written with Jonathan Bernstein
“David Bowie was the Beatles of the ‘80s.” A couple of years ago, while we were promoting our book, Mad World: An Oral History of New Wave Artists and Songs That Defined the 1980s, that glib phrase tripped off our tongues several times a day for many months. We used it so much, the words lost their meaning. This week, the words regained their meaning.
Try and imagine an It’s a Wonderful Life scenario where David Bowie was a one-hit wonder that disappeared after “Space Oddity.” No “Man Who Sold the World,” no Hunky Dory, no Ziggy Stardust, no British glam-rock movement. Without David Bowie performing “Starman" on Britain’s Top of the Pops in 1972, there’s no sudden seismic cultural shift that sends hardened soccer hooligans scurrying to the makeup counter to purchase flattering shades of nail polish.
Without Ziggy Stardust, Aladdin Sane, and Diamond Dogs, there’s no one to tell the weird, the lonely, the misunderstood, the confused, and the misfits they’re not alone. There’s no one ripping up the rules of what it means to be an artist, no one to set the example that to constantly change, to adapt, and to steal is to ward off stagnation. Without Young Americans, Low, and Heroes, there’s nothing to inspire a generation who loved but felt constricted by punk. There’s no pretentious, androgynous, unifying figure that connects the late-’70s/early-‘80s Britain’s love of nightlife and dressing up, and both German and American dance music. Without David Bowie, there are no overwrought vocal stylings for a generation of male singers to evoke.
Without the videos for “Ashes to Ashes,” “Boys Keep Swinging,” “Fashion,” and “DJ,” an elite cabal of British directors don’t get carte blanche to indulge their most outlandish visual ideas. Which means there’s no MTV. Or there is, and it only plays Journey, Foreigner, and Lionel Richie.
Related: David Bowie’s Greatest Music Videos
Without David Bowie adopting and shedding sounds and visions as easily and frequently as breathing, there’s no Boy George, no Duran Duran, no Adam Ant, no Gary Numan, no Spandau Ballet, no Siouxsie, no Human League, no Cure. There’s also no Madonna, no Smashing Pumpkins, no Moby, no Lady Gaga.
These acts all attempted to emulate Bowie. They all attempted to blow up the formula that made them famous and constantly evolve. For some — step forward, “Lebanon”-era Human League, Beauty Stab-era ABC — those attempts blew up in their faces. But for others — congratulations, Paper Gods-era Duran Duran — following in Bowie’s ever-changing footsteps proved rewarding.
But you don’t have to look back to the ‘70s, and imagine the grim, austere, imagination-free, culturally anorexic landscape of a world without David Bowie. All you have to do is go to Spotify or Vevo. All you have to do is spend a few minutes flipping from Ed Sheeran to Sam Smith to Charlie Puth to One Direction, or even to Adele and Taylor Swift. Today’s pop world exists with nary a trace of David Bowie. There’s nothing wrong with that world. It’s a successful world filled with wealthy and well-adjusted young people doing their best. But it’s not a world for the weird, the lonely, the misunderstood, the confused, and the misfit. In this world, we’re on our own now.
Read on, as a few famous misfits remember the man who most influenced the world:
Nick Rhodes, Duran Duran (via DuranDuran.com):”He fed us pure inspiration, beautifully strange and always unpredictable, yet somehow everything made perfect sense. No other musician was more influential for our generation. David was a pioneer, an inventor, a space traveller, a superhero, a truly astonishing songwriter and a friend. It’s hard to imagine that any artist will ever leave more musical and cultural treasure behind. Thank you for letting us share your journey DB. We’ll miss you more than you’ll ever know.”
Borrowing from Bowie: Duran Duran’s “Careless Memories”
Midge Ure (via Good Morning Britain): “I think if you spoke to any musician who has been around in the last 30, 40 years, we all have benchmarks that we try and emulate, we all have benchmarks that we put our feeble efforts next to and somewhere along the line you do think, Well, what would David Bowie do here?’ Because he wasn’t just a brilliant songwriter and an amazing creator, he excelled at everything. He gave us the point to run towards, we are all still trying to run towards that, everyone. We are all swimming in his wake, so I don’t think you could top on creativity – and consistent creativity. I don’t think anyone could top David Bowie in the U.K. musical history.
Borrowing from Bowie: Visage’s “Fade to Grey”
Adam Ant (to Yahoo Music): “The music world has lost a true genius and inspiration to generations of musicians and music lovers alike. Our thoughts and love go out to his family at this saddest of times.”
Borrowing from Bowie: Adam & The Ants’ “Deutscher Girls”
Gary Kemp, Spandau Ballet (via Twitter): “Shocked to the core… It feels as if the world has suddenly gone out of joint… The lyrics to Lazarus. He was telling us…”
Borrowing from Bowie: Spandau Ballet’s “To Cut a Long Story Short”
Gary Numan (via Twitter): “A True Legend. David Bowie RIP.”
Borrowing from Bowie: Tubeway Army’s “Are Friends Electric?”
Vince Clarke (to Yahoo Music): “Very sad news. His music and style were completely unique and his songs really did sound like they were written by the Man Who Fell to Earth.”
Borrowing from Bowie: Depeche Mode’s “Photographic”
Moby (to Yahoo Music): “A few years ago, I was at David’s house for Christmas, and he played me this new song he was writing, ’Slip away.’ It’s my favorite of all of his songs and possibly the most personal song he ever wrote. It’s not about other people, it’s about him. He was so excited to have written it, and it uses an old weird monophonic synth called a ‘stylophone.’ After he played me the song, he gave me the stylophone that he used to write the song. I should go into storage and find it. It’s such a beautiful song. I hope that people discover it as really one of the best songs he ever wrote.”
Borrowing from Bowie: Moby’s “Spiders”
Lady Gaga (via The Hollywood Reporter): "When I fell in love with David Bowie, when I was living on the Lower East Side, I always felt that his glamour was something he was using to express a message to people that was very healing for their souls. He is a true, true artist and I don’t know if I ever went, 'Oh, I’m going to be that way like this,’ or if I arrived upon it slowly, realizing it was my calling and that’s what drew me to him.”
Borrowing from Bowie: Lady Gaga’s “Bad Romance”