It says something about the potency and precision of David Bowie’s star power that the singer’s vocal performances are often overlooked. So famed for his frighteningly authentic and unique style and his outlandish performances and an unadulterated artistic eye, it is sometimes forgotten that, first and foremost, Bowie was a singer. Below, we’ve picked out seven isolated vocal tracks to remind you just how impressive he was.
Now, we’re not here to blame those fans, casual or otherwise, who see Bowie as the entire package – a heady combination of soaring creativity, sheer magnetism and gifted songwriting – those assertions were so purposefully made with every release that it is hard not to retain them as the permanent features of his legacy. However, to overlook the powerful instrument he wielded most flagrantly of all is to ignore a vital part of his iconic status as a one of a kind vocalist.
That last point is perhaps the most pertinent when considering the world of David Bowie. Of course, when picking out the most influential members of the pop music set, the name of David Robert Jones is one of the first to be inked onto the notepad. However, picking out a favourite vocalist of any decade that Bowie graced will likely see the Starman relegated to the fraying edges of one’s mind. That’s because, like everything else he did, Bowie didn’t follow a conventional structure when he sang.
When Bowie began to find fame and produce the music he had always hoped for during the late 1960s and early ’70s, many other bands and performers were championing their singers as idols. Not only stars like Led Zeppelin’s Robert Plant but solo singers such as Scott Walker and Harry Nilsson all hinted that the future in music relied heavily on an expertly sung melody. Bowie was never one to have an imposing range or a particularly powerful set of lungs. Instead, he relied on something those singers could only wish for: unfiltered charisma.
Not as gifted vocally as artists such as Freddie Mercury, Stevie Nicks, Robert Plant or countless others, what Bowie lacked in technical talent he more than made up for in impassioned performance both on stage and in the recording studio. He would belt out lines like a revolutionary cannon and equally pull back the most poetic lines, simply tweeting like Mozart’s starling. It is in this delicate texture that Bowie resided most happily, continuously baiting his audience into empathy.
We are focusing on his impressive vocal nuance through ten isolated vocal tracks, which prove that Bowie was a better singer than you think.
10 isolated vocals to prove David Bowie was a genius:
1981’s ‘Under Pressure’ saw two of the most iconic acts of all-time converge. An uplifting classic, it remains one of the most enduring tracks that both Bowie and Queen ever released. Apart from the bassline that Vanilla Ice took to new levels with 1990’s ‘Ice Ice Baby’, the dovetailing vocals between Bowie and Freddie Mercury are what really stand out in memory.
The isolated vocal track is nothing short of magical. We hear both Mercury and Bowie clearly, and what a partnership it was. Ostensibly, the ’80s was the decade where Bowie truly flourished as a vocalist, and ‘Under Pressure’ is perhaps the best reflection of this, he’s augmented by the genius of Freddie Mercury. Be it his lead lines or backing vocals, the isolated track not only shows Bowie’s power as a vocalist but his dexterity too.
An early Bowie classic, ‘Five Years’ is one of the best moments on 1972’s The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars. From the period where Bowie had started his ascendance to truly stratospheric levels, the ‘Five Years’ isolated track presents an organic picture of Bowie’s vocals when he was Ziggy Stardust and in many ways, still finding his feet creatively. Introspective and stirring, the chorus sends shivers down your spine.
One of the best choruses he ever wrote, Bowie’s high-pitched vocals are classic. It sounds as if Bowie’s voice is about to break at any point, but it doesn’t – a real testament to the emotive nature of his vocals. His screams of “five years” at the end sound of the song like a man being consigned to prison for a crime he hasn’t committed. Powerful, emotive and semi-unhinged, this is Bowie at his rawest.
Another collaboration the world didn’t know it needed was ‘Fame’. Written by Bowie, John Lennon and Carlos Alomar, on ‘Fame’ you can hear the direction that Bowie would take almost a decade later with the release of 1983’s funk-driven masterpiece Let’s Dance. There’s no real surprise that the collaborative work of Lennon and Bowie would be anything but fruitful.
In one of the most defiant vocal performances Bowie ever delivered, he even gives us some scat on the track, showing that there was no vocal style he was afraid of attempting. Undoubtedly cocaine-driven, ‘Fame’ is Bowie unchained — it’s as if Lennon told him ‘go on then’. He covers a wide range of notes, reaching low and high, and it’s moments such as this that confirm just how underrated of a vocalist Bowie actually was.
Few songs typify the legendary status of David Bowie better than ‘Starman’. Composed around the enigmatic persona of Ziggy Stardust, a creation that would ultimately confirm Bowie’s legendary status less than a decade into his career, the song has taken on new life in every decade since.
Never disappointing whenever it was splayed, the track is famed for its juxtaposing volume control as Bowie sings “Star-MAN” with all the enthusiasm he could muster. Reflecting on a single part of such an immense song is usually fruitless. However, in this isolated track, we get the truest sense of just how much Bowie gave over to his creations.
You can hear his passion in every note.
Originally released as a seven-inch single on July 11th, 1969, the song was the world’s first proper dose of Bowie as we know and love him and was the opening track of his second studio album, David Bowie.
‘Space Oddity’ was David Bowie’s first single to chart in the UK and was inspired by Stanley Kubrick’s pioneering sci-fi film 2001: A Space Odyssey. It would mark a collective turning head of the world, as the moon landing had gathered the imaginations of the earth and told them all to look skyward. Necks craned to the heavens; there was only one man to soundtrack this event—the Starman.
The song would launch Bowie’s career into the stratosphere and begin his long journey as one of the most artistically sound and creatively pure musical artists we are likely to see in our lifetimes. While the track is as iconic as the moon landing itself, when played without the beautiful arrangement and the vocals isolated, it takes on new life as a piece of emphatic poetry.
Though Bowie was never blessed with the pipes of some of his contemporaries, he brought a unique style that would make all his vocal takes shine.
One such effort which really pops is Bowie’s performance on the 1975 single ‘Golden Years’. Taken from Station to Station, the song has become one of Bowie’s most beloved tracks. While the funk-laden groove is the most recognisable moment of the music, hinting at the disco revolution that was beginning to rear its head when you remove the track’s instrumentation and isolate the vocal performance, you can witness the star power Bowie added.
Originally intended as a song for Elvis Presley, Bowie made it his own and a hit after the King rejected the track.
‘Life on Mars’
Despite being one of the best selling musicians of all time, Bowie was successfully able to reinvent himself time and time again with the creation of his numerous different personas in Ziggy Stardust, the Thin White Duke and more. While Bowie was regularly commended for his never-ending stream of creativity, unique lyrics and artistic integrity, his vocal range and ability are sometimes left unnoticed.
Music historians Schinder and Schwartz, who credit Bowie as the glam rock genre creator, once called him “a vocalist of extraordinary technical ability, able to pitch his singing to particular effect”. While Bowie’s vocals have been heavily influenced by some of his idols, such as Elvis Presley, Little Richard and Anthony Newley, Bowie’s style was once described as having a “particularly deliberate and distinctive” vibrato technique.
It is most perfectly heard on the unique vocals for perhaps his most iconic song, ‘Life on Mars’ below.
No song typifies the pop career of David Bowie more accurately than ‘Let’s Dance’. Released in 1983 as part of the singer’s resurgence on the pop charts, this track proved that Bowie was not an artist who would be restricted by the musical fashion of the time or by the dwindling of time. He would ensure that he was always at the cutting edge of creating music.
Using the acclaimed producer Nile Rodgers, the musical maestro behind chic, Bowie confirmed himself to the new decade as a relevant pop star once more. While it’s easy to dismiss this song, it’s damn well impossible to resist its charms.
The song is brimming with dancefloor credibility. The vocals on the track prove to be one of the most potent weapons in Bowie’s arsenal, embellishing a piece that will likely outlive us all.
Ziggy Stardust was created by David Bowie in 1971 as his rock and roll alien from outer space, a deliberately inflammatory character capable of carrying off the kind of songs Bowie had begun to write. He retired the character in 1973 after his performance at the Hammersmith Odeon, but before he did, he had bundles of charisma to share and nowhere is this more perfectly shown than in the titular song for our hero.
It was this persona and this charm that rang out of the new single ‘Starman’. Bowie was treating his fans listening through their headphones to another trip out of the atmosphere and into the endless possibilities of space. Bowie wasn’t the Starman; he was the rocket ship off this rock.
It’s best heard on his enigmatic isolated vocals.
‘Changes’ is regarded as one of the songs that, for many people, is one of the best that Bowie ever wrote. It’s equally a song that Bowie admits “started out as a parody of a nightclub song, a kind of throwaway”— we think it’s fair to say that we’re all glad he didn’t ball it up and send it into the rubbish bin because it went on to showcase the shining star Bowie was about to be.
The truth is, by the time 1971 had rolled around, the world was only partially aware of David Bowie. The singer had enjoyed tremendous success with his song ‘Space Oddity’ in 1969 but had struggled to impose himself on a constantly changing pop music market. Albums had come and gone not really had the desired effect on kickstarting Bowie’s career. It had all proved to be a longer career than many people knew.
Bowie said of the song in 1968: “We feel our parents’ generation has lost control, given up, they’re scared of the future. I feel it’s basically their fault that things are so bad.” The song is also an anthem for evolution and tolerance, two pillars of the singer’s legacy and two rivers of flowing inspiration for his vocals.
It’s a mark of Bowie’s character and his artistic destination. It’s a manifesto for his career as a rock and roll chameleon, for his life as a patron of the arts and creativity, and his legacy as one of the most iconic men in music. When you strip away the music and listen purely to Bowie’s vocals, you can hear this poetry, and more, pulsating across the airwaves.