On this day in 1969, David Bowie was at Trident Studios in London recording what would become the album version of ‘Space Oddity’. Reportedly inspired by the moon landings, Bowie’s space-tastic track documenting the adventures of Major Tom was his first big hit. To celebrate, here’s ten of the legendary singer’s greatest achievements.
The enduring legacy of Major Tom
It’s well documented that David Bowie wasn’t an overnight success. He tried all sorts of shenanigans before he got it right, including impersonating light entertainer Anthony Newley and becoming a folk singer, and when he wasn’t singing his extracurricular activities included mime artistry and founding the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Long Haired Men! Had Bowie started his career in the 21st Century then you’d imagine he’d have been dropped by his record label and become a music industry pariah long ago. Luck arrived in the form of Neil Armstrong landing on the moon in 1969 and canny Bowie introduced us to Major Tom in his epic ‘Space Oddity’, capturing the public’s imagination and the first major hit of his career in the process. Tom came crashing down to earth again in 1980 (“strung out in heaven’s high, hitting an all-time low”) in the delightfully dark ‘Ashes to Ashes’, a no.1. The character also made an appearance in the 90’s Pet Shop Boys collaboration ‘Hello Spaceboy’, making Major Tom one of pop’s most enduring characters.
Ziggy Stardust: Inventing an alter-ego and then killing him off again
A popstar pretending to be someone else is pretty commonplace these days, but when Bowie became Ziggy Stardust back in the early 70’s it was a first; sure, the Beatles had done Sgt Pepper but nobody had fully realised a character incarnate and taken him on the road like Bowie had. As this space alien from Mars he began bothering the charts in a way he could have only dreamt about in the 60’s, but Bowie began to suffer duality issues quite possibly as a result of substance issues. On 3rd July 1973 he killed off Ziggy at the Hammersmith Odeon by announcing it would be the last gig he’d ever play, causing pandemonium; he’d not even told the Spiders From Mars drummer Woody or bassist Trevor Bolder. The Musician’s Union might not have been impressed, but you’ve got to admire an artist who could have easily rested on his laurels at this point in his career, especially after struggling for so long.
Being open about his sexuality
It’s hard to imagine now, but when Bowie told Melody Maker he was gay in January 1972 it was one of the most shocking admissions in the history of pop. Legislation had only made homosexuality legal five years earlier, and very few stars came out for fear it would damage their careers irreparably. Bowie confounded the public further by having a wife! “He had shrewdly calculated the consequences,” the journalist who conducted the interview – Michael Watts – told the Guardian years later, “busting taboos stokes the star-maker machinery. He was also just being honest.” Bowie’s iconoclastic ‘Starman’ turn on Top of the Pops with Mick Ronson was said to cause anger throughout the land while throwing a lifeline to many others.
Being brave with the dressing up box where so many others bore us
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Bowie was never scared of a little dress up. On the cover of ‘The Man Who Sold The World’ he managed to alienate many of those who might have bought the record by lying prostrate on a chaise-longue in a dress and fetching laceup boots; some people just weren’t ready for it in 1970. The orange hair (with yellow streak) he adopted for his lead role in the Nicolas Roeg movie The Man Who Fell To Earth became the look for one of his most iconic album covers, Low. He looked indomitably cool during his ‘Young Americans’ phase, his frightwig and tights in Labyrinth perhaps signifying a style nadir (not that you get to choose what you wear in a movie). Whatever you thought of the various couture coups or fashion faux pas, you can never accuse Dame Dave of not making the effort.
Always knowing who best to collaborate with
It’s a trick best exemplified in the modern era by Madonna, but part of what made Bowie great is the nous he possessed to choose the right people to work with. His musical chemistry with guitarist Mick Ronson was surely insurmountable, then came pianist Mike Garson on Aladdin Sane – an inspired addition to his band, then he worked with ex-Roxy Music soundscape deity Brian Eno and made some of the best records of the 70s. He breathed new life into the careers of then-languorous legends Lou Reed and Iggy Pop; he had a No.1 smash with ‘Under Pressure’ with Queen; he gave Luther Vandross his first big break as a backing singer; he curiously dueted with Bing Crosby to pleasing effect; then later came the Pet Shop Boys and Trent Reznor, the list is endless…
Bowie played the second ever Glastonbury in 1971 to a few thousand people, though it was his much-feted 2000 headline appearance on the Pyramid Stage that took the breath away. Previously on the Glass Spider tour he’d threatened to never play the hits again, though here we were on Worthy Farm screaming our lungs out to ‘Life On Mars’ while Bowie slinked around the stage with curly long hair and sparkly wizard coat looking not unlike 90s celebrity TV stylist Nicky Clarke. Or that might have just been the drugs we were on.
Embracing new musical movements
As mentioned earlier, Dave could have milked Ziggy for decades, but he was just too (bi)curious not to experiment and try different things. As the Thin White Duke he conquered America in his soul period. He was embraced as the Godfather of the New Romantics when Scary Monsters… came out (the Picasso-inspired ‘Ashes to Ashes’ video included faces from the hip London nightclub Blitz, including Steve Strange). In the 90s he flirted with Industrial and even had a stab at DnB. No successful musical artist in history has had the cojones David Bowie was in possession of.
Turning down a Knighthood
Like all the best people (Francis Bacon, JG Ballard, L.S. Lowry, Harold Pinter, Alan Bennett, Aldous Huxley, Vanessa Redgrave etc), David Bowie turned down collaborating with Queen – not the band, the woman. He declined the CBE, then a Knighthood in 2003. “I would never have any intention of accepting anything like that,” he said. “I seriously don’t know what it’s for. It’s not what I spent my life working for.”
Not being afraid to show his cerebral side
In October 2013 Bowie released a stunning list of good reads as the David Bowie Is… exhibition moved to Ontario. The 100 books chosen by the curator from the man’s personal library revealed a depth to him that we always suspected; Anthony Burgess nestled alongside Camille Paglia and Christopher Hitchens, R.D. Laing with Martin Amis, Saul Bellow and George Orwell. It was a tour de force reading list that gave exposure to excellent modern fiction like The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao and classics you might have missed like The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie. We shouldn’t have been surprised, the Low star was no mug and demonstrated a keen eye for high art for instance. Indeed the legendary French artist Balthus – famed for his slightly dubious pictures of pubescent girls and kittens – granted a rare audience with Bowie in 1994, which the singer reproduced in an extensive interview for the magazine Wonderworld. He also interviewed, Tracey Emin, Jeff Koons and Damien Hirst among others for the same publication.
His astounding unpredictability
Bowie fans will never forget when ‘Where Are We Now?’ emerged on the internet from nowhere. ‘Blackstar’ was slightly more announced, but only just. Given the circumstances of the latter, the impact couldn’t have been greater. Bowie always exercised complete artistic control over his work, even his death. He was always surprising, always innovating, always one step ahead of the game to the end.