As music lovers await David Bowie’s big comeback with his much anticipated new album The Next Day and the Victoria and Albert Museum’s new exhibition David Bowie Is, co-curator and author Geoff Marsh talks to the Weekender about the singer’s not so rock n’ roll beginnings in Brixton…
Bowie was born on January 8, 1947 in Brixton, which at the time was a very white, lower middle class area, considerably different to the way it is now. Bowie’s parents weren’t married, which meant they couldn’t take out a mortgage, but his grandmother had bought the house they lived in on 40 Stansfield Road for £500 as a long-term investment.
The stories Bowie tells of this black ghetto upbringing are actually complete fiction, Geoff says. The family moved out to Bromley in 1953 where they settled into a Victorian terrace at 4 Plaistow Grove, Sundridge Park.
“He wasn’t David Bowie then either, he was David Jones, born in a very typical year to a very ordinary family. His backstory was actually all part of his miscreation,” Geoff explains, citing this suburban south London upbringing as the inspiration for Bowie’s song Buddha of Suburbia.
At the time Bowie was going through primary school, students sat an eleven plus exam; the ten percent who passed went onto grammar school then while the rest went to work in factories and the like. Bowie actually passed his exam –though it’s reported he failed it- but decided to go to the newly built Bromley Technical High School rather than grammar school in 1958. “It’s often said he went to art college but he didn’t. However in making this decision it shows how focused he was from a young age,” Geoff says.
The school was very art-centric and by age thirteen Bowie was properly into music. “Bowie has never really said what happened to him, what triggered him to go into music but by his teens he was playing music and in Christmas 1961 his father bought him a saxophone and it all stemmed from there.”
He left school at sixteen to work in a Soho advertising agency as a paste-up artist, which was one of the few things you could do then without an education. “He said he hated it and is very dismissive of that period but he obviously knew how to influence audiences. From day one he’s controlled and manipulated his image,” Geoff points out.
Bowie decided to pursue music professionally aged seventeen and made his first record in 1964. For five or six years he tried desperately to break into the industry; this was a time when the Rolling Stones, the Who and the Beatles were all huge and Bowie was trying everything he could, including auditioning for the musical Hair in 1969. “In 1969 he had a breakthrough with Space Odyssey and the rest as they say is history,” Geoff recalls. The same year Bowie’s father died, never really getting to see his son’s success.
By ’74 he was a massive superstar and his new residence in Chelsea would reflect this. He was later advised to move to Europe for tax purposes where he lived in France, Germany and Switzerland before settling in New York, where he still resides. “He was also a complete workaholic,” Geoff says. Between 1972 and 2004 Bowie performed over 1000 times, which is on average once every 11 days. During these years he also made 30 albums and 20 films.
And now, after avoiding the limelight for almost a decade, Bowie is back.
David Bowie Is at the V&A Museum, Cromwell Rd, SW7 2RL, from March 32 until August 11. Phone: 020 7942 2000.
The Next Day is available now on iTunes.