This week we are listening to David Bowie’s Glam Rock album The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars. In honour of this, I am attempting to write a post about David Bowie without using the phrase ‘musical chameleon’*.
Throughout a long and prolific career David Bowie has covered about as many genres as he has released albums, and he has released 25 studio albums to date. Producing everything from Folk to Krautrock, Bowie’s career has been a comprehensive exploration of popular music, and with a catalogue that extensive we can excuse the odd novelty record. As well as changing his sound, Bowie made regular revamps of his image and stage persona, earning him a reputation as a
musical chameleon very versatile performer.
This week’s album features what is probably Bowie’s most famous incarnation. The hedonistic Ziggy Stardust was created as the ultimate Rock star. Based on a selection of musicians including Vince Taylor and Iggy Pop, Ziggy is an androgynous alien from Mars whose message of peace and hope for humanity is disrupted when his fame and excesses begin to destroy him. Bowie reprised a harder, edgier Ziggy Stardust for his following album, Aladdin Sane, which he described as “Ziggy goes to America”.
Bowie didn’t just put on costumes and prance around as various oddballs. He immersed himself entirely in his characters, losing some of himself in the process. During his tours as Ziggy Stardust Bowie was almost living through his alter ego, saying “offstage I’m a robot; onstage I achieve emotion”. His complete committment to his stage persona reached new extremes with the creation of the Thin White Duke.
Often seen as a development of his character in the 1976 film The Man Who Fell To Earth, the Thin White Duke emerged as Bowie created the Plastic Soul sound of his album Station to Station. Although the Duke initially appears more subdued than the flamboyant Ziggy, his arrogant and emotionless immorality made him a darkly intense character. Bowie’s transformation into the alarming Duke coincided with the height of his drug addictions, and he later stated that during this period “I was out of my mind, totally crazed”. In Bowie’s words the psychopathic Duke “wouldn’t leave me alone for years… My whole personality was affected. It became very dangerous”, but the copious quantities of cocaine he consumed would have had something to do with it too.
Ziggy Stardust and the Thin White Duke are probably David Bowie’s most well-known and developed characters, but over a long career he has embodied many more. Bowie’s ability to not only create innovative sounds but to dedicate himself to characters that personify his music has made him
a musical chameleon an icon. The range and popularity of his work has had an enormous effect on the music that followed, to the extent that biographer Thomas Forget claims “it is almost impossible to find a popular artist today that has not been influenced by David Bowie”. Bowie’s willingness to embrace such diverse music is particularly pertinent to our Musical Adventure, and whatever your opinion of his work, you cannot deny that he is a musical chameleon star.