David Bowie's Spirit of Transgression Made Him Metal Before Metal Existed

Whether directly or indirectly, his influence can be felt across every generation of heavy music makers, from Hawkwind to Behemoth.

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Jan 13 2016, 4:39pm

To be honest, until the question was posed to me this week, I’d never really considered the impact David Bowie had on metal. Then again, I’d never really considered David Bowie dying either. It took a while for the news to totally sink in. People have long said, “Lemmy is God,” in reference to the legendary Motorhead frontman whose December passing devastated the heavy music community. Likewise, Bowie (or at least his colossal talent) also seemed a little too big for just one plane of existence.

Much of the music across Bowie’s diverse body of work skews far from the metal realm, but his impact on the genre has been enormous. Metal musicians and fans are as likely as anyone else to be influenced by a wide range of artists (how many times was Lemmy’s love of ABBA referenced during his memorial service?), so is it any wonder that Bowie, with his far-reaching artistic prowess, unflappable charisma, and transgressive attitude would be especially appealing to so many of us? Plus, no matter how successful or mainstream he became over the course of a career that spanned over half of a century, he remained an outsider, often tapping into dark, offbeat, and otherworldly themes regardless of the sonic atmosphere of the song. Speaking with the Associated Press in 2002, he said, "The trousers may change, but the actual words and subjects I've always chosen to write with are things to do with isolation, abandonment, fear and anxiety—all of the high points of one's life.” Metalhead or otherwise, you’d be hard pressed to find anyone on the fringes of society who can't relate.

Few, if any, pop stars have cast a longer shadow on metal's development and progression than David Bowie. Whether directly or indirectly, his influence can be felt across every generation of heavy music makers. Randy Rhoads was allegedly more into Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars than Black Sabbath when he was recruited to play with Ozzy Osbourne. Rob Halford claims to own “all of his material.” He’s been covered by the likes of Behemoth, Tombs, and the Melvins, among many others. Since word of Bowie’s death on January 10, just two days after his 69th birthday and the release of his 26th studio album, Blackstar, dozens of metal and hard rock musicians from Marilyn Manson to Opeth’s Mikael Akerfeldt have paid their respects in online tributes or across social media.

Bowie’s connection to metal stretches back to a time when metal—and for that matter, punk—was still taking shape. By the late 1960s and early 1970s, Bowie had emerged as one of the most subversive artists around. Adopting a stage name from the famous knife fighter James Bowie and his weapon of choice, sporting long hair and androgynous fashion, and fusing high art with street sensibilities, Bowie defied the conventions of music, sex, gender, and pretty much everything else in his path. Whether people liked him or not, he was impossible to miss, and his visual aesthetics and inventive stage personas arguably made him second only to Alice Cooper in trailblazing what would become metal's more theatrical styles.

As a musician, Bowie gained a reputation as an uncompromising artist, eternally ahead of the crowd and unafraid to push boundaries, even at the risk of alienating fans and compromising his commercial viability. A huge music fan himself, he kept an ear to the ground for emerging styles and inspirations, and through the years channeled everything from avant-garde, pop, jazz, industrial, ambient, electronic, folk, psych, classical, and more into his own musical visions. Hard rock and metal were no exception, and at various points in his career Bowie touched on or helped lay the groundwork for a number of heavy music styles, and in the process introduced them to wider audiences.

For example, Bowie’s breakout single "Space Oddity” bridged folk and prog into a new kind of space rock exploration. While certainly not metal, it contains enough isolation and bleakness to rival any later day basement black metal creation. Notably, the track’s November, 1969 release came just five days before the launch of the Apollo 11 mission (and coincidentally, the same month Hawkwind was formed).

Armed with his newly-enlisted collaborator, guitarist Mick Ronson, Bowie’s next album, The Man Who Sold The World, was his most metallic ever, delving deep into blues and hard rock with psychedelic madness and riffs to spare. The heavy flavors of the album, combined with Bowie’s love of Iggy Pop and Lou Reed, helped lead the way to his seminal 1972 glam and proto-punk powered concept record, The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars.

Bowie’s influence on metal is hardly contained to his rock actions alone. There are many of his electronic transgressions to consider as well. At a time when it was uncommon for rock artists to turn to electronics, he did so with success, joining Brian Eno in the late-1970s to experiment with synthesizers, Krautrock, and ambient sounds across his “Berlin Trilogy” of Low, “Heroes,” and Lodger. In true form, after the release of Low he moved past its sheer minimalism for something new and wound up inviting King Crimson guitarists Robert Fripp and Adrian Belew to lend their considerable talents to the trilogy’s second and third installations, respectively. It may have taken some time for their artistry to be fully appreciated, but many of today's ambient and experimental metal bands certainly owe a bit of gratitude to these pioneering records.

After a string of more radio-friendly albums throughout the '80s and his back-to-basics rock project Tin Machine (which is often described as "metallic rock," but not from where I’m coming from...), the 1990s found Bowie dipping his hand into electronics once again, and appealing to noise and industrial metal fans with his gritty dystopian concept album Outside in 1995, and following a tour with Nine Inch Nails, the aggressive, electronica-fueled industrial rock of Earthling in 1997. Though divisive among fans, Earthling’s “Dead Man Walking,” scored Bowie a Grammy nomination for Best Male Vocalist, and its standout track “I’m Afraid of Americans,” soon received a brutal remix from Trent Reznor.

Bowie’s longtime producer Tony Visconti has called Blackstar Bowie’s “parting gift,” and if so, it seems the artist aimed to challenge his listeners one last time, even as he dealt with a terminal illness and faced his own mortality. Incorporating elements of avant-pop, jazz fusion, techno, and dark, cinematic rock, Blackstar brings together different corners of a legendary career while staying innovative, adventurous and open-ended enough to make you wonder that, if there is an afterlife, what sort of amazing things Bowie will get up to there.

It’s too early to say what sort of lasting impact Blackstar will have on metal, but if the past has shown us anything, it’s sure to be a big one.

Jamie Ludwig is heading to Mars; for now, she's on Twitter.