If The Beatles first floated the concept of the band as an amorphous entity, constantly mutating into something new, then David Bowie took the idea one step further: the artist as creative soothsayer, predicting the musical and visual curves to come. Nevertheless, if image came easily to him, songwriting was hard.
“I didn’t know how to write a song,” he confessed in the ’90s, when recalling his pre-fame years. “I forced myself to be a good songwriter, but I had no natural talents whatsoever.” Bowie was nothing if not doggedly determined. Let us not forget that when Space Oddity became his first hit, in 1969, it followed a succession of flop singles that veered wildly in terms of style and quality.
But if this constant shapeshifting was initially seen as a weakness, in time, Bowie turned it into his greatest strength. Inevitably, though, accusations of plagiarism were repeatedly levelled at him. Admirably, he never attempted to deny them. “The only art I’ll ever study is stuff I can steal from,” he admitted in 1976. “I do think my plagiarism is effective.”
And it was true – Bowie always managed to absorb and then transcend his influences. Take 1971’s Hunky Dory: Queen Bitch is far more effective than the Lou Reed rip it really was; The Bewlay Brothers bore no trace of essentially being a Bob Dylan crib; Life On Mars? used the chords of Comme d’Habitude (aka My Way) but became something else entirely. Having taught himself to write, Bowie was unstoppable. It’s frankly boggling now to think that he could take a song such as All The Young Dudes and toss it over to Mott The Hoople, rather than save it for himself.
If his retirement of Ziggy and splitting of The Spiders From Mars in 1973 points at a certain ruthlessness, then it was a trait that was always apparent, in his jettisoning of managers, bandmates and lovers. He was fiercely competitive too. Jealous of Marc Bolan’s popularity in the early 70s, he drove himself to be successful by remodelling himself as a similarly unearthly pop star.
This inherent determination extended to his singing. By the 70s his voice had become a uniquely expressive instrument. When recording “Heroes” in Berlin in 1977, Tony Visconti set up a mic at the far end of the ballroom in Hansa Studios to capture the moments when Bowie let rip and unleashed the big notes. Even in the post-Ziggy fallout, when he was living on a diet of red peppers, cocaine and milk, he never turned in a poor vocal performance on the albums (Diamond Dogs, Young Americans) made during that period.
Ultimately, Bowie’s creative restlessness ensured that he could never be pinned down, which is what made him so inspiring to generations of musicians who followed. Having overcome his limitations to become truly great, he proved himself to be a master not only of self-invention but, of course, self-reinvention. In this – and as the greatest songwriter of the ’70s – he was without rival. Tom Doyle @Tom_Doyle_
Listen to Q's Real Best Of David Bowie
Space Oddity Marooned astronaut as metaphor for burned-out junkie?
The Man Who Sold The World Bowie toys with the idea of split personality.
Life On Mars? It may have had its roots in My Way, but Life On Mars? was a showstopper in its own right.
The Bewlay Brothers Hallucinatory ballad which obliquely refers to Bowie’s mentally-troubled sibling, Terry.
All The Young Dudes Bowie’s yearning vocal on this noses Mott The Hoople’s version in terms of greatness.
Starman The song that inspired a generation of young musicians.
Win Gorgeous soul track imploring a friend (or, indeed, himself) to accentuate the positive.
Always Crashing In The Same Car This remote mid-pacer that broaches the subject of repeat lapses into drug addiction.
Ashes To Ashes This great single revisits Major Tom – ah, so he was a junkie after all.
Teenage Wildlife Seven-minute epic in which the maturing Bowie surveys the new wave generation with an arched eyebrow.
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