The Beatles FAQ
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The Beatles FAQ

From Fan Boy to Fame

David Bowie always loved The Beatles. They took a while to notice their long-time fan boy.

The Beatles were a strong influence on David Bowie

David Bowie was born only four years after George Harrison, but lasting success eluded him until a decade after The Beatles first stormed the charts. A fan from his teens, the inventor of the ‘long haired society’ turned to his heroes when his early recording career stalled. And by the end of his life he could claim three of the Fab Four as personal friends.

In 1964 a young Beatles fan makes his first TV appearance. With astounding chutzpah, the 17-year-old is taking part in a publicity stunt, promoting the (fictitious) Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Long-haired Men

The teenage David Bowie shows the self-possession that would characterise his career. He also appears to have come to studio directly from the set of the recently released A Hard Day’s Night.

Part of this homage was self-serving — put bluntly, Bowie wanted to be famous. In the mid 60s, The Beatles were the only available train to that destination and aspiring pop-stars needed adhere to the dress code. This was fast-changing and easy to misread — the album cover for David Bowie (1967) for example, looked distinctly square and old fashioned next to Sergeant Pepper.

1964 Bowie released his first single, Liza Jane, under the name Davie Jones & the King Bees. Over the next four years, he continued on the fringes of the record industry, unable to establish a defined musical style needed for the success he craved.

His most obvious influence was the extraordinary singer/songwriter/actor showman Anthony Newley. Bowie did a passable impression of the Londoner but there was a limited market for Newley pastiches.

Released in 1967, with David looking a little late for the British invasion

Bowie also tried his hand at comedy (the infamous but entertaining ‘The Laughing Gnome’) folk and shouty rock — without ever quite managing to convince. Perhaps conscious of this failing, he seems to have gone to the masters for a manual, as Pete Doggett suggests.

As early as 1965, in an obscure song entitled ‘That’s Where My Heart Is’, Bowie sounded as if he was learning how to write songs by listening to With The Beatles.

Four years after his recording debut, the young man from Brixton/Bromley had made little progress. Despite a name change and several changes of musical style he remained a fringe figure. Convinced that Deram (Decca) was mismanaging his career, Bowie was looking for a new label.

In 1968 The Beatles returned from India and and announced the formation of Apple Records, a new label for ‘creatives’. Bowie immediately instructed his then manager, Kenneth Pitt, to submit an audition tape.

As a signed artist with a major label, he might have expected his offering to advance to the top of the pile. Unfortunately, however Apple was

small label initially besieged by numerous musicians, managers, agents, artists, and hucksters…

A further complication was that label would only recruit new talent with the agreement of all four (endlessly squabbling) Beatles.

The Apple Store in 1968

In effect this meant that only pals — or pals of pals — of the Fab Four had a realistic chance of signing for Apple.

The office was completely swamped with tapes. Most of the artists signed were people either the Beatles liked themselves or the close staff around the Beatles liked… I think they gave up going through the tapes very EARLY on. James Taylor came thru Paul’s brother-in-law, Badfinger came Thu Mel Evans….. When you look at the releases by Apple, almost ever artist had a “connection” with the Beatles be it past or present.

Pitt was not impressed:

Had David not been keen on recording for Apple I would not have tolerated the deplorable organization, sheer amateurism and downright rudeness that confronted us during the next three months, the time it took Apple to give us a decision. source


When the decision finally came, it was not good news:

Apple Records is not interested in signing David Bowie. The reason is that we don’t feel he’s what we’re looking for at the moment.

Did any of The Beatles listen to Bowie’s audition tapes? Probably not. Even if they had given them their full attention, they were unlikely to have been impressed. After all, George Harrison had sat stony-faced through the first Crosby, Stills and Nash album. Bowie’s early efforts showed promise but were erratic — both in terms of quality and in establishing an identifiable style.

Stung by this rejection, Bowie signed for Phillips, where he produced his first number one single, Space Oddity, the following year. This success proved fleeting, however, and it would be take another three years — and a major reinvention before he would establish himself as a major star.

4. When David met John

We were first introduced in about 1974 by Elizabeth Taylor. We were in LA, and one night she had a party to which both John and I had been invited. David Bowie, 1999

In 1974 David Bowie went to New York to record his ‘white soul’ album Young Americans. In later interviews (see above), he implied that his first meeting with Lennon was a chance encounter. Other accounts by Visconti and others suggest that there was a determined campaign to establish contact.

According to May Pang, who was living with Lennon during his estrangement from Yoko, the two immediately men got on well. Other witnesses have reported that they drew caricatures of each other and drank cognac (hopefully in that order).

Encouraged by their initial ‘chance’ meeting, and keen to get a Beatle on his new album — Bowie phoned Lennon directly. “I’m recording a version of Across the Universe,” he told him. “Would you like to play on it?”. This bold request paid off. Lennon agreed to come to the studio play acoustic guitar.

The session was a success and Lennon later said he liked Bowie’s version better than his original recording with The Beatles on Let It Be.

5. Fame & Friendship

The two Englishmen returned to the studio for another jamming session. As they improvised, guitarist Carlos Alomar played a riff he had intended for Bowie cover of the R & B song Footstompin. Impressed, Bowie and Lennon then developed this into a new song in which Lennon sang ‘aim’ over the Alomar guitar.

Bowie then rewrote the lyric, changing ‘aim’ to ‘fame’. The resulting single was Bowie’s most successful in the US, reaching the Top Ten for the first time. There was also a Beatles tribute in Young American’, the single and title track when Bowie quotes from ‘A Day in the Life (I heard the news today, oh boy)

Though Lennon and Bowie did not record together again, they remained friends until the former’s death in 1980. In subsequent years, Yoko has often mentioned in this friendship. When David Bowie died in 2016, he described him as family.

Paul McCartney’s tweet on news of the death of David Bowie

Paul McCartney also held Bowie in high regard, paying tribute to a ‘great star’ and writing fondly of ‘the great laughs we had through the years’. The two men did not record together, but did share a stage at Live Aid in 1986.

Ringo was also a great admirer — he recorded ‘All the Young Dudes’ on his 2006 album Ringo and Friends.

Ringo in his long-gone drinking days. Both men have raided the dressing up box

The legacy

I was struck … by the influence the Beatles had on Bowie’s work in the 70s. Some of that influence is obvious — the McCartney-inspired piano styling of ‘Oh! You Pretty Things’, for example. As early as 1965, in an obscure song entitled ‘That’s Where My Heart Is’, Bowie sounded as if he was learning how to write songs by listening to With The Beatles.

Pete Doggett

Musically David Bowie is as an unashamed musical magpie, openly displaying musical influences on his work. Anthony Newley looms large in his early work, as do the the Velvet Underground when he gravitates toward electric rock. Less obvious, perhaps, is his musical debt to The Beatles.

Bowie would, of course, eventually record with John Lennon. Musically, however, he was perhaps closer aligned to Paul McCartney, with whom he shared a flair for unusual melodies and a relative lack of formal musical knowledge.

Rick Wakeman — a trained classical musician — was struck by the way Bowie would choose extraordinary chord progressions — on ‘Life on Mars’’ for example. In this he was following the earlier example of McCartney who had pioneered this approach, creating complex musical structures (Eleanor Rigby, Penny Lane, A Day in the Life etc) while bypassing the formal training required to realise them.

McCartney had needed the help of the master technician, George Martin, to turn his ideas into recorded sound. For Bowie this role was played by Tony Visconti — the New York teenage musical prodigy who came to London in the late 60s. One of Visconti’s first production assignments had been with the band that would become Badfinger (the group that did manage to sign for Apple). Later he would score the orchestral arrangements on the key Wings album, Band on the Run. He also produced Heroes — an album Doggett also links back to The Beatles

Other musical links between Bowie and the Beatles were more surprising {like the} influence on ‘Blackout’ from the ‘Heroes’ LP. In more recent times Bowie covered George Harrison’s ‘Try Some, Buy Some’, claiming that he hadn’t realised that George had written the song. More here

The Day I Met the Dame — my afternoon with David Bowie



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