An enigmatic, ultra-cool icon who stalked the borderlands between fashion, high art, and popular appeal, Bowie was an artist with eclectic tastes, open to evolution and restlessly seeking new methods of expression. From monolithic soundscapes to bombastic “glam” rock, pop, electro-beats, drum-and-bass, and sophisticated, jazzy explorations, Bowie covered it all. No musical artist develops in a vacuum, however, and exploring the roots of their sound makes for a fascinating journey.
The artists below are among those who Bowie publicly attributed as major influences.
The Beatles’ artistic aspirations, sonic experimentation, and melodic hooks are certainly reflected in Bowie’s sound, down to early psychedelic adventures, extended pieces, and deceptively ‘simple’ song structures. John Lennon, in particular, had a huge impact. Speaking at his induction to the Berklee College of Music, Bowie stated: “It’s impossible for me to talk about popular music without mentioning probably my greatest mentor, John Lennon. I guess he defined for me, at any rate, how one could twist and turn the fabric of pop and imbue it with elements from other art forms, often producing something extremely beautiful, very powerful and imbued with strangeness.”
The Velvet Underground
The Velvet Underground’s fusion of rock with the avant-garde merits the oft-overused term “ground-breaking.” Other bands had experimented before, but it’s arguable that none did so with such absolute commitment and uncompromising ethos. Their often provocative subject matter and inventive arrangements made the Velvets, at their best, sound light-years ahead of their peers. Their music certainly resonated deeply with Bowie, who would eventually work closely with Velvet frontman Lou Reed, co-producing Reed’s seminal Transformer album.
With pompadour hair, extravagant make-up, and fiery on-stage antics, Little Richard was, perhaps, the first larger-than-life performer to enjoy mainstream success. It is easy to imagine how, visually, his glamorous, androgynous image must have lit a spark in Bowie’s mind. Musically, Richard’s songs were high-energy, loud and bombastic, full of urgency and intensity. Though Bowie would progress far beyond the main path of the genre, his roots still lay in rock ‘n roll.
In March of 71, T-Rex appeared on the UK’s premier music TV show, Top of the Pops. Decked out in face-glitter and shimmering silver satins, frontman Marc Bolan, a born rock star if ever there was one, certainly helped kickstart the glam-rock movement with this performance. Bowie, always struck as much by vision as by sound, must have been arrested by Bolan’s flamboyant image, and the band’s seamless mix of rough/smooth, gritty/cultivated elements.
Elvis and Bowie were born on the same day (though, of course not the same year), a fact that Bowie internalized as significant. Bowie was a committed fan and actually wrote a song for his idol, at the request of RCA Records, to whom they were both signed. Sadly, Presley never recorded that song, although Bowie did, and “Golden Years” went on to become a hit.
For his part, Presley was certainly aware of Bowie and, it seems, an admirer of his work. Creditable rumors exist that, several months before his death, Presley contacted Bowie to enquire about the possibility of the latter acting as producer for a new Elvis album. Whatever the truth, Elvis, like The Beatles, captured Bowie’s imagination in myriad ways.
Bowie’s experiences of watching former Pink Floyd frontman Syd Barrett perform live during the 60s clearly left a deep impression. Barrett’s charisma and startlingly original songwriting are both cited by Bowie as major inspirations. This should come as no surprise to anyone who has listened to Barrett’s extraordinary (and tragically small) body of eccentric, brilliant, solo work.
Partch was an experimental classical composer with a ‘total’ approach, at times integrating theatre into his music, which he composed using highly unusual scales alien to Western ears. His music could often be abrasive and challenging yet seems rooted in human experience. You may not hear many overt elements of Partch in Bowie’s work, but the experimentation and willingness to push oneself are strong links.
As a jazzophile, it pains me to have to condense Mingus’ immense talent into one brief entry. Volumes of information may be found elsewhere but, in relation to Bowie, what needs to be noted is that, aside from their chosen medium, the one thing which unites the works of these artists is their experimentation and adventurousness. What did jazz lend to Bowie’s music? A certain freeness and a willingness to challenge convention, certainly. Experimentation, artistry, expression, and invention are the cornerstones of jazz.
Legendary Stardust Cowboy
Bowie’s alter-ego Ziggy Stardust was an amalgam of two names, the first being Iggy Pop, the second, The Legendary Stardust Cowboy. Norman Carl Odam aka Legendary Stardust Cowboy’s fame rests largely on one song; “Paralyzed,” which he famously performed live on Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In. Recorded in 1968 (the year before Bowie’s “Space Oddity”) the track itself is arresting, a joyously chaotic frenzy of double-time guitar, thudding drums, and Odam’s howls, whoops, and largely unintelligible vocals. Much like the infamous Shaggs, debate still rages as to the artistic merit of the Cowboy’s music. Bowie clearly heard something in it. Or perhaps it was simply Odam’s wholehearted self-belief and commitment to charting his own course that impressed.
In terms of conveying raw emotion through song, French songstress Edith Piaf is up there with the greatest. It could be argued that Piaf was one of the originators of the”‘life is art” concept, albeit unwillingly, an idea that Bowie took to his heart. The “Little Sparrow” experienced as much tragedy and heartbreak as existed in the songs that she sang with such palpable emotion.
Photo: David Bowie, 1975 (public domain)