Mojo JULY 2011 - by Mark Paytress


Present and future legend.

Famously, David Bowie has changed styles with greater frequency than a Parisian fashion house. All the more impressive, then, that his catalogue - the most wide-ranging in popular music by some stretch - comes indelibly marked with his unique signature.

Ostensibly, there's very little that unites, say, 1971's Hunky Dory and 1997's Earthling, either in terms of sound, theme or vision. But, taking his cue from Andy Warhol, Bowie advanced the rock-star-as-brand concept, uniting it with a musical credo that insisted, sometimes jarringly, on constant change. The approach has spawned numerous imitators - from Madonna to U2 - though none with a trademark of such quality that classic sets such as Let's Dance and Young Americans fall short of the discerning Mojo readers' voting threshold.

It's a feat that even the similarly prolific Rolling Stones would struggle to repeat. But unlike The Stones, who rarely veer far from the rock'n'roll highway, Bowie has revelled in the scenic route: Dylan-inspired poetic pop (David Bowie), dystopian disco (Station To Station), piano-pumping songsmithery (Hunky Dory), subterranean rock'n'roll pastiche (Ziggy Stardust), cold wave trailblazer (Low) and mainstream pop idol (Let's Dance).

Let's not forget that for much of his first decade, his creative antennae were attuned to the guessing game of pop trending clairvoyance. But after July '73, when Ziggy risked all by killing off the Spiders at the peak of his glam-era infamy, Bowie's career has been a series of elaborately staged vignettes. Not every makeover was blessed with his customary mix of vision and bravado, as the ridicule heaped upon his mid- and late-'80s work confirms. These momentary lapses of taste aside, Bowie has never been a bland brand - always a class act.

10 DAVID BOWIE Heathen

After numerous false alarms, Bowie's first twenty-first-century set lived up to the by now routine 'Best since Scary Monsters' hype. Ever since the late'80s, when he'd sought to dissolve himself within the belly of a rock band, Tin Machine, Bowie had tried hard, perhaps too hard, to stay contemporary. On Heathen, and back with Tony Visconti for the first time since 1980, he managed to sound statesmanlike (Sunday), inspired (Slow Burn) and able to draw from all elements of his work with barely a hint of cynicism. Widely regarded as Bowie's 9/11 album, Heathen is also the Old Master's finest late flourish.

9 DAVID BOWIE "Heroes"

Unlike its predecessor Low, where song parts had been crafted with intricate, near surgical attention, "Heroes" opted for a more streamlined approach. Hovering between the two was the title track, still probably Bowie's genius Campbell's Soup Can moment - at once direct, mythic and utterly unforgettable. As with Station To Station, the extraordinary title track dominates, though in the case of this more rock-friendly restatement of Low everything else virtually exists in its shadow. Beauty And The Beast and Blackout were quirky enough for new wave DJs to spin, the nifty V-2 Schneider more upbeat than any Low instrumental.

8 DAVID BOWIE Scary Monsters (And Supercreeps)

The line - "Often copied, never equalled" - trotted out for Bowie's first'80s set suggested a comeback record - which, given the esoteric nature of his Berlin work, in some ways it was. With an accessible, left-field sound, and the headline-grabbing Ashes To Ashes (he updates Space Oddity, nails his mast to the fashionistas and smothers himself in artful pastiche), Scary Monsters is a template for the modern pop LP. Reacquainting Bowie with chart success, it prompted Bowie's most significant career move, Let's Dance.

7 DAVID BOWIE Diamond Dogs

Ziggy might have jettisoned the Spiders, but this sounds like the third and final part of the Stardust trilogy, with its creator now alone and projecting into a dystopian near future. Dense, overwrought and submerged under a sea of studio trickery, Diamond Dogs is the black sheep of the Bowie canon, brilliant and baffling in roughly equal measure. The title track outstays its welcome, the Sweet Thing suite a dirge, We Are The Dead an unsung masterpiece of goth'n'gospel and Rebel Rebel regurgitated Rolling Stones. But it's precisely this loucheness that lies at the heart of its appeal.

6 DAVID BOWIE The Man Who Sold The World

From pointed, post-Dylan folk-rock songs (All The Madmen, The Supermen) to more inclined riff-rock (The Width Of A Circle, She Shook Me Cold), The Man Who Sold The World sounded tailor-made for the rock decade. With new guitarist Mick Ronson and producer/bassist Tony Visconti fleshing out the arrangements, and Bowie reportedly busking the sessions, the results are oddly coherent and inspired making it a fans' favourite. But with Bowie seen as a one-hit-wonder after '69's Space Oddity, it would take more than wearing his 'man's dress' to win over the sceptics.

5 DAVID BOWIE Aladdin Sane

Ziggy Stardust had been pure rock'n'roll fantasy. By contrast, Aladdin Sane was the full-on lived experience - rushed, extravagant, elegantly wasted. Unlike the slow-burn success of its predecessor, this peak of success set suffered from the weight of expectation, a disappointment confirmed by Watch That Man, secondhand Stones from its opening riff to the Brown Sugar vocal. But there are hidden delights, from Mick Ronson's swagger on Cracked Actor to Mike Garson's sublime piano (on the glam title cut and the enigmatic finale, Lady Grinning Soul). Aladdin Sane is Ziggy Stardust running amok in the States.

4 DAVID BOWIE Station To Station

Sandwiched between the 'plastic soul' gloss of Young Americans and the Krautrock-derived austerity of the Berlin Trilogy, Station To Station finds Bowie at his debauched and despotic peak, a spiritually marooned new statesman of the dance-floor apocalypse. Much of that doomed perspective is down to the ten-minute title track (even its name evocative of the Nazi SS), a nevertheless intoxicating feat of martial artistry with a career-best five-minute climax. The rest is hardly less eventful, with two of his finest ballads (Word On A Wing, Wild Is The Wind) and a fabulous pair of funk floor-fillers (Golden Years, Stay) similarly top-grade.


Though much has been made of the Eastern Bloc-inspired melancholia that hangs heavy over the largely instrumental second half (Warszawa) of Low, it's the seat-of-the-pants avant-pop perfection of the first seven songs that stands as towering testimony to Bowie's trailblazing spirit. The funk daring of Sound And Vision, Be My Wife's ham-fisted elegance,the clunky yet spectral Breaking Glass and the hyper pop cacophony of What In The World - each a brilliant reinvention of the short song format. Bowie, Eno and Visconti, the creative triumvirate behind the Berlin trilogy, in their finest hour.

2 DAVID BOWIE The Rise And Fall Of Ziggy Stardust And The Spiders From Mars

An era-defining icon, Ziggy Stardust is Bowie's Sgt. Pepper, a rock'n'roll masquerade that threatens to eclipse the sum of its parts. Many holes in this hastily made concept, but the eleven-song battering-ram into superstardom wouldn't have worked without top material, neat arrangements and campish street-savvy tone. From Velvets swagger (Suffragette City), Eddie Cochran insouciance (Hang On To Yourself) and space-age pop (Starman) to full-on Judy Garland finale (Rock'n'Roll Suicide), it blurred the boundaries between glam immediacy and album rock sophistication magnificently.

1 DAVID BOWIE Hunky Dory

Just prior to the wish-fulfilment rock'n'roll melodrama of Ziggy Stardust, Bowie seemed in competition with Elton John as much as he did Jagger and Bolan. Hand-tinted and still hippy-haired, the androgynous, stargazing Bowie of the sleeve looked uncertain of his niche, but he was writing out of his skin - as that trio of Oh! You Pretty Things, Changes and Life On Mars? confirm. Quicksand was more Peter Hammill soul-searching than Bernie Taupin sentimentality, tributes to Dylan, Warhol and his son Zowie (Kooks) were generous, while Queen Bitch pointed towards an upbeat, subterranean future.


Never Let Me Down. Not everyone who'd been following Bowie since the Ziggy era warmed to the most audacious makeover of his career, when 1983's enormously successful Let's Dance recast him as a tanned and scrambled egg-headed mainstream artist. But few begrudged him the acclaim. But that goodwill ebbed with '84's lazy remake, Tonight, and evaporated completely in 1987 with this dog of a disc that even Bowie later admitted was "awful". Couched in an '80s production sound at its voluminous nadir, it boasted a rap shared with actor Mickey Rourke (Shining Star), the spoken-word account of the Glass Spider and much worse still. Let down, indeed!