Every Wednesday, Douglas Wolk explores the people, places and coincidences that tie disparate musicians together.
It’s a David Bowie kind of spring: the Victoria and Albert Museum in London is launching a big Bowie exhibition, its catalogue David Bowie Is comes out next month, several of his producers will be discussing their work with him at the Red Bull Music Academy in New York in May. And, ten years after his last studio album, Bowie’s The Next Day finally came out this week. Here’s the video for “The Stars (Are Out Tonight),” in which Tilda Swinton appears as his spouse:
Bowie’s always surrounded himself with gifted associates, and been a vocal fan of artists less well-known than he is. He also has a forty-year history of lending his presence to assist musicians he likes. The first significant example of the Bowie Effect happened just as he was becoming a major star, right around the June 1972 release of The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars. He’d learned that Mott the Hoople, one of his favorite bands, were on the verge of breaking up, so he wrote them a song: “All the Young Dudes,” which became their signature hit.
The single most influential song on Bowie’s aesthetic is arguably the Velvet Underground’s “I’m Waiting for the Man,” a song he’s sung for most of his career–the first time he recorded it was in early 1967, with the Riot Squad. Notably, they recorded it before the Velvets’ first album had come out (Bowie had learned it from a pre-release acetate of The Velvet Underground and Nico). For another fascinating Bowie take on the song, see this column’s discussion of Velvet Underground and Nico covers from a few months ago.
So in the wake of Ziggy Stardust and “All the Young Dudes,” Bowie and Mick Ronson produced Reed’s second solo album, Transformer, which became his commercial breakthrough. You can think of “Queen Bitch” as Bowie’s translation of “I’m Waiting for the Man” into his own idiom; in 1997, Reed performed it on stage with Bowie at Madison Square Garden.
Dana Gillespie, who had debuted the role of Mary Magdalene in Jesus Christ Superstar, sang backing vocals on Ziggy Stardust’s “It Ain’t Easy.” In 1971, Bowie had written her a song, too: “Andy Warhol.” She sang the first public performance of it (as part of a Bowie radio session), but Bowie recorded it himself for Hunky Dory, and the more relaxed, orchestrated version he produced for Gillespie didn’t come out for a few years. She ended up performing it again on TV in 1974.
During the Pin Ups sessions in 1973, Bowie produced a rocked-up cover of his own song “The Man Who Sold the World” for Lulu–the singer who’s best known in the U.S. for having sung “To Sir, With Love” in 1967. That’s him on backing vocals and saxophone, too. It became a Top 5 single in the U.K.
Mick Ronson, the guitarist who’d been the core of Bowie’s band for years, left it after their 1973 tour. Before their alliance was entirely severed, though, Bowie contributed three songs to Ronson’s first solo album, 1974’s Slaughter on 10th Avenue, including the very Ziggy Stardust-ish “Growing Up and I’m Fine.”
Shortly before he started working on Diamond Dogs in early 1974, Bowie recorded a bunch of tracks with a group called the Astronettes, including singer Ava Cherry, who would sing with him for the next four years. The sessions weren’t officially released until the mid-1990s, but “I Am a Laser” is notable for a few reasons–especially its chorus, which Bowie later reworked as “Scream Like a Baby.”
Bowie took a long-term interest in the career of Iggy Pop–he mixed the original version of Iggy and the Stooges’ “Raw Power,” worked on several of Iggy’s albums in the ’70s and ’80s, and toured for a while as the keyboardist in Iggy’s band. In 1978, they appeared on Dinah Shore’s TV talk show together, performing “Funtime” from Iggy’s album The Idiot. (The band playing with them included brothers Hunt and Tony Sales, who would later be half of Bowie’s ill-starred ’90s-era band Tin Machine.)
Guitarist Adrian Belew first worked with Bowie in 1978 and 1979. A decade later, Belew’s album Young Lions included “Pretty Pink Rose,” a song that Bowie wrote (with Belew contributing a lot to the arrangment) and sang; Belew played in Bowie’s band again on 1990’s seven-month-long Sound + Vision tour.
In the late ’90s, Bowie–who’s often been on the lookout for new sounds he can drape himself in–got rather heavily into drum ’n’ bass; it was all over his 1997 album Earthling. Late that year, he sang on the beatless track “Mother” on star drum ’n’ bass producer Goldie’s album Truth.
He had an ear for Britpop too, and particularly cottoned to Placebo, who opened for him in 1996 and 1997. In 1999, they re-recorded their song “Without You I’m Nothing” as a duet with Bowie, who also appeared on stage singing it with them.
One of Bowie’s most curious appearances was on American singer Kristeen Young’s 2003 album Breasticles (which was produced by his longtime collaborator Tony Visconti). That’s the Thin White Duke himself singing with her on “Saviour.”
Over the decade between Reality and The Next Day, Bowie’s been keeping a fairly low profile, but he’s turned up a few times as a singer on other people’s records. He appeared, for instance, on TV on the Radio’s 2006 single and video “Province”–listen around the 1:25 mark, and you’ll hear that unmistakable voice.
Scarlet Johannson’s 2008 album Anywhere I Lay My Head consisted entirely of Tom Waits covers. Bowie ducked in to provide backing vocals on a couple of tracks, including “Falling Down,” for which she made a video.
For a lot of the information in this post, I’m indebted to the excellent Bowie song-by-song blog Pushing Ahead of the Dame. Do check it out, and be prepared to spend a few hours reading.