October 14, 2011 10:14 pm

The Man Who Sold the World

How David Bowie came to dominate a decade

On July 20 1969, the BBC decided to mark the moon landing of Apollo 11 by giving its first airing of a new single by the relatively unknown singer-songwriter David Bowie.

It was either an inspired piece of mischief or just plain dumb. “Space Oddity” was no celebration of humanity’s lunar ambitions. While the rest of the world, myself included, stared awestruck into space, Bowie’s Major Tom was in less rapturous mood: “Planet Earth is blue, And there’s nothing I can do.”

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Peter Aspden

This alienated lament was the first song of the 1970s, the decade when all that trippy idealism came back to haunt us. That is how Peter Doggett sees it in this intelligent and readable study of Bowie’s subsequent work during that troubled time.

Doggett openly lifts his format from Ian MacDonald’s brilliant study of the Beatles’ songs, Revolution in the Head (1994), which analysed each of the group’s tracks in intricate detail. That is both a bold ambition on the author’s part and a tribute to Bowie himself – only a handful of pop artists’ work could withstand that kind of scrutiny.

That is not to say that Doggett’s task is straightforward. MacDonald’s book was propelled by its inevitable focus on the relationship between John Lennon and Paul McCartney. Not the least of its charms was that it was a kind of love story. The social context in which the Beatles flowered was also less complicated. We grew our hair and talked a lot about love and peace. But Bowie’s decade was darker, feistier, impenetrable.

The vaguely Edenic visions of the hippy movement gave way to a multi-layered view of the world. Bowie seemed instinctively to imbibe the new spirit. As Doggett observes, by the time of “Space Oddity”, his breakthrough work, Bowie had already been through a dizzying number of phases: the Anthony Newley imitator, the soul-blues mod, the avant-garde rock experimentalist, the crooner, the Edwardian revivalist, the purveyor of children’s novelty tunes, the mime artist, the actor, the folk musician.

What Bowie had in common with the Beatles was a relentless appetite for constant renewal. The five years that took him from the homely pop of Hunky Dory to Low’s “peaceful cacophony of feedback and noise” were almost as remarkable as the journey from “She Loves You” to “A Day in the Life”.

Like many of my peers, I regarded Bowie’s first Top of the Pops appearance, singing “Starman”, with almost as much wonderment as the lunar landing.

He arrived fully formed – confident, knowing, accomplished – and yet malleable, gleefully mixing pop culture references (the cover of his The Man Who Sold the World album had been a “parody of Gabriel Rossetti”; its lyrics were updates of Nietzsche), even while planning for the immaculately staged killing of his Ziggy Stardust persona and the invention of new guises. They came thick and fast. The soul boy of Young Americans, the nostalgic alien of Nic Roeg’s The Man Who Fell to Earth, the drug-ravaged Thin White Duke of the Station to Station tour. But the difference between Bowie’s self-manufacturing and that of The X Factor generation, says Doggett, is that Bowie used artifice and irony as weapons in his exploration of deeper social and political issues.

Bowie wrote his own ending to the decade he dominated. In 1980’s “Ashes to Ashes” Major Tom was a junkie, still lonely, still alienated, “strung out in heaven’s high, hitting an all-time low”.

The murder of John Lennon that year forced Bowie to reassess the price of fame and weeks later he left New York for Switzerland. He didn’t make another record for three years. By the time he returned he was toned, tanned and tamed. And popular music was never quite the same again.

Peter Aspden is the FT’s arts writer

The Man Who Sold the World: David Bowie and the 1970s, by Peter Doggett, Bodley Head, RRP£20, 400 pages

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