The sad and unexpected passing of David Bowie has led to a huge number of tributes to the artist being made by the great, good and downright odd (Lewis Hamilton and David Cameron were big fans, apparently). And rightly so: Bowie was one of those very few artists who managed to not only entertain us with music but fundamentally transformed the very nature of it. He was a member of an elite club of artists – comprising, probably, Elvis, Lennon and McCartney and Dylan – who wrote the script for the evolution of rock and roll. It is no surprise that so many musicians – myself included – are profoundly influenced by him and his work; and for many of us in the business of writing songs, Bowie’s death this week has been felt particularly keenly. We are so used to incorporating him and his work into that very introspective activity of songwriting that his death robs us not only of a great rock star but something enormously personal too. A touchstone relied on or referred to during the creation of songs is gone; and for many musicians, it feels as though they have not lost an influence but a dear friend or uncle.
The good news of course is that Bowie leaves us with so much to celebrate and enjoy; so this post I thought I’d share a few ways in which musicians be inspired to greatness by the Thin White Duke.
Given his legendary status, it’s easy to forget that once upon a time Bowie was just a mere mortal and, what’s more, a struggling, unsuccessful musician (like the majority of us!). He spent much of the 60s going nowhere with a variety of different acts – The Konrads, The King Bees, The Manish Boys, The Riot Boys – before finally attaining success in the 70s. A huge part of his success was down to bloody-mindedness and a refusal to give up.
2. Be different
Thanks in no small part to Bowie himself, it’s next to impossible to be shocking in rock and roll any more. But it is still possible to be different – and more interesting than the average act. Whether it’s by putting on a quirky stage show, doing a band photoshoot that doesn’t involve a brick wall as a backdrop or wearing outrageous outfits for media appearances, there are still a lot of ways to differentiate your act from the average indie band or singer-songwriter. Theatricality and image were key to Bowie’s success – experiment a bit with both.
3. Appeal to head and heart
For me, all great music (indeed art) appeals to both the intellect and emotion; and Bowie was a master at getting his tracks to work on your head and heart simultaneously. Think of ‘Starman’ as an example: it’s essentially a hifalutin’ concept-album / art-rock song about a androgynous alien, but despite these foundations, its pulls enormously on the heartstrings. This is because it’s not only a song about the an androgynous alien but a track with a wonderfully melodic chorus that cannot fail to lift the spirits (this may have something to do with the fact that said wonderful chorus has more than a little resemblance to ‘Somewhere Over the Rainbow’, but we’ll ignore that for now). Same goes for another hugely popular Bowie track, ‘Heroes’ – a masterclass in experimental production techniques involving, amongst other things, pitched feedback, ‘multi-latch gating’ and low frequency drones…which somehow goes on to be a song that people walk routinely down the aisle to. Next time you find yourself being too cheesy or too clever in studio…well, try to be both.
4. Work with great people
It’s particularly tempting, in this day and age of ‘I’ve got a 128 track studio in my bedroom’ to try to do everything yourself. Don’t. Key to Bowie’s success was his respect for other musicians and producers – would Bowie’s music been remotely as good without the contribution of the likes of Mick Ronson, Tony Visconti, Brian Eno, Robert Fripp, Nile Rodgers, Rick Wakeman or Ken Scott (to name just a few great people he worked with)?
5. Appreciate silence
The age of social media brings with it the opportunity for musicians to form direct connections and conversations with listeners. In many ways this is a good thing, but it also brings with it the potential for too much communication, to the point where there is no mystery about a musician left, and no distance between artist and fan. Enigma and silence are powerful things and they can be used in an extremely impactful way, as Bowie demonstrated with the surprise release of ‘The Next Day’ in 2013. He used silence again to maximum effect with the timing of his last release, ‘Black Star’ which became far more potent/significant because it was issued immediately before a death that nobody was expecting. As Visconti put it, Bowie’s passing was, in its own right, a ‘work of art’ – and this was all down to how Bowie used silence. It is just very sad that silence from Ziggy, Aladdin, The Thin White Duke and David Jones himself is now a permanent fixture.