16 David Bowie Personas That Make Him Immortal

Images: Helen Green

One month ago, David Bowie turned 69. At the same time, he released a great album, arguably to be compared to his best ever works.

But, two days later, he died.

I am not over it. Maybe the Internet has moved on. But, I haven’t.
David Bowie helped to shape the world I grew up in. So many musical movements I enjoyed were touched by him. Every weird haircut that I admired was indirectly inspired by him. The very definition of what a man was supposed to be was redefined for me by him. For our generation, manhood (and womanhood too!) became a spectrum of identity along which we became free to move. With that in place, we could decide on the details of what our identities meant for ourselves dynamically instead of holding to some spurious one size fits all ideal. Turn and face the strange, he said! These days, these dynamics are just a given, of course. But, I believe that we have Bowie to thank for a lot of that just because of the impact he had on popular culture with the various masks and personas he wore.

That’s just the thing. David Bowie was as much about redefining how we perceive identity as he was about musically inspiring his peers and followers. In fact, Bowie’s innovation with identity and artifice is entwined with his musical output in such a way that makes either one a facet of the other. What’s come out of that dichotomy between persona and sound simply makes him immortal.

Here are 16 personas that Bowie projected through out his career either by his design or made manifest through our perception as his audience. Which one do you identify with the most? I imagine the answer to that is as varied as there are the number of personas Bowie took on. But, take a look, and tell me what you think.

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David Bowie Sings “Lazarus”(And Says Goodbye)

Blackstar David BowieListen to this track by recently departed musical envelope pusher and singularly iconic artist David Bowie. It’s “Lazarus”, the second single as taken from his excellent and final album ★, aka Blackstar.

With Bowie, you never knew what you were going to get in the best possible sense, so uniquely off-of-the-path was his route to creating some of the most innovative music in the twentieth century. Even now, the sheer magnitude of his cultural impact seems as immeasurable as it is glorious. As such, new albums from an artist of his stature always felt like something to look forward to and to dread all at the same time, post-1980. We held him in such high regard that our expectations of his work hung suspended in the stratosphere attached to a palpable fear of falling from such a great height, emotionally speaking.

Bowie’s output was not perfect. And he did let us down in varying degrees over the years, sometimes just because he followed his muse to places that made it hard for us to follow him. But with ★, he won our hearts again with a record that is both brave and innovative as well as hearkening back to tropes and themes that he’d spent his career exploring; identity, the nature of fame, isolation, displacement, and mortality. He was back! Little did any of us know upon release of the new album just how far he would go to communicate these ideas to us again, particularly in this song which turned out to be the last ever David Bowie single during his extraordinary life. Read more

David Bowie Sings “Space Oddity”

Bowie-spaceoddityListen to this track by former sixties London R&B scenester turned cosmically-inclined singer-songwriter David Bowie. It’s “Space Oddity”, a single as taken from his second self-titled 1969 album that would in time be re-titled Space Oddity when it was re-issued in the early seventies. The song would be released on July 11 in the UK, on the same day of the historic Apollo 11 mission to the moon. The BBC held off on playing it until the astronauts returned safely.

For Bowie’s part as far as the approach to writing this song, parallels to science fiction and his journey with fame would begin here, with many other songs and at least one movie role in his future that would explore the same themes. In this case, this dynamic is achieved through his character of Major Tom, a renowned astronaut lauded by the masses, but finding himself isolated and searching for meaning when confronted with the planetary scale of things, all awash in acoustic guitar strumming, jazzy drumming, and keyboardist Rick Wakeman’s appropriately spacey mellotron lines.

From here, it’s not too difficult to draw parallels between floating in a tin can far above the world, the nature of fame, and of existence in general.  Read more

Queen and David Bowie Play “Under Pressure”

Queen and David Bowie - Under PressureListen to this track by operatic rock band with an R&B slant Queen, alongside musical firestarter and conceptual rock template setter David Bowie. It’s “Under Pressure”, a huge number one single from late 1981, eventually to appear Queen’s 1982 album Hot Space.

The song was the result of a loose studio-bound jam session, working up ideas for a completely different song called “Feel Like”. David Bowie was at the sessions to lay down a backing vocal track for another song that would appear on the album, “Cool Cat”. That backing vocal part wouldn’t appear on the completed album. Instead, this one would; a duet between Bowie and lead singer Freddie Mercury, marked by a bassline that would be something of a third lead voice in the song as conceived and laid down by bassist John Deacon.

This song represents something of the zeitgeist from the early ’80s, which was a time of great fear, political pendulum swings, and a slowly thawing Cold War. It certainly performed well on the charts, with a number one showing in Britain and with significant impact in Canada, and the United States. But, on paper, I wouldn’t have bet on it being so successful, personally. And there are several reasons why I think that.  Here they are. Read more

The Next Day: Album Art In A Digital Age

For the most part when it comes to buying music, gone are the days of vinyl, cardboard, cellophane, and anal-retentive mylar sleeves . The creation of album art has had to adapt, just as it did when those teenie-weenie CDs came out in the mid-80s.

But, how has it changed by 2013, exactly? What strategies (it’s all about marketing after all!) have artists and labels employed in support of a market in the new, downloadable, digital paradigm? Are there older strategies at work, re-positioned in the age of the iTune?

Music fan, writer, and cultural commentator Geoff Moore is here to unpack the issue of album packaging in the 21st century …


David Bowie The Next DayA telegram from 1977 arrived the other day. ‘Where are we now?’ it asked, signed, Beauty, the Beast, Joe the Lion and the happy couple who were shot at in the shadow of the Berlin Wall. If the question concerns the cover art of David Bowie’s very recent and very good The Next Day, the answer lies somewhere between The Black Keys and Lou Reed.

Rock ‘n’ roll music is a consumer commodity. Is there another art form that’s been packaged so artfully and in so many ways? In the music’s infancy there were package tours, stacked bills of 20-minute sets. In the wake of Elvis there were manufactured teen idols.

Post-Fab Four the record companies and the television networks foisted pre-fab bands on their teenaged markets. The Beach Boys wore candy stripe shirts. The Ramones dressed in black leather and denim like classic Brando gone to seed. ‘Bin readers of a certain age will remember gatefold albums, elaborately die cut sleeves and the inclusion of stickers or posters.

Some releases landed in the racks wrapped in brown paper or tinted cellophane. Designs often featured recurring logos or mascots and, saints preserve us, thematic tableaux beamed from release to release – gawd-awful guitar-shaped space ships, for instance.

And there was other rock ‘n’ roll packaging too. Upon viewing images of Led Zeppelin in their heyday no decent tailor need ask Robert Plant whether he dresses to the left or right.

The Next Day is “Heroes” defaced though it lacks the surreal whimsy of a handlebar moustache on Mona Lisa (she’s smiling because she knew that would happen some day). The original title is redacted, like a document obtained under the Freedom of Information Act. The dark and pale contrast of the original art is now a wash of monochromatic Photoshop grey; the earlier and eerily luminous portrait of the artist as robot in Rur or Metropolis has been concealed by a rectangular text box.

Although the colour palette and the cropping were different, Lou Reed regurgitated the cover art of Transformer on another suicide screed, the stripped down The Blue Mask, perhaps to acknowledge his return to RCA from Arista. The Next Day steps forward even further into starker clarity, a neat black sans serif font in a white square with proper capitalization, more legible than uniform upper or lower case. Given how society now shops and accesses various media, the genius of each image is the perception that both artists have already cut through the cyber crap and noise and somehow simplified things for you. Brothers, a release by The Black Keys, might be the first calculated example of digital thumbnail album cover art. It was designed to be viewed as a one-inch square on iTunes or Amazon. It has the clarity of directional, emergency and warning signage, easy to understand. And it resembles an app icon.

The Next Day is Bowie’s first new music in a decade. The reuse of the “Heroes” artwork evokes an earlier era when Bowie’s stature was likely at its zenith. It cannot help but set fans’ expectations prior to their first listen. Had the white The Next Day box been superimposed over the cover of Tonight (which begs for a whiteout anyway although the title mash works), fans’ expectations may have been way down here as Tonight is rightly regarded as one of his weaker releases.

The implied link between “Heroes” and The Next Day doesn’t suggest something as desperate and crass as Bat Out of Hell II, nor should the deconstructed repetition negate nor dismiss everything that came between. The more avant-garde than thou Man Who Fell to Earth has linked album cover art before. The original black and white cover of Station to Station and its CD brother’s colour cover both feature stills from the Nicholas Roeg film. Low, its follow up and the first installment of Bowie’s Berlin Trilogy, utilized the theatrical poster profile image of Bowie, orange hair and brown dufflecoat, the horrific alien colour schemes of A&W and Cleveland football. Still, it’s unthinkable to own only one of this pair of albums.

So where are we now? It’s a mystery but not nostalgia, “Heroes” is our point of departure. Could be we’re desperados waiting for a train 17 coaches long in Berlin Hauptbahnof as the new tracks on The Next Day may take us anywhere. Meanwhile, the distant past is close behind.


Geoff Moore is a writer of words for blogs, and books. He is enjoying his “Berlin period” in the city of Calgary.

Lou Reed Sings “Perfect Day”

Lou Reed Walk on the Wild Side Perfect DayListen to this track by former Velvet Underground quadrant and subsequent solo rock ‘n’ roll animal Lou Reed. It’s “Perfect Day”, a song taken from the David Bowie and Mick Ronson-abetted 1972 album Transformer, which was Reed’s second solo album. It served as the B-Side to his possibly unanticipated hit single “Walk On The Wild Side.”

In relation to that A-side which made his name as a solo artist,”Perfect Day” was something of a slow-burn, pop culture-wise. It enjoyed something of a resurgence when it appeared in a pivotal (and disturbing) scene in the 1996 film Trainspotting. In that scene, lead character Renton (played by Ewan McGregor) shoots up heroin only to overdose,  all shown in graphic detail. He’s then unceremoniously loaded into a taxi cab and anonymously sent to hospital by his drug dealer.

It was the song’s reputation (or perhaps its writer’s) as being connected with the drug that made it somewhat of an appropriate choice as a soundtrack to an overdose. Yet, as much as the stories about this tune have circulated as being a love song to heroin, I think the love expressed in this song goes a lot deeper than that, and says so much more. This is particularly striking when it comes to the song’s ambiguity, despite how easy it is to take it at face value.

So, what is lurking beneath the surface of this song?

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David Bowie Sings “The Jean Genie”

Here’s a clip of androgynous musical brushfire-starting alien pin up David Bowie, and his soon-to-be-erstwhile Spiders From Mars. It’s the recently discovered clip of his 1973 performance of “The Jean Genie” on the British music program Top of the Pops.

The song is taken from the album Aladdin Sane, a record released that very year in April. This song was the lead single, actually released earlier in November of 1972.  This was the height of the glam-rock period, when colourful costuming and gender-bending stage personas met the vintage Chess blues ‘n’ boogie sound.

This particular clip was discovered recently, and broadcast on the Top of the Pops 2011 Christmas special. Bowie and TOTPs go hand in hand, particularly in this phase of his career. His performance of “Starman” in the summer of 1972 galvanized rock fans all over the country and nourished the seeds of British punk, post-punk, and New Romanticism. But despite all that, Bowie had his own preoccupations, namely making sense out of America, the fascination and disorientation he felt about it, and then putting it into his work.

So, how is that revealed in this tune? Read more

Iggy Pop Plays “The Passenger”

iggypoplustforlifeListen to this track by punk rock founding father and pharmaceutical adventurer James Osterberg, better known to the world as Iggy Pop. It’s “The Passenger”, actually a B-side to his single “Success”. The song appears on a record he produced with David Bowie and engineer/bandmate Colin Thurston; the classic Lust For Life.

The record was written, recorded, and mixed in eight days in Hansa studio in  Berlin,  a city in which Bowie himself would be associated through his own “Berlin trilogy” of albums – Low, Heroes, and Lodger. Yet this album is all about Iggy, with his growling lead voice over a style of music that in many ways runs contrary to what Bowie was doing on his Berlin albums. This is stripped down, and almost minimalist rock ‘n’ roll, compared to Bowie’s layered art-rock approach.

And indeed, in addition to co-producing the record, Bowie plays sideman on this just as he did on the previous Iggy album, The Idiot. But, what of this song? With lyrics by Iggy, and music by guitarist Ricky Gardiner, the tune was bashed out in the studio, with the words strung together on the fly. With this method of songwriting, a lot comes out in the subtext. But, what is the subtext here? Read more

Moby Performs ‘We Are All Made of Stars’

we_are_all_made_of_starsListen to this track by diminutive techno-nerd, DJ, multi-instrumentalist, and songwriter Richard Melville Hall, more famously known as Moby, that name taken from a character in the novel of his ancestor, Herman Melville author of Moby Dick. It’s his 2002 hit “We Are All Made Of Stars” as taken from his album 18.

When I first heard this song, with its Bowie-in-Berlin textures, and straight-ahead songwriting, I was both delighted as well as surprised.  Moby had put out his defining record in Play a few years earlier.  It was defined by its sample-based material, pulling from field recordings of blues and worksong performers, mixed with beats and pads, but also guitars.

I suppose I shouldn’t have been surprised that Moby would drift even further away from his pure-dance roots with this tune.  He’d hinted at it with songs like “South Side”, and of course his 1996 Animal Rights album which was a straight-ahead punk-metal record right on the heels of his early techno heyday.  He’d always held the rock world and the techno world in balance.  But, with Play,  his 1999 album, he managed to bring them together, and generate momentum for the follow-up record and this song, too.

Needless to say, despite the fact that it looked as though Moby had embraced commercialism by licensing so many tracks off of Play to various ad campaigns and movie soundtracks, it seems that he was still interested in exploring different sounds, and building upon what had come before.  And this effort paid off , with this song reaching #11 on the UK charts, and #4 on the billboard charts.  I love all of the phasing Robert Fripp-esque guitar, gauzy electronic textures, and Moby’s monotone and detached lead vocal that suits it perfectly.

Whether or not Moby actually pulled from David Bowie’s work as mentioned earlier, the two managed to strike up a friendship by the early 2000s, first by being neighbours in New York City, and later by touring together.  Who knows how these things develop, whether Bowie and Moby referenced each other’s styles on their songs before or after they had a neighbourly chat over the fence in their bathrobes.

For more information about Moby, investigate Moby.com