By Sean O’Grady


Chameleon, trailblazer and musical genius are a few of the platitudes being used to sum up the life and career of David Bowie, and he represented all of them through a career that spanned close to 60 years. He was a chameleon in the sense that he was constantly re-inventing himself both musically and visually and he was one of the first artists to marry his visual concept to his musical one. He was a true pioneer in this sense.


His introduction to the world of the androgynous Ziggy Stardust gave the conservative pop culture of the early 1970s a much needed dose of hedonism. To match the vision, he needed the music and Ziggy was out and out decadent rock and roll, all glam and glitter and totally spaced out. Starman was the anthem for Ziggy Stardust, this rock and roll saviour from another planet come to stir teenage rebellion and shake everything up. It worked brilliantly. Bowie was now a rock and roll idol but there was a sense of unease and dissatisfaction in his sudden emergence as a rock star being screamed at by teenage girls and guys alike. Rather than burn short but bright, Bowie had other plans. His creative drive and re-invention was about to reveal itself in the persona of the Thin White Duke.


There was no hint of what was to come prior to the release of Young Americans. Bowie had now dispensed with the blissed out rock of Ziggy and was indulging in his love of American soul and R&B. Recording at the famed Sigma studios in Philadelphia the home of early 70’s soul, Bowie had changed his musical direction and now he needed a visual framework to match. The Thin White Duke, master of plastic soul (as Bowie referred to his music of that period) now emerged. He was the complete antithesis of Ziggy Stardust, sharply dressed and with a sense of menace. Unlike Stardust who seemed to resemble hope and the idea of challenging the status quo, the Thin White Duke was all about ego and narcissism. For Bowie this period was a harrowing one, he was heavily addicted to cocaine and was starting to unravel emotionally and physically.


Bowie escaped to Berlin and left the Thin White Duke in Los Angeles. For his next sonic departure, Bowie had spent a great deal of time soaking up the work of krautrock acts like Kraftwerk, Can and Neu! This embrace of electronic music with the help of Brian Eno formed the basis of what became known as the Berlin trilogy. The dark, cavernous sound of Low was indicative of Bowie’s psyche at the time, as he began recovering from his addiction. Heroes saw him emerge hopeful and defiant, with this period also marking a change in his approach to the visual concept of his music. This was the first time that Bowie didn’t have a character to match his music. In fact, he wouldn’t use that approach again.




Artistically the 1980s and 1990s were an inconsistent period for Bowie. He often referred to that period as his “Phil Collins years” and while he achieved huge commercial success, his albums were uneven. He redressed this partly with his work with Tin Machine, which saw him return to a harder, more rock driven sound. The release of Heathen in 2002 marked a rebirth of sorts for Bowie, as he continued to experiment and adapt on each album but found a consistency that had been missing during the 1980s and early 1990s.


Two days prior to his passing, Bowie released his final studio album Blackstar. It’s a phenomenal parting gift and an apt bookend to his musical legacy. It’s an album that captures the spirit of invention and experimentation that epitomised his career. Reflecting on his own mortality, it’s the most personal and revealing album he has released since the Berlin trilogy of the late 70’s. There are few artists that have left such an influential and lasting creative legacy as Bowie. Each album, each creative move, was contemplated and executed with one thing in mind, pushing the boundaries of popular culture. May his work continue to do so for many years to come.

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