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Music

How David Bowie and Iggy Pop wrote 'Lust for Life' on a ukulele

@SamWKemp

Few songs capture the intensity of being alive as well as Iggy Pop’s 1977 single ‘Lust For Life’. The combined force of Pop’s lyrical allusions to his raucous lifestyle and Danny Boyle’s use of the track in his 1996 film Trainspotting has meant that the single has taken on a certain hard-edged cool in its own right. It’s slightly counterintuitive, therefore, that this seedy, sweat-drenched battle-cry of a song was written by David Bowie and Iggy Pop on the ukulele of all things – surely the cutest of all instruments.

‘Lust For Life’ was written while David Bowie and Iggy Pop were living in Europe. Bowie had agreed to produce Pop’s debut solo record The Idiot, which would mark the beginning of a new chapter in Pop’s musical career, following the demise of The Stooges. While living in Berlin, the “heroin capital of the world”, Iggy and Bowie would watch American television shows on the Armed Forces Network, resisting the urge to shoot up all the while.

The pair felt a particular affinity for Starsky and Hutch, the titular characters of which they made self-deprecating comparisons on a nightly basis. In between broadcasts, the AFN would play a staccato station ident. On hearing the electronic beeping for what must have felt like the thousandth time, Bowie stood up suddenly, grabbed his son Duncan’s ukulele, and began playing the same staccato rhythm. Soon, the two friends had shaped the riff into something with a solid structure. “Call this one ‘Lust for Life’,” Bowie told Iggy.

When they got to the studio, Pop and Bowie transferred the AFN riff from the ukulele to the guitar and then to the drums. Pop had been a drummer in his early bands and liked to work on songs from the kit to give them the right rhythmic quality. For the lyrics, Pop decided that the best approach would be to improvise, having plundered William Burroughs’ novels for fragments of imagery such as “flesh machines” and “hypnotising chickens”. Indeed, the central narrator of Pop’s anarchic ‘Lust For Live’ is very reminiscent of Burrough’s Johnny Yenn, a sexually ambiguous gigolo who appears in the author’s Nova Trilogy.

In a way, it’s perfectly fitting that ‘Lust For Life’ was written on such a comical instrument. There’s a real dark-hearted humour beneath the song’s lacquered surface, something almost childish that seems so at odds with the seedy subject matter. It’s these contrasts between darkness and comedy that made Pop a sort of rock ‘n’ roll clown in his day, a punk Bouffon with a mesmeric tendency for self-destruction.