David Bowie is the definition of a mercurial talent. The kind of artist who you’d assume was so self-assured in his own majesty that he’d never have a shred of jealousy about any other artist on the planet, but that, remarkably, couldn’t be further from the truth with one song, in particular, showcasing the fragility of his ego.
The timing of Bowie’s insecurities also arrived at a peculiar moment, as The Thin White Duke was still firmly at the peak of his powers and needn’t worry about anyone stealing his throne at the top of the table. Bowie felt like he had a nose that could sniff out any pretender who was in the vicinity, and it seemed as though he was ready to use it. If Bowie laid eyes on a talent that he perceived to lack the same authentic touch as him, he held no qualms about letting people know of his disdain.
Bowie’s 1980 record, Scary Monsters (and Super Creeps), is up there with anything else that he made throughout his career; it saw the star begin to exert his upcoming pop muscles. Not only had Bowie’s identity morphed, but the musical landscape had drastically changed from when he had first arrived into the minds of the general public. On ‘Teenage Wildlife’, taken from the album, he fired shots at one young upstart who had shot to hysterical levels of fame within a very short amount of time — Gary Numan. The electro pioneer had begun even to outsell Bowie.
The track sees a bitter Bowie sing: “A broken-nosed mogul are you, One of the new wave boys, Same old thing in brand new drag, Comes sweeping into view, As ugly as a teenage millionaire, Pretending it’s a whiz-kid world.”
In an interview around the release, Bowie commented on Numan and explained his distaste for the singer. “What Numan did he did excellently but in repetition, in the same information coming over again and again, once you’ve heard one piece,” he harshly noted.
Bowie continued: “It’s that false idea of hi-tech society and all that which is… doesn’t exist. I don’t think we’re anywhere near that sort of society. It’s an enormous myth that’s been perpetuated unfortunately, I guess, by readings of what I’ve done in that rock area at least, and in the consumer area television has an awful lot to answer for with its fabrication of the computer-world myth.”
However, Bowie didn’t just let his music do the talking when it came to his opinion of Numan, and he even got him removed from a TV show. Speaking to Uncut, Numan later remembered: “In the ’80s, I did the Kenny Everett show and Bowie was on, too. I was a massive fan, I had seen him countless times; I had an embarrassing array of bootlegs. The chance to even be remotely near him was an honour. But he asked for me to be thrown out of the studio and then taken off the programme, which was very disappointing.
“But as the years have gone by, I understood far more the way he saw things then. He was still a young man, with ups and downs in his own career, and I think he saw people like me as little upstarts. But later he said some nice things about me, so that made the whole thing better!”
This kind of behaviour from Bowie is a far cry from what you’d expect from him, and the influence that he had on Numan should have been something that he took pride in rather than growing resentful about the success of one of his super-fans.
Making references to him in ‘Teenage Wildlife’ is one thing, but removing him from The Kenny Everett Show speaks volumes about Bowie’s fragile frame of mind at this point more than anything else. Thankfully, all would end up as water under the bridge when Numan would be brave enough to let the past be the past.