Like all the great performers whose longevity has been built on reinvention, Bowie had a canny knack of knowing who best to work with at the right time (think Madonna, maybe Tom Waits and latterly St Vincent). Dame Dave was an artist who kept his ear to the ground, and the news from Tony Visconti that he’d been listening to Kendrick Lamar for inspiration, and more pertinently working with James Murphy while recording his last album ★ (‘Blackstar’), was music to our ears (experimental jazz hip-hop and dance music, to attempt to be a bit more precise).
In the wake of yesterday’s heart-breaking news, we look back at 16 of his best hook ups, collaborations and working relationships.
It was certainly a fateful night when producer Visconti met David Bowie, as he also met Marc Bolan the same evening. “I knew they’d both be big,” he later said. He would produce both, including 12 classic Bowie albums, as well as lauded records by Adam Ant, Sparks, The Stranglers, Thin Lizzy, Iggy Pop and the Manic Street Preachers. In many ways, Visconti has been Bowie’s greatest ally, and the fusion of the pair was clearly alchemic from the off, as ‘Memory Of A Free Festival’ attests.
When Tony Visconti turned down the chance to record ‘Space Oddity’, calling it “a cheap shot”, Bowie turned to producer Guy Dudgeon instead. Coming as it did at the time of the Moon Landings in 1969, listeners responded to the topical subject matter and Bowie crash-landed into the Top Ten for the first time. But the song has remained one of his all time classics thanks, in part, to the otherworldly sonic contribution of Dudgeon, who went on to produce a good deal of Elton John’s finest material (including ‘Rocket Man’, natch). Visconti has repented at leisure since, deciding his decision might have been hasty.
Session man, cosmic producer and underrated rock god Mick Ronson was working for Hull City Council marking a rugby pitch when the call came from Bowie in 1970, and two days later the pair were recording a session for John Peel. For years the partnership yielded some of Bowie’s most memorable moments, including that iconoclastic and somewhat homoerotic appearance on Top Of The Pops for ‘Starman’ in 1972 (see below). The songs on ‘The Fall And Rise Of Ziggy Stardust And The Spiders From Mars’ might have all been written by Bowie, but the album would be very different indeed without that incredible duologue running throughout with Ronson’s guitar.
To choose one legendary piano player over another seems churlish, especially when you consider the mighty contribution Mike Garson made to ‘Aladdin Sane’, but we can only fit in so many contributors, and Rick Wakeman gets the nod because he wears a cape, has hung out in Dictionary Corner with Susie Dent, and because his joanna tinkling on ‘Life On Mars’ is simply staggering. His brief – as was the initial inspiration of the song – was Frank Sinatra’s ‘My Way’, and the Yes man certainly took the titular motivation and made his considerable talent known in his own inimitable way. It might have been florid and over the top, but what else did you expect from prog rock’s very own talisman? It’s enough to give a punk rocker the goosebumps.
It’s funny to think that Bowie helped salvage the career of one of alternative rock’s figureheads, and especially considering how influential the Velvet Underground have become by stealth. Laughing Lou’s first solo album was patchy and unremarkable, and Bowie and Ronson – RCA labelmates in a rich vein of form – were suggested as producers for the next. Reed had demoed with his old band many of the songs that made ‘Transformer’, a record that now stands shoulder to shoulder with Berlin as an undisputed masterpiece. One of those tracks, ‘Satellite Of Love’, was a fine demo, but with Bowie and Ronson’s glamrock makeover, it became something more exultant entirely. “I loved the [backing vocals] when he did them on my record,” said Reed later. “It’s not the kind of part I ever would have come up with, but David hears those parts, plus he’s got a freaky voice and he can go up that high and do that. It’s very, very beautiful.”
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So where were the Spiders? Bowie had proved how ruthless he could be when he sacked Ronson, Trevor Bolder and Woody Woodmansey as part of the fallout from killing off Ziggy Stardust, heading off instead to conquer America, entering his plastic soul phase. Later disenchanted and having suffered from identity problems brought on by cocaine psychosis, he returned to Europe in 1976 to straighten himself out, and in doing so helped shape the future of pop with neoclassical soundscape guru Brian Eno, recording the famous Berlin Trilogy together (‘Low’, ‘Heroes’ and ‘Lodger’) with Visconti at the desk. Bowie had been friends with Eno since his Roxy Music days, and their shared interests in electronic experimentation and the avant-garde made them a perfect team to push things forward. ‘Heroes’ might be the pinnacle for most, but little sounds as fresh as ‘Always Crashing In The Same Car’ from ‘Low’, even now.
Bowie’s trick of breathing fresh life into the careers of fallen stars didn’t just stop with Lou Reed, and few examples stand out next to the Stooges singer, Iggy Pop. “I met Iggy Pop at Max’s Kansas City in 1970 or 1971,” recalled David Bowie. “Me , Iggy and Lou Reed at one table with absolutely nothing to say to each other”. But from those beginnings, a great relationship eventually flowered. Iggy accompanied Bowie to Berlin when both looking to get off drugs, not really realising the German city was the heroin capital of the world at that time. Still, you wouldn’t have had ‘Fun Time’ or ‘Lust For Life’ without it.
After the single ‘Young Americans’ charted healthily across the Atlantic, a song he wrote with his old mate John Lennon – ‘Fame’ – scored Bowie his first US Number One. Whether it was the Beatles connection or the fact the record was just too funky is up for question – it’s probably a bit of both. Here’s Bowie performing the track on Soul Train.
The Bavarian Nomi met his idol Bowie at the Mudd Club in New York towards the end of the ’70s, and upon discovering the pair had mutual friends in Berlin, Bowie took the unusual step of inviting the counter-tenor onto Saturday Night Live with him to perform. Few of Bowie’s tracks have ever been covered better than by the great man himself (maybe Mott the Hoople’s ‘All The Young Dudes’?), but his own live version of ‘The Man Who Sold The World’ with Klaus’s added weirdness on backing vocals is probably better than the studio recording.
It’s difficult to imagine what some records would sound like without certain collaborators, but there’s little doubt 1980’s ‘Fashion’ wouldn’t be the same without Robert Fripp’s wildly esoteric guitar madness. The King Crimson man was drafted in after his sterling work on ‘Heroes’, producing that soaring guitar line that has become so iconic. Eno had invited him last time, and this time it was Bowie who called Fripp into the studio to lay down three metallic and angular lines, all offset against each other with cunning by Bowie and Visconti. Altogether now, we are the Goon Squad and we’re coming to town, beep! beep!
A contentious choice, David Bowie’s Martha And The Vandellas cover with Mick Jagger nevertheless stormed to Number One on its release in 1985 (a mean feat in the ’80s) and helped do its bit to stabilise war torn and famine-stricken Ethiopia as part of Bob Geldof’s Live Aid. Certainly, the charity single captures the energy of the original and soups it up to impossibly ridiculous levels, while the video º featuring the somewhat sartorially uncoordinated pair singing with gusto into each other’s faces – is a hoot!
Bowie’s 1980 hook-up with Queen yielded a chart-topping hit in the form of ‘Under Pressure’, a politically charged track that begun life as a Queen song named ‘Feel Like’. Guitarist Brian May told Mojo the sessions were tense. “It was hard, because you had four very precocious boys and David, who was precocious enough for all of us. David took over the song lyrically. Looking back, it’s a great song but it should have been mixed differently. Freddie and David had a fierce battle over that. It’s a significant song because of David and its lyrical content.”
Perhaps on paper, Bowie’s collaboration with Giorgio Moroder for the soundtrack to 1982’s spooky thriller Cat People looks like an odd choice, but the pair had become friends back in Bowie’s Berlin days when Moroder was the toast of the disco universe. Fans of Moroder will know his soundtrack work is more about ambience than having a good time and for many carries more gravitas, though never forget Brian Eno ran into the studio to proclaim to Bowie that he’d heard the sound of the future on hearing ‘I Feel Love’. Their version of ‘Cat People (Putting Out Fire)’ is a surprising moody goth epic that explodes into something a bit more straightforward as it unfolds. Bowie re-recorded it with Nile Rodgers for his most successful album to date, ‘Let’s Dance’, though this version has the edge.
THE PAT METHENY GROUP
If you include Absolute Beginners into the equation then it’s fair to say during the mid-’80s that, while Bowie was treading water somewhat, he managed to hit big where the movies were concerned. A song on another soundtrack, ‘The Falcon And The Snowman’, was recorded with the lesser known though no less respected Pat Metheny Group. If it sounds like an odd commercial departure for Bowie then the slinky, moody sheen of ‘This Is Not America’ was an even more peculiar move for Metheny, who is known as a guitarist mainly influenced by latin jazz and fusion. Still, the resultant single is a peach.
Bowie hasn’t been forwards in coming backwards collaborating with contemporary artists, from Arcade Fire to the Pet Shop Boys and Goldie, while the Pixies, who he greatly admires, offered in 2013 to be his backing band if he ever wants to go on the road again. Big if. One collaboration really stands out though… Trent Reznor of Nine Inch Nails’ remix of ‘I’m Afraid Of Americans’ (written with Brian Eno, incidentally). The pulsing electro sound suits the paranoia of the song, as does the video, which features Reznor chasing Bowie down the street.
The prologue of Robert Newman’s novel Dependence Day features a narrative where he’s being stalked by David Bowie, and when the Thin White Duke offers patronage as a fan, it does seem somehow like the world has turned on its head. Bowie has been a vocal supporter of Arcade Fire ever since the beginning, and has appeared on several of the records performing backing vocals, including the 2013 title track to their album ‘Reflektor’. And here he is singing lead and playing guitar on a version of ‘Wake Up’ with the band for Fashion Rocks in 2005.