David Bowie and the Soundtrack of a Generation

Photo by Brian Duffy

Here, we’ve compiled a selection of songs and videos to chart the creative course of the legendary singer.

In July, 1969, a pair of phrases that would become indelibly linked with space travel were uttered before captive audiences on two different planetary bodies. On the moon, Neil Armstrong announced “One small step for man, one giant leap for mankind” while, back on Earth, just days earlier, the line “Ground control to Major Tom…” reverberated through turntable speakers for the first time. As man arrived on the moon, David Bowie’s career was launched among the stars.

One of the most remarkable responses to the unexpected death of the rock legend on January 10, 2016, has been the response from his fans and the stories they’ve shared about his music and the songs that impacted them most. Bowie provided a soundtrack for a generation, blazing musical trails and putting a tune to the pulse of the boomer cohort who came of age during his most prolific creative period.

We’ve compiled a selection of those songs, and accompanying music videos, as a way of charting the creative course the legendary singer travelled from his first hit through to the early 1980s, from Major Tom to Ziggy Stardust to the Thin White Duke, with a special nod to his final alter ego, Lazarus.

Click through the slideshow below to view our picks.

“Space Oddity”

Using Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey as an inspiration, Bowie’s classic tune was originally part of a pitch to attract a new record company. The video for that original version, which can be seen here, appeared in the short film Love You Till Tuesday. Not only are the sound and tone of the song quite different from the version that eventually became a Bowie standard, but the singer, with his t-shirt and Mick Jagger-esque mop of brown hair, boasts a decidedly less-Ziggy Stardust look than he does in the video above.

The newer version, released later the same year, peaked a top the U.K. charts, while charting well across parts of Europe and topping out at number 15 in the U.S. Whether an ode to (or knock at) man’s space endeavours, or simply an allegory for heroin addiction as some claim, “Space Oddity” announced to the world that David Bowie had arrived. The song also introduced Major Tom, a character whose journey Bowie tracked in various tunes over the years including in one of his last videos, “Blackstar” which features a deceased astronaut on an interstellar landscape.

Canadian astronaut Chris Hadfield also covered the song while he was aboard the International Space Station in 2013, which Bowie called, “possibly the most poignant version of the song ever created.”

“The Man Who Sold the World”

From the album The Man Who Sold the World (1970)

“The Man Who Sold the World” is the title track on the album that many call the genesis of Bowie’s glam rock period, with the spirit of Ziggy Stardust bubbling just below the surface. In the song Bowie meets a mysterious yet familiar stranger, perhaps a reflection or inversion of himself, the lyrics both haunting and captivating:

“We passed upon the stair, we spoke of was and when

Although I wasn’t there, he said I was his friend

Which came as some surprise I spoke into his eyes

I thought you died alone, a long, long time ago”

The song has also been covered successfully by other artists – most famously by singer Lulu in 1974 and the band Nirvana, during their unplugged MTV special, in 1993.

“Changes,” “Oh! You Pretty Things,” and “Life on Mars?”

From the album Hunky Dory (1971)

“Life on Mars” by zoomermedia

During the same year that Joni Mitchell released her classic Blue album, and songs like Don McLean’s “American Pie,” the Rolling Stones’ “Brown Sugar” and  John Lennon’s “Imagine” hit airwaves, Bowie, as one would expect, went in a completely different direction. Hunky Dory, one of the singer’s best albums, showcases three of Bowie’s most famous songs and some of his most identifiable lyrics. “Changes” implored listeners to “Turn and face the strange” while “Oh! You Pretty Things” warned that “Homo Sapiens have outgrown their use” and foresaw the arrival of the Homo Superior. Meanwhile, “Life On Mars?,” said to be a parody of Frank Sinatra’s “My Way”, employs some of the most intriguing and surreal lyrics of all:

“It’s on America’s tortured brow

That Mickey Mouse has grown up a cow

Now the workers have struck for fame

‘Cause Lennon’s on sale again

See the mice in their million hordes

From Ibiza to the Norfolk Broads

Rule Britannia is out of bounds

To my mother, my dog, and clowns…”

Combine this with the fact that the video above features Bowie in a Ziggy Stardust-esque costume and make-up and it’s easy to see how much the singer stood out during this era.

“Five Years,” “Moonage Daydream,” “Starman,” “Ziggy Stardust,” “Suffragette City,” “Rock ‘n’ Roll Suicide”

From the album The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars (1972)

“Starman” live on Top of the Pops by zoomermedia

The seminal David Bowie album, The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars not only proved a benchmark in the glam rock movement and established Bowie as one of the biggest rock stars in the world, but it explored themes of sexuality, spirituality, mortality and social constructs through the character of Ziggy Stardust, Bowie’s most famous alter-ego, who comes to Earth five years before its destruction to foretell the coming of the “Starman” to save humanity. The album also led to the appearance in concert and in interviews of the red-haired, sex, drug and rock and roll-fuelled alien persona that defined this period of Bowie’s career.

Nearly 44 years after their release, “Starman,” “Ziggy Stardust,” “Suffragette City,” and “Rock ‘n’ Roll Suicide” remain some of Bowie’s most enduring songs. Upon release their unique sound and rich stories served as anthems for a generation in the midst of sexual and musical revolutions. Decades later, they echo like rock and roll eulogies for a man who changed the genre forever.

“Drive-In Saturday,” “The Jean Genie”
From the album Aladdin Sane (1973)

“Drive-In Saturday” live by zoomermedia

A bleak future where humans must re-learn how to have sex set to a doo-wop beat and an R&B-infused ode to an Iggy Pop-like character proved Bowie’s two biggest hits on the follow-up to the Ziggy Stardust album. The songs are grittier than the offerings on Ziggy Stardust but proved to have just as much staying power, the latter reaching the second spot on music charts.

“Diamond Dogs,” “Rebel”
From the album Diamond Dogs (1974)

With the hard-edged, Rolling Stones-inspired Diamond Dogs album, fuelled by the title track and “Rebel Rebel,” one of Bowie’s most enduring (and supposedly his most covered) songs, the singer began the shift from glam to grit. These two tunes anchored a concept album of dystopian themes that honours George Orwell’s 1984 and introduces yet another Bowie alter ego – Halloween Jack.

“Young Americans,” “Fame”
From the album Young Americans (1975)

Bowie’s first venture into what he called “plastic soul,” Young Americans represented yet another artistic shift. Just five years earlier, Bowie helped usher in glam rock. By this point, he’d left glam and grit behind and focussed on a more funk, soul and dance hall sound. The title track, with its political allusions and catchy chorus (try listening to the song in the video above without getting it stuck in your head for the rest of the day) proved one of Bowie’s first huge hits in the U.S. That is, until “Fame” hit airwaves a few months later and rocketed to the top of the charts. The tune is widely considered one of Bowie’s greatest and one of the most influential in rock and roll history.

“Golden Years,” “TVC 15”
From the album Station to Station (1976)

“Golden Years” by zoomermedia

Only Bowie could meld soul and German electronic music, toss in cryptic lyrics rooted in philosophical teachings and religious imagery, add a new alter ego known as the Thin White Duke and produce a massive hit that reaches number three on the charts. The two biggest singles from the album – “Golden Years” and “TVC 15” – aren’t as celebrated as some of Bowie’s earliest tunes, but at the time they anchored an album that predicted another imminent style-shift.

“Sound and Vision”

From the album Low (1977)

“Sound and Vision” by zoomermedia

An album that grew in popularity in hindsight, Low is a more experimental work that makes the first release in Bowie’s “Berlin Trilogy” – the series of albums he made with musician Brian Eno. “Sound and Vision” was the first and biggest single from the album, a heavily instrumental tune that reached number three on the charts.


From the album Heroes (1977)

“Heroes” by zoomermedia

The second album in the “Berlin Trilogy,” Heroes proved a critical success and, like the Low album, the title track grew in popularity in the years after its release. Looking back, it’s difficult to imagine “Heroes” not near the top of anyone’s list of favourite Bowie songs, with its strained vocals, catchy tune and story about lovers torn apart by war – especially when you consider it was almost literally recorded in the shadow of the Berlin Wall, which wasn’t far from the studio.

“Peace on Earth/Little Drummer Boy” (1982)

“Peace on Earth/Little Drummer Boy” by zoomermedia

Only David Bowie could rock alongside Mick Jagger and Queen and also show up at Bing Crosby’s “house” in a shirt and blazer and sing Christmas carols and look cool doing both. For many, this collaboration is a holiday staple and a real reminder of Bowie’s versatility.

“Ashes to Ashes”

From the album Scary Monsters (and Super Creeps) (1980)

“Ashes to Ashes” by zoomermedia

Did you ever wonder what happened to Major Tom after his circuit went dead in “Space Oddity”? Here’s your answer:

“Ashes to ashes, funk to funky

We know Major Tom’s a junkie

Strung out in Heaven’s high

Hitting an all-time low”

Evidently, the 80s didn’t start out so well for Major Tom. But they started just fine for Bowie, with the hauntingly brilliant and catchy “Ashes to Ashes” topping the charts.

“Under Pressure” (1981)

We all know and love this song. With two of rock music’s greatest performers, Bowie and Freddie Mercury, on vocals, backed by Queen and one of the greatest bass riffs in music history, “Under Pressure” was destined to become an instant classic. If not for the keen musical memory of Queen’s drummer Roger Taylor. As the story goes, “Roger Taylor, in an interview for the BBC documentary Queen: the Days of Our Lives, stated that [Queen bassist John] Deacon had indeed created the bassline, stating that all through the sessions in the studio he had been playing the riff over and over; he also claims that when the band returned from dinner Deacon had, amusingly, forgotten the riff, but fortunately Taylor was still able to remember it.

The tune topped the charts in the U.K. and landed in the top 30 in multiple countries around the world.

“Lets Dance,” “China Girl,” “Modern Love”
From the album Lets Dance (1982)

“Lets Dance” by zoomermedia

All three of these songs charted in the top 10 in various countries around the world but it’s the title track that erupted and hit number one in multiple countries, reaching heights even Bowie hadn’t seen before. The age of “Space Oddity” and Ziggy Stardust was long gone though and Bowie was about to embark on a difficult creative period and “Lets Dance” bridged the two eras with a sound that rocked both old and new fans alike.

Honourable Mentions:

“Blackstar,” “Lazarus”
From the album Blackstar (2016)

“Lazarus” by zoomermedia

Bowie’s last album, which also serves as his parting gift to fans, is full of symbolism and lyrical messages for those who loved and supported the artist throughout his career. The singer’s long time producer Tony Visconti confirmed in a statement following Bowie’s passing that, “He always did what he wanted to do. And he wanted to do it his way and he wanted to do it the best way. His death was no different from his life – a work of art. He made Blackstar for us, his parting gift. I knew for a year this was the way it would be. I wasn’t, however, prepared for it. He was an extraordinary man, full of love and life. He will always be with us. For now, it is appropriate to cry.”

It’s not just the two singles, but the videos as well, that prove so poignant. In “Blackstar,” a 10 minute short film, we see an astronaut lying dead on a rocky terrain in space, an image many have interpreted as representing the final fate of Major Tom, from Bowie’s first hit, 1969’s “Space Oddity.” In the second video, Bowie lies bandaged in a hospital bed while singing such lyrics as:

“This way or no way

You know, I’ll be free

Just like that bluebird

Now ain’t that just like me”

The songs serve as both a chronicle of Bowie’s final year as well as a thank you to those who loved him. And like everything else Bowie did in his career, he had one creative innovation left up his sleeve. In a world of constant noise and news cycles he went quiet, crafting his exit on his own terms – a revolutionary until the end.