The many reinventions of David Bowie
david bowie

This article was originally published in November 2015, but we are reposting it today in tribute to David Bowie, who has passed away at the age of 69.

David Bowie has always pushed towards the vanguard, but it seems that he’s now happy to take his cue from the younger generation of boundary-pushers.

It might seem surprising, given the drifting, ambient style of lead single ‘Blackstar’, but the music icon has apparently been influenced by Compton rapper Kendrick Lamar.

Bowie’s long-time producer Tony Visconti told Rolling Stone that they had Kendrick’s ambitious, epic second album To Pimp A Butterfly on repeat during the recording, although it seems that the influence was more about artistic freedom than musical style:

“We wound up with nothing like that, but we loved that Kendrick was so open-minded and that he didn’t do a straight-up hip-hop record [To Pimp A Butterfly].

“He threw everything on there, and that’s exactly what we wanted to do. The goal, in many, many ways, was to avoid rock & roll.”

So don’t expect the 68 year old to start rapping on the upcoming album ★ (to give its proper styling), in other words.

But committed Bowie fans probably won’t be surprised to hear about this latest direction.

Throughout his career the ‘Chameleon of Rock’ has been defined not by any one style or sound but by reinvention itself. Just as he appears to have mastered one character or genre, he ditches it for the next thing, leaving the industry and listening public to catch up.

Here are five times David Bowie did just that.

Young Americans and ‘Plastic Soul’

After getting bored with the Ziggy Stardust persona that had catapulted him to glam rock fame, Bowie moved to New York, then Los Angeles in 1974, where he was heavily influenced by soul and funk. While this also coincided with the peak of his drug use, it spawned first Diamond Dogs (1974) and, just a year later, Young Americans. The latter album lost Bowie a sizeable chunk of his early fanbase, such was its divergence from his trademark sound. Recruiting a group of black musicians and backing singers that included a young Luther Vandross, Bowie labelled the style “plastic soul”, a take on an ethnic sound “written and sung by a white limey”.

Getting ‘Low’ in Berlin

Bowie’s next reinvention involved another transatlantic move. This time he relocated first to Switzerland and then to Berlin, in an attempt to kick his drug habit and enjoy the city’s art scene. Sharing a flat with Iggy Pop, the emerging Krautrock sound had a huge effect on Bowie’s production of the Stooges frontman’s solo albums The Idiot and Lust for Life. But it was on his own, eleventh, album that he took this Teutonic minimalism to its experimental extreme. Although Low had singles like ‘Sound and Vision’, much of side two consisted of strange, otherworldly instrumentals, which bear all the hallmarks of his collaborator Brian Eno. One common misconception about the record is that it was made in Berlin; in fact, it was mainly recorded in France and later mixed in the German capital, at the famous Hansa Tonstudio.

Leading the New Wave

By the late ’70s and ’80s, a new sound was brewing back in Britain, and it owed a lot in its high fashion and gender-bending style to the Thin White Duke’s early career. Bands like Duran Duran, Visage and Japan were suddenly the pop stars for a new decade that was over punk, and they were hugely influenced by the likes of Bowie and Roxy Music. At this point in his career, Bowie was at a low ebb: The Lodger had been a disappointing end to his ‘Berlin trilogy’ and he was going through a divorce with his first wife Angela. He responded with Scary Monsters (And Super Creeps), and in particular, the hit single ‘Ashes to Ashes’. Bowie recruited several leading New Romantics (including Stevie Strange of Visage) from their Blitz nightclub hangout to appear in the song’s video; a neat way of both showcasing the emerging scene and making himself stay relevant. The album itself was a return to a more direct, guitar-rock sound, and featured the work of Robert Fripp, Pete Townshend and Chuck Hammer.

Going Chic on Let’s Dance

Despite having been a solo artist of international fame for 15 years, Bowie’s commercial zenith came in the early ’80s, as a result of two collaborations: first with Freddie Mercury on the massive single ‘Under Pressure’, then with Chic’s Nile Rodgers on Let’s Dance. Featuring Rodgers’ signature funky rhythm guitar sound and a clutch of hit singles, it still ranks as Bowie’s best selling album ever. Proof, if it were needed, that everything Nile Rodgers touches turns to gold.

The Surprise Comeback

Bowie’s career took another dip in the late ’80s and ’90s, and while his 2002 album Heathen was well received, it was 2013’s The Next Day that brought him to a whole new generation of listeners. This was all the more unexpected because many had assumed that Bowie, who suffered a heart attack in 2004 and had kept a very low profile, had retired for good. But his first studio album in over a decade was a triumph, with several radio-friendly yet compelling singles, and some daring videos to accompany them. Bowie-mania had returned, even if there wasn’t a tour to go with it.

Fast-forward two years and Tony Visconti has already hinted that ★ will be more avant-garde than The Next Day. We would expect nothing less than a complete reinvention from the man who began life as David Robert Jones.

Main image via Getty