I hate to speak ill of the dead, but it’s time for some real talk on David Bowie: He wasn’t an innovator.
I love the man’s body of work, but I’ll never understand how he got a reputation as a trailblazer. He was a man who built a career less on being a pioneer and more on being an early adopter of what the real vanguard artists were doing. I know you don’t believe me, but read on and I’ll make a solid case.
Much of Bowie’s earliest work is pretty standard, psychedelic-tinged folk. There’s not really much here that anyone thinks is innovative, so I think we can safely skip it. However, I do think this period is where Bowie picks up his infatuation with his first muse, Marc Bolan of T. Rex. Ziggy Stardust, Aladdin Sane. It’s a pretty specific form of inspiration, not exactly imitation. “Moonage Daydream” and “Hang Onto Yourself” are probably the most naked T. Rex impersonations. Again, this isn’t bad; it’s just not a thing Bowie invented.
He then moves on to what is probably my favorite period in his career, the one that runs from Young Americans through to Heroes. It also includes my favorite Bowie persona, the Thin White Duke, who is basically Bowie’s version of one of my favorite performers of all time, Bryan Ferry. Young Americans is Bowie’s best attempt at approximating Ferry’s solo career, which included a number of soul covers delivered in the same stilted, Anglo style Bowie termed “plastic soul” when he adopted it. Here he transitions from a higher-pitched, more feminine vocal style (closer to Bolan) to something flatter — like Ferry.
While Young Americans showcases Bowie emulating Ferry’s solo career, Station to Station sounds more than a little like Ferry's band Roxy Music, who were perhaps the biggest thing in Britain at the time. This is particularly evident on the first side of the album, featuring the swirling “Station to Station” — which, in fairness, is probably a better song than anything Roxy ever did. Brian Eno, founding keyboardist of Roxy Music, has called it one of the best albums of all time, and he’s not wrong.
The Roxy obsession continues with Low. If Young Americans was Bowie doing Bryan Ferry solo and Station to Station was an emulation of the band as a whole, Low sounds like Bowie extracted Eno from the band. In fact, Bowie recruited Eno to play on all three albums from his "Berlin Trilogy," which started with Low. (To Bowie's credit, he never made much effort to conceal his influences, and often even hired them.) Heroes followed, which returns to Bowie sounding a hell of a lot like Roxy Music in general and occasionally doing it better (for example, “Sons of the Silent Age”).
Let’s Dance represents a strange turn for Bowie. He’s lost his way, has no muse (maybe Prince, but that’s a stretch), and spent the rest of the 1980s as basically an irrelevant joke. If you don’t believe me, check out the video for “Dancing in the Streets” sometime. That record might be the perfect example of what happens when Bowie isn’t sure which trend he wants to pick up on next.
Fortunately, he came back by the end of the decade, swallowing his pride and working the alt-rock club circuit not as David Bowie but as the front man of Tin Machine. Tin Machine get a bad rap, which is a shame, because they might just be the world’s greatest Pixies tribute act. Bowie might not be an innovator but he is, above all, an artist. His two records with Tin Machine show that he’s willing to take risks and do something different. What he was not willing to do is become an oldies act. He daringly went on a farewell tour of his old material, the Sound+Vision Tour, which bade farewell to what had made him a millionaire (though he did eventually start playing the hits again).
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Black Tie White Noise is a curious stop on the road for Bowie. Here, more than anything, he’s cannibalizing himself. “I Feel Free” brings back Spiders From Mars guitarist Mick Ronson. The title track has much in common with his “plastic soul” period. It’s not his finest hour, but it definitely was an exciting release at the time, in 1993, six years after his last solo album and more than a decade since he last did anything halfway decent. Everyone knew that Bowie was back.
It’s the next two records where Bowie shows that he hadn’t taken his finger off the pulse of popular culture. Outside is Bowie after a long Nine Inch Nails binge, with Eno back in tow to help to fill in the blanks he can’t on his own. The follow-up, Earthling, is a rock-solid adaptation of the burgeoning drum ’n’ bass scene. It’s not shameless imitation, or an old man doing a workmanlike imitation. The beats on that record hold up.
And maybe, what there is to learn from all this is that innovation isn’t necessarily what makes for good music. Being original, it seems, is a bit overrated, especially when you have other forms of talent coming out of your ears, as Bowie did.