A consummate musical chameleon, David Bowie has been a folksinger, androgyne, alien, decadent, blue-eyed soul man, art-rocker and a modern pop star, with each persona spawning a new league of imitators. His late-Seventies collaborations with Brian Eno made Bowie one of the few older stars to be taken seriously by the new wave. In the Eighties Bowie followed the mainstream pop smash Let's Dance (Number One, 1983) with numerous attempts to keep up with current trends. In the Nineties, that meant embracing grunge, industrial rock, rap and dance music, to varying degrees of success. But by then Bowie's place in history was secure: This is a man who did for pretensions what Jimi Hendrix did for electric guitar.
Bowie — born David Jones on January 8th, 1947 in London — took up the saxophone at age 13, and when he left Bromley Technical High School (where a friend permanently paralyzed his left pupil in a fight) to work as a commercial artist three years later, he had started playing in bands (the Konrads, the King Bees, David Jones and the Buzz). Three of Jones' early bands — the King Bees, the Manish Boys (featuring session guitarist Jimmy Page), and Davey Jones and the Lower Third — each recorded a single. He changed his name to David Bowie (after the knife) to avoid confusion with the Monkees' Davy Jones, and in 1966 recorded three singles for Pye Records; the following year he signed with Deram, issuing several singles and The World of David Bowie (most of the songs from that album, and others from that time, were collected on Images 1966-67).
On those early records, Bowie appears in the singer-songwriter mold. In 1967 he spent a few weeks at a Buddhist monastery in Scotland, then apprenticed in Lindsay Kemp's avant-garde theater and mime troupe and in 1968 started his own troupe, Feathers. American-born Angela Barnett met Bowie in London's Speakeasy and married him on March 20, 1970. (Son Zowie, now Joey, was born in June 1971; the couple divorced acrimoniously in 1980.) After Feathers broke up, Bowie helped start the experimental Beckenham Arts Lab in 1969. To finance the project, he signed with Mercury. Man of Words, Man of Music included "Space Oddity," which the album would later be re-titled after the single's release was timed to coincide with the U.S. moon landing. It became a European hit that year but did not make the U.S. charts until its rerelease in 1973, when it reached Number 15.
Marc Bolan, an old friend, was beginning his rise as a glitter-rock star in T. Rex and introduced Bowie to his producer, Tony Visconti. Bowie mimed at some T. Rex concerts, and Bolan played guitar on Bowie's "Karma Man" and "The Prettiest Star." Bowie, Visconti, guitarist Mick Ronson and drummer John Cambridge toured briefly as Hype. Ronson eventually recruited drummer Michael "Woody" Woodmansey, and with Visconti on bass they recorded The Man Who Sold the World, which included "All the Madmen," inspired by Bowie's institutionalized brother, Terry. Hunky Dory (Number 93, 1972), Bowie's tribute to the New York City pop-art scene of Andy Warhol, the Velvet Underground and Bob Dylan, included the song that would become Bowie's theme, "Changes" (Number 66, 1972, rereleased 1974, Number 41).
Bowie started changing his image in late 1971. He told Melody Maker he was gay in January 1972 and started work on a new theatrical production. Enter Ziggy Stardust, Bowie's projection of a doomed messianic rock star. Bowie became Ziggy; Ronson, Woodmansey and bassist Trevor Bolder became Ziggy's band, the Spiders From Mars. The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars (Number 75, 1972) and the rerelease of Man of Words as Space Oddity (Number 16, 1972) made Bowie the star he was portraying. The live show, with Bowie wearing futuristic costumes, makeup and bright orange hair (at a time when the rock-star uniform was jeans), was a sensation in London and New York. It took Aladdin Sane (Number 17, 1973) to break Bowie in the U.S. Bolan and other British glitter-rock performers barely made the Atlantic crossing, but Bowie emerged a star. He produced albums for Lou Reed (Transformer and its hit "Walk on the Wild Side") and Iggy and the Stooges (Raw Power) and wrote and produced Mott the Hoople's glitter anthem "All the Young Dudes."
In 1973 Bowie announced his retirement from live performing, disbanded the Spiders and sailed to Paris to record Pin Ups (Number 23, 1973), a mix of covers of mid-Sixties pop and deep-cut rock songs including the Easybeats "Friday on My Mind" and Pink Floyd's "See Emily Play." That same year, the 1980 Floor Show, an invitation-only concert with Bowie and guests Marianne Faithfull and the Troggs, was taped for broadcast on the TV program The Midnight Special. Meanwhile, Bowie worked on a musical adaptation of George Orwell's 1984 but was denied the rights by Orwell's widow. He rewrote the material as Diamond Dogs (Number Five, 1974) and returned to the stage with an extravagant American tour.
Midway though the tour, Bowie entered Philadelphia's Sigma Sound Studios (then the capital of black music) and recorded the tracks that would become Young Americans (Number Nine, 1975). The session had a major effect on Bowie, as his sound and show were revised. Bowie scrapped the dancers, sets and costumes for a spare stage and baggy Oxford trousers; he cut his hair and colored it a more natural blond. His new band, led by former James Brown sideman Carlos Alomar, added soul standards (like Eddie Floyd's "Knock on Wood") to his repertoire, and included a young Luther Vandross (who cowrote "Fascination" with Bowie) on back-up vocals. David Live (Number Eight, 1974), also recorded in Philadelphia, chronicles this incarnation.
"Fame," cowritten by Bowie, Almoar and John Lennon, was Bowie's first American Number One single (1975). Bowie moved to L.A. and became a fixture of American pop culture. He played the title role in Nicolas Roeg's The Man Who Fell to Earth in 1976; the same year, he released Station to Station (Number Three, 1976), another album of "plastic soul" recorded with the Young Americans band, portrayed Bowie as the Thin White Duke (also the title of his unpublished autobiography). His highest charting album, Station to Station contained his second Top 10 single, "Golden Years" (Number 10, 1975). Bowie complained life had become predictable and left L.A. He returned to the U.K. for the first time in three years before settling in Berlin, where he lived in semiseclusion, painting, studying art and recording with Brian Eno.
Bowie's work with Eno — Low (Number 11, 1977), "Heroes" (Number 35, 1977) and Lodger (Number 20, 1979) — was distinguished by its appropriation of avant-garde electronic music and the "cut-up" technique, a concept made famous by author William Burroughs. (Composer Philip Glass wrote a symphony incorporating music from Low in 1993.) Bowie revitalized Iggy Pop's career by producing The Idiot and Lust for Life (both 1977) and toured Europe and America with Pop unannounced as the singer's pianist. Bowie narrated Eugene Ormandy and the Philadelphia Orchestra's recording of Prokofiev's Peter and the Wolf and spent the rest of 1977 acting with Marlene Dietrich and Kim Novak in Just a Gigolo. The next year, he embarked on a massive world tour. A second live album, Stage (Number 44, 1978), was recorded on the U.S. leg of the tour. Work on Lodger was begun in New York, continued in Switzerland and completed in Berlin.
Bowie settled in New York to record the paranoiac Scary Monsters (Number 12, 1980), updating "Space Oddity" in "Ashes to Ashes." One of the first stars to understand the potential of video, he produced some innovative clips for songs from Lodger and Scary Monsters. After that album, Bowie turned his attention away from his recording career. In 1980 he played the title role in The Elephant Man, appearing in Denver, in Chicago and on Broadway. He collaborated with Queen on 1981's "Under Pressure" and provided lyrics and vocals for "Cat People (Putting Out Fire)" (Number 67, 1982), Giorgio Moroder's title tune for the soundtrack of Paul Schrader's remake of Cat People. His music was used on the soundtrack of Christiane F (1982), and he also appeared in the film. That year, Bowie also starred in the BBC-TV production of Brecht's Baal, and as a 150-year-old vampire in the movie The Hunger.
In 1983 Bowie signed one of the most lucrative contracts in history and moved from RCA to EMI. Let's Dance (Number Four, 1983), his first album in three years, returned him to the top of the charts. Produced by Nile Rodgers with Stevie Ray Vaughan on guitar, the album was a slick revision of Bowie's soul-man posture. It contained three Top 20 singles — "Let's Dance" (Number One, 1983), "China Girl" (Number 10, 1983) and "Modern Love" (Number 14, 1983) — which were supported with another set of innovative videos, all staples of early MTV; the sold-out Serious Moonlight Tour followed. Bowie's music career was revitalized.
But what first seemed like a return to form actually ushered in a period of mediocrity. Without Rodgers' production savvy, Bowie's material sounded increasingly forced and hollow; his attention alternated between albums and film roles. Tonight (Number 11, 1984) had only one hit, "Blue Jean" (Number Eight, 1984). Bowie and Mick Jagger dueted on a lame cover of Martha and the Vandellas' "Dancing in the Street" (Number Seven, 1985) for Live Aid. Although Never Let Me Down (Number 34, 1987), with Peter Frampton on guitar, was roundly criticized, it made the charts with "Day In, Day Out" (Number 21, 1987) and the title song (Number 27, 1987). Bowie hit the road with another stadium extravaganza, the Glass Spiders Tour; it was recorded for an ABC-TV special. He had scarcely better luck in his acting career: Into the Night (1985), Absolute Beginners (1986) — a Julien Temple musical featuring some Bowie songs — Labyrinth (1986), The Linguini Incident (1992) and Twin Peaks - Fire Walk With Me (1992) were neither critical nor commercial successes.
Bowie set about reissuing his earlier albums on CD. Sound + Vision (Number 97, 1989), a box-set overview, and ChangesBowie (Number 39, 1990), a revamped version of an earlier greatest hits album on a single disc, revived interest in Bowie's career. The set list for the accompanying tour was partially based on fan response to special phone lines requesting favorite Bowie songs. Bowie claimed it would be the last time he performed those songs live. Later reissues, with previously unreleased bonus tracks, brought the Ziggy-era Bowie back into popularity.
Bowie formed Tin Machine in 1989. The band included Bowie discovery Reeves Gabrels on guitar and Hunt and Tony Sales (sons of comedian Soupy Sales), who had worked with Bowie on Iggy Pop's Lust for Life album and tour in the Seventies. Although Bowie claimed the band was a democracy, Tin Machine was perceived as Bowie's next project. The group debuted with a series of club dates in New York and L.A., followed by an album, Tin Machine (Number 28, 1989), which was a rougher, more guitar-oriented collection than any of Bowie's previous albums. Tin Machine II (Number 126, 1991), lacked the novelty of the debut and was quickly forgotten.
In 1992 Bowie married Somalian supermodel Iman. Black Tie White Noise (Number 39, 1993), which Bowie called his wedding present to his wife, received decent reviews but failed to excite the public. For a follow-up, Bowie reunited with Brian Eno to create Outside - The Nathan Adler Diaries: A Hyper Cycle, a concept album of sorts that did not create much in the way of sales, although Bowie did tour the States with Trent Reznor's Nine Inch Nails opening. The Buddha in Suburbia is the music from the British television show of the same name; Lenny Kravitz appears on guitar.
Bowie celebrated his 50th birthday in January 1997 with a sold-out gig at Madison Square Garden, where he was joined onstage by Lou Reed, the Cure's Robert Smith, Smashing Pumpkins' Billy Corgan, Frank Black, the Foo Fighters and Sonic Youth.
In early 1997 Bowie was again on the cutting edge — this time in the financial world. In a complicated transaction that was a first, something called Bowie Bonds were offered for sale. These asset-backed bonds (in this case the assets are the royalties on Bowie's songs recorded prior to 1990) allowed Bowie to collect $55 million. The sale of the bonds came on the eve of the release of Earthling, which incorporated the electronic-dance style drum-and-bass into a basically rock sound and received mixed reviews. By the end of the year a Reznor remix of the track "I'm Afraid of Americans" was receiving video and Modern Rock radio airplay. Reznor had inserted some keyboard and guitar textures into the edgy song (cowritten with Eno), and a rap by Ice Cube. Hours . . . (1999) was not a particularly well-received album but was notable for expanding Bowie's early and enthusiastic advocacy of the Internet; the entire album was available for download weeks before its official release and contained a song available only online. That year Bowie also appeared in, and contributed a soundtrack to, the videogame Omikron: The Nomad Soul.
In 2002, Bowie reunited with Tony Visconti to record Heathen, featuring a cover of the Pixies' "Cactus." He also put together an annual edition of London's Meltdown Festival, at which Bowie performed 1977's Low in its entirety. A year later, he released Reality, and while touring behind it had a minor heart attack onstage in Germany, brought on by heavy smoking; Bowie fully recuperated. Some of his more famous songs appeared on the soundtrack for The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou in 2004, both in Bowie's original versions and in updated renditions by Brazilian singer Seu Jorge, who translated the lyrics to Portuguese.
Bowie curried favor with the new generation of indie rockers by appearing onstage with the Arcade Fire and singing on TV on the Radio's 2006 album Return to Cookie Mountain; that year he also received a Grammy Award for Lifetime Achievement. In 2008 he contributed vocals to actor Scarlett Johansson's Anywhere I Lay My Head, her album of Tom Waits covers. The following year he released iSELECT, a random collection of his favorite songs from his own albums that included only one well-known hit, "Life on Mars."
Portions of this biography appeared in The Rolling Stone Encyclopedia of Rock & Roll (Simon & Schuster, 2001). Mark Kemp contributed to this article.