David Bowie’s role in music was one of the weightiest to ever come careening into western culture as we know it today. His death, concluding a concealed 18-month battle with cancer, is astonishing not only for that, but because of its seemingly intentional concurrence with the release of Blackstar – now framed as one of the bleakest pop releases perhaps ever. Here at Pelican we’re all a bit stunned and sad after this loss. We thought we’d have the editing team take a look back at a handful of their favourite songs from Bowie’s lengthy, theatrical, brazen, downright prolific career as a coping mechanism.
– Harry Manson
Sound and Vision, Low (1977) – Harry Manson
Sound and Vision might be the most concisely epic song ever written – in just three minutes Bowie and the crew he had on board for Low take an instantly approvable guitar line to its logical conclusion, setting off on a journey through an evolving, memorable mix of cascading organs, saxophones and vocal hooks without ever looking back. It’s like the band jammed this thing out for as long as possible until they’d discovered every possible great melody that could go over it, then cut it all the way down so that all of them got a just single moment in the spotlight. Once they’ve all played, it just ends. It’s so simple yet still so peerless.
Starman, The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust (1972) – Jaymes Durante
It’s July 6 1973 and David Bowie’s on Top of the Pops. He’s in full hair and make-up and a kaleidoscopic fabric onesie, and he’s singing Starman. “I had to phone someone so I picked on you-ou-ou”, he sings. He points to the camera and smirks in a way that invites you to join him. When skinny, weird, slightly effeminate 15-year-old me saw that clip, he felt a rigid gender binary splinter into a spectrum. Bowie made the world safe for the strange and wonderful. Starman’s his pledge to intergalactic freedom. It’s an expansive anthem for difference, an encouragement to embrace your own alien identity. What a way to change the world! — not with altruism or revolt, but with a hazy, cosmic jive that made the children (that you spit on) boogie, and one that you could sing with your Dad. He asked us to sparkle and we haven’t stopped.
Rock ‘N’ Roll Suicide, The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust (1972) – Tom Rossiter
Celebrity deaths are a classic excuse for introspection. Even if we don’t know them personally, somehow, their work and lives make them feel like old friends. We mourn the death of a man who made us feel so many things. I first heard Rock ‘N’ Roll Suicide when I was about 13 – I had few friends, but could, at any time listen to this singer, telling me I wasn’t alone, and that I was wonderful. David Bowie was for me – and for many others like me – a source of immense and invaluable comfort. Bowie made it okay to be weird. He was a man of singular beauty, both physically and spiritually. To say he will be missed is a severe understatement.
Space Oddity, Space Oddity (1969) – Kate Prendergast
It was with great difficulty that I chose this song over Magic Dance, as was deeply imprinted upon me and sung by Goblin King Bowie and his magical bulge in Jim Henson’s flop-to-cult-classic 1986 Labyrinth. In that manifestation and every other he took, he was the alien alterity, the genius babe, with all the power of the stylized arch strange.
Bowie was always bending and shoving and reworking the forms to make it look like a kind of wizardry; this cool renegade poly-artist of a pale gentleman, somehow out of Brixton. He was a twist of all the elements; and he never ceased slamming together new ones to add to his own freaky chemical table of culture, right up until his final days. I haven’t heard the whole of his new album yet, and I imagine it will be a surreal and painful experience when I do. Although for a time he got caught up with the finances (fuck you Defries) and the drugs (making him a Diamond Dog insect soaking up the super-condensed milk of the #famed#charmed life), he still always seemed to know where he was at. It was this kind of truthful hunger and smarts which saw his career find crucial jet-fuel with Space Oddity – a song of 1969, released just days before Armstrong and crew took a stroll about some moon fields. Building and riffing on Kubrick’s thunderously majestic 2001, this song gets me with its story – its feels of alienation, isolation, high-octane and no-octane powerlessness as told through the peculiarly floating Major Tom, poor dude.
I know it’s a conventional pick. And I’m not going to pretend to know more than a scatterment about the legend and his work. There is always the risk of tinnily chiming into the all-resounding dirge that follows the death of a such a tremendously influential figure, and I’m forever wary of being a facetious “grief groupie” at such times. But I remain in enormous awe of the man, I grew up with his music drifting in and out around me, and there are at this moment many soggy tissues glugging up the carpet about my slowly-swiveling swivel chair. RIP Davy Jones, and thank you for teaching us the freedom, joy and courage of doing difference.
[30 minutes later] Favourite changed to Five Years.
[5 hours later] Favourite changed to Absolute Beginners.
[8 hours later] Having to choose just one favourite is cruel.
Sorrow, Pin Ups (1973) – Samuel J. Cox
Listening to Bowie led me to discard my God and throw away my inhibitions to indulge in the excesses of the flesh: day drinking & dancing all night and being insolent. Of all his work, I hold this song most dear because the sax that lights up midway through this tune was what inspired me to pick up the horn~
Thnks fr th mmrs.
Cat People, Let’s Dance (1983) – Bryce Newton
My favourite David Bowie song is Cat People, which I later learned was the theme song of an erotic horror film produced by Jerry Bruckheimer. Despite this new knowledge (and the fact I’ve never watched said film) the song has always been associated with feelings of strength due to his soul-wrenching baritone embrace that makes me feel like I can achieve the impossible (finishing assignments, power walking). I will always hold dear my fondest Bowie memories from his role in Labyrinth. A film which I always found too frightening as a child (judged only by the VHS cover). David Bowie was a visionary, musical wizard, and master of his time. Indisputably, he is one of the best artists that has graced this earth and an integral influence in the making of modern music.
Heroes, “Heroes” (1977) – Ruth Thomas
I remember when I was 19 and my friend gave me a mix CD of songs she thought I’d like; in doing so she gave me my first encounter with Bowie, and with “Heroes”. The romantic in me has never been able to resist a melancholic love song, and this story of a couple kissing by the Berlin Wall is so perfectly beautiful, and just a touch sad. That damn man’s voice gets me every time – and when it goes from the deep vocals in the first half to the earnest crooning in the second, I die. Vale Bowie. Love you forever. Will dance and think of you xxx
Five Years, The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust (1972)
Five Years will always be my favourite Bowie track. The world is coming to an end, people are crying, your mind is bursting at the possibility of all that can be taken from you. But all you can think about is this girl at an ice cream parlour, “smiling and waving and looking so fine”. To me it says a lot about the nature of love. The world could be literally falling apart but it still captivates you. Maybe I’ve missed some deeper meaning, but that, and the wonderful way that the whole track just slowly burns toward that desperate, raspy chorus at the end– it lifts me and dumps me in waves every time I listen to it.