Musical influence is never a cut and dried question. Examining the impact of David Bowie on Australia’s music landscape is even more complex given the singer’s constant shapeshifting and the debate about whether he was an innovator, or someone who reflected what was already happening musically - or both.
By 1978, during the first of four Bowie tours that included Australia, he was already a completely different person to the one some fans probably expected and certainly the mainstream media were interested in. He’d abandoned his alternative personalities and radically cut down on his drug use. Interviewed by Mike Willesee on A Current Affair, Bowie said: “It is not an exciting existence being a rock star. [It’s] like being in a very luxuriant mental hospital, where you are put in a padded room.”
Sixty thousand people packed the Melbourne Cricket Ground on that tour to see Bowie, his largest concert to date anywhere. Much has been made of the fact young fans queued, some for up to three weeks, to obtain tickets, a phenomenon immortalised in the opening scenes of the 1986 film Dogs In Space.
But the “Bowie Queue”, as local music critics and historians refer to it, had a much deeper impact. ‘[It] was really a coming together, where a lot of friendships were formed between people who went on to have a huge impact in the coming years,’ says music historian David Nichols.
The queue galvanised Melbourne’s slowly evolving punk and new wave music scenes. Those waiting in line included Nick Cave, Phil Calvert and Rowland S Howard from The Birthday Party, Ollie Olsen, who went onto become a pioneer of electronic music in Australia, and Sam Sejavka, front man for The Ears and later Beargarden.
The tour had a major impact on The Models, a Melbourne alternative group formed only a few months earlier, who would go on to support the Australian leg of Bowie’s Serious Moonlight Tour in 1983, as well as Sydney pub band, Flowers. ‘If you went to an early Flowers gig, he [lead singer Iva Davies] did about three Bowie songs in his set and he was obviously very influenced by Bowie in his look and how he performed,’ says music industry veteran Bruce Butler. The band, which later changed its name to Icehouse, supported the European portion of Bowie’s world tour in 1983.
Bowie’s influence down under can be traced back much earlier. Robert Forster, former front man for the Go-Betweens told Double J radio in April 2014: 'In 1972, I was 15 years old, I was in school in Brisbane and I was home one day sick. I was sitting in a chair, listening to a radio station in Brisbane… Suddenly, this 12-string acoustic guitar came on and this voice came through the radio – a voice like I’d never heard before – singing this incredible song. It was almost like the beginning of music for me.'
The song was 'Starman', from the 1972 album, The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars. The clip of Bowie performing it on UK television eventually appeared on GTK or Get To Know, a pre-Countdown music show on the ABC in the early '70s. Watching it gave Australian teens the same sense of possibility that they could break out of their everyday existence.
From that time on, Bowie was in our cultural zeitgeist; his music wafting from radio sets, on television screens and peering out from record racks. Bernard Fanning, former lead singer of Powderfinger, well known for covering "Ziggy Stardust" and 'Starman', has recounted first hearing Bowie’s music coming from his older brother’s room in the mid-seventies. Split Ends co-front man, Neil Finn, lead singer of the Church, Steve Kilbey, and front man of the jazz/rock fusion band, Kush, have all credited Bowie’s influence on their work.
‘I think when colour TV arrived in 1975 and bands like Skyhooks and Hush wore outrageous costumes and stack heels and glitter, you knew that Bowie was the progenitor, even if it took a while,’ says music journalist Michael Whitheford. ‘Without Mick Ronson’s boots and Bowie’s sparkles you’d wonder whether local bands who benefited from the arrival of Countdown would have been as outrageous.’
‘In the '70s it was a huge, homogenous audience for rock music,’ says musician Dave Graney. ‘It isn’t like now. Everybody heard everything. Bowie probably had a great impact because of that.’ Graney’s first memory of Bowie is teasing a girl at high school who had the singer’s picture taped on her locker. He later payed homage to the singer in ‘Oakleigh Bowie Blues’, off his 2009 solo album, Dave Graney Knock Yourself Out.
Bowie’s androgynous sexuality was a big part of his attraction despite the prevailing ethos at the time. ‘Macho blues-rock was the order of the day and double or triple denim was de rigeur,’ says Whitheford. ‘At festivals like Sunbury, bands plodded through long jams into the night. When Queen had the temerity to show up in their Zandra Rhodes threads, the crowd heckled them throughout the set.’
At the same time there was always room for ‘campiness and outrage,’ in Australian music, cautions Nichols. ‘Consumers expected that and knew it was there. I certainly don’t think Bowie was too weird for Australians to understand.’
Bowie’s influence was also felt through his advocacy of other bands. He helped popularise Lou Reed and Iggy Pop, neither of who previously had a local following. He was also influenced by Australian music, covering The Easybeats hit, 'Friday On My Mind' on his 1973 album Pin Ups. Bowie’s homage to the music he had loved in the '60s, Pin Ups registered here due to the moderate chart success of its single, ‘Sorrow’.
When he came to Australia in 1983 it was at the head of an 80-strong entourage and he was a different Bowie again. Let’s Dance was his first major mainstream commercial crossover and he was suntanned and healthy looking. He made an impromptu appearance on the Don Lane Show dressed in a sober suit and tie, prompting Lane to quip, 'This is a very conservative David Bowie here'.
Although Let’s Dance is often the point at which many music critics lost interest in Bowie, his subsequent visits to Australia, the 1987 Glass Spider Tour and A Reality Tour in 2004, where hugely successful.
‘While many of his earlier fans gave up on the singer after his albums, Let’s Dance, Tonight and Never Let Me Down, for the public they very popular, successful albums,’ says Butler. ‘He played to huge crowds on his 2004 tour. There was a whole new group of fans, people who had discovered him through his performances in the movie Labyrinth, and his later albums.’
Paul Dempsey, lead singer and guitarist of Something For Kate, which supported Bowie’s 2004 Australian, is one such person who first discovered Bowie post his seventies output. ‘A lot is made about Bowie’s earlier albums being his best work, but his later stuff is also terrific. His work is influential no matter what point you get into it.’
– Andrew Nette