Our Artists in Focus series continues with appreciating both the musical and social contributions made by a number of artists on our repertoire.

This week’s blog focuses on David Bowie's ever-changing artistic output and his unique performance style.

As a musician who shaped the world of pop music as we know it today, Bowie's influence is only rivalled by Michael Jackson, The Beatles, James Brown and Madonna. He refused to stand still, constantly upping his game to reinvent not only his music, but also his stagecraft and the visual art that made him far more than 'just' a singer. His music, whether it be recorded at the height of his 1970s creativity or in his final years as he mused on his own mortality, sounds as relevant and fresh as ever, and marks him out as arguably the great musician of the twentieth century.

Brixton born

Born in Brixton, South London, just down the road from our Head Office in Teddington, it wasn't until the age of 15 that Bowie formed his first band. At this point he was living in Bromley and began listening to Chuck Berry, Little Richard, and Elvis Presley, all of whom would help to foster his distinctive style of showmanship.

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The David Bowie that sits just on Tunstall Road, just round the corner from Brixton station and near to where Bowie grew up.

It was also while living in Bromley that Bowie acquired one of his most striking physical attributes: his iris which appeared to change colour. Bowie got this injury in a fight at school when a boy punched him in the eye. After months of hospitalisation, he was left with impaired depth perception and an iris that seemed to change colour.

His fascination with performing continued when studying at the London Dance Centre, which he enrolled at in 1967. There, under the tutelage of Lindsay Kemp, Bowie's interest in commedia dell'arte, mime, and avant-garde theatre all helped to fuel his creativity when later creating the various personas such as Aladdin Sane and Ziggy Stardust that would become synonymous with his music.

From Ziggy to 'Blackstar'

Indeed, the guise of Ziggy Stardust helped the so-called "Cult of Bowie" to gather pace. After albums such as the eponymous 'David Bowie', 'Hunky Dory', and 'The Man Who Sold the World', whose title track features on our grade 3 Acoustic syllabus, he emerged with the Ziggy Stardust persona. Created as a melding of Iggy Pop and Lou Reed to be a "plastic rock and roller", in Bowie's own words, he would prove to be one of his greatest artistic achievements, and helped to spearhead the success of his album 'Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars'.

In an extract from an interview with Rolling Stone, Bowie discusses Ziggy's purpose:

“Ziggy is advised in a dream by the infinites to write the coming of a starman … this amazing spaceman who will be coming down to save the Earth. [He] starts to believe in all this himself and thinks himself a prophet of the future starmen. He takes himself up to the incredible spiritual heights and is kept alive by his disciples. When the infinites arrive, they take bits of Ziggy to make themselves real, because in their original state they are anti-matter and cannot exist on our world. And they tear him to pieces onstage during the song ‘Rock ‘n’ Roll Suicide.'”

Ziggy-mania began to take hold as fans across the globe grew enchanted by Bowie and his band. There began to be a blurring of lines between David and Ziggy for both the public and Bowie himself, yet he admitted that after an initial identity crisis he "woke up pretty quickly".

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'The Man Who Sold The World' features on the Rockschool Grade 3 acoustic syllabus.

This metatheatrical edge to Bowie's creative output was neatly tied together in his final studio album, 'Blackstar', which was released a mere two days before his death from liver cancer. The lead single, 'Lazarus', opens with the lyrics:

Look up here, I'm in heaven

I've got scars that can't be seen

This is a hugely poignant start to the song given Bowie's illness, which was kept concealed from the world as his health deteriorated. The album enjoyed huge popular and critical acclaim and was considered a parting gift from Bowie before he passed away.

Glasto 2000

Like Beyoncé, as discussed in last week's Artists in Focus blog, Bowie is a natural born performer who sought to provide his audience with a live spectacle that encompassed a number of styles and art forms beyond purely singing.

Bowie's creative output was constant throughout his life, but he did spend less time in the public eye as he grew older. This didn't diminish his star power, though, as proved by his headline set at Glastonbury 2000. Just as rapturous crowds followed his early days as he toured across the UK, America, and beyond, his later performances were met with a similar sense of awe and enrapture.

If the frock coat in this clip isn't enough effortless cool for you, then the eerie reimagining of the introduction to one of his biggest hits, 'Let's Dance', might just be enough to convince you of Bowie's star power. Available on BBC iPlayer at the time of writing, it's definitely one of the all-time classic Glasto performances. 'Let's Dance' can be found on our grade 4 drums syllabus with the iconic hits and big snare sound making it a hugely fun piece to play for drummers of all ages!

If you enjoyed this blog, be sure to share it and check out last week’s blog on the peerless Beyoncé, while you can learn more about the Rockschool repertoire here.

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