David Bowie

Agent of change: the many transformations of David Bowie

In this story first published in SCMP's Style magazine in 2012, Abid Rahman looks at 40 years of Bowie's career following the release of his seminal 1972 album The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars

PUBLISHED : Friday, 09 March, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 12 January, 2016, 12:47pm

WHILE living in Berlin a few years ago, I found myself taking a David Bowie tour of the city. This wasn't an official tour; there were no guides or any semblance of organisation, and it took more than a week to complete, given all the drinking dens that 'needed' to be visited.

The tour was a personal journey gleaned from various Bowie-in-Berlin trivia I had acquired over the years. After a visit to Hansa Studio (where the seminal albums Low and Heroes were recorded), much of the time was spent carousing in the bars and cafes of Kreuzberg. Apparently Bowie enjoyed crossing Checkpoint Charlie into then-East Berlin to eat at the Ganymed restaurant. A particular favourite of the German Democratic Republic leadership and the Stasi, Ganymed still exists today, and retracing the steps was infinitely more exciting than the thoroughly average steak and chips I ordered.

The point behind the anecdote is that David Bowie is one of those artists that inspire nerdy devotion. Those who like the artist tend to love him, reading and researching as much as they can, in addition to being zealots about his music and followers of his inspired fashion sense.

Bowie is back in the news this year, which marks the 40th anniversary of his ground-breaking album The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars, and speculation of previously unreleased music finally seeing the light of day following the end of a licensing agreement. Love him or loathe him, all the recent attention has put a renewed focus on Bowie's central importance to pop music: from his constant reinvention, prolific output and trendsetting cool, it is easy to forget that he redefined the 'pop star' and left an indelible influence on the worlds of music and fashion.

Born David Robert Jones in 1947 in South London, he was raised in a thoroughly middle-class family amongst the bombed-out buildings of post-war London. Like many of his classmates, the young Jones was obsessed with all things American, particularly music, being a devoted fan of the flamboyant (and fashion forward) Little Richard. Early gigs as Davy Jones proved unsuccessful, until he took up the name of the popular American bowie knife on his first self-titled album.

It was the first of the many transformations that he eventually became renowned for, while a full commitment to the provocative and other worldly androgyny was revealed with the 1969 album Space Oddity. After the critically well-received glam-rock albums The Man Who Sold the World and Hunky Dory, the androgyny that recently inspired Lanvin's autumn menswear collection, Bowie hit the big time with the creation of his first alter-ego, Ziggy Stardust, for the eponymous concept album.

The hard-living, naively idealistic and brashly sexual Ziggy was an exaggerated cipher for the absurdities of clich?d rock 'n' roll excess that were destined to end in tragedy. The anti-establishment figure of Ziggy Stardust and his outlandish sense of style would go on to influence the early punk scene nonconformity in both dress and music. However, in an entirely predictable case of life imitating art, the now-bona fide rock star Bowie was to lose himself to the excesses of drugs and sex. For most musicians who become fond of the white stuff, their 'cocaine years' are shorthand for terrible music, but for Bowie these years produced such albums as Diamond Dogs, Station to Station and Young Americans.

By the mid-'70s, an increasingly paranoid Bowie had adopted his next transformation: the Thin White Duke - an austere, masculine ubermensch dressed in the cabaret style of '20s Weimer Berlin, with slicked back hair, tailored shirt and trousers a reflection of Bowie's worsening drug habit, obsession with the occult and Nietzche, and worrying dalliances with fascism.

Unravelling fast, Bowie fled to Berlin in 1977 to usher in his most influential period. The musician's Berlin Trilogy (Low, Heroes and Lodger) built on the nascent electronic and ambient music scenes in West Germany, and brought them into the mainstream, influencing everything from new wave to industrial music.

After Berlin, Bowie went through his last relevant transformation in the '80s, adopting the new wave quiff, white soul and pastel suits that is on the cusp of making a fashion comeback. With songs such as China Girl and Let's Dance, he had become a reliable commercial force, but ceased to be the avant-garde innovator of old. In the years since, music has taken a backseat in his life. With Bowie's last studio album made in 2003 and his last live performance in 2006, the long silence in a previously prolific career suggests a well-deserved retirement. But Bowie is still influencing fashion, with labels such as Roland Mouret, Balmain, Dior Homme and Dries van Noten all delving deep into the Chameleon of Pop's eclectic wardrobe for inspiration.

It's strange to think David Bowie turned 65 in January; an age which makes him eligible for a free bus pass in the city of his birth as well as a state pension. Even more amazing is that after all the years of excess, particularly during the cocaine-fuelled '70s, Bowie looks the picture of health: a head of luxuriant hair, the slightest hint of a double chin and of course, a sophisticated sense of style, the once notorious Thin White Duke has seemingly slipped into a comfortable dotage happy in the knowledge that he changed popular music and fashion trends forever.

Always in vogue

January 2012

Socialite Daphne Guinness (top right) impersonates David Bowie in German Vogue shot by musician Bryan Adams.

December 2011

Sporting a spiky orange mullet cut and no eyebrows - a look heavily inspired by David Bowie circa 1972 - British supermodel Kate Moss is virtually unrecognisable on the cover of Vogue Paris (right).

October 2010

Iselin Steiro did a Thin White Duke-era Bowie shoot for Vogue Paris.

May 2003

Kate Moss first played Bowie in a Vogue UK cover shot (right) by Nick Knight.