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“Just gonna have to be a different man”: The many faces of David Bowie

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“I re-invented my image so many times that I’m in denial that I was originally an overweight Korean woman.”

David Bowie, who died last week at the age of 69, leaves behind a musical catalogue so diverse that it seems almost impossible it could come from just one man. A self-proclaimed storyteller, his range not only touched but fully immersed itself in the likes of pop, rock and roll, soul, and even instrumental. In a career spanning more than fifty years, Bowie thrived on reinventing himself, often fashioning entirely new personas to accompany his work.

“We may think we knew the real David Bowie, beneath the false names and ostentatious makeup. But did we even scratch the surface?”

-David-Bowie-1967-lilac-skies-20760669-500-500

It’s difficult to pick two consecutive years during the peak of his career in which Bowie’s persona remained the same. From the flamboyant pre-Raphaelite style of the “The Man Who Sold The World” era to the more muted manner of his later career, Bowie’s range was unmatchable. Decades down the line, the elusive Bowie still continues to enchant and confound. We may think that we knew the real David Bowie, beneath the false names and ostentatious makeup. But did we even scratch the surface? Even the name “David Bowie” was a carefully fabricated disguise. Born David Jones, his desire to stand out in the music industry led him, in 1965, to rename himself after the American folk hero James Bowie. Armed with a striking new name, it was time for Bowie to finally make his mark on music history.

“Ziggy Stardust, with his shock of orange hair and garish make up, was a far cry from the overtly masculine rock scene of the late 1960s”

After a few years of minor hits, his breakthrough came in 1969 with the folk-inspired “Space Oddity”. Despite the marked difference from what was to come only a few years later, “Space Oddity” was laced with the same fondness for the bizarre and the unconventional which Bowie would embrace throughout his career. The cover art for the 1970 album The Man Who Sold the World depicted Bowie wearing a flowing dress, an early indication of his lack of interest in conforming to the status quo of the pop scene. Alongside Marc Bolan, Bowie is credited with introducing glam rock to the UK in the early 1970s. Ziggy Stardust, with his shock of orange hair and garish make up, was a far cry from the overtly masculine rock scene of the late 1960s. Stardust may well be Bowie’s definitive persona. Brash, bold, and completely unprecedented – as a way of heralding a new age of music, Ziggy Stardust has never since been eclipsed.

David Bowie as Ziggy Stardust

Anyone expecting a lifetime of ‘Ziggy’ was in for a shock, however – in July 1973 Bowie retired the Stardust persona and, following a move to the USA, headed in a completely new musical direction. This culminated in 1975’s Young Americans. Shaped by Bowie’s obsession with soul music, this album bore little resemblance to his previous work.

The subsequent release of the follow-up album Station to Station in 1976 saw the emergence of a completely new side of Bowie – the ‘Thin White Duke’. The antithesis of the flashy Stardust, this new figure was described by Bowie himself as a “nasty character”. The Duke took to the stage in a simple black and white suit. Behind the scenes however, life was not as subdued as it seemed on the surface. The image of the Duke masked a turn to regular cocaine use, a period which Bowie later described as “the darkest days of my life”.

By the 1980s, Bowie had all but packed away his myriad of masks. Moving further into the mainstream, his music was more overtly ‘pop’ than ever before. Despite spawning the hit singles “Let’s Dance” and “Modern Love”, the album Let’s Dance signified the beginning of a lull in Bowie’s career as he began to feel stifled by its commercial success. As the 1980s drew to a close, it became clear that Bowie’s wild and wonderful characters were a thing of the past.

Or so it seemed.

Though he may not have been at the forefront of the music scene for the last thirty years, Bowie never turned his back on his art. In fact, it was precisely his reputation as a musical chameleon which allowed his final shift in style to work so brilliantly – and so poignantly. “Lazarus”, the second single from 2016’s Blackstar, opens with the line: “Look up here, I’m in heaven,” written in the knowledge that he would soon pass. Bowie’s final persona was perhaps his most important: that of the orchestrator of his own legacy.

I don’t know where I’m going from here, but I promise it won’t be boring.”