“I’m an instant star – just add water and stir,” David Bowie said in 1975. And while it was a brilliant soundbite, it was, in truth, far from correct.
The influence of Bowie’s art and music on the very fabric of 21st century pop culture is inestimable. But, encouragingly, for those of us yet to change the world, his legend is preceded by a history of failure, reinvention, and determination.
Following the documentary film Five Years in 2013, which told the story of Bowie’s transition from the Ziggy Stardust era to and his 1980s stadium pop years via arty exile in Berlin, and 2017’s The Last Five Years, which documented his later records, up to ‘Blackstar’, new film Finding Fame completes the trilogy. Again, director Francis Whately uses Bowie’s own words, archive footage and testimony from friends, loved ones and colleagues, this time to paint a portrait of your favourite alien’s very human beginnings.
We spoke to those close to Bowie in his pre-fame years to learn how family, frustration and failure would shape the icon we know today.
“I was in bits – I thought I’d blinded him”
Bowie’s first record was 1964’s ‘Liza Jane’, released under his real name, David Jones, with his band The King Bees, which also featured childhood friend George Underwood. The King Bees were a flop, but Underwood had already played his role in Bowie mythology: it was he who had given him those mismatched, alien eyes.
Having met enrolling for the five-a-side football Bromley Cup when they were both nine years old, Underwood remembers David as a “confident kid” who was “ahead of the game in terms of his tastes and talents”. “We were into anything American or alternative,” he tells NME. “In those times, rock n’ roll was just around the corner and we wanted to be part of that.”
In 1962, they both took a liking to a girl named Carol. A cocksure David sabotaged a date that George had set up with her – lying that she had a change of heart, while in truth she waited for him outside a youth club – so Bowie could swoop in himself.
“He put me right in it, and I thought, ‘You bastard!’” laughs Underwood. After a night of “seething”, George overheard David bragging about his conquest on a bus, and then snapped. “It wasn’t really my style, but I just walked up to him and hit him.”
“In those times, rock n’ roll was just around the corner and we wanted to be part of that,” – George Underwood, childhood friend and the man who gave him ‘the eye’
“A week later, I came home and my dad says to me, ‘You never told me you hit David Jones… I’ve had his dad on the phone, he’s been rushed to Moorfields Eye Hospital and he might lose the sight in one eye’.”
“I was in bits, it was horrible. I went to hospital to see him and cried my eyes out in front of his dad, but it all ended up alright in the end, didn’t it?”
A permanently-dilated pupil gave Bowie those extraterrestrial, Ziggy Stardust eyes.
“He later said I did him a favour,” says Underwood in the understatement of the century.
George became a celebrated artist in his own right, and along with writer and singer Geoff McCormack (aka Warren Peace), the trio remained firm friends until the end of Bowie’s life.
“No personality… not particularly exciting”
An unearthed rejection letter from the BBC after he auditioned with The Lower Third in 1965 in Finding Fame describes Bowie as having “quite a different sound” but with “no personality”, and “not particularly exciting” and certain to “not improve with practice”. Ouch.
Whether with The Lower Third, The Konrads, The King Bees, The Manish Boys, The Riot Squad, The Buzz or his earliest solo dalliances, Bowie spent years being knocked back and ignored, but was forever driven to just be noticed, an urge he’d had since he was an infant.
“It wasn’t a particularly happy childhood,” says Bowie over early childhood scenes of South London in the new film. “My parents were cold emotionally. There weren’t many hugs. I always craved affection because of that.”
“He was incredibly resilient, and you see that in those early years – that ability to get up off the floor when something goes wrong,” director Francis Whately tells NME. “It made him stand out. When he had knocks, he had the ability to see them for what they were, which was just a phase. They may have freaked out anyone who hadn’t experienced quite so much disappointment in their early lives.”
Finding Fame does show a closeness between Bowie and his cousin Kristina Amadeus, as well as his older half-brother Terry Burns, who first introduced him to jazz. Sadly, Terry was diagnosed with schizophrenia when David was growing up and would spend his life in psychiatric hospitals before taking his own life in 1985. It profoundly impacted David, and mental health would be a subject would revisit in his work (most explicitly on 1993 single ‘Jump They Say’). Being away from Terry only added to David’s isolation and desire to escape.
“I would go round to see him in Bromley,” his former girlfriend the actress and singer-songwriter Dana Gillespie tells NME. “He would come and pick me up from school. He was quite unusual-looking when I first met him, with his long yellow hair. It sounds silly now, but nobody had hair that length. My father originally thought he was a girl!”
“Once when I went round to his place he said, ‘I want to get out of here, I will do whatever it takes’,” – Dana Gillespie, actor and former girlfriend
She continues: “I was only 14 or 15 and I hadn’t ever been to the home of a working class family before, so that was a bit of an eye-opener. It took my breath away to go into such a cold house. Once when I went round to his place he said, ‘I want to get out of here, I will do whatever it takes’.”
Doing ‘whatever it took’ involved a pair of Marigolds. Yes, ‘The Man Who Fell To Earth’ would scrub floors while awaiting the call for auditions.
“One of his friends in The Riot Squad told us that David would come in, be very nice to his parents, and help his mum with the washing up,” says Whately. “Can you imagine David Bowie doing the washing up? In fact, David Bowie was actually doing cleaning jobs in the ‘60s to support himself, which not a lot of people know.”
‘Letter To Hermione’ – Bowie’s first love
Bowie’s brief flirtation with cleaning toilets came while he was living with his first true love, dancer Hermione Farthingale. They met when they were both cast in a play by Bowie’s mime mentor and once boyfriend Lindsay Kemp in 1967. Forever pushing each other creatively, they teamed up
with guitarist John “Hutch” Hutchinson to form Feathers; a troupe performing music, art, poetry and dance that laid out the embryonic vision for the mixed media experimentation that Bowie embodied from ‘Ziggy’ onwards. They split two years later so she could move abroad to star in the film Song Of Norway. In Finding Fame, she speaks on camera about David and their defining relationship for the first time.
“We were soulmates, and we missed each other as friends. That was a short way of saying that we missed each other in every way.” – Hermione Farthingale, muse and former girlfriend
“It is a proper love story,” says Whately. “It’s very affecting seeing her on screen all these years later, and realising what she had meant to him. It was a late adolescent love affair, which we’ve all had and it breaks us up. To see that first true love is something extraordinary in someone we now see as an icon. He was a mortal, and he had a mortal love for an amazing woman.”
When they parted, it cut Bowie deep. He included ‘Letter To Hermione’ and ‘An Occasional Dream’, both about their split, on his 1969 self-titled album, as well as honouring her as “the girl with the mousey hair” in ‘Life On Mars’ on 1971’s ‘Hunky Dory’. Later, he paid tribute to Hermione by wearing a Song Of Norway t-shirt in the 2013 comeback video for ‘Where Are We Now?’. As Francis puts it, “She remained a beacon for David throughout his entire life, and I think we should celebrate that”.
Speaking in London ahead of a screening of the film, Hermione told NME: “We were soulmates, and we missed each other as friends. That was a short way of saying that we missed each other in every way. We felt lonely when we weren’t together. It was completely mutual.”
And how did she react to her first hearing of ‘Letter To Hermione’?
“It was a year later when I first heard it,” she replies. “He married Angie [model and wife from 1970-1980] three weeks later. It wasn’t a letter with a stamp on it that demanded an answer, it was rhetorical by that point.
“Everything David writes has extraordinary acuity and precision. He puts things absolutely beautifully and spot on, so for that I appreciate it.”
A one-hit wonder
While it largely failed to dent the mainstream, Bowie’s knack for vivid storytelling and pushing the envelope of what a song can do is clearly evident on his early work. Taking in American art-rock, 1960’s folk balladry and a whole lot of cockney theatricality inspired by ’60s screen icon Anthony Newley, the DNA of the icon we know now was all there, bubbling under the surface.
‘When I’m Five’ shows a stargazing sense of wonder, ‘The London Boys’ (later brilliantly modernised in 2000 for the album ‘Toy’) takes the life he knew and spins it into a soulful anthem of kitchen sink melodrama and escapism, and ‘She’s Got Medals’ questioned gender norms in telling the story of a woman who becomes and a man and then a woman again while in the army.
Of course, the only song at the time to truly connect to the masses was 1969’s ‘Space Oddity’. Pandering to the space-race hysteria of the time as well as detailing Bowie’s own anxieties around isolation, it would become his first Number One single. Sadly, it seemed like a one-off for a while – it was another three years until Bowie became his alter-ego of Ziggy Stardust and bothered the mainstream again. Still, his taste for stardom accelerated his chameleon tendencies.
“I think that the early years are very similar to the later years,” says Whately. “All that he’s doing is changing character, changing styles, changing roles – just as he always did. You see David the R n’ B man, you see David the jazz man, you see David with the acoustic guitar, the heavy metal man on ‘The Man Who Sold The World’. None of it succeeds though, not even ‘Hunky Dory’, until Ziggy happens. He’s going through all of these different phases and trying to see what works.”
“He was able to pick himself and go back to what he did best; that was listening to no one and making art. It was when he started trying to please his fans that he stumbled,” – Francis Whately, director
It’s said that comfort kills creation, and it was a mantra that David Bowie lived by.
“I don’t consider any of it to be failure,” says Dana Gillespie. “David just had to keep going until eventually somebody got it. He wasn’t going to just stop and get a job in shop for Christ’s sake. For me, it seemed quite normal to see him carry on. If some pillock didn’t understand why he was looking a bit odd and writing songs that were a little off-the-wall, that was their problem, not his.”
“It’s great that he didn’t have a major hit when he was very young because I feel sorry for anyone who does. How else are you going to learn your craft?”
By dressing up as superheroes to form The Hype in 1970 with a line-up that would later shift and morph into The Spiders From Mars, David had first taste of assuming another character. He decamped to Haddon Hall in Beckenham for a long Bohemian retreat. Here, alongside lavish and raucous parties, Bowie would write endlessly, wear his “man-dress” for the cover of ‘The Man Who Sold The World’, sit with Angie for the first Ziggy outfit to be stitched together, and his vision for a rock revolution took shape.
“I was doing a show, so I’d mostly go down to Haddon Hall at weekends and hang out until Monday,” Dana recalls. “There was this huge baronial hall with different members of the Spiders sleeping around, with David and Angie in the one big bedroom. There was a cooker the size of a postage stamp, but you’d give Angie a carrot and a potato and she’d make food for everyone.
“She was always organised and made sure that Bowie could sit in the bedroom with his guitar. He was very busy all the time composing. It was a very pleasant hanging out existence.”
It was during this period, that Bowie would make his way to Glastonbury for that now sacred 1971 set at 5.30am. “It was the first year of the Pyramid and everyone apart from David was on acid,” says Dana. “I was off somewhere watching it. We didn’t have a tent and everyone just hung out because we never knew when David would get on the stage.”
Did it feel historic?
“No, because we didn’t know what it was going to grow into. It just seemed like a wonderful idea. It was so disorganised and everyone was just having a good time.”
Still, history followed. Finding Fame ends with the creation and death of Ziggy Stardust, when Bowie announced his demise at the peak of his fame at the Hammersmith Odeon in July 1973. You know the story from there, but don’t let the importance of the path before then ever be lost.
“I think you can most evidence of all of the mistakes and failures from the ‘60s played out on later albums in one way or another,” concludes Whately.
“We have to remember that in the ‘90s, David was not the superstar that he was in the ‘70s or that he is today, but he was able to pick himself and go back to what he did best; that was listening to no one and making art. It was when he started trying to please his fans that he stumbled.”
From a young age until his death, Bowie was always itching to move onto the next thing. Never content, he was a one-off – just like that lucky punch George Underwood landed back in ‘62. George assures us he isn’t a violent man and never punched anyone before or since. “It’ll be on my bloody gravestone if I’m not careful,” he laughs. “Actually, I’ve changed the ending to that. Instead of hitting him, let’s say I went up to him and threw a bag of stardust in his face. How’s that?”
David Bowie: Finding Fame premieres at 9pm on BBC Two on Saturday February 9.