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Music

How David Bowie's original creative ambition shaped his music

@SamWKemp

The 2000s saw the emergence of a new kind of David Bowie. With his floppy hair and a new set of pearly gnashers, this was Bowie Reborn, a Bowie who was perhaps more comfortable in his own skin than ever before, one who seemed to radiate a warmth that was previously hidden behind layers of artifice. In these years, Bowie started revealing things about his creative origins that had once been locked away. Take this interview from 2004, for example, in which a smiley Bowie offers a fascinating insight into his creative ambitions before he became Ziggy Stardust.

The beauty of Bowie’s songwriting and stagecraft is that they were both rooted in theatre. We take it for granted that Bowie arrived fully formed, but his elaborate wouldn’t have been possible if he hadn’t first explored other avenues outside working as a performing solo musician. As he noted in 2004, his original intention was to work in the world of musicals: “When I was around 17-18, what I wanted to do more than anything was write something for Broadway – I wanted to write a musical,” he began. “I had no idea how you did it or how musicals were constructed, but the idea of writing something that was rock-based for Broadway really intrigued me I thought that would b a wonderful thing to do.”

This early interest was likely informed by Bowie’s adoration of Anthony Newley, a musician and actor who started off as a solo artist before moving into musicals and cabaret. There are obvious similarities if you listen to Bowie and Newley’s vocal intonations, so it wouldn’t be surprising if Bowie had regarded him as a role model in a more general sense as well: “I thought of myself as somebody who would end up writing musicals in a way – probably rock musicals of some nature,” he continued, “But it never actually became that, so those ideas were quashed a little bit when I realised what an ambitious thing that was to take on because you have to write dialogue and all.”

Being a self-taught musician, Bowie would likely have felt slightly intimidated by the idea of writing songbooks and full scores. It was perhaps this anxiety that convinced him to learn about music theory and orchestration in a local library, where he read as many books on the subject as he could. These lessons shaped Bowie’s sound in a way that is often overlooked. Just think about the control of harmony in songs like ‘Life On Mars’, which sees the glam-star move up the scale degree before landing on a euphoric chorus that would make even the stoniest Broadway belter cry with joy.

Bowie’s style can also be seen as a product of compromise. As he went on to explain: “I didn’t know how to approach that [writing for musicals], so I took the far simpler course and abbreviated the idea of the musical into a concept piece for an album and created the characters to go with the different albums,” he said, adding: “And in the process of doing that, I found that I was playing around with the music I was writing more and more, so it really was so character-driven that it actually started to interfere with the music in a good way. So my interest eventually became just the music itself. I left a lot of the theatrical ambitions behind when I really got involved in the music itself.”

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