71 years ago today (January 8) the great David Bowie was born. Sadly he’s not here to celebrate with the rest of us, but his incredible body of work lives on. In honour of the Thin White Duke’s birthday, we look back at some of his very best songs.
David Bowie (1947-2016) has plenty of stone-cold classics to choose from so it was a challenge but with a little help from Thurston Moore, St Vincent, Johnny Marr, Wild Beasts and a few more of our favourite artists we count down, from 40 to 1.
40. ‘It’s No Game (Part 1)’ (1980)
St Vincent: “‘It’s No Game (Part 1)’ from ‘Scary Monsters’ is my favourite song, an example of his ability to make immensely likable and at the same time dystopian music. I love Robert Fripp’s guitar playing there, it’s so perverse – it’s disgusting and I love it.”
39. ‘Wild Is The Wind’ (1976). With his album ‘Pin-Ups’, Bowie paid tribute to his favourite bands of the previous decade by covering their songs. Released three years later, ‘Wild Is The Wind’ – formerly recorded by Johnny Mathis and Nina Simone – would have stuck out like Ziggy at a funeral on that LP. In Bowie’s hands, the winsome, delicate track twists like a snake around a branch.
38. ‘Aladdin Sane’ (1973). Peter Brewis, Field Music: “This song is, for me, one of David Bowie’s standout pieces. Stylistically it has one foot in the Ziggy Stardust era with the other kicking towards the experimentalism of the European years. The lyrics seem to deal with the pre-war decadence of the ‘Bright Young Things’.”
37. ‘Quicksand’ (1971). Aaron Hemphill, Liars: “With just his voice, an acoustic guitar and amazing lyrics that are incredibly arranged, this song takes me further than any track ever has from ‘Hunky Dory’. I think his choice in words and incredibly expressive voice communicates such a unique mental and emotional state that it makes the song much more than the sum of its parts.”
36. ‘Fashion’ (1971) Imagined as a successor to The Kinks’ ‘Dedicated Follower Of Fashion’, their commentary on British fashion and its disciples, ‘Fashion’ sends up that scene as something conformist and controlled (“We are the goon squad and we’re coming to town”), even aligning its regimented posturing with military formations (“Turn to the left, turn to the right”).
35. ‘Andy Warhol’ (1971). Bowie’s fascination with Andy Warhol boiled over into song on 1971’s ‘Hunky Dory’, capturing all the kaleidoscopic colour of the ’60s icon’s famous prints in four minutes of flamenco guitars. Warhol reportedly didn’t like the song, worrying that it made fun of his appearance, but for plenty of Bowie fans it’s one of the most inventive of his early-’70s pomp.
34. ‘Black Country Rock’ (1970). King Tuff: “‘The Man Who Sold The World’ is my favorite Bowie album because it’s as close as Bowie ever got to Sabbath, and there’s lots of pretty crazy ‘out’ musical moments. Lyrically it’s all about insanity and straight-up weirdness. The guitar playing is some of Mick Ronson’s best, and Tony Visconti kills it on the bass, big ol’ funky style.”
33. ‘The Jean Genie’ (1973). Johnny Marr: “Even though he’s made much cleverer records, ‘Jean Genie’ is an amazing example of what a good rock singer he is. It has such a cool detachment, and it’s very sexy. It has a simmering undertow of violence about it, which is a weirdly English thing. Even though it’s based on a Muddy Waters riff, it doesn’t sound like an American band.”
32. ‘Lady Grinning Soul’ (1973). The last track on ‘Aladdin Sane’ has long been rumoured to be about American soul singer Claudia Lennear, whom Bowie had a dalliance with – as did Mick Jagger, who is reported to have written the much earthier ‘Brown Sugar’ about her. Whoever it’s about, it’s one of Bowie’s most off-kilter recordings from a particularly fertile period in his career.
31. ‘Absolute Beginners’ (1986) Written for Julien Temple’s fairly rubbish adaptation of Colin MacInnes’ 1959 novel of the same name, Bowie’s theme is the best thing about the whole sorry affair (including his own performance in the movie). A retro-sounding ode to blossoming love, the doo-wop-flavoured track was a welcome return to form after the horror of 1984’s ‘Tonight’ album.
30. ‘John, I’m Only Dancing’ (1972) “I’m gay and always have been,” Bowie said in 1972. Eight months later, ‘John, I’m Only Dancing’ was released. Bowie never confirmed whether or not it concerned what it was rumoured to be about – a real-life gay relationship or John Lennon’s comments on his cross-dressing – but that didn’t stop his US label from preventing its release until 1976.
29. ‘Always Crashing In The Same Car (1977). One of the last songs to be drawn from the cocaine-addled period Bowie spent in LA between 1975-76, apparently based on an incident when he sought vengeance on a rip-off drug dealer by deliberately crashing into his car. The oddly hushed drums and eerie synth led producer Tony Visconti to describe it as “spooky”.
28. ‘All The Young Dudes’ (1974). As if being the greatest rock star on the planet wasn’t quite enough, by 1972 Bowie had even set about saving his contemporaries from extinction. Apparently, Mott The Hoople were about to call it a day – until Bowie learned of their predicamen and wrote, produced and played guitar on ‘…Dudes’, which instantly took the band to the top of the charts.
27. ‘China Girl (1983). Originally included on ‘The Idiot’, Iggy Pop’s David Bowie-produced 1977 solo debut, with Bowie on toy piano and Pop playing a fun-size drumkit. It was re-recorded for ‘Let’s Dance’: Bowie replaced the original’s claustrophobic scratchiness with extroverted disco hinging on a Nile Rodgers riff.
26. ‘Drive-In Saturday’ (1973). A homage to the doo-wop of 1950s America, ‘Drive-in Saturday’ described a world that would have been as alien to a young Bowie as that described in ‘Life On Mars?’. Its lyrics are a sci-fi movie in miniature, telling of a post-apocalyptic society learning how to “get it on like once before” by watching videos of Mick Jagger over coo-ing glam rock’n’roll.
25. ‘Kooks’ (1971). Written after the birth of Bowie and wife Angie’s son Zowie (who renamed himself Duncan and went on to direct the excellent Moon), Bowie makes it clear that he would never be a tough parent, suggesting gently to his offspring, “Don’t pick a fight with the bullies or the cads/’Cos I’m not much cop at punching other people’s dads”.
24. ‘Station To Station’ (1976). The recording of ‘Station To Station’ has become infamous for Bowie’s diet as much as anything else. He starved his body of all nutrients (besides milk, cocaine and red peppers) and replaced them with dirty disco and funky soul. Perhaps unsurprisingly, he became prone to hallucinations; on ‘TVC 15’, his girlfriend crawls into his TV set.
23. ‘Queen Bitch’ (1971). Here, Bowie doffed his “bipperty-bopperty hat” to Lou Reed and The Velvet Underground. The track would also influence Bowie’s future – it’s a glam rock prototype, with a camp, catty lyric from Bowie and guitarist Mick Ronson nicking the razor-sharp riff from Eddie Cochran’s ‘Three Steps To Heaven’. The road to the all-conquering ‘Ziggy’ era began here
22. ‘Be My Wife’ (1977). Bowie decided, for whatever reason, to sing one of ‘Low’’s more conventional tracks in an exaggerated but strangely cold and remote London accent, something he never repeats anywhere else on the record. It’s wholly at odds with the crashing piano, squalling guitar solos and booming drums that litter the song, resulting in a compellingly confusing listen.
21. ‘Fame’ (1975). The single that made David Bowie huge in America was inspired by the rather unsexy subject of how utterly pissed off he was at his then-management. While attempting to extricate himself from his contract, Bowie was egged on by his new pal John Lennon, who went on to supply the title and backing vocals.
20. ‘Ziggy Stardust’ (1972). Remarkably, this track was never released as a single, despite being one of Bowie’s most famous songs. The lyric is about Ziggy, the ultimate rock superstar, getting too big for his boots and ultimately self-destructing. It’s helpful that Mick Ronson is on hand to paint this picture with one of the great all-time rock riffs.
19. ‘Station To Station’ (1976). William Doyle, East India Youth: “When I first heard ‘Station to Station’, it scared me how good it was. This song seems to deal with all of his neuroses at the time of recording – his obsession with the occult, the Third Reich, normal things like that – and it’s backed by the most coked-up end section I’ve ever heard.”
18. ‘Space Oddity’ (1969). Anna Calvi: “My dad put it on the car when I was six, and at first I thought his voice was horrible. But by the end of the song, I loved it. That was it – my passion for David Bowie began and it hasn’t stopped since.”
17. ‘The Man Who Sold The World’ (1971). 1971’s ‘The Man Who Sold The World’ is not just a vintage slice of Bowie story-telling but a key part in his ’90s renaissance, 20 years later. Bowie’s critical stock was at a career low when Nirvana gave a rendition of the track in their iconic MTV Unplugged session, coming after Bowie’s late-’80s run of maligned albums.
16. ‘Golden Years’ (1976). “Gonna drive back down where you once belonged/ In the back of a dream car 20 foot long,” promises ‘Golden Years’, but that positivity soon dissipates, as Bowie prays “I’m begging you save her little soul” and tells the woman in question (claimed to be either his first wife Angela or backing singer Ava Cherry) to “run for the shadows”.
15. ‘Starman’ (1972). Ian McCulloch, Echo And The Bunnymen: “It made me want to be heard. When I saw Bowie on ‘Top Of The Pops’, I thought, ‘I want to wear his kecks too.’ I stared at his groin thinking, ‘I’ve got a lot of puberty to do.’”
14. ‘Suffragette City’ (1972). “Say droogie, don’t crash here!” yelps Bowie, showing off the influence of Anthony Burgess’ ‘A Clockwork Orange’. The song – which borrows from ’50s rock’n’roll, including a piano riff inspired by Little Richard – was offered to Mott The Hoople to record, but frontman Ian Hunter didn’t think it was good enough and they recorded ‘All The Young Dudes’ instead.
13. ‘Rock’N’Roll Suicide’ (1972). The closing track on ‘Ziggy Stardust’ was one of the songs that actually fitted the loose ‘concept’ feel of the LP. Bowie chronicled Ziggy’s final fall from grace, torn into pieces by his feverish acolytes. The melodrama of the story is reflected in the music, a grandiose, theatrical epic, inspired, according to Bowie himself, by French poet Baudelaire.
12. ‘Five Years’ (1972). Thurston Moore:: “It was one of the first Bowie things I heard as I got that album when it came out. The fact that he opened up with this drum pattern that was really kind of a bit odd, was just completely experimental and avant-garde. Then there’s acoustic guitar and this voice that had a certain banality to it. It’s just a completely radical listen.”
11. ‘Moonage Daydream’ (1972). Although an integral part of the storyline of Bowie’s ‘Ziggy Stardust’, ‘Moonage Daydream’ was released in 1971 as the debut single by his side project Arnold Corns. In 2003, Bowie revealed the influence of The Hollywood Argyles’ 1960 track ‘Sho Know A Lot About Love’ as he thought the combination of sax and piccolo was “a great thing to put in a rock song”.
10. ‘Oh! You Pretty Things’ (1971). Written just before Bowie’s first child was born, ‘Oh! You Pretty Things’ finds him relating his anxieties about his impending fatherhood by pumping them into a story of aliens taking over the earth. With both prescience and paranoia, he warns parents: “Don’t kid yourself they belong to you/They’re the start of a coming race”.
9. ‘Ashes To Ashes’ (1980). Recall is a powerful tool. Bowie likes to litter his songs with references to earlier works, and it’s a trick he pulled off most neatly in ‘Ashes To Ashes’, looking to the future with its airy funk, but looking back to an earlier character in its lyrics. Its big reveal is the fate of Major Tom, cast here as a junkie drifting into oblivion.
8. ‘Modern Love’ (1983). There’s a tragic irony to ‘Modern Love’; it’s not that David Bowie managed to make a perfect song about his cynicism at the world. It’s that his prescient observations about the burgeoning business charm offensive of the 1980s exposed the hollowness that would consume his own career for a few years – critically, at least– until he formed Tin Machine in 1989.
7. ‘Life On Mars?’ (1971). James Bagshaw, Temples: “It’s really catchy, but in a really unconventional way. There’s one bit where he hits a really high note and it’s so bold – I don’t think I could ever be that bold until I really learn to sing. It’s very clever without being pretentious, which is the perfect mix.”
6. ‘Let’s Dance’ (1983). Courtney Barnett: “Most of the stuff he does makes me want to dance. He knows how to write a good song and everything he does is kind of funky. I normally do a little bit of the twist – a subtle twist.”
5. ‘Rebel Rebel’ (1974). Bowie’s friendship with Mick Jagger intensified around the period when ‘Rebel Rebel’ was written and released – Bowie’s wife Angie claims she caught them in bed together. It was common for Bowie to take inspiration from his musical heroes, but the heaven-sent riff here owed as much to Keith Richards as it did to the Stones’ singer.
4. ‘Young Americans’ (1975). From its opening verse, as two lovers endure awkward first-time sex, ‘Young Americans’ only gets bleaker. The air of gloom mirrored that of 1970s America, where the news was full of Richard Nixon’s defiant smirks and Ted Bundy’s murderous suburban rampages. The result, underneath a blanket of 70s soul-pop, is one of Bowie’s most quietly heartbreaking songs.
3. ‘Changes’ (1971). Tom Fleming, Wild Beasts: “I think ‘Changes’ is appropriate funeral music – it’s cheery without being Paul McCartney with his thumbs in the air. Funerals are about change. Everyone dies. So what? ‘Time may change me, but I can’t trace time’ – that’s kind of perfect really.”
2. ‘Sound And Vision’ (1977). Originally conceived as an instrumental (save for a backing vocal by producer Tony Visconti’s then-wife Mary Hopkin), Bowie reputedly added his vocal at a very late stage in proceedings. Despite the sprightly guitar riff, sparkling sax and synth splashes, Bowie sings of the inescapable ennui that plagued his attempt to kick a severe coke habit.
1. ”Heroes” (1977). A romance for the ages, with Bowie’s remarkable vocal and a rumbling, relentless, four-chord juggernaut of sound that’s almost as monolithic as the Berlin Wall itself. On release, it was met with a resounding shrug: that it’s gone on to become his best-loved song – and it topped our writers’ poll comfortably – is its ultimate triumph.