Given that David Bowie was such an eclectic artist, it comes as little surprise that his artistry was made up of an eclectic patchwork of ideas and influences. For a man whose musical career was an odyssey brimming with colourful characters and ample twists and turns, his career has become the stuff of legend.
Throughout his long and respected career, his music drew on the avant-garde, jazz, glam and the experimental, and without his pioneering and unwavering passion for the left-field, today there would be no room for the likes of pioneers such as PJ Harvey, Bjork and Aphex Twin.
Given that Bowie was a man who was entirely unique, he also had a perspective that was entirely his own. Apart from his weird, cocaine-fuelled foray into racism in the mid-1970s, for the rest of his life, Bowie embodied wisdom – something of music’s resident sage.
Like the star man he sang about, or Thomas Jerome Newton, the character he played in Nicholas Roeg’s 1976 sci-fi flick, The Man Who Fell to Earth, Bowie’s wisdom carried within it an otherworldly perspective and an acute perception often likened to someone not of the earthly realm, leading us to question if he was really a man at all.
As he matured and ditched the cocaine, moving into the ’80s, Bowie found a level of fame that he had not prior to experienced. 1983’s Let’s Dance confirmed him as a true pop culture icon, bridging the gap between his cult hero standing and his newfound status as a global superstar. This, of course, made more people interested in what he had to say, and from that moment on, he would inform many of his audience’s opinions.
Frequently asked to give his thoughts on any number of topics, the internet is teeming with Bowie’s hot takes on everything from the development of the world wide web to psychology and even Tony Blair. In 1996, Bowie gave us another critical opinion, and one that when you dig into it, remains nothing short of bang on the money.
The musician found himself discussing the biggest band of all time, The Beatles. Looking back on their influence and album sales, Bowie opined: “Bands like the Beatles (who) were so extremely large in terms of what they sold and the influence they had” clearly had an impact back then but, actually, that “very little of their influence is actually felt now.”
This reflects Bowie’s keen eye on music’s ever-changing format and perennial attention to artistry. Back in 1996, the advent of technology had moved music in the direction of the oncoming millennium, and Bowie clearly foresaw the futuristic way music was heading. From our 2021 perspective, given the ubiquity of technology and the way it has starkly changed musical tastes and consumption, his comment in regards to how little of The Beatles’ influence is felt now is made even more apparent.
The Beatles were akin to the big bang in music, and without their pioneering contributions opening the floodgates, we would not be where we are today. However, because it was so long ago, and that society and music have developed so much since then, Bowie’s statement rings true.
Speaking of the actual bands who inspired real artistic change, Bowie said: “It was the fringe, strange bands that nobody ever bought, like the Velvet Underground, that actually have created modern music. And you kind of think, where’s ‘Yesterday’ in all this? Where’s its influence on modern music?”.
Bowie then claimed that the Velvet Underground‘s song ‘I’m Waiting For The Man’ actually had more of an impact on music than the Beatles’ 1967 classic, ‘Penny Lane’. Inferencing Blur and Oasis, Bowie said: “Well, there’s a couple of British bands that use trumpets every now and again and say they’re Beatles influenced. But in reality, what they generally gravitate more to is ‘Waiting for the Man’ than in to ‘Penny Lane’”.
This wasn’t all, though. Bowie provided reasonable justification for why he argued that the Velvet Underground had more of a cultural impact than Liverpool’s favourite sons. Bowie claimed that the Velvet Underground were the true artists, and wagered: “Tomorrow’s culture is always dictated by the artists. So however many critics were saying how important the Beatles were, there were artists running around saying, ‘Yeah they’re okay, but have you heard the Velvet Underground?’ The artists make culture, not the critic.”
Although purists may take his word as pretentious, Bowie’s opinion is correct. The Beatles made massive steps, but in terms of artistry, the Velvet Underground trumped them. It’s not as if Bowie was undermining the work of The Beatles, instead saying that in the modern context, the Velvet Underground’s work carries more weight than the Fab Four due to artistic intent and content. Tacitly, he even undermines the role of the critic in establishing the mainstream opinion, something that we could all learn a thing or two from today.
Furthermore, he was correct about how artists on the peripheries often go on to influence generations. If we look at alternative music today, with its concentration on post-punk and jazz, the zeitgeist is massively influenced by the likes of The Fall and Thelonious Monk rather than, say, U2. Whilst Bowie’s opinion doesn’t account for the whole of music’s progression, it manages to explain some of the ways in which the discipline maintains its ever-progressive format.
Watch Bowie’s interview, below.