Saturday, October 29, 2011

Loving The Magpie (or, How To Write Fame)

I just finished Paul Trynka's terrific David Bowie: Starman, which, unless Bowie writes his own book or does something amazing artistically [little did we know!] in the future, will likely prove definitive. One fascinating feature of the well-written book is the insights into Bowie's process of making music. As Trynka outlines, the Dame didn't just change his style at various points in his career, but he changed his whole approach.

A great example of this is the breathless tale of how Fame was constructed. Basically, it was assembled from used parts, with Bowie, along with co-writers Carlos Alomar and John Lennon, operating more like the Bomb Squad than Lennon & McCartney.

Essentially, the way it happened was this: As is well known, Bowie began embracing soul and funk during the 1974 Diamond Dogs tour. As can be heard on David Live, adding the Stax classic Knock On Wood to the set was one manifestation of his new fascination. Another song he included was Foot Stompin' Pt.1, the 1961 dance floor smash by The Flares. His band of R&B virtuosi soon put their own twist on it, with guitarist Carlos Alomar adding a lick from The Jungle Walk, a funky Buzz Feiten workout from the last album by 60's stalwarts, The Rascals. This weird hybrid was even showcased on The Dick Cavett Show in 1974. You can hear an embryo of Fame at a moment when no one - not even Bowie himself -  knew what was to come.

The next building block came from John Lennon, who David had invited to the session to record Bowie's cover of Across The Universe. While it's a bit hard to imagine the ex-Beatle jamming on a version of Shirley & Company's peppy early disco hit, Shame, Shame, Shame, that's exactly what Lennon was doing when Bowie walked by. He thought Lennon was singing "Fame, fame, fame," a subject they had been discussing earlier. Something clicked and he went off by himself, returning 20 minutes later with the lyrics to Fame.

Lennon and Alomar definitely earned their songwriting credits for their crucial contributions but Trynka gives no doubt that the brilliant lyrics are all David's work. And although Trynka doesn't mention it, I would assume the same for song's most devastating coup de grace, the pitch-shifted repetition from falsetto to bass of the word "fame." This was the culmination of a technique from Bowie had employed on his early curio The Laughing Gnome (and later on Scream Like A Baby).

So that's how you make a hit. It's all here in this handy Spotify playlist, including the ultimate compliment, James Brown's Hot (I Need To Be Loved, Loved, Loved), which took "sampling" to a whole other level.

As for the story of how Bowie turned Nile Rogers into a musical Manchurian Candidate, you'll just have to read the book!

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