How David Bowie Turned His “Adequate” Voice into a Powerful Instrument: Hear Isolated Vocal Tracks from “Life on Mars,” “Starman,” “Modern Love” “Under Pressure” & More

Believe it or not, the odds were against David Bowie becom­ing an inter­na­tion­al pop super­star. When it seemed he’d final­ly arrived, with the release of Zig­gy Star­dust and the Spi­ders from Mars in 1972, “we didn’t real­ize,” says Jarvis Cock­er in a 2012 doc­u­men­tary, “that he’d been try­ing to be suc­cess­ful for 10 years.” Bowie was 24, a ripe old age in pop star years, and already had four albums under his belt as a solo artist, the first a total com­mer­cial fail­ure, and the sec­ond notable for its one hit, “Space Odd­i­ty,” which seemed like it might have been the artist’s big break in 1969, but some­how wasn’t.

He had played in sev­er­al bands and tried per­form­ing under his giv­en name, Davy Jones, which he just hap­pened to share with one of the biggest pop stars of the day. Had he not per­sist­ed, changed his name and style, and, cru­cial­ly, invent­ed his Mar­t­ian glam per­sona, he might have remained a one-hit-won­der, his excel­lent The Man Who Sold the World and Hunky Dory revered as under­rat­ed cult favorites among fans in the know.

In addi­tion to the dif­fi­cul­ty Bowie had find­ing his niche, he was not a nat­u­ral­ly gift­ed singer and was a reluc­tant per­former. Drawn ear­ly to “move­ment and music” class­es in school, Bowie’s teach­ers called his idio­syn­crat­ic style “vivid­ly artis­tic,” but only rat­ed his voice as “ade­quate.” As voice coach Lisa Popeil writes, “though vocal­ly agile as an adult, Bowie was nev­er known for great pitch accu­ra­cy.”

Such things mat­ter less these days, what with pitch cor­rec­tion soft­ware. In the old days of ana­log, singers couldn’t lean on dig­i­tal wiz­ardry to make them sound bet­ter than they were. Bowie wasn’t “par­tic­u­lar­ly fond” of his own voice, he revealed in an inter­view, and unlike most hun­gry, young would-be stars, he didn’t set out to put him­self in the spotlight—not at first.

“I thought that I wrote songs and wrote music and that was sort of what I thought I was best at doing. And because nobody else was ever doing my songs, I felt, you know, I had to go out and do them.”

So the shy, retir­ing Bowie charged ahead. “With his the­atri­cal bent and fear­less­ness,” Popeil writes, his “abil­i­ty to cre­ate mem­o­rable and emo­tion­al vocal stylings was of the high­est order.” This, we might say, is almost an under­state­ment. Aspir­ing singers and musi­cians can learn much from Bowie’s career, per­haps fore­most the les­son that one needn’t be a prodi­gy or a bub­bly extro­vert to fol­low a musi­cal pas­sion. Bowie honed his vocal skills and achieved mas­tery over his haunt­ing bari­tone, while also learn­ing to move into a pow­er­ful tenor range.

Wit­ness these iso­lat­ed vocal tracks from through­out this career. At the top, the vocal mix from “Life on Mars” shows, as Clas­sic fM writes, that “while unpol­ished, his tremu­lous voice has real qual­i­ty and range.” Fur­ther down, we hear Bowie goof­ing around a bit in the vocal booth before launch­ing into his first hit, “Space Odd­i­ty,” his voice a bit thin in the verse, then hit­ting its full stride in the cho­rus. Three years lat­er, on “Star­man” from Zig­gy Star­dust, we hear more con­fi­dence and con­trol in the vocal track. Then, ten years after Zig­gy, Bowie belts it out on “Mod­ern Love,” above, hav­ing already kept pace with arguably the great­est rock singer of all time on “Under Pres­sure,” fur­ther up.

On “Gold­en Years,” above, Bowie explores his full range, from deep­est bari­tone to falset­to. His voice inevitably waned with age and the sick­ness of his final years, but he nev­er lost the abil­i­ty to imbue a song with max­i­mal emo­tion­al range, mak­ing the ragged vocals on his last album, espe­cial­ly its chill­ing sin­gle “Lazarus,” some of the most grip­ping in his entire body of work. The video below from The Last Five Years doc­u­men­tary strips away the instru­men­ta­tion, leav­ing us with the image of an aged, blind­ed Bowie in bed, singing “Look up here man, I’m in danger/I’ve got noth­ing left to lose.” His breath­ing is audi­bly labored, giv­ing the record­ing a poignant imme­di­a­cy. But the for­ev­er-dis­tinc­tive Bowie vocal style is as deeply mov­ing as ever.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

The Sto­ry of Zig­gy Star­dust: How David Bowie Cre­at­ed the Char­ac­ter that Made Him Famous

Hear Fred­die Mercury’s Vocals Soar in the Iso­lat­ed Vocal Track for “Some­body to Love”

Hear Dolores O’Riordan’s Beau­ti­ful­ly-Pained Vocals in the Unplugged Ver­sion of The Cran­ber­ries’ 1994 Hit “Zom­bie”

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

by | Permalink | Comments (4) |

Sup­port Open Cul­ture

We’re hop­ing to rely on our loy­al read­ers rather than errat­ic ads. To sup­port Open Cul­ture’s edu­ca­tion­al mis­sion, please con­sid­er mak­ing a dona­tion. We accept Pay­Pal, Ven­mo (@openculture), Patre­on and Cryp­to! Please find all options here. We thank you!

Comments (4)
You can skip to the end and leave a response. Pinging is currently not allowed.
  • Janine Byrd says:

    Thank you for the won­der­ful peice on David Bowie. You just don’t hear enough about him in my opin­ion. A remark­able musician,songwriter,trailblazer.

  • Melissa Kelly says:

    Thank you :) I got the chills when lis­ten­ing to “Under Pres­sure”. Such a fan­tas­tic duo <3

  • Leon says:

    Hey Mel­lis­sa
    1979–1980 i was in the back­seat of the car going through Coopa­roo and i heard Ash­es to Ash­es on the Radio.
    Bowie was about to play at Lang Park,instantly i was drawn to him wow.
    This artist was spe­cial and then Lets Dance Chi­na Girl Cat people,i was hooked his back cat­a­logue was huge.
    He showed a sense of move­ment in his pro­jec­tion to not go stale as an artist.
    I have been emu­lat­ing his voice for years,i have the range i have con­trol as he did.
    I can sing any Bowie song from life on mars to blue Jean.
    Ara­bi­an nights to Laz­zarus.
    Gold­en years to lady star­dust.

  • Rob Hughes says:

    I don’t agree with the coach. I can think of hard­ly any instances where Bowie is ‘off pitch’, even in live record­ings, unless he is doing it delib­er­ate­ly for effect (e.g., “I am bored” from It’s no game, no. 1′ or the “kiss you in the rain” seg­ment from ‘Black­out’).

Leave a Reply

Open Culture was founded by Dan Colman.