David Bowie, Britain’s finest pop phenomenon since The Beatles, turned 65 last month, but rather than staging an outlandish party or launching a media blitzkrieg, The Thin White Duke remained silent. He’s been shunning the limelight for seven long years and counting.
Bowie’s disappearance is a legend in it’s own right, it could hardly have been more dramatic. Having struggled in the late 80s/early 90s Bowie returned to form in the 21st century; Heathen earned a Mercury Music Prize nomination, he effortlessly reclaimed his status as a fashion icon conquering Glastonbury in 2000, and he slayed the Isle of Wight. Bowie was back, and then it happened.
In one of the most surreal downward spirals of recent years Bowie was half way through a performance in Oslo when a lollipop was thrown at the great man. In what can only be considered a one in a million freak accident, the lollipop stick imbedded itself under Bowie’s eye lid and stayed there.
Continuing with his commitments despite this harrowing incident, Bowie set out to headline Germany’s Hurricane Festival. That set faired no better as Bowie suffered troubling chest pain, later diagnosed as an acutely blocked artery, which required an emergency angioplasty. 14 tour dates were cancelled, and David Bowie vanished. He would reappear fleetingly as a guest and contributor, but David Bowie the icon and the festival headliner was gone.
Pop’s greatest chameleon may not be in the mood to celebrate his 65th birthday publically, but that won’t stop Guitar Planet from remembering the good times, as we countdown our five favourite moments when David Bowie and the electric guitar combined forces.
Through sheer force of perseverance David Bowie turned a fledging career as a retrospective mod into something meaningful, timely and chilling. It took a lot of hard work; Bowie tried everything from free festivals and television specials to mime shows and PR stunts. The latter famously saw a 17-year old Bowie appearing on the BBC’s Tonight programme as the spokesmen for a faux-organization for The Prevention Of Cruelty to Long-haired Men.
Unsurprisingly what finally broke Bowie was not a mime act or film role, but “Space Oddity”; a track that resonated with a nation gripped by both the wonder and fear of the space race and the Cold War. Gorgeously produced, the track possessed an icy emptiness; it was detached, helpless and irresistibly catchy. Bowie had created a modernist masterpiece, but he dreaded the thought of becoming a one hit wonder.
The Man Who Sold The World changed his career trajectory irreversibly. Teaming up with his iconic producer Tony Visconti and with his zeitgeist-capturing guitarist Mick Ronson, Bowie reinvented his sound; embracing romping hard rock, deep basslines, bleak psychedelic imagery and crunching guitar riffs. This was Bowie at his heaviest. “All The Madmen” fused early metal with the burgeoning glam and prog sounds. Bowie would never sound this fierce or this menacing again, but as irresistibly as “The Width Of A Circle” rocked, it was one of the album’s more reflective moments that captured the world’s imagination.
“The Man Who Sold The World” may have born clear Beatles’ influences, but this was distinctively Bowie. Returning to the “Space Oddity” template with two characters exchanging dialogue; the track was deep, smoky, and full of unsettling twisting clicking noises. Bowie was turning the screw on the Psychedelic 60s, ushering in a bleaker era with a chilling vocal and one of the most iconic winding riffs in rock history.
Kurt Cobain would give the track a new kind of soul in 1993, but nothing could be more unsettling than Bowie’s ode to a lost age of innocence and hope. You can practically hear the futurist optimism of the 60s fading to black in Bowie’s withering paranoid croon.
Fast-forward to 1977 and Bowie and Brian Eno have retreated to Munich to release a trilogy of albums that would change pop music inexorably. Low is Bowie’s greatest achievement, the perfect marriage of burgeoning krautrock and ambient innovation with slick pop and brazen rock and roll.
What makes Low standout head and shoulders above practically every other record, is not simply its genre splicing joie de vivre, but Bowie urgency and hunger. This was the height of avant garde experimentation but Bowie sounded like he was having the time of his life (even if this couldn’t be further from the truth), and nothing captures that sense of carefree creative abandon quite like “Breaking Glass”.
The guitar steals the show with a titanic main riff that perfectly compliments the track’s thumping chugging rhythm as it goes to war with the imposing and inhumanely jarring synth slabs. Rules were torn up. Sounds were glued together. Textures and tones reimagined. More than Kraftwerk, more than Can, and more than Wire; Bowie was bringing every cutting edge strand together and capturing the zeitgeist with his own impossible to encapsulate swagger.
The story of Ziggy Stardust may only last three minutes and thirteen seconds, but that’s all the time Bowie and Ronson needed to steep this timeless classic in heady drama. The portentous lead riff demands your undivided attention, playful and almost ironically mammoth, the towering sweeps of Ronson’s guitar set the stage for Bowie’s slyly cool tale of self-destructive rock star solipsism.
Bowie owned glam; T. Rex’s Electric Warrior may have been a purer statement, but The Rise And Fall Of Ziggy Stardust was the most ambitious and important album the genre ever spawned. Bowie’s star man fallen to earth narrative captured the world’s imagination. He used the raunchy sex appeal of glam, its androgyny, and ironic flair for melodrama to create one of the greatest pieces of rock theatre ever penned. Unkempt indulgence may have driven Ziggy Stardust to a miserable end, but it freed Bowie’s imagination as he cast off any remaining inhibitions and set about reimagining rock ‘n’ roll.
Back in 1971 David Bowie had transitioned from hard rock to camp pop and was flirting with a full on glam conversion. He wasn’t quiet ready to make the leap, but by paying tribute to two of his great heroes Bowie found his new sound.
Bowie paid tribute to Lou Reed (a star whose career he’d later rejuvenate on Transformer) and the Velvet Underground with a laid back but driving narrative while Mick Ronson slyly pinched the acoustic punch of Eddie Cochran’s “Three Steps To Heaven”.
By overlaying acoustic guitar stomp with the thrashy flourishes of the electric lead, Bowie and Ronson created an irresistible march that felt like Reed’s “Sweet Jane” on steroids. Eminently danceable “Queen Bitch” was more than a tribute or pastiche; it became the most important breakthrough of Bowie’s career, the track that set the template for Ziggy Stardust and world domination.
Unlike his pop peers Bowie was never afraid to beef up his sound in the live arena. When it came time to tour the brilliant Station To Station in 1976 The Thin White Duke rebuilt his sound from the ground up. Gone were the haunting saws and minimalist paranoia of the studio version and in their place stood a squealing mass of guitar noise, wild licks and killer solos. Bowie kept his cool as the arrangement became increasingly ragged and wild replacing cold paranoia with wild-eyed desperation and unhinged exhilaration.
Not bad for a man so consumed by cocaine that he’d shed a truly unhealthy number of pounds consuming only pepper and milk. Still it could be worse, Bowie’s protégé Iggy Pop was so far gone that he thought his girlfriend had been eaten by his TV in an incident that would inspire Bowie’s barmy hit “TVC15”.
Station To Station, the album and the subsequent tour are often overshadowed by Bowie’s pre-release antics and the Berlin trilogy that would immediately follow its release. But make no mistake, this was the moment when Bowie recaptured the zeitgeist and hit his stride. Station To Station deserves to stand shoulder to shoulder with Bowie’s undisputed classics Low, Heroes, Hunky Dory and Ziggy Stardust.
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