Planet earth is blue. The outpouring of love for Bowie is unsurprising. Few artists have had success in so many sectors over so many decades. He belonged to the internet generation, pre and post, a child of the space race with the determination and talent to excel. He is rightly revered.
I may not have always loved him. He made some music I never want to hear again and some I’d gladly listen to every day. The fact that he was able to transcend mistakes, to float above the norms, mark him out as truly special.
Aside from the music I wondered what his legacy meant for other musicians, what lessons could be learned.
Signed in the sixties, the original David Bowie was a mod. At least in style. His music had folk/pop leanings and it was unsuccessful. These were different times. He tried hard but couldn’t buy a hit, experiencing three years between hit singles, a first album that flopped followed by another two that did the same. All three albums eventually charted in 1972 after Ziggy.
Before and between albums he played live, joined a dance school, wrote songs for others, appeared in a tv commercial, expanded his influences. He flogged himself around trying to catch a break.
Absorb your influences
We hear a lot about Bowie the chameleon, he was far more of a sponge. He picked up musical and stylistic influences that he liked and absorbed them into his art. It’s not all about the music although it is said that the Ziggy persona that gave him his break came from moulding his favourite elements of Lou Reed and Iggy Pop.
Pay It Back
Bowie/Ronson produced Lou Reed’s Transformer. Bowie also wrote and performed on Iggy Pop’s The Idiot and Lust For Life, playing live in the band. If Ziggy was theft of their identities then David re-paid it many times over. Throughout his career he had an eye for talent and would go out of his way to champion it. Be generous in your largesse, it pays off.
Bowie’s transformations were not only about music, they also encapsulated his style. He always had a look, you know the Ziggy lightning bolt even if you’ve never heard the album. He stood out. Don’t stand still, he didn’t.
Adopt a trend
Did he invent glam or did he adopt it? He knew how to fit in and stand above. At the dawn of ‘New Romantic’ he was aware enough to be there, to co-opt the faces and be part of the trend he’d undoubtedly spawned. White funk/disco/ambient/electro, he may not have started any of those trends but he mastered them, learned from them and made them bigger than they ever could’ve been. He applied his touch and his star quality.
What’s the next step? Where do you want to go? Do you have anything to add to this genre, can you be more successful in that genre? Can you merge the two or three? He was restless, happy to abandon Ziggy even though it made his name.
Engage the experts/collaborate. Eno/Fripp/Aldomar, even Mick Ronson. What can you learn from others? What can they give to you? What can you give back? Bowie was never really complacent – and when he was he hated himself for it. Treat it like a business and you’ll only ever be a business-person, treat it like art and become an artist.
Feed the myth
Despite his ultra-stardom he retained an air of mystery, of otherworldliness. Perhaps this is no longer possible in an age of social media. It was for him. He still managed to release his final two albums without pre-hype or fanfare. Sometimes you have to stand apart.
You may attempt all of this and still not achieve the Bowie effect. Maybe it only worked in that time with those circumstances. It might be sufficient just to ask ‘what would Bowie do’?