15th May 2013
Selecting David Bowie‘s single greatest song is no easy task. Between 1969 and 1983, the man churned out brilliant music at a furious pace. It was one of the longest creative streaks in rock history, and he somehow found time to work with Iggy Pop, Lou Reed, Mott the Hoople and many other acts during his free time. (Drugs are a truly amazing thing.) The past 30 years have been patchy, but he’s still managed to rediscover his old gift every once in a while, particularly on his three albums of the 21st century. We asked you to vote on your favorite Bowie song last week. Click through to see the results.
David Bowie didn’t record many obviously commercial songs on his late-Seventies so-called “Berlin Trilogy” of albums. “Heroes” seems like the lone exception, but the song didn’t make a huge impact in 1977, failing to even crack the American Hot 100. Co-written by Brian Eno, the song began as an instrumental, and only towards the end of the sessions did Bowie add in lyrics about two lovers on opposite sides of the Berlin Wall. The song’s reputation slowly grew over the years, and by the Nineties many fans recognized it as one of the best tracks from Bowie’s huge catalog. Bowie always believed in the song and has performed it countless times over the years
2. ‘Life on Mars’
“Life on Mars” tells the rather simple story of a lonely girl with “mousy hair” and mean parents who goes to the movies to escape from her problems. The story is almost completely irrelevant, though. Backed by the Spiders From Mars, a string section and pianist Rick Wakeman, the song features some of the best vocals of Bowie’s career. It’s almost a mini opera inside of a four-minute single, building to a stirring climax. Bowie has performed it countless times over the years, and in 2005 he returned to the public eye by playing the song at Fashion Rocks. This was just a year after his heart attack, and he appeared to have a black eye and a cast on his arm.
3. ‘Space Oddity’
David Bowie spent most of the Sixties trying desperately to become a famous musician. He knocked around in groups like the Manish Boys and Davie Jones with the King Bees and released solo singles like “The Laughing Gnome,” but nothing seemed to work. Finally, he teamed up with Elton John producer Gus Dudgeon to create “Space Oddity,” a song he’d been fiddling with all year. The label rushed it out to coincide with the launch of the Apollo 11 moon landing, and the BBC played the song during the coverage of the event. It flew up the U.K. charts, though it took Bowie three more years to prove he wasn’t a one-trick pony. He’s had countless hits over the years, but “Space Oddity” remains one of his most famous songs. Just this week Canadian astronaut Chris Hadfield covered the song aboard the International Space Station and it became a viral sensation.
4. ‘Ziggy Stardust’
Let’s review what we learn about the Ziggy Stardust character on this song. He’s left-handed. He jams with fellows named Weird and Gilly. Much like Bowie, he’s very pale and he has “screwed-up eyes.” He has weird hair, a large penis and a “God-given ass.” Some think the song is about Jimi Hendrix (another well-endowed, left-handed, freakishly gifted guitar player whose talents seemed almost alien), but Bowie says he was thinking more about Vince Taylor, a British rockabilly singer largely unknown in America. He was also clearly drawing some details out of his own life. The song wasn’t even a single, but it’s become one of Bowie’s most beloved songs, and it ended every show of his world tour in 2003-04.
David Bowie was seemingly in danger of being a one-hit wonder by 1972. “Space Oddity” was three long years in the past, and the music scene had changed dramatically in that time. Bowie remained cocky, though, and on the lead single from Hunky Dory he even unloaded a warning on his rivals. “Look out you rock & rollers,” he sang. “Pretty soon you’re gonna get a little older.” They were brash words for somebody without much of a following, but they proved prophetic. The song also became a theme of sorts as Bowie metamorphosed through the decades. In 2006, he sang it with Alicia Keys at the Hammerstein Ballroom at a charity show. It was his last public performance.
6. ‘Ashes to Ashes’
Eleven years after “Space Oddity,” David Bowie decided it was time to catch up with Major Tom. Bowie himself was coming down from a long drug period around this time, but Major Tom was in rough shape. “Ashes to ashes, funk to funky,” Bowie songs. “We know Major Tom’s a junkie / Strung out in heaven’s high / Hitting an all-time low.” The song was a huge hit all over the world, though it didn’t do much in America. It did find new fans a couple years later when MTV, desperate for videos, began playing it regularly.
7. ‘Moonage Daydream’
The third song on The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars attempts to outline the thin plot. “I’m the space invader,” Bowie sings. “I’ll be a rock & rollin’ bitch for you.” That pretty much sums it up. The song features some of the most jaw-dropping guitar work of Mick Ronson’s career, and his solo grew to epic proportions during the endless tour in support of the album. Thankfully, filmmaker D.A. Pennebaker’s cameras were rolling during the final show of the tour.
8. ‘Young Americans’
The opening moments of David Bowie’s 1975 LP Young Americans make it abundantly clear that Ziggy Stardust was dead and buried. With a little help from a young Luther Vandross, the title track was Bowie’s first experiment with Philly soul music. There’s saxophone, background vocals and even a conga player. Some diehard glam rockers were horrified, but the song was brilliant and instantly catchy. After nearly a decade of attempts, it was also Bowie’s first Top 40 hit in America.
9. ‘Rebel Rebel’
Just two years after introducing glam rock to a global audience, Bowie realized it was time to move on. Thankfully, he recorded one more glam classic that essentially summed up the entire movement. The famous opening guitar sounds like some lost Keith Richards riff, but it’s actually Bowie himself. Much like “All the Young Dudes,” “Rebel Rebel” is about glam-rock fans, only this time he’s writing about girls. “You love bands when they’re playing hard,” he sings. “You want more and you want it fast.” The song was a massive hit, and he could have easily repeated the formula for years, but a huge part of Bowie’s genius is his willingness to burn his own past and move onto something completely different.
Like many great concept albums of the Seventies, the story of The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardist and the Spiders from Mars makes little sense when you really think about it. It’s partially due to the fact that Bowie didn’t originally write the songs with a larger story in mind. It barely matters, since the album is such a masterpiece and the songs all feel connected. Simply put, the story is about an alien that comes to earth and takes the body of a human being to give mankind a sense of hope during its final five years. “Ziggy is advised in a dream by the infinites to write the coming of a Starman,” Bowie told Rolling Stone in 1973. “So he writes ‘Starman,’ which is the first news of hope that the people have heard. So they latch onto it immediately.” The song, which owes a little musical debt of gratitude to “Over the Rainbow” and “You Keep Me Hangin’ On” by the Supremes, became the first hit off the album and played a huge role in introducing Ziggy Stardust to a mass audience.