David Bowie: Rolling Stones #32 of The 200 Greatest Singers of All Time (2023)

David Bowie
Born: David Robert Jones
January 8, 1947
Brixton, London, England
Died: January 10, 2016 (aged 69)
New York City, US.
Occupation:
Singer-songwriter-actor
Years active: 1962–2016
Instruments:
Vocals/guitar/keyboards/saxophone/harmonica

In 2003, Rolling Stone magazine placed David Bowie at number 39 on their list of the 100 Greatest Artists of All Time. They named him the "Greatest Rock Star Ever" following his death in 2016. In 2023, the publication listed him at number 32 of The 200 Greatest Singers of All Time.

Five of Bowie's albums appear on Rolling Stone's list of the 500 Greatest Albums of All Time: number 324, "Station to Station;" number 279, "Aladdin Sane;" number 251, "Low;" number 108, "Hunky Dory;" and number 35, "The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars."  

Three of his songs are included in The Rock & Roll Hall of Fame's 500 Songs that Shaped Rock and Roll. Additionally, four of Bowie's songs appear on the Rolling Stone list of the 500 Greatest Songs of All Time.


Space Oddity

"Space Oddity" is one of the three Bowie songs on the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame's list of 500 Songs that Shaped Rock & Roll. It was Bowie's first hit. He wrote this after seeing the 1968 Stanley Kubrick movie 2001: A Space Odyssey. "Space Oddity" is a play on the phrase "Space Odyssey."  It was a track on Bowie's 1969 self-titled album. Released as a single, it reached number 5 in the UK and was awarded the coveted Ivor Novello Award. In America, the tune peaked at 124 in August 1969. 

Space Oddity album art

In 1972, the LP was re-titled Space Oddity and re-issued in the US. This time the single made number 15, becoming Bowie's first US Top 40.

Recording

Bowie wanted real strings and a Mellotron together when he recorded, but the musician needed help to play the electronic keyboard. Bowie's producer, Tony Visconti, suggested Rick Wakeman - who later played with the group Yes - could keep the mellotron in tune. The session players on this song were Rick Wakeman (mellotron), Mick Wayne (guitar), Herbie Flowers (bass), and Terry Cox (drums), plus string musicians.  

Rick Wakeman
Video

Three different videos for "Space Oddity" were made by three directors. In the first, directed by Malcolm J. Thomson, Bowie is an astronaut. It was part of a 1969 promotional film. Then in 1972,  Mick Rock ran Bowie with an acoustic guitar surrounded by mission control imagery. The third version Bowie filmed with David Mallet in 1979.


Fame

"Fame" is another of the three songs on the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame's list of 500 Songs that Shaped Rock & Roll. It came from his "Young Americans" album and was Bowie's breakthrough in the USA. It was his first number 1 hit in America. 

Young Americans album cover photo

Lyrics

"Fame" is about what it is like to be famous. It was written while Bowie was under contract with MainMan Records and Tony DeFries. Money was mismanaged, and Bowie was broke. He wrote this in response to his financial ordeal. John Lennon helped write it. Lennon also sang the background "Fame" parts in a high voice. Bowie fired DeFries at John Lennon's suggestion.

David Bowie

Music

Carlos Alomar came up with the guitar riff. It was based on the song "Foot Stompin'" by The Flares, which Bowie had been performing on tour. Engineer Eddie Kramer told Uncut: 

"Carlos Alomar was jamming the riff that became 'Fame,' and Bowie walked in and said, 'Oi, I want that,' and that started the process." 

At the song's end, "Fame" is repeated 23 times, each "Fame" being a different note. The repetitions of "Fame" span a great four octaves. Bowie whispers something at the end, rumored either "Brings so much pain" or "Feeling so gay, feeling gay."


Young Americans

The album "Young Americans" didn't make the Rolling Stone nor Rock & Roll Hall of Fame's lists, but it spawned two hits on the  Rolling Stone 500 Greatest Songs of All Time. The title song is number 486. It resulted from Bowie's attempt to cram his "whole American experience" into one piece.

Music

Over about eight days, Bowie recorded most of the songs for "Young Americans" at Sigma Studios, the capital of black music in the area. Sigma had a staff of producers and musicians, but Bowie used his own people. Tony Visconti produced this track, a then-unknown Luther Vandross supplied backing vocals, and David Sanborn - just starting to get noticed - played the saxophone.

David Sanborn

Young Americans was the first Bowie album that guitarist Carlos Alomar played on. Bowie first saw Alomar playing in the house band at the Apollo Theatre in Harlem and convinced him to play on this album. Alomar became a significant contributor to several of Bowie's albums.

Lyrics

The line near the end, "I heard the news today, oh boy," is a reference to the Beatles song "A Day In The Life."  Bowie also sings, "Black's got respect and white's got his soul train." Soul Train is an American TV show targeted to a black audience that started in 1970. The show featured lots of dancing and musical guests. In November 1975, Bowie became one of the first white singers to perform on the show.


Ziggy Stardust

"Ziggy Stardust" made it into the Rock n' Roll Hall of Fame's list of 500 Songs that Shaped Rock & Roll. It is also number 282 on  Rolling Stone's 500 Greatest Songs of All Time. Ziggy is a character Bowie created with the help of his then-wife, Angela. His name was inspired by the '60s psychobilly musician Legendary Stardust Cowboy. Bowie performed under the Stardust persona for about a year. 

Legendary Stardust Cowboy

Album

The album cover for "The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars" shows David Bowie dressed as Ziggy Stardust. Standing outside the furriers, K. West was located at 23 Heddon Street, London. In March 2012, a plaque honoring Ziggy Stardust was installed where the K. West sign once hung. This plaque is one of the few in the UK dedicated to a fictional character.

Ziggy Stardust front album cover art

Ziggy 

Bowie said the Ziggy character was his way of dealing with mental health issues that plagued his family; his brother was put in an asylum. Bowie went into character so he wouldn't go crazy.

"One puts oneself through such psychological damage in trying to avoid the threat of insanity," Bowie said. "As long as I could put those psychological excesses into my music and work, I could always be throwing it off." 

Lyrics

This title song is about Stardust growing too conceited:  "Making love with his ego, Ziggy sucked up into his mind." Stardust's band,  the Spiders From Mars, is annoyed by his pompous attitude and plans revenge on him "So we bitched about his fans, and should we crush his sweet hands?" Bowie said the song is "about the ultimate rock superstar destroyed by the fanaticism he creates."

Ziggy Stardust back album cover art

Retirement

After a while, Ziggy started to scare David as he was getting engrossed in the persona. He was afraid that the blurring of Stardust and Bowie would lead to madness, and on July 3, 1973, David did his last show as Ziggy at the Hammersmith Odeon in London.


Changes

The song "Changes" from his Hunky Dory album is number 128 in Rolling Stone's 500 Greatest Songs of All Time. Bowie was going through a lot of personal changes when he wrote this. His wife, Angela, was pregnant with the couple's first child, Duncan. Bowie was excited to have a child. This optimism shines through in "Changes."

Music

Bowie played the sax on this track, and his guitarist, Mick Ronson, arranged the strings. Rick Wakeman played the piano parts at the beginning and end. The piano Wakeman used was the famous 100-year-old Bechstein at Trident Studios in London, where the album was recorded; the same piano used by Elton John, The Beatles, and Genesis.

David Bowie
Lyrics

According to Bowie, this started out as a parody of a nightclub song, but people kept chanting for it at concerts. The music connected with his young audience, who could relate to lyrics like "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." Bowie's stuttered vocals in this song ("Ch-Ch-Changes") are some of the most famous stutters in rock. It came after "My G-G-Generation" but predated "B-B-B-Bennie And The Jets" and "B-B-B-Baby, you just ain't seen nothing yet."


Heroes

The highest charting Bowie song on the Rolling Stone 500 Greatest Songs of All Time, at number 46,. is "Heroes." Bowie had moved to Berlin and rented a cheap apartment above an auto-repair shop. Brian Eno, formerly of Roxy Music, moved to Berlin with Bowie and worked on his albums Low, Heroes, and Lodger. These albums became known as the "Berlin Trilogy." They were more experimental than Bowie's previous work.


David Bowie

Lyrics

This song tells the story of a German couple so determined to be together that they meet daily under a gun turret on The Berlin Wall. Bowie was inspired by an affair between his producer Tony Visconti and backup singer Antonia Maass, who would kiss "by the wall" in front of Bowie as he looked out of the Hansa Studio window. 

David Bowie from Heroes photo-shoot

Bowie told Performing Songwriter magazine: 

"I'm allowed to talk about it now. I wasn't at the time. I always said a couple of lovers by the Berlin Wall prompted the idea. Actually, it was Tony Visconti and his girlfriend. Tony was married at the time." 

Video

What became the "official" video for the song was shot late in September 1977 and directed by Nick Ferguson, a painter who also did set design and directed various film and TV projects. It aired in an unusual place: a Bing Crosby Christmas special. The show ran in November 1977, about a month after Crosby died. 

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