If you used to think David Bowie was just a pop star, it seems you were wrong. According to a new biographical study, in his Ziggy Stardust incarnation and indeed throughout the 1970s, his music was almost incidental: what Bowie was really up to was representing nothing less than “the struggle of Western civilisation to adjust to a world order that had slipped beyond its control”.
It is, of course, standard practice for authors to take a somewhat grandiose view of their subjects. Music writers seem to be more afflicted than most. And in The Man Who Sold the World: David Bowie and the 1970s (Bodley Head, £20), Peter Doggett sees his man/alien/hermaphrodite as a decade on legs. Not just any decade either, but one of untrammelled existential angst, from oil shortages and terrorism to space travel and economic doom.
These major themes, reckons Doggett, were the real stuff of Bowie’s flurry of ground-breaking albums: The Man Who Sold the World, Hunky Dory, Ziggy Stardust, Aladdin Sane, Young Americans and Diamond Dogs.
They were the reason too for Bowie’s restless reinvention, though the man himself put it rather differently. The 1970s, he has said, were simply a time when “nobody knew where they were”. His personae, whether as Ziggy or the Thin White Duke, straight man or bisexual, can be seen as nothing more studied than a reflection of this confusion. Doggett quotes but doesn’t follow up Bowie’s rather revealing statement: “I change my mind a lot. I usually don’t agree with what I say very much. I’m an awful liar.” Don’t read too much into things, in other words.
Doggett tends to. But after he finishes his overheated theorising, he calms down and tells the story of Bowie’s 1970s through a discography of the 189 songs he recorded during the decade (a slightly stretched one, chronologically). It is a method that throws up innumerable interesting gobbets. Space Oddity, for example, was first played by the BBC during its coverage of the Apollo 11 Moon landing in 1969 – a nice irony since Major Tom never manages to get back to Earth.
I am indebted to the author for the information that Bowie’s vocals on ‘Friday On My Mind’ pastiche both Peter Sellers and Elvis Presley; that the opening chord sequence of ‘Is There Life on Mars?’ is taken from Sinatra’s ‘My Way’; that folk singer Mary Hopkin (married to Bowie’s producer Tony Visconti) sang the wordless chorus on ‘Sound and Vision’; and that Mark Chapman, John Lennon’s killer, had considered Bowie as a target instead, after seeing him appear on stage in New York as the Elephant Man (though it is not clear whether this was a comment on Bowie’s acting).
Needless to say, Doggett slips in a fair amount of his wider historical stuff too, and he does present an image – a polarised one, true – of the wider times. But what he never quite manages to hide is that, underneath the veneer of cultural commentary, he’s really just a fan too.
Now watch Bowie interviewed in 1973: