Musical flares: Bowie, The Beatles, psychology, songs, and addiction
It’s been only two weeks since David Bowie’s untimely death and the Bowie obsessive in me is still finding it difficult to accept. I have never been more upset by the death of someone that I didn’t know personally. The only other celebrity death that left me with such an empty feeling was that of John Lennon back in December 1980. I was only 14 years old but I remember waking up to the news on that Tuesday morning (December 9, the morning after he had been shot in New York by Mark David Chapman). I went to school that day with a feeling I had never experienced before and I got it again two weeks ago when Bowie (co-incidentally) died in New York.
Bowie and The Beatles (and Lennon in particular) are arguably the two biggest musical influences on my life. With my interest in addictive behaviours, Bowie and Lennon are just two of the many celebrities that have succumbed to substance abuse and addiction over the years (and was a topic I covered in a previous blog – ‘Excess in success: Are celebrities more prone to addiction?’). Thankfully, neither of their addictions was that long-lasting, and neither of them wrote that many songs about their drug-fuelled experiences (although Lennon’s ‘Cold Turkey’ about his heroin addiction is a notable exception).
Lennon was arguably one of Bowie’s musical heroes although Bowie’s 1973 covers LP Pin-Ups was notable for the absence of Beatle covers. By 1973, Bowie had covered songs by The Rolling Stones, The Kinks, Pink Floyd, The Pretty Things, and The Who on vinyl but never The Beatles. Having said that, two Beatle songs did play a small part in his concerts between 1972 and 1974. Most notably, The Beatles very first British single ‘Love Me Do’ was often played as a medley with ‘The Jean Genie’. (On the 1990 Sound and Vision Tour, a snippet of ‘A Hard Day’s Night‘ was also sometimes incorporated into ‘The Jean Genie’. He also sang a snippet of ‘With A Little Help From My Friends‘ in the encore of his final concert in 1978). Bowie also occasionally covered ‘This Boy’ (the b-side of ‘I Want To Hold Your Hand’, their fifth British hit single in his concerts) as part of the early ‘Ziggy Stardust’ shows. (I’m probably one of the few people in the world that has this song on bootleg). Speaking of bootlegs, the Chameleon Chronicles CD featured a cover of the 1967 single ‘Penny Lane‘ allegedly by Bowie along with The Monkees song ‘A Little Bit Me, A Little Bit You’ (written by Neil Diamond). Although these songs sound like 1960s Bowie, they were actually from a 1967 LP (Hits ’67) and sung by session singer (Tony Steven). Nicholas Pegg (in his great book The Complete David Bowie) also noted that Bowie’s late 1960s group Feathers included ‘Strawberry Fields Forever‘ in their live set and that Bowie performed ‘When I’m Sixty-Four‘ in his 1968 live cabaret show after his own song ‘When I’m Five‘).
It was in 1975 that Bowie worked with Lennon musically, and Lennon appeared on two songs of Bowie’s 1975 LP Young Americans (although Bowie gave Lennon a name check in his 1971 song ‘Life On Mars‘ – “Now the workers have struck for fame/’Cause Lennon’s on sale again”). The most well-known was ‘Fame’ (one of my own personal favoutrites) which went to No.1 in the US chart (but only No.17 here in the UK) and had a Bowie co-writing credit with Lennon (along with Bowie’s guitarist Carlos Alomar). Lennon was apparently reluctant to be acknowledged as co-writer but Bowie insisted (probably just to say he had a ‘Bowie/Lennon’ song in his canon and maybe because he was a little starstruck). The song should arguably include other co-writers as the riff was based on the song ‘Foot Stompin’’ (also covered by Bowie) by the doo-wop band The Flares (sometime referred to as The Flairs). Lennon also played on a version of The Beatles’ song ‘Across The Universe’ but was arguably the weakest song on the LP. It’s also worth mentioning that the title track also included a line – and tune – from The Beatles ‘A Day In The Life‘ (“I heard the news today, oh boy”). Bowie and Lennon were also photographed together at the 1975 US Grammy Awards (where Bowie presented the award for the best ‘rhythm and blues’ performance by a female vocalist Aretha Franklin). This was around the height of Bowie’s cocaine addiction and he subsequently went in to say that he has no recollection of being there at all. In the same year, Bowie also appeared on singer Cher‘s US television show and sang a medley of songs that included ‘Young Americans‘ and The Beatles ‘Day Tripper‘.
Like millions of people around the world (including myself), Lennon’s death in 1980 hit Bowie hard. Not only had he lost a good friend, but he began to think of his own mortality and how easy it would be for a crazed fan to kill him in some kind of copycat assassination. At the time, Bowie was receiving rave reviews for his portrayal of Joseph Merrick in The Elephant Man on Broadway. (I’ve always been interested in The Elephant Man as I may even be a distant relation as my grandmother was a Merrick). He soon stepped down from the role and went into ‘semi-retirement’ before re-emerging in 1983 with his biggest selling single and album Let’s Dance.
Since Lennon’s death, Bowie has covered three Lennon solo tracks (‘Imagine’, ‘Mother’, and ‘Working Class Hero’). He sang ‘Imagine’ at a concert in Hong Kong (December 8, 1983) three years to the day since Lennon had been shot (a soundboard recording of which appears on a number of different Bowie bootlegs). In 1989, Bowie recorded the first of two Lennon songs taken from Lennon’s most psychologically inspired album, John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band (1970) written while undergoing primal therapy (see my previous blog for an overview on primal therapy in music). The first was ‘Working Class Hero’ for the 1989 ill-fated album Tin Machine (often voted one of Bowie’s worst cover versions by fans). The second track he recorded was ‘Mother’ (in 1998) for a John Lennon tribute album that Lennon’s widow (Yoko Ono) was putting together. Unfortunately, the album was never released but in 2006 it was leaked on the internet and has now appeared on many Bowie bootlegs. Although Bowie and Lennon never collaborated musically again, they remained close friends until Lennon’s death.
As far as I am aware, the only other Beatle-related song that Bowie has ever recorded was ‘Try Some, Buy Some’ that appeared on George Harrison’s 1973 LP Living In The Material World. Bowie covered the song for his 2003 album Reality, and although this was recorded not long after Harrison’s death from throat cancer, Bowie claimed that he thought it was Ronnie Spector’s song (ex-lead singer of The Ronettes), as she was the first artist to record in 1971. It was also claimed by German newspaper Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung (26 January 2013) that Bowie’s 2001 song from Heathen, ‘Everyone Says ‘Hi’’ was a tribute to Harrison but I have yet to see this conformed by anyone within the Bowie camp. Harrison met Bowie in Memphis during his 1974 Dark Horse tour. In a 1974 interview to a New York radio station, Harrison said:
“I just met David Bowie [during the Dark Horse Tour]…David Bowie, these were my very words, and I hope he wasn’t offended by it because all I really meant was what I said. I pulled his hat up from over his eyes and said: ‘Hi, man, how are you, nice to meet you,’ pulled his hat up and said, you know, ‘Do you mind if I have a look at you, to see what you are because I’ve only ever seen those dopey pictures of you.’ I mean, every picture I’ve ever seen of David Bowie, or Elton John, they just look stupid to me…I want to see, you know, who the person is”.
It wasn’t until 1974 that Bowie and Lennon first met each other at a Hollywood party hosted by actress Elizabeth Taylor. Lennon was with his girlfriend May Pang at the time (during his 18-month separation from Yoko). According to Pang, Bowie and Lennon “hit it off instantly” and kept in touch. When John went back to Yoko, Pang remained friends with Bowie and eventually married Tony Visconti, Bowie’s long-time record producer.
One of the more interesting articles on the relationship between Bowie and The Beatles was by Peter Doggett – author of books on both artists. In a 2011 blog he noted:
“I was struck during the research of [my book ‘The Man Who Sold The World’] by the influence that 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 [The Beatles second 1963 album] ‘With The Beatles’…in the book I talk about the apparent Fab Four influence on ‘Blackout‘ from the ‘Heroes‘ LP. But the single most dramatic role played by the Beatles in Bowie’s 70s work was exerted by John Lennon’s ‘Plastic Ono Band’ album. You can hear a touch of Lennon in the way Bowie sings ‘Space Oddity’ in 1969; some Beatles-inspired backing vocals on ‘Star’ from the Ziggy Stardust album; and, of course, yer actual Lennon voice and guitar on Bowie’s cover of ‘Across The Universe’ and his hit single ‘Fame’. All of which made me wish that Bowie had made a whole album (1980’s Scary Monsters, perhaps) in similar vein. So I was intrigued to learn from Bowie fan Martyn Mitchell that guitarist Adrian Belew recalled working on a whole set of Plastic Ono Band-inspired tracks with Bowie around this period, but that Bowie never completed or issued them. Perhaps he was hoping that he might persuade Lennon himself to join him in the studio – until fate, and a madman, intervened”.
Following Bowie’s death, the remaining Beatles (Paul McCartney and Ringo Starr) both played tribute to Bowie’s genius. Ringo (who appeared in the Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars movie filmed in 1973 and released 1983) tweeted a short message, while McCartney’s message was a little more heartfelt:
“Very sad news to wake up to on this raining morning. David was a great star and I treasure the moments we had together. His music played a very strong part in British musical history and I’m proud to think of the huge influence he has had on people all around the world. I send my deepest sympathies to his family and will always remember the great laughs we had through the years. His star will shine in the sky forever”.
As far as I am aware, Bowie only met McCartney a few times in his life most notably at the July 1973 premiere of the James Bond film Live and Let Die (with McCartney writing the theme song), and at the Live Aid concert in 1985 (where Bowie was on of the backing singers as McCartney performed ‘Let It Be’). Yoko movingly described Bowie as a “father figure” to their son Sean Lennon following Lennon’s death:
“John and David respected each other. They were well matched in intellect and talent. As John and I had very few friends, we felt David was as close as family. After John died, David was always there for Sean and me. When Sean was at boarding school in Switzerland, David would pick him up and take him on trips to museums and let Sean hang out at his recording studio in Geneva. For Sean, this is losing another father figure. It will be hard for him, I know. But we have some sweet memories which will stay with us forever”.
It could perhaps be argued that Bowie and Lennon were cut from the same psychosocial cloth. They both had middle class backgrounds and had many of the same musical heroes (Little Richard, Chuck Berry, and Elvis Presley being the most salient – Bowie sharing Presley’s birthday on January 8). They were both interested in the arts more generally and they were both singers, songwriters, artists, and writers (to a greater or lesser extent). Although Lennon rarely engaged in acting, he always appeared at ease in front of the camera. They both knew how to use the media for their own artistic advantage. In short, there’s a lot that psychologists can learn from both of them.
Dr. Mark Griffiths, Professor of Behavioural Addiction, International Gaming Research Unit, Nottingham Trent University, Nottingham, UK
Buckley, D. (2005). Strange Fascination: David Bowie – The Definitive Story. London: Virgin Books.
Doggett, P. (2009). The Art and Music of John Lennon. London: Omnibus Press.
Doggett, P. (2012). The Man Who Sold The World: David Bowie and the 1970s. London: Vintage.
Goddard, S. (2015). Ziggyology. London: Ebury Press.
Leigh, W. (2014). Bowie: The Biography. London: Gallery.
Pegg, N. (2011). The Complete David Bowie. London: Titan Books.
Seabrook, T.J. (2008). Bowie In Berlin: A New Career In A New Town. London: Jawbone.
Spitz, M. (2009). Bowie: A Biography. Crown Archetype.
Trynka, P. (2011). Starman: David Bowie – The Definitive Biography. London: Little Brown & Company.