The best of David Bowie: which were the Starman’s golden years?

The Times

2nd March 2013

Bowie’s new album has been hailed as one of his finest. Here, famous fans name their hero’s best eras. Plus, click on tab above the picture for an amazing interactive guide to Bowie’s looks and influences from 1963-2013, with audio commentary from our chief rock critic (smartphone users go to thetimes.co.uk/music)

Stargazer:

Alan Johnson, MP, on 1967-71

Born in Brixton, South London, Bowie grew up a few miles away in Bromley, formed his first band at 15 and in 1967 released his first solo single, The Laughing Gnome. It was followed the same year by his debut album, David Bowie.

The Beatles have been the most wonderful thing to have happened in my life musically, but Bowie came close. In 1967 I was a fanatical music fan, playing in a band, the Area, and his first album came out when I was 17. Bowie wore a suit, very smart, looked like a mod; I was a mod.

He was very much ours. We’d grown up listening to every British star imitating an American accent. The Beatles started to change that but Bowie was very English, almost in a music hall sense: he was actually thought to be an impersonator of Anthony Newley in those days, bizarrely. Then in 1969 came Space Oddity; I think it was released about the same time as the great film, 2001: A Space Odyssey. You listen to the production now — it wouldn’t be out of place if it came out next Friday. You thought, wow! Two years later came Hunky Dory, one of those albums where practically every track is a cracker. That really started the ball rolling. The thing about Bowie is they’re always great tunes: Changes, Life on Mars?Oh! You Pretty Things, Space Oddity. He can really knock out a tune.

There was also the fascination of his bisexuality. I was living on a council estate in Slough and had three kids so unfortunately I couldn’t walk around as a Bowie freak — it might look strange with a post office uniform as well [Johnson became a postman at 18] — but I had lots of mates who were. He said this brilliant thing: that he was a closet heterosexual, which I think is fabulous.Aladdin Sane was the last album I bought of his. It was RIP Ziggy Stardust by then — I was still grieving.

Glam god Irvine Welsh on 1972-75

Bowie then unveiled the most celebrated of his stage personas, an alien rock deity named Ziggy Stardust, introducing him to the British public via a famous appearance on Top of the Pops, in which he draped his arm around Mick Ronson, his guitarist.

Ziggy Stardust was my initial Bowie experience, as a 13-year-old kid: myself and my friend Colin Campbell, who was my best pal and still is now, lived a couple of doors along from each other in Muirhouse, Edinburgh, and we used to watch Top of the Pops every Thursday. We’d been vaguely aware of Bowie, but he came on doingStarman with Mick Ronson. We were watching it in Colin’s house and I remember the reaction of his dad, Jimmy, which was one of shock, outrage and horror. To have something that not only was really cool and strange but also upset your parents — all the boxes were ticked!

I got the Ziggy haircut and, because it was really spiked on top, I never played football at school — I didn’t want to head the ball. The hard guys, who all liked Slade, would go, “Hit the ball, you poof!” This idea of androgyny and bisexuality was an amazing thing for working-class heterosexual boys. I remember Colin and I going to a Bowie night and his old man saying, “You’re a pair of f***ing poofs!” and Colin saying, “Aye, we are a pair of f***ing poofs. What are you gonna do about it, you old c***?”

One of my fave Bowie tracks from that time was The Width of a Circle, a big, swaggering, camp mystical underground song. Things like that gave me permission to get into other music: I would never have been into soul if it wasn’t for Bowie, or Iggy Pop or Lou Reed; I’d never have felt comfortable going to gay nightclubs.

My second gig ever was Bowie in 1973 at the Edinburgh Empire and one of the best Bowie gigs I saw was at Murrayfield around 1978. It was pissing down with rain and Bowie came out in a white cagoule. You just thought: “How the f*** can this bastard look cool in a white cagoule?”

I’ve never met Bowie but I’ve stood him up twice. The first time time he was hosting theTrainspotting party in New York when it was launched in America. I always wondered why I didn’t go. Then, a couple of years later, I got a call saying he was doing a gig in Glasgow and he wanted to meet me for some dinner. I didn’t go again and I realised that it was because I thought I would turn into a 13-year-old boy again.

Berlin boy:

Nick Clegg, MP, on 1976-79

Having assumed a new cocaine-fuelled persona, the Thin White Duke, for his 1976 album, Station to Station, Bowie tried to clean up his drug habit by relocating to Berlin. He shared a flat with Iggy Pop and, inspired by the music of Kraftwerk and Neu!, made some of his most avant-garde albums in the Berlin trilogy: Low, Heroes and Lodger.

For me there’s no doubt that the Berlin years were far and away Bowie’s best period. In the time it takes for most modern superstar musicians to produce one album, Bowie produced a series of groundbreaking records.

It is difficult to think of a musician now who, having reached the level of fame Bowie had, would decide to ignore conventional wisdom, turn his back on the easy route to more money and decide to try to take his fans with him into new musical territory. It’s almost impossible to think of one who would manage to do it as successfully as Bowie did.

It’s the era when all of Bowie’s greatest strengths seemed to reach their peak. Not just the music, but his ability to find the best collaborators, his instinct for how to change his whole persona and yet still retain his identity, and his unerring knack for looking cool — the cover of Low with Bowie (plus orange hair) in profile has to be one of his most iconic images.

Last year I was lucky enough to be at the Olympic opening ceremony where Heroeswas used to spine-tingling effect. In the middle of all the live performances and pyrotechnics, Bowie’s music and the video images of him were still among the most powerful moments of the night. I was crossing my fingers that we were going to get a live appearance from him and the only disappointment of the entire event for me was that it didn’t happen. At that point I thought his retirement really was going to be permanent.

It was interesting to see that his comeback single seems to be referencing these years so much. It’s probably foolish to try to guess what is behind his thinking, but I wonder if it’s partly his own recognition that it was the period when he achieved something exceptional.

Fame:

Nile Rodgers on 1980-92

Rodgers wrote and produced hits for his band Chic, Diana Ross and Madonna, including Le Freak, Upside Down and Like a Virgin. After a chance meeting with Bowie in a New York club in 1982 he co-produced Let’s Dance, which became the Dame’s most commercially successful LP, selling six million copies.

He looked to be in good shape for a dude his age and seemed proud of it (I’d later find out he was taking boxing lessons).

I walked over to Bowie and sat on the stool next to him and just started talking. Before I knew it, we’d spiralled into a passionate conversation about music.

“Damn,” I said. “I had no idea you were so seriously into jazz.”

“Nile, I grew up in England, where we have BBC Radio,” he said. “They played everything that was popular — soul, blues, jazz, R&B and rock. We don’t separate the music on the radio by race or genres.”

I call Bowie the Picasso of rock’n’roll (much to his embarrassment and discomfort) because of his prodigious creativity, but also because he looks sort of like Picasso drew him. Famously, one of his eyes is blue and the other grey-green. He’s extremely handsome, of course, but his features are slightly unbalanced and draw you to him, with a touch of vulnerability or danger in his otherwise aristocratic mien.

[The pair arranged to record together] Then David really threw me a curveball. “Nile, darling,” he said, using a typical British expression, “I’d like you to do what you do best.” His voice had a lyrical power that could mobilise me like Churchill. I thought he was talking about the two of us expanding my new experimental approach to composition. I was beaming with expectant pride — until he finished the sentence: “I want you to make hits.”

Our musical relationship developed rapidly. David asked me to work on some demos in Switzerland, where he lived part of the time. He picked me up at the airport in a slick Volvo model that wasn’t available in the States. As we zipped along the icy roads, David confided in me.

“I’m legally blind in one eye,” he said, or something to that effect. The speedometer seemed never to drop below 100km/h. I was scared shitless but his moves were pretty good.

Let’s Dance was, as David described it, “a postmodern homage to the Isley Brothers’Twist and Shout.” I knew we were in new territory and could play by different rules — rules that applied only to white rockers and maybe Miles, Prince or Michael Jackson. Now I had the freedom to venture beyond pop, into jazz territory. I was free to allow cats to improvise — on a pop single. Heaven.

Digital:

Dave Goldie on 1993-2003

Bowie steeped himself in electronic music in the Nineties, employing drum ’n’ bass on his 1997 album, Earthling, and collaborating with Goldie on Truth, a track that appeared on the DJ and producer’s 1998 album, Saturnz Return.

Bowie said he’d heard my album, Timeless, really wanted to get involved and loved the wild energy of drum ’n’ bass. It was the Antichrist to pop music in a sense, very underground. He came to my Metalheadz club night at the Blue Note in London a few times.

He came down to the studio wearing a suit jacket and overcoat, smoking profusely. He was laughing and joking and coming out with things like: “Look, it’s only music, it’s two things: good or bad, depending on your opinion.”

He’s a beast when it comes to recording. Watching him in the vocal booth, just nailing something, I was just going, “Is this real? Did I take one acid tab too many?” That guy, he’s a maverick, man, beyond belief. We’d put these words on bits of paper, put them in a bag, pull them out and that was the song. It really fuelled that side of my artistry in terms of what songwriting was. When he turned up at the Blue Note, my mates would say, “Is that who I think it is?” And I’m like, “Yeah it’s him. It’s the Thin White Duke in the darkest room on the planet!”

Bowie now:

Gary Kemp on 2003-2013

After a decade-long break, Bowie releases his 24th studio album, The Next Day, later this month.

The first line of the first chorus of the first Bowie album in ten years says it all: Here I am! Not quite dying! It’s like the homecoming leader suddenly appearing upon the balcony of his palace. Are you listening? Damn right you are. It’s a statement full of cocksure irony and swagger. The instrumentation slaps you in the face, cat-walks you into a corner, and, with Bowie’s armed guitar-gang as back-up, you’re not just listening, you’re believing.

It took Odysseus a decade to return from his battles after he was thought dead, but when he did, boy did he have some stories to tell, and The Next Day is an album busting out with twisted tales of chanson-noir. What we sense is that Bowie has visited some dark places during his time away, but he’s returned imbued with vibrancy and creative vigour. This is ten years punched into a single, cohesive statement of artistic existence. They are the stars, he says later, They’re dying for you. But I hope they live for ever!

It’s not an album to play at dinner parties. It demands attention. In any case, this is how my generation used to listen to albums, submerging into the two-act art form of the long-player, looking for signs, not streaming it in the background of a social-networking app. This isn’t an end-of-the-pier attempt to get a career rebirth on a Saturday-night variety show: it’s uncompromising, compressed musical emotion, with all the jagged, neurotic truths left on.

The sleeve, a defaced Heroes, states its titular pronunciation clearly, while at the same time reminding us of one of our heroes’ greatest moments. Maybe this is an album full of cut-up references to the best of the Bowie canon (even an emulated snippet of Five Years to titillate the old believers), but it’s also about the future.

In a time when our new British stars seem to be made up of cruise singers and buskers, it’s extraordinary that it takes a 66-year-old man to push the boundaries of popular music. On his return, Odysseus slayed the suitors that had risen to take his place while he was away. With 14 blows, Bowie has cleared the competition.

The Next Day is released on March 11. David Bowie opens at the Victoria and Albert Museum, London SW7, on March 23. Nile Rodgers’s section extracted from his autobiography, Le Freak, published by Sphere in paperback. Irvine Welsh’s Skagboys is published by Vintage on April 11. The Alchemist: The Best of Goldie 1992-2012 is released on March 11

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