David Bowie and Pete Townshend might seem like distant stars from the outside, but both were fellows who gazed at rock beyond the norm with a keen eye for the visceral heart that brought it back down to earth. Their orbits were also closely entwined, as Townshend recalled five years on from the passing of the late ‘Starman’: “One day I was walking, I lived in Ebury Street in Victoria, and a shout came across the street from a mod-looking guy with blonde hair, backcombed. This would have been probably about 1966, early ’67 – and it was David.”
Townshend continued: “He was with his then-wife Angie, and he shouted across the road, ‘Really loved your demo of ‘Join My Gang’,’ which was a song that I’d written for one of Robert Stigwood’s artists. And I said to him, ‘How did you hear that?’ And he said: ‘Well, I work at Essex, and I’ve heard all your demos.’”
As it happens, in Bowie’s day job he had become a fan of the unheard rocker who would soon blast The Who to rightful stardom. Townshend’s home recordings were an early inspiration for Bowie who pored over the humble submissions while whittling away the hours at work. Naturally, all of this happened unbeknownst to Townshend, but one of his first fans happened to be a musical legend in the making. “I didn’t know anything about him,” he recalled. “Anyway, I asked his name and he said then his name was David Jones. That was my first meeting.”
From that moment on, the often-scathing guitarist was always warm to this young Mr Jones, adding: “He was always very, very, very charming to me.” However, he was quick to add that there was a hair-raising side to this blonde gentleman too. “He was a bit of a wild man; he just was so super cool, and so glamorous, and so sweet a man, so kind, and so hard-working too, so interested in the arts, and so intelligent that it disguised the fact that underneath it all he was a filthy rock star.”
This made the duo sort of fabled musical soulmates from before the big bang, but their atoms would finally collide just after the new millennium. And boy were the results rather stellar. For David Bowie’s excellent Heathen track ‘Slow Burn’, Townshend collaborated with the star seamlessly and provided an unmistakable riff. The riff is the epitome of Townshend’s style, but it never treads on Bowie’s very singular toes which is a testimony to how well The Who star reads the musical room.
As Townshend recalled of that literal room: “I went to see David Bowie at a studio. He has asked me to work on a track of his new album. He played me a number of tracks. I can’t say too much, except it was surprising, moving, poetic (in a musical and visionary sense). I think real Bowie fans (and a few of Radiohead) will be able to walk tall soon in the knowledge that their hero can still break all the rules and remain cool.”
That description of Bowie is a paradigm of the guitar work on ‘Slow Burn’ itself. The riff is an amorphous swirl of sound that perfectly tessellates with Bowie’s kaleidoscopic take on music. However, even with that in mind the guitar line remains melodic and pulls the rest of the track along with it, producing one of Heathen’s high points. It was as though Townshend was channelling Bowie’s intent.
The result, as Bowie put it. was “the most eccentric and aggressive guitar I’ve heard Pete play, quite unlike anything else he’s done recently.” Adding: “I’ve known Pete for years of course and have always thought of him as a mentor in some ways. We’d written back and forth about doing this for a while and he was due to do his part when he came in for the Concert For New York which we both played at. Time got out of hand what with rehearsals so we did it by throwing the ProTools disc back and forth across the ocean. It’s such an angular, deeply felt and moving piece of playing, I just love it.” Touché, Mr Jones, touché.