By Michaelangelo Matos
Has any major rock star ever been such an unabashed fan — knowledgeable, enthusiastic, evangelical — as David Bowie? He wasn’t simply inspired by everything before and around him, he was vocal about it; few rock stars were as transparent or public about their ongoing education. If any other British rock star in his late sixties had titled an album Blackstar, you’d think it was a coincidence that it shared a name with Mos Def and Talib Kweli’s short-lived hip-hop super-duo. Bowie was not only familiar with Black Star, he could quote Mos Def’s lyrics back to him, as he did in a 2003 Complex joint interview.
Bowie’s reverence for music was manifest everywhere, from the 1973 covers album Pin Ups (critic Greil Marcus’s favorite: “His quirky triumph — not that he’d ever come up with any other kind of triumph”) to his wonderful two-hour DJ slot on BBC Radio in 1979 (“96 Tears” followed by “Einstein on the Beach” — of course, that’s how everybody heard music back then, cough cough) to Blackstar itself, heavily inspired by Kendrick Lamar. He gave Luther Vandross his big break, and cornered MTV’s Mark Goodman on the network’s paucity of videos by black musicians. (Goodman: “We grew up in an era where the Isley Brothers meant something to me. But what does it mean to a 17-year-old?” Bowie: “I’ll tell you what the Isley Brothers or Marvin Gaye means to a black 17-year-old, and surely he’s part of America.”) Bowie worked with more great guitarists than any solo rock star in history: Mick Ronson, Robert Fripp, Adrian Belew, Nile Rodgers, Stevie Ray Vaughan, Carlos Alomar, Earl Slick, Peter Frampton, Page Hamilton, and Pat Metheny is the short list. Bowie was — as the parlance goes — a heavy motherfucker.
The most concrete manifestation of Bowie’s fandom was his work as a producer. If, somehow, his own ’70s albums didn’t exist but his other work did, the five albums by others he oversaw — Mott the Hoople’s All the Young Dudes, Lou Reed’s Transformer (both 1972), Iggy and the Stooges’ Raw Power (1973), and Iggy Pop’s The Idiot and Lust for Life (both 1977) — would place him among the decade’s most important music makers. Impressive as their quality is that Bowie made them because he loved those artists and wanted them heard. It’s not a coincidence that they came after he’d achieved real stardom (The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars was released June 6, 1972; Dudes in September, Transformer in November), when he could wield his newly earned leverage (and that of manager Tony DeFries, who also handled Iggy and Lou in the early ’70s) to an advantage.
All three were, at that point, more famed than famous. Atlantic Records had dropped Mott the Hoople, led by the sardonic singer-songwriter Ian Hunter (sample song title: “Death May Be Your Santa Claus”), right before the band worked with Bowie. They’d never had a hit, so Bowie gave them one: “All the Young Dudes,” which went to no. 3 in England, no. 37 in the States — the latter a lot more impressive when you look at all the pop treacle that topped the American charts that year. (“The Candy Man,” “Baby Don’t Get Hooked on Me,” “My Ding-a-Ling” — woof.) The album follows in suit; by turns it’s loose, arch, sad and curious boogie.
You have to wonder whose idea it was to lead the album with (a definitive version of) the Velvet Underground’s “Sweet Jane.” Maybe it was the guy whose next project was to give its singer and songwriter a hit as well? Transformer was Lou Reed’s second solo LP; the self-titled first, also from ’72, sounded tentative — understandably so, since Lou had quit the Velvets and gone back to Long Island to work for his father, figuring his music career was over. Transformer, by contrast, sounds deliberate; fragile with a granite undertow. Bowie didn’t need to give Lou any material, because Lou had written his own hit (no. 16 in the U.S., no. 10 in the U.K.): the one that goes “Doo, do-doo, do-doo, do-do-do/Doooo.” Three years before Bowie became a plastic soul man, four before appearing on Soul Train, and 18 before sending multitracks to producer 45 King to remix, he had helped fashion one of hip-hop sampling’s lodestones. (I’ll leave Vanilla Ice out of this if you will. Thanks in advance.)
“Walk on the Wild Side” is immortal for Herbie Flowers’ rolling bass line. Raw Power is the opposite — Bowie’s mix, done in a hurry (seven songs in one day; the album has eight) on a crappy old mixing desk in a cruddy L.A. studio, sounds like it has blown out your subwoofers in advance. When Iggy remixed it for a 1997 CD reissue, he balanced out the low end. He did not balance out the material; “Gimme Danger” is the title of a freaking ballad. Clearly, he valued Iggy’s wildcat manner. So did Kurt Cobain, who named Raw Power his favorite album.
Needless to say, Raw Power did not contain any hit singles, and after the Stooges broke up a second time (Raw Power was, quite literally, a comeback album — they’d first split after 1970’s Fun House), Iggy went into rehab at UCLA, where Bowie would visit. David, too, was trying to quit drugs (specifically cocaine), and the two of them headed to Berlin in 1976. The idea was to make an Iggy solo album; in 1977, both Ig and Bowie would wind up releasing two records drawn from these same much-mythologized sessions.
Instead of making an album with a fast and a slow side, the way LPs were often parceled out in the vinyl era, Iggy made a slow album, The Idiot, followed by a fast one, Lust for Life. Both sounded renewed, the “Whaddya got?” attitude aimed at the world rather than just his dealer. And both contained hits — though, at the time neither were released as singles. The slithering vamp of “Nightclubbing,” from The Idiot, became a standard thanks to Grace Jones, while “Lust for Life” crossed over 19 years later thanks to Trainspotting. When people say Bowie was ahead of his time, this is some of what they mean.