David Bowie

Ashes to Ashes: David Bowie’s ’80s legacy

How will we remember David Bowie?

For most, the defining image of Bowie will be one of his many guises in the 1970s: Ziggy Stardust, Aladdin Sane, the Thin White Duke. More recent converts may point to his innovative, often challenging mid-’90s albums such as Outside and Earthling. And no-one who loved Bowie will ever forget the excitement of his sudden return with 2013’s The Next Day and the despair of his equally sudden departure, mere days after the release of his swansong ★ (Blackstar). But how will we remember David Bowie’s ’80s work?

Popular opinion seems to be that the ’80s was the decade Bowie went commercial, but that’s far from the whole story. Indeed his first single release of the decade, a version of Brecht & Weill’s Alabama Song was among the least commercial releases of his career. 1980’s Scary Monsters (And Super Creeps) album was heralded by the single Ashes to Ashes, Bowie’s second number 1 hit single and a sequel to his first, Space Oddity. The album also reached number 1 – his first album chart topper since Diamond Dogs in 1974 – and became his first to spawn four hit singles, with Fashion, Scary Monsters and Up The Hill Backwards being released seemingly in increasing order of weirdness and all reaching the top forty.

After releasing an album a year for the past decade, Bowie took a back seat for a couple of years while New Romantic acts like Spandau Ballet, Duran Duran and Visage – all heavily and obviously inspired by Bowie – dominated the chart. A handful of oddities hit the chart in this period, including Under Pressure, an impromptu collaboration with Queen which sailed to number 1. For a while Bowie concentrated on acting, playing The Elephant Man on Broadway, starring in a BBC production of Bertolt Brecht’s Baal and taking a leading role in the Japanese POW drama Merry Christmas Mr Lawrence. When his next album arrived in 1983, there was all sorts of consternation. Having left RCA, who had issued all his hits since 1972, Bowie signed to the EMI America label, a move which many of his UK fans feared would lead to some kind of transatlantic softening of his sound in search of greater commercial success Stateside. Their fears seemed to have been realised with the release of Let’s Dance; although not originally intended as an overtly commercial project, the influence of co-producer Nile Rodgers generated a funk-rock hybrid which became Bowie’s biggest selling album. The singles Let’s Dance, China Girl and Modern Love reached numbers 1, 2 and 3 respectively in the UK chart, the incongruity of a song co-written with and originally recorded by Iggy Pop reaching number 2 being lost on Bowie’s new, less artistically demanding fans.

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Bemused by the album’s success, Bowie felt the need to tailor his next album to the same market, but wasn’t really sure how. While other acts were beginning to slow down between releases, Tonight was ushered out less than eighteen months after Let’s Dance. With the hand of Iggy Pop weighing heavy on the songwriting but without the Midas touch of Nile Rodgers in the control room, Tonight sold a fraction of what Let’s Dance had achieved and is widely regarded as the nadir of Bowie’s career. Even Bowie himself wasn’t happy with it, later bemoaning the fact that songs that had shone as demos just didn’t work out in finished form. Despite this, lead single Blue Jean was another top ten hit (although producer Hugh Padgham considered it the weakest track on the album) and Loving the Alien reached the top twenty despite being the album’s darkest track.

A period of extra-curricular activities followed. Although he was unable to attend the Band Aid recording session in 1984 (the opening lines of Do They Know It’s Christmas? were written with Bowie in mind; they were eventually given to Paul Young, with a spoken message from Bowie appearing on the single’s B-side and 12″ mix) Bowie performed at Live Aid the following year, both on stage and in a specially recorded video duet with Mick Jagger. Intended to be exclusive to the event, public demand saw their version of Dancing in the Street released as a single two months after the concert, entering the UK chart at number 1. Apart from Live Aid, much of Bowie’s time in this period was devoted to films, both as a composer (This Is Not America from 1985’s The Falcon and the Snowman had been a hit earlier in 1985; he also provided the theme for the animated nuclear holocaust drama When the Wind Blows in 1986) and an actor. He starred alongside Patsy Kensit, Sade and Ed Tudor-Pole in Absolute Beginners, which was neither a box office nor critical success but was redeemed by Bowie’s soaring theme tune, a number 2 hit in early 1986. Later that year Bowie appeared in perhaps his most memorable role, that of the Goblin King in Jim Henson’s fantasy Labyrinth. Despite featuring five new Bowie songs including Underground and Magic Dance the film wasn’t a huge success at the time, but has gained significant cult appeal in the thirty years since its release.

Returning to his musical career in 1987, Bowie intended to make a more authentic, rockier album than his two previous sets. Despite his initial enthusiasm for the resulting Never Let Me Down, Bowie would later describe it as “an awful album”, even insisting that the track Too Dizzy be removed from future pressings. While the production values of the album and accompanying Glass Spider tour both suffered from late ’80s excess, it’s by no means an awful album; it’s certainly a more satisfying work than Tonight and if the production is sometimes overpowering, dating the record to a specific period in time, the same could be said of later, more critically acclaimed albums like Outside. Still, Never Let Me Down was Bowie’s only solo album of the decade which failed to reach number 1 and included no top ten singles.

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Dissatisfied with his attempts to write for his new found audience and the lack of critical acclaim for his recent work, Bowie went back to basics and formed Tin Machine with brothers Hunt and Tony Sales – who had played on Iggy Pop’s Bowie-produced Lust for Life album a decade earlier – and guitarist Reeves Gabrels. Unfairly described at the time as “a heavy metal band”, in fact Bowie wanted Tin Machine to sound like the Pixies. The end result fell somewhere in between, with any subtlety to compare to the Pixies or indeed Bowie’s solo work smothered by the band’s heavy, bombastic sound. Tin Machine failed to bring critical acclaim – if anything its reception was even worse than Never Let Me Down – and while Bowie enjoyed being a group member rather than a solo act for a while, it was his presence alone that propelled the album to number 3. In retrospect though, Tin Machine was hugely pivotal in Bowie’s career: despite disappointing sales of 1991’s Tin Machine II and the abject failure of the following year’s live set Oy Vey, Baby, Bowie returned to solo work in 1993 revitalised. He had regained his artistic vision and realised the importance of making the music he wanted to make, not the music he thought his audience wanted to hear. Once he understood this, his core audience returned and stuck with him as he released two decades’ worth of albums, each hailed as a “return to form”. They were often uncommercial, but never unlistenable; sometimes bizarre, but never boring.

So how will we remember Bowie’s ’80s work? Not entirely favourably, perhaps, but there’s still plenty there to enjoy. It’s David Bowie, after all.

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