How John Lennon Helped David Bowie Get His 1st Chart-Topping Single In The U.S.
“It’s impossible for me to talk about popular music without mentioning probably my greatest mentor, John Lennon.” — David Bowie
In January 1975, John Lennon’s so-called “long weekend” of personal indulgence was coming to an end and he soon reconciled with his estranged partner Yoko Ono. The relationship was one of several important partnerships Lennon was involved in at the time, which included collaborating on a pair of singles that topped the Billboard Hot 100 Singles chart in the United States.
In late 1974, Lennon’s single “Whatever Gets You Thru The Night” became The Beatles co-founder’s first solo #1 hit in the U.S. The recording featured Elton John on piano, who famously bet Lennon that the song would be a chart-topper, which led to Lennon joining John onstage at Madison Square Garden.
“Whatever Gets You Thru The Night” was Lennon’s only solo single that reached the top of the Billboard Hot 100 during his lifetime, but it was not the last time he contributed to a #1 hit. Less than one year after reaching #1 with Elton John, Lennon again landed atop the chart with another British rock ‘n’ roll legend.
David Bowie’s first #1 hit on the Billboard Hot 100 was “Fame,” from the 1975 album, Young Americans. Bowie co-wrote “Fame” with Lennon and guitarist Carlos Alomar during a recording session at Electric Lady Studios in New York City on January 30, 1975.
According to the official John Lennon website, Lennon discussed the circumstances surrounding the collaboration, stating:
“I got to know David through Mick [Jagger], really, although I’d met him once before. And the next minute he says: ‘Hello John, I’m doing ‘Across The Universe,’ do you wanna come on down?’ So I said all right, you know, I live here. I popped down and played rhythm.
“And then he had this lick, you know, we’d finished ‘Across The Universe’ and this guitarist had a lick. So we sort of wrote this song. It was no big deal, we just sort of – oh, boom, boom, boom – like that. It wasn’t like sitting down to write a song. So we made this lick into a song.
“He writes them in the studio now. He goes in with about four words and a few guys, and starts laying down this stuff and he has virtually nothing. He’s making it up in the studio. So I just contributed backwards piano and ‘Ooh’ and a couple of things – a repeat of ‘Fame’ and then we needed a middle eight. So we took some Stevie Wonder middle eight and did it backwards and we made a record out of it, right?
“He got his first #1. I felt like that was like a karmic thing, you know? With me and Elton, I got my first #1, so I passed it on to Bowie and he got his.”
“Fame” evolved out of one of Alomar’s guitar riffs. The lyrics were inspired by Bowie’s anger toward his manager Tony Defries. Lennon had purportedly warned Bowie to avoid getting involved with Defries, and instead wound up in protracted legal disputes related to royalties with his former manager.
The one-day session at Electric Lady was produced by engineer Harry Maslin. The completed track featured Alomar on guitar, Emir Kassan on bass, Dennis Davis on drums and Ralph McDonald on percussion. Lennon played acoustic guitar, sang backing vocals and helped prepare the above-mentioned backward piano component.
Bowie recalled the fateful session in New York City, explaining (via Lennon’s website):
“It was John who started riffing on ‘Fame,’ screaming at the top of his voice in the studio. He was screaming, I was writing the lyrics, and Carlos was crashing through the riff. It all came together so quickly and so brilliantly. It was an incredibly intoxicating time and I can’t quite believe that we didn’t try and write more things together, because just being around him was breathtaking. He had all this energy which I suppose I didn’t expect when I first met him.
“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.
“There’s always a lot of adrenalin flowing when John is around, but his chief addition to it all was the high-pitched singing of ‘Fame.’ The riff came from Carlos, and the melody and most of the lyrics came from me, but it wouldn’t have happened if John hadn’t been there. He was the energy, and that’s why he’s got a credit for writing it; he was the inspiration.”
Unfortunately, unlike with Elton John, there was not a wager between David Bowie and John Lennon about “Fame” going to #1 and they never publicly performed “Fame” together. Five years after “Fame” was released, just as Lennon was re-establishing his solo career, he was senselessly murdered on December 8, 1980, outside of The Dakota in New York City where he lived with Yoko Ono and their son, .
Three years later, Bowie was onstage in Hong Kong the night of the third anniversary of Lennon’s tragic death. After performing “Fame,” Bowie prefaced a somber cover of Lennon’s “Imagine” by discussing their close relationship and describing the last time he saw The Beatles legend.
“I asked him one day ‘How do you write your songs?’,” Bowie told the audience. “He said ‘It’s easy, you just say what you mean and you put a backbeat to it.’”
When Bowie died in January 2016, Yoko Ono addressed his relationship with John Lennon. Ono also revealed the role Bowie played after Lennon’s death in 1980, calling him a “father figure” for Sean Ono Lennon, who was only 5 years old when his father was killed.
“After John died, David was always there for Sean and me,” Yoko Ono wrote. “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.”
In 1999, Bowie was invited to give a speech to the graduating class at Boston’s Berklee School Of Music. Lennon loomed largely over Bowie’s address, which he began by stating:
“It’s impossible for me to talk about popular music without mentioning probably my greatest mentor, John Lennon. I guess he defined for me, at any rate, how one could twist and turn the fabric of pop and imbue it with elements from other artforms, often producing something extremely beautiful, very powerful and imbued with strangeness.”
Listen to Bowie and Lennon twist and turn the fabric of pop with the beautifully powerful strangeness of “Fame” below: