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Turn And Face The Strange: 10 David Bowie Facts You Need To Know
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Turn And Face The Strange: 10 David Bowie Facts You Need To Know

He was born David Jones but found fame as a rock ET. These ten David Bowie facts sort reality from fiction to uncover the man himself.

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A master media manipulator, David Bowie shrouded himself in mystery – which only left fans wanting to know more. Behind the characters, the costumes and the carefully chosen public announcements, there lay, at heart, one of the world’s best songwriters – an artist who fearlessly spoke truth through his music, leaving clues to his inner self along the way. These ten David Bowie facts go some way towards revealing the man behind the image.

Listen to the best of David Bowie here, and check out the ten David Bowie facts you need to know, below.

1: His real name was David Jones

Born in Brixton on 8 January 1947, and later raised in Bromley, David Robert Jones was a South London lad who changed his name to avoid being mistaken for The Monkees’ Mancunian frontman, Davy Jones. After briefly going as Tom Jones (before a certain Welsh singer came into view), the fledgling singer-songwriter – who, in 1964, released his debut single, Liza Jane, as Davie Jones With The King Bees, and issued the following year’s You’ve Got A Habit Of Leaving as Davy Jones With The Lower Third – finally hit upon a sharp new surname: Bowie. Pronounced to rhyme with “Zoe”, the name was allegedly inspired by the Bowie knife: “I liked… the idea that the Bowie knife was sharpened on both sides so it cuts both ways – I felt there was something terribly ambiguous about the name,” he later revealed to the BBC. His first release as David Bowie was the 1966 single Can’t Help Thinking About Me, also recorded with The Lower Third. (Over three decades later, Bowie would re-record these early singles for the Toy album.

2: He adopted an array of characters throughout his career

Bowie’s name change was a sign of things to come, as he would spend much of the 70s creating fictional characters to perform as. The long-running Major Tom appeared on the Space Oddity single, and his most famous character, Ziggy Stardust, helped him secure his breakthrough in 1972, with the Rise And Fall Of Ziggy Stardust And The Spiders From Mars album. Aladdin Sane (from the album of the same name) and The Thin White Duke (Station To Station) are among his other most famous personae. Though he largely dropped the alter egos from the mid-70s onwards, in the mid-90s Bowie created – and voiced – a whole host of new characters for the “non-linear gothic drama hyper-cycle” that was the 1. Outside album.

3: He founded The Society For The Prevention Of Cruelty To Long-Haired Men

In an early sign of the media savvy he would come to be known for – and an indication of the androgyny he would make central to his image – the 17-year-old “Davie” Jones got his first bit of major press when he appeared on the BBC’s Tonight programme, on 12 November 1964, as the founder of The Society For The Prevention Of Cruelty To Long-Haired Men. A canny bit of self-promotion in the wake of the release of his debut single, Bowie, sporting his own shoulder-length blond hair, spoke out against the way the wider public treated men who happily wore their hair long. “I think we’re all fairly tolerant, but for the last two years we’ve had comments like ‘Darling’ and ‘Can I carry your handbag?’ thrown at us, and I think it just has to stop now,” he told balding presenter Cliff Michelmore. Surrounded by the similarly hirsute members of his band, The Manish Boys, Bowie went on to explain that the society would take a formal stand against places where long-haired men were victimised: “If anybody is chucked out of a factory job, or removed from a public bar or saloon bar, we’ll get a petition written up.” Asked if he thought anyone agreed with their cause, Bowie, ever pioneering freedom of expression, asserted, “I think we all like long hair, and we don’t see why other people should persecute us because of this.”

4: He studied mime and contemporary dance with choreographer Lindsay Kemp

Bowie’s early interest in creating dramatic frameworks for his songs is apparent from the 1969 promotional film Love You Till Tuesday, but his association with theatrical performance goes back even further, to 1967 and a meeting with contemporary-dance artist Lindsay Kemp. Under Kemp, Bowie studied the art of mime and, later that year, he would appear as the character Cloud in the stage production of Kemp’s Pierrot In Turquoise Or The Looking Glass Murders, singing early songs such as When I Live My Dream and Threepenny Pierrot. Bowie’s experience with Kemp would inform his increasingly ambitious live shows; Kemp – who would later mentor Kate Bush – helped choreograph the Ziggy Stardust-era live shows and can be seen in the promo video for John, I’m Only Dancing.

5: His breakthrough hit, Space Oddity, was banned by the BBC…

It took five years from releasing his debut single for David Bowie to score a hit – but when he did, it sent him into the stratosphere… eventually. Released on 11 July 1969, Space Oddity achieved lift-off just a week ahead of the Apollo 11 team’s historic touch down on the moon, but the BBC refused to play the song until Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin and Michael Collins had returned to Earth. Once it hit the airwaves, however, Space Oddity rocketed to No.5 in the UK, marking one giant leap for Bowie at a crucial point in his career. Gifting the world a true pop-culture icon in the shape of the doomed astronaut Major Tom (who would later make appearances in the song Ashes To Ashes and in Pet Shop Boys’ remix of Hallo Spaceboy), Space Oddity remains one of the best David Bowie songs, and is a continued influence on music lovers and stargazers alike. When billionaire entrepreneur Elon Musk launched his own Tesla Roadster into space via rocket, in February 2018, the car’s stereo was set to play Space Oddity on loop. And the mannequin strapped into the driving seat? He was named Starman, after another stellar Bowie hit.

6: … As were several of his album covers

Each of David Bowie’s albums covers was as radically different as the music within, tracing their creator’s visual evolution as much as his songs charted his sonic reinventions. Yet some were deemed too much for public consumption, among them the original The Man Who Sold The World sleeve, which, depicting Bowie reclining in a “man’s dress” created by British designer Michael Fish, was rejected by his US record label. A handful of years later, the Diamond Dogs album cover was again the cause of some concern when its original gatefold image showed Bowie’s dog’s bollocks on full display (they were airbrushed out before release). Nor would that be the last time a Bowie artwork featured troublesome genitalia. In 1992, the Tin Machine II album was similarly censored when its images of the ancient Greek statue Kroisos Kouros were once again deemed too shocking for the US record-buying public.

7: He appeared to have different-coloured eyes – but that wasn’t quite true

Bowie’s striking androgyny was perfect for his breakthrough as the extraterrestrial rock messiah Ziggy Stardust, but the fact that he seemed to have mismatched irises – one blue, one brown – also helped give him an otherworldly quality. His ocular irregularity is often put down to a genetic condition known as heterochromia, but the real reason David Bowie had two different-coloured eyes had nothing to do with biology. Rather, it was the result of a falling out that the 15-year-old Bowie had with his school friend George Underwood. When Bowie took a girl Underwood also fancied out on a date, Underwood punched him in the eye, leaving him with a permanently dilated pupil – or anisocoria. “I only ever meant to give him a black eye at most,” Underwood, who remained lifelong friends with Bowie, once told the BBC. “But later David said I did him a favour. After all, everyone talks about his eyes, don’t they? It did give him that really enigmatic look.”

8: He wrote and produced hits for other artists, including Lou Reed and Iggy Pop

While working up material for his first bona fide masterpiece, Hunky Dory, David Bowie was also considering trying his luck as a jobbing songwriter for other artists. Before recording the Hunky Dory standout Oh! You Pretty Things himself, he’d initially given it to former Herman’s Hermits frontman Peter Noone, who had a UK No.12 hit with the song in the spring of 1971. Even as the Hunky Dory material took shape, Bowie split his time overseeing a side-project group named Arnold Corns, which would soon form the basis of his own Ziggy-era backing band, The Spiders From Mars. When Bowie and the Spiders shot to intergalactic levels of fame, he still found time to help some of his rock’n’roll idols, among them Lou Reed, for whom he co-produced the 1972 album Transformer, and Iggy Pop, whose iconic proto-punk outfit, The Stooges, staged an electrifying comeback thanks to another Bowie co-production, Raw Power. (Bowie would again kickstart Iggy’s career when, in between working on his own mid-70s masterpieces, Low and “Heroes”, he helped the Detroit wild child realise his own solo career.) He also saved British glam idols Mott The Hoople from extinction when he gifted them All The Young Dudes, a glam-rock smash which became so huge it stopped the Herefordshire rockers from breaking up.

9: His acting career was as varied as his musical one

David Bowie brought a rare theatricality to his music almost from the start, so it’s perhaps no surprise that he would try his hand at straight-up acting. Taking on anything from starring roles to bit parts in a variety of movies and television specials, not every venture was a smash (he once joked that the historical drama Just A Gigolo was “my 32 Elvis Presley movies contained in one”), but Bowie’s first major acting role, as Thomas Jerome Newton in Nicolas Roeg’s 1976 sci-fi drama, The Man Who Fell To Earth, earned him a Saturn Award for Best Actor, and it remains a key part of Bowie’s legend. Adept at playing outsider figures, his performance as John Merrick in a 1980 stage adaptation of The Elephant Man was also hailed as a triumph. Bowie took on lighter roles, too, making a cameo as himself in Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant’s TV comedy Extras and voicing the character of Lord Royal Highness in SpongeBob SquarePants. For a certain generation, however, his appearance in The Labyrinth is as iconic as any other, as, in the role of Jareth The Goblin King, Bowie cavorted with a cavalcade of Jim Henson puppets. For his final theatrical project, the Lazarus stage musical, he revisited the character of Thomas Jerome Newtown (played, this time, by the actor Michael C Hall). Directed by Ivo Van Howe and with a book by Enda Walsh, the show picked up from where The Man Who Fell To Earth left off, using Bowie’s catalogue of hits to bring Newton’s story to a close.

10: He was a visionary internet pioneer

All throughout his career, Bowie pushed forward – into new musical territory, new creative endeavours and the new technologies that enabled his continual artistic evolution. In the mid-90s, with most home internet connections still limited to dial-up modem speeds, he released one of the first download-only singles in history. Across three weeks in September 1996, Bowie released three different versions of Telling Lies, a song recorded for the Earthling album, as exclusive downloads via his website. This pioneering foray into digital distribution would soon lead him to livestream a concert and launch his own internet service provider, BowieNet, which also doubled as an online fan club. “He saw this stuff coming,” Bowie’s then musical director, Mark Plati, told Dig! “There are some interviews with him from around that time that are scary because he is way ahead. There’s one from 1999 where he basically predicts what’s happening with the internet right now – all the chaos and insanity.”

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