Last week marked two years since the death of David Bowie. Today, we turn to some of his key collaborative moments. Throughout his career David Bowie was constantly reinventing himself, magpie-picking and absorbing the shiny trinkets of influence and reworking them into his very own sound, look and orbit reassembling it all into a brand new way forward in his own image.
‘Bowie is at the centre of the musical world’ uttered one critic, and when you look at the list of artists, producers and musicians he worked with over fifty plus years it’s hard to argue. A shapeshifting multimedia polymath who dipped his toe into various styles, sounds and blurred genres, turning his hand into art, acting and theatre he was perhaps the first postmodern pop star and would influence those who would follow in his wake, He was a man who created successful identities and then discarded them. His frenetic work throughout the 70s and early 80s set a benchmark for creative streaks in the world of music.
It is no wonder then that the list of his collaborators is as long and as it is varied. Here we shall focus on twenty-five of his finest. You can generally split his collaborations into three parts – the artists and producers he returned to work with repeatedly throughout his career (Tony Visconti, Mick Ronson, Iggy Pop, Brian Eno, Nile Rodgers, Carlos Alomar, Gail Ann Dorsey, Mike Garson); those he worked with a few times ( Ken Scott, Lou Reed, Robert Fripp, Arcade Fire); and the one-offs (Trent Reznor, Tina Turner, Bing Crosby, Cher, Giorgio Moroder, Pet Shop Boys, Placebo, Massive Attack Scarlet Johanssen) there are a few we might gloss over too(Tin Machine, Mick Jagger). This is by no means a definitive list but here are twenty-five of my favourite Bowie collaborations.
When Toni Visconti turned down the chance to record ‘Space Oddity’, dismissing it as a “a cheap shot” novelty. Bowie instead worked with producer Gus Dudgeon. On the Moon Landings inspired hit from 1969, Bowie shot into the Top Ten hit parade for the first time in his career and despite its novelty value, it is still considered to be a Bowie classic. With thanks perhaps to the Dudgeon’s sci-fi movie sonics that orbit the track like a comet; all together now ‘Ground control/To Major Tom’.
Perhaps Bowie’s greatest collaborator and most constant artistic partner, they would return to work together multiple times throughout Bowie’s career. Tony Visconti would go on to produce 13 of Bowie’s classic albums including The Man Who Sold The World, the Berlin Trilogy (Low, “Heroes” and Lodger)as well as what would be his final studio offering, Blackstar. Visconti met David Bowie and Marc Bolan on the same evening. “I knew they’d both be big,” he would later recall. They’d had their first collaboration on ‘Memory Of A Free Festival’ which shows they had the magic chemistry from the get go.
The Yes pianist would add his notes to Bowie’s majestic ‘Life on Mars’ single from his fantastic album Hunky Dory. Intended as his reinterpretation of ‘My Way’ this grand epic is given an almost classical feel by Rick Wakeman‘s contribution, complementing Bowie’s extraordinary almost music hall vocal performance perfectly. Wakeman’s contribution to that album is intrinsic to its melodramatic palette; see also the rise and fall of the exquisite ‘Changes’.
Forging himself a new identity as Ziggy Stardust, the tragic rock star alien witnessing a dystopian world, David Bowie also formed a supergroup for the seminal album ‘Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars’ Where Bowie actualised the rock star persona with a shock of glam rock and backed by his band The Spiders from Mars including Trevor Bolder on bass guitar, and Mick Woodmansey on drums, Mike Garson on piano. The softly spoken Yorkshire guitarist Mick Ronson was the key Spider ‘a constant foil on stage and in the studio striking home the killer-heel riffs and salacious wet-kissed licks.’ Their performance of ‘Starman’ in 1972 in Top Of The Pops is cited by many of the outsider artists who followed in his wake as a key moment, as the spellbinding binding performance sees Bowie nonchalantly drape his arm over Ronson’s shoulder, an act that was seen by many as a nod to his blurring of sexual and gender boundaries. Indeed with his shock of orange cropped hair and jumpsuit, Bowie looked positively like he’d been beamed down from another planet. ‘The Rise and Fall of Ziggy…’ wouldn’t have sounded nearly the same without Ronson’s input. In all they worked together on five albums in the 70s and on 93’s Black Tie White Noise, many argue he is the key Bowie contributor.
The follow up to Ziggy crash-landed in 1973, billed by Bowie as simply ‘Ziggy goes to America’, Aladdin Sane was perhaps more informed by drug-fuelled paranoia and love/hate relationship with American culture as he toured the country. The collision of jazz time signatures and progressive rock sounds were cultivated by Ronson and producer Ken Scott, who Bowie had worked with on the classic albums Hunky Dory and Ziggy.. But the energy and dynamism of Aladdin Sane are perhaps summed up by the title track and the Brechtian cabaret of ‘Time’ and ‘Lady Grinning Soul’ songs that were elevated by American pianist and original Spider Mike Garson and Bowie’s at times “schizophrenic” persona and delivery. One of his most enduring collaborators jn all Mike Garson would work with Bowie on 20 albums and they would play over 100 shows together.
Perhaps surprisingly Luther Vandross‘s first break in the music business came via Bowie, when he was invited by an old school friend and workshop colleague – guitarist Carlos Alomar – to join him in the studio with David Bowie for the recording of Young Americans. While recording the album at Sigma Sound Studios in Philadelphia, David overheard Luther singing and he was invited to join the backing vocalists on the album.
Luther was also asked to sing backing vocals for David during the latter part of his The Year Of The Diamond Dogs Tour joining the tour at the Universal Amphitheatre in Los Angeles in 1974. Vandross also shared a songwriting credit on the classic ‘Young Americans’ and was part of the group that provided call and response backing vocals for Bowie’s vision of Philly Soul. When the recording of the album, David partly re-wrote Luther’s own ‘Funky Music (Is A Part Of Me)’ as ‘Fascination’
The return of the Thin White Duke with the ominous and magnificence of the title track from 1976’s Station to Station was a tour de force. Influenced by Kraftwerk and Neu! this express train of sound is punctuated by rolling, chugging rhythm, and howling sustained feedback from Earl Slick. With Bowie in a mess of LA addiction and paranoia that seeped through the entire record, Station to Station would clarify in Bowie’s mind that he had to escape LA and refind himself in Paris and then Berlin. Bowie would later priase Slick’s contribution “I got some quite extraordinary things out of Earl Slick. I think it captured his imagination to make noises on guitar, and textures, rather than playing the right notes.”
Bowie’s involvement with Iggy would begin in the early 70s when Bowie produced the last Stooges album, this would forge a friendship between the pair that would last thoughout their lives. Later on, Bowie is credited with rescuing a broken Iggy’s career. After the disbanding of The Stooges, Iggy Pop was confined to a mental hospital and one his few visitors was Bowie. In truth, the influence worked both ways and spanned various collaborations, with The Stooges filthy punk sound and performances having been cited as an influence upon the Ziggy Stardust album, and Iggy’s working methods helped set the template for Bowie’s next projects. In 1976, Bowie took him along as his companion on the Station to Station tour.
Bowie and Pop relocated to West Berlin to wean themselves off their addictions. In 1977, Iggy Pop signed with RCA and Bowie helped write and product The Idiot and Lust for Life. Iggy commented on the sessions for that album: “David and I had determined that we would record that album very quickly, which we wrote, recorded, and mixed in eight days, and because we had done it so quickly. See, Bowie’s a hell of a fast guy… I realized I had to be quicker than him, otherwise whose album was it gonna be?” Pop’s spontaneous lyrical method inspired Bowie to improvise his own words on his next project(‘Heroes‘). Here’s the super lead cut from ‘Lust For Life’ that was co-written between the two Bowie providing the music (written on a ukulele) backing vocals, and Pop the lyric. Iggy Pop dubbed it his “survivor message to the masses”.
The first record in the Berlin Trilogy of albums, 1977’s Low featured the ‘dream team’ of the experimental artist and one time Roxy Music member and ambient electronic artist Brian Eno alongside the perennial Tony Visconti. Its Northern European melancholy reflected where Bowie’s mind was wandering. Druggy delusions of LA were replaced with the darker underbelly of Berlin, as Bowie immersed himself in the shadow of a cold war walled city and the experimentalism of krautrock and nascent electronic music. The brooding instrumental ‘Warszaw’ with its magisterial otherworldly sound, is perhaps the finest example of his work with Brian Eno whom he described as his musical ‘soulmate’. Low was a masterclass as Bowie reconnected with himself, his muse hanging heavy with existentialism.
Reuniting with Eno and Tony Visconti in Hansa studios Berlin, for the artful Heroes. The King Crimson guitarist Robert Fripp‘s snarling guitars on ‘Beauty and the Beast’ were fantastic but it is the title track where the collaboration took flight. It distilled one of Bowie’s finest moments ever committed to tape in the rhythmic looping ‘Heroes’ the anthem to star-crossed lovers in the shadows of the Berlin Wall. Fripp laid down the swirling flecks of metallic detritus, this ‘plaintive cry’ framing this magisterial single with Bowie’s strained vocal performance lifting this stratospheric. It has rightly become a communal outsider chorus, about overcoming the odds, and is acknowledged as an utter classic since. Fripp would also add his waspish riffs to the memorable ‘Fashion’ from 1982’s Scary Monsters’ album.
German countertenor Klaus Nomi worked on this recasting of ‘The Man Who Sold The World’, in a strangely original marriage of high art and pop music. David Bowie was well aware of this marriage, his use of theatrical, dramatics having started when he used to be a mime artist. In 1979 they would perform the song on Saturday Night Live with hypnotic yet bizarre results.
‘Under Pressure’ was a hit that divides people to this day. Some cite it as Bowie’s best duet others find it instantly annoying, but with that memorable bass line and whilst the social commentary of the communal chorus line does sound like two epic vocals jostling for room, it was a worthy addition to both acts canons.
Apparently, the song emerged from a jazz-like jam which accounts for the scatting feel. Brian May recalled to Mojo magazine in October 2008 that, “It was hard, because you had four very precocious boys and David, who was precocious enough for all of us. David took over the song lyrically. Looking back, it’s a great song but it should have been mixed differently. Freddie and David had a fierce battle over that. It’s a significant song because of David and its lyrical content. The less said about classic bass lines reworked by Vanilla Ice and Jedward on ‘Ice Ice Baby’ the better.
During the Ziggy Stardust-era Bowie would tell anyone that would listen about his admiration for Lou Reed and the Velvet Underground classic debut album. Indeed some credit Bowie for that album’s recognition in this country. Lou Reed lost and in a career crisis with the demise of his band, was working on solo material. Bowie and Mick Ronson – RCA label mates – were suggested as producers for the next. Reed had worked on many of the songs with the Velvets that would later make up the tracklist of Transformer, perhaps his best album. ‘Satellite Of Love’, was already a great song but with the lick of Bowie and Ronson’s production it became something from another planet: “I loved the backing vocals when he did them on my record,” said Reed later. “It’s not the kind of part I ever would have come up with, but David hears those parts, plus he’s got a freaky voice and he can go up that high and do that. It’s very, very beautiful.”
‘Fame’ was the product of sessions in New York, with John Lennon at Electric Lady Studios in January 1975. First Bowie recorded a cover of The Beatles’ ‘Across the Universe’ for his Young Americans album, a Lennon penned effort. Later ‘Fame’ emerged, inspired by a chopping guitar riff by Carlos Alomar and a quick step disco rhythm, then came the title from Lennon, which was quickly seized upon by Bowie. Lennon co-wrote the lyrics (bemoaning the nature of fame and celebrity) something both had experience of and it was inspired by conversations he had with Bowie on the subject. Lennon singing “Fame!” over Alomar’s guitar riff inspired the song. Lennon’s vocals are also heard singing the repeated words “FAME, FAME, FAME” if you listen hard enough.
When Bowie appeared on Cher‘s TV show in the US, they performed a couple of duets. The pick of the bunch being ‘Can You Hear Me’ from the Young Americans record where audiences would witness the beginnings of Bowie’s Thin White Duke persona. Cher has rarely sounded so good. And her reassuring hand round his waist mid-way through the song appears to visibly relax Bowie.
A more visual collaboration here – in 1980, David Mallet would direct the video for Bowie’s comeback single ‘Ashes to Ashes’ the first to be lifted from Scary Monsters. This inter textual sci-fi nursery rhyme would wrestle with Bowie’s past – “Major Tom’s a junky” – above a popping funky backdrop. Yet the video would be a nod to the emerging new romantic scene, with his outsider fashion and sounds Bowie was considered to be the father of this movement, featuring Steve Strange (Visage) and assorted members of the Blitz club scene in London. Bowie dressed as a Pierrot said the shot of him marching in unison with the Blitz kids towards the camera in front of a bulldozer a symbolises “oncoming violence”. With its extravagant clothing, multiple setting and visual trickery the production costs spiraled to £250,000; it was at the time the most expensive music video ever made and remains one of the most costly of all time, yet still remains one of Bowie’s greatest visual accompaniments to one of his songs and is cited as an evolution of the video.
‘Cat People (Putting Out Fire); the title song of the 1982 film was recorded in July 1981, the song was written by Bowie with legendary producer Giorgio Moroder, who is credited with setting the template for electronic pop music with his work with Donna Summer, Tony Visconti is rumoured to have run into the studio exclaiming he’d ‘heard the future’ after listening to Moroder’s work on ‘I Feel Love’. The only song in the Bowie canon that features no instrumental input from Bowie perhaps it shouldn’t have worked given Moroder’s soundtrack work was considered to be more ambient and ethereal than his pop productions but somehow it does. The song was re-recorded for Let’s Dance but this darker throbbing version is the best.
‘Tonight’ was a song originally written by Bowie and Iggy Pop for the latter’s second solo studio album, Lust for Life in 1977. He would later take it as the title track for his 1984 album, discarding the original’s stark spoken word introduction addressed to a lover dying of a heroin overdose. The reggae-tinged version sees Tina Turner‘s vocal rasp complemented by Bowie’s heartfelt soulfulness and a resounding saxophone solo, sounding very ’80s’ now, it was a relative commercial failure but the live version shows their warm chemistry.
‘Let’s Dance’ the title track lifted from the 1984 album that saw Bowie enjoy a commercial renaissance written with the aide of a key collaborator of the period Nile Rodgers who also co-produced the album. Known for his disco-funk background with Chic, Rodgers brought a fresh set of ears to the Bowie sound reworking the original demo into the funky commercial hit it became, with its brassy stings, the fantastic electric guitar work of Stevie Ray Vaughan and a swaying vocal this was Bowie upping his game once again in fine style.
Another hit from the album ‘China Girl’ was a revamp of Iggy Pop’s song of the same name that Bowie produced on Iggy’s album The Idiot a great song and perhaps a nod to his friend and collaborator. Nile Rodgers described the LP as “original party-funk cum big bass drum sound greater than the sum of its influences.” They reunited to work on the ‘Black Tie White Noise‘ album in 1993.
Pet Shop Boys
As he moved into the 1990s Bowie was increasingly exploring the worlds of electronic, drum ‘n’ bass and dance music, the club beats and synths of Pet Shop Boys characterise the under-appreciated single ‘Hallo Spaceboy’ lifted from 1995’s album Outside. Hallo Spaceboy‘s intertwined vocals and intertextual lyrics playfully and joyfully echoed the gender-bending of Ziggy and the space travel of ‘Space Oditity‘.
An avowed Bowie fan Nine Inch Nails songwriter Trent Reznor often cited the albums Low and Scary Monsters and Bowie fearless outsider visions as an influence upon his own work. Nine Inch Nails opened for Bowie on his 1995/96 tour in support of Outside, Bowie joining the band on stage for a rendition of ‘Hurt’ and Reznor would remix that album’s lead single, ‘The Heart’s Filthy Lesson’. For 1997’s Earthling, Bowie released Reznor’s ominously industrial mix of ‘I’m Afraid of Americans’ as a single. The video features Reznor, as an American psycho who stalks Bowie throughout New York.
In 2001 Bristol’s Massive Attack initially weren’t keen on contributing to Baz Luhrmann‘s Moulin Rouge film soundtrack when they were asked, but they were won over when they heard of David Bowie’s eagerness to work with them. They covered Nat King Cole‘s 1948 standard, ‘Nature Boy’ Bowie lending his trademark sensitive tremulous vocal performance over Massive Attack’s bricolage of trip-hop beats, swirling synths and fragments of guitar squall, it’s a most pleasing collision.
Back in 2008 the excellent actress Scarlett Johansson perhaps surprisingly released a solo album, entitled Anywhere I Lay My Head it was produced by David Sitek of TV On The Radio. With her plaintive croon and widescreen background on ‘Fannin Street’ from that album, the Tom Waits written tune features mournful backing vocals from David Bowie, adding an evocative mystery to this Motown-flecked turn that is steeped in memories leaving the past behind.
Bowie championed Canadian collective Arcade Fire and their sweeping debut album Funeral to anyone who would listen back in 2005. This led to an appearance with the band on the suitably epic ‘Wake Up’ a sterling performance of which you can view below. This marvelous widescreen communal outsider anthem throws up echoes of ‘All The Young Dudes’ as covered by Mott the Hoople in more ways than one. Later Bowie would appear as a vocalist on the bands 2014 album Reflektor.
The Donny McCaslin Quartet
For David Bowie’s final album 2015’s Blackstar he would return with longtime producer Tony Visconti but he would also work alongside a composer called Maria Schneider and a little known future-jazz collective from New York called the Donny McCaslin Quartet. Led by saxophonist Donny McCaslin who worked with Bowie on the single ‘Sue (Or in a Season of Crime)’, for which composer Schneider won an arranging Grammy last year.
Bowie began sending the saxophonist demos of his new songs and invited him to record Blackstar. Adding horns, flourishes, and textures to the gravitas and vision of Blackstar, a record that acted as a fitting farewell as the artist knew he was in ill health during its recording and passed away from liver cancer a mere days after its release. Donny McCaslin later told Billboard: “It was really inspiring to see him at that stage of his career … his fearlessness as an artist just going for realizing his musical vision.”