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Music

How John Lennon’s claptrap utterings inspired David Bowie song ‘Fame’

It’s still quite a shock when I remember that David Bowie’s ‘Fame’, from the classic 1975 soul-inspired album Young Americans, was a collaboration with John Lennon. The song, to me, sounds so different from much of Bowie’s work on his other albums and was a far cry from anything that Lennon would be ordinarily associated with. Alas, by 1975, the two had become close friends and had decided to write a song together and what resulted was the funky hit ‘Fame’.

In 1975, while in the studio with John Lennon and James Brown’s former guitarist Carlos Alomar, Bowie had remembered a riff from one of Alomar’s songs and had the thought of using the riff in his final song for Young Americans. In a 1978 interview, Bowie discussed the origin of the song: “It was, in fact, Carlos’ riff to ‘Footstompin,’” Bowie recalled. “I wanted to do ‘Footstompin,” and I said, ‘Carlos, that is such a good riff. I’m going to take it away from that song, and let’s do something with that.’”

He continued: “And then Lennon came in and said ‘That’s fuckin’ great, that! Wotta great riff that is!’ And then John stood in his spot and made sounds, and it sounded not unlike ‘fame.’” Lennon’s strange, nonsensical sounds while mimicking the guitar riff were clearly inaccurate and barmy enough to spark Bowie’s idea for new lyrics to accompany Alomar’s funky riff. He explained: “You know, one often just makes sounds, and those sounds become words, and then you think, ‘Gotta word. Now out of that word, let’s create a subject and evolve that subject – things often start like that.”

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The lyrics Bowie eventually committed to paper focussed on issues he had been having with fame and his management at the MainMan label, who had begun to take advantage of him. The Starman’s anger toward the matter had, incidentally, been stoked by Lennon, who rarely shied from his provocative and outspoken tendencies. Bowie recalled in a 2003 interview with Bill 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 went on to explain that Lennon had instigated that Bowie “did without managers, and started getting people in to do specific jobs for me, rather than signing myself away to one guy forever.” Bowie added: “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.”

Later on in the interview, Bowie addressed the capricious and futile nature of fame: “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 continues in a more dejected tone, “It’s a sad state of affairs.”

‘Fame’ went on to become the album’s biggest hit and Bowie’s first time reaching number one in the US singles chart. In the years after the release of Young Americans, Bowie would describe that he wasn’t entirely pleased with the album and once said: “I don’t play Young Americans much, it’s one of the most unlistenable albums I ever made. But I dance to it. It’s good to dance to.” 

Despite his mixed feelings about the song and its parent album, Bowie’s collaboration with Lennon on ‘Fame’ remained in his fond memories. He once described the track as “a happy song. The melodic feel, everything about it, is happy.” It reminded him of an important turning point as “Young Americans was the celebration of getting over [issues with his management],” as Bowie put it.

Listen to the groovy classic ‘Fame’ below.