Born on January 8, 1947, David Bowie is rock’s foremost futurist and a genre-bending pioneer, chameleon and transformer. Throughout his solo career and in his alliances with other artists - including Lou Reed, Iggy Pop, Brian Eno and Nine Inch Nails - Bowie has positioned himself on the cutting edge of rock and roll. His innovations have created or furthered several major trends in rock and roll, including glam rock, art-rock and the very notion of the self-mythologized, larger-than-life rock star. "More than any other performer in the rock and roll era, David Bowie elevated himself to the role of artist," says Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum curator Howard Kramer. "He revolutionized and redefined the role of the frontman."
On the strength of such early albums as Man of Words, Man of Music and The Man Who Sold the World, Bowie became a cult figure to rock fans looking for something new and challenging to fill the post-Sixties void. A driven, polymorphic artist who breaks all the molds, Bowie attracted attention from the beginning for his frequent, fascinating changes of guise and the high quality of his unpredictable music. “I’m the last one to understand the material I write,” Bowie once noted.
Bowie’s breakthrough came with The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars (1972), a thoroughly modern album that promulgated the notion of rock star as space alien. Bowie melded rock with theater, creating the provocative character and alter ego “Ziggy Stardust.”
"The character was a perfect blend or gender ambiguity, urban angst and rock and roll fantasy," says Kramer. "Bowie took to the stage in clothing that was futuristic, and a stage show that was focused and fantastic. Unlike Pete Townshend who created characters like Tommy and Jimmy in Quadrophenia to make thematic works, David Bowie became the character in his songs in a truly physical sense."
Boasting sharp, propulsive music from the Spiders from Mars – which included the late guitarist Mick Ronson –The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars and its followup, Aladdin Sane, heralded a paradigm shift in the early Seventies. Bowie also displayed his affection for the mod “London underground” of the mid-to-late Sixties with Pin-Ups, an album of cover songs by the Pretty Things, Pink Floyd, Them and other hitmakers of the day.
During the Seventies, Bowie pioneered and embodied the notion of rock style. For much of the decade, he projected a calculating aloofness, and many wondered where the characters ended and the “real Bowie” began. “Bowie’s conceit is to treat human feeling as technology and technology as feeling,” wrote music critic Tom Carson. Bowie closed the Seventies with three largely experimental, atmospheric albums on which Bowie reinvented himself yet again. With Low, Heroes and Lodger, Bowie peeled away his masks while creating music that anticipated the ambient and industrial soundscapes of the coming decades.
In 1980, Bowie released Scary Monsters, which summed up and closed the door on the previous decade. The album even cast a final nod to Bowie’s “Major Tom” character from "Space Oddity” with the sequel “Ashes to Ashes.” Bowie’s commercial masterstroke came in 1983 with Let’s Dance, an accessible set of modern-minded dance music that gave Bowie his second Number One hit with the brassy, swaggering title track, as well as “China Girl” (Number 10) and “Modern Love” (Number 14). That same year, the D.A. Pennebaker-produced film documentary of Bowie’s final tour from the Ziggy days, entitled Ziggy Stardust/The Motion Picture, was released.
Bowie musically commemorated his 1992 marriage to Somalian model Iman with "The Wedding" from 1993's Black Tie White Noise. Subsequently, Bowie embarked on a startlingly ambitious and uncompromising series of albums, including the unsettling Outside (1995), which Bowie described as a“non-linear Gothic Drama Hyper-cycle” based on characters from one of his short stories; and Earthling (1997), an album that showed the influence of the underground dance-music scene on Bowie (and vice versa).
Bowie joined forces with longtime co-producer Tony Visconti, who worked on many of Bowie's best albums of the 70s, for 2002's Heathen, creating a layered, nuanced sound that looked to the Thin White Duke's storied recordings of the past and his later inclinations – including covers of the Pixies' "Cactus" and Neil Young's "I've Been Waiting For You." Visconti and Bowie teamed up again on 2003's Reality.