Main content

What David Bowie means to me - by Ricky Gervais, Charli XCX, Grayson Perry and more famous fans

To mark five years since David Bowie's passing, 6 Music and Radio 4 pay tribute to the once-in-a-generation star with the Bowie Five Years On season of special shows.

Bowie: Dancing Out In Space sees leading figures from music, literature, philosophy, technology and comedy talk about the impact of Bowie on their lives and how he always managed to stay ahead of the curve.

Here's what some of David Bowie's famous fans had to say about what the late, great star means to them.

Ricky Gervais, comedian

"I'd invited him to do Extras. I sent him the lyrics to the thing I wanted him to sing. I called him up and I said, ‘Did you get the lyrics?’ He went, ‘yep, got them.’ I said, ‘can you do something sort of retro, like 'Life on Mars'?’ And he went, ‘Yeah, I'll just knock off a quick 'Life on Mars' for you shall I?’ And I just started laughing at how insulting that was! ‘Just knock off another opus for me?’ And he did it and he nailed it. It was perfect..

Bowie's albums are seminal, they’re not just beautiful
Ricky Gervais

"When we went to his place in New York, the doorman opened the door for me and went ‘Oh hello, you’re here for Mr. Jones.’ And I thought ‘yeah, I am, course I am. Course I’m here for Mr. Jones, David Bowie doesn’t exist. I’m here for Mr. Jones.’ When I was with him, he was a friend and I had to remember ‘oh, you know that’s your favourite artist of all time?’ And I went ‘yeah, I do, yeah.’ And then likewise, I’d put on 'Diamond Dogs' and I’d remember the first time I heard it and how amazing it was and then I’d go ‘you know him don’t you?’ ‘Oh yeah I know him.’ So they were sort of separate in my head.

"To put out albums like 'Aladdin Sane', 'Hunky Dory', 'The Man Who Sold the World', 'Diamond Dogs', 'Young Americans', they’re seminal, they’re not just beautiful, they’re greater than the sum of their parts and their parts are brilliant, you know?... I think nowadays, most things in all genres are rubbish. Music, art, architecture, furniture, 90 percent of all of it is rubbish. It’s that 10 percent that exciting, that’s why we seek it out, that’s the club you want to be in. Boy bands, they’re made to be disposable. You’re meant to love them immediately and then hate them in a week. Whereas Bowie and Radiohead and Beethoven, it takes longer [to get into] but it lasts longer as well, because there’s more to it."

Charli XCX, musician

"Bowie paved the way for so many avant-garde artists working in underground spaces but he's also really paved the way for what a popstar is, even just on the surface - that drastic morphing from album to album, era to era. It's so part of being a pop star and it's part of a successful campaign. It's part of the mechanics of a major label. There's a format there, he kind of invented a formula and so many female pop artists really need to do that to distinguish their new start, their new album and that's cool. That's one of the most fun parts about pop music, the unveiling of the new era. As a music fan, sometimes I get more excited about what an era is going to look like than actually what it's going to sound like.”

Bowie paved the way for so many avant-garde artists
Charli XCX

“I just remember hearing 'Sound and Vision' for the first time and you know, I'd heard Bowie songs before but I'd never heard this song. And I was just kind of like, 'whoa'. To me that felt like my first kind of Bowie moment. There are so many subtle hooks throughout 'Sound and Vision', whether it be the repetition of lyrics, whether it be the top line melody, whether it be the guitar part. To me, it doesn't feel like a song with much structure, even though it does have structure. It just feels like all music that I gravitate towards. It's about the feeling that it gives me and that song really reminds me of a certain time in my life and it just feels so warm and rich. And even within the song itself, it feels nostalgic.”

Chris Hadfield, astronaut

"We had this killer audio track [of Hadfield covering 'Space Oddity' at the International Space Station], but I didn't know what to do with it. And so I asked my son Evan, and he said, 'Dad, you got to make a video, you're in space'. If you don't make a video, nobody's gonna believe you did it up there. So I was like, gosh, Evan, I'm busy, I'm running a space station! But one Saturday, I just grabbed my iPad, and I just floated around the space station for an hour or two, videoing myself singing along with myself in various locations. It just got done by the end of my spaceflight and we released it, I think, the day before I came to Earth. By the time I landed, it had 7 million views.

I helped put a big smile on David Bowie's face in the last couple of years of his life
Chris Hadfield on playing 'Space Oddity' at the International Space Station

“[Bowie] loved it. He wrote that song 'Space Oddity' when he was like 19 and all the space themes to everything he did after that. Right up ‘til his last album, there was still a space and an exploration and what lies beyond the earth theme to everything that he did. I helped put a big smile on David Bowie's face in the last couple of years of his life and to me that was the best part of the whole project.”

Christine and the Queens, musician

"I think the first thing I saw of Bowie was the 'Ashes to Ashes' video. I was introduced to one of my favourite Bowie songs ever and that clown version of Bowie was quite striking too. The white-faced clown is also linked to the figure of the sad clown. I understood that somehow it was a way to express a deep malaise but with a poetic form... a dark explanation of Major Tom - Major Tom’s a junkie. So it’s almost like, you play with your own legacy. You slightly tarnish it but also you elevate it even more.

Bowie was throwing himself into [the future] and he was not afraid to go there
Christine and the Queens

"I remember something he said at some point in an interview, he said ‘I’m a collector, I collect personalities’ and I was like ‘brilliant’. The freedom of being able to play with your own past and your own things you said about yourself is both really dark and playful. I understand that idea of moving forward and shedding some skin and then looking back and sometimes picking up something that you left on the floor of a second. I understand that. And also the idea of slightly tarnishing something to get free. Maybe that’s almost to get free of Major Tom once and for all. It was just a way to try to discard it but it’s haunting you. I understand the whole process of it.

"Ironically I think, the theatricality of Bowie was also a way to be immensely sincere. I think every time, he was just trying to convey exactly where he was at the moment where he was writing something. The Thin White Duke is different from Ziggy because it’s different moments of life and it’s different emotions. When I’m working myself on a new record I can’t escape it in a way so - for example - I’m in the studio now and I’m shaping yet a different sound. I’m like ‘oh this is where I’m going to go’ so I’m going to stand a bit differently. My walk, my pace is going to be different and its very naturally coming with images, with how I could sing that song and ‘who am I to say such a thing?’ And then it starts a weird introspection that has to be translated with theatricality. If there’s anything we can learn from Bowie it’s just the way that he’s totally always deflecting comfort. Predicting the future is a good angle but also I think he was jumping into the future. He was throwing himself into it and he was not afraid to go there, even if he was not sure where exactly he would go. But there was an appeal to the unknown and it’s a constant relationship to fear. It’s like defeating a dragon every time. I think that’s what pushed him to be so brilliant over the years and so daring."

David Baddiel, comedian

"[What] I think is extraordinary about Bowie - and this is gonna sound disrespectful to some people, but I guess it can't be helped - is that I think great artists, certainly great pop artists have a sort of limited shelf life. There's a kind of six or seven year window that they're doing incredible work in and then they are, in Brian Wilson's words, cut off from the 'golden source'. That's what Brian Wilson said about himself when he heard Elton John play. Bowie, I think, is in touch with the 'golden source' more than any other artist I can think of.

Bowie is in touch with the 'golden source' more than any other artist
David Baddiel

"And then something weird happens, which I think no other artists has done, which is he becomes rubbish. There's no question he becomes rubbish in the 80s. But by the way, if you're a Bowie obsessive, you will mine the crap periods as well to see if there's anything good at all. On Tin Machine's first album, I think, there's a song called ‘I Can't Read’ and what it's about is not being able to write brilliant songs anymore. It means ‘I can't read the culture. I haven't got that ability I used to have of absolutely being in touch with the beating heart of things and how do I get back there.’ It's a desperate song from that point of view.

"[Then] when 'The Next Day' came out, it was like, okay, this is really Bowie, sort of offering you what David Bowie was, but at the same time, in a typical Davd Bowie way, not - because it's the 'Heroes' cover, with a big white sort of square on it. But what I remember particularly is 'Where Are We Now?'. It is, for me, the late David Bowie song that is totally up there with all his greatest songs."

Maggie Aderin-Pocock MBE, space scientist

He didn't seem to be quite one of us. His vision of the world was different
Maggie Aderin-Pocock MBE

“To me Bowie was transcendent. He was looking beyond. He was almost a person before his time… [I remember watching] The Man Who Fell to Earth… it was literally an alien that fell to earth and was interacting with people and falling in love and doing all sorts of things… It seemed very typecasting to have Bowie as that man that fell to earth. Because he didn't seem to be quite one of us. His vision of the world was different. His vision of the universe was different… Very early on when NASA - this newly formed organisation - were looking for who to send out into space - and they did decide to go for military men, you know, 'people with the right stuff' with the crew cuts and ex-fighter pilots, because they were cool under pressure. I think Bowie did look at that Major Tom and you can tell he's made out of the right stuff and he's in a bad situation, but he's still trying to pull it through.”

Grayson Perry, artist

"I think people forget what it was like in those days, the background hum was very homophobic and any kind of hint of sort of gender or sexual diversity was a trigger. People had sort of very preset attitudes to all that stuff. To me, of course, and millions of other people around the world, that was a kind of, 'Oh, there's other people like me' and I think that was one of David Bowie's most brilliant achievements really was that he was, he was up there on stage for all the people who felt like they were different alone, and nobody else was like them.

Bowie liberated a lot of people
Grayson Perry

"And suddenly, there was someone who was like, forefront in pop culture, who was acting out and enjoying and relaxed with all the things that they felt were their most darkest secrets... I think he liberated a lot of sort of people to become a version of David Bowie. But yeah, he gave permission to a whole, my generation really."

Harris Reed, fashion designer

"I grew up in America. I actually kind of came really into myself, my sexuality, what I wanted to do, when I was really young - probably 9 years old. I was living in Arizona at the time and I remember just feeling so lost. I had no one to look up to. I didn't feel like anyone else and I couldn't find any one in media that represented me whatsoever. I was on YouTube and I think an old Ziggy Stardust video popped up. I was blown away.

We need more people like Bowie
Harris Reed

"The hair, the glitter, the makeup, it was so performative and so feminine but then so masculine at the same time and he just gave zero cares in the world. I think that was a moment where I was like, 'Okay, this is someone that I actually feel like I relate to.'

"We need more people like Bowie, we need more people who are trailblazing because people fall back into a level of comfort and they get scared and they get timid."

Tony Visconti, producer and Bowie collaborator

"[Bowie] will be remembered like Beethoven in a hundred years’ time... I’ve often thought about this subject. He’s more than an Elvis, because Elvis never wrote a single song in his life. Most artists are, not fearful, but they really can’t step out of their genre. They don’t have that experience that David has, that mind he has. It’s not that they play it safe, it’s just that their style is so strong within them, they don’t change it.

Bowie was more than just a rock star
Tony Visconti

"He was not afraid to just throw something away. Never went back to Berlin, never repeated Scary Monsters. If he created a formula, he certainly wouldn’t use it a second time. Bowie was not only a songwriter, he was an innovator on every level. He was a great dancer, he was an actor. More than just a rock star."

6 Music and Radio 4 celebrate David Bowie – listen on BBC Sounds