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Credit: University of Michigan/Jean-Luc Ourlain

What John Lennon taught David Bowie about songwriting

David Bowie and John Lennon may have found each other later in life but, by the time the Starman and the bespectacled Beatle did cross paths, they were clearly destined to find friendship in one another for years to come. The friendship shared between Bowie and Lennon is well known, well publicised and well documented. As well as enjoying each other’s professional company when they joined forces to write and record the song ‘Fame’, the duo’s middle finger to middle management, the two icons of rock music were also friends off stage.

Despite Bowie’s growing reputation, by the time he first crossed paths with the Beatle, Lennon was still an icon for Bowie. Their introduction would come in equally glamorous fashion as Hollywood legend Elizabeth Taylor made the connection. Lennon’s personal life was in a precarious moment when he first met Bowie in 1974, a period in which he found himself lost in a spiral of personal issues which ultimately led to his estrangement from Yoko Ono. This somewhat dark period of time spent getting up to debauched antics with Harry Nilsson lasted around 18 months and is often described as Lennon’s ‘Lost Weekend’. Bowie, too, was in the middle of a hedonistic spree that would ultimately lead to his own personal issues. They connected instantly.

“The seductive thing about John was his sense of humour,” Bowie told Berklee College when discussing the facets of pop music in 1999. “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,” Bowie continued. “I think we were polite with each other, in that kind of older-younger way. Although there were only a few years between us, in rock and roll, that’s a generation, you know? Oh boy, is it ever. So John was sort of [in Liverpool accent] ‘Oh, here comes another new one.’ And I was sort of, ‘It’s John Lennon! I don’t know what to say. Don’t mention the Beatles; you’ll look really stupid. ‘And he said, ‘Hello, Dave.’ And I said, ‘I’ve got everything you’ve made — except the Beatles.’”

“Towards the end of the ’70s, a group of us went off to Hong Kong on a holiday and John was in, sort of, house-husband mode and wanted to show Sean the world,” recalled Bowie, noting the change of lifestyle for Lennon. “During one of our expeditions on the back streets, a kid comes running up to him and says, ‘Are you John Lennon?’ And he said, ‘No but I wish I had his money.’ Which I promptly stole for myself. [imitating a fan] ‘Are you David Bowie?’ No, but I wish I had his money. It’s brilliant. It was such a wonderful thing to say. The kid said, ‘Oh, sorry. Of course, you aren’t,’ and ran off. I thought, ‘This is the most effective device I’ve heard,’” Bowie added.

It was a technique that the singer heartedly employed throughout his life. One moment, however, saw Bowie come unstuck with his newfound fan-avoidance device: “I was back in New York a couple of months later in Soho, downtown, and a voice pipes up in my ear, ‘Are you David Bowie?’ And I said, ‘No, but I wish I had his money.’

“’You lying bastard. You wish you had my money.’ It was John Lennon”, laughed Bowie. It’s clear that the word of John Lennon held some serious sway for Bowie so, when he offered the still-evolving singer a tip on songwriting, Bowie was all ears. After all, this was John Lennon, one half of the most impressive songwriting partnership of all time and one of the finest wordsmiths of his generation.

During his Serious Moonlight Tour, Bowie made a stop in Australia, where he dealt with the press in his usual charismatic manner. The 1983 tour came at a time in Bowie’s life when the world had changed once more, and his pop songs were no longer avant-garde but very much the song du jour. As his interview in the clip below calls it, “the Bowie of the eighties is very relaxed.” The interviewer suggests that the biggest problem Bowie has right now is trying to remain focused on the work at hand and not distracted by those around him.

“Absolutely,” the singer says in agreement suggesting that his main focus is “reorganising what I do and trying to make it constructive and positive.” Bowie goes on to suggest that it is one of the hardest aspects of being an artist but continues, “I’ll never forget something John Lennon told me, we were talking about writing and I had always admired the way he used to cut through so much of the bullshit, just come straight to the point with what he wanted to say.”

Lennon wouldn’t hold his secrets from his friend. Bowie continues: “He said: [adopting a perfect Lennon impression] ‘It’s very easy — all you have to do is say what you mean, make it rhyme and put a backbeat to it’, and I keep coming back to that principle”. It may seem like a somewhat churlish piece of advice and was undoubtedly delivered with a smirk on Lennon’s face, but there is some weight behind his assertion.

Not only in Lennon’s own work, which even when he was in The Beatles was noted for its authentic honesty but also in the song Bowie and Lennon shared writing credits for in ‘Fame’. It’s something our interview picks up on, suggesting it adopted the same principle. “Yes, absolutely,” confirms Bowie, “I mean, it was so easy. John had incredible charisma that made you cut through things. I can see the effect that he must have had on McCartney. I would imagine McCartney sorely misses that now.”

Across the years, David Bowie and John Lennon shared a lot of things: kind words, a few drinks, perhaps a cheeky line or two and a penchant for delivering pop songs that not only cut through the murky mire of modern music but toughed the hearts and minds of all those who heard them. The remarkable thing is they did it by using three easy steps.

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