As fans everywhere mourn the final lift-off from the man who fell to earth, it’s a great time to celebrate his near-universal influence.
You’re probably already familiar with the best-known Bowie covers like Nirvana’s MTV Unplugged version of “The Man Who Sold The World” (hell, it might have even been your introduction), The Wallflowers’ “Heroes” from Godzilla: The Album (which you probably don’t need to hear ever again) or the Dewey Cox/John C. Reilly space-disco “Starman” (honestly pretty great). So, you won’t find those below.
Instead, we’ve rounded up 15 of the best and less celebrated covers, remixes, and reimaginings of the lad insane. From street musicians to minimalist composers, post-punk bands, Portuguese singer-songwriters, curmudgeonly radio hosts, and everything in between, here’s a list we really hope Bowie would have enjoyed.
The Space Lady – “Starman”
Susan Dietrich Schneider a.k.a. Suzy Soundz a.k.a. The Space Lady got her start as a busker on the streets of San Francisco. With her signature winged helmet and FX-dripping Casio, her dreamy readings of Peter Schilling, Steppenwolf, and The Electric Prunes earned her a spot on the infamous outsider artist comp, Songs In The Key of Z (followed by several reissues). When she performed this Bowie cover at Toronto’s Double Double Land on her first world tour in 2014, it left the whole room teary.
Techno Cowboy – The Ziggy Stardust Omnichord Album
Little information is known about the Techno Cowboy, another street musician doing his own thing with an omnichord in Hollywood. This pitched-up take on Bowie’s John Lennon-featuring “Fame” is somewhat nightmarish, though its sets the stage for his self-described “technopop ear candy” album-length interpretation of The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars.
Ice Cube – “Alive on Arrival”
Both a then-hyphened Jay Z and a then-hyper-successful EPMD sampled elements of “Fame”, but Ice Cube gave it the most political power. This cut from his 1991 album Death Certificate tells the tragic tale of a black man caught in a shootout before bleeding to death while being questioned by police. It’s a whole other story of “young Americans.”
The Boys Next Door – “China Girl”
Glam and Station to Station-era Bowie undoubtedly provided a jumping-off point for goth-rock. Bauhaus’s “Ziggy Stardust” and Christian Death’s “Panic In Detroit” are fairly well known, so here’s one for the heads: A pre-Birthday Party Nick Cave and co. ripping into a probable pisstake of “China Girl” live. FWIW, we can only hope this song wouldn’t fly as a mainstream radio hit today.
Barbra Streisand – “Life on Mars”
Tina Turner – “Cat Power (Putting Out Fire)”
Bowie’s titular theme to Paul Schrader’s 1982 creeper of a film was re-contextualized to even greater effect in Quentin Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds. This live performance from Tina Turner in the year of the song’s release is another ferociously sexy reimagining.
Seu Jorge – “Rock ‘n’ Roll Suicide”
Seu Jorge’s Portuguese covers from The Life Aquatic gave the Wes Anderson submarine trip some bonus breaths of fresh air. Bowie loved them too.
Guided By Voices – “Five Years”
Robert Pollard at his most wonderfully wasted.
Chris Hadfield – “Space Oddity”
The first music video recorded in space by a Canadian astronaut got a fitting song choice. It’s easy to feel tired of this thirsty social media master since he landed back on earth, but his original performance is still pretty moving. Almost as fragile and human as The Space Lady.
White Fence – “She’s Got Medals”
White Fence’s Tim Presley, one of the most prolific and talented weirdo wunderkinds of modern garage-rock, contributed this cover of the 1967 Bowie song to Aquarium Drunkard’s Lagniappe Sessions. As he said at the time, “the ‘Hey Joe’ chords should’ve been the first thing inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.”
Au Pairs – “Repetition”
A deep cut from Bowie’s underrated Lodger gets a haunting monotone reimagining by the even more underrated post-punk band Au Pairs. With a flat delivery of the lyrics about domestic violence (“I guess the bruises won’t show/If she wears long sleeves”) it only serves to flatten their horrors. This fan-made video mashes up a montage of scenes from Jean-Luc Godard’s 2 or 3 Things I Know About Her to send some extra chills up your spine.
Duran Duran – “Boys Keep Swinging”
Bowie tribute comps are a dime a dozen (CFCF and Austra doing “Soul Love”? Sure! Kittie covering “Space Oddity”? Hey, where’d you go?). However, the 2010 set We Were So Turned On offered a few true highlights from the likes of late aughts survivors Vivian Girls, A Place To Bury Strangers, and Tearist. Yet the most unexpected standout was this glitzy beat-driven Lodger cover from noted Bowie fans Duran Duran. Sometimes the pieces just fit together.
David Bowie and Philip Glass – “Heroes” (Aphex Twin Remix)
This one could have been a clusterfuck, but the emotionally-charged results are the proof in the pudding. On his 26 Mixes For Cash compilation, Richard D. James combined the stirring strings from minimalist composer Philip Glass’s Symphony No. 4 ‘Heroes’ with Bowie’s original vocals and ran them through the ringer. Pop on a good pair of headphones and let this one take you to another place.
Dylan Howe – “Subterraneans”
Speaking of another place, here’s the opening number from an album of jazz covers of Bowie and Eno’s ‘Berlin Trilogy’ by the son of Yes guitarist Steve Howe (who played koto on the original version of “Moss Garden”). Got that? No? OK, just ask your prog-loving uncle. For bonus music nerd funzos, this album also features Adrian Utley of Portishead.
Tom Scharpling – Bowie v. Mercury: Who Won “Under Pressure”?
Finally, in this clip from 2007, The Best Show host Tom Scharpling takes on the ultimate recorded rock feud: David Bowie vs. Freddie Mercury in “Under Pressure.” Make sure you stick around to the 15-minute mark when Tom busts out his own legendary pipes.