Confession time: I’ve never been a rabid Bowie fan. Oh sure, his music is incredible and I’ll happily listen to it over and over, but only songs recorded between 1969 and 1983. I’m fairly unaware of albums recorded after Let’s Dance. Bowie got me to the church on time and then I abandoned his music.
When he died I fervently resisted the urge to jump on the bandwagon and sing Bowie’s praises, viewing his last album as the most incredible ending to a perfect musical life. I assumed plenty of others would take up that mantel. But when I finally did hear Blackstar recently, I was stunned by how spectacular the music is. And only then did I realize that I had no idea what Bowie had been up to for the past 30+ years.
Thus began a quest to quickly get a feel for Bowie’s “recent” albums, to look for trends in his compositions, and to see how the final album fits into the big picture. So buckle in, Major Tom, and prepare for the journey of a lifetime.
Frequently bands put out a remarkable first album and never again reach the same level of accomplishment. The reason for this is simple: An entire lifetime of composing goes into a first album. A second album has roughly a year in which to be put together.
So here’s something beyond amazing: From 1969 to 1980 David Bowie put out more than one album per year, many of them absolutely brilliant. Space Oddity (1969), The Man Who Sold the World (1970), Hunky Dory (1971), The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars (1972), Aladdin Sane (1973), Pin Ups (1973), Diamond Dogs (1974), Young Americans (1975), Station to Station (1976), Low (1977), Heroes (1977), Lodger (1979) and Scary Monsters (And Super Creeps) (1980). The timeless songs found on these albums include Space Oddity (1969), The Man Who Sold the World (1970), Changes, Oh! You Pretty Things and Life on Mars? (1971), Ziggy Stardust and Suffragette City (1972), The Jean Genie (1973), Rebel Rebel and Diamond Dogs (1974), Young Americans and Fame (1975), Golden Years (1976), Heroes (1977), Scary Monsters (And Super Creeps), Ashes to Ashes and Fashion (1980).
Not bad for a career. But that only covers ¼ of the time Bowie filled in the “musician” bubble on standardized forms.
Eric Carr, in reviewing Bowie’s 2003 album Reality sums up the last ¾ of Bowie’s career quite nicely:
“Bowie’s work is traditionally seen in a terrifically damaging binary– common law states that if his work isn’t brilliant, it’s terrible…”
This is a fair assessment of how Bowie’s post-1983 albums were received. Realize that he was not content to repeat previous successes but always strived for something different, a particular concept or composing strategy. Some forays into new territory were more successful than others. Often the results did not meet fans’ expectations. Judgments were harsh. And 1983/84 were pivotal years in this process.
Before the release of Let’s Dance, Bowie was immensely popular yet associated with fringe or avant-garde culture. Making a complete left turn, his 1983 album was straight-ahead danceable pop music. The 1984 follow-up Tonight, featuring similar music, made Bowie more commercially successful than ever and brought in a legion of new fans. However, the commercial success came with negative reviews; to his long-time followers, Bowie was not acting like Bowie.
Three years passed before the release of another album, Never Let Me Down. Three hit-singles, commercially successful, but critically panned. Later in life Bowie felt that he had not been involved enough in the process of making this album. He commented that the time after Let’s Dance was a bad one for him artistically.
Bowie’s next two albums were with the band Tin Machine, and it wasn’t until 1993 that he released another solo album, Black Tie White Noise. This album moved in a new direction of darker music, more intensely personal songs. The result? Critical and commercial success. The music is still funky and dance-oriented, but not poppy, somewhat similar to synth-pop band Heaven 17. Lyrics focused on Bowie’s wedding to Iman and his step-brother’s suicide. Highly personal and dark.
With still more than 20 years of music before the release of Blackstar, stay tuned for more on David Bowie’s later career next posting, same Bowie time, same Bowie channel.