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Music

The David Bowie song inspired by Charles Mingus

It is, of course, almost impossible to pin down David Bowie to anything; genre, fashion, impact, even a particular time or space (so far-reaching is Bowie’s grasp). And so too is it nigh-on impossible to define precisely which of Bowie’s innumerable records is his best and which of his decades-spanning career moments can be isolated and held up as his finest.

From the rock opera of Ziggy Stardust, through his Berlin-era records, to his final artistic statement and farewell album, Blackstar, David Bowie has shifted through personas and styles with grace and effortless grace hitherto unfound in another artist. Quite simply, there is no one like David Bowie, nor will there ever be.

So with Bowie, rather than regarding one record, live show, or public appearance as his most refined, we are afforded to take each of them on their own merit, as though within each of these events, a different Bowie from the last awaits behind the curtain, eager to shock and amaze us.

Arguably, Bowie’s most famous album is 1972’s The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars, which took Bowie from a well-known rock singer to an international and eternal superstar (which Bowie had dreamed of in his youth). The album surrounds Bowie’s alter ego Ziggy Stardust, an androgyne alien, sent to Earth to warn its inhabitants of a coming apocalypse and thus save them from their fate.

The lead single from Ziggy was ‘Starman’, released April 28th, 1972. Its B-side, ‘Suffragette City’, has also proved one of Bowie’s best and most instantly recognisable tracks, with an unlikely story of inspiration. ‘Suffragette City’ was initially offered to the band Mott the Hoople, who turned it down and decided to record Bowie’s ‘All the Young Dudes’ instead.

‘Suffragette’ included several slang phrases and common phrases, including the repeated Americanism, “hey man”, and some of Bowie’s own neologisms (“she’s a total blam-blam”). It also included references to Nadsat, the fictional language spoken by the misguided youths in Anthony Burgess’ 1962 novel A Clockwork Orange (“say droogie don’t crash here”). Bowie would again refer to the novel’s dialect on Blackstar’s ‘Girl Loves Me’.

Yet arguably, the most famous lyrics from the song come immediately after the song’s inventive and unexpected false ending. “Ohhhh, wham-bam, thank you, ma’am,” screams Bowie before the band leads back into the song’s main composition through to its conclusion. The inclusion of this phrase was borrowed from an album by American jazz pianist Charles Mingus. The story goes that Bowie used to frequent the London department store Medhurst, which had an unlikely fantastic record department run by a married couple, Jimmy and Charles. Bowie explains, “Jimmy, the younger partner, recommended this Mingus album one day around 1961. I lost my original Medhurst copy but have continued to re-buy the print through the years, as it was re-released time and time again. It has on it the rather giveaway track ‘Wham Bam Thank You, Ma’am’.”

Such was Bowie’s introduction to the now infamous phrase that fans love to shout whenever the track plays. An alternate origin story comes from Bowie’s school friend George Underwood, who remembers “being at Haddon Hall when he first played ‘Suffragette City’. And at the end of the performance – he just played it on a twelve-string – I shouted out, ‘Wham, bam, thank you, ma’am!’ which was a song from a Charlie Mingus album, Oh Yeah. And it obviously ended up on the record.”

Regardless of the true origin of the phrase, its inclusion no doubt contributed to its seemingly eternal place as a Bowie classic masterpiece. The genius of the false ending before the refrain led to a track that always wants to give you just a little bit more, something that could also be said of Bowie himself. ‘Suffragette City’ turned fifty years old this year and will long be remembered as one of Bowie’s best tracks among old and new fans alike.