David Bowie’s contribution to the world of music is infinite and will undoubtedly continue to influence generations upon generations. It is not just his artistic sensibility and a keen sense of songwriting that has immortalised him, but also his distinctive voice and his presence as a performer. He is a chameleon and, while alive, he went from one genre to the next reinventing himself effortlessly and continuously. He moved around all over the world, soaking up culture and art and then synthesising these experiences into an amalgamation of different albums; in his career spanning 54 years, he has fused jazz, avant-garde, pop, R&B, rock ‘n’ roll, electronica, bass and drums, folk, opera, and more – all into varying different creations.
His debut self-titled album featured whimsical pop vignettes of quintessential English life; songs like ‘Love you till Tuesday’, ‘The Laughing Gnome’, and ‘Rubber Band’ had a non-sensical and humorous element to it. Even this first album already presented Bowie as an artist who explores, as this succeeded a mod phase he had underwent as the lead singer of an R&B band. Fulfilling his dreams to become a saxophone player, he joined a band as such, but when that band’s vocalist couldn’t perform a gig, Bowie took over as the singer. This experience would prove to be formative and detrimental convincing everyone around him that he had an undeniable voice.
Just like the other rock idols, we have come to love and admire of the years; a young David Jones, sat in awe while listening to the records of Elvis Presley, Chuck Berry, Jerry Lee Lewis and Little Richard. The latter had saxophone players in his band, and the young David Jones wanted, at the time, to be a sax player in Little Richard’s band. Thus began David Jones’, who would eventually change his name to David Bowie. His next album would yield his first major hit, ‘Space Oddity’, which coincidentally was released at the same time as the moon landing. This combination of events would solidify Bowie’s image as an otherworldly space prophet.
Man Who Sold The World, Bowie’s third effort, created blueprints for proto-metal music without ever losing sight of his musical fingerprint. The following album, Hunky Dory, would serve as Bowie’s prime stepping stone into the world of stardom he so desperately craved. Once The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars hit the charts, the world was taken by surprise by a riveting masterpiece. Retrospectively, this album which saw the culmination of Bowie’s earlier artistic explorations (pantomime, theatre, dance, Buddhism) would prove to be the zenith of Bowie’s fusion of theatrics and literary/musical vision.
At the time, his critics naively imagined Bowie a one-trick pony, estimating that this would be the last of what we saw of him. While this may be somewhat true when speaking of other artists; Bowie, at the height of his Ziggy Stardust powers and in his commercial prime, did the unthinkable; he retired the character Ziggy Stardust, shooting him straight back up to Mars. As Billy Corgan from The Smashing Pumpkins once observed, “Bowie could have easily been the next Frank Sinatra, but instead he chose the avant-garde. Because of that, I will always have so much respect for him.”
After this period, Bowie continuously defied expectation and critics’ desperate attempt to pigeonhole him. Throughout the years of his career, the elusive space-man continued to collaborate with a whole range of artists, paying homage to new musicians he himself admired, and paying respects to those who inspired him in the early days.
In the past, Bowie has given us hints as to who some of his favourite singers are. While we imagine it is probably an impossible task to put down into a list, all of his favourite singers; there are ways to identify his influences by closely listening to the quality of his voice and how it developed over the years, as well as delving into the interviews he’s done over the years on which singers he admires.
Let’s delve in.
David Bowie’s favourite singers:
The similarities between the two are plentiful. While Scott Walker did hit the scene before Bowie with the Walker Brothers; his solo albums starting in the late 1960s which featured translated Jacques Brel songs had a massive impact on Bowie, prompting him to do the same as Scott Walker — later on — Bowie would perform English renditions of Jacques Brel’s ‘Amsterdam’ and ‘My Death’ during his Stardust years. Perhaps Bowie may be slightly guilty of imitation in this case.
Another facet of the direct influence Walker has had on Bowie can be clearly heard in Bowie’s inflexion in his vocal stylings; the operatic vibrato of Bowie’s baritone voice was done first by Scott Walker. Although, the influence is not one way. When the Walker Brother’s were working on their 1978 comeback album, Nite Flights, they used Bowie’s Heroes as a point of reference in the studio.
When the two were alive, they had a long-lasting friendship and had a great appreciation for one another. David Bowie once commented on first finding out about Walker, “I went out with a girl, who went out with Scott Walker. She preferred Scott Walker to me, and at night I had to listen to all his sings, night after night. She wouldn’t play my music but it did leave with me a great love for his voice.”
Not unlike Scott Walker, David Bowie and David Byrne close friends who both shared a great appreciation for one another, both personally and professionally. Both were similar artistically speaking: The two are first and foremost creative visionaries, who for them, music was just another medium to express their message. Byrne has been fairly vocal about his appreciation for Bowie, who stated when inducting him into the Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame, “He was a shrink, a priest, a sex object, and a prophet of doom.”
Bowie respected Byrne as a songwriter and vocalist. So much to the point that Bowie channelled Byrne’s specific style in his song, ‘DJ’ from his Lodger album. Another recurring commonality found in each other’s work, was their fearless approach to the new musical territory, taking bits from this and that; David Byrne incorporated African polyrhythms with New York City post-punk, resulting in one of those recognisable new wave sounds of the late 1970s into the ’80s; while in the late ’70s when making his Berlin Trilogy, Bowie combined funk, rockabilly and blues basslines fused with the bizarre and avant-garde.
As previously stated with Scott Walker; Bowie got the idea from him to translate the Belgian troubadour, Jacques Brel. He combined glam rock with the highly literary story songs of Brel and took a leaf from his cinematic and theatrical style of performance. Brel was a kind of cabaret doomsday prophet who did not find fame until later in his life. Brel was not so much putting up a front as Bowie did with Ziggy Stardust, but instead what you saw on stage was what you got in the street. Brel sang songs of everyday life and the themes that he lived. Bowie saw the value in this, and would later develop his American plastic soul and Thin White Duke character from this concept.
Bowie’s ‘Rock n’ Roll Suicide’ from his Ziggy Stardust album, was directly influenced by Jacques Brel’s ‘Jef’ from Jacques Brel is Alive and Well and Living in Paris musical and is translated into, ‘No Love, You’re Not Alone’. Or, the lyric from Bowie’s ‘Sons of the Silent Age’, “They never die, they just go to sleep one” is a direct translation from Brel’s ‘Les Vieux’ or in English, ‘The Old’.
One of the darkest and introspective musicians from the 20th century, is Nine Inch Nails’ brainchild, Trent Reznor. He is responsible for pioneering the ‘industrial electronic’ sound through innovative sound engineering on and off the stage. Bowie’s Earthling album is a direct nod to Trent Reznor, who opened up for Bowie during the latter’s tour of his ‘95 album Outside. In addition to Reznor’s voice, Bowie also had a great appreciation for his ability to produce cutting-edge industrial records. Therefore, Bowie would employ Reznor and the rest of Nine Inch Nails to help him configure the scathing masterpiece, ‘I’m Afraid of Americans.’
As previously discussed, part of Bowie’s chameleonic process is to channel the work of various artists and to either collaborate with them, to tour with them, or to simply cover their music and use them as a reference point. While Bowie did have a supreme influence on Trent Reznor as he grew up with Bowie’s music, it would be naive to think that influence is merely a one way street.
In a Consequence of Sound interview, Reznor talks about when Bowie first made contact with Reznor, stating: “We’re going to go on a tour where we’re not going to play any hits. We’re only going to play this record. Nobody wants to hear that. But I need to do it.” Reznor continues, “Well, I’m witnessing what I projected this guy to be. I’m watching him do it.’ But would I have the courage to do that? Is that courage? It really left a mark on me.”
The sheer fact that Bowie asked Reznor to tour with him is a massive honor and nod to the industrial demi-god.
Lou Reed’s influence on Bowie in just about every way, cannot be overstated. When Bowie first starting coming over to New York City, he started hanging out at Max’s Kansas City where he became acquainted with Andy Warhol, Lou Reed and the rest of the gang at the Factory. When Bowie first heard Velvet Underground and Nico, Bowie became privy to the genius of Lou Reed fairly quickly and played a pivotal role in bringing Reed’s music to a greater audience. As Ziggy Stardust, Bowie performed cover versions of ‘I’m Waiting for the Man’ and ‘White Light/White Heat’. Upon hearing of Reed’s death, Bowie would comment, “He was a master.” Tony Zanetta, who introduced Bowie to Reed, commented on the astronomical meeting of two great minds: “They, I think, got along pretty well. Lou was the really smart-alecky, sarcastic New York guy.”
Zanetta continued, “But I think he and David were pretty cautious of each other. It was almost like the beginning of a romance. They were kind of sizing each other up. Lou was on his best behaviour with David and then after dinner, we went to Max’s Kansas City.”
Bowie’s ‘Queen Bitch’ is an obvious tribute to Lou Reed’s style of songwriting, channelling Lou Reed’s indelible eye for street life. At Bowie’s last concert as Ziggy Stardust at the Hammersmith Odeon; right before breaking into a Reed song, Bowie introduced Reed as the “greatest and most important underground songwriter currently working on the scene.” When watching the footage now, it would not seem like a heavy thing to say, as we take this fact for granted. However, Lou Reed really was not that big at the time and Bowie was doing us a great service to bring more attention to the New York City poet.
Later on, Bowie would further pay his respects to the songwriter by producing — along with Mick Ronson — Reed’s masterpiece, Transformer.
Last but certainly not least, is the Detroit proto-punk singer Iggy Pop who, after seeing images in a book on Egyptian pharaohs, decided that wearing a shirt was not a natural thing for him to do. His tanned skin, bulging veins outlined by a number of different scars from his more riotous years; his inexhaustible energy and his street determination to create one hell of a rock n’ roll show, all captured Bowie’s vivid imagination.
The two would find refuge in one another’s peerage, friendship and need to kick the drugs. They both formed a pact and from the ritzy and plastic glam world of LA, moved to Berlin, which unbeknownst to them at the time, happened to be the heroin capital of the world. This was on the door-step of post-punk exploding into the mainstream, and both artists sought more meaning in order to reinvent themselves. This journey culminated in Bowie’s Berlin trilogy and Iggy Pop’s The Idiot and Lust for Life, both of which Bowie helped co-write and produce.
Talking about their days in Berlin, Iggy Pop would wrily state in his dry sense of humour: “Living in a Berlin apartment with Bowie and his friends was interesting,” Pop recalled. “The big event of the week was Thursday night. Anyone who was still alive and able to crawl to the sofa would watch Starsky & Hutch.”
As is the case with many of these aforementioned singers, Bowie had an influence on them as well as vice versa. Such is the case with Iggy Pop, Bowie was hugely attracted to him and decided the world had to fully witness — as he did — Iggy Pop’s incredible writing talent. Iggy Pop is forever grateful for how Bowie helped him, stating: “A lot of people were curious about me, but only he was the one who had enough truly in common with me, and who actually really liked what I did and could get on board with it, and who also had decent enough intentions to help me out. He did a good thing.”
Watch a live performance of Iggy Pop’s ‘Sister Midnight’ with Bowie on the keys:
As with all great instances of inspirational flux; it requires a healthy stream of a symbiotic relationship, where both the receiver and giver are fully participating. These singers’ influence on Bowie will forever hold a special place in our hearts as they are all incredible songwriters as well as performers.