Born in January 1947, David began his musical career playing drums in a dance band, wearing a bowtie and playing the Hokey Cokey.
Initially little more than an impersonator of early 60s novelty pop singer Anthony Newley, Bowie wisely neutered his South London barrow-boy twang in time to conquer the 70s.
Starting out as the 17-year-old singer with Davie Jones with The King Bees, he moved quickly to The Manish Boys and as ‘Davy’ Jones he fronted The Lower Third (pictured below) and released singles like You’ve Got A Habit Of Leaving (produced by Shel Talmy).
To avoid a clash with the similarly named singer from American group The Monkees, he adopted the surname Bowie (after the knife) and recorded his first album, The World Of David Bowie, which produced minor hits – including the embarrassing Laughing Gnome (which was re-released by Decca in 1973 to take advantage of Bowie’s new fame)
Shedding all previous incarnations, Bowie came to earth in 1970, ready to try something new. He had studied mime and dance with the controversial Lindsay Kemp, co-founded the arts performance venue the Beckenham Arts Lab in South East London, and recorded Space Oddity. But all this was only an overture.
It took a long time for the public to catch on to David Bowie.
The media had sung his praises for a number of years but it wasn’t until the album The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and The Spiders From Mars came out in 1972 that Bowie’s sales figures started to reflect his reviews – his back catalogue also started to do brisk business.
With Ziggy… David abruptly redefined what being a male rock star was all about.
The cover depicts Bowie as a skinny, crop-haired androgyne in a rain-swept alley. Clutching an electric guitar, he is an alien beamed down to the drab Earth to bring us rock & roll.
Shot on Heddon Street in London, the cover photograph was originally black and white but later tinted, giving it an odd 1950s sci-fi cartoon quality.
The album itself sounded like a lightning bolt from the future, but in assuming the role of a troubled rock & roll outsider, Bowie immediately clicked with teenagers and critics alike (Rolling Stone gave it “at least 99/100”).
The follow-up album, Aladdin Sane (1973), appeared in April, and though unable to match its predecessor, it got to #1 in the UK and the Top 10 in the US, also spawning a UK #2 in Jean Genie and a #3 with Drive-In Saturday.
Written mostly during Bowie’s 1972 tour of America, Aladdin Sane picks up where Ziggy left off to serve as a brutal memoir for one rock Martian’s meteoric rise to the top.
The tracks ooze desperation and alienation as the central character strives, through a haze of drugs and alcohol, to find some kind of enlightenment and, perhaps, rediscover himself.
Dramatically, at the height of his new-found fame, on 3 July 1973, on stage with the Spiders From Mars at London’s Hammersmith Odeon, David Bowie announced: “Not only is this the last show of the tour, but it’s the last show we’ll ever do”.
Music papers held front pages, legions of teenagers with recently dyed red hair went into shock, and the record company rush-released Sorrow from the Pin-Ups LP.
But for Bowie himself, it was all part of a calculated decision . . . What he was doing was setting the pattern for the next 20 years – re-inventing his public persona as often as he felt it necessary to keep his audience interested.
While any rock star’s change of image is good for a few column inches, Bowie had worked out the career advantages of moving the goalposts so often and so skilfully that he remained an enigma.
His strategy kept everyone on their toes; His audience had to keep guessing who he was; his contemporaries could never out-Ziggy him, or beat him at his own game because he would just re-write the rules and move on to Eurogloom or blue-eyed soul, leaving the wannabes behind like dinosaurs.
Bowie was also geeing himself up to stay at the cutting edge of his own career rather than become a slave to it, cranking out the same old riffs as the law of diminishing returns set in.
It wasn’t Bowie who had retired, it was Ziggy. And anybody who had listened to the album would have known what was happening.
He returned almost immediately with Diamond Dogs, an LP that embodied a maxim of the times, “nothing succeeds like excess” and produced the UK Number Five hit, Rebel, Rebel.
Diamond Dogs is often cited as the beginning of Bowie’s cocaine psychosis period, but in fact, it was recorded before he started giving Hitler salutes at railway stations and aggravating Eastern European customs officers with the books on Goebbels he carried in his rucksack.
In 1975, Bowie turned his hand to movies and began filming The Man Who Fell To Earth. Meanwhile, as the emergent disco trend pushed the pop/soul sound of Philadelphia towards the mainstream, Bowie latched on to the trend with Young Americans, an album of white boy soul.
Looking for a new change, Bowie fired his manager and moved to LA, where he let his cocaine habit flourish and made Station to Station, exploring ideas in what he called “sound as texture.”
The 10-minute title track, a Krautrock disco opus referencing drugs and Kabbalah mysticism, and somehow turning “The European canon is here!” into a get-down dance-floor salvo, introduced his Thin White Duke persona. Bowie later said he didn’t remember much about the recording, but it’s one of the funkiest experiments of his career.
From then to the end of the decade, he collaborated with Brian Eno to produce a trio of synthesizer-based albums; Low, Heroes and Lodger – the so-called “Berlin trilogy”.
In September 1980, Bowie received rave reviews for his appearance on Broadway as John Merrick, the Victorian sideshow freak known as The Elephant Man. At the same time, his Scary Monsters album topped the UK charts. The unsettling single Ashes To Ashes was his first Number 1 UK single since Space Oddity, to which it was a kind of belated sequel.
After a decade of silence, and a major health scare, Bowie returned with the 2013 album The Next Day.
He had just released the album Blackstar when he died on 11 January 2016 after an 18-month battle with cancer.