The Beatles and David Bowie represent different eras of music with The Fab Four walking the path which would allow Bowie to run like Forrest Gump into the rock and roll world. Yet the two-generational acts have never seemed to have too much in common at eye level.
But there was one Beatles member, in particular, that would influence Bowie’s career and leaving him with a final answer for the age-old question: who is your favourite Beatle?
Though David Bowie had been interested in music and the performing arts before The Beatles arrived as the saviours of pop music in the early sixties, it wasn’t until the end of the decade that the Starman would find his feet. By that time The Beatles influence on not only him but the whole world was incomparable.
Sonically there aren’t too many noticeable similarities between the two acts but during his years with Tin Machine, we may have a clue into Bowie’s answer to the aforementioned question. The singer would regularly cover John Lennon’s ‘Working Class Hero‘ on stage as well as working directly with the singer on Bowie’s song ‘Fame’. Bowie also delivered a beautifully poignant tribute to John Lennon on stage in 1983 on the anniversary of the former Beatle’s death.
Lennon had an immeasurable impact on Bowie’s career which he was initially worried to come out and state because it wasn’t deemed the coolest thing in the world to be a huge fan of The Beatles when Bowie was in his heyday so he instead kept quiet about his guilty pleasure.
Speaking to MTV in 1995 about his love of Lennon and why it was his favourite member of The Fab Four, Bowie opened up about his adoration: “He [Lennon] was probably one of the brightest, quickest witted, earnestly socialist men I’ve ever met in my life. Socialist in its true definition, not in a fabricated political sense, a real humanist and he had a really spiteful sense of humour which of course, being English, I adored.”
He added: “I just thought we’d be buddies forever and get on better and better, and all that fantasy, I know which Beatle I always liked.”
Bowie then went on to discuss the incredible impact that The Beatles not only had on music but on culture as a whole: “Everybody had their favourite Beatle… I did realise that,” mused the Starman. “I always knew that but one wouldn’t have declared it in the early 1970s because that would have been most uncool, to actually say you liked the Beatles in any way, shape or form.”
He then continued: “They made such a great impact – they gave the British the illusion we meant something again and we love hearing that, boy do we love hearing that.”
Bowie famously also said these great words about his contemporary during his induction to the Berklee College of Music’s Class of 1999: “It’s impossible for me to talk about popular music without mentioning probably my greatest mentor, John Lennon. I guess he defined for me, at any rate, how one could twist and turn the fabric of pop and imbue it with elements from other art forms, often producing something extremely beautiful, very powerful and imbued with strangeness.”
Bowie also offered a little insight into the man behind the myth: “Also, uninvited, John would wax on endlessly about any topic under the sun and was over-endowed with opinions. I immediately felt empathy with that. Whenever the two of us got together it started to resemble Beavis and Butthead on ‘Crossfire’.”
He then hilariously spoke about the first time he met Lennon, adding: “The seductive thing about John was his sense of humour. Surrealistically enough, we were first introduced in about 1974 by Elizabeth Taylor. Miss Taylor had been trying to get me to make a movie with her. It involved going to Russia and wearing something red, gold and diaphanous. Not terribly encouraging, really. I can’t remember what it was called — it wasn’t On the Waterfront, anyway, I know that. We were in LA, and one night she had a party to which both John and I had been invited. I think we were polite with each other, in that kind of older-younger way.”
It would begin a friendship that would quickly blossom into he and Lennon working with one another on the brilliant single ‘Fame’. 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. Bowie seized his chance and changed the lyric to ‘Fame’ and began quickly building out the infamous lyrics of the song.
“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.” He continues, “I started to realise 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. 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.”
It’s a sentiment he and John Lennon shared. The idea of an artist so intent on creating work that he forgets the by-product of which firmly places him away from the very work he desires. It’s a notion that likely endeared Lennon to Bowie even further and made him his “favourite Beatle.”
Watch the moving footage of Bowie speaking about his love of John Lennon in 1995, below.