“If you feel safe in the area you’re working in, you’re not working in the right area. Always go a little further into the water than you feel you’re capable of being in. Go a little bit out of your depth. And when you don’t feel that your feet are quite touching the bottom, you’re just in the right place to do something exciting.”
David Bowie was all wrong for the 1960s for many reasons. Firstly, he tried to fit in with whatever trend was happening at the time. He hadn’t found his own look or voice yet. We’re all guilty of mimicking our influences until we find ourselves. (Some of Bowie’s 60s output has been compared to The Who. During the recording of Under Pressure with Queen in 1981, Brian May played a take and said it sounded like The Who. Sixties Bowie might have been pleased with the comparison but not the Bowie of 1981. He frowned and said to Brian May: “Well, it won’t sound like The Who by the time we’ve finished with it.” He was not an imitator anymore but an innovator pushing for perfection.)
David Bowie had been ignored in the 1960s. He had been trying since he was 15 in 1962 to break into music with various bands, images and sounds. He’d been a mod, an acoustic hippy and even tried putting out novelty records like The Laughing Gnome. After seven years, he had only managed one hit right at the tail-end of the decade in September 1969 with Space Oddity (he’d never be allowed that much time in today’s music business and the world would miss out on a spectacular talent). For nearly three years after that, nothing he tried worked.
The late sixties were all about Flower Power and everyone being one with each other and the Earth. Bowie, with his unusual eyes, was about the opposite – the outsider.
Bowie wasn’t going to be ignored again and decided on a new strategy for the 1970s. He would push his outsider look about as far as it could go to become the gender-bending extraterrestrial messiah Ziggy Stardust in the 1970s. Whereas Elvis was himself, Bowie would play a character to become a superstar, an interesting twist on what The King had started. It was influenced by the androgynous look of Little Richard in the 50s and Bowie was a huge fan of that.
“It’s always time to question what has become standard and established,” he said.
David Bowie wasn’t going to follow the crowd and try to fit in anymore. He was going to use shock tactics and press everyone’s buttons. He was going to wear a dress and publicly state that he was gay despite being married to Angie (the gay thing is no big deal these days, back then the impact of such a statement was seismic. Many Hollywood stars like Rock Hudson denied they were gay in interviews until the end as they were afraid it would ruin their careers. As Bowie didn’t really have a career at the time, it had the reverse effect and was the making of him).
Bowie was clever enough to figure out that there are two ways to get your message out there; advertising (which costs money) and publicity (which is free). He was going to make the press work for him by tossing them eye-opening quotes and posing for provocative pictures to make them do the work of drumming up interest in his career with headlines. While wearing dresses didn’t give him the breakthrough he craved, it gave him his first unique image and people started to remember him. Bowie was moving in the right direction.
To give an example of how brave David Bowie was, he decided to walk around TEXAS wearing A DRESS in the early 70s! A guy called him a fag and pointed a loaded gun at his head. Did it phase Bowie? Nope, on the contrary, it proved his shock tactics were working. He was getting noticed at last. He wasn’t following another trend, he was setting his own. Bowie would do exactly what he wanted in the 1970s and nobody was going to stop him and they didn’t. He was about to take things even further and really push the boundaries of what was acceptable.
On June 17th 1972, Bowie performed mock fellatio on guitarist Mick Ronson at a show in Oxford. Bowie’s manager Tony De Fries took Mick Rock’s photo and had it made into a full-page advert in music paper Melody Maker. There were repercussions and paint was thrown on the front door of the house in Hull where Mick Ronson’s parents lived. Paint was also thrown on the car he’d bought them. Ronson left the tour but was persuaded to return. If Bowie was going to suffer for his art, so were those around him.
On July 6th 1972, David Bowie appeared in what would be a life-changing performance of Starman on the now-defunct Top of the Pops. During his spot, guitarist Mick Ronson joined him to harmonise and Bowie draped his arm around him in a limp-wristed fashion. Bowie knew exactly what he was doing. A young Boy George remembered his grandmother saying “oh, he’s a poofter!” when she saw Bowie make that gesture and similar statements were uttered in homes all over Britain. Of course, anything parents didn’t like was automatically what kids were going to get into and they flocked to Bowie in their droves as new fans (concert audiences began to grow noticeably after this). It was a masterstroke. In a Stardust flash, David Bowie was a star after a decade of trying. Such was the power of television then. It had made Elvis a star in the 50s, saved his career with the ’68 Comeback Special and did the same for Bowie in 1972.
The Ziggy Stardust image was such a hit, Bowie said “I thought I might as well take Ziggy out to interviews as well. Why leave him on the stage? Why not complete the canvas? Looking back it was completely absurd. It became very dangerous. I really did have doubts about my sanity. I can’t deny that experience affected me in a very exaggerated and marked manner. I think I put myself very dangerously near the line. Not in a physical sense, but definitely in a mental sense.”
While Bowie appeared to be telling all his most intimate secrets to the world, what he was really doing was projecting a fake image of himself and revealing nothing. In later years, long after he stopped playing characters, he retained that air of mystery even up until his death (especially after his enforced retirement following a minor heart attack on stage in 2004).
It’s something he has in common with Freddie Mercury, both men hid in plain sight for decades. When you look at the information they left behind about themselves, it seems to tell you a lot but doesn’t. They showed but didn’t tell and perfected the politician’s art of doublespeak. That is why the public remain fascinated with them and will continue to be for the foreseeable future.
© Stewart Stafford, 2016. All rights reserved.