The Story Behind the Song: David Bowie and John Lennon’s middle finger to ‘Fame’
We’re taking a look at the story behind one of the most famous songs in the world, the fantastic ‘Fame’, from two of the world’s greatest songwriters.
When two of the most iconic musicians of their generation sit down to write a song together you know it’s going to be special. When those songwriters are none other than the Starman David Bowie and The Beatles founder John Lennon—it’s going to be unbelievable. Here, we’re taking a look at the story behind their song, 1975 effort ‘Fame’.
Bowie wrote the song alongside Lennon and former James Brown guitarist Carlos Alomar as a direct middle finger to the business of rock and roll and, more notably, the middlemen at Mainman Management—Bowie’s former management company. To cap it off, the song would top the Billboard Hot 100 and go down as one of Bowie’s best highlighting that one way to the top is to always take aim above the peak.
‘Fame’ was released in 1975 to quickly become Bowie’s best selling single (to that point) in the US and allow Lennon another chance to rattle the music business. Featuring on Bowie’s Young Americans album, though allegedly Bowie’s least favourite song on the record, it became the flagship of the album’s sound. It’s a sonic landscape Bowie described as, “the squashed remains of ethnic music as it survives in the age of Muzak rock, written and sung by a white limey”.
With much of the Young Americans sessions already in the can the previous year, Bowie made sure that he found room on the record for the latecomer, 1975’s ‘Fame’, perhaps because of one notable addition to the track. Written over a riff that Carlos Alomar had developed for Bowie’s cover of ‘Footstompin”, but the singer had said it was “a waste” to use it on a cover.
Bowie told Bill DeMain in a 2003 interview: “When we were in the studio with John Lennon, I asked Carlos, ‘What was that riff you had?’ And it went from there.” Lennon then found the notorious hook singing “aim” to Alomar’s riff and things were in motion. Bowie seized his chance and changed the lyric to ‘Fame’ and began quickly building out the infamous lyrics of the song.
The lyrics were a pointed arrow of problems the singer had with his previous management, Mainman Management, sharpened by Lennon’s rebellious mind and provocative caustic questioning. He told DeMain, “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’ (laughs). That was basically the line. And John was the guy who opened me up to the idea that all management is crap.”
He goes on to say that Lennon, in fact, instigated that the Starman “did without managers, and started getting people in to do specific jobs for me, rather than signing myself away to one guy forever.” Bowie continues: “I started to realize that if you’re bright, you kind of know your worth, and if you’re creative, you know what you want to do and where you want to go in that way.”
In the interview, Bowie goes on to contemplate the very idea of fame in the 21st century: “Fame itself, of course, doesn’t really afford you anything more than a good seat in a restaurant,” he says. “That must be pretty well known by now. I’m just amazed how fame is being posited as the be-all and end-all,” he sullenly continues, “It’s a sad state of affairs.”
Debuting on the mainstage with ‘Space Oddity‘ in 1969, Bowie has been apart of some of the most creative periods in rock history, often being the one leading them too. Inventing new genres and reinventing himself at every turn, he obviously saw the value of hard work. He tells DeMain, “However arrogant and ambitious I think we were in my generation, I think the idea was that if you do something really good, you’d become famous. The emphasis on fame itself is something new. Now it’s, ‘To be famous you should do what it takes’, which is not the same thing at all.”
He leaves DeMain with a piece of advice on managers to pass on to all the young musicians out there. He concludes, “I think if you have even just a modicum of intelligence, you’re going to know what it is you are and where you want to go. Once you know that, you just bring in specific people for specialist jobs. You don’t have to end up signing your life away,” a fitting warning from an artist who refused to be tied down.
‘Fame’ acts as a reminder of the real person behind the mythology of David Bowie. Behind the rock star from outer space was a man who was being blindsided by the business side of his work. It’s clearly something that irked him enough to write a song for them, it just so happens that because he is the mythological David Bowie that it was one of the best rock songs of all time.