“As early as 1972, Bowie was describing himself as ‘a collection of other people’s ideas’ or ‘a Photostat machine with an image.’”
Nicholas Shaffner repeated these quotes from the great chameleon in his essential primer The British Invasion, and spends much of his chapter on David Bowie discussing how the self-professed “actor” was more of a brilliant chimera of his influences than a model of “authenticity.” Of course, this was one of his great allures: Bowie was a master of slipping into guises, whether they were completely fabricated like Ziggy Stardust or subtler variations on the artists who most inspired him. More than any other artist of generation, David Bowie’s birthday could not be traced to a single day. He was born over and over again, first 65 years ago yesterday as the child of David and Peggy Jones— then as a mod, a chanteuse, a glam alien, a synthesizer swaddled glacier. Every year or so, David Bowie came floating back to earth after metamorphosing in the deepest regions of freaky space like the Star Child in his beloved 2011: A Space Odyssey. Here are nine surrogate parents who had hands in some of his rebirths…
1. The Who
David Jones launched his Rock & Roll career just as all his ‘60s peers did: as a mop-topped member of a hard-driving R&B groups. Unlike the far more successful Stones or Who, he failed to distinguish himself in groups such as Davie Jones and the King Bees and the Manish Boys (named for a Muddy Waters classic, just like Mick Jagger’s gang). He made a slightly bigger splash after following the flashy lead of The Who, a budding mod act with the incendiary stagecraft (Smashing guitars! Blowing up equipment! Outlandish costumes!) Bowie would refine in his future act. But for now (now being 1965) he was perfectly content to just swipe The Who’s sound with his short-lived group David Jones and the Lower Third. Like The Who, The Lower Third were fixtures at the Marquee Club (though usually relegated to opening act) and they played arrogant, slashing Rock & Roll best exemplified by “You’ve Got a Habit of Leaving”, which completely appropriates the mid-song freak out of The Who’s “Anyway, Anyhow, Anywhere”. Though David Jones did not remain in mod garb for long, the period was near and dear enough to him to receive tribute on his 1973 L.P. Pin Ups, which includes covers of “Anyway, Anyhow, Anywhere” and “I Can’t Explain”. For that matter, he wouldn’t remain David Jones for long…
2. Davy Jones
Teeny-bop pin-up Davy Jones may be an unlikely player in the David Bowie stage play, but his role was one of the more decisive. And all because of a name. When music publicist Kenneth Pitt took hold of David’s career following his stint with The Lower Third, he became aware of an upcoming television series to star one Davy Jones of Manchester. Pitt was not about to have his new protégé vie for brand recognition, so he
easily convinced his own Davie Jones to switch names. Farewell once and for all to the boy born into the Jones family on January 8, 1947. Welcome to a new bundle of joy: little David Bowie. He wasted little time choosing a new name as the “cutting edge” quality of the bowie knife had long appealed to the singer. He made the right move considering how pervasive Davy Jones’s name would be in the press in the coming years, and the pre-fab nature of The Monkees meant it wasn’t always presented in the most positive light. More profoundly, we have the first instance of the former-Davie Jones committing to a new persona fully. The first music he made as David Bowie was also the first to bear the theatricality that would always be present in his music in the future. Ironic that he committed to that style just as he lost a name that would also be associated with showbiz theatrics throughout Davy Jones’s own long-running career.
3. Anthony Newley
1967’s David Bowie actually wasn’t too far removed from the kind of music Davy Jones was creating with The Monkees at the same time. Both David and Davy shared a penchant for musicals, though the Monkee was more vocal about his love of the Broadway variety. Bowie was a devotee of London stage and screen actor Anthony Newley, who—like Davy Jones—had played the Artful Dodger in Oliver Twist. As a songwriter he composed a diverse array of standards, including “Gonna Build a Mountain” (which Davy sang during his solo spots in The Monkees’ famed 1967 tour), “Goldfinger”, and the soundtrack of Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory (co-written with Leslie Bricusse). Newley’s slightly vaudevillian show tunes were the key influence of David Bowie, but they also impacted Bowie’s more significant later works from Hunky Dory to Diamond Dogs. His zeal for the actor/singer/songwriter is also significant in Bowie’s view of himself as an “actor” who’d play innumerable roles on the rock stage, in the theater, and the cinema.
4. Bob Dylan
David Bowie had already undergone a number of incarnations by the time the first glimmers of stardom shone on him in 1969. Throughout the ‘70s and beyond, he would be synonymous with constant personality shifts. Today Madonna may be his only rival in terms of persona schizophrenia. Yet there was precedent. The ‘60s was a decade of sudden, seismic shifts in pop music. The herd went along with R&B covers, folk rock, baroque gestures, garish psychedelia, and heavy blues rock gamely. Those who couldn’t navigate their way around each corner smoothly (such as The Animals) fell by the wayside. The only major artist to truly forge his own path through the decade was Bob Dylan. He may not have reinvented himself as regularly as, say, The Beatles, but he seems to have because he often made singular moves that set him ahead—and outside—trends. No other major Rock artist had a purely acoustic period. After sitting out the “Summer of Love”, convalescing from a motorcycle crash, he answered psychedelia with the rustic John Wesley Harding. When his peers got heavy and grim during the heavy, grim late ‘60s, he went a defiantly light and goofy route with Nashville Skyline. Bowie was far more indebted to his times than Dylan, but he mixed and matched trends to the degree that he always seemed to be hacking through untraveled fields. Dylan would never have painted his face, donned a unitard, and tried to pass himself off as an alien named Ziggy, but Bowie’s decision to do so owes something to Zimmy. More explicitly, he pulled such Dylanesque stunts as changing his name to elicit specific assumptions about himself (Robert Zimmerman chose the name “Dylan” to align himself with poet Dylan Thomas; Jones took “Bowie” for the aforementioned “cutting edge” connotation). Bowie even went so far as to perm up his hair Blonde on Blonde-style and lug around an acoustic guitar and harmonica in direct homage to his hero. That was 1969, when Bowie was still trying on and discarding contrived personas in an attempt to discover what kind of artist he was. Ultimately, he decided trying on and discarding contrived personas was exactly what defined him. That didn’t stop Bowie from gently taking Dylan to task when he felt his old hero had veered into zones that didn’t make the most of his talents, as he did in 1971 on Song for Bob Dylan.
5. Stanley Kubrick
Dylan is the most obvious influence on David Bowie during his Space Oddity period, but he was also discovering inspiration completely outside the pop realm. Stanley Kubrick’s sci-fi epic 2001: A Space Odyssey was must viewing among the hip when it was released in 1968. Bowie’s mind was blown watching Kubrick’s vision of evolution from prehistoric man-apes to contemporary man to sentient computers to transcendent space beings. He responded with his first signature song and hit single. “Space Oddity” doesn’t attempt to follow the elliptical path of 2001. Rather it is an easily digestible story-song that takes Kubrick’s outer space setting as inspiration instead of his confounding profundity. Bowie imagines one of those astronauts floating in space, overwhelmed by its vastness and beauty, and deciding to spin off into oblivion rather than return to mundane Earth. Kubrick’s film is clinical; Bowie’s song is whimsical. Both are fashioned in shades of awe and transcendence. And as fanciful as Space Oddity appears, it is a song about moving away from humanity toward bigger ideas, which is essentially Kubrickian. Bowie’s persona shifts are generally deemed just as calculating as Kubrick’s films, which use B-movie genres (the horror movie, the sci-fi movie, the war movie, etc.) to explore philosophical matters beyond mere characters. This is the very tendency that leaves critics of both Kubrick and Bowie cold and fascinates admirers.
Kubrick’s follow up to his masterpiece would also capture Bowie’s imagination. Anthony Burgess’s novel A Clockwork Orange seemed designed to illustrate certain aspects of Rock & Roll: its youth, its violence, its aggressive sexuality, its bizarre fashions and vernacular. All of those terms could be used to describe The Rolling Stones, and manager Andrew Loog Oldham spent much time scheming to make A Clockwork Orange his band’s A Hard Day’s Night. The project never gelled and Kubrick finally made it happen not with Mick Jagger but Malcolm McDowell as vicious teen droog Alex in 1971. The film’s violence seemed at odds with gentle David Bowie, but there was always a sinister undercurrent in the man’s music. “The Supermen” from The Man Who Sold the World is both a reflection of 2001-type super beings and an early indication of his mid-‘70s fascist phase. The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars ends with its wanton hero’s dramatic suicide, and Bowie would preface its stage production with excerpts from Wendy Carlos’s Clockwork Orange soundtrack. Bowie injects Clockwork-style sex and violence into Diamond Dogs, his ostensible adaptation of Orwell’s 1984. He may have found little in Kubrick’s next film, the painterly period piece Barry Lyndon, to inspire him, but Kubrick’s influence could still be felt in his icy experiments with Brian Eno and the strung-out “Space Oddity”-sequel, “Ashes to Ashes”.
6. Marc Bolan
Bowie never fully ditched the personas he passed through from year to year. There is still a glimmer of the mod in his Newley-esque sketches on David Bowie. Both styles are detectable on the folkier Space Oddity and heavier The Man Who Sold the World. Mod power pop, drama, folky simplicity, fuzzy heaviness. That combination defines glam rock, the one style most associated with David Bowie. Bowie was the face of glam throughout the world in the ‘70s, but he fell upon it just behind Marc Bolan’s T. Rex. Bolan painted stars on his face, crooning twisted homages to fantasy creatures and hot rods sweetly over overdriven power chords. Bowie was still in the folkier territory of Tyrannosaurus Rex when he put out Hunky Dory at the end of 1971. A few months earlier, T. Rex unleashed the elephantine Electric Warrior. Bowie’s next record, Ziggy Stardust, crystallized T. Rex’s vision into a (somewhat) linear storyline of Rock & Roll excess and fantasy, set to the cosmic, Bolan-esque riffs of “Hang onto Yourself”, “Ziggy Stardust”, and “Moonage Daydream”. Bowie also heightened everything that defined Bolan, dressing, painting his face, styling his hair, and emphasizing his sexuality more outrageously than the T. Rex front man. As he would with many of his chief mentors, Bowie became fast friends with Bolan, the two battling ahead as the erotically ambiguous generals of the burgeoning glam movement. “Sexually, I believe that one should love what one loves, and I quite enjoy the Greek idea of two warriors going to war and mentally being very close,” Bolan said of his relationship with Bowie in a 1970 interview with Zigzag magazine. He stopped short of any real hanky panky, adding, “To make love wouldn’t be repulsive to me. It would just be a bit of a bore with bums, and it’d hurt.” Still, there’s enough raw material there to inspire some pretty ripping slash fiction.
7. Mick Jagger
Bowie had his phases in which he was clearly patterning himself on The Who, Dylan, Newley, and Bolan. His fascination with The Rolling Stones is less confined to an era and less specific. Yet he clearly learned a lot about developing a dynamic, androgynous stage presence from the prancing panther Mick Jagger. As Bowie crept toward a more muscular Rock & Roll sound in the early ‘70s, The Stones were a touchstone that recurred in his music throughout the decade. Stuff like “Suffragette City”, “Watch That Man”, “The Jean Genie”, and “Diamond Dogs” (a shameless rip of “Brown Sugar”), owe as much to The Rolling Stones as “You’ve Got a Habit of Leaving” was indebted to The Who. The connection was at its most explicit on 1973’s Aladdin Sane, on which Bowie slides out a glammed-up version of “Let’s Spend the Night Together”. On “Drive-In Saturday” he ruminates about a world that has forgotten how to make love, and reminisces about the good old days in which “people stared in Jagger’s eyes and scored like the (pornographic) video films.” Bowie had reduced Jagger to the Greta Garbo of cock rock. Whereas “Song for Bob Dylan” was a plea for its subject to take his work more seriously, “Drive-In Saturday” (and to some extent, “Let’s Spend the Night Together”) was a sincere, even romantic, tribute to Jagger. Keith Richards, ever skeptical of any Rock & Roller younger than Chuck Berry, scoffed at Bowie as a pale Jagger clone. Mick embraced his young rival. Unfortunately, the two singers’ union often sparked more embarrassment than sparks. Say those two names in the same breath, and the first thing that comes to mind is their appalling cover of “Dancing in the Streets”. Angela Bowie’s revelation that she once discovered her ex-husband and Jagger naked in bed together inspired idiotic headlines of “Dancing in the Sheets” rather than deepening their decadent auras. The fact that the former renegades went out of their way to debunk the story didn’t help. Still, it surely provided enough raw material to inspire some pretty ripping... well, you know.
8. The Velvet Underground
Of all the artists on this list, the “biggest influence” on David Bowie was The Velvet Underground. Well, at least that’s what David Bowie once said. Was he being knowingly contradictory, or seeking the same hip credibility Jagger was when he insisted “Stray Cat Blues” was his attempt at writing a Velvet Underground-type song? Not one who ever needed to seek hip credibility, Bowie’s comment must be sincere on some level, though there’s little evidence of The Velvet’s gritty, man-on-the-street sleaze in his music. That doesn’t mean he wasn’t a major fan. “I’m Waiting for the Man” and “White Light/White Heat” were fixtures in his live act. Bowie also took Lou Reed under his wing, gave the austerely styled New Yorker a glam makeover, and helped his solo career move to unprecedented commercial levels by producing the hit L.P. Transformer. Relocated in London, Reed often appeared on stage with Bowie during his Ziggy Stardust shows. Ultimately, Bowie may have influenced Reed more than Reed influenced Bowie, but their mutual admiration and creative collaboration certainly had a profound effect on their careers and ‘70s rock in general.
9. Brian Eno
Having plundered a wide swath of Rock & Roll’s greatest artists, David Bowie reached a tipping point of sorts with the backward looking Pin Ups and the American soul homage Young Americans. He’d collaborated with archetypal rockers Lou Reed and Iggy Pop. All the while he possessed an ambitious scope that gazed beyond the guitar-centric limitations of pure Rock & Roll, so his embracing of frigid synthesizers and ambience in the late ‘70s was logical. A kindred spirit in glam androgyny and former creative pilot of Roxy Music, Brian Eno was integral to the new arctic soundscapes Bowie would paint. Such cool textures were well present on 1976’s Station to Station, but they consumed Bowie’s music to the extreme on his three collaborations with producer Eno. This was a period of austerity for Bowie (shocking in itself considering the flamboyance that tethered each of his earlier incarnations). As Shaffner wrote, Bowie renounced “Facism, superstardom, narrative songwriting, and his whole premeditated approach to making and selling his music.” Indeed, the music that formed the bulk of Low, ”Heroes”, and Lodger almost seemed designed to shed the audience he’d spent the last ten years building. Reviews of Low and Lodger were mixed at the time. As is often the case when an established artist takes radical chances, the reputations of these records grew enormously over the years. In fact, many consider the particularly difficult Low—which lacks anything as accessible as the title track of “Heroes” or “Boys Keep Swinging” from Lodger—to be both Bowie’s greatest album and the greatest album of the ‘70s.
Then David Bowie made his most outrageous shift of all: he abandoned personas altogether to simply be David Bowie. This meant the influence of his own “heroes” were never as profound as they’d been in the ‘60s and ‘70s. Yes, there were still significant collaborations. He’d team up with a diverse array in the ‘80s and ‘90s, including Jagger and filmmaker David Lynch. He’d even join his first proper band since The Lower Third, Tin Machine. But his characters were limited to films such as The Hunger and Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me. His explorations of electronic and industrial music were certainly effected by people like Trent Reznor, but Bowie’s days of absorbing his heroes had passed.