David Bowie (pronounced /?bo?.i?/; born David Robert Hayward-Jones; 8 January 1947) is an English musician, actor, record producer and arranger. Active in five decades of popular music and frequently reinventing his music and image, Bowie is widely regarded as an innovator, particularly for his work in the 1970s. He has been cited as an influence by many musicians and is known for his distinctive voice and the intellectual depth of his work.
Although he released an album (David Bowie) and several singles earlier, David Bowie first caught the eye and ear of the public in the autumn of 1969, when the song "Space Oddity" reached the top five of the UK singles chart. After a three-year period of experimentation he re-emerged in 1972 during the glam rock era as the flamboyant, androgynous alter ego Ziggy Stardust, spearheaded by the hit single "Starman" and the album The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars. The relatively short-lived Ziggy persona epitomised a career often marked by musical innovation, reinvention and striking visual presentation.
In 1975, Bowie achieved his first major American crossover success with the number-one single "Fame", co-written with John Lennon, and the hit album Young Americans, which the singer identified as "plastic soul". The sound constituted a radical shift in style that initially alienated many of his UK devotees. He then confounded the expectations of both his record label and his American audiences by recording the minimalist album Low—the first of three collaborations with Brian Eno over the next two years. The so-called "Berlin Trilogy" albums all reached the UK Top Five.
After uneven commercial success in the late 1970s, Bowie had UK number ones with the 1980 single "Ashes to Ashes" and its parent album, Scary Monsters (and Super Creeps). He paired with Queen for the 1981 UK chart-topping single "Under Pressure", but reached a commercial peak in 1983 with the album Let's Dance, which yielded the hit singles "Let's Dance", "China Girl", and "Modern Love".
In the BBC's 2002 poll of the 100 Greatest Britons, Bowie ranked 29. Throughout his career he has sold an estimated 136 million albums, and ranks among the ten best-selling acts in UK pop history. In 2004, Rolling Stone magazine ranked him 39th on their list of the 100 Greatest Rock Artists of All Time.
1947–67: Early years
David Bowie was born David Robert Hayward-Jones in Brixton, London to parents who were married in September 1947 shortly after his birth. His mother Margaret Mary "Peggy" (née Burns), of Irish descent worked as a cinema usherette and his father Hayward Stenton "John" Jones was a promotions officer for Barnardo's. Bowie attended a school in Stockwell until he was six years old, when his family moved from Brixton to the suburb of Bromley, Kent, where he attended Bromley Technical High School.
When Bowie was 15-years-old, his friend, George Underwood, wearing a ring on his finger, punched him in the left eye during a fight over a girl. Bowie was forced to stay out of school for eight months so that doctors could conduct operations to repair his potentially blinded eye. Doctors could not fully repair the damage, leaving his pupil permanently dilated. As a result of the injury, Bowie has faulty depth perception. Bowie has stated that although he can see with his injured eye, his colour vision was mostly lost and a brownish tone is constantly present. Each iris has the same blue colour, but since the pupil of the injured eye is wide open, the hue of that eye is commonly mistaken to be different. Despite the fight, Underwood and Bowie remained good friends, and Underwood went on to do the artwork for Bowie's earlier albums.
Bowie's interest in music was sparked at the age of nine when his father brought home a collection of American 45s, including Fats Domino, Chuck Berry and, most particularly, Little Richard. Upon listening to "Tutti Frutti", Bowie would later say, "I had heard God". His half-brother Terry introduced him to modern jazz and Bowie's enthusiasm for players like Charles Mingus and John Coltrane led his mother to give him a plastic saxophone for Christmas in 1959. Graduating to a real instrument, he formed his first band in 1962, the Konrads. He then played and sang in various blues/beat groups, such as The King Bees, The Manish Boys, The Lower Third and The Riot Squad in the mid-1960s, releasing his first record, the single "Liza Jane", with the King Bees in 1964. His early work shifted through the blues and Elvis-inspired music while working with many British pop styles.
During the early 1960s, Bowie was performing either under his own name or the stage name "Davie Jones", and briefly even as "Davy Jones", creating confusion with Davy Jones of The Monkees. To avoid this, in 1966 he chose "Bowie" for his stage name, after the Alamo hero Jim Bowie and his famous Bowie knife. During this time, he recorded singles for Parlophone under the name of The Manish Boys and Davy Jones and for Pye under the name David Bowie (and The Lower Third), all without success.
Bowie released his first album in 1967 for the Decca Records offshoot Deram, simply called David Bowie. It was an amalgam of pop, psychedelia, and music hall. Around the same time he issued a novelty single, "The Laughing Gnome", which utilised sped-up Chipmunk-style vocals. None of these releases managed to chart, and he would not cut another record for two years. His Deram material from the album and various singles was later recycled in a multitude of compilations.
Influenced by the dramatic arts, he studied with Lindsay Kemp—from avant-garde theatre and mime to Commedia dell'arte—and much of his work would involve the creation of characters or personae to present to the world. During 1967, Bowie sold his first song to another artist, "Oscar" (an early stage name of actor-musician Paul Nicholas). Bowie wrote Oscar's third single, "Over the Wall We Go", which satirised life in a British prison. In late 1968, his then-manager, Kenneth Pitt, produced a half-hour promotional film called Love You Till Tuesday featuring Bowie performing a number of songs, but it went unreleased until 1984.
1969–73: Psychedelic folk to glam rock
Bowie's first flirtation with fame came in 1969 with his single "Space Oddity," written the previous year but recorded and released to coincide with the first moon landing. This ballad told the story of Major Tom, an astronaut who becomes lost in space, though it has also been interpreted as an allegory for taking drugs. It became a Top 5 UK hit. Bowie put the finishing touches to the track while living with Mary Finnigan as her lodger. Finnigan and Bowie joined forces with Christina Ostrom and the late Barrie Jackson to run a Folk Club on Sunday nights at The Three Tuns pub in Beckenham High Street, south London. This soon morphed into the Beckenham Arts Lab and became extremely popular. In August 1969, The Arts Lab hosted a Free Festival in a local park, later immortalised by Bowie in his song "Memory of a Free Festival". In 1969 and 1970, "Space Oddity" was used by the BBC during both its Apollo 11 moon landing coverage and its coverage of Apollo 13.
The corresponding album, his second, was released in November 1969 and originally titled David Bowie, which caused some confusion as both of Bowie's first and second albums were released with that name in the UK. In the U.S. the same album originally bore the title Man of Words, Man of Music to overcome that confusion. In 1972, the album was re-released on both sides of the Atlantic by RCA Records as Space Oddity, a title it has kept until today.
In 1970, Bowie released his third album, The Man Who Sold the World, rejecting the acoustic guitar sound of the previous album and replacing it with the heavy rock backing provided by Mick Ronson, who would be a major collaborator through to 1973. Much of the album resembles British heavy metal music of the period, but the album provided some unusual musical detours, such as the title track's use of Latin sounds and rhythms. The original UK cover of the album showed Bowie in a dress, an early example of his androgynous appearance. In the U.S., the album was originally released in a cartoonish cover that did not feature Bowie.
His next record, Hunky Dory in 1971, saw the partial return of the fey pop singer of "Space Oddity", with light fare such as the droll "Kooks". Elsewhere, the album explored more serious themes on tracks such as "Oh! You Pretty Things" (a song taken to UK number twelve by Herman's Hermits' Peter Noone in 1971), the semi-autobiographical "The Bewlay Brothers", and the Buddhist-influenced "Quicksand". Lyrically, the young songwriter also paid unusually direct homage to his influences with "Song for Bob Dylan", "Andy Warhol", and "Queen Bitch", which Bowie's somewhat cryptic liner notes indicate as a Velvet Underground pastiche. As with the single "Changes", Hunky Dory was not a big hit but it laid the groundwork for the move that would shortly lift Bowie into the first rank of stars, giving him four top-ten albums and eight top ten singles in the UK in eighteen months between 1972 and 1973.
Bowie further explored his androgynous persona in June 1972 with the seminal concept album The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars, which presents a world destined to end in five years and tells the story of the ultimate rock star, Ziggy Stardust. The album's sound combined the hard rock elements of The Man Who Sold the World with the lighter experimental rock of Hunky Dory and the fast-paced glam rock pioneered by Marc Bolan's T.Rex. Many of the album's songs have become rock classics, including "Ziggy Stardust," "Moonage Daydream," "Rock & Roll Suicide" and "Suffragette City."
The Ziggy Stardust character became the basis for Bowie's first large-scale tour beginning in 1972, where he donned his famous flaming red mullet and wild outfits, designed by Kansai Yamamoto. The tour featured a three-piece band representing The Spiders from Mars: Ronson on guitar, Trevor Bolder on bass, and Mick Woodmansey on drums. This was Bowie’s first tour to visit the US, making his first appearance on 22 September 1972 at Music Hall in Cleveland, Ohio. The album made number five in the UK on the strength of the number ten placing of the single "Starman". Their success made Bowie a star, and soon the six-month-old Hunky Dory eclipsed Ziggy Stardust, when it peaked at number three on the UK chart. At the same time the non-album single "John, I’m Only Dancing" (not released in the U.S. until 1979) peaked at UK number twelve, and "All the Young Dudes", a song he had given to, and produced for, Mott the Hoople, made UK number three.
Around the same time Bowie began promoting and producing his rock and roll heroes, two of whom he met at the popular New York hangout Max's Kansas City: former Velvet Underground singer Lou Reed, whose solo breakthrough Transformer was produced by Bowie and Ronson; and Iggy Pop, whose band, The Stooges, signed with Bowie's management, MainMan Productions, to record their third album, Raw Power. Though he was not present for the tracking of the album, Bowie later performed its much-debated mix. Bowie sang back-up vocals on both Reed's Transformer, and Iggy's The Idiot.
The Spiders From Mars came together again on Aladdin Sane, released in April 1973 and his first number one album in the UK. Described by Bowie as "Ziggy goes to America", all the new songs were written on ship, bus or trains during the first leg of his US Ziggy Stardust tour. The album's cover, featuring Bowie shirtless with Ziggy hair and a red, black, and blue lightning bolt across his face, has been described as being as "startling as rock covers ever got." Aladdin Sane included the UK number two hit "The Jean Genie", the UK number three hit "Drive-In Saturday", and a rendition of The Rolling Stones' "Let's Spend the Night Together". Mike Garson joined Bowie to play piano on this album, and his solo on the title track has been cited as one of the album's highlights.
Bowie's later Ziggy shows, which included songs from both Ziggy Stardust and Aladdin Sane, as well as a few earlier tracks like "Changes" and "The Width of a Circle", were ultra-theatrical affairs filled with shocking stage moments, such as Bowie stripping down to a sumo wrestling loincloth or simulating oral sex with Ronson's guitar. Bowie toured and gave press conferences as Ziggy before a dramatic and abrupt on-stage "retirement" at London's Hammersmith Odeon on 3 July 1973. His announcement—"Of all the shows on this tour, this particular show will remain with us the longest, because not only is it the last show of the tour, but it's the last show that we'll ever do. Thank you."—was preserved in a live recording of the show, filmed by D. A. Pennebaker and belatedly released under the title Ziggy Stardust - The Motion Picture in 1983 after many years circulating as an audio bootleg.
Pin Ups, a collection of covers of his 1960s favourites, was released in October 1973, spawning a UK number three hit in "Sorrow" and itself peaking at number one, making David Bowie the best-selling act of 1973 in the UK. By this time, Bowie had broken up the Spiders from Mars and was attempting to move on from his Ziggy persona. Bowie's own back catalogue was now highly sought: The Man Who Sold the World had been re-released in 1972 along with the second David Bowie album (Space Oddity). Hunky Dory's "Life on Mars?" was released as a single in 1973 and made number three in the UK, the same year Bowie's novelty record from 1967, "The Laughing Gnome", hit number six.
1974–76: Soul, R&B, and The Thin White Duke
1974 saw the release of another ambitious album, Diamond Dogs, with a spoken word introduction and a multi-part song suite("Sweet Thing/Candidate/Sweet Thing (reprise)"). Diamond Dogs was the product of two distinct ideas: a musical based on a wild future in a post-apocalyptic city, and setting George Orwell's 1984 to music. Bowie also made plans to develop a Diamond Dogs movie, but didn't get very far. Bowie had originally planned on writing a musical to 1984, but his interest waned after encountering difficulties in licensing the novel. He used some of the songs he had written for the project on Diamond Dogs. The album—and an NBC television special, The 1980 Floor Show, broadcast at around the same time—demonstrated Bowie headed toward the genre of soul/funk music, the track "1984" being a prime example. The album spawned the hits "Rebel Rebel" (UK number five) and "Diamond Dogs" (UK number twenty-one), and itself went to number one in the UK, making him the best-selling act of that country for the second year in a row. In the US, Bowie achieved his first major commercial success as the album went to number five.
To follow on the release of the album, Bowie launched a massive Diamond Dogs tour in North America from June to December 1974. Choreographed by Toni Basil, and lavishly produced with theatrical special effects, the high-budget stage production broke with contemporary standard practice for rock concerts by featuring no encores. It was filmed by Alan Yentob for the documentary Cracked Actor. The documentary seemed to confirm the rumours of his cocaine abuse, featuring a pasty and emaciated Bowie nervously sniffing in the backseat of a car and claiming that there was a fly in his milk. Bowie commented that the resulting live album, David Live, ought to have been called "David Bowie Is Alive and Well and Living Only In Theory," presumably in reference to his addled and frenetic psychological state during this period. Nevertheless the album solidified his status as a superstar, going number two in the UK and number eight in the US. It also spawned a UK number ten hit in a cover of "Knock on Wood". After the opening leg of the tour, Bowie mostly jettisoned the elaborate sets. Then, when the tour resumed after a summer break in Philadelphia for recording new material, the Diamond Dogs sound no longer seemed apt. Bowie cancelled seven dates and made changes to the band, which returned to the road in October as the Philly Dogs tour.
For Ziggy Stardust fans who had not discerned the soul and funk strains already apparent in Bowie's recent work, the "new" sound was considered a sudden and jolting step. 1975's Young Americans was Bowie's definitive exploration of Philly soul—though he himself referred to the sound ironically as "plastic soul." It contained his first number one hit in the US, "Fame", co-written with Carlos Alomar and John Lennon (who also contributed backing vocals). It was based on a riff Alomar had developed while covering The Flares' 1961 doo-wop classic "Foot Stompin'", which Bowie's band had taken to playing live during the Philly Dogs period. One of the backing vocalists on the album is a young Luther Vandross, who also co-wrote some of the material for Young Americans. The song "Win" featured a hypnotic guitar riff later taken by Beck for the track/live staple "Debra" off his Midnite Vultures album. Despite Bowie's unashamed recognition of the shallowness of his "plastic soul," he did earn the bona fide distinction of being one of the few white artists to be invited to appear on the popular "Soul Train." Another violently paranoid appearance on ABC's The Dick Cavett Show (1974 5 December) seemed to confirm rumours of Bowie's heavy cocaine use at this time. Young Americans was the album that cemented Bowie's stardom in the U.S.; though only peaking there at number nine, as opposed to the number five placing of Diamond Dogs, the album stayed on the charts almost twice as long. At the same time, the album achieved number two in the UK while a re-issue of his old single "Space Oddity" became his first number one hit in the UK, only a few months after "Fame" had achieved the same in the US.
Station to Station (1976) featured a darker version of this soul persona, called "The Thin White Duke". Visually the figure was an extension of Thomas Jerome Newton, the character Bowie portrayed in The Man Who Fell to Earth. Station to Station was a transitional album, prefiguring the Krautrock and synthesizer music of his next releases, while further developing the funk and soul music of Young Americans. By this time, Bowie had become heavily dependent on drugs, particularly cocaine; many critics have attributed the chopped rhythms and emotional detachment of the record to the influence of the drug, to which Bowie claimed to have been introduced in America. Bowie refused to relinquish control of a satellite, booked for a worldwide broadcast of a live appearance preceding the release of Station to Station, at the request of the Spanish Government, who wished to put out a live feed regarding the death of Spanish Dictator Francisco Franco. His sanity—by his own later admission—became twisted from cocaine: he overdosed several times during the year. Additionally, Bowie was withering physically after having lost an alarming amount of weight.
Nonetheless, there was another large tour, the Isolar - 1976 Tour, which featured a starkly lit set and highlighted new songs such as the dramatic and lengthy title track, the ballads "Wild Is the Wind" and "Word on a Wing", and the funkier "TVC 15" and "Stay". The core band that coalesced around this album and tour—rhythm guitarist Alomar, bassist George Murray, and drummer Dennis Davis—would remain a stable unit through the 1970s. The tour was highly successful but also mired in political controversy. Bowie was quoted in Stockholm as saying that "Britain could benefit from a Fascist leader", and detained by customs in Eastern Europe for possessing Nazi paraphernalia. Matters came to a head in London on 2 May 1976, in what became known as the 'Victoria Station incident', when Bowie arrived in an open-top Mercedes convertible and apparently gave a Nazi salute to the crowd that was captured on film and published in NME. Bowie claimed that the photographer simply caught him in mid-wave, and later blamed his addictions and the character of The Thin White Duke for his troubles at this time.
1976–79: The Berlin era
Bowie's interest in the growing German music scene, as well as his drug addiction, prompted him to move to West Berlin to dry out and rejuvenate his career. Sharing an apartment in Schöneberg with his friend Iggy Pop, he co-produced three more of his own classic albums with Tony Visconti, while aiding Pop with his career. With Bowie as a co-writer and musician, Pop completed his first two solo albums, The Idiot and Lust for Life. Bowie joined Pop's touring band in the spring, simply playing keyboard and singing backing vocals. The group performed in the UK, Europe, and the US from March to April 1977.
The brittle sound of Station to Station proved a precursor to Low, the first of three albums that became known as the "Berlin Trilogy". Partly influenced by the Krautrock sound of Kraftwerk and Neu! Bowie journeyed to Neunkirchen near Cologne to meet the famed German producer Conny Plank. Proto-punk Nick Lowe recorded an EP entitled "Bowi".) The album provided him with a surprise number three hit in the UK when the BBC picked up the first single, "Sound and Vision", as its 'coming attractions' theme music. The album was produced in 1976 and released in early 1977.
Much of the band were present for the first five days only, after which Eno, Alomar and Gardiner remained to play overdubs. By the time Bowie wrote and recorded the lyrics everybody but Visconti and studio engineers had departed. The next record, "Heroes", was similar in sound to Low, though slightly more accessible. The mood of these records fit the zeitgeist of the Cold War, symbolised by the divided city that provided its inspiration. The title track, a story of two lovers who met at the Berlin Wall, is one of Bowie's most-covered songs.
In 1977, Bowie also appeared on the Granada music show Marc, hosted by his friend and fellow glam pioneer Marc Bolan of T.Rex, with whom he had regularly socialised and jammed before either achieved fame. He turned out to be the show's final guest, as Bolan was killed in a car crash shortly afterward. Bowie was one of many superstars who attended the funeral.
For Christmas 1977, Bowie joined Bing Crosby, of whom he was an ardent admirer, at the ATV Television Studio in Herts England to do "Peace on Earth/Little Drummer Boy", a version of "Little Drummer Boy" with a new lyric. The resultant video in a Christmas seasonal setting was actually recorded during a late summer heatwave with the air conditioning breaking down. The two singers had originally met on Crosby's Christmas television special two years earlier (on the recommendation of Crosby's children—he had not heard of Bowie) and performed the song. One month after the record was completed, Crosby died. Five years later, the song would prove a worldwide festive hit, charting in the UK at number three on Christmas Day 1982. Bowie later remarked jokingly that he was afraid of being a guest artist, because "everyone I was going on with was kicking it", referring to Bolan and Crosby.
Bowie and his band embarked on an extensive world tour in 1978 (including his first concerts in Australia and New Zealand) which featured music from both Low and Heroes. A live album from the tour was released as Stage the same year. Songs from both Low and Heroes were later converted to symphonies by minimalist composer Phillip Glass. 1978 was also the year that saw Bowie narrating Sergei Prokofiev's Peter and the Wolf.
Lodger (1979) was the final album in Bowie's so-called "Berlin Trilogy", or "triptych" as Bowie calls it. It featured the singles "Boys Keep Swinging", "DJ" and "Look Back in Anger" and, unlike the two previous LPs, did not contain any instrumentals. The style was a mix of New Wave and world music, which included pieces such as "African Night Flight" and "Yassassin". A number of tracks were composed using the non-traditional Bowie/Eno composition techniques: "Boys Keep Swinging" was developed with the band members swapping their instruments while "Move On" contains the chords for an early Bowie composition, "All The Young Dudes", played backwards; the song "Red Money" took backing tracks from the Iggy Pop/David Bowie composition "Sister Midnight" from Pop's album The Idiot. This was Bowie's last album with Eno until 1. Outside in 1995.
1980–89: From superstar to megastar
In 1980, Bowie did an about-face, integrating the lessons learnt on Low, Heroes, and Lodger while expanding upon them with chart success. Scary Monsters (and Super Creeps) included the number one hit "Ashes to Ashes", featuring the textural work of guitar-synthesist Chuck Hammer, and revisiting the character of Major Tom from "Space Oddity". The imagery Bowie used in the song's music video gave international exposure to the underground New Romantic movement and, with many of the followers of this phase being devotees, Bowie visited the London club "Blitz"—the main New Romantic hangout—to recruit several of the regulars (including Steve Strange of the band Visage) to act in the video, renowned as being one of the most innovative of all time.
While Scary Monsters utilised principles that Bowie had learned in the Berlin era, it was considered by critics to be far more direct musically and lyrically, reflecting the transformation Bowie had gone through during his time in Germany and Europe. By 1980 Bowie had divorced his wife Angie, stopped the drug use of the "Thin White Duke" era, and radically changed his concept of the way music should be written. The album had a hard rock edge that included conspicuous guitar contributions from King Crimson's Robert Fripp, The Who's Pete Townshend, and Television's Tom Verlaine. As "Ashes to Ashes" hit number one on the UK charts, Bowie opened a three-month run on Broadway starring in The Elephant Man on 23 September 1980.
In 1981, Queen released "Under Pressure", co-written and performed with Bowie. The song was a hit and became Bowie's third UK number one single. In the same year Bowie made a cameo appearance in the German movie Christiane F. Wir Kinder vom Bahnhof Zoo, the real-life story of a 13 year-old girl in Berlin who becomes addicted to heroin and ends up prostituting herself. Bowie is credited with "special cooperation" in the credits and his music features prominently in the movie. The soundtrack was released in 1982 and contained a version of "Heroes" sung partially in German that had previously been included on the German pressing of its parent album. The same year Bowie appeared in the BBC's adaptation of Bertolt Brecht's play Baal. Coinciding with transmission of the film, a five-track EP of songs from the play was released as David Bowie in Bertolt Brecht's Baal, recorded at Hansa by the Wall the previous September. It would mark Bowie’s final new release on RCA, as 1983 saw him change record labels from RCA to EMI America. In April 1982, Bowie released "Cat People (Putting Out Fire)" with Giorgio Moroder, for director Paul Schrader's film Cat People.
Bowie scored his first truly commercial blockbuster with Let's Dance in 1983, a slick dance album co-produced by Chic's Nile Rodgers. The title track went to number one in the United States and United Kingdom. The album also featured the singles "Modern Love" and "China Girl", the latter causing something of a stir due to its suggestive promotional video. "China Girl" was a remake of a song which Bowie co-wrote several years earlier with Iggy Pop, who recorded it for The Idiot. In an interview by Kurt Loder, Bowie revealed that the motivation for recording "China Girl" was to help out his friend Iggy Pop financially, contributing to Bowie's history of support for musicians he admired. Let's Dance was also notable as a stepping stone for the career of the late Texan guitarist Stevie Ray Vaughan, who played on the album and was to have supported Bowie on the consequent Serious Moonlight Tour. Vaughan, however, never joined the tour after various disputes with Bowie. Vaughan was replaced by the Bowie tour veteran Earl Slick. Frank and George Simms from The Simms Brothers Band appeared as backing vocalists for the tour.
Bowie's next album was originally planned to be a live album recorded on the Serious Moonlight Tour, but EMI demanded another studio album instead. The resulting album, 1984's Tonight, was also dance-oriented, featuring collaborations with Tina Turner and Iggy Pop, as well as various covers, including one of The Beach Boys' "God Only Knows". The album bore the transatlantic Top Ten hit "Blue Jean" whose complete video — the 21-minute short film "Jazzin' for Blue Jean" - reflected Bowie's long-standing interest in combining music with drama. This video would win Bowie his only Grammy to date, for Best Short Form Music Video. It also featured "Loving the Alien", a remix of which was a minor hit in 1985. The album also has a pair of dance rewrites of "Neighborhood Threat" and "Tonight", old songs Bowie wrote with Iggy Pop which had originally appeared on Lust for Life.
In 1985, Bowie performed several of his greatest hits at Wembley for Live Aid. At the end of his set, which comprised "Rebel Rebel", "TVC 15", "Modern Love" and 'Heroes', he introduced a film of the Ethiopian famine, for which the event was raising funds, which was set to the song "Drive" by The Cars. At the event, the video to a fundraising single was premièred – Bowie performing a duet with Mick Jagger on a version of "Dancing in the Street", which quickly went to number one on release. In the same year Bowie worked with the Pat Metheny Group on the song "This Is Not America", which was featured in the film The Falcon and the Snowman. This song was the centrepiece of the album, a collaboration intended to underline the espionage thriller's central themes of alienation and disaffection.
In 1986, Bowie contributed several songs to as well as acted in the film Absolute Beginners. The movie was not well reviewed but Bowie's theme song rose to number two in the UK charts. He also took a role in the 1986 Jim Henson film Labyrinth, as Jareth, the Goblin King who steals the baby brother of a girl named Sarah (played by Jennifer Connelly), in order to turn him into a goblin. Bowie wrote five songs for the film, the script of which was partially written by Monty Python's Terry Jones.
Bowie's final solo album of the 80s was 1987's Never Let Me Down, where he ditched the light sound of his two earlier albums, instead offering harder rock with an industrial/techno dance edge. The album, which peaked at number six in the UK, contained hit singles "Day In, Day Out", "Time Will Crawl", and "Never Let Me Down". Bowie himself later described it as "my nadir" and "an awful album".
Bowie decided to tour again in 1987, supporting the Never Let Me Down album. The Glass Spider Tour was preceded by nine promotional press shows before the 86-concert tour actually started on 30 May 1987. In addition to the actual band, that included Peter Frampton on lead guitar, five dancers appeared on stage for almost the entire duration of each concert. Taped pieces of dialogue were also performed by Bowie and the dancers in the middle of songs, creating an overtly theatrical effect. Several visual gimmicks were also recreated from Bowie's earlier tours. Critics of the tour described it as overproduced and claimed it pandered to then-current stadium rock trends in its special effects and dancing. However, fans that saw the shows from the Glass Spider Tour were treated to many of Bowie's classics and rarities, in addition to the newer material.
1989–91: Tin Machine
In 1989, for the first time since the early 1970s, Bowie formed a regular band, Tin Machine, a hard-rocking quartet, along with Reeves Gabrels, Tony Sales, and Hunt Sales. Tin Machine released two studio albums and a live record. The band received mixed reviews and a somewhat lukewarm reception from the public, but Tin Machine heralded the beginning of a long-lasting collaboration between Bowie and Gabrels.
The original album, Tin Machine (1989), was a success, holding the number three spot on the charts of the UK. Tin Machine launched its first world tour, featuring a now unshaven David Bowie and additional guitarist Eric Schermerhorn, that year. Despite the success of the Tin Machine venture, Bowie was mildly frustrated that many of his ideas were either rejected or changed by the band.
Bowie began the 1990s with a stadium tour, in which he played mostly his biggest hits. The Sound + Vision Tour (named after the Low single) was conceived and directed by choreographer Edouard Lock of the Quebec contemporary dance troupe La La La Human Steps, with whom Bowie collaborated and performed on stage and in his videos. Bowie vowed during the tour that he would never play his early hits again.
Though he surprised no one when he later reneged on that promise and also on the promise that his set in each country would be focused on the favourite hits voted by phone poll in that country — an idea quickly jettisoned when a campaign by the British magazine NME resulted in a landslide in favour of The Laughing Gnome, it is true that his later tours generally featured few of those hits, and when they appeared, they were often radically reworked in their arrangement and delivery.
Bowie's negative press-image continued when the cover of Tin Machine's second album became unusually controversial, due to the presence of naked statues as its cover art.
After the less successful second album Tin Machine II and the complete failure of live album Tin Machine Live: Oy Vey, Baby, Bowie tired of having to work in a group setting where his creativity was limited, and finally disbanded Tin Machine to work on his own.