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"Space Oddity" and the space program (1969)
Bowie's breakthrough hit was all zeitgest, released in the weeks before Apollo 11 landed on the moon. It's also one of Bowie's first uses of a recurring character in his lyrics, as Major Tom would go on to appear in songs throughout his career. In 2013, Canadian astronaut Chris Hadfield performed the song on the International Space Station, making the first music video shot in space.
The Man Who Sold The World... a dress (1971)
Bowie paired the darker, heavier music on his third album with a softer image: On the cover (and during media appearances to promote the album), he wore a floral dress by Micheal Fish, a London shirtmaker who designed flamboyant fashions for men.
While most critics considered it a calculation designed to provoke publicity, Bowie's early experiments with androgyny and crossdressing was tremendously influential, leading to more varied gender expressions in pop music. Though it wouldn't be perfected until later, this is when glam rock was born. Nirvana famously covered the title track during their MTV Unplugged performance.
Thin white lines, the Thin White Duke, and The Man Who Fell To Earth (1974-76)
In 1975, Bowie was also one of the first white musicians to perform on Soul Train. It was a transitional period, as he moved from the sizzling glam-rock of the early '70s into a slicker, funkier sound he called "plastic soul" with his first US #1 hit, "Fame," a duet with John Lennon.
Thin white lines, the Thin White Duke, and The Man Who Fell To Earth (continued)
During this time, Bowie was dealing with legal disputes and had fired his manager. Apocryphal stories tell of Bowie overdosing multiple times, subsisting on nothing more than cocaine and hot peppers during this period, a diet that many said explained his wafer-thin body and paper-white skin.
However, flirtations with fascist imagery marred this period in Bowie's career, which includes the masterful albums Young Americans and Station to Station, as well as his first starring role (as an alien, of course) in the science fiction film, The Man Who Fell To Earth.
The Berlin era and The Little Drummer Boy (1977)
Bowie closed out the '70s with a triptych of complex, foreboding albums (Low, Heroes, and Lodger) that were written and recorded in the German city, but it's his version of "Peace On Earth/Little Drummer Boy" with grandpa crooner Bing Crosby that is perhaps most remembered by mainstream audiences from this period. A feel-good holiday moment both you and Grandma can enjoy.