In 1975, with the release of his album Young Americans, David Bowie made it painfully clear to fans that his Ziggy Stardust, glam-rocker days were over. But out of all the songs on the eight-track release that featured his new “plastic soul” sound, as he labelled it, ‘Fame’ seemed to keep his rock-n-roll edge alive, especially in his vocal performance backed by former Beatle John Lennon.
Bowie would later admit that the track was created “with a degree of malice” aimed at his management company MainMan, something focused by the aforementioned bespectacled Beatle, and the frustration is present more clearly than ever before in his incredible isolated vocals.
In his “lost weekend” phase after the demise of the Beatles a few years earlier, Lennon had met Bowie at Elizabeth Taylor’s Los Angeles house party in September of 1974, and the pair vowed to collaborate on a song together. They met up a few months later in January of 1975 at New York’s Electric Lady Studios, and along with recording a cover of Lennon’s Beatles song ‘Across the Universe,’ the two crafted ‘Fame’ after a deep discussion about shared industry troubles.
In an interview, Bowie revealed: “We’d been talking about management, and it kind of came out of that. He was telling me, ‘You’re being shafted by your present manager’. That was basically the line. And John was the guy who opened me up to the idea that all management is crap. That there’s no such thing as good management in rock ‘n’ roll, and you should try to do it without it,” he shared.
“It was at John’s instigation that I really did without managers and started getting people in to do specific jobs for me,” confirmed Bowie, “rather than signing myself away to one guy forever and have him take a piece of everything that I earn.”
The pair let out their frustrations in the booth that day, which all began when guitarist Carlos Alomar developed the guitar riff, to which Lennon starting singing “aim” over, and Bowie turned into “Fame”. Lennon would receive a co-writing credit on the song, and Bowie, a long-time admirer of Lennon, said he was the “energy” and the “inspiration” behind it. The session created a bond that would last them until John’s tragic death in 1980, and Bowie later said about their friendship, “Whenever the two of us got together it started to resemble Beavis and Butthead on (CNN debate program) Crossfire.”
In 1990, when reflecting on the song, Bowie revealed it as his least favourite track on Young Americans, stating: “I think fame itself is not a rewarding thing. The most you can say is that it gets you a seat in restaurants.” But regardless of the general distaste Bowie felt about the record and fame itself, it gained momentous popularity with his fans and became his first Number One hit in the U.S, also peaking at number nine on the Billboard Hot 100 chart. In typical Bowie fashion, even in bouts of bitterness, he managed to produce a masterpiece with remarkable skill, which is exhibited in these incredible vocals.
Listen to David Bowie’s powerful isolated vocals for ‘Fame’ below.