In the days and months to come, it’s going to become a commonplace to say that David Bowie packed seven or eight careers into his one. That’s one of those cliches that’s actually true: His catalog is full of album-length statements that wrestled pop’s future into revelatory new shapes again and again. But Bowie was also one of rock & roll’s all-time great singles artists — an AM-radio Picasso who could pack more joy and loss and wonder into three minutes than most other artists could dream of in a lifetime. His genius comes into the sharpest focus when you listen to a playlist of his best songs spanning those four decades, which is what we’ve assembled here: a rough guide to Bowie, from 1969’s “Space Oddity” up through last week’s “Lazarus.” It’s a head trip, and it’s only the beginning.
“Space Oddity” (1969)
David Bowie spent most of the Sixties trying desperately to become a famous musician. He knocked around in groups like the Manish Boys and Davie Jones with the King Bees and released solo singles like “The Laughing Gnome,” but nothing seemed to work. Finally, he teamed up with Elton John producer Gus Dudgeon to create “Space Oddity,” a song he’d been fiddling with all year. The folk ballad about astronaut Major Tom getting stranded in space was rushed out by his label to coincide with the launch of the Apollo 11 moon landing, and the BBC played the song during the coverage of the event. “In England, it was always presumed that it was written about the space landing, because it kind of came to prominence around the same time. But it actually wasn’t,” he told Performing Songwriter. “It was written because of going to see the film 2001, which I found amazing. I was out of my gourd anyway, I was very stoned when I went to see it, several times, and it was really a revelation to me. It got the song flowing. It was picked up by the British television and used as the background music for the landing itself. I’m sure they really weren’t listening to the lyric at all. … Of course, I was overjoyed that they did.”
“The Man Who Sold the World” (1970)
Bowie’s 1970 album The Man Who Sold the World was his first with his classic band, the Spiders from Mars, who helped steer his sound from folk-tinged to forward-thinking rock & roll. This Lovecraft-ian science fiction song — with a title inspired by Robert A. Heinlein’s novella The Man Who Sold the Moon — is evidently about an encounter with a doppelgänger — perhaps Bowie’s past self. “That song for me always exemplified kind of how you feel when you’re young, when you know that there’s a piece of yourself that you haven’t really put together yet,” Bowie said in 1997. “You have this great searching, this great need to find out who you really are.” The song was widely covered, most famously by Nirvana. Kurt Cobain named The Man Who Sold the World one of his top 50 favorite albums, a fact that thrilled Bowie.
David Bowie was seemingly in danger of being a one-hit wonder by 1971. “Space Oddity” was two long years in the past, and music had changed dramatically. Bowie remained cocky, though, and on the lead single from Hunky Dory, he even unloaded a warning on his rivals. “Look out you rock & rollers,” he sang. “Pretty soon you’re gonna get a little older.” They were brash words for somebody without much of a following, but they proved prophetic. Bowie said “Changes” started out as somewhat of a “parody of a nightclub song,” but ended up a st-st-st-stuttering rock anthem with keyboards by Yes’ Rick Wakeman and Bowie himself on saxophone.
“Life on Mars?” (1971)
“This is a sensitive young girl’s reaction to … The Media,” Bowie explained on a piece of hotel stationary about this story of a lonely girl with “mousy hair” and mean parents who goes to the movies to escape from her problems. The story is almost completely irrelevant, though: Backed by the Spiders From Mars, a string section and pianist Rick Wakeman, the song features some of the best vocals of Bowie’s career. It’s almost a mini opera inside of a four-minute single, building to a stirring climax. “This song was so easy. Being young was easy,” Bowie told Mail on Sunday in 2008. “I took a walk to Beckenham High Street to catch a bus to Lewisham to buy shoes and shirts but couldn’t get the riff out of my head. Jumped off two stops into the ride and more or less loped back to the house up on Southend Road.”
“Five Years” (1972)
Ziggy Stardust came to life with a death notice: Earth only had five more years and the alien rock star has come spread hope. “Five Years,” the opening track on Bowie’s 1972 breakthrough, The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars, kicks off the strange tale. On the track, Bowie sings with desperation. “Ziggy is in a position where all the kids have access to things that they thought they wanted,” Bowie explained to William S. Burroughs in a 1974 interview for Rolling Stone. “The older people have lost all touch with reality and the kids are left on their own to plunder anything.”
“All the Young Dudes” (1972)
Bowie injected culture with a new energy, helping rebirth rock & roll as a space-y, gender-bending scene where all freaks were welcome. Bowie distilled this message to its essence in “All the Young Dudes,” a song originally released by Mott the Hoople. The glam anthem referenced cultural touchstones like T. Rex, the Beatles and the Rolling Stones and harked back to “Five Years,” off Bowie’s breakthrough album The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars. Bowie toldWilliam S. Burroughs in a 1974 interview for Rolling Stone that both tracks envision a world that will end in five years. “[It’s] a song about this news,” Bowie said of the Mott the Hoople single. “It is no hymn to the youth as people thought. It is completely the opposite.”
“Ziggy Stardust” (1972)
This song wasn’t even released as a single, but the huge, iconic glam-rock anthem is one of Bowie’s most beloved songs. Let’s review what we learn about the Ziggy Stardust character on this song. He’s left-handed. He jams with fellows named Weird and Gilly. Much like Bowie, he’s very pale and he has “screwed-up eyes.” He has weird hair, a large penis and a “God-given ass.” Some think the song is about Jimi Hendrix (another well-endowed, left-handed, freakishly gifted guitar player whose talents seemed almost alien), but Bowie said he was thinking more about Vince Taylor, a British rockabilly singer largely unknown in America.
The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars, one of rock’s greatest concept albums, is about an alien that comes to earth and takes the body of a human being to give mankind a sense of hope during its final years. “Ziggy is advised in a dream by the infinites to write the coming of a Starman,” Bowie told Rolling Stone in 1973. “So he writes ‘Starman,’ which is the first news of hope that the people have heard. So they latch onto it immediately.” The song, which owes a little musical debt of gratitude to “Over the Rainbow” and “You Keep Me Hangin’ On” by the Supremes, became the first hit off the album and played a huge role in introducing Ziggy Stardust to a mass audience.
“Moonage Daydream” (1972)
The third song on The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars attempts to outline the thin plot. “I’m the space invader,” Bowie sings. “I’ll be a rock & rollin’ bitch for you.” That pretty much sums it up. The song features some of the most jaw-dropping guitar work of Mick Ronson’s career, and his solo grew to epic proportions during the endless tour in support of the album. “I would … literally draw out on paper with a crayon or felt tip pen the shape of a solo,” said Bowie in the reissue liner notes. “The one in ‘Moonage Daydream,’ for instance, started as a flat line that became a fat megaphone type shape, and ended as sprays of disassociated and broken lines. I’d read somewhere that Frank Zappa used a series of drawn symbols to explain to his musicians how he wanted the shape of a composition to sound. Mick could take something like that and actually bloody play it, bring it to life.”
“Suffragette City” (1972)
With 1972’s The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars, David Bowie had crystallized the glam-rock experience into its own mythological superstar, armed with swaggering rave-ups like “Suffragette City.” Mick Ronson supplied the song’s buzzing guitar riff while Bowie affected a pinched, nasal tone to wildly spew Clockwork Orange references, wild sex boasts and the shout-along hook, “wham, bam, thank you, ma’am.” All untouchable attitude and a sexy, swinging boogie-woogie beat, “Suffragette City” is the sound of David Bowie as the biggest rock star in the galaxy.
“John, I’m Only Dancing” (1972)
Bowie had just set narrow minds reeling by telling a reporter he was gay when he released this suggestive non-album single in 1972. It’s addressed to somebody named John, who sounds like a real jealous guy: “She turns me on, but don’t get me wrong, I’m only dancing,” Bowie teases, in lines that lent themselves to the public’s already hot, sticky imagination surrounding him. The track, recorded shortly after the release of the Ziggy Stardust LP, has a verse melody redolent of “Suffragette City” and all the verve of Bowie’s peak glam era. Latter-day fans who grew up hearing “John, I’m Only Dancing” as the second or third song on his best-of LPs might naturally assume it was one of his top chart hits. In fact, while it performed well in the U.K., the song’s initial release across the Atlantic was suppressed by skittish American record execs, who somehow hadn’t figured out yet that sexual ambiguity was only going to make Bowie bigger.
“Rebel Rebel” (1974)
Two years after introducing glam rock to the world with Ziggy Stardust, Bowie bid farewell to the genre with this sleazy anthem, one of his most-performed songs ever. Written for a never-realized Ziggy Stardust musical, according to Nicholas Pegg’s The Complete David Bowie, it was reportedly inspired by New York transsexual and actor Wayne County, who was part of Bowie’s entourage at the time. Another influence: the Rolling Stones. Bowie and Keith Richards got to know each other during the Diamond Dogs sessions, and the sleek, jangly riff is unmistakably Keith. “It’s a fabulous riff,” Bowie said later. “When I stumbled onto it, it was ‘Oh, thank you!'”
David Bowie and John Lennon met at a party thrown by Elizabeth Taylor — to break the ice, Bowie told Lennon that he had everything he’d ever made, except the Beatles. A few months later, in the early days of 1975, they were both in New York: Bowie, who was working on the Young Americansalbum, invited Lennon to the studio to play on a cover of “Across the Universe.” Lennon, who had never been happy with the Beatles’ version of that song, accepted. During his visit, they started jamming, and guitarist Carlos Alomar pulled out an extremely funky guitar lick. Bowie came up with the jaded lyrics on the spot, rhyming “fame” and “pain” and declaring that “what you like is in the limo.” Lennon added backing vocals and guitar, and the anguished result became Bowie’s first American Number One single. It was such a memorable groove that James Brown lifted the whole thing later that year for his own single “Hot (I Need to Be Loved, Loved, Loved).”
“Young Americans” (1975)
The opening moments of David Bowie’s 1975 LP Young Americans make it abundantly clear that Ziggy Stardust was dead and buried. The title track, which featured a key assist from a young Luther Vandross, was Bowie’s first experiment with Philly soul music. There’s saxophone, background vocals and even a conga player. Some diehard glam rockers were horrified, but the song was brilliant and instantly catchy. After nearly a decade of attempts, it was also Bowie’s first Top 40 hit in America.
“Station to Station” (1976)
Bowie debuted another character, the Thin White Duke (“a nasty character indeed,” Bowie said), on this 1976 Kraut-disco epic that still sounds futuristic today. Bowie was in a cocaine fog at the time and barely remembers recording one of his greatest LPs. The title track is steeped in Buddhist and Christian imagery (Bowie once said that the title alludes to Christ’s stations of the cross) while giving a snapshot of the nasty Duke, a ghoulish aristocrat who seems to have found love in a hedonistic haze (“It’s not the side effects of the cocaine/I’m thinking that it must be love”). It’s his longest studio track ever — and an indicator of his next phase, electronic-influenced music. (He was listening to a lot of Kraftwerk). “As far as the music goes, Low and its siblings were a direct follow-on from [‘Station to Station’],” he said. “It’s often struck me that there will usually be one track on any given album of mine, which will be a fair indicator of the intent of the following album.”
Bowie crossed New Wave with boogie-woogie to produce this bouncy tale of a girlfriend getting swallowed up by his television set, the catchiest tune on 1976’s Station to Station. Over a piano part on loan from Professor Longhair (played here by Roy Bittan of the E Street Band), Bowie sang about the girl who “crawled right in” to his high-tech quadrophonic, “hologramic” TV set, leaving him to watch the tube alone every night, wondering whether he should jump in himself: basically, a rough outline of the story in David Cronenberg’s 1983 movie Videodrome. Bowie paired the words “transition” with “transmission,” and filled them both with the menace of a sci-fi dystopia. In 1985, Bowie performed a brilliant set at Live Aid: playing for the largest TV audience of his life, he naturally opened with this song.
“Sound and Vision” (1977)
Low is such a universally acknowledged classic today that it’s easy to forget how mixed its initial reception was: Rolling Stone‘s original 1977 review sniffed at the “moderately interesting” album, citing a lack of “discipline” in Side Two’s pioneering, Eno-fied instrumentals. But nearly everyone agreed on the genius of lead single “Sound and Vision,” partly because of the clever bait-and-switch embedded in the song. The backing track is peppy enough to feel like an extension of 1975’s Young Americans, all bass strut and funky rhythm. If you heard it at a disco, you’d probably hit the electric slide. Only after you got home the next morning and put the LP on would you take note of the lyrics, which reveal that the song is about the fog of depression: “Pale blinds, drawn all day/Nothing to do, nothing to say,” Bowie sings to the perversely zippy melody. Just like him to sing about writer’s block when he was at his most creative.
The highlight of the dreamy, experimental second side of Low,”Warszawa” was composed with Brian Eno, helping introduce his unique atmospheres and textures into the world of popular music. Possibly more than any Bowie record, the gorgeous, suffocating, sad “Warszawa” and the back end ofLow informed the cutting edges of the next 38 years of underground rock — ambient, industrial, post-rock and avant-garde electronic music. Morose, brooding post-punk band Joy Division were once known as “Warsaw” in tribute.