Arts & Culture Music

Bowie, Five Years

  • March 24, 2022
  • 4 min read
Bowie, Five Years

In the summer of ’73 aged fourteen I had a psychedelic epiphany, visual music rolling down linoleum stairs from a senior’s study, David Bowie’s Five Years. Bowie like his fellow travellers Pop and Reed belongs to the stratosphere where ranking is specious; within his cannon so does Five Years. It is five years since Bowie’s untimely, if not unexpected death. Five Years remains a fan’s favourite, perhaps even more so than the eponymous Ziggy Stardust, or even the re-breakthrough Starman. Five Years is a motif for the array of images (often of change itself) through which he communicated. While the character Ziggy Stardust lived a mere eighteen months (amazing really, given the legacy) the Spiders (with Bowie on Five Years) spanned about five years. 

What more can be said about Bowie, much more than Major Tom or even Starman and “Heroes”? Five of the greatest B’s (Bowie, The Beatles, Buddy Holly, Chuck Berry and Bob Dylan) showed us that to be cutting edge one needs to know where the boundaries lie. Each could claim huge influence on popular music, now elevated to the status of Rock. Bowie’s claim to be the most important cultural icon of the twentieth century rests on multiple foundations. 

The V&A a few years ago emphasized Bowie’s influence on design and costume epitomized by perhaps, to Bowie’s occasional irritation, his most celebrated character, Ziggy Stardust.  Ziggy Stardust turned Glam Rock into a gender redefining protest movement that prophesized fashion statements over the next twenty years and beyond. Sexual norms were challenged as Ziggy ushered diverse minorities into the mainstream.

Bowie wasn’t alone but Ziggy led the way. Music reasserted itself as Bowie parted with the gifted multi-instrumentalist Mick Ronson (who arranged the strings on Lou Reed’s Perfect Day, famously playing the piano and with Bowie co-producing Transformer). Bowie continually reinvented himself. With Jagger the musical contribution was largely restricted to Live Aid’s charity hit Dancing in the Street, as was Under Pressure with Queen, and John Lennon and Fame. His work with Mott the Hoople is remembered largely for writing All The Young Dudes, but Bowie also produced the album.

Iggy Pop was to be longer lasting, a huge influence on each other’s Berlin albums. Bowie produced Iggy and the Stooges’ Raw Power, and produced Pop’s solo debut The Idiot, co-writing it and playing the piano on tour. Compare the jazzed-up version of Bowie’s China Girl with Iggy Pop’s hard-rocking original but remember that Bowie wrote the music to both. (Iggy Pop claims, and presumably he should know, that the better-known Bowie version was released to help clear Pop’s debts.) It was during the Berlin era that Bowie’s most celebrated and enduring anthem “Heroes” (featuring Robert Fripp and co-written by Eno) was written together with perhaps the greatest suite of electronic music of all, generally referred to as Side Two of “Heroes”, also co-written by Eno or heavily influenced. Producer Tony Visconti’s (Bowie’s George Martin) contribution to this oeuvre is worthy of a separate article; or a book.

Bowie had an earlier collaborator on Hunky Dory, Rick Wakeman, a partnership revisited on Wakeman’s elegiac Piano Portraits. Piano Portraits was inspired by Rick Wakeman’s virtuoso piano performance on Bowie signature piece Life on Mars. Wakeman praised Bowie’s professionalism with words to the effect that Wakeman was to play the piano as if Rick were the lead guitarist. It’s an anorak’s nugget but listen again to Life on Mars and you’ll hear what he means.

Bowie’s admiration and promotion of Lou Reed and the Velvet Underground is celebrated particularly on Hunky Dory. Our theme is reinvention through collaboration, including the later cameos, duetting with Gilmour on Comfortably Numb and taking Syd Barrett’s part on Arnold Layne. I doubt Bowie would mind part of his legacy being to finish what Syd started.

Marc Bolan just before his death is rumoured to have said, as Lennon did, that his ambition was to produce something as good as the recently released “Heroes”. Electric Warrior is every bit as good as Ziggy Stardust, and no disrespect. Look at what Bowie did for Pop and Reed, and achieved with Eno and Fripp. It is a tragedy of near-Buddy Holly proportions that the car-wary Bolan’s Rolls-Royce was driving Hawkwind to an event, and Bolan was wrapped round a tree in Barnes. When Bolan died, he’d dried out and was starting to transcend Glam Rock. If Bolan had lived, might his mate Bowie have helped lift Bolan into the six Bs?

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Douglas Shanks

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