January is a bittersweet month for David Bowie fans worldwide, as we celebrate what would have been his 71st birthday today, and lament his untimely passing on the 10th.He always had been a heartbreaker.
Few artists had his ability to shapeshift so effortlessly, from Major Tom to Ziggy Stardust, Aladdin Sane to The Thin White Duke. Blue eyed soul and playful electro; mime, theatre, funk, film and drag. Anti-fashion, pro-self-expression. Taking in disparate influences- from Lindsay Kemp to Nietzsche and the Velvet Underground – he absorbed it all, created new scenes and became his own unique creation-a template for style. Impossible to second-guess or imitate.Here are some of his best-loved songs, but not, sadly, Life On Mars? as the video doesn’t work here. RIP, The Prettiest Star.
‘Beep beep’. A searing indictment of bandwagon jumpers and brainless followers, as well as a metaphor for venal political figures, this has dirty guitar and attitude up the wazoo. Arch, yet pointed.Sexy, absurd, caustic.All of his inherent contradictions.
The Jean Genie (1972)
With a swaggering Muddy Waters riff, it’s a stompy, witty paean to Iggy Pop, and a pun on the writer Jean Genet, of course. This is at once macho, seedy, and uber-camp. Cyrinda Foxe, who he wrote it for as something of a joke, co-stars in the trashy video, where Bowie imagines himself as a ‘street rat’. Definitely a soupcon of Lou Reed’s influence here, too.
Queen Bitch (1971)
A classic cut from Hunky Dory, it’s very much influenced in its down and dirty depiction of rock ‘n’ roll life and gender bending in the narrative by the Velvet Underground. This clip is from The Old Grey Whistle Test and features the wonderful Mick Ronson on guitar. Pre-Ziggy sass.
Ashes to Ashes (1980)
Utterly iconic-song and video inexorably linked here. The sad-eyed Pierrot (or Bowie as real-life David Jones) was trying not to burn out. Essentially a reprisal of Major Tom, Bowie’s eerie synth squiggle is both forward-thinking and introspective. New Romantic legend,the late Steve Strange, featured in the beautiful but creepy and hallucinatory promo. Also, watch out for him getting admonished by his mother figure. Paging Dr. Freud!
This needs little to no introduction. Anthemic without being a splashy ‘pop song’, it’s not an obvious choice for a single. The shimmering Robert Fripp guitar, Brian Eno and Tony Visconti and Berlin Wall lovers.Bowie’s howl of a vocal, forever pitched between despair and euphoria. A triumph; a scream.
Where Are Now? (2013)
An elegiac ‘comeback’ single, downbeat yet with a little hope. Bowie’s croon is world-weary, referencing his anonymity in the Berlin days. Yet the video is cheeky, featuring the artist Jacqueline Humphries, sitting together with Bowie as if they are little puppets. The Song of Norway t shirt is a reference to Bowie’s ex Hermione Farthingale. Beautiful, fragile, and almost unbearably sad, it was released today in 2013.