David Bowie was pop music’s greatest living artist, influencing the course of its Sound and Vision over five decades. Now he is its saddest loss, leaving behind an inimitable body of work.
Though many have tried over the years to change colour as audaciously as this peerless pop chameleon, never has an artist gone through so many Ch-Ch-Ch-Changes without missing a beat.
Yet Bowie himself began as an imitator, kicking off his career in a succession of beat groups, trying on different styles for size – mod, hippie, cheeky Cockney chappy – and casting about for an identity rather than owning his aliases.
His self-titled debut album, released in 1967, was a flop but two years later, in the month of the moon landings, his single Space Oddity captured the zeitgeist. David Bowie, the artist of a generation, truly arrived as a shock-haired rock’n’roll geisha called Ziggy Stardust.
When he slung his arm round guitarist Mick Ronson’s shoulders on a Top Of The Pops appearance to promote Starman, he sent cultural shockwaves across the land. As a million parents asked “is that a boy or a girl?”, a million young misfits had found their hero(ine?).
Then, the unthinkable. Bowie killed Ziggy at the height of Stardust mania. But the resurrection was glorious, ushering in a period of trailblazing creativity unparalleled by any pop outfit bar The Beatles.
Bowie became the skeletal soulman of Young Americans and then the dazed and confused iconoclast of Station to Station en route to his game-changing Berlin trilogy – the vanguard electronica soundscapes of Low, the avant-garde but anthemic “Heroes” and the industrial funk of Lodger.
Along the way, there were charismatic acting roles in films such as The Man Who Fell to Earth, Merry Christmas Mr Lawrence and The Hunger.
By the 1980s, with his reputation unassailable, Bowie was hungry for global hits.
He recruited Nile Rodgers of Chic who suggested that he write a song with “dance” in the title. Bowie played him an acoustic ditty called Let’s Dance, Rodgers tooled up the rhythm, arrangement and production and Bowie had the biggest chart hit of his career.
The following Serious Moonlight world tour established Bowie as a stadium artist but this commercial peak was followed by steady artistic decline, from Bowie in his baggy pants larking about with Mick Jagger to the love-hate that dare not speak its name: Tin Machine.
It is the fate of any influential artist that their catalogue be revisited and reassessed. Perhaps the Tin Machine renaissance is already afoot.
But there was plenty of original Bowie action to devour in his later years, despite rumours of ill health surrounding his retirement from the stage.
He remained enigmatic to the end, his life and work shrouded in secrecy.
The entirely unheralded release of The Next Day took the world by pleasant surprise in 2013.
He died only two days after the release of his rich and strange swansong, Blackstar, and lived to see the premier of Lazarus, his jukebox musical – with a difference. But then, everything David Bowie did was different.