In the spring of 1983, as David Bowie’s 15th studio album Let’s Dance began its charmed climb up the charts, the album’s producer, Chic bandleader Nile Rodgers, was receiving regular phone calls from his friend and client. “David might not want me to say this,” Rodgers told Rolling Stone in 1989, for the magazine’s feature on the greatest albums of the ’80s, “but for the first few weeks, even he was surprised. He’s a big artist and a rock-and-roll demigod, but there was still a garage-band guy in there who couldn’t believe his record was selling. I’d be lying in bed, and the phone would ring: ‘Hello, Nile? This is David. Look what’s happening—did you see Billboard this week? Wow, unbelievable!’”
There are two things I have always loved about this possibly apocryphal Bowie story, which now seems especially poignant as we say farewell to the Thin White Duke a.k.a. Ziggy Stardust a.k.a. Aladdin Sane a.k.a. the Man Who Fell to Earth a.k.a. the man in Bret McKenzie’s dream. One, that Bowie, after already setting the agenda for much of the 1970s—helping to invent glam and new wave and arguably punk, and selling plenty of records and concert tickets—still underestimated his own popular reach. And two, that Bowie read Billboard avidly and not-so-secretly coveted hit records.
In that spirit, if you are an American mourning David Bowie today, may I make a suggestion? By Thursday, go buy a copy of Blackstar (stylized as★), his 25th—and final—studio album. It may seem morbid and a little crass, particularly for an artist of Bowie’s legend, which stands quite apart from any sales yardstick. But besides the fact that Blackstar is a great album that scored almost universal raves even before we knew it would be Bowie’s last, we also stand a chance to give Bowie his first-ever chart-topping U.S. album—posthumously, and with a disc widely agreed to be his freest, least compromising, and strangest. That sounds like just the kind of irony that would have delighted David Bowie.
Understanding why David Bowie had no No. 1 albums while he was alive means appreciating how truly bizarre and left-field his bursts of popularity were, even at his peak. Bowie’s chart history, at least in America, is like him: episodic and strange.
While Nile Rodgers is correct to remember Let’s Dance as Bowie’s global best-seller (more than seven million sold worldwide, including platinum sales in the U.S.), it wasn’t Bowie’s first deliberate grasp at the brass ring—or at the sound of black America. Bowie’s hit periods were in fact rather bunchy, tightly centered around the moments Bowie decided to try popularity on, like one of his personae. Unlike with, say, Lou Reed, whose chart history does a poor job of reflecting the man’s true impact, Bowie’s chart history, with all its gaps, actually reflects him rather well. If the legend of Bowie is that of the so-called chameleon—the identity-surfer who wrote the blueprint for such future album-to-album reinventors as Prince, Madonna, and Lady Gaga—this approach allowed him to traffic in hit-record–making without much damaging his reputation.
Prior to ’75, Bowie didn’t often place high on the U.S. charts. On the Billboard Hot 100, he’d only scraped the Top 40 once, with the No. 15 hit “Space Oddity”—and that song had to be released twice, in 1969 and 1972, to finally catch on with U.S. radio programmers and find its peak in early ’73. Other now-classics by Bowie such as “Changes” (No. 41, 1972), “Starman” (No. 65, 1972), and “Rebel Rebel” (No. 64, 1974) all missed being counted down by Casey Kasem. In a record business that, even in the early ’70s, prized the well-defined personality over the eclectic shape-shifter, Bowie’s insistence on radically changing his look and sound on each album frustrated attempts to market him to AM radio pop listeners. But it did make him a good fit on the then-new album-oriented rock format, on FM radio. Indeed, Bowie did better in this period on Billboard’s album chart, cracking the Top 20 starting in 1973 with Aladdin Sane (No. 17) and the Top 10 in 1974 with the gold-selling Diamond Dogs (No. 5).
Bowie’s chart fortunes changed most radically, however, in 1975, with his reinvention as a Philly-style soul man on the Young Americans album. Even though Bowie had feinted at soul music previously, it’s hard to overstate what a scrambling of Bowie’s rock-god persona the album was. Recorded largely in Philadelphia’s Sigma Sound Studios, home of the Gamble–Huff sound of ’70s soul, and co-arranged by Puerto Rican guitarist Carlos Alomar, Young Americans gave Bowie the biggest hits in his career to date, returning him to the album-chart Top 10 (No. 9, 1975) and to the Hot 100’s Top 40: first with its sax-drenched title track (No. 28, 1975), featuring very prominent backing vocals by a young Luther Vandross; and then all the way to the top with the John Lennon collaboration “Fame” (No. 1, 1975)—the sound of two pale white boys, over a guitar riff by Alomar, doing a credible stab at pure funk. So credible that Bowie got himself invited on TV’s Soul Train, mimed “Fame” for Don Cornelius and friends, and scored himself an improbable No. 21 R&B hit for the effort.
And then, almost as quickly as it arrived, Bowie decided his status as a Top 40 hitmaker and arriviste soul man was over. He held the persona for only one more album—the coke-tastic Thin White Duke opus Station to Station (No. 3, 1976), containing the shuffling Top 10 hit “Golden Years” (No. 10, 1976)—before he did another of his famous about-faces and headed to France and Germany for his so-called “Berlin trilogy” of albums with co-producer Brian Eno in 1977–79. While Low, “Heroes,” and Lodger each performed respectably on the charts (reaching Nos. 11, 35, and 20, respectively), none generated a major hit—the legendary single “Heroes,” widely regarded as Bowie’s greatest recording, didn’t make the Hot 100 at all; and even Low’s slyly catchy, all-encompassing “Sound and Vision” could manage no better than No. 69. After that dour trio of discs, 1980’s Scary Monsters (and Super Creeps) was positioned as a commercial “comeback” in Bowie’s native U.K.—managing to generate a No. 1 U.K. single in “Ashes to Ashes”—but Bowie remained hit-challenged in America. Only the album’s danceable “Fashion” (No. 70, 1981) made any kind of dent in the Hot 100.
It’s not as if Bowie abandoned dance and funk during his U.S. chart wilderness years; barely a year after “Fashion,” he recorded one of his all-time great hits, the epic Queen collaboration “Under Pressure” (No. 29, 1981—and one of the biggest No. 1 hits in U.K. chart history) riding atop a funky John Deacon bassline. But in general, American pop-radio listeners only fully embraced Bowie when he totally went for it—matching the sound of his rock–R&B hybrids to an artifice-light, deep-crooner persona. This explains why the Rodgers-produced Let’s Dance (No. 4, 1983) exploded: Bowie shifted the not just the formula but the persona, dialing down the quirks and dialing up the suave. (Not for nothing was his smash ’83 tour titled Serious Moonlight.) Bowie’s crossover timing was also perfect, thanks to MTV—he’d been making videos since long before MTV existed, and he now used video to his advantage by, ironically, becoming less weird and more alpha-male than the moussed-and-styled bands dominating the channel, all of whom he’d spawned.
Let’s Dance became Bowie’s only album to spin off multiple Top 10 hits. The title track became his second No. 1, and a rerecording of his ’70s Iggy Pop collaboration “China Girl” reached No. 10; third single “Modern Love” (recently rediscovered by filmmaker Noah Baumbach and arguably Bowie’s greatest ’80s single) barely missed, reaching No. 14. Thanks to the hegemonic power of MTV, the mid-’80s was the closest thing Bowie had to an Imperial period in America—if he’d tapped into a better creative well, Bowie might well have scored his chart-topping album. As it was, even his weaker singles could reach the Top 10 or Top 40 during this period: the fun, frothy “Blue Jean” (No. 8, 1984); a godawful cover of “Dancing in the Street” with Mick Jagger (No. 7, 1985); an ethereal, secretly excellent collaboration with jazz guitarist Pat Metheny, “This Is Not America” (No. 32, 1985); and a pair of wan digital-rock singles from 1987’s Never Let Me Down, “Day-In Day-Out” (No. 21) and the title track (No. 28). After this four-year period of intermittent hitmaking, Bowie’s Top 40 years drew to a quiet close, and he once again became an album artist—occasionally trying to rekindle the pop years, scoring the odd hit on rock radio, but mostly spending the ’90s and early ’00s satisfying his muse.
Which brings us to the 2010s, and Bowie’s final two recordings following a decade-long silence: 2013’s comeback album The Next Day, and this year’s finale Blackstar. The former—an occasionally meandering, often moving throwback to Bowie’s ’70s–’80s creative peak—was never going to generate hits. But it could well have topped the charts. In our current chart era of senior artists scoring improbable No. 1s and meager sales for every artist not named Taylor or Adele, it is now possible for veteran artists to crown the album chart for a week on name recognition alone. Sadly, The Next Day dropped in 2013 the same March week as a Bon Jovi disc (speaking of artists trading on past glories), relegating The Next Day to a No. 2 peak on the Billboard 200 album chart—still the highest Bowie has ever charted to date.
Blackstar, on the other hand—in addition to being the most dirgelike, least precedent-bound album of Bowie’s career—might also be the most well-timed swansong of an album in rock history. Bowie chose to release the disc in January, the weakest month for album sales all year, giving him a lower-than-usual bar to clear. Then, as if knowing the album was his last will and testament, Bowie expired on Sunday, two days after the album’s Friday release. Producer Tony Visconti, Bowie’s longtime collaborator and the producer once again of Blackstar, called it Bowie’s “parting gift.”
Morbid as it sounds, death routinely fuels album sales to grieving fans and curious newbies. Unlike Michael Jackson, who at his death in 2009 had nothing current in stores (and whose greatest-hits album Number Ones saw the biggest boost), Bowie has a brand-new album available. It’s therefore impossible not to wonder how this bizarre timing confluence will affect an album that so richly deserves to command the culture for a week. A better analogy for Bowie than Jackson is the most famous posthumous chart feat in history, that of Bowie’s friend John Lennon in 1980. Lennon’s final album with Yoko Ono, Double Fantasy, came out in November 1980, exactly three weeks before Lennon was assassinated in New York City. The album soared to No. 1 on a Billboard chart dated Dec. 27, 1980 (basically instantaneously, in the years before Soundscan made No. 1 debuts routine). Fantasy wasn’t Lennon’s first chart-topping album, but it was by far his biggest, spending eight weeks at No. 1, generating three Top 10 hits, and winning the following year’s Album of the Year Grammy.
With no songs on it as catchy as “(Just Like) Starting Over” or “Woman,” Bowie’s farewell disc stands no chance of dominating the album chart for months the way Lennon did. But could he still score his first ever No. 1 album, without a radio hit of any kind? His only real competition is (of course) Adele, who has been No. 1 on the album chart for seven solid weeks with 25, and setting mind-blowing sales records along the way. However, with Christmas now over, 25 is finally starting to cool; its most recent sales total, 164,000 albums, is high for the January doldrums but modest for her. Of course, now that Billboard also counts streams and track sales for its album chart, the ongoing success of her “Hello” single (and its follow-up, “When We Were Young”) will also count for her total. Bowie has no such single propping up Blackstar.
It may well be a photo finish, and if Bowie has to fall short one last time, it might as well be to the biggest sales phenomenon of the 2010s. The man has already gone to the Labyrinth in the sky having never experienced a chart-topping album, and so the feat will be a balm mostly to his American fans still on Earth. Still, I like to imagine Bowie checking next week’s Billboard chart and giving his old pal Nile a call from the great beyond: “Did you see Billboard this week? Wow—unbelievable!”