You could say I’m a fan.
Last Monday (11th January), before I had even got out of bed, I had received two texts and an email sharing shock and condolences on hearing the news that the inimitable David Bowie had passed away.
I still don’t really believe it.
While I may not qualify for the most obsessed fan in the world (I like to keep my feet on the ground and have never been interested in star worshipping), I have been following David Bowie’s career ever since having my musical expectations upset with Scary Monsters and Super Creeps around the time of its release.
Bowie’s career has been influential beyond measure, but not just because of his music. The V&A exhibition entitled ‘Bowie Is’ highlighted his effect on the fashion industry. He has also had a hand in making some visually intriguing and challenging cover art. So as a tribute, rather than trying to sort through his extraordinary catalogue of music, I thought I would share a few favourite and interesting covers.
The Man Who Sold The World
Released: April 1970
Cover by: Keith MacMillan
This album is considered to be the beginning of glam rock and the first with a group of musicians who were to become the Spiders from Mars. The cover shows Bowie in shoulder length hair, reclining in a dress designed by Michael Fish, with a deck of playing cards strewn across the floor. The androgyny may have been too much for the American market, as the cover for the US release instead featured a cartoon of a cowboy, drawn by one of Bowie’s friends. While relatively commonplace in pantomimes, Shakespeare and Elizabethan theatre, a man wearing a dress (particularly a famous one, appearing on an album cover) would have been something of a surprise. Bowie was never one to shock, offend or insult for the sake of it, but it seemed natural to him to need to upset societal norms and paradigms. It’s a dress. So what? If you think that’s shocking, wait until you hear the record inside!
Lodger was a slow burn. The initial poor reviews were eventually overpainted with adulation when the critics finally saw that the album was (as usual) ahead of its time, complex and relevant. It is then rather fitting that the cover contains elements of disjointedness and fracture.
Bowie is seen laying on a tiled floor, photographed from above, with broken nose, twisted ankle and apparently damaged shoulder, seemingly the victim of an accident or perhaps an attack. The deliberate low resolution of the Polaroid SX-70 camera that was used, gives the photo the impression of a saved memory, a snapshot collected with other memorabilia like the postcard that holds the artist’s name and title. It’s a moment, a tragedy, a comment on the transitory title and the unsettling contents.
Scary Monsters (And Super Creeps)
Released: September 1980
Cover: Brian Duffy & Edward Bell
The follow up to Lodger was Bowie’s dealing with his previous incarnations and finishing what he had started in the Berlin Trilogy. The cover shows clips from artwork from Heroes, Lodger and Low, adhered but painted over, as if to be corrected, unforgettable memoirs that won’t quite disappear. On the front, Bowie is seen dressed in the Pierrot-inspired costume designed for him for the Ashes to Ashes video in an advert-like setting, theatrically preparing for the next stage. The full size original painting was exhibited at the Bowie Is exhibition at the Victoria and Albert Museum 2013 and was a wonderful surprise as I wandered around the V&A, not quite sure what to expect around the next corner.
Cover Design: Rex Ray Photography: Tim Bret Day & Frank Ockenfels
Bowie’s twenty first studio album was the first entire album ever to be released digitally before the physical copy was available in stores. It is quite fitting that the cover has a digital yet ethereal feeling to it, showing Modern Bowie cradling the head of what appears to be a passing-away, short-haired Earthling Bowie. Stripes and other graphic ‘noise’ allude to barcodes and commerce. Musically, it sounds more mature and mellow, but still retains the edge of earlier albums. As with other covers, the artwork here shows the transition from previous outings and visually represents the music perfectly.
The Next Day
Released: March 2013
Cover: Jonathan Barnbrook,
After a ten year hiatus, Bowie released The Next Day. It gained a lot of media attention, mainly because of the long wait since the last studio album, but also because of the cover. As with other album covers, Bowie made a statement about dealing with the past, negating previous success and moving forward. The cover features the Heroes cover image, shot by Masayoshi Sukita, with a white rectangle obscuring the face. Barnbrook explained the cover, saying: “If you are going to subvert an album by David Bowie there are many to choose from but this is one of his most revered, it had to be an image that would really jar if it were subverted in some way and we thought “Heroes” worked best on all counts.” Once more, Bowie shows that the past is no place to put your better days and looks forward to the next.
Released: January 2016
Cover: Jonathan Barnbrook
For his fourth and final Bowie LP cover, Barnbrook designed the only UK studio album cover in the artist’s history to not feature his face in any form, obliterated or not. Exceptions could be made for the US pressing of The Man Who Sold the World or the UK release of The Buddha of Suburbia, if you want to count soundtracks. Showing just a simple star and a series of shapes extracted from the same black star, and spelling out BOWIE, it is remeniscent of a tombstone in its beautiful simplicity.
A well timed final album; a concise and fitting cover; an immaculate farewell.
RIP Mr Jones.
David Bowie (still) Is.
All images ©Wikipedia used under Fair Use Licensing. For larger versions, buy the albums. You’ll be glad you did. Buy vinyl and you’ll be really happy. I promise.