Ziggy Stardust: 1972
"I wanted to de-violence the look of Clockwork Orange and evoke the mystery of Japanese kabuki and Noh theatre," David Bowie later said of the stylistic influences behind Ziggy Stardust, his first alter-ego. The Ziggy jumpsuit, designed in 1971 by his friend, Freddie Burretti, was augmented by a stuffed cotton codpiece and wrestling boots from Russell & Bromley.
It was Bowie's wife, Angie, who convinced him to have the famous flaming carrot-top haircut. "Angie was the catalyst for the look and the image," says Woody Woodmansey, drummer in the Spiders from Mars. "He probably wouldn't have gone so far out without her pushing him."
Bowie had travelled to New York in September 1971, visiting Andy Warhol's Factory and Max's Kansas City, home of New York's demi-monde. As biographer Paul Trynka notes in Starman: "The thrift-store decadence and glamour of Max's would become the raw material of David Bowie's art", just as the rock music of the Velvet Underground and the Stooges would become the raw material for the more pop-oriented songs on his breakthrough album, The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars.
Bowie would later cite Iggy Pop as the prime inspiration for Ziggy. The surname, though, was a homage to an obscure outsider artist, the Legendary Stardust Cowboy (Norman Carl Odam) from Lubbock, Texas, a pioneer of what came to be known as "psychobilly" music.
Many years later, Bowie would also namecheck Vince Taylor, a British-born rock 'n' roller from the 1950s, as the original inspiration for Ziggy Stardust. Born Brian Holden in Isleworth, Taylor found brief fame with his hit song "Brand New Cadillac", before becoming a major star in France. After taking LSD in the 1950s, he had a breakdown, later claiming to have been reborn as one of the Apostles. Bowie met him briefly in 1966 on Tottenham Court Road, where Taylor showed him a map he had made of places where UFOs had supposedly landed. "Vince Taylor was the inspiration for Ziggy," Bowie said later. "He always stayed in my mind as an example of what can happen in rock 'n' roll. I'm not sure if I held him up as an idol or as something not to become."
David Bowie - Ziggy Stardust
Ziggy was unveiled live at the Friars club in Aylesbury on 29 January 1972, by which time Bowie had convinced his group that glitter and glam was the way to go. "It was all very gradual. He had taken us to the theatre and to the ballet to show us how lighting could work," remembers Woodmansey, "and then to Liberty's in London with Angie to buy material for the stage costumes. We all thought: this is either going to work or we'll get bottled off stage. But, we took the risk."
Diamond Dogs: 1974
Having abruptly killed off Ziggy at London's Hammersmith Odeon on 3 July 1973, Bowie returned in 1974 with a concept album, Diamond Dogs, and an ambitiously theatrical, big-budget touring live show that broke new ground with its use of elaborate sets and mechanical props. The album was a dystopian fantasy based on George Orwell's novel 1984 and featured a cover image by the Belgian artist Guy Peelaert, that depicted Bowie as half-man, half dog. The album's promotional shots also featured a canine theme with an unforgettable image of a seated Bowie in a Spanish Cordoba hat, matching outfit and platform boots, seemingly unperturbed as an enormous white dog leaps towards the camera.
"I had shot the dog first and then a few frames of Bowie posing in his inimitable way – which was at ease but totally in control." says photographer Terry O'Neill. "Then I said, 'What about trying one with you and the dog?' Just as I started shooting, the bloody dog leapt up into the air towards the camera. It was quite aggressive and I was a bit taken aback, but I kept thinking: 'Thank God I'm using a wide-angle lens.' David just sat there throughout. He was totally unfazed."
On the Diamond Dogs tour, which began in North America in June, that quiet composure came into its own. "I watched him every night from the lighting booth," says the show's choreographer Toni Basil, "and it was utterly fascinating. He was a consummate performer: a singer, an actor, a dancer and a kind of silent movie star all rolled into one."
The Diamond Dogs stage set comprised tall monochrome buildings, a bridge that descended from on high to the stage, and an office chair mounted on a cherry-picker crane that enabled Bowie, with the helping of some innovative lighting, to appear to float over the heads of the front rows of the audience as he sang Space Oddity.
David Bowie - Space Oddity
Mark Ravitz was one of the set designers. "I am not your traditional designer, but I was surprised by his ambition. He seemed pretty far out when I met him, with this big entourage, but his ideas were grounded in the songs and the whole concept of the Diamond Dogs album." Did Bowie provide him with a brief? "Oh yes, It was three words: power, Nuremberg, Metropolis."
As the tour progressed, the darker side of Bowie's imagination seemed to take hold. When Alan Yentob met Bowie for a BBC documentary that would become fly-on-the-wall film Cracked Actor, he seemed fragile and lonely. His marriage was on the rocks and he was addicted to cocaine. In one scene, he describes the previous few years as "very frightening".
Young American: 1975
David Bowie's embrace of soul music was the most unlikely sidestep in his musical journey in the 1970s. It began in the latter stages of the Diamond Dogs tour with Bowie's shift in sartorial style to a double-breasted suit and floppy fringe. This was accompanied by a similar shift in the musical register best exemplified by his live version of "Here Today and Gone Tomorrow" by the soul-funk group, Ohio Players. Bowie had hired seasoned soul musicians, such as guitarist Carlos Alomar, who had toured with the likes of Ben E King and the Main Ingredient, and drummer Dennis Davis, who had played with jazz-funk legend Roy Ayers, as well as backing singers including his then-girlfriend Ava Cherry, and the soon-to-be-famous Luther Vandross. He couldn't help but absorb the soundtrack of black America as he toured there.
Not one to do things by half, Bowie booked time in Philadelphia's Sigma Sound Studios, birthplace of "Philly-soul". Young Americans was recorded quickly, the title track a fusion of images and observational narratives that signalled a dramatic move from the wilfully disconnected imagery of Diamond Dogs. Another unlikely influence was the early work of Bruce Springsteen, notably It's Hard To Be a Saint in the City.
Though Bowie himself described the style of Young Americans as "plastic soul", he was nevertheless sincere in his homage to the music he loved. "He was so happy doing this," Ava Cherry later told Bowie's biographer Paul Trynka. "It was simply living out what he wanted to be, living out a dream."
The album was completed in New York in December, with John Lennon in attendance. When Bowie found Lennon sitting in the recording studio lobby, strumming a guitar and singing a snatch of a current disco hit, "Shame, Shame, Shame," by Shirley & Company, he misheard the word "shame" as "fame". This blissful accident was the jumping of point for a new song, "Fame", which Bowie knocked off in 20 minutes. "Fame" was an 11th-hour addition to the Young Americans album, but, in September 1975, it became David Bowie's first American number one.
Once again, Bowie had soaked up the inspirations in the air around him and turned them into something else entirely, confounding his fans and his newly gained American rock audience. But the lukewarm critical reception for Young Americans suggested the alchemy of old was not working as it once had. And, for or all its funkiness, Fame is a dark song lyrically. "Fame – puts you where things are hollow…" sang Bowie, reflecting the increasing darkness of his personal life, the sense of alienation that celebrity had amplified.
Thin White Duke: 1976
Created during the Young Americans tour, The Thin White Duke was Bowie's last great persona – and his most troubling one. An extension of the blue-eyed soul singer that Bowie had affected for that tour, it initially seemed like he was evoking a kind of stylised showbiz professional in a Sinatra-style suit, white shirt and loosened tie. By the time Bowie had commenced his Station to Station tour, to promote the 1976 album of the same name, the hollowed-out caricature of a cabaret singer had mutated into something else: a character that Bowie would later describe as "very nasty indeed".
Paul Trynka describes Station to Station as "the climax of David Bowie's love affair with Freud's 'magical substance', as well as his definitive statement on his rootless, confused existence in Los Angeles." Grade A cocaine, then, consumed in reputedly gargantuan quantities, and exile in the most unreal of America cities had undoubtedly affected Bowie's mind as much as the relentless touring that attended every shape-shifting album he had released in the previous years.
Nevertheless his behaviour at this time seems extreme even by rock-star standards. Holed up in Los Angeles, he developed his interest in the occult – the Kabbalah, the writing of the English satanist Aleister Crowley– and his fascination with various esoteric writings by obscure Nazi pseudo-philosophers. More problematic still were the views he aired in several press interviews around this time. In a now infamous interview with Rolling Stone writer Cameron Crowe, he expressed his admiration of Nietzsche and Hitler, and opined: "I'd adore to be prime minister. And, I believe very strongly in fascism… I dream of buying companies and TV stations, owning and controlling them."
The Station to Station live show began with a blast of Kraftwerk's "Radioactivity" and accompanying visuals from Un Chien Andalou, the short Surrealist classic by Luis Buñuel and Salvador Dali. Bowie appeared in his white shirt, black waistcoat and trousers, with a pack of Gitanes visible in his pocket, a cross between a crooner and a Weimar cabaret performer. The visuals and stark lighting owed much to German Expressionist films and the music echoed that sense of fractured intensity. Bowie would later describe it as "the most successful tour I've ever done".
It culminated in Bowie's return to Britain and his now legendary appearance at Victoria Station, where he stood in an open-top Mercedes, and seemed to give a fascist salute to his fans. It was almost certainly a wave, freeze-framed as something altogether more ominous by the click of a camera shutter. Metaphorically, though, it was a wave goodbye to that dark period of provocation and glacial performances, and to the cast of extraordinary characters that Bowie had created and then discarded as he moved with relentless creativity through the decade that he so defined.
• David Bowie is, at the V&A from 23 March 2013, in partnership with Gucci, sound experience by Sennheiser (vam.ac.uk). David Bowie – Five Years will broadcast on BBC2 in May.