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David Bowie's greatest trick: working with the best in the business

The greatest trick the devil ever pulled was convincing the world he didn’t exist, and the greatest trick David Bowie ever pulled was using the talents of others to augment his own creative skills.

David Bowie is quite rightly hailed as an icon, his music helped to drag culture into the modern age via discussion of ‘taboo’ subjects and through technical innovations. Arguably though, the most ingenious decision Bowie ever made was to collaborate with other artistic legends which helped him to realise his fluid and pioneering creative vision.

It is safe to say that Bowie’s career wouldn’t have taken off without a little help from his friends. After all, he was introduced to ‘good’ music by his older half brother Terry Burns, and the exposure to things such as modern jazz and Beat poetry would have a transformative effect on the direction of Bowie’s life.

This sentiment that Bowie would have been nowhere without collaboration can first be observed in the way that his early musical career as Davie Jones and his early years as David Bowie, were a complete failure. Before the release of his debut album David Bowie in 1967, he’d released six unsuccessful singles either in bands or as a solo artist. The factor that seems to underpin this period is that he struggled for creative direction.

After the commercial failures of his early career, in 1969, Bowie’s manager Kenneth Pitt commissioned the promotional film Love You till Tuesday, which was designed to showcase the talents of the 22-year-old Bowie and introduce him to a larger audience. It was for the film that Bowie wrote his first hit, ‘Space Oddity’. The track would also make it onto Bowie’s second album, 1969’s David Bowie. Yes, it also shared the same name as his debut. Davie Bowie had arrived, or sort of.

One of Bowie’s most enduring songs wouldn’t have come to fruition without the struggles of Pitt, and would not have been brought to life without the brilliant musicians that performed on the track. Tony Visconti added flutes and woodwinds to the track, Rick Wakeman gave the song its spacey Mellotron line and Herbie Flowers contributed the bass. Not only was the song brought to life by these three, but it would also set a precedent for Bowie’s career moving forward. 

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In April 1969, Bowie met Angela Barnett, and they were married within a year. She is widely credited with changing his style and introducing him to the burgeoning glam rock scene. Her far-reaching involvement left Pitt with little influence, much to his chagrin. Although he had now established himself as an artist after the success of ‘Space Oddity’, Bowie felt he was lacking a band “for gig and recording- people he could relate to personally”.

He formed a band known as The Hype, featuring John Cambridge on drums, Tony Visconti on bass, and Mick Ronson on electric guitar. The band had a stylistic concept and created personas and costumes in accordance with it. The wheels were slowly set in motion for the formation of The Spiders from Mars. Before too long, Cambridge left after an argument with Bowie and was replaced by Mick ‘Woody’ Woodmansey. 

The band recorded Bowie’s third album, The Man Who Sold the World, which was released in November 1970. This saw Bowie take more steps to become truly David Bowie, and although it wasn’t a success at the time, some of the foundations were laid for 1972’s The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars, which would be his real breakthrough.

Whilst touring The Man Who Sold the World and its follow up, 1971’s Hunky Dory, Bowie formed the concept of the Ziggy Stardust character by fusing the persona of Stooges era Iggy Pop with the music of Lou Reed, which he described as “the ultimate pop idol”. Hunky Dory also witnessed bassist Trevor Bolder welcomed to the fold, and after the record’s shift in a more artful style of rock, everything was in place for Ziggy Stardust.

Although a conceptual and songwriting masterpiece, Ziggy Stardust would not have been the album it was without The Spiders from Mars. This can be particularly attributed to the additions of the arrangements that Mick Ronson penned, giving life to Bowie’s ideas. During this early period, Ronson’s impact on Bowie was huge. Think Danny Whitten and Neil Young, just more weighty. 

Iggy Pop and David Bowie. (Credit: Alamy)

The dark follow-up, 1973’s Aladdin Sane, saw Bowie go even more experimental, and this time, his ideas were bolstered by the expertise of jazz pianist Mike Garson. After the disbandment of The Spiders from Mars, 1974’s Diamond Dogs would again rely on the support of other musicians. Herbie Flowers came back to lay down the bass, Mike Garson stayed in his role and Aynsley Dunbar, one of the hottest drummers around, took Woodmansey’s place. 

Famously, Bowie even enlisted the help of the biggest songwriter on the planet, John Lennon, for the single ‘Fame’ from 1975’s Young Americans. It became his first US number one, and it’s safe to say that without Lennon’s contributions, it probably wouldn’t have sold so well.

Additionally, although it came out of a great period of personal struggle and discovery, Bowie’s next three albums, the ‘Berlin Trilogy’, Station to StationLow and Heroes would not have become the classics they are without the expertise of Brian Eno and Tony Visconti, who together took Bowie’s ideas and converted them into a reality.

Although Eno didn’t sign on for 1980’s Scary Monsters (and Super Creeps), Visconti still helmed the production, and the musicians he and Bowie enlisted again helped to cement it as the album that signalled Bowie’s arrival at a place of personal and creative maturity. Chuck Hammer, Robert Fripp and Pete Townshend were just three legendary musicians to perform on the record.

Then, in 1981, Bowie teamed up with Queen for the massive one-off hit, ‘Under Pressure’. He followed up the massive success of the Queen collaboration with 1983’s Let’s Dance, which took his level of fame to the stratospheric. Co-produced by Nile Rodgers of Chic, it featured contributions from iconic axeman Stevie Ray Vaughan and Chic bassist Bernard Edwards on the track ‘Without You’.

Only halfway through Bowie’s career at this point, you can see a clear pattern, and it was one that carried on throughout the remainder of his lifetime. As his fame increased, as did the stature of musicians he worked with. He also worked with Iggy Pop, Albert Collins, Tina Turner, Lenny Kravitz, Reeves Gabrels, Gail Ann Dorsey and more.

Another interesting facet of this intrinsic relationship with collaboration is that many musicians would return to work with Bowie at different points. He built up a bank of reliable musicians that he could pick from whenever his creative vision needed it. 

Fundamentally, Bowie was an ideas man. He was a conceptual genius and a brilliant songwriter, who’s 3D and fluid concepts could not be brought to life without the help of others. When it really got going, this reliance on collaboration gave Bowie’s career a stamina that many musicians should be envious of. He worked with people who he understood, and who understood him. This elevated his work, creating the icon we all know as David Bowie.

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