Artist and Musician Biographies


Here is David Bowie's "Heroes."

In this course, we use the term avant-garde to describe the style and radical innovations of visual artists such as Marcel Duchamp, among others. This term is used less often to describe musicians who push the boundaries of what defines music, although it accurately fits rock icon David Bowie, whose chameleon-like persona and ground-breaking musical invention have influenced three decades of rock music. Bowie is a major figure in the rock genre known as Glam Rock, or Glitter Rock.

David Bowie was born David Jones in a poor section of London, England in 1947. His father earned a meager living as a publicist, and his mother worked as an usher in a movie theater. While still in high school his parents encouraged his musical abilities in an effort to keep him out of trouble. It was during this time that he permanently damaged his left eye in a street fight, rendering his pupil permanently dilated.

He learned to play guitar and saxophone before dropping out of high school in his final year and by the age of 18 had joined his first band. His first group, Davie Jones and the King Bees, focused on a rhythm and blues (R&B) sound and drew influence from early American rock pioneers such as Elvis Presley and Chuck Berry. After the short-lived group disbanded, Jones formed two other groups who adopted the increasingly popular mod sound established by groups such as The Who.

Although each of David Jones' three early bands played live shows and recorded material that was received positively by local teens, they were far from successful in the wake of the British Invasion groups.

In an effort to avoid confusion with the teen heartthrob lead singer of bubble-gum pop group The Monkeys, Jones changed his name to David Bowie and recorded a solo album that again failed to gain significant recognition. At that time, Bowie decided to give up music and began acting in local theater groups and for two years was involved with the Lindsay Kemp Mime Troupe.

It wasn't until he met his first wife, Angela Barnet, that he decided to give music another shot. Barnet had friends at the Mercury Record Company who agreed to record some of Bowie's original music, which resulted in the 1969 single "Space Oddity", and subsequent full-length album of the same title. "Space Oddity" became Bowie's first hit and was played on the BBC during the historic moon landing.

Within one year the edgier hard rock oriented "The Man Who Sold the World" was released. Many critics consider the album an example of early heavy metal because of guitarist Mick Ronson's unorthodox style. In addition to the record's ground breaking musical style, a photograph of David Bowie wearing a dress appeared on the album's cover simultaneously repelling and attracting critics and listeners while establishing the artist as somewhat peculiar and certainly androgynous.

Bowie incorporated this sexual ambiguity and his previous theatrical experience into his rock persona with the creation of the glittery gender-bending space messiah and alter ego Ziggy Stardust. In heavy make-up, shimmery skintight jumpsuits and spiky flame-red hair, Ziggy the fictitious character played by Bowie, was the subject of the highly conceptual and commercially successful "The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars" (1972). Yielding such hits as "Ziggy Stardust" and the trash rock anthem "Suffragette City", the album established Bowie as a legend.

Bowie continued to captivate audiences with his eccentric and artfully bizarre performances while astonishing the press with his controversial announcement that he was bisexual. But while this disclosure of his sexuality may have threatened his career momentarily, he continued to release conceptual and often moody albums that gained immense commercial and critical success. Bowie continued to reinvent himself stylistically throughout the 1970's and embarked on several collaborative projects with musicians such as Lou Reed of The Velvet Underground ("Walk on the Wild Side" 1974), John Lennon of The Beatles ("Fame" his first no. 1 US single in 1975).

After moving to Berlin, Germany to battle a serious drug addiction in the late 1970's he began working with producer Brian Eno to record some of the most ambient yet melodic music of his career including the album "Heroes".

After returning to the United States in the early 1980's (and now divorced), Bowie reinvented himself yet again and released the pop oriented "Let's Dance"(1983), which featured horns, slick danceable tracks ("Modern Love"), and sultry, more sophisticated vocals ("China Girl" co-written with Iggy Pop). The release of "Let's Dance" conveniently coincided with the explosive popularity of M.T.V.

In addition to the more accessible musical style was the more accessible look of Bowie himself, who now appeared devilishly handsome with a golden tan, tousled flaxen hair, and dapper suits. The two albums that followed in the eighties were not nearly as successful, but he established his ability to crossover into the mainstream with a style that was uniquely Bowie.

In the nineties, Bowie embarked on several side projects, none of which gained excessively high levels of excitement from fans or critics. In 1992, he married the Somali supermodel, Iman, while continuing to produce and record music. In some ways his music came full circle with 1997 release of "Earthling". Many early Bowie hits are revisited and stripped of their melodrama and concisely pared down to their fundamental rock and roll elements.

Bowie has always remained on the cutting edge of culture with his ability to reinvent his persona and musical styles. In November of 2000, Bowie was named the most influential musician by the British publication "The New Music Express" after a yearlong survey of musicians and readers was conducted. Bowie suddenly left a hole in the music world, when he died in 2016

Page author: A.E.