This episode is all about the life and work of David Bowie, the English musician who died just a couple of days ago. In the episode you’ll hear me talk about the cultural significance of Bowie as an artist, why he is such a legend of British music, and what his music means to me personally. I hope you can use this episode as a way to learn more about British culture. Almost 100% of the episode is transcribed below.
David Bowie was an English singer, songwriter, record producer, painter and actor. He was a figure in popular music for over five decades, and was considered by people around the world as a cultural innovator, particularly for his work in the 1970s. I am a big David Bowie fan, and in this podcast my aim is to explain to you the appeal and significance of David Bowie as a cultural icon. I’ve had a few messages from listeners over the last couple of days asking me to talk about this subject, and I am very happy to be able to do that on my podcast.
This subject is significant to me personally, and I expect to many of you too, but also it’s a very significant to British culture in general, and I think it’s important to teach you about British culture or English language culture on Luke’s English Podcast, as well as to teach you the language itself, because ultimately, it’s all part of the same thing. The language exists within the culture, or perhaps the culture exists within the language – they are intertwined together in complex ways. So, to learn the language like a native I think it helps to know about the culture of that language too, so you can start thinking in the same way that native users of that language think too. Also, if you ever talk to native speakers of English you need to know the cultural references. For example, at the moment and no doubt for a long time afterwards, people will be talking about David Bowie, his music, his art and its significance. Would you be able to hold down a conversation about Bowie? Hopefully this episode will help you do that.
David Bowie changed our culture, not just in Britain but also around the world. How did he do it? What did he do that was so significant? Why is his death such a big deal? What was his appeal? What do most people know about David Bowie? What did he do during his life? What were the messages he communicated through his art? Why will he be considered one of the greatest artists of our time?
There are so many questions to answer. I don’t have the answers to all of them. Some questions will go unanswered. But there are always more questions than answers, aren’t there?
I think the world still doesn’t fully understand what Bowie was doing or what it was all about – or at least we can’t easily put it into words, but those people who value his work certainly feel a powerful emotional connection to David Bowie and his work. He was an artist, and I suppose part of the work of an artist is to express ideas and feelings in other ways – not using words alone, but using anything else as a way of conveying a message or feeling. David Bowie definitely did that. Not only was he a musician, but he was an artist, maybe one of the greatest artists of our time, and he used everything he could in order to communicate with us – music primarily, but also video, theatre, mime, the internet (he was an early adopter), the media and even his own body, his fame, his image and ultimately his identity itself. He even used his own death as a way of communicating his art to the world.
David Bowie’s whole life turned out to be a work of art itself, and as an artist he used his life to tell a captivating, mysterious and complex story.
Here are the main questions I’m going to try and talk about
Who is* David Bowie? (*was ?)
Why is he significant?
Why is Bowie significant to me personally?
I have to say that this is a really difficult episode for me to do because there’s just so much to cover, and I want to do justice to the subject. I don’t think I can say everything I want to say about Bowie in this episode. I would love you to just listen to his music with an open mind. Listen to the beats, the grooves, the moods and let your imagination do the rest. he was also a great speaker in interviews – he was articulate, charming and very funny too. I’m not going to play you any interview footage or any of his music (except perhaps for a couple of seconds per song) on this podcast. But what I have done is collect some videos and other links for you on the page for this episode and I strongly recommend that you check them out. There are other documentaries, interviews, podcast episodes and music that are really really great and will give you loads more perspective on the subject. So go to the page for this episode and just dive in. Please do watch and listen to Bowie in his own words, and in the words of other people who have talked about him too.
I’ve been a fan of Bowie almost all my life. I grew up with his music and it has been with me at various important emotional moments for me.
When did I first hear Bowie’s music?
In the car as a child.
The song is fascinating – it tells the story of an astronaut on a space mission. He goes out alone into space and loses touch with the earth. The astronaut is afraid, and it is scary – the idea of being so alone, drifting into the void of space, but also it is full of the wonder of the universe – seeing the earth from a distance, and wondering what it’s all about. The song is deep – as deep as the film 2001 A Space Odyssey, which was a direct influence on Bowie.
Looking back on it now, that car was like a spaceship floating through the dark with my Dad at the controls, the lights of suburban London street lamps passing overhead.
The song is like a metaphor for his career somehow.
The astronaut is Bowie the artist, and the spaceship is his work – the different characters he portrayed and inhabited, the multimedia structure around him that he built during his career – like a cocoon, which he has now departed.
Now, after his death, we have just the cocoon, the spacecraft. His life’s work is left with us.
I’m not sure what I’m saying here. And I’m sounding a bit pretentious I expect.
What I mean is that the image of a man in spaceship travelling through space is a bit like a metaphor for the work of the artist going on a journey. I can’t explain it. IN fact, I don’t quite understand it fully. It’s just beyond my understanding, just out of reach, somewhere in space.
That’s space oddity.
Then, later, at other times in my life, I had other moments with David Bowie’s music.
I gave a Bowie album to my Dad for his birthday in 1987. I remember the front cover of the album. I was 10. Bowie was Blue. It felt important that I was giving the record to my Dad. I think my Mum bought it, and I gave it to him.
Then when I was a teenager I started exploring my parents record collection. I discovered a lot of old music, but it was new to me. In our house the record player and the vinyl records were in the corner of the living room. I remember spending quite a lot of time in that corner, with the headphones on, exploring the music while my family were doing other things.
There was an album called “Changes – One Bowie”, which was a greatest hits compilation. I think it was released in the mid 70s and it had songs from his whole career up to that point. It was music from his psychedelic period, his hippy-in-a-dress period, the Ziggy Stardust period and the thin white duke period. These are all different incarnations of Bowie’s rock star identity.
There was a photo of Bowie on the front of the album – it was a black and white pic and he looked like a Hollywood star from the classic Hollywood period of the 1930s or 40s. I couldn’t quite date the photo. Normally I’m good at predicting the period in which the picture was taken, or predicting when a record was recorded by listening to it, but this photograph just looked completely timeless. I couldn’t work out when it was taken.
The photo could come from any time and that was pretty fascinating. Also, he just seemed so cool and handsome and I thought – how could I be like him? How can I take some of that style and confidence and attractiveness and apply it to my own life. He seemed to be above everything, but not in a bad way – not in an arrogant way. I thought, how could any girl resist this guy? And that was very exciting for me – because I definitely fancied girls but I just wasn’t confident enough. I had no clue about how to talk to girls, let alone get them to fancy me. What Bowie showed me about that is that you shouldn’t fake it – just be confident, express yourself, let your natural style come out and don’t show any fear and you’ll attract girls. In fact, what was really attractive about Bowie is that he didn’t do things for egotistical reasons – the guy in the photo was distant – he wasn’t looking at the camera, he wasn’t begging for your attention, he was looking off into the middle distance somewhere. His mind was elsewhere. He was occupied by his work and by big ideas. I think Bowie’s enthusiasm and commitment to his work made him as attractive as his looks. But it was his looks too. He was the complete package.
I asked my Mum what she thought of Bowie and she said she just found him weird and a bit creepy. I was a bit disappointed, but I was still convinced that Bowie was the essence of coolness. What I saw in that picture was a lot of what is appealing about Bowie. His good looks and cool style, but also his class, his elegance, mystery and weirdness.
Let me describe the album cover.
You see his face and shoulders. He’s looking to our left, into the distance. It’s a black and white photo. His hair is quite short and is combed back with a slight parting on the side. His finger is resting on his bottom lip as if he’s thinking of something.
After a while I noticed that his eyes were different. The pupil of his left eye in the photo is dilated wide, but the other pupil is normal. I wondered if that was an effect added to the photo, to perhaps hint at the fact that he was high on something. It wasn’t obvious, but it was fascinating. Later I learned that Bowie had 2 different eyes – it looked like they had different colours, and the pupil of one was always larger than the pupil of the other. Apparently he had an accident or a fight over a girl when he was fourteen and got punched. The punch caused damage to a muscle in his eye, and since then one of the eyes always looked different to the other. It was another part of Bowie’s allure – there was just something different about his face.
In the photo he’s thin and has ridiculously high cheekbones and chiseled features, like a Hollywood movie star from the 1940s.
He had classical good looks, but there was something else about him – the lines on his face, the shape of his nose – there was something otherworldly and alien about him, like he might have come from outer space.
Also he has femininity in his features, and I think there’s nothing wrong with being in touch with your feminine side.
His ambiguous gender wasn’t the main thing I liked about him, but for many other teenagers throughout the years – teenagers who struggled with their gender identity, David Bowie was someone who gave them self-esteem and confidence. He showed that if you felt confused about your gender, that it was nothing to be ashamed of and that it didn’t matter, and that you could be whoever you wanted to be, and do it with pride. As a rock star, David Bowie was a huge ego boost to so many fans, and for many reasons. For me Bowie was just cool, confident and he made really great music. His confidence and his style commanded respect.
I grew up a bit when I looked at that album cover.
Then I listened to the record. I took the vinyl out of the sleeve and put it on the record player, with the headphones on. My parents had an old pair of 70s headphones. They were really good quality ones.
The first track was called Changes, released in 1971. There was a scratch on the record and it used to jump quite a lot during the introduction to the song. For years, I only heard the scratched version. The song would skip from the intro to the first verse, and then to the chorus quite quickly. It still sounded good to my ears.
It had a piano riff, chunky sounding drums and a good baseline. It sounded amazing in the headphones. Bowie sang words like
I watch the ripples change their size
But never leave the stream
Of warm impermanence and
So the days float through my eyes
But still the days seem the same
And these children that you spit on
As they try to change their worlds
Are immune to your consultations
They’re quite aware of what they’re going through
As a 15 or 16-year-old I was quite aware that I was going through changes of my own and at the time I was feeling for the first time that I was actually having more complicated feelings than just “I want to play football” or “Star Wars is cool”. Listening to this song, even though I didn’t completely understand the lyrics, I felt that I was suddenly part of something much larger and deeper, and it felt really cool. What it meant to me at the time was that we go through changes in our lives and we don’t always know why, but they’re significant and meaningful and we should be prepared for them, and others should let us change and we shouldn’t try to hold each other back or tell each other what to do – that we should have respect for each other’s complex worlds. I didn’t really understand it all, but it meant a lot – I just felt it.
Also, as I learned more about David Bowie’s music I knew that he was something of a changeling himself. He went through many image changes during his career, especially in the 70s, and that was and still is fascinating to me. How could someone become all these different people – and still hang onto himself? What was identity all about?
Here’s a ‘brief’ history of David Bowie.
South London in 1947. His real name was David Jones. Another performer had the name Davy Jones so he changed his name. He tried a few others, including Tom Jones and David Cassidy, before sticking with David Bowie. Good judgement. He chose Bowie because it was the name of an American knife and he liked the symbolism of that. The knife.
Grew up in postwar UK – the same generation as the Beatles and so many other great artists of his generation.
The main theme of his childhood seems to be – boredom and dullness. Living in suburbia was dull and everything looked the same. It seems to me, looking back on that period in the 1950s that life was in black and white. Just boring and quiet. The older generation just wanted peace and quiet after the hell of world war 2.
Like his peers he got hooked on American rock and roll and R&B but also plenty of other forms of music. This new music which he heard on the radio must have brought some colour into his life.
America was the place that seemed to be really exciting and interesting.
He got involved in the London music scene but never really found his style or confidence.
There was a boom in youth culture associated with music and fashion. This was the mid-late sixties.
Drugs and psychedelia were involved, amphetamines for energy and probably LSD for its mind expanding qualities.
Bowie recorded Space Oddity and it was released and became a hit, eventually, particularly as it coincided with the NASA moon landing in 1969. Some people thought of Space Oddity as a novelty song – just a funny story about an astronaut going into space. But it was deeper, more meaningful than that. Space Oddity is now a timeless classic that is not just about an astronaut. It’s an existential comment about the human condition. But it’s also a great little pop song that you can hum along to and which gets stuck in your head.
Despite some success with that song he still felt unsure of himself as a performer, and searched for ways to bring new dimensions and confidence to his performance art.
He started taking risks with his performances and was influenced by avant-garde artists and various forms of theatre, like clowning, mime and Japanese kabuki. He brought those influences into his rock and roll shows.
He collaborated with a guitarist called Mick Ronson who perhaps deserves more recognition than he gets. He’s the one who played those amazing riffs on a lot of Bowie’s glam rock classics like Rebel Rebel and Ziggy Stardust.
Bowie also came out as gay/bisexual during that period, but it’s not clear to all of us if he really was gay or if it was all part of some kind of provocative and experimental performance both on and off stage.
Nevertheless, he attracted devoted and passionate fans who loved his daring style and his outrageous performances. Being a David Bowie fan was a statement of liberty and freedom. He made it ok, and maybe even cool, to be androgynous.
Also, his music at the time just kicked arse. His band made really raunchy and catchy glam rock. It was heavy, fast, funky, romantic and glamorous. The confidence and mystery that he exuded on stage was like a gift to his fans, who were empowered by having him as a role model.
He first became really huge as a star when he created the character of Ziggy Stardust in around 1972.
Up until that point Bowie had not really found his feet as a performer. Apparently, when performing as himself he felt shy. It’s hard to imagine, but apparently it’s true. He didn’t really enjoy performing as David Bowie, because he just felt a bit awkward.
So he invented a character, and played him during the performances.
Ziggy Stardust was just a character – like a character in a movie or a play, and Bowie was the actor.
People still refer to Bowie as Ziggy, like it was his nickname. It wasn’t a nickname for Bowie, it was an alter-ego. Ziggy disappeared in the mid 70s.
Becoming Ziggy allowed Bowie to really let go of himself and become a rock god, and his performances as Ziggy were really extravagant, involving big costume changes, make up and all sorts of rude and lewd acts on stage.
Apparently Bowie was Ziggy not only on stage, but also off the stage, in public appearances, interviews and so on.
So, David Bowie was really an actor playing the part of an outrageous rock star. That’s interesting for me because Bowie’s acting performance was not just confined to the stage, it bled out into every aspect of his public life. His fame was his medium. He used that medium, fame, very well, to convey his art to us, even with his death.
It’s as Ziggy Stardust that Bowie became really well-known all over the UK and then in the USA, where he was embraced as a big star by the rock music scene.
Apparently Bowie’s main influences for Ziggy Stardust were on one hand NY based musicians Lou Reed & Iggy Pop, but also mime artists, Japanese kabuki theatre performers. Bowie loved the way Lou Reed managed to combine avant-garde art with pop and rock music. He loved the outrageousness and energy of Iggy Pop and the mystery and magic of the kabuki theatre tradition. All of it combined to create something extraordinary in Ziggy Stardust. These incredibly theatrical live shows, with stomping fast rock music and avant-garde lyrics. He released an album called Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars. It’s now a classic.
Part of Bowie’s genius was always that he could take very weird and abstract art and bring it to a wide audience via good old-fashioned rock and roll, and pop music. That’s the genius of pop. A pop song is so short, and so simple. Just 3 minutes with a couple of verses, a chorus and a bridge section. Played on the radio for mass appeal, full of catchy melodies and instant appeal. Bowie, like all the other great pop stars, used this medium to deliver some very powerful and clever ideas. Bowie’s pop songs were not just disposable trash. They had deep hidden meanings that are hard to comprehend, but which really stand up under scrutiny. He wasn’t just lucky either, like some artists who make one or maybe two hit records in their career. Bowie had hit songs throughout his career, and his greatest hits albums that you can buy now stretch over 2 or sometimes 3 CD collections. He knew what he was doing and his music is pure pop art.
He was a mainstream pop act, but he was also a radical avant gardist. Using pop to deliver abstract ideas right into people’s every day lives. Usually abstract art is to be found in galleries, and let’s face it, not enough ‘ordinary’ people see it. Through his records and videos and other projects, Bowie brought that stuff right to hearts and minds of a massive audience. IN that way, he’s way more of a successful artist than so many others. People would play his songs on the radio. He appeared on Top of the Pops on BBC1 – a very mainstream show, and he brought into the homes of normal people some of the craziest and most over the top concept art, simultaneously fascinating and frightening the nation. He sang a song called “Star Man” on BBC TV, dressed in a bright green costume, with his hair dyed bright red. Starman seems to be about an alien who wants to come to earth but is frightened of how the humans will receive him. It seemed to many that Bowie was the alien.
What did Ziggy Stardust look like?
I remember watching a movie about a Ziggy Stardust live concert, with my brother…
Ziggy was Bowie’s way to celebrate rock and roll, and comment on all its conventions. Again, he knew what he was doing. He wasn’t just aiming to get as many fans as possible. He wanted his fans to really think about what was going on in the live show, in music and in life in general. He really encouraged his audience to use their own intelligence and to interpret his work in their own way. I feel a great amount of respect from the artist when I listen to the music and watch his performances. I don’t feel like he’s patronising me or being arrogant. I just feel like he’s doing the performance, but that some part of him is completely conscious of what he’s doing objectively and that he has no ego.
Apparently, according to the things I’ve heard and read about him, Bowie was a really nice and down to earth person. In interviews he was always very intelligent, articulate, sweet and funny. Apparently he was also quite a private man. The characters he played in his songs are really different to the character of the artist himself.
Bowie made a few albums using the Ziggy Stardust persona, and toured America, and moved there I think. He recorded a couple of albums as Ziggy, but the character did change bit by bit, with a slightly different look emerging over time. He released a couple of albums with the Ziggy Stardust persona I believe. These are absolute bona fide rock classics. I’m talking about albums like Diamond Dogs.
I think by the mid 70s his life was moving extremely quickly and that’s evident in his music and his image. He went through so many different changes during that period and produced some wildly inventive yet accessible music. Eventually he killed off Ziggy (you can see video footage of him announcing it during a live concert – the audience seem devastated! He says, this is our last live concert, ever – and you hear gasps from people in the audience.
But he didn’t quit of course, he just came back with a new image, a new character.
He looked a bit like Ziggy, but he was darker and even more mysterious.
Then within just a year or two, Bowie changed again. Ziggy Stardust, then Aladdin Sane, and then a character was eventually called The Thin White Duke. He wore sharp suits and had his hair combed back. He used to walk around with a cane, and sometimes wore a hat. He was extremely debonair and suave looking, yet very thin and bony. Again, his combination of handsomeness, androgyny and alien weirdness gave him an allure and a charisma like nobody else.
At that time he was influenced by the soul and funk musicians of New York in the mid seventies. I can’t really explain all the influences and details of his different clothing choices. Essentially, he had his own style – and it influenced a lot of fashion that followed him. I think he had a huge influence on the styles of the 1980s. A lot of what musicians and fashion designers did the 1980s, Bowie had already done in the 70s. Bowie basically created the 1980s.
I think the Thin White Duke is my favourite Bowie period, although I love all of his changes. He was called that because he was thin (due to his lifestyle), he was white! (obviously – but this was more evident because of the fact that he had started playing soul and funk music, which were associated with a black audience – so compared to many of the black artists in his band and black people in his audiences he looked really white. And he was very pale anyway during that period, so I think he was pretty much the whitest dude on the planet, but playing what was considered to be black music.
And the music is the main thing I like about Bowie during this period. I generally love funk and soul music from the 70s, regardless of who is playing it – whether they’re black or white doesn’t matter much to me, in fact I prefer to have my music in with the full colour spectrum please – black, white, and everything in between – purple, brown, yellow, green, pink – if it’s a colour, I want it in my music! No black and white music please. So, Bowie’s funk period is really great. My favourite album from that time is Young Americans. It’s got tracks like “Young Americans” and “Fame” on it – deeply groovy, tough and yet smooth soulful dance tracks. He collaborated with John Lennon on Fame. Imagine that! A funky dance classic, with John Lennon of the Beatles.
END OF PART 1
Here are lots of David Bowie Links and Videos.
Just take your pick and dive in.
Space Oddity studio version with lyrics
Space Oddity live on TV in 1969
Ziggy Stardust sings Starman on BBC Top of the Pops in 1972
David Bowie announces the end of Ziggy Stardust on stage
Bowie interviewed by Dick Cavett in 1974, clearly under the influence of cocaine
Thin White Duke
Bowie in Berlin
Guardian article www.theguardian.com/music/2016/jan/13/david-bowie-berlin-years-heroes-just-a-gigolo
Fascinating interview from 1979
Bowie in 1983 criticises MTV for not playing black music
Bowie talks about acting and touring in 1983
Nile Rogers describes meeting David Bowie
Bowie – “The Interview Years”
Bowie & Comedy – Ricky Gervais described meeting Bowie
Phil Cornwell on Stella Street (skip to 5:00 for the David Bowie impression)
Adam Buxton’s Audio Bowie Documentary
This is my favourite Bowie tribute.
YouTube version here but with the songs removed
The new tracks – Blackstar (the creepy video I watched on Monday morning while eating corn flakes) and Lazarus
Adam & Joe talk about Bowie and do some impressions
If you watch just one of the videos in this list, please watch this one. Adam & Joe obviously love Bowie very much, and their impressions and improvisations are a lot of fun.