David Bowie: vocals, guitar
John Lennon: vocals, guitar
Carlos Alomar: guitar
Emir Kassan: bass
Dennis Davis: drums
Ralph McDonald: percussion
Produced by Harry Maslin and David Bowie
Album: Young Americans (RCA, 1975)
‘Fame’ was the lead single from David Bowie’s album Young Americans. It was co-written by David Bowie, Carlos Alomar and John Lennon, produced by Harry Maslin and recorded at Electric Lady Studios, New York on 30 January 1975.
John: 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?
So he got his first Number One. So I felt like that was like the karmic thing – you know, with me and Elton I got my first Number One – so I passed it on to Bowie and he got his.
And I like that track. I must say I admire him. The vast repertoire of talent the guy has. I was never around when the Ziggy Stardust thing came because I’d already left England so I really didn’t know what he was and meeting him doesn’t give you much more of a clue because you don’t know which one you’re talking to. And we all have our little personality traits so between him and me I don’t know what was going down, but we seemed so have some kind of communication together and I think he’s great. The fact that he can just walk into that and do that. I could never do that.
David Bowie: Lennon I really dug, I thought his writing was really strong, muscular. It was just a joy to work with him in the studio that one time. It was like every British kid’s dream. I first met John at Elizabeth Taylor’s party and we got together and we got on very well. When I was in New York, I’d always knock around with him.
We started knocking around with each other. When I asked him what he thought of what I was doing, Glam Rock, he said, “Yeah it’s great, but it’s just Rock and Roll with lipstick on!” I was impressed. As I was at virtually everything he said. He was probably one of the brightest, quickest-witted earnestly socialist men I’ve ever met in my life. Socialist in true definition, not in a fabricated political sense, but a real humanist. And a really spiteful sense of humour, which of course being English, I adored. I just thought we’d be buddies forever and get on better and better and all that, you know, fantasy.
I spent quite a lot of time getting to know Lennon, and I do remember we went to a lot of bars together. We spent hours and hours discussing fame, and what you had to do to get it, to get there. If I’m honest it was his fame we were discussing, because he was so much more famous than anyone who had been before.
And he came along to the studio and we started working on… Carlos had had a riff that he’d had in his head for some time which I put to the standard ‘Footstompin” by The Flares. It became the Fame riff. We changed it a bit and of course I did the inevitable – when John came to the studio I said, ‘Let’s write something!’ (laughs). I’m taking this chance by the horns, you know, I thought,’ I’m not letting go of this’. He said, ‘Yeah, great, let’s do something’ and Carlos said, ‘How about that riff that we did with ‘Footstompin”? So we played that and we just started chugging along with that and making up stuff and John just started singing ‘Fame’.
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.
‘Fame’ came out of a conversation that we had. I said, “I hate this manager that I’ve got. What can I do about it? How do I get a new manager?” and he said, “stop right there. No management. You don’t need management.” He was the first artist I’d ever met who told me that I didn’t need management, that it was not necessary and bless him forever.
I started to realize that if you’re bright, you kind of know your worth, and if you’re creative, you know what you want to do and where you want to go in that way. Once you know that, you just bring in specific people for specialist jobs. You don’t have to end up signing your life away.
After that I did get rid of that manager and I virtually managed myself my entire life. I’ve had business advisers and all that, but the idea of management has never crossed my path again since ’75.
He was one of the major influences on my musical life. I just thought he was the very best of what could be done with Rock and Roll. And also ideas – I mean I felt such kin to him inasmuch as he would rifle the avant-garde and look for ideas that were so on the outside, on the periphery of what was the mainstream and then apply them in a functional manner to something that was considered populist and make it work. He would take the most odd idea and make it work for the masses. I thought that was just so admirable, I mean that was like making artwork for the people and not having it as an elitist thing. There was just so much about him that I admired. He was tremendous, you know.
Carlos Alomar: Before David threw the song away, he just left the bass and the drums and so that’s the way we started. And so John Lennon comes down and he just started strumming and when he played he would go (makes sighing noise). Later on we were inside listening back and we went ‘What the hell is that sound?’ And I thought it sounded like Fame.
Bowie and Lennon decided they were hungry and they were going to go to dinner. They said, ‘Carlos, you wanna go?’ I said, ‘No no no, I hear something’. I was hearing these other three guitar parts and so I said to them ,’I’m gonna stay here. I’ve got something I want to work out with the engineer’. Thank god I did that because while they went out and got something to eat, I laid down all those guitar parts in like, two seconds! When they came back from dinner, David said, ‘That song is done!’. They took the acoustic guitar strumming that John had done in the beginning. They reversed it, put it backwards and that’s the suction sound you hear at the beginning. David put on a big pop (sings ascending guitar riff). We put up big reverb upon David’s riff. He wrote the lyric, boom boom boom, the song was done. But the fact that he said ‘just do it’ and I did it. That’s where our relationship began. I became his band leader. And I co-wrote ‘Fame’ – my first song ever written, with John Lennon and David Bowie!
Tony Visconti took the tapes to a studio for the 5.1 mix last year and found that Carlos had only overdubbed one extra guitar. The other electric guitar which makes the long ‘Wah’ and the echoed ‘Bomp!’ sound was played by myself, and John Lennon played the acoustic. John supervised the backwards piano on the front. I also spent several hours creating the end section.
I was there the day David brought John Lennon into the studio. He actually wrote a diary entry that day where he says, ‘January 30th, introduced Ava to a Beatle.’ We were going in that day to record ‘Fame’, and before the session David was freaking out because he was so nervous. He really admired John Lennon, and that day David was like a little kid. And then John comes in the door and John had those granny glasses on, right? And David looks and me and says, ‘He really does wear those granny glasses!’ He really liked the fact that Lennon had the whole Lennon look.
What you imagine John to be is exactly how he was: Charming, funny, and they both hit it off immediately. They became really, really good friends. It was only me, Carlos, John, and David in the studio – and I think Geoffrey [MacCormack] might have been there. Yoko came and brought us some sushi and then she left. She was very sweet. I liked her. She was not how I imagined her and how the Beatles said she was.
John was sitting there at one point with his twelve-string getting ready to play ‘Across The Universe’, and he looks up and says, ‘Are we having a good time?’ We were all so happy that John Lennon was so relaxed. David was just over the moon. He drew David a caricature of himself. And David put it in this solid gold frame. He really loved it. I didn’t think ‘Fame’ would turn out the way it did. I thought because John Lennon was on it that he was going to get lots of critical acclaim, but it was just a James Brown groove at one point.
One of my all-time favorite moments was when John and I were alone in the studio and I asked him to bang out a chord on the piano. It was my intention to make the chord play backward which would be the swell sound one hears on the intro to ‘Fame’.
At first, I didn’t explain myself well, but being the good sport that he was, John went into the studio and sat down at the piano. I told him he would hear four clicks and that he was to bang out and hold a piano chord on what would be the fifth click. He looked at me like I was out of my mind.
My technique for accomplishing this was to turn the multi-track (2”) tape upside down which would make the music play backward. I would then record what I wanted and when reversed again, the song would play correctly but the new sound would now be backward. Hence, the first thing you hear on ‘Fame’ is the decay of a piano chord that ends in the attack and the start of the song.
Now to make this story what it is to me, one must realise and accept that I was a GIANT Beatles fan. In fact, you could say I idolized their music. So, when John came back into the control room, he asked me to explain what I was doing. I offered the above as the explanation, to which he replied, “The Beatles never did it that way”…Ouch!
In order to maintain my cool, I said somewhat sarcastically, “O.K. John… How did the Beatles (emphasis on the word) do it?” He told me that they would record whatever they wanted to appear backward on ¼” tape then reverse that and “fly” it back into the multi-track. Both techniques work, but I maintained that mine resulted in more accurate timing and that it was in fact, easier.
So, “The Beatles never did it that way” has been a wonderful memory for me.
David Bowie: 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. Also, uninvited, John would wax on endlessly about any topic under the sun and was over-endowed with opinions. I immediately felt empathy with that. Whenever the two of us got together it started to resemble Beavis and Butthead on “Crossfire.”
The seductive thing about John was his sense of humor. Surrealistically enough, we were first introduced in about 1974 by Elizabeth Taylor. Miss Taylor had been trying to get me to make a movie with her. It involved going to Russia and wearing something red, gold and diaphanous. Not terribly encouraging, really. I can’t remember what it was called — it wasn’t On the Waterfront, anyway, I know that.
We were in LA, and one night she had a party to which both John and I had been invited. I think we were polite with each other, in that kind of older-younger way. Although there were only a few years between us, in rock and roll that’s a generation, you know? Oh boy, is it ever.
So John was sort of [in Liverpool accent] “Oh, here comes another new one.” And I was sort of, “It’s John Lennon! I don’t know what to say. Don’t mention the Beatles, you’ll look really stupid.”
And he said, “Hello, Dave.” And I said, “I’ve got everything you’ve made – except The Beatles.”
A couple of nights later we found ourselves backstage at The GRAMMYs where I had to present “the thing” to Aretha Franklin. Before the show I’d been telling John that I didn’t think America really got what I did, that I was misunderstood. Remember that I was in my 20s and out of my head.
So the big moment came and I ripped open the envelope and announced, “The winner is Aretha Franklin.” Aretha steps forward, and with not so much as a glance in my direction, snatches the trophy out of my hands and says, “Thank you everybody. I’m so happy I could even kiss David Bowie.” Which she didn’t! And she promptly spun around swanned off stage right. So I slunk off stage left.
And John bounds over and gives me a theatrical kiss and a hug and says “See, Dave. America loves ya.”
We pretty much got on like a house on fire after that.
He once famously described glam rock as just rock and roll with lipstick on. He was wrong of course, but it was very funny.
Towards the end of the 70s, a group of us went off to Hong Kong on a holiday and John was in, sort of, house-husband mode and wanted to show Sean the world. And during one of our expeditions on the back streets a kid comes running up to him and says, “Are you John Lennon?” And he said, “No but I wish I had his money.” Which I promptly stole for myself.
[imitating a fan] “Are you David Bowie?”
No, but I wish I had his money.
It’s brilliant. It was such a wonderful thing to say. The kid said, “Oh, sorry. Of course you aren’t,” and ran off. I thought, “This is the most effective device I’ve heard.”
I was back in New York a couple of months later in Soho, downtown, and a voice pipes up in my ear, “Are you David Bowie?” And I said, “No, but I wish I had his money.”
“You lying bastard. You wish you had my money.”
It was John Lennon.
From a speech David Bowie gave to the Berklee College of Music’s Class of 1999.
I asked him one day ‘How do you write your songs’, and he said ‘It’s easy, you just say what you mean and you put a back-beat to it.’
Last time I saw John Lennon was in Hong Kong, we went to a Hong Kong market and there was a stall that sold old clothes and there was a Beatles jacket on the stall, and I did something that is not usually in my character—I asked him to put it on, so that I could take a photograph. I took a photograph, and I’ve still got the photograph. The jacket doesn’t fit properly, it looks like John has outgrown it.
Hong Kong Coliseum gig, 8 December 1983