In 1983, “Karma Chameleon” spent six weeks at the top of the British charts, becoming a world wide hit. The following year, it was voted Best British Single at the Brit Awards. The band, Culture Club, and its leader, Boy George, would probably not have existed without the influence of David Bowie. The song’s title could easily have been a nod to Bowie, who was the most chameleon-like of popular singers.
From Anthony Newley imitations like “The Laughing Gnome” to “Blackstar” the jazz influenced album released just days before his death, the title track of which was the theme music to the equally bleak TV series “The Last Panthers”, Bowie was forever changing, never standing still. The only singer who has been through as many metamorphoses is American legend Bob Dylan, but Dylan, unlike Bowie, has always been unambiguously male and heterosexual.
Bowie’s first big hit was 1969’s “Space Oddity”, released just before the launch of Apollo 11 and the first manned moon landing. His timing was perfect. A year later, with the album “The Man Who Sold the World” and the British and American promotional tours, we witnessed the first manifestation of the cross-dressing and androgynous look that was soon to become famous.
It was during this American tour he first met two musicians who were to collaborate with and influence him: Iggy Pop and the Velvet Underground’s Lou Reed. His next album, “Hunky Dory”, included references to Velvet Underground in the songs “Andy Warhol” and “Queen Bitch”.
However, it was to be his next album “The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars” that was to secure his reputation. He wasn’t just singing the songs, he became Ziggy and the man and his creation became inseparable. Here was an androgynous alien looking down on the world, attempting to make sense of it. In one performance of “Starman” he simulated fellatio with Mick Ronson’s guitar.
Just as Glam Rock was becoming a bit tedious with producer Mickie Most and songwriting team Chinn and Chapman creating acts like Sweet, Bowie moved on from Ziggy, taking on the mantle of the Thin White Duke, embracing soul and funk before moving on again, producing music influenced by German electro-pop.
Various reincarnations followed, Bowie became an elder statesman of rock, engaged in a number of charity concerts and continued to tour. In 2004, he suffered a heart attack. After this he disappeared from sight, occasionally resurfacing for one-off events. Then, in 2013, he released his first album of new material for a decade: the critically acclaimed “The Next Day” which included the hit single “Where Are We Now?”.
Bowie has often been surrounded by controversy, whether courted or not. He has variously described his sexuality as gay, bisexual, closet heterosexual and trisexual (“I’ll try anything”). His appearance has ranged from drag queen through androgynous to the severe “thin white duke” persona. His teasing playful approach to sexuality and gender, and his apparent fluidity, confused and upset many people – and not just conservative elements. Just as some sections of the gay movement were outraged when Tom Robinson married a woman and had children, so there were – and are – those who think Bowie was just a straight man playing a role. However, much more important is the freedom Bowie encouraged just a few years after male homosexuality was decriminalised in England and Wales and several years before it was decriminalised in Scotland. His presence, and his appearance, helped many gay and bisexual men begin to come to terms with being different. And his sexual and gender fluidity was an early, albeit probably unintentional, manifestation of Queer: the refusal to accept labels, the demand to live our lives as we see fit.
Less positively, in 1976 he flirted with far right neo-Nazi politics. He later expressed his regret over this, blaming his outbursts on the effects of his drug addiction. He described himself as “out of my mind, totally crazed” during that time.
David Bowie was not only an innovative musician and songwriter, he was also one of the key cultural figures in moving society away from the straightjacket of fixed sexuality and gender. We have a lot to thank him for.
Indeed, in the thousands of tributes already circulating on social media, several LGBTI people have expressed their gratitude to Bowie and in particular the way he subconsciously allowed others to be themselves. Trans activist Justine Smithies said that “he showed me that it was OK to be different” while KaleidoScot’s Anna Page reflected on “a rare genius, someone who was both talented and iconic and who had a massive impact. David Bowie was impossible to ignore, even for someone like me born in the 1980s. He was saying ‘I’m not going to live by labels and societal norms: I don’t care what others think’ and inviting us all to do the same.” Lesley Stafford admitted to not having been a great fan of Bowie but recalled that “later, as my appreciation of classical music developed, I became aware of the simply musical qualities of his work, stripped of rock-n-roll rhetoric, hype and exaggeration. Two songs in particular have resonated with me since I was a mere stripling (Ziggy Stardust came out in the year I was twenty). His reworking (it wasn’t just a cover) of Jacques Brel’s ‘Amsterdam’ and ‘Rock n Roll Suicide’.”
It is perhaps fitting to let Bowie’s work speak for itself. A verse from Rock n Roll Suicide arguably sums up his artistic style, his message and his legacy:
Oh no love! you’re not alone
You’re watching yourself but you’re too unfair
You got your head all tangled up but if i could only
Make you care
Oh no love! you’re not alone
No matter what or who you’ve been
No matter when or where you’ve seen
All the knives seem to lacerate your brain
I’ve had my share, I’ll help you with the pain
You’re not alone.