David Bowie

By Aleksey Boytsov

WHEN: 1966-present

CULRPITS: Himself, along with a continuously changing cavalcade of guest musicians and collaborators.

ALBUMS: David Bowie (1967), 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), Scary Monsters (and Super Creeps) (1980), Let’s Dance (1983), Tonight (1984), Never Let Me Down (1987), Black Tie White Noise (1993), The Buddha of Suburbia (1993), Outside (1995), Earthling (1997), ‘Hours…’ (1999), Heathen (2002), Reality (2003)

HOW: There are many ways to get into David Bowie’s music. I chose what may be the worst: chronologically. After falling in love with the song “Ashes to Ashes” one summer day in 2005, I proceeded to listen to it about a hundred times within the following week and decided to get some of his albums. Rather than going for the most revered ones, I started with the earliest efforts – his self-titled 1967 debut, with its childish Syd Barrett-like whimsy, and then his 1969 hippified follow-up (initially self-titled as well, but renamed in the wake of the success of the single “Space Oddity”). While the albums did not impress at first, they did intrigue me. There was something to be said for the pure sense of unfocused inventiveness that seemed to pour out of them and so I went on, eventually coming to own all of his albums in one format or another. I am, in retrospect, somewhat surprised at the path I chose, but glad for it provided me with the opportunity to see Bowie grow as a songwriter, starting as a young lad barely out of his teens and wearing his artistic ambition like an oversized coat to grow into, eventually mastering the medium of pop music with his grand combination of showmanship, personality, and damn good tunes to back it all up.

WHY: One of the things that attracted me to Bowie’s music from the beginning was his interesting and distinctive sense of melody that remains recognizable to me despite all his aesthetic shifts. There is also his undeniable aura, a cloud of personality: theatrical, confident, unafraid to be seen as pretentious or over-the-top, perhaps somewhat arrogant, most definitely self-indulgent. These qualities are largely ones alien to my own personality, but ones that are redeemed by the fact that unlike most “pretentious“ and “self-indulgent” musicians, he delivers the music. And what music!

It is fair to say that most of my current musical taste stems from my fandom of David Bowie in high school. He may not have always been as influential as his nearly-mythological image suggests — he certainly did not invent glam rock and the art rock sound of his “Berlin trilogy” was foreshadowed by Brian Eno and Roxy Music, but few other artists could so perfectly capture a wave of inspiration and make of it a brilliant work as he has done. It is, of course, important to remember that even at his most artsy, Bowie’s music is still pop at its core, and this is also the lovely thing about it. It can be pretentious without smothering and experimental without being overbearing, such as the fun album that is Lodger, one of his most overlooked “golden era” works. It features his committed but playful approach to music with numerous exercises such as “Move On,” built upon a reversed sample of “All the Young Dudes” which sounds transformed into some tribal incantation, or the delightful “Boys Keep Swinging,” on which all the musicians were told to switch instruments to ones they were not comfortable with in order to create a rough, amateurish swaggering sound with its stiff, metronomic rhythm section and messy guitar noise.

Bowie took a while to find a voice of his own: the whimsical vaudeville pop of his regretted debut and the hippie anthems of the follow-up are not as captivating as the work he would make just a few years later. Even “Space Oddity,” his main achievement of the 60’s, could have fallen by the wayside as a novelty hit with a less lucky and less persistent artist. Once he found that voice, however, he would plunge after it and emerge, having crafted what I believe to be some of the best rock albums of the 20th century. To me, his output is marked by a sense of hungry artistic ambition, the same sense which has gotten him branded as a dilettante for his sudden and seemingly groundless, but zealously pursued stylistic changes. It is this artistic hunger that, in my opinion, puts him head and shoulders above most of his contemporaries as it gave him the perseverance necessary to get past the first few years of his career and mature into the force he would become in the 70s.

SONGS: The idea of compressing David Bowie’s career into an 80-minute-long mix is a daunting one, and one whose seeming absurdity hit me the moment I had committed myself to doing just that. In the end, however, I feel that my list is a fairly good representation of the many facets of his work and his artistic personality. While almost all of his ouvre merits respect and consideration, this mix is primarily focused on Bowie’s critically acclaimed 70s albums because these really are what he is about for most of his fans. These are the prime attraction and the keystones of his influence. I made sure to include the various sides of that era: the swaggering glam of “Queen Bitch,” the bohemian mysticism of “The Man Who Sold the World,” the mutant funk of “1984” and “Station to Station,” and the shimmering romanticism of “Heroes.”

His commercial pop work in the 80s divides opinion, but while it has its fans, one can definitely say that he was not as involved in his music as before, instead focusing most of his energy on acting and thus the music is not as representative of his essence. Nevertheless, I included the infectious “Modern Love” (perhaps Bowie at his most mainstream) and “Blue Jean.” The 90s were a resurgence of his more experimental side, but also featured him jumping on others’ bandwagons (tours with NIN, etc) and in this last decade he has settled into a sort of elder-statesmanlike dignity. I’ve tried to represent the last two eras with the irrevocably 90s “Jump They Say” (a tribute to Bowie’s suicidal half-brother, Terry) and the fun Modern Lovers cover “Pablo Picasso” from his most recent release, Reality. I wish I could have included something from 2002’s Heathen, but the best material from it works only in the context of the album.

On the other hand, I have, perhaps somewhat conspicuously, left out “Space Oddity” which, though it broke the ice and allowed Bowie to proceed to fame, is not altogether representative of what he would become, and perhaps is best to forgo in favour of something less ubiquitous. A surprising challenge which I hadn’t considered before, was arranging the songs in such an order that the timbre of his voice would not clash, since the pitch he sings at changed dramatically throughout his career, from the nasal almost-falsetto of the first few albums to the deep, dramatic Scott Walker-esque tone he would adopt later.


Aleksey Boytsov is a 19-year old college sophomore residing primarily in Ithaca, NY. He loves music and language and spends most of his free time indulging his passion for one or the other. His favourite musical artists include Belle and Sebastian, David Bowie, Jacques Brel, Kate Bush, Scott Walker, and Zemfira.

~ by Patrick Gosnell on January 11, 2010.

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