The internet is currently abuzz with rumours of an impending new album by Radiohead, four years since their last, King of Limbs. Meanwhile Kanye West fans are keeping their fingers crossed that this is the year his new album will finally be finished and released after 3 years of preparation. This kind of release schedule is not uncommon, indeed some bands would have seen this as positively hectic! The Stone Roses took five years to follow up their debut album, Guns ‘n’ Roses took a colossal 15 years and Portishead took 11. The punk explosion of the late 70s developed at a furious pace, for example The Stranglers released their first two albums in 1977 while The Jam brought out their first four albums in three years. Neither could sustain this pace though, The Jam going on to cite this as a time they almost burned out. So what drove David Bowie to release 11 albums in 9 years, particularly when this period covered his rise to stardom, tours of the U.K. And US, new bands, new directions and film roles.
Starting with Space Oddity (Actually his second consecutive album called David Bowie, it was re-released in ’72 with a new title following his success with Ziggy Stardust), Bowie grew from an artist struggling to find an identity and chasing success to one of the world’s biggest and most credible stars. The album itself features classics such as the title track, A Letter to Hermione and Memory of a Free Festival. Not perhaps the Bowie that is now engrained into public consciousness, but after the failure of his debut album, the real David Bowie had seemingly emerged.
1973 saw The Man Who Sold the World, perhaps more memorable for the cover featuring Bowie in a dress, at least until it was hastily replaced with a cover more likely to have broader appeal. The album did not sell well, despite being Bowie’s first album with both Mick Ronson and Tony Visconti, but greater things were ahead. In the following year came the first classic Bowie album – Hunky Dory. Featuring Life on Mars, Queen Bitch and Andy Warhol, Hunky Dory was Bowie fully realised and ready to conquer the world. Following the release of The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars, this is precisely what happened. Ziggy made Bowie a global superstar, and with superstardom came the pressures of fame. The promotional tour ran from 1972 – 73, with venues increasing in size as Bowie’s star rose ever higher, often selling out two or three consecutive nights in the same venue. Somehow in the midst of all this, he managed to find the time to not only write and record Aladdin Sane, but to release Pin Ups, an album of cover versions – the main reason for the latter being that his management company, Mainman were going broke.
The following year, Diamond Dogs opened with a cry of “This ain’t rock ’n’ roll, this is genocide!” and the sound of Bowie cutting his ties to glam rock. Rebel Rebel was the big single from the album, a classic glam rock strut, but Bowie already had his eyes on the future. 1975 saw him follow up his damaged glam rock with a sharp turn into soul & R&B. Perhaps pre-empting his critics, Bowie described Young Americans as “the definitive plastic soul record” Fame nevertheless gave Bowie his first US number one. Bowie somehow finding the time to star in The Man Who fell to Earth in the same year, providing some of his most enduring images. 1976’s Station to Station saw further progression and Golden Years provided another top ten US hit, although Bowie claimed to have no memory of making the album due to his prodigious cocaine intake. Drugs and paranoia were running rampant, with Bowie's band being shocked at the sheer volume of cocaine he got through in a day, telling of imminent fascist uprisings and, in one memorable incident, closing the curtains during an interview as he thought he’d seen a body fall from the sky. Clearly something had to change.
To regroup, Bowie moved to Berlin along with his wife Angie and Iggy Pop and engaged in perhaps the high water mark of his creativity. 1977 saw Bowie release both Low and Heroes alongside producing The Idiot and Lust for Life for Iggy. There is an argument that Bowie is only as good as the people he collaborates with, but it seems that in Berlin he and Iggy, along with Brian Eno and Tony Visconti, spurred each other on to new heights and new ideas, with both producing perhaps their career highlights. Bowie also found time to play keyboards in Iggy’s tour to promote his albums, refusing to give any interviews on the tour, as he insisted that this as Iggy’s tour, not his. The following year, 1978, was the first year without at least one new Bowie album since 1969, an incredible run, especially given the circumstances. Still to come were Lodger, Scary Monsters and his most commercially successful album, Let’s Dance in what is without doubt one of the most impressive back catalogues in music.
In these days of X Factor overload, where singers seemingly must have accompanying sob stories and where it is apparently acceptable for an artist to want to win a recording contract purely to ‘make a better life’ (i.e. win a lot of money) for themselves and their family, it is worth reflecting on the drive that Bowie obviously had and how it defines an artist. The odious cry of wanting a better life is simply not a good enough reason to make records or call yourself an artist. Bowie made records at such a furious rate because he had something in him that demanded to be brought into the light, because he had a creative urge that led him to make his music and because he had a desire to create, not (Pin Ups perhaps excepted) because he wanted to make money or win approval.
So while we’re waiting for the next Radiohead album to arrive (and personally I can’t wait to see what it is they do next), let’s maybe wonder how they would fare if they tried to match Bowie’s work ethic and produce 11 albums in less than a decade.
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