IDOL FRIDAY: Rebel Rebel

Ever since the David Bowie star exploded into the world of rock music, fans and critics have been captivated by his unique presence, unpredictabilty of style, and confrontational lifestyle. David Bowie as a textual site is fascinating. Throughout the span of his career he has strived to thrill, shock, and cause a commotion in the rigid world of rock and roll. He has done this through a cleverly executed combination of appearance, image and musical scope. In all three areas he has excelled in experimenting with his identity and testing the boundaries of his surrounding culture. Bowie’s appearance has always been the focal point of his reincarnations and revivals.

David Bowie had more personas in the 70s than a Multiple Personality Disorder patient. Ziggy Stardust, Halloween Jack, The Thin White Duke, they all influenced his music and his actions.  In 1971, on the cover of his second album, Diamond dogs, David was seen casually draped on a lounge, his long blond hair flowing over the shoulders of the dress he was wearing. The controversy that surrounded this bold move was about to magnify, when, in 1972, Bowie’s most famous persona was born, Ziggy Stardust.

Ziggy played guitar, jamming good with weird and gilly, and the Spiders from Mars.  He was an alien human hybrid who came down to earth during the end times to act as its saviour through Rock and Roll, and ended up being consumed by his drug and sex habits and by his rabid fans.  So basically, he was a rock and roll alien/God, who was consumed by the turmoil of Rock and Roll. Ziggy Stardust wrote songs in which he claimed to be an alligator, a space invader, and a rock n’ rollin’ bitch who wanted his fans to shoot him in the face with rayguns.

The birth of Ziggy was the result of a long process for Bowie, the culmination of everything that he found fascinating about rock and roll, and a further extension of futuristic styles he had begun to explore, via ‘Space Oddity’. His short, red, spiky hair, reed thin body, skilfully applied make-up and frocks that would rival the most extensive drag queen’s wardrobe, were a signifier of sexual liberation, baby.

“Here came Ziggy Stardust. In a silver lurex catsuit, skin-tight and bulging below, and artfully padded above….the shimmering garment ended at the cheeks in outsize earrings that looked like diamonds…his distinctive hair, cropped short at the crown but caressing his shoulders, was vivid red….he flounced on stage, shook his hips, and counted out time with his knee- length red plastic boots. The ad hoc style brought gasps as loud as the percussive assault of the music”

Bowie’s sexually liberated demeanour helped to shape a generation who were more open-minded towards sexuality and the roles of women and men within society. His camp, androgynous appearance and outrageous antics, on and off stage, earned him the tag ‘decadent’, and gave rise to the genre, glam rock. The fashion was high glamour; the objective was to shock and induce fascination in the spectacle. His influence was rife, an explosion colour and quiffed hair, and almost instant. To anyone vaguely frustrated, or looking for a way to transform themselves, he was a godsend. New styles began to emerge, drawing entirely from the Ziggy character, that made their victims look like “brightly painted tapeworms”.

Aladdin Sane, his next album (after Ziggy stardust) is less unified, more groping and confused . Here Bowie tries to play himself, the insane lad who brings a vision to the world. On the cover we see Bowie with lightning streaking across his thin face, eyes closed over his paralysed pupil. In Aladdin Sane, he is searching again for a new self, a new mythology, and a new sound….

Although Ziggy and Aladdin Sane-era Bowie catapulted him into the high realms of an international star, he wasn’t content to continue to churn out glitter rock.  By the mid-’70s, after recording the all-covers Pin-Ups with the Spiders from Mars, he unexpectedly announced the band’s breakup, as well as his retirement from live performances, during the group’s final show that year. He retreated from the spotlight to work on a musical adaptation of George Orwell’s 1984, but once he was denied the rights to the novel, he transformed the work into Diamond Dogs. The album generated the hit single “Rebel Rebel,” and he supported the album with an elaborate and expensive American tour.

As the tour progressed, Bowie became fascinated with soul music, and he began to develop an effete, sophisticated version of Philly soul that he dubbed “plastic soul,”  eventually redesigning the entire show to reflect his new sound.  Bowie refashioned his group into a Philly soul band and recostumed himself in sophisticated, stylish fashions.

Young Americans, released in 1975, was the culmination of Bowie’s soul obsession, and it became his first major crossover hit, peaking in the American Top Ten and generating his first U.S. number one hit in “Fame,” a song he co-wrote with John Lennon and Alomar.  Bowie relocated to Los Angeles, where he earned his first movie role in Nicolas Roeg’s The Man Who Fell to Earth (1976). While in L.A., he recorded the eerie avant-pop record, 1976’s Station to Station, which took the plastic soul of Young Americans into darker, avant-garde-tinged directions. The album inaugurated Bowie’s persona of the elegant “Thin White Duke,” a soulless, insane, authoritarian, amoral aristocrat who sang romantic songs with a hollow, cold heart. He was fueled by “red peppers, cocaine, and milk”. During interviews he said that “Britain could benefit from an authoritarian leader” and was once stopped at the Russian-Polish border for possessing Nazi paraphernalia. He was increasingly paranoid, and dangerous as hell, a result of a cocaine-fueled downward spiral.

Soon, he decided Los Angeles was too boring and returned to England; shortly after arriving back in London, he gave the awaiting crowd a Nazi salute, a signal of his growing, drug-addled detachment from reality. The incident caused enormous controversy, and Bowie left the country to settle in Berlin, where he lived and worked with Brian Eno. Here he sobered up and began painting, as well as studying art. With Eno he recorded three experimental electronic albums, one of which, Low (1977) was a startling mixture of electronics, pop, and avant-garde technique.

Its follow-up, Heroes, which followed that year, proved to be one of the most influential albums of the late ’70s.  Bowie returned to the stage in 1978, launching an international tour that was captured on the double-album Stage. During 1979, Bowie and Eno recorded Lodger in New York, Switzerland, and Berlin, releasing the album at the end of the year.

Lodger was supported with several innovative videos, as was 1980’s Scary Monsters, and these videos — “DJ,” “Fashion,” “Ashes to Ashes” — became staples on early MTV. At the dawn of the ’80s, his many incarnations, hairstyles and fashions were proving imperative in creating the excitement and vivacity of the styles that predominated the new Romantic look.

Bowie was still at the height of his powers, and released dance-pop album Let’s Dance in 1983, where he went all-American pop with bleached blond hair and lots of pastels. He recruited Chic guitarist Nile Rodgers to produce the album, giving the record a sleek, funky foundation, and hired the unknown Stevie Ray Vaughan as lead guitarist. Let’s Dance became his most successful record, thanks to stylish, innovative videos for “Let’s Dance” and “China Girl,” which turned both songs into Top Ten hits.

He decided to replicate Let’s Dance with 1984’s Tonight, producing the Top Ten hit “Blue Jean,” but ultimately proving a commercial disappointment.  He stalled in 1985, recording a duet of Martha & the Vandellas’ “Dancing in the Street” with Mick Jagger for Live Aid.  Bowie returned to recording in 1987 with the widely panned Never Let Me Down, supporting the album with the Glass Spider tour, which also received mixed reviews. In 1989, he remastered his RCA catalog with Rykodisc for CD release, kicking off the series with the three-disc box Sound + Vision. Bowie supported the discs with an accompanying tour of the same name, claming that he was retiring all of his older characters from performance following the tour. Sound + Vision was successful, and Ziggy Stardust re-charted amidst the hoopla.

Bowie’s music, and his constant reinvention, has spawned many new musical movements that possibly would not exist without his helping hand- each one of his phases in the ’70s sparked a number of subgenres, including punk, new wave, goth rock, the new romantics, and electronica.  His far-reaching and influential body of work explores concepts of alienation, wisdom through distancing oneself from the mundane routine of industrialised society, and have celebrated glamour and excess in a repressive society.

Mr. Bowie was a pioneer. He rose during an age of rock where The Beatles were beginning to crumble, and the dominant forces at work were The Rolling Stones, disco, and eventually other soulful renditions of rock n’ roll. Bowie jumped head-first into the sexpot and brought taboo out as a weapon. He created a cult of both devout listeners and personality with each new rendition of himself. In addition, he detached himself from each persona; Bowie was separate from Ziggy was separate from Duke from Jack. Like a metamorphosing butterfly that kept on gaining new bodies and wings, Bowie continually refreshed pop AND rock as we know it today.

All hail BOWIE, our space lord, cosmic king, chameleon sex god!



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