Tag Archives: Mick Ronson

David Bowie – Anonymous Icon

“If you feel safe in the area you’re working in, you’re not working in the right area. Always go a little further into the water than you feel you’re capable of being in. Go a little bit out of your depth. And when you don’t feel that your feet are quite touching the bottom, you’re just in the right place to do something exciting.”

David Bowie

Bowie 60s Album

David Bowie was all wrong for the 1960s for many reasons. Firstly, he tried to fit in with whatever trend was happening at the time. He hadn’t found his own look or voice yet. We’re all guilty of mimicking our influences until we find ourselves. (Some of Bowie’s 60s output has been compared to The Who. During the recording of Under Pressure with Queen in 1981, Brian May played a take and said it sounded like The Who. Sixties Bowie might have been pleased with the comparison but not the Bowie of 1981. He frowned and said to Brian May: “Well, it won’t sound like The Who by the time we’ve finished with it.” He was not an imitator anymore but an innovator pushing for perfection.)

David Bowie had been ignored in the 1960s. He had been trying since he was 15 in 1962 to break into music with various bands, images and sounds. He’d been a mod, an acoustic hippy and even tried putting out novelty records like The Laughing Gnome. After seven years, he had only managed one hit right at the tail-end of the decade in September 1969 with Space Oddity (he’d never be allowed that much time in today’s music business and the world would miss out on a spectacular talent). For nearly three years after that, nothing he tried worked.

The late sixties were all about Flower Power and everyone being one with each other and the Earth. Bowie, with his unusual eyes, was about the opposite – the outsider.

Bowie 60s Eyes

Bowie wasn’t going to be ignored again and decided on a new strategy for the 1970s. He would push his outsider look about as far as it could go to become the gender-bending extraterrestrial messiah Ziggy Stardust in the 1970s. Whereas Elvis was himself, Bowie would play a character to become a superstar, an interesting twist on what The King had started. It was influenced by the androgynous look of Little Richard in the 50s and Bowie was a huge fan of that.

“It’s always time to question what has become standard and established,” he said.

Bowie Dress

David Bowie wasn’t going to follow the crowd and try to fit in anymore. He was going to use shock tactics and press everyone’s buttons. He was going to wear a dress and publicly state that he was gay despite being married to Angie (the gay thing is no big deal these days, back then the impact of such a statement was seismic. Many Hollywood stars like Rock Hudson denied they were gay in interviews until the end as they were afraid it would ruin their careers. As Bowie didn’t really have a career at the time, it had the reverse effect and was the making of him).

Bowie was clever enough to figure out that there are two ways to get your message out there; advertising (which costs money) and publicity (which is free). He was going to make the press work for him by tossing them eye-opening quotes and posing for provocative pictures to make them do the work of drumming up interest in his career with headlines. While wearing dresses didn’t give him the breakthrough he craved, it gave him his first unique image and people started to remember him. Bowie was moving in the right direction.

To give an example of how brave David Bowie was, he decided to walk around TEXAS wearing A DRESS in the early 70s! A guy called him a fag and pointed a loaded gun at his head. Did it phase Bowie? Nope, on the contrary, it proved his shock tactics were working. He was getting noticed at last. He wasn’t following another trend, he was setting his own. Bowie would do exactly what he wanted in the 1970s and nobody was going to stop him and they didn’t. He was about to take things even further and really push the boundaries of what was acceptable.

Bowie Fellatio 2

On June 17th 1972, Bowie performed mock fellatio on guitarist Mick Ronson at a show in Oxford. Bowie’s manager Tony De Fries took Mick Rock’s photo and had it made into a full-page advert in music paper Melody Maker. There were repercussions and paint was thrown on the front door of the house in Hull where Mick Ronson’s parents lived. Paint was also thrown on the car he’d bought them. Ronson left the tour but was persuaded to return. If Bowie was going to suffer for his art, so were those around him.

Bowie-Ronson-Starman-TOTP

On July 6th 1972, David Bowie appeared in what would be a life-changing performance of Starman on the now-defunct Top of the Pops. During his spot, guitarist Mick Ronson joined him to harmonise and Bowie draped his arm around him in a limp-wristed fashion. Bowie knew exactly what he was doing. A young Boy George remembered his grandmother saying “oh, he’s a poofter!” when she saw Bowie make that gesture and similar statements were uttered in homes all over Britain. Of course, anything parents didn’t like was automatically what kids were going to get into and they flocked to Bowie in their droves as new fans (concert audiences began to grow noticeably after this). It was a masterstroke. In a Stardust flash, David Bowie was a star after a decade of trying. Such was the power of television then. It had made Elvis a star in the 50s, saved his career with the ’68 Comeback Special and did the same for Bowie in 1972.

Bowie Eyepatch

The Ziggy Stardust image was such a hit, Bowie said “I thought I might as well take Ziggy out to interviews as well. Why leave him on the stage? Why not complete the canvas? Looking back it was completely absurd. It became very dangerous. I really did have doubts about my sanity. I can’t deny that experience affected me in a very exaggerated and marked manner. I think I put myself very dangerously near the line. Not in a physical sense, but definitely in a mental sense.”

While Bowie appeared to be telling all his most intimate secrets to the world, what he was really doing was projecting a fake image of himself and revealing nothing. In later years, long after he stopped playing characters, he retained that air of mystery even up until his death (especially after his enforced retirement following a minor heart attack on stage in 2004).

Bowie Finger
Check the finger, Paparazzi!

 

It’s something he has in common with Freddie Mercury, both men hid in plain sight for decades. When you look at the information they left behind about themselves, it seems to tell you a lot but doesn’t. They showed but didn’t tell and perfected the politician’s art of doublespeak. That is why the public remain fascinated with them and will continue to be for the foreseeable future.

© Stewart Stafford, 2016. All rights reserved.

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When Stardust Met Mercury

“Of all the more theatrical rock performers, Freddie took it further than the rest. He took it over the edge. And of course, I always admired a man who wears tights. I only saw him in concert once and as they say, he was definitely a man who could hold an audience in the palm of his hand.”

David Bowie on Freddie Mercury

It is interesting how many times the lives and careers of David Bowie and Freddie Mercury intersected over the years. Bowie, struggling to make a name for himself in the late 60s, played a gig at Freddie’s college, Imperial in London (Bowie never went to college but was self-taught and a voracious reader). Freddie was there to help out. As there was no stage, Bowie told Freddie and the others to help him push some desks together to create a makeshift one and the show went ahead.

Freddie had a desire to become a rock star himself but was struggling to write songs. The man, who in just a few short years would go on to write what is routinely cited as the best song of all-time, Bohemian Rhapsody, would bang his head in frustration on his piano and ask: “how do they do it?” It’s possible he took inspiration from Bowie, a man writing his own material and performing it before Freddie’s very eyes. Bowie’s visual element wasn’t yet there. There’s no doubt that Freddie took inspiration from it when it was. Freddie changed his name to Mercury, messenger of the Gods but also a planet, just as Bowie had christened his alter ego Stardust in a celestial fashion. It was the Dionysian god-like approach to rock music that Jim Morrison had taken earlier.

Freddie and Queen drummer Roger Taylor had a stall in Kensington Market selling exotic clothes and various bits of tat. Even then, Freddie had an eye for the visual. So did Bowie, once again their paths crossed. Freddie’s stall with Roger was going nowhere, so they decided to close it. Freddie got a job at another stall. One day, David Bowie showed up looking for a pair of boots. Freddie fitted him for a pair and sold them to him (did Bowie remember Freddie from Imperial College? It’s possible he didn’t, but Freddie almost certainly remembered him. It wasn’t the first time a star had come down and bought something at the stall where Freddie worked. Noddy Holder from Slade dropped by and bought his iconic mirrored top hat there: “I got the hat off a guy in Kensington market, called Freddie,” Noddy said. “He said: ‘One day I’m gonna be a big pop star like you.’ I said: ‘Fuck off, Freddie.’ He became Freddie Mercury.” So Freddie was playing an important backstage part in glam rock already, seeing their choices, helping them into them and watching their fans react.)

NoddyHolder
Noddy Hoider of Slade with the hat Freddie sold him
Bowie Dress
Bowie in his pre-Ziggy dress-wearing phase

Roll on a few years and David Bowie has found his musical mojo in the character of alien rock god Ziggy Stardust. The 1970s were going to be about the visuals as much as the music.

Photo of David Bowie
Bowie as Ziggy Stardust Photo by Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

Queen’s drummer Roger Taylor recalls: “Freddie and I saw the first Ziggy gig at Friar’s Aylesbury. We drove down in my Mini. We loved it. I’d seen him there about three weeks before in the long hair and the dress. Suddenly you saw this spiky head coming on stage. You thought, wha-a-at??? They looked like spacemen.” Once again, Bowie was taking chances on stage as Mercury took mental notes in the audience.

Queen soon joined Bowie in the ranks of rock stardom. Bowie and Mercury both worked seperately with photographer Mick Rock. Rock was particularly fond of an old shot of German actress Marlene Dietrich and asked David and Freddie if they wanted to recreate it. Both divas saw the visual possibilities and favourable comparisons with glamorous old Hollywood and responded.

Mercury Dietrich
Marlene Dietrich (left) and Mick Rock’s recreation with Freddie Mercury (right)

Mercury’s Dietrich pose would form the basis of Queen’s cover of their second album “Queen II” and be recreated in the video for “Bohemian Rhapsody” in 1975.

Queen II

Bowie Dietrich
Bowie’s Dietrich pose photographed by Mick Rock

In October 1977, Queen and Bowie released very similar anthems. Queen had “We Are The Champions” and Bowie had “Heroes.” They are both played regularly at sporting events.

Fast-forward to Montreux, Switzerland in 1981. Queen are recording their album Hot Space at Mountain Studios there. Bowie happens to be in town the same night at his apartment there. Engineer David Richards sees a chance at rock history and invites Bowie down to the studio. Bowie does backing vocals for Queen’s track “Cool Cat” (he later refuses permission for the song to be released and insists that his vocals are taken off the track. Some advance tapes had already been sent out with Bowie’s backing vocals on them and are worth quite a lot of money today. The song, minus Bowie’s vocals, was included on Hot Space) In the studio though, everyone seems happy and relaxed with Bowie’s minor contribution. Bowie wants more though and suggests that they write a song together. Roger Taylor already had a track called “Feel Like” which has many background elements of what would become “Under Pressure.” It would be rewritten, have Bowie’s vocals that classic John Deacon bassline added.

“Feel Like” demo

Bowie and Queen could have written an obvious song about love but chose to write about pressure which is something both camps clearly understood. Fans only hear the joy in most music without considering the blood, sweat and tears that sometimes goes into the creation of it. Big stars that write their own material have to keep topping what they’ve done before. They become hostages to their own talent and fanbase in a way. So pressure was the common ground that Bowie and Queen chose to occupy and occupy it spectacularly they did.

Bowie took over the session which seems to have unnerved Brian May: “It was very hard, because you already had four precocious boys and David, who was precocious enough for all of us.” May said Bowie “took over the song lyrically” and demanded control of the last mixing session. (Roger Taylor didn’t seem to mind Bowie’s instructions and felt that Queen could have done more with him at a later date.)

“Under Pressure” studio take

There is a well-known story of the vocal sparring session that developed between Mercury and Bowie. They weren’t supposed to hear the other’s contribution so as to keep their improvisations fresh. However, Bowie was secretly listening to what Mercury was doing. When Mercury got suspicious as to how Bowie was perfectly counterpointing him, Queen’s German producer Mack revealed the deception. “The bastard,” Mercury swore. It wasn’t the only way these two titans were competing with quantities of wine and cocaine allegedly being consumed to jazz up proceedings in the 24-hour session.

As the line “People On Streets” is repeated in the song, that was its title until it became “Under Pressure” at the last minute. Bowie refused to film a video for it but, even so, it gave Queen their second number one when it was released in November 1981 just after the release of their first and best Greatest Hits album. Bowie had hit the top spot the previous year with “Ashes to Ashes” and he would have another chart-topper 18 months later in 1983 with “Let’s Dance.” So the experiment worked for all concerned and is now considered one of the best duets ever recorded (even better than Bowie’s duet with Bing Crosby, although that seems to grow in popularity every Christmas and will again, no doubt, with Bowie’s death.) With “Under Pressure,” David Bowie became a part of Queen history and vice versa.

Bowie Mercury 80s

Their paths crossed again at Live Aid in 1985, when Queen gave what is generally considered the greatest live performance of all-time . Bowie had the unenviable task of having to go on after them and he raised his game. Queen did him a favour in one way as the crowd were already fired up from their performance and Bowie didn’t have to do much to excite them even though he did with a rousing rendition of “Rebel Rebel” and a seminal performance of “Heroes.”

The bassline from “Under Pressure” was sampled in the 1990 Vanilla Ice song “Ice Ice Baby” which also reached number one and once again brought the combined careers of Bowie and Mercury to public attention.

david-bowie-and-freddie-mercury-90s

Freddie Mercury knew he was dying for years before his actual passing (as Bowie did for the last 18 months of his life when diagnosed with Pancreatic Cancer in 2014.) Freddie had only publicly announced his HIV status on Saturday, November 23rd 1991 when he died of AIDS the next day to worldwide shock. Bowie did something similar, bringing out a new album on his birthday with his death being announced just two days later. The impact of Bowie’s death seems greater, possibly because there was no internet when Freddie died. Anyone and everyone could say their piece online about Bowie’s passing and they have.

At Mercury’s funeral, a wreath from David Bowie was sent with the hastily-scribbled note: “Will be missed.” Bowie appeared at the Freddie Mercury Tribute Concert in 1992 where he reunited with his old Ziggy Stardust bandmate Mick Ronson (Ronson died in 1993). Bowie performed “Heroes” and “Under Pressure” with Annie Lennox filling in for Freddie on the duet. (As no video exists showing Bowie and Mercury singing “Under Pressure” together, this duet with Lennox was recut in 1999 to make it appear as if Bowie and Mercury were performing it on stage simultaneously.)

“Under Pressure” Rah Mix

Bowie surprised everyone by getting down on one knee on stage at the old Wembley Stadium and saying The Lord’s Prayer. He hadn’t told Queen or anyone else and only decided to do it five minutes before going on.

When Bowie himself died in January 2016, Brian May described Bowie as a “fearsome” talent (it appears May is still unnerved by the “Under Pressure” sessions 35 years on.)

Bowie Fred Heaven.png

Many internet memes appeared after Bowie’s death showing him reunited with Freddie Mercury in Heaven to sing “Under Pressure” again, reuniting them even in death. The show, as Freddie Mercury once sang, must go on.

Bowie and Fred Angels

© Stewart Stafford, 2016. All rights reserved.