If you had to pinpoint the two most iconic figures from the history of British music, chances are the answer you would be met with is David Bowie and John Lennon. Their careers would help navigate the world of music into new directions and there was a strong commonality between them, a factor which made them kindred spirits from the moment that Elizabeth Taylor introduced them to one another.
Lennon’s personal life was in a precarious moment around the time that 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 that he spent getting up to debauched antics with Harry Nilsson spirits lasted around 18 months and is often described as Lennon’s ‘Lost Weekend’, a period which saw the duo cram more wild antics in a brief spell than most people manage in a lifetime. From a creative perspective, however, Lennon remained prolific. While he continued to create new material, perhaps the best thing he put together was with a certain Mr Bowie.
A few months after they met, the two artists would enter the studio together and the result would see the formation of ‘Fame’, a song that is arguably one of the finest moments of Bowie’s esteemed career. Bowie wrote the song alongside Lennon and former James Brown guitarist Carlos Alomar as a direct middle finger to the business of rock and roll and, more notably, the middlemen at Mainman Management—Bowie’s former management company. To cap it off, the song would top the Billboard Hot 100 and go down as one of Bowie’s best, highlighting that one way to the top is to always take aim above the peak.
Bowie told Bill DeMain in a 2003 interview: “When we were in the studio with John Lennon, I asked Carlos, ‘What was that riff you had?’ And it went from there.” Lennon then found the notorious hook singing “aim” to Alomar’s riff and things were in motion. Bowie seized his chance and changed the lyric to ‘Fame’ and began quickly building out the infamous lyrics of the song.
Earlier, in 1999, Bowie was speaking to Berklee College when he professed his love for Lennon and talked about the influence the bespectacled Beatle had on him: “It’s impossible for me to talk about popular music without mentioning probably my greatest mentor, John Lennon. I guess he defined for me, at any rate, how one could twist and turn the fabric of pop and imbue it with elements from other art forms, often producing something extremely beautiful, very powerful and imbued with strangeness.”
He then vividly recalled the night that their stars aligned: “The seductive thing about John was his sense of humour. 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. 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.'”
There was a sparkle in Bowie’s eyes as he reminisced upon these precious memories he held of the time he spent with Lennon and he couldn’t help but share his favourite anecdote to the Berklee crowd: “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. And 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,'” he added.
It’s unsurprising that Lennon and Bowie got on in the fashion they did, especially considering that they were both masters of reinvention who, despite their musical differences, were two of the same. Without Elizabeth Taylor, perhaps these two giants of music would never have crossed paths and this sliding doors moment would inadvertently lead to the two creating ‘Fame’ — which you can listen to below.