Bowie Top Six #2: Fame, 1975

‘I think too much has been made of this alter ego business.
I mean, I actually stopped creating characters in 1975 

– for albums, anyway.’

Bowie did big boys’ music for big girls’ blouses throughout his theatrical glam rock period, when I paid scant attention. I was more into Steve Harley, Judy Teen. Retrospectively, I collected
and still have a copy of Aladdin Sane, but I’ve never owned Ziggy…
or Diamond Dogs, never mind Hunky Dory or Pin-ups, yet those records
were all around me as a teenager, drifting from the older boys’ study rooms of my school boarding house and constantly played in the Common Rooms

No sentient being could fail to be transfixed by Jean Genie or Rebel Rebel but the androgynous elf from outta space stayed strictly beyond my ken, at least until Young Americans strolled along in the year I turned fourteen and was beginning to develop a taste for the other. That which is made more glamorous by its being prohibited. On its cover Bowie smokes, not an American cigarette, but Gitanes. Cue a long-running addiction for yours truly.
Did I ever imitate pop star role models, much?
Not necessarily. I mean, unlike the ever-skinnier White Duke, I was never too fond of speedy drugs and certainly never got anywhere near major cocaine action, never mind addiction. Only scumbags do coke these days, but back in the Seventies, when it was scarcer and of higher quality, cocaine ruled.

The classic document of that period is Cracked Actor, Alan Yentob’s 50 minute film for Omnibus, shot in LA and Philly over a couple of months in 1974 and broadcast by BBC2 on 26 January, 1975. As it follows the progress of Bowie’s Diamond Dogs tour on its last legs around the States, an etoliated Bowie is shown, via live clips and interviews, in yet another stage of metamorphosis. For British audiences, it gave an insight into the weird world Bowie now inhabited and provided a preview of his impending soul boy persona, at a Sigma Sound Studios recording session held in Philadelphia during August 1974. Nic Roeg was casting his next film and, seeing this documentary, realised that Bowie would be perfect to portray the literally alienated lead character. His instincts were confirmed upon meeting the strange rock star and Bowie was confirmed to play Jerome Newton in The Man Who Fell To Earth.

Musically, Bowie had brought in to his touring band – the ‘Philly Dogs’ – funk and soul musicians, including Luther Vandross when still a teenager and Andy Newmark, drummer with Sly and the Family Stone. It was his first time working with guitarist, Carlos Alomar, which led to a creative relationship spanning thirty years. Carlos – who hadn’t heard of Bowie before being called in to help with the album – recalled that, when they met, Bowie was “the whitest man I’ve ever seen – translucent white.”  Of course, not only did his cocaine addiction leave Bowie physically weakened, it also contributed to paranoia and emotional problems.

Fame grew from the Philly Dogs’ version of Foot Stomping,  a doo-wop ditty from 1961 by The Flares that they busted out live on The Dick Cavett Show, S07EP#1539, filmed at ABC Studios, NYC on 2nd November 1974 and first broadcast a month later, on Thursday 5th December 1974. Mesmerizing footage showcases a fresh new Bowie image, on the cusp of ch-ch-changing into a futuristic Soul Boy. First of all, he does 1984, which was originally intended to be the a theme of a stage musical version of Orwell’s novel. When he couldn’t get the rights to do that, with characteristic economy, Bowie recycled the song into Diamond Dogs, the album he was supposed to be touring. The spikey hair had been replaced by a smoove new do and Bowie was clad in a snazzy brown suit with a high-shouldered bum freezer jacket, a dark blue shirt and tartan tie with a great big knot. Here he is in high-waisted strides with white shoes; twirling a cane & equipped with key chain and braces. He chats to Cavett about working up new songs with his Philly Dogs band and plays one of those new songs, about ‘the predicament of two newlyweds,’ which was to become the title track of his next, ‘Plastic Soul’ record. Between taping Cavett and its broadcast, Bowie took a couple of days at Sigma Sound Studios in Philadelphia to record, Young Americans.

Footstompin’ closes the Cavett show with Bowie leading the stompin’, flanked by 19 year-old Luther Vandross and a white dude, who could conceivably be Tony Visconti? White haired soul sista, Ava Cherry shimmies nearby, like her proverbial Sister Cate.

David Bowie had met his hero when John Lennon came to Hollywood in 1974 during Lennon’s extended ‘lost weekend,’ at an archetypal Hollywood party hosted by the one and only Elizabeth Taylor. In New York that December, Tony Visconti was excited when David called his hotel room to say that Lennon was coming over that evening ‘and he’s a little nervous to be left alone with him, could I come? I was over there in a flash! After ringing the doorbell many times I was finally let in. It seems that Lennon was a little nervous because he didn’t have his alien’s green card yet, and thought that I might be the police. Out of the bathroom walks John and his Chinese-American girlfriend, May Pang.’ Thirteen years later, as fate would have it, Tony Visconti married May Pang and they have two children. Ba-da Bing!

Sadly for Visconti, he missed the sessions at Electric Lady Studios in January 1975, when Lennon joined Bowie and Carlos Alomar, who was recycling the old guitar riff he’d played on Footstompin’ (Carlos talks viewers of the Five Years documentary through his changes). Bowie had celebrated his new friendship by recording Lennon’s Across the Universe for a lark and earned his hero’s approbation, which led to the making of Fame.

According to Bowie, “We’d spent quite a few nights talking and getting to know each other before we’d even gotten into the studio. That period in my life is none too clear, a lot of it is really blurry, but we spent endless hours talking about fame, and what it’s like not having a life of your own any more. How much you want to be known before you are, and then when you are, how much you want the reverse: “I don’t want to do these interviews! I don’t want to have these photographs taken!” We wondered how that slow change takes place, and why it isn’t everything it should have been.”

“I guess it was inevitable that the subject matter of the song would be about the subject matter of those conversations. God, that session was fast. That was an evening’s work! While John and Carlos Alomar were sketching out the guitar stuff in the studio, I was starting to work out the lyric in the control room. I was so excited about John, and he loved working with my band because they were playing old soul tracks and Stax things. John was so up, had so much energy; it must have been so exciting to always be around him.” When Lennon started yelping along to Carlos’ guitar figure, Bowie swept in, stuck an ‘f’ on it and called it a song. Just like that.

The classic You Tube performance of Fame is from Soul Train in which our pencil thin protagonist chews, gurns and just about lip synchs his way through the track, throwing the odd mime freeze while getting down with the funky cognoscenti.  It should really be watched in tandem with the Golden Years clip and the interview from the show, in which Don Cornelius introduces our Dave as ‘booey’, with questions from the crowd and a plug for The Man Who Fell To Earth. It was all go.

Of course, David and John’s friendship was not destined to be long term. On the third anniversary of Lennon’s murder, on December 8 1983, Bowie played the final date of the interminable Serious Moonlight tour to promote Let’s Dance that made him a global star. In tribute, Bowie chose to perform Imagine – flimed by Gerry Troyna, who was making a routine rockumenary – introducing the song with a couple of anecdotes that demonstrated their mutual regard. As Yoko wrote after David’s death:

I swiped this image from here.

‘John and David respected each other. They were well matched in intellect and talent. As John and I had very few friends we felt David was as close as family. After John died, David was always there for Sean and me. When Sean was at boarding school in Switzerland, David would pick him up and take him on trips to museums and let Sean hang out at his recording studio in Geneva. For Sean this is losing another father figure. It will be hard for him, I know. But we have some sweet memories which will stay with us forever.’

Yoko Ono Lennon, NYC, 11 January 2016

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