The Man Who Sold the World: David Bowie and the 1970s

Excerpted from the Introduction from The Man Who Sold the World: David Bowie and the 1970s by Peter Doggett. Published in July 2012 by HarperCollins. Copyright © 2012 by Peter Doggett. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or printed without permission in writing from the publisher.


“This is a mad planet,” Bowie said in 1971. “It’s doomed to madness.” Or, as novelist William S. Burroughs had written four years earlier: “abandon all nations, the planet drifts to random insect doom.”

Since the late sixties, the notion that mankind was facing apocalyptic disaster had begun to infect every vein of Western society. Cultural critic Susan Sontag noted that the awareness of fear created its own reality: “Collective nightmares cannot be banished by demonstrating that they are, intellectually and morally, fallacious.”

The global bestseller of the early 1970s was Hal Lindsey’s recklessly naïve The Late Great Planet Earth, which twisted the Christian scriptures to suggest that apocalypse would soon emerge from the Middle East. Lindsey’s book was no more rational than thousands of similar explorations of religious paranoia that had been published down the centuries, but it had found its perfect moment. Its alarmist arguments resonated through the popular press and prepared the ground for the ultraconservative brand of evangelical Christianity that would help to propel Ronald Reagan into the White House a decade later.

If Hal Lindsey’s dread was superstitious, it chimed with the sobering warnings of the scientists who predicted environmental disaster for mankind. The debate had been simmering since the early 1960s, erupting into mainstream culture in the form of tabloid headlines or science fiction dystopias. The threats were so immense—a new ice age, global warming, mass starvation, the exhaustion of water, food, or fuel—that it was easier to ignore them than tackle them. They merged seamlessly into the recurrent fear of global annihilation via nuclear warfare, meeting on the equally uncertain ground of nuclear power. As if to signal that the new decade would force these environmental monsters into our everyday lives, the BBC launched a television series in February 1970 called Doomwatch, about a governmental department whose brief was nothing less than the preservation of mankind against overwhelming natural (and extra terrestrial) threats. Hollywood extended the theme with the disaster movies that captured the popular imagination for much of the decade.

In the teeth of Jaws and The Towering Inferno, there was something intolerably mundane about financial catastrophe and the pervasive sense of decline that afflicted the West (and particularly Britain) through the early seventies. Successive leaders had been preaching economic doom since the mid-sixties, to the point where the pronouncement in late 1973 that Britain was facing its gravest economic crisis since the end of World War II sounded almost comfortingly familiar. Industrial unrest triggered strike action among key workers, and periodically during the decade, the British population was returned to the age of candlelight, as regular power cuts restricted television broadcasts, closed cinemas, darkened neon advertising displays, canceled sporting events, and of course deprived homes and offices of light, warmth, and electricity. These episodes occupied no more than a few weeks of the decade, but they left such a mark that they remain the dominant folk memory of the 1970s.

The optimism associated with scientific progress, which flowered briefly as man landed on the moon and the Concorde broke the sound barrier, was soon replaced by a debilitating sense of dread; science seemed as likely to spark the end of civilization as it did to solve mankind’s problems and fulfill its desires. Even computers, the wondrous creation of postwar technology, threatened to become the instruments of repression rather than liberation. It was no accident that in 1970 David Bowie wrote a song titled “Saviour Machine” [79], around a scenario in which an all-powerful computer becomes so bored with eliminating mankind’s needs that it begins to invent fresh crises to keep itself interested.

If computerization, with its taint of depersonalization and callous, robotic indifference,* threatened society as a whole, then the growth of urban terrorism across the West brought the shudder of imminent extinction into daily life. (*This was exactly the quality that the German rock band Kraftwerk exploited during the seventies, exerting a huge influence over Bowie’s work in the second half of the decade.) Television news bulletins showed planes being hijacked, politicians kidnapped and murdered, shops and hotels exploding without warning; the implicit message was that nobody was safe, and any stranger could be the agent of sudden death or maiming. Car bombs, the murder of athletes at the Olympic Games, random shootings, picket line confrontations, the unstoppable force of flood or famine: these dissociated threats were woven into the psychological landscape of the age, preparing civilization for the savage hand of apocalypse to descend.

In economic terms, none of these threats left a deeper mark on the decade than the Yom Kippur War of 1973, a brief conflict between Israel and its Arab neighbors that pushed the oil-producing nations of the Middle East into imposing a jolting rise in the cost of the oil they supplied to the West. Commentators routinely compared oil-hungry Britain to the Weimar Republic from which Hitler’s Nazi Party had emerged. “Declinism was an established British state of mind,” the historian Andy Beckett has written, “but during the mid-70s it truly began to pervade the national consciousness… It darkened the work of artists, novelists, dramatists, film-makers and pop musicians… And it shifted in tone: from the anxious to the apocalyptic.” And so it was that in 1975, David Bowie, who had been exiled in the United States for eighteen months, began to offer a running commentary on the state of the nation in which he was no longer resident, and which could be summarized in a sentence: Britain needed a strong leader, and fascism would produce a strong leader. That was the point where the apocalyptic imagery with which he had been toying on his early-to-mid-seventies albums collided with the side effects of his “undifferentiation,” with catastrophic (if short-lived) results for his reputation.

The reaction to his quasi-fascist statements (one of the sparks that fired the creation of the Rock Against Racism movement) shocked Bowie into a realization of how removed he had become from British culture, and from a solid sense of his own position in the world. He no longer masqueraded as a commentator on British affairs; even the election of Conservative politician Margaret Thatcher as the country’s first woman prime minister in 1979 was allowed to pass in silence. Instead he took up residence in Berlin, a city that epitomized the Nazi past with which he had long been fascinated and the experimental music of so-called Krautrock, and also an arena in which political ambiguities were still too close to the surface for him to offer ill-informed generalizations about the state of the world. In Berlin he would concentrate on personal rehabilitation and musical transformation—the latter enabling him to escape the accusations of irrelevance that were now being flung at almost all of his contemporaries.


We are Passing through terrible times, when everybody wants attention, but nobody quite knows how to command it.

— Howard Junker, Rolling Stone, 1971

In March 1974, David Bowie traveled to Paris and then to Cannes, where he boarded the SS France. His destination was New York, where he would assemble the pieces for his most lavish stage presentation of the decade: the Diamond Dogs tour. He did not realize that, at the age of twenty-seven, he had broken his bonds to England, or that he was destined for the two most turbulent years of his life on America’s opposing coasts. Nor was it apparent to anyone that this voyage marked a crucial moment in his career as a musician. Until this point, he had used the tools and techniques of mainstream rock and pop to promote themes and obsessions that were radical and dramatic in their impact. Now, in America, Paris, and then Berlin, he would leave his mark on the decade in a different way, by inventing styles and hybrids that would inspire generations of young musicians. The David Bowie of the early seventies was a conventional pop star who acted as a social revolutionary. From 1974 until 1980, he was an experimental rock artist who managed to attract a mass audience for some of the most challenging music of his career.

The primary purpose of an entertainer is to find an audience and then retain its attention. During the sixties, Bowie was unapologetically an entertainer, but one who found it impossible to focus on who he was, what he was trying to convey, and whom he was attempting to impress. The success of his “Space Oddity” single in 1969 appeared to have solved all three conundrums; in fact, it merely illustrated the hollowness of the goal that had sustained Bowie for the previous six years.

His 1969 LP David Bowie and 1970’s The Man Who Sold the World were vehicles for self-analysis and bitter reflections on the culture around him. They spoke for him, but not to anybody—not, at least, until they were rediscovered by the mass audience who were entranced by Bowie’s later incarnations. Hunky Dory in 1971 was a collective of attractively accessible pop songs, through which Bowie tested out his feelings about the nature of stardom and power. Ziggy Stardust was his commercial breakthrough in 1972; on that record, the concept was everything, the music firmly lodged in the mainstream; 1973’s Aladdin Sane allowed Bowie to continue his explorations of fame, within familiar rock formulas. His second album that year, Pin Ups, was a fashionable exercise in nostalgia, the comfortable refuge of a society in disarray. Finally, the Diamond Dogs album in 1974 brought together all the themes with which he had been toying since 1969, in service of a dark study of cultural disintegration.

Little of the music on those albums was beyond the imagination of Bowie’s peers; much of it was overtly indebted to his predecessors, especially the Beatles and the Rolling Stones. What marked Bowie out as a unique talent were the themes of his songs, and the ways in which he sold them (and himself). Nobody had ever manipulated the tools of pop stardom so blatantly, and with such stunning impact. Rather than destroying pop’s mystique as well as his own, his Ziggy Stardust charade became the most glittering image of the age. Central to its appeal was the way in which it offered one of the key motifs of the seventies: androgyny. By portraying—and, to every appearance, being—a bisexual rock star for whom camp was an instinctive playground, Bowie broke startling new terrain. As the openly gay eighties star Marc Almond recalled of Bowie’s epochal July 1972 appearance on Top of the Pops, “Next day, all hell broke loose in the playground. Bowie was a queer, and if you like him you must be queer too.” Previous pop stars had been willing to flirt with “queer” imagery, and then coyly withdraw the offer. What set Bowie apart was his lack of shame, his openness to what he called (in “Changes,” [48]) “the strange.” He broke down powerful but invisible barriers, and made it impossible for them to be reinstated. After Bowie, ambiguity of gender and sexual preference became a common attribute of a pop star, rather than an unmentionable secret.

The resonance of that maneuver would endure for the rest of the decade, particularly in the United States. The year he moved to the United States, 1974, began with rock culture apparently being threatened with harsh restrictions upon its activities as a result of the oil crisis afflicting the West. Instead, the industry careered into an era of extreme decadence and profligacy. Rock was no longer a badge of the counterculture; it was a multi-million-dollar branch of the entertainment business. Its economic power was reflected by the lucrative arena tours staged by all major artists (Bowie included); by the plethora of expensively packaged double or even triple albums that were catapulted into the marketplace (Bowie contributing with his David Live set); by music’s invasion of television, film, and the stage. Meanwhile, cocaine abuse fueled the industry’s arrogance and sapped its creativity, symptomatic of a culture of hubris that would lead inevitably to the invention of punk rock. This rambunctious intruder did not destroy the superstar system or its attendant extravagances: superstars still filled arenas and issued multiple-album chronicles of their exploits. But punk did provide an iconoclastic style, ethos, and brand that would enable a dozen alternative forms of music to emerge and flourish during the eighties and beyond.

Bowie’s contribution to this culture of excess, and its antidote, was as ambiguous and bewildering as the music he created during the second half of the seventies. At the same time, he fueled the savage beast of consumerism, offering peerless rock-disco crossovers that became major US hits, and undermined it with a succession of albums that demanded their own musical genres. Young Americans suggested new ways for rock performers to utilize the sound of black America; Station to Station distilled the essence of German rock, the dance floor, and occult speculation into a genuinely shocking (and yet commercially viable) new sound; Low and “Heroes” demonstrated the era’s fragmentation of style, society, and self; Lodger invented the unhappy tradition of rock stars acting as instant authorities on the Third World; and Scary Monsters compressed many aspects of Bowie’s stylistic invention into a stirring (if often uneasy) blend of rhythm and dissonance that would leave its mark on the decade ahead.

No other pop artist (in any medium) was as restlessly inventive in the seventies as David Bowie; none took as many risks, so obsessively avoided the safety of repetition, or stretched himself and his audience so far. Little wonder, then, that it would take the following decade for Bowie, and his contemporaries, to assimilate everything that he had achieved, and move beyond it.

Author photo from Peter

Peter Doggett has been writing about popular music, the entertainment industry, and social and cultural history since 1980. His books include the pioneering study of the collision between rock and country music, Are You Ready for the Country; and the award-winning There’s a Riot Going On: Revolutionaries, Rock Stars, and the Rise and Fall of the ’60s. His most recent book, You Never Give Me Your Money: The Beatles After the Breakup, was chosen as one of the 10 Best Books of 2010 by the Los Angeles Times.