In the early 1960s, David Bowie was still a relatively unknown fringe musician, performing mostly folk-leaning songs in small venues around London. Far from being the era-defining star that he would go on to become with the release of ‘Space Oddity’ in 1969, Bowie’s early years in the world of music were characterised by false starts, experimentation, and a couple of epiphanies. One such epiphany occurred during a Little Richard concert in 1963. At that concert, Bowie would see a band that would completely change everything the young musician thought he knew about music.
In an interview with iconic interviewer Michael Parkinson in the 1990s, Bowie was asked about the Little Richard jacket he’d been spotted wearing at one of his recent performances. The blues musician was one of the most influential artists of all time, inspiring a generation that included stars such as John Lennon and Mick Jagger to embrace the rebellious sound of American rock n’ roll. For Bowie, Little Richard was something of an “idol” and, during the Parkinson Interview, he recalled watching him for the first time. “I saw him first in 1963 I think it was. And I think it might have been at the Brixton Odean. I don’t know, somebody will remember the tour. Everybody remembers everything these days.”
Although Richard was the main attraction, it was the support act that caught Bowie’s attention: “The Rolling Stones were opening up for him,” he continued, “It was the first time I ever saw them. And they weren’t very well known. There was about six kids that rushed to the front, you know — that was their fanbase. Everybody was there for Little Richard. I think Bo Diddley was on the show and all that.”
Watching The Rolling Stones’ set, Bowie realised that he needed to change his angle. He’d been absorbed by the maudlin and the Dylan-esque for far too long. In his own words: “it was priceless. I’ve never seen anything so rebellious in my life. Some guy yells out ‘get a haircut!’ and Mick says ‘What and look like you!’ I thought, ‘oh my god, this is the future of music’ and sure enough…”
The gig had a huge effect on Bowie’s input. From that point onwards, he began moving towards songs that clearly showcased the influence of The Rolling Stones. Throughout the 1970s, Bowie and Jagger became close friends and frequently shared their new material with one another. As Jagger once recalled: “He would come around my house and play me all his music — I remember him playing me different mixes of ‘Jean Genie,’ which was really kind of Stones-y, in a way. That’s what I enjoyed: watching him develop as an artist.”
Bowie also admitted that the Stones greatly influenced tracks like ‘Jean Genie’: ” I wanted to get the same sound as the Stones had on their first album on the harmonica. I didn’t get that near to it, but it had a feel that I wanted – that ‘60s thing.” Thanks to The Rolling Stones, Bowie’s songwriting matured into the groove-laden glam-rock style that defined his Ziggy Stardust period. It’s funny to think what might have happened if Bowie hadn’t gone to that fateful gig at the Brixton Odeon in 1963. Certainly, the face of music would look very different indeed.