On 12 October 2014, BBC Radio 6 Music premiered David Bowie’s ‘Sue (Or In A Season Of Crime)’. Recorded with the Maria Schneider Orchestra, it was the lead single from the compilation Nothing Has Changed.
‘Sue’ was released on 17 November as a 10″ single and digital download, a week after its b-side ‘’Tis a Pity She Was a Whore’ – a demo recording on which Bowie played every instrument – was made available on digital services. Both songs were reworked for Blackstar.
On 6 October, the opening titles for the six-part TV crime series The Last Panthers was unveiled. This was soundtracked by a reworking of the song ‘Blackstar’, with added guitar and keyboards, and mixed by Tony Visconti.
I was looking for one of the icons of my youth to write the music for the title sequence, but was presented with a god. His first response was precise, engaged and curious. The piece of music he laid before us embodied every aspect of our characters and the series itself: dark, brooding, beautiful and sentimental (in the best possible incarnation of this word). All along, the man inspired and intrigued me and as the process passed, I was overwhelmed with his generosity. I still can’t fathom what actually happened.
Director, The Last Panthers
The Last Panthers premiered in France on 26 October 2015, and in the UK, Ireland, Italy, Germany and Austria on 12 November 2015. It was Bowie’s first TV theme since 1993’s The Buddha Of Suburbia.
Bowie was impressed with Johan Renck’s work on The Last Panthers, and invited him to direct the video for ‘Blackstar’. The ten-minute clip was shot in Brooklyn in September 2015, and was unveiled on 19 November.
The song ‘Blackstar’ went on sale as a digital download on the same day that the video went live. The song had originally been more than 11 minutes long, but was cut to 9:57 after Bowie and Visconti discovered that Apple’s iTunes would not sell individual tracks that were over 10 minutes long.
“It’s total bullshit,” Visconti told Rolling Stone. “But David was adamant it be the single, and he didn’t want both an album version and a single version, since that gets confusing.”
Already by January 8 they’re going to hear ‘Blackstar’, which isn’t typical of the album but it is typical in the sense that Bowie’s changed again. When ‘Where Are We Now?’ came out I knew that people were almost going to have a heart attack because he’s silent for 10 years, then on the morning of January 8 – here’s David Bowie’s new single! That was exciting. So I don’t think we’ll ever reproduce that feeling again. I’ll be thrilled of course, when it comes out on January 8. I’ll be very, very thrilled.
Mojo, January 2016
To coincide with its release, Bowie’s website began taking orders for the Blackstar album. A clear vinyl edition was limited to 5,000 copies worldwide, and was sold on the website and in the US from Barnes and Noble stores.
The clear vinyl edition was also available from Bowie’s site in two exclusive bundles: with a choice of one of three lithographs; and with all three lithographs. These bundles sold out in days, although the standalone clear vinyl was available for slightly longer. After Bowie’s death, however, they became highly sought after, with prices reaching over £300 on the secondary market.
The second single released ahead of Blackstar was ‘Lazarus’. This was released as a digital download on 17 December 2015, with the promo video following on 7 January 2016. Johan Renck again directed the video, which had a shorter edit of the song and was presented in a square 1:1 aspect ratio.
Bowie’s wishes for privacy were so respected that members of his own record label were unaware of his cancer. Indeed, some in-store promotional posters issued by Sony for Blackstar included the line “Ask here about pre-order – three signed copies to be won”.
Blackstar was released worldwide on 8 January 2016, Bowie’s 69th birthday, through ISO, RCA, Columbia, and Sony. In Germany, a special CD edition in a box with a blackstar metal pin badge, was exclusive to Saturn and Media Markt stores.
The album received positive critical reviews upon its release, but was immediately reassessed after news of Bowie’s death broke on 11 January.
Very sorry and sad to say it's true. I'll be offline for a while. Love to all. pic.twitter.com/Kh2fq3tf9m
— Duncan Jones (@ManMadeMoon) January 11, 2016
The album was already on course to top the UK albums chart before Bowie’s death was announced. It sold 146,000 copies in the UK in the first week of release, becoming his tenth UK number one album and topping the charts for three weeks.
Blackstar sold over 181,000 copies in the US in the first week, becoming Bowie’s first number one album. The album topped the album charts in 24 countries.
The increased public demand took suppliers and retailers by surprise, and Amazon temporarily sold out of CD and vinyl copies. Record collectors who had missed out on pre-orders for the clear vinyl version made efforts to track down the last remaining copies at Barnes and Noble stores in the US.
Blackstar was the best-selling vinyl album in the UK in 2016, and Bowie was the biggest selling artist on the format, with five albums in the end-of-year top 30. The album topped critics’ polls for the best albums of 2016 in the AV Club, Mojo, Newsweek, Paste, Q, Uncut, Village Voice and The Wire, and additionally topped Rolling Stone‘s readers’ poll.
The album won posthumous Grammy awards for Best Alternative Music Album, Best Recording Package, and Best Engineered Album, Non-Classical, and the title track was awarded Best Rock Performance and Best Rock Song. Blackstar was also awarded British Album of the Year at the 2017 Brit Awards.
I don’t have regrets. If I am cajoled into looking at the past, which I do very infrequently, I tend to look on it as not so much luggage as… wings. My past has given me such a fantastic life. A lot of it negative, a lot positive. For me it’s been an incredible learning process, arriving now at a situation where I… know far far less than I knew when I started out!
There again, nobody knows more than a young person knows. I knew so much when I was about 25. I had an answer for everything, knew all the answers…
Uncut, October 1999