John Lennon is possibly the most iconic songwriter of all time. His work in The Beatles was nothing short of pioneering. Before the purists get their knickers in a twist, we need to mention that The Beatles were not just a project driven by and for John Lennon, instead it was the glorious sum of its four brilliant parts, including Ringo. Without any of its defining cogs, they would not have been the same.
Together, the Fab Four gave us some of the most groundbreaking recording and songwriting techniques, and in a way, they wrote the handbook on how to make and consume music. Without their contributions, the world of pop music would not have many of the essential hallmarks it has today.
Like every human being, Lennon was a complex, Gordian knot of an individual. He didn’t have the easiest of upbringings, and his mother’s premature death in a car accident left an indelible mark on his character, as it would with anyone. In many ways, these two factors have been attributed to the fits of violent rage he would often be stricken with as a young man. This is largely a story for another day. However, come the end of The Beatles, heading into the 1970s, it is widely acknowledged that Lennon did somewhat of a personality U-turn, as songs like ‘Jealous Guy’ support. This wasn’t a complete character transfusion, though, as the ‘Lost Weekend’ period and estranged relationship with his eldest son, Julian, display that some elements of the old John remained.
What the ’70s did bring was the image of John Lennon that we’re all more familiar with, the Imagine iteration of the star. The man who, along with his wife Yoko Ono, was trying to cure the world, one ill at a time, a semi-ironic fact retrospectively. What we also got during the ’70s was Lennon trying his hand at production and working with other stars. This was Lennon unchained.
In 1974, during the ‘Lost Weekend’ period, he produced friend Harry Nilson’s tenth album, Pussy Cats, a cocaine, alcohol and marijuana fuelled body of work that surprisingly has some brilliant moments. However, Lennon had another collaboration in 1975 that was even more iconic.
He co-wrote, provided backing vocals and acoustic guitar on David Bowie’s 1975 single, ‘Fame’, from his ninth studio album, Young Americans. Although it is well-known, the fact that the funk-rock masterpiece features John Lennon seems to get overlooked, particularly amongst the density of Lennon’s life and musical output.
Given that David Bowie was equally as iconic in his own right, and was prone to collaborating with legends, it comes as little surprise that he managed to wangle a collaboration with the biggest songwriter of the day. Critically, this was also a momentous time in Bowie’s career as he was having “very upsetting management problems” and that “a lot of that was built into the song”. Bowie later described ‘Fame’ as a “nasty, angry” song that was written with “a degree of malice”.
As well as augmenting the sonic element of the song, Lennon would do his bit in assisting Bowie with some advice that would change the course of Bowie’s career. Given the fact that the end stage of The Beatles was marred by managerial disputes, with a lot of their resentment directed at Apple Records’ Allen Klein, Lennon was the perfect person to give Bowie a few nuggets of wisdom.
The manager Bowie was having trouble with at the time was Tony Defries, the man who had managed him during his early stages of stardom, but their relationship had become fraught for a plethora of reasons of contractual and economic reasons. Namely, an expensive musical theatre project helmed by Defries called Fame.
In an Australian interview, speaking of the advice Lennon gave him, Bowie revealed: “It came out a conversation that we had. I said, ‘You know, I hate this manager that I’ve got, how do I get a new manager?’, he said ‘stop right there. No management. You don’t need management.'”
Regarding the significance of Lennon’s sage advice, Bowie continued: “He was the first artist I’d ever met who told me that I didn’t need management, that it was not necessary. Bless him…I did get rid of that manager and I virtually managed myself for my entire life. I’ve had business advisors and all that, but the idea of management has never crossed my path since ’77ish – ’75, rather.”
Bowie then took to reflecting on the massive influence Lennon had on him as a songwriter, showing the Liverpudlian’s ever-present inspiration. Bowie went as far as to draw a parallel between the two of them, explainng: “He was one of the major influences on my musical life. I thought he was the very best of what could be done with rock ‘n’ roll. Also, I felt such kin to him, in as much as he would rifle the avant-garde and look for ideas that were so on the periphery of what was the mainstream and then apply them in a functional manner to something that was considered populist.”
Considering that Bowie was the definition of a chameleonic artist, it is unsurprising that he was massively influenced by John Lennon, as who back then wasn’t? What Bowie brilliantly does with that interview, though, is show the independent spirit that Lennon embodied as an artist. The advice he gave to Bowie effectively changed Bowie’s career forevermore, making it just another moment of game-changing weight that Lennon was so accustomed to.
Watch David Bowie on Lennon, below.