1 He was born David Robert Jones on 8 January 1947 in Brixton, south London, the son of Margaret, a waitress, and Haywood Stenton Jones, a former nightclub impresario then running a Dr Barnardo’s children’s home.

2 Fittingly, Bowie shared his birthday with Elvis Presley, Gypsy Rose Lee, the occult novelist Dennis Wheatley, William Hartnell (the first Doctor Who) and the Bowie-like figure of Roy Batty, the post-human “replicant” android of Blade Runner, whose “incept date” of 8 January 2016 was at the very least an intriguing coincidence.

3 The Jones family moved to the suburbs of Bromley, on the London-Kent border, in 1953 where young David acquired a reputation for “vividly artistic” dancing. He went to Bromley technical school.

4 The artist who transformed pop into a futurist sci-fi proposition in the 1970s was as much a child of traditional rock’n’roll as the Beatles. After hearing Tutti Frutti by his lifelong hero Little Richard in 1955, he recalled: “I had heard God.” Aged 15 and now owning a plastic alto saxophone, Jones decided he wanted to make a career in music.

5 David Jones acquired his famous eyes in 1962 when his best friend, George Underwood, punched him during a fracas over a girl. The injury permanently paralysed the muscles in his left iris, creating the illusion of heterochromia or different coloured irises. Jones later thanked the mortified Underwood for “giving him mystique”.

6 Owen Frampton, Bowie’s head of art at Bromley Tech, was the father of Peter Frampton, who played guitar on Bowie’s poorly received Glass Spider tour in 1987.

7 Though eventually one of the most influential artists in music and beyond, Davy Jones, as he was by now, spent most of the 1960s frustratingly chasing trends, enduring a succession of false starts, first with blues-influenced bands such as the Kon-rads, the Manish Boys and the Lower Third, and then as a solo artist.

Listen to an early Davy Jones song

8 At one point he considered leaving music altogether to study mime at Sadler’s Wells.

9 The failure of his eponymous debut album – a “Swinging London” affair that mixed pop, music hall and psychedelia – and its novelty single The Laughing Gnome in 1967 – prompted the newly renamed David Bowie to follow art rather than populism. Enrolling in Lindsay Kemp’s London Dance Centre, he began to explore mime, commedia dell’arte and his sexuality (the two were probably lovers). When Bowie returned to music in 1969 it was as an avant-garde folk flower child.

A painting of David Bowie and John Lennon on shop shutters in Brixton market
A painting of David Bowie and John Lennon on shop shutters in Brixton market. Photograph: Stefan Wermuth/Reuters

10 Though partially written to chime with the first Moon landing, Bowie’s 1969 debut hit, Space Oddity, contains all the themes of Bowie’s future work: alienation, resignation, romantic futurism, cosmic dread and, of course, the recurring figure of Major Tom. This spaced-out spaceman and crucified media victim was possibly named, according to the Bowie scholar Nicholas Pegg, after Brixton music hall regular Tom Major – the father of future prime minister John.

The Man Who Sold the World
The Man Who Sold the World, Bowie’s 1970 album. Photograph: Publicity image

11 Bowie’s next stylistic swerve, into the glam racket of the Spiders from Mars, came about through the hasty recruitment of the Hull guitarist Mick Ronson in February 1970. Bowie and producer Tony Visconti needed a new guitarist and took on Ronson just two days before a prestigious BBC In Concert show. Ronson became Bowie’s greatest foil over the next three years as his music evolved into the full-metal outrage of Ziggy Stardust.

12 The androgynous Bowie of legend came to the fore in 1970 when he wore a flowing dress on the cover of his third album, The Man Who Sold the World, and to attendant interviews.

13 His bisexuality – both real and knowingly created through his personae – became central to his appeal to new generations of outsiders. Bowie planned the notorious Melody Maker interview of January 1972, in which he told Michael Watts “I’m gay and always have been”, as a statement of intent and a land grab for new territory of the mind.

14 By the 1971 album Hunky Dory, Bowie was writing instantly appealing pop songs that drew on dark and esoteric subjects. Oh! You Pretty Things, for instance, repackaged Aleister Crowley’s sinister occult millennialism as a bar-room singalong.

15 Bowie’s breakthrough TV appearance, performing Starman on Top of the Pops on 5 July 1972, shocked mainstream Britain with the singer’s rainbow jumpsuit and homoerotic interplay with Ronson. The fact that to many viewers he was still the Space Oddity one-hit wonder only compounded the impact, and their incredulity.

Bowie on stage as Ziggy Stardust
Bowie on stage as Ziggy Stardust in 1973. Photograph: Michael Putland/Getty Images

16 The song itself was a gleefully shameless cut-and-shut of Marc Bolan’s Hot Love (those na-na-nas) and that anthem of gay culture, Over the Rainbow. Bowie would occasionally intersperse lines from the latter in live performances.

17 The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars is seen as a perfectly formed work of dystopian rock, due in no small part to the apocalyptic drama of opener Five Years. But the concept in this concept album arrived comparatively late in the recording in the form of the title track and Starman.

18 The recurring theme of mental instability in Bowie’s work connects to his half-brother Terry Burns, who was institutionalised with schizophrenia and killed himself on 16 January 1985. Bowie was accused of coldness after Burns’s death but many of his covert references – the heartfelt The Bewlay Brothers, or “I’d rather stay here with all the madmen than perish with the sad men” – could be surprisingly tender and understanding.

19 The Spiders from Mars were completely unaware that Bowie intended to kill off Ziggy live on stage at the Hammersmith Odeon on 3 July 1973. Bassist Trevor Bolder was seen to mouth the words: “He’s fucking sacked us.”

20 From Ziggy Stardust onwards, the personae that Bowie adopted to create his music began to erode the man beneath. “My alter ego wouldn’t leave me alone for years,” he later admitted. “That was when it all started to go sour.”

21 Bowie’s move to the US following Ziggy’s “death” combined an unparalleled creative explosion with equally unparalleled descent into cocaine addiction. Aided by the funk musician Carlos Alomar and a young Luther Vandross, his Young Americans album saw an unexpected diversion into R&B – his “plastic soul” period – just as Bowie became more visibly emaciated and alienated.

22 Fame, his first US No 1, came about when Bowie misheard John Lennon singing over the disco track Shame Shame Shame by Shirley & Company. A last-minute addition to the album with lyrics written in 20 minutes, it summed up Bowie’s paranoid mid-70s predicament to a prescient funk rhythm.

23 Golden Years, from Station To Station, had been intended for Elvis Presley, who rejected it.

24 Though it’s often considered to signal Bowie’s return to Europe, 1976’s turning-point album, Station to Station, was recorded in the psychic wasteland of Los Angeles, where his drug use had driven him further out than ever before. In the formless, cocaine-driven sessions, musicians were called in at any hour and told to play without songs. But the result was a masterpiece of sound-construction over songwriting.

David Bowie’s Thin White Duke persona, 1976.
David Bowie’s Thin White Duke persona, 1976. Photograph: Gijsbert Hanekroot/Redferns

25 The album also introduced Bowie’s most toxic alter ego, the Thin White Duke, an emotionless anorexic superman who echoed Thomas Jerome Newton, the literal alien he had played in Nic Roeg’s The Man Who Fell To Earth.

26 Famously subsisting only on cocaine, milk and red peppers, Bowie fell prey to old paranoid obsessions including UFO cover-ups, nazism and the occult while in Los Angeles. His actual – as opposed to mental – relocation to Berlin in 1976 was in part an attempt to clean up and re-evaluate.

27 It’s likely that his infamous “Nazi salute” at Victoria station on 2 May 1976 was the camera catching his waving hand at an unfortunate moment rather than a conscious Sieg Heil gesture. “I didn’t see anyone walking around saying ‘What a wanker, he gave a Nazi salute’,” recalled the young fan Gary Webb, later Gary Numan. But a morbid fascination with fascism was undeniable during Bowie’s worst cocaine years. In 1974 he had told Playboy that “Adolf Hitler was one of the first rock stars.”

28 The move to Berlin was life-changing for Bowie. Cutting down on the drugs, he developed an interest in German art and worked prolifically with Visconti and Brian Eno, producing his own Berlin Trilogy (Low, Heroes and Lodger) plus flatmate and fellow recoveree Iggy Pop’s The Idiot and Lust For Life.

29 Though formally austere, the minimalist, often instrumental Low and the heavier, fuller Heroes albums were life-affirming and full of new directions – and portents of the new wave that would follow punk. Yet Bowie’s label RCA had attempted to dismiss Low, asking for Young Americans 2 instead.

30 The only one of the Berlin Trilogy to be fully recorded in the city, Heroes captured a time and space in history – West Berlin, the hinge of the cold war – as few rock records ever have. Recorded at Hansa Studios within sight of the Berlin Wall, the record celebrates both doomed, stolen moments of individual freedom, with its images of producer Tony Visconti and his girlfriend kissing by the wall, and the visions of the uncontrollable imagination.

31 Titled with quotation marks to denote the irony of declaring yourself a hero, the song “Heroes” gets its emotional intensity from Visconti’s arrangement. Here Robert Fripp’s guitars and Brian Eno’s electronics rise until Bowie’s voice is fighting against the music – a lone individual against the elements.

32 By 1980, Bowie’s legacy was sufficiently rich that he could call upon his followers for inspiration. For the album Scary Monsters it was the new romantics of London clubland who had turned Bowie’s post-gender self-reinvention into a design for life. The most expensive pop video made to that date – it cost £25,000 – the Ashes to Ashes clip featured Bowie as Pierrot, Major Tom in an HR Giger-style torture chamber and Blitz Kid extras including Steve Strange. “My robe kept catching on the bulldozer,” Strange recalled.

33 Critics have often described Bowie’s acting career as patchy, perhaps because his best achievements are not preserved. His 1980 US stage role as John Merrick in The Elephant Man revealed genuine ability – “his talent was bigger than his ego, which is rare,” said co-star Jeanette Landis – and his well-reviewed starring role in a BBC adaptation of Bertolt Brecht’s Baal survives on YouTube.

34 Under Pressure, his collaboration with Queen, bridges the Art Bowie of the 70s and Commercial Bowie of the 80s – yet at first both parties were unsure whether to release it. “To have his ego mixed with ours was a very volatile mixture,” recalled the Queen guitarist Brian May.

35 Often seen as the beginning of mainstream Bowie, and thus his creative decline, the 1983 album Let’s Dance was planned as a return to the 50s R&B that Bowie had first fallen in love with. Instead it became a heavy-duty 80s dance record and globally his most successful release.

36 Let’s Dance began with another surprise firing of an entire creative team. Visconti waited by the phone for two weeks before discovering that Bowie had recruited Chic’s Nile Rodgers to produce with the unBowielike instruction: “Nile, I really want you to make hits.”

David Bowie plays the Milton Keynes Bowl in 1983 on the Serious Moonlight Tour.
David Bowie plays the Milton Keynes Bowl in 1983 on the Serious Moonlight Tour. Photograph: ITV/Rex/Shutterstock

37 Much derided by those who confuse it with the pretentious bafflement of his subsequent Glass Spider tour, Bowie’s 96-date Serious Moonlight stadium tour in 1983 was hugely acclaimed at the time. It also saw a surprise one-night return by Mick Ronson in Toronto in September.

38 Bowie barely received any direction for his second-most acclaimed acting role, that of Celliers in Merry Christmas Mr Lawrence. Director Nagisa Oshima told his British cast to “do whatever it is that you people do”.

39 The index of Bowie’s creative blockage in the 80s was his lack of new songs. Three of Let’s Dance’s eight tracks were old songs or covers; its disastrous follow-up Tonight was more than 50% ballast. Yet even this, many people’s worst Bowie record, contained a classic: Loving the Alien.

40 See also Absolute Beginners from the largely forgettable film of the same name. Bowie’s last classic of the 1980s was written and recorded in one afternoon with a makeshift band.

41 Bowie had been scheduled to perform Five Years at Live Aid. He dropped the song to allow the BBC to broadcast the famous video of the Ethiopian famine, generating a spike in donations.

Mick Jagger and David Bowie
Mick Jagger and David Bowie at the Cafe Royal in 1973. Photograph: Bettmann/Corbis

42 Bowie teamed up with Mick Jagger for the widely derided Dancing in the Street in 1985 to raise money for Live Aid. The song topped the UK charts for four weeks. In 2011, a survey found it was the song Britons most wanted played at street parties to celebrate the wedding of Prince William to Kate Middleton.

43 Though much mocked at their inception in 1989, Bowie’s deliberately basic, Pixies-inspired four-piece rock band, Tin Machine, at least attempted to anticipate grunge – and gave Bowie one of his lasting collaborators in the form of guitarist Reeves Gabrels.

44 In 1997 he sold $55m (£33m) worth of Bowie Bonds, securitising the future earnings of his 25 pre-1990 albums. The collapse in the value of copyrights after the advent of the Napster file-sharing service drove Bowie Bonds to junk status.

45 In 2001 Bowie recorded a complete album of reworked old songs and new compositions inspired by his youth. Entitled Toy – possibly after the pejorative term for a johnny-come-lately mod – it remains unreleased.

46 His disappearance from public view following his heart attack in 2004 began the most affecting vanishing act in rock history. His final live show was a 2006 charity event where he performed Fantastic Voyage, Wild is the Wind and Changes as a duet with Alicia Keys.

47 Bowie’s stock rose hugely in his absence, making a global news event of his surprise return with The Next Day in 2013. The Victoria and Albert Museum’s retrospective exhibition that same year, David Bowie Is…, became its fastest-selling event ever. The first track to be released from the album – Where Are We Now? – appeared to spring from an appearance in Ricky Gervais’s sitcom Extras in 2006.

49 Though he accepted a Commandeur de l’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres from the French government, Bowie turned down a CBE in 2000, and a knighthood in 2003 with the words: “I seriously don’t know what it’s for.”

49 His final album is – as we all now realise – shot through with intimations of mortality, including Lazarus’s kabbalistic image of the spirit rising and the promo photos with buttons/coins on Bowie’s eyes. The title of the final track sums up his entire career: I Can’t Give Everything Away.

50 In early January 2016, Brian Eno received an email from Bowie. It read “Thank you for our good times, Brian. They will never rot,” and was signed “Dawn”. “I realise now,” Eno wrote, “that he was saying goodbye.”

• This article was amended on 12 January 2016. An earlier version incorrectly said that Golden Years was taken from Young Americans, instead of Station To Station, and that Bowie failed his 11-plus. The article was further amended on 19 January 2016. An earlier version said a recording of Baal no longer survives; it is available on YouTube.


Andrew Harrison

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
David Bowie's catharsis in divided Berlin revealed in adapted V&A show
V&A's fastest-selling show to open in Berlin – a city that has had a profound effect on the singer's music and thinking

Josie Le Blond in Berlin

02, Mar, 2014 @1:26 PM

Article image
David Bowie is – review
The V&A's riotously cluttered and pleasantly bewildering show attempts to pin down one of the most intriguing and elusive figures in popular culture, writes Peter Conrad

Peter Conrad

24, Mar, 2013 @12:05 AM

Article image
Nile Rodgers: 'The first time I listened to David Bowie I was naked on a Miami beach'
The producer of Let’s Dance, Bowie’s biggest-selling album, asked the singer if he’d made it too funky. ‘Is there such a thing?’ he replied

Nile Rodgers

11, Jan, 2016 @9:49 PM

Article image
David Bowie retrospective at the V&A announced
Museum has chosen around 300 items from Bowie's vast private archive in New York for a major retrospective next spring

Mark Brown, arts correspondent

04, Sep, 2012 @6:05 PM

Article image
Ashes to ashes: time to lay David Bowie nostalgia to rest
Jonathan Jones: The capital is beset by art exhibitions idolising Ziggy's creator. But when I was recently bereaved I realised that Bowie's songs have nothing universal to say

Jonathan Jones

25, Apr, 2013 @12:09 PM

Article image
David Bowie Is: read Tilda Swinton's speech at V&A exhibition launch

Actor thanks 'every alien's favourite cousin' at opening of show dedicated to Bowie's career

Guardian music

22, Mar, 2013 @11:53 AM

Article image
David Bowie Aladdin Sane photograph gifted to V&A museum
Archive of photographer Brian Duffy donates print to museum that held record-breaking show

Mark Brown

20, Jun, 2018 @7:30 PM

Article image
V&A exhibition shows how David Bowie shaped fashion history

The Starman leotards and Ziggy Stardust bodysuit are still dazzling, but tailoring is the real star of this show

Jess Cartner-Morley

18, Mar, 2013 @7:00 AM

Article image
Queen’s platinum jubilee concert 2022: the Platinum Party at the Palace – as it happened
One of the showpiece events for the platinum jubilee is a concert with Queen, Diana Ross, Elton John and more

Stuart Heritage

04, Jun, 2022 @9:51 PM

Article image
Watch that man: V&A lands huge archive of David Bowie memorabilia
Public will have access to more than 80,000 items from the star’s handwritten lyrics to set designs in dedicated new centre

Harriet Sherwood Arts and culture correspondent

23, Feb, 2023 @6:01 AM