Robert Christgau Remembers Six Ways 70s Bowie Changed Culture Forever
Bowie was everything: a punk prophet and an arena-rock pioneer, a free spirit and a proud poser, a dynamo and an amalgamator and a shrewd hanger-on.
Image by Adam Mignanelli
David Bowie accomplished several things I wish he hadn't in the 70s, from briefly reinstating mime as a legitimate art form to permanently convincing Britons that their elitist nation was the chief locus of artistic sophistication in popular music. But you have to hand it to the guy—the main reason he accomplished these things is a conceptual fecundity so bottomless that his accomplishments verged on endless. The 60s get the ink, but the 70s were pop's golden years—economically in that they were when sound recordings became, as the trades trumpeted in 1969, a "billion-dollar business," and artistically because the 60s had opened things up so much that for the entire decade possibilities seemed infinite whether they built on or rebelled against the 60s model. And Bowie was in the middle of so much of it: a punk prophet and an arena-rock pioneer, a free spirit and a proud poser, an adept of black musical vanguards as well as white, a dynamo and an amalgamator and a shrewd hanger-on. In associative rather than chronological order, here are a few innovations I'm remembering as we adjust to a world without him. There are so many I'm sure I'll forget some.
1.) Most important even though he was probably just trying to get a rise out of people, he broke the gay barrier. In biographical fact, he bedded what some estimate as thousands of women. But as a public cross-dresser and private omnisexual who in January, 1972, told Melody Maker's Mick Watts "I'm gay and always have been, even when I was David Jones," he made sexual identity a public issue in a music business where in Britain gay management had long been a way of life. Even Elton John, who came up alongside Bowie and was always gay, first declared himself "bisexual" in 1976 and didn't come out officially until 1988.
2.) Not unconnectedly, Bowie also broke the authenticity barrier. The 60s myth was that rock and rollers were "real" men expressing their "real" selves (or, God help us, souls). Starting with Ziggy Stardust in 1971, Bowie always ch-ch-ch-ch-changed, sometimes playing new characters with sobriquets like "the thin white duke" and always adjusting if not reversing his musical tack. The idea we all share that pop artists project "personas"? It was true pre-Bowie. But Bowie turned it into a commonplace.
3.) Most of Bowie's pretensions were arty; some would say avant-garde. But because Bowie's concept of art was decidedly theatrical, he pioneered the fully staged arena-rock show. When he toured behind Diamond Dogs in 1974, his set was equipped with platforms and winches that enabled him to float suspended in the air and guest dancers acting out the songs.
4.) His sponging was a species of genius, and he gave back. The artists he latched onto early, and whose ideas he freely and sometimes candidly purloined, included Lou Reed, whose calculatedly androgynous, late-1972, Bowie-produced Transformer generated Reed's only hit single, "Walk on the Wild Side." He mixed Iggy and the Stooges' seminal 1973 Raw Power ("weedily," James Osterberg later complained) and produced Iggy Pop's 1977 solo debut The Idiot, also filling the guitar chair in the touring band that promoted it. More obscurely but arguably best of all, he produced and wrote the title song for Mott the Hoople's classic 1972 album All the Young Dudes. Check it out.
5.) In his own class among Bowie's collaborators is Brian Eno. Eno had quit Bryan Ferry's Roxy Music to release a string of three iconic solo albums that at that time were strictly cult items, and eventually would go balls-out ambient on 80s albums like Music for Airports as well as producing Talking Heads and U2. But listen to what we used to call the "second side" of Bowie's Berlin albums for the true beginnings of illbient and chillout techno.
6.) Well before militantly white Berlin, Bowie also discovered weirdly black funk, which in 1975 was still terra incognita to most rock fans. I can't resist recalling the irresistible New Orleans piano that backs "TVC-15," which tops 1976's well nigh danceable Station to Station. But the real coup was his first number one single, 1975's "Fame," which sounds like a James Brown rip but is based on a riff devised by Bowie guitarist Carlos Alomar. Brown liked it so much that he quickly recorded "Hot (I Need to Be Loved)" over the same riff. JB stole DB's funk move. Word.
As I've said, there must be more. And there were many other innovative musicians moving in all kinds of directions in those golden years. But few and probably none (George Clinton?) roamed the rock universe with as much acumen as chameleonic persona monger David Bowie. It's enough to make you wonder whether he's capable of resting in peace even now.
Robert Christgau is the self-proclaimed "Dean of American Rock Critics." He currently teaches at NYU and published multiple books throughout his life. For nearly four decades, he worked as the music editor for The Village Voice, where he created the annual Pazz & Jop poll. Every Friday, Noisey publishes his long-running critical column Expert Witness. To learn more about him and his life, read his welcome post and follow him on Twitter.
A previous version of this article incorrectly stated that Brian Eno produced David Bowie's Low and "Heroes". Noisey regrets the error.