a huge leap given that short timeframe. It was, however, Bowie moving once more and trying out new things. In the 1970s, with stars like Marc Bolan popular at the time, there was that curiosity and sexual revolution; the androgynous figures who broke ground and, through Glam-Rock, added something new to music. Incredible fashions flowed and it was a heady time for those willing to break the rules. 1974’s Diamond Dogs was one of the last iterations of Ziggy Stardust.


The look was still, sort of, there but Bowie was taking in new inspiration. A marriage of Nineteen Eighty-Four (George Orwell) and Bowie’s own vision of a post-apocalyptic world – it was an album that was the last hooray of his Glam-Rock period. It was his first album since 1969 to not feature any of his ‘Spiders from Mars’ backing band. Bowie saw the album as more personal and ‘him’ than anything he has ever done. It was, in kind, a ‘protest album’ that dispensed with his older images and moved into the next phase. Diamond Dogs’ raw guitars and views of urban chaos brought nihilistic lovers and desolate lands. It, in a way, foreshadowed the Punk revolution that would kick-off in 1975 - and opened the eyes of rebels like Johnny Rotten and Sid Vicious. Although critics were not as hot over Diamond Dogs – compared to records like Hunky Dory – it was another retooling and look. Maybe critics were unsure how to see the album: the fact Punk had not really exploded meant Diamond Dogs was ahead of its time – if only by a few months! Bowie’s 1990s/2000s work has plenty of new creation and musical shifts; it was productive and celebrated – the last real evolution was his exceptional 1975-1977 one-two-three: Young Americans, Station to Station and Low.


The new ‘Plastic Soul’ sound Bowie was interested in took shape on Young Americans. Recording took place in Philadelphia and, with producer Tony Visconti; it brought in a variety of other artists – including singer Luther Vandross. Bowie sourced from the music-halls and, as he would do did during his time in Germany, took from the local sounds and fashions around him. Bowie was proud of the album and saw it is a survivor against the assault of Muzak-Rock and derivative sounds. It was a “white limey” reinventing U.S. soul and bringing it to new faces. Station to Station was a transitional album that is seen as his most significant and best. It was the vehicle for his persona, the Thin White Duke, and followed Bowie’s role in the film, The Man Who Fell to Earth. Bowie developed the Funk and Soul sounds of his previous album on Station to Station; presenting synthesisers and motorik rhythms; bringing in influences of Neu! and Kraftwerk. It remains one of Bowie’s most accessible albums of all – it has impenetrability and complexity but resonated with critics. It is seen as a landmark album and one of the finest records ever. Low (1977) was the first of three collaborations with Brian Eno and Tony Visconti (the ‘Berlin Trilogy’) and marked a move towards Electronic music and the avant-garde. Side one contained shorter, direct songs: the second side was more instrumental and experimental.  


Bowie was struggling with drug addiction during the recording and some felt Low was a muddled and out-of-sorts record. Retrospective reviews have highlighted how influential and transformative Low really was. Heroes, also released in 1977, was the only one fully recorded in Berlin. It continued his work with Electronic elements and an ambient approach – bringing in darker atmospheres and passionate statements. It is one of his most determined, positive and uplifting statements. After the appropriately-named Low; people wanted something a bit more – something more spirited. Bowie delivered than and, in doing so, crafted another genius record. It was YET another sonic alteration and growth; a slight trimming of his wardrobe and the ever-curious songwriter taking inspiration from new bands and people. There would be other terrific Bowie albums and reinventions – 1983’s Let’s Dance saw him attempt black Funk and end, what was considered, one of the greatest winning-streaks in music history – but “Heroes”, perhaps, was the last really big statement. It is amazing to think of the amount of work David Bowie put out. Between 1971 and 1977; Bowie released NINE albums. 1970’s The Man Who Sold the World was the tremendous indication of what was the come: a fantastic record that really got under the skin and introduced the world to David Bowie. 1979’s Lodger saw Bowie bring World music into his chest but it was not considered as big a revelation as previous work – although the quality was still there and amazing critics (1984’s Tonight was a clear sign that the steam had run out and a rest was needed!).

It would be inconceivable to expect any modern artist, band or solo artist, to produce an album every year! The fact Bowie not only did that but, with every record, create something unique means we can never really expect anyone quite like him. What I DO want to see if an artist – whatever configuration or genre – to take the initiative and pick up Bowie’s torch. He did not make changes and create such a legacy to have it heard and admired – and not have anyone learn from it and make a change. Bowie wanted to change the world (and did) and push the boundaries of music. Maybe too much ground has already been broken – genres covered and boxes ticked – but that doesn’t mean modern artists need to stick with one style or ‘face’. Yes, some artists do evolve between albums and do something daring: too few make radical changes and take risks in music. Regarding Bowie’s fashion and images; how many modern artists have the dare and innovation to try something like that in today’s scene?! I would say nobody has the same mannerisms and mindset as Bowie. That is no bad thing but have we got to a point where homogenisation and structure rule music?! We need a lot of things to happen in new music: crafting innovators and daring icons are among them. One would not expect something paradigm-shifting and world-changing: merely, an artist who goes that one step further and has that interchangeable desire. Bowie was unique but we know how influential his music is. It has been inspiring generations and has, in its own way, progressed music and broken barriers. I hope there is someone out there who picks up his mantle and realises how sorely music needs the kind of spark David Bowie gave to music. Maybe the ‘Internet Age’ has lateralised and transformed music so those rebels and innovators struggle to make an impression. I know, out there somewhere, there is a musician who can launch and develop a career…


IN the guise of David Bowie.