It’s been a year since David Bowie’s death, so we wanted to revisit some of our best looks into his work.
It would be hard to overestimate the creative reach of David Bowie, whose influence can be heard on at least forty years’ worth of rock, pop and even soul musicians. A great many artists have covered his songs over the years, from Barbra Streisand to Marilyn Manson. Some covers are great and others are (ahem) not so good, but here are our picks for the 12 greatest David Bowie covers over the years.
Black Box Recorder, Rock and Roll Suicide
On the cover of Black Box Recorder’s “The Art of Driving” single, the band’s three members look like they died in a car crash while on their way to a funeral. Rock’s most underrated existentialists, Black Box Recorder know a thing or two about suicide.
“Life is unfair,” went the chorus of their debut single. “Kill yourself or get over it.” For “The Art of Driving,” they naturally leapt at the chance to do a sexy cover of “Rock and Roll Suicide,” the final track from The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars.
The Langley School Music Project, Space Oddity
In 1976 and 1977, a rural Canadian music teacher recorded a class of about 60 elementary school students doing contemporary hits by the Carpenters, Fleetwood Mac and the Eagles. The record was pressed only for students and teachers, but the resulting recording was so hauntingly beautiful that it was re-released internationally in 2001.
Bowie approved of the school’s “Space Oddity” cover: “Coupled with the earnest if lugubrious vocal performance you have a piece of art that I couldn’t have conceived of, even with half of Colombia’s finest export products in me.”
Barbra Streisand, Life On Mars?
The cover art for Barbra Streisand’s rare 1974 album ButterFly is incredible. The Oscar-winning star is nowhere to be seen, and instead the record sleeve features a fly crawling around on a stick of butter. The song choices are equally strange, and include covers of contemporary hits by Bill Withers, Bob Marley, and, yes, David Bowie. The effect is strange enough that her version of the lyrically dense “Life On Mars?” is hard not to love.
Marilyn Manson, Golden Years
Back in the nineties, movie soundtracks were receptacles for castoffs by major label artists, and the quality of the film had nothing whatsoever to do with the quality of the soundtrack. Cheesy MTV-produced comedy Dead Man On Campus starred Mark-Paul Gosselaar as a heartless teen trying to get through college, but the soundtrack featured great songs by Blur, Elastica, Jonathan Fire*eater and Supergrass, as well as Marilyn Manson’s faithful cover of Bowie’s 1976 hit “Golden Years.”
Seu Jorge, Starman
When director Wes Anderson created a nautical vehicle for Bill Murray to be his Bill Murray-est, he selected Brazilian singer Seu Jorge to record a whole bunch of acoustic Bowie covers for the soundtrack. The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou features five songs by Seu Jorge, as well as two of Bowie’s originals, all from his glam early seventies period.
The Associates, Boys Keep Swinging
Scottish singer Billy Mackenzie was a flamboyant queer with an operatic voice and a band that couldn’t catch a break. That’s when he decided to cover Bowie’s “Boys Keep Swinging” just weeks after the original was released in the spring of 1979, ignoring all copyright law and hand-distributing the 7″ single to Glasgow record shops. The stunt worked, the band got a deal, and their first album, The Affectionate Punch, was released the following year.
Edwyn Collins, The Gospel According To Tony Day
Cult hero Edwyn Collins is mostly known in the United States for his 1995 hit “A Girl Like You,” but he’s been familiar to British audiences since his band Orange Juice released “Rip It Up” way back in 1983. Bowie’s original was the B-side to a comedy single called “The Laughing Gnome” – no, really – while Collins’ version is an ominous, sultry blues number.
Saint Etienne, Absolute Beginners
Recorded as a 1993 fanclub-only single, the hip-hop influenced cover of “Absolute Beginners” by English trio Saint Etienne reappeared fifteen years later in their Boxette box set. Though Bowie’s original is unquestionably about London, the cover features a sample of Boogie Down Productions’ “South Bronx.” It’s the exact sample that ended up a few years later in J. Lo’s “Jenny From The Block” a few years later.
Lulu, The Man Who Sold The World
You may be familiar with the live Nirvana cover of “The Man Who Sold The World,” from MTV Unplugged in New York. But squeaky-clean Eurovision winner/Ab Fab punchline Lulu covered the song way back in 1974.
Bowie himself produced the cover, coaching Lulu to keep smoking more cigarettes during the recording session. He also contributed background vocals and saxophone to the song.
The Au Pairs, Repetition
“What’s the good of me working when you can’t damn cook?” A brute of a husband laments the cars he could have driven and the women he could have married in this domestic tragedy from Bowie’s strange Lodger album. Feminist post-punks The Au Pairs covered it two years later on their profound, political album Playing With A Different Sex.
Quasi, Sound and Vision
1996 Bowie tribute album Crash Course for the Ravers featured 90s indie bands like the Dambuilders, the Magnetic Fields and Tree People doing their own takes on Bowie’s hits. A major highlight is Bowie’s “Sound And Vision” covered by Quasi, the duo comprised of Sleater-Kinney drummer Janet Weiss and her then-husband Sam Coomes. It’s a delightfully droning cover that keeps Bowie’s trademark guitar, scuzzed-up with some marching drum.
Chris Hadfield, Space Oddity
Canadian astronaut Chris Hadfield became a viral sensation in 2013 with his outer-space recording of Bowie’s “Space Oddity.” The amateur singer-guitarist had Bowie’s own blessing, but the song’s actual copyright holders yanked the video from Youtube after one year. The copyright was later extended, so you can watch this for two more years.
(featured photo : David Bowie and Lulu in 1974, via The Mirror)