I meant to write about this on Friday, then over the weekend, but I just got so bogged down in my own head, which I am wont to do, that it didn’t happen. Writing is almost like physical exercise to me & I know that comes off as perhaps hyperbolic, but it’s true. It’s a huge exercise for my brain which I try not to use in real life & for my first 33 1/2 years it’s been pretty evident. Anyway, on January 8th, David Bowie celebrated his 63rd Birthday & Elvis Presley would’ve celebrated his 75th.
At first glance the thought is that Elvis is perhaps the greatest Rock N’ Roll star in history, but again we come to that old argument is Elvis a talented musician or a terrific entertainer? David Bowie is an innovator best known for his alter-ego turn in the ’70’s as Ziggy Stardust & his glam-rock androgyny. Though, much like Elvis this may be just a way for the masses to label something they don’t understand.
We’ll first tackle the Elvis questions. Elvis was a supremely talented vocalist & entertainer. He was the first Rock N’ Roll musician that was marketable to the world. Good looking, affable, a great dancer & a white man with a black voice. Elvis had it all. He took what Frank Sinatra had to the next level & became a veritable Rock N’ Roll crooner. Elvis, though, never wrote his own songs, rarely played an instrument & let’s not even talk about the Fat Elvis days. He was by all accounts the Michael Jackson of his day (Michael Jackson wrote his own songs though), which is not to say that he was not talented or a star, just as far as musicianship he was a pop star, a Justin Timberlake. A guy that could sing, dance & act (King Creole is a remarkably good movie, as is Jailhouse Rock). He was an icon like MJ that became a bit of a freakshow in his later years, much like MJ.
David Bowie created or at least popularized Glam Rock, but if you look at his body of work it’s just as impressive in the annals of music history as Elvis Presley’s. I dare you to listen to Hunky Dory & not walk away thinking it is one of the greatest albums ever. It’s brilliant & may not even be his best album as Ziggy Stardust is perfect. From 1968-1972 David Bowie put out some of the best music the world has ever heard. Then he decided to reinvent himself. Much like Elvis, he could have stayed the same, still been great & no one would’ve thought twice. He didn’t, he ventured out & saw what else he could do. He made some records with an R&B flavor, a cover album & some disco stuff & it wasn’t all great, but he took chances.
The point is not that these artists are diametrically opposite, because they are quite similar in many ways. What it comes down to, for me, is that David Bowie took more chances than Elvis did. He took his music places that were years ahead of his time. Later in life when Elvis turned into a fat caricature of himself David Bowie was duetting with Trent Reznor on Soundtracks & still reinventing himself to a newer, younger audience. Many will say Elvis had no choice, he was pigeonholed by an adoring public. Bullshit. The Beatles & Bob Dylan could’ve cared less what people thought when they decided to change their respective sounds & they didn’t take a 2 year break to serve inthe Army.
Musicians progress, mature, evolve. Entertainers stick with what their fans want, with what makes them money & with what keeps them marketable. Elvis Presley was a corporation unto himself, a marketing machine that transcended music. David Bowie is a musician, that entertains, but his musical evolutions are not predicated on whether or not you like him. You are merely happenstance, an afterthought to what he feels is his greater goal…satisfying himself musically. That’s why, musically, David Bowie is far superior to Elvis Presley.
Elvis Presley – That’s All Right
David Bowie (Live at the BBC) – Space Oddity
Elvis Presley – Blue Moon
David Bowie (Live at the BBC) – Queen Bitch
Elvis Presley – Mystery Train
David Bowie – Life on Mars