On the eve of a much anticipated comeback album and a major new retrospective at the V&A, SFX salutes the geek credentials of rock music’s greatest living Martian. Turn and face the strange…
“THERE’S A STARMAN, WAITING IN THE SKY…” Who is David Bowie? He’s the lightning flash-faced heir to HG Wells, Arthur C Clarke and JG Ballard, writing an anthology’s worth of SF stories in song form. 1969’s breakthrough hit Space Oddity is a Kubrick-indebted fable for the Apollo age, charting the melancholy orbit of abandoned space pioneer Major Tom; Oh! You Pretty Things tells of the inescapable rise of Homo Superior, a mutant strain of young dudes poised to claim the world (Bowie discussed the song with TV producer Roger Price, who repurposed the term Homo Superior for cult ‘70s show The Tomorrow People – though Bowie, a Marvel fan, doubtlessly cadged it from Lee & Kirby’s The Uncanny X-Men); Drive-In Saturday, meanwhile, is a portrait of a post-apocalyptic civilisation who turn to antique films to rekindle their sex lives (“It’s hard enough to keep formation/amid this fall-out saturation…”). 1972’s Starman is the key text, though: the tale of an alien messiah making contact with mankind over night-crackling radio waves, it found Bowie descending on the nation’s living rooms like some dad-baiting glam rock mothership. His immortal Top of The Pops performance presented a pan-sexual stick-insect in a comic book jumpsuit, a cadaverous Pied Piper for every disenfranchised dreamhead marooned in the charcoal cul-de-sacs of British suburbia. Riding currents of “hazy cosmic jive”, he was a genuine shudder of the uncanny among the slap-daubed, lycra-bursting brickies who routinely stomped around the Pops studio. The rise – and fall – of Ziggy Stardust had begun.
“ANY DAY NOW… THE YEAR OF THE DIAMOND DOGS!” Bowie wanted to stage a musical version of George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, fusing rock, roll and totalitarian rule. Orwell’s estate baulked, but explicit echoes of this doomed project remain on classic 1974 album Diamond Dogs, not least in such song titles as Big Brother and 1984. Elsewhere Bowie fashions a feral, post-apocalyptic Earth of his own design, a Clockwork Orange-inspired dystopia rich in ruined carnival detail, where “red mutant eyes” flash their menacing gaze at the lethal streets of Hunger City and “ten thousand peoploids split into small tribes/coveting the highest of the sterile skyscrapers”. Oh, and there are “fleas the size of rats” and “rats the size of cats”, just for good measure. The scariest future in rock.
“THEY’RE STUCK! I’LL NEVER GET THEM OFF!” Bowie dreamed of bringing Robert Heinlein’s Stranger In A Strange Land to the screen but ended up in The Man Who Fell To Earth, Nic Roeg’s enigmatic adaptation of a comparably themed novel by Walter Tevis. He’s immaculately cast as Thomas Jerome Newton, an exiled, cat-eyed extra-terrestrial from a dying world, come to Earth in search of water and ultimately corroded by alcohol and information overload (the enduring image of Newton hooked on a relentless drip-feed of televisions absolutely foreshadows our own media-drenched age – just imagine the scale of his Twitter addiction…). Bowie’s glacial, insectile charisma was a perfect fit for this most alienated of aliens and he clung to the character during his cocaine-numbed LA lost years, placing images of Newton on the covers of Low and Station To Station. And fair enough – it was officially the greatest haircut he ever had, after all.
“WHAT A FANTASTIC DEATH ABYSS!” 1995, and Bowie’s in retreat from the stadium-conquering populism of his peroxide-powered ‘80s. In jealous debt to the uncompromising weirdness of fellow icon Scott Walker, the album 1.Outside aims to reposition the fallen Mr Showbiz as an edgy cult artist, on the scabrous margins of the mainstream (the clue’s in the album title). It’s a dark, demanding concept piece, following near-future gumshoe Nathan Adler as he investigates a slaughterous new craze sweeping the art world. Subtitled “The Ritual Art-Murder of Baby Grace Blue: A non-linear Gothic Drama Hyper-Cycle” – by chance also the name of the next Olly Murs album – it’s an uneasy collision between the tech-noir of Blade Runner and the grisly viscera of Se7en and comes with a deeply inscrutable text story written by Bowie himself. Part of a trilogy that never was, it’s an album that leaks pre-millennial dread like blood from the wounded corpse of one of its ritual murder victims. And still the crowd cried for China Girl at the concerts…
“IT’S THE FREAKIEST SHOW” What other rock star can lay claim to christening two cult TV shows? Named for the greatest song Bowie ever wrote – that’s a fact, and you can look it up in books – Life On Mars followed the saga of time-lost copper Sam Tyler, forcibly relocated to the Brut-splashed fag-fug of the ‘70s, while sequel show Ashes To Ashes took its title from Bowie’s 1980 number one (and riffed on the imperishable visual of Bowie as a post-apocalyptic Pierrot in that song’s video). The final episode of Ashes finds plain clothes Anti-Christ Jim Keats phoning a superior named Dave – an ad lib on the part of actor Danny Mays that suggests a rather more chilling connection between David Bowie and the show’s retro-styled afterlife…
“SARAH, BEWARE…” For a generation of hormonally-fizzing young girls, 1986’s Labyrinth is an unforgettable introduction to David Bowie. He may be rocking a frightful fright-wig but this codpieced, crystal ball-twirling Goblin King is a potently alluring figure – a gateway freak, a first glimpse of the darker, lustier world waiting beyond those boy band posters on the bedroom wall. “I thought, what the hell, I’ve done Laughing Gnome,” said Bowie of his turn in this Muppetational collaboration between the empires of Jim Henson and George Lucas. “Might as well go all the way. I never thought in twenty years I’d come back to working with gnomes.”
“I THOUGHT YOU DIED ALONE, A LONG, LONG TIME AGO…” We are the undead… The midnight movie of choice for ageing goths everywhere, 1983’s The Hunger is a Tony Scott-helmed slab of style mag horror, loosely adapting Whitley Streiber’s novel. Scott cast Bowie as an immortal cellist, the centuries-defying consort of a vampiric Catherine Deneuve. He wins the most memorable scene in the film, ageing to death in a doctor’s waiting room. Bowie possibly rued entering the horror genre: “I must say, there’s nothing that looks like it on the market,” he said at the time. “But I’m a bit worried that it’s just perversely bloody at some points.”
“I FOUND SOMETHING… AND THEN THERE THEY WERE!” Bowie delivers a cherishably baffling cameo in Twin Peaks Fire Walk With Me, David Lynch’s equally unfathomable big screen take on his own cult murder mystery show. He’s FBI agent Phillip Jeffries, a reality-bothering Fed who steps out of an elevator two years after vanishing from existence. A seemingly spectral figure, invisible to the naked eye but detectable on CCTV, Jeffries imparts some impenetrable but ominous warnings then promptly disappears again (possibly to spend a decade working on a new album in secret). “My character is an intensely over-travelled upholder of the law,” said Bowie, who confessed to stealing the belt that Jeffries wore. “He has seen too much and has little ability to do much about it. Not dissimilar to the perspective of a rock god, really.”
“MORNING STAR, YOU’RE BEAUTIFUL” The man who fell to Earth is a fallen angel too. Just take a look at Lucifer Morningstar in Sandman – the former lord of Hell is modelled directly on David Bowie, at writer Neil Gaiman’s insistence. “Neil was adamant that the Devil was David Bowie,” revealed artist Kelley Jones in Joseph McCabe’s book Hanging Out With The Dream King. “He just said, ‘He is. You must draw David Bowie. Find David Bowie, or I’ll send you David Bowie. Because if it isn’t David Bowie, you’re going to have to redo it until it is David Bowie.’ So I said, ‘Okay, it’s David Bowie…’”
THE FRINGE CONNECTION Ever suspect that there’s a serious Bowiephile on the Fringe creative team? The show’s first season found Olivia and the Bishops facing a criminal bio-tech specialist named David Robert Jones – Bowie’s real name, before he filched the surname of Jim Bowie, creator of the Bowie knife (though there’s speculation that choice may in fact have been inspired by British special effects man Les Bowie, whose credit on the likes of The Quatermass Xperiment must surely have been scrutinised by a young, SF-devouring David Jones in some Bromley fleapit). We’re later introduced to Thomas Jerome Newton, resurrected leader of the shapeshifters – fitting, given Bowie’s relentlessly chameleonic career. Oh, and the episode “Five-Twenty-Ten” shows us a copy of The Man Who Sold The World belonging to Walter, possibly the only man alive to have done more drugs than David Bowie in the 1970s.
“FREAK OUT IN THE MOON AGE DAYDREAM” David Bowie’s most lasting contribution to geekdom may just be his son, Duncan. Inspiration for Kooks, the single sweetest song in the Bowie canon, director Duncan Jones has brought rare heart and intelligence to cinematic SF, moving from the faithfully old school trappings of Moon to the reality-tangling action beats of Source Code. Now, ambitiously, he’s preparing to bring the keyboard-wrestling kingdoms of World Of Warcraft to the screen. By his own admission, he was marinaded in fantasy from an early age, lapping up 2000 AD alongside his dad’s choice in literary greats. “If I like science fiction, it’s his fault to an extent,” Jones told French music magazine Les Inrocks. “He read me stories just like you give sweets to a child. If I didn’t like them, we changed to another book and it always finished up with Philip K Dick, George Orwell or John Wyndham.” Bowie Snr also encouraged his son’s interest in filmmaking, staging Super 8 epics with Smurfs and Star Wars action figures on the kitchen table while the world believed he was lost in a hedonistic blur with Iggy Pop. Seems the creative exchange is mutual: Where Are We Now wasn’t just the title of Bowie’s media-melting comeback single; those are also the first words we see on screen in Moon…
The Next Day by David Bowie is released in the UK on March 11.