David Bowie did not seem to age much in the 43 years between performing Star Man in a fake snakeskin leotard on Top of the Pops in 1972 and the last pictures in 2015, soon after he discovered he had terminal cancer. That was one factor which made his death on January 11 2016 such a shock. Here TOBY PORTER remembers his South London roots on the fifth anniversary.
Trident Studios in St Anne’s Court, Soho, had been the place where the Beatles recorded Hey Jude.
Elton John’s Your Song and Queen’s Seven Seas of Rhye also took advantage of its cutting-edge remixing electronics.
David Bowie, then 25, took just one take, though, to record the vocal for Five Years, on November 15, 1971.
It is the track which made his reputation, opening The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars.
The song is a nightmare vision of a world living on borrowed time.
Five years after Bowie’s death in 2016, aged 69, after an 18-month battle with cancer, it has lost little of its power.
His decaying vocal recalls the “I want to live” howl from Cygnet Committee, recorded in 1969.
That was about disillusioned idealism – in this case sparked by his disdain for the hangers-on who had failed to change the world during his time at the Arts Lab in Beckenham.
Bowie’s son, director Duncan Jones, confirmed Bowie’s death on Twitter, writing: ‘Very sorry and sad to say it’s true. I’ll be offline for a while. Love to all.’
Fans left at the mural dedicated to the star in Tunstall Road, across Brixton Road from the Tube station and about 200 yards from the Stansfield Road house where Bowie was raised.
Squeeze’s Chris Difford said Bowie, who he saw at Eltham College in 1972 and at Lewisham Odeon, inspired him to start writing songs.
Later, in the 1980s, Bowie invited Squeeze to play some shows on his Glass Spider tour. Chris said: “Without David Bowie in my life I may not have had the courage to start writing songs.
“Bowie unlocked the youthful dreams I had of being me.
“He gave so many teenagers the right to wear their pulling pants every day of the week, people of all persuasions.”
Bowie had been born David Robert Jones on 8 January 1947. From 1953, Bowie moved with his family from Brixton to Bickley and then Bromley Common, before settling in Sundridge Park in 1955 where he attended Burnt Ash Junior School.
His voice was considered “adequate” by the school choir. When he was nine, his father brought home a collection of American 45s by the Teenagers, the Platters, Fats Domino, Elvis Presley – who shared Bowie’s birthday – and Little Richard.
On listening to Little Richard’s song Tutti Frutti, Bowie would later say that he had “heard God”.
The following year, Bowie took up the ukulele and tea-chest bass and had started to play the piano.
After Burnt Ash school, Bowie went to Bromley Technical High School. He received a serious injury at school in 1962 when his friend George Underwood punched him in the left eye during a fight over a girl.
The damage was never fully repaired by several operations and his pupils were different colours as a result.
Bowie launched his Ziggy Stardust stage show with the Spiders from Mars at the Toby Jug pub in Tolworth in Kingston upon Thames on 10 February 1972.
Five Years depicts a world gone crazy at the news that “Earth was really dying”. Bowie’s alter ego, Ziggy Stardust, seems to be hoping to rescue the world.
It was a messianic thread which succeeded an idealistic phase. His utopian phase had been characterised by the Beckenham Arts Lab, which staged the UK’s first free festival, on August 16, 1969, at Croydon Road Recreation Ground, shortly after the release of the single Space Oddity.
Bowie wrote about the event in another hit single, Memory of a Free Festival. Bowie also rehearsed on the second floor with his backing band the Spiders From Mars at the Thomas A Becket pub in the Old Kent Road – which had been mentioned in Geoffrey Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales.
Going back further, Bowie’s boyhood house, in Stansfield Road, was just 250 yards away from the front portico of the Brixton Academy, where he would perform in 1991.
Just another 50 yards on is Stockwell Primary School which, when it was Stockwell Infants School, was where the Starman first learned to string together the sentences which would one day make him one of the most influential songwriters on the planet.
Biographer Christopher Sandford said while Bowie was there he had a “reputation as a gifted and single-minded child – and a defiant brawler”.
Suffragette City, the pre-punk anthem from The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars, refers to “my schooldays insane – my work’s down the drain”.
He lived as an inspiration – which is why Simon Le Bon, Def Leppard, Spandau Ballet’s Tony Hadley and Camberwell’s La Roux were among those who performed in a tribute concert at the Brixton Academy.
His 1970s heyday keyboard player Mike Garson said towards the end of that night: “David, I can feel him. He affected all of our lives in more ways than we ever knew.”
The singer-songwriter himself showed how to have a long career in a way which few others have managed.
His three commercial peaks – Ziggy Stardust, the Thin White Duke and Let’s Dance – had an explosive effect on pop and rock.
Only Madonna can match him for that number of rebirths.
Bowie died of liver cancer, two days after his 69th birthday, in his New York apartment, a long way from the Brixton which nurtured his incredible talent.
But the Aladdin Sane mural shrine in Tunstall Road, another 200 yards south of the Academy is again a place of pilgrimage.
Main Pic: The mural in Tunstall Road, Brixton
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