In The Number Ones, I’m reviewing every single #1 single in the history of the Billboard Hot 100, starting with the chart’s beginning, in 1958, and working my way up into the present.
David Bowie is nervous. He’s in uncharted territory. That’s nothing new. He’s spent basically his entire career in uncharted territory. But when you’re a white British rock star who’s stumbled his way into a black American space, you’re in a whole new kind of uncharted territory.
It’s November of 1975. Two months ago, Bowie has scored his first-ever American #1, something that only happened when he killed his glam-rock alter-ego and moved over to playing around with soul and disco. Don Cornelius, the host of Soul Train, has just introduced the man as “one of the world’s most popular and important music personalities.” He has also mispronounced Bowie’s name. Elton John has already been on Soul Train, but Bowie is still one of the first white rockers to perform on the show. He does not look comfortable.
Bowie, wearing a beautiful blue suit and a beautiful red haircut, looks like cream cheese that has been sculpted into geometric shapes. Cornelius towers over Bowie, and Bowie barely ever makes eye contact with the host. Bowie stumbles through an explanation of The Man Who Fell To Earth, the difficult-to-explain movie that he’s just made. Cornelius opens the floor up for questions. Glen Stafford, a sincere young Soul Train dancer, wants to know when Bowie got into soul music, when he first decided that he wanted to make it. For a second, Bowie looks absolutely stricken, his smile turning into a weird rictus. Stafford quickly does what he can to put Bowie at ease: “I mean, you’re doing it.” Bowie laughs. Everybody laughs. And then Bowie attempts to explain. He does not have a good explanation.
“Um. Um. Getting into it. Well. Back in England, you see. Back in England. London. When I was a teenager. Um.” A few more stammers that I cannot hope to transcribe. Then: “On streetcorners. We have streetcorners in London.” He’s laughing. Nobody else is. He goes on, mumbling something about how James Brown was popular. He’s floundering. It’s rough. Cornelius steps in to rescue him, asking him to sing his new single “Golden Years.” Bowie, recovering, gets that dreamily intense look back in his eye. He transforms back into a performer. (“Golden Years” peaked at #10. It’s a 10.)
Bowie had already lived several lives by 1975. He’d made skiffle. He’d made Merseybeat. He’d made flowery psychedelia. He’d invented the persona of Major Tom, the aloof spaceman floating beyond the bounds of everyday life and into infinity. He’d invented Ziggy Stardust, the theatrical gender-bending alien rock star whose mere presence had electrified British pop. He’d also killed Ziggy off. He’d more or less invented glam, which had utterly conquered the British pop charts in the early ’70s. He’d started chain reactions, his music becoming foundational to a whole reverberating series of British youthquakes, some of which were still to come. It’s impossible, for instance, to overstate Bowie’s influence on punk rock. Some of that influence is ephemeral; every single UK punk of any consequence had grown up a Bowie fan. And some of that influence is material; around the same time Bowie was topping the charts in America, the Sex Pistols were running through their first practices, using a PA that guitarist Steve Jones had stolen from one of Bowie’s final Ziggy Stardust shows in London.
But while Bowie had achieved some level of fame in America, he was nowhere near the public figure that he was back home. By 1975, Bowie had already racked up seven top-10 UK singles. He’d even given one away, writing and producing 1972’s “All The Young Dudes” for Mott The Hoople. In America, on the other hand, Bowie had never been in the top 10, and he’d only been in the top 20 once, making it up to #15 with a 1973 re-release of 1969’s “Space Oddity.” (Bowie also probably deserves some credit for Lou Reed’s “Walk On The Wild Side,” from 1972, which he’d co-produced with his guitarist Mick Ronson and which peaked at #16.) In America, Bowie was big enough that his albums sold pretty well. Three of them had gone gold, and 1974’s Diamond Dogs had even made it up to #5 on the album chart. He’d been touring arenas in the US. In 1974, Bowie had also moved to New York. But on the pop charts in his adapted country, he simply wasn’t a presence until the moment where he took a hard left turn — one of many — and started making soul music.
In the middle of his Diamond Dogs tour, Bowie had booked a recording session at Philadelphia’s Sigma Sound studio, the home base of Gamble & Huff and their Philadelphia International label. Bowie had admired American soul since his days as a teenage mod, and he’s especially fallen in love with Philly soul. But during that session, Bowie didn’t record with Gamble & Huff. He probably could’ve made a straight-up Philly soul record, and it might’ve been great, but that’s not what he had in mind. Instead, remaining fully cognizant of his outsider status within black American music, Bowie endeavored to figure out a sound that he called “plastic soul,” a distant and mutated and maybe quasi-ironic take on the sound that he’d loved. In a 1976 Playboy interview — one where he’d already referred to his glam-rock sound as “plastic rock ‘n’ roll,” Bowie had this to say about his own version of soul and disco:
I love disco. It’s a lovely escapist’s way out. I quite like it, as long as it’s not on the radio night and day — which it is so much these days. “Fame” was an incredible bluff that worked. Very flattering. I’ll do anything until I fail. And when I succeed, I quit, too. I’m really knocked out that people actually dance to my records, though. But let’s be honest; my rhythm and blues are thoroughly plastic. Young Americans, the album “Fame” is from, is, I would say, the definitive plastic soul record. It’s the squashed remains of ethnic music as it survives in the age of Muzak rock, written and sung by a white limey. If you had played Young Americans to me five years ago and said, “This is an R album,” I would have laughed. Hysterically.
Young Americans remains a fascinating piece of work, a self-consciously artificial take on a sound that might have already been self-consciously artificial itself. Instead of using Gamble & Huff and the in-house band MFSB, Bowie made it with Carlos Alomar, the Puerto Rican-born session guitarist and former James Brown/Roy Ayres sideman who Bowie had met a year earlier. Alomar had assembled much of the band, including the future R&B star Luther Vandross, who sang backup on much of the LP. (Vandross’ highest-charting single is the 1994 “Endless Love,” a cover of a 1981 Diana Ross/Lionel Richie song that will appear in this column. The Vandross/Carey “Endless Love” peaked at #2, and it’s a 5.)
But “Fame,” the “incredible bluff” that Bowie talked about in that interview, didn’t come from those Sigma Sound sessions. Instead, Bowie recorded it months later at New York’s Electric Lady Studios. Bowie had gone into that session expecting to record a cover. He and his new friend John Lennon were going to do their take on “Foot Stompin’,” a 1961 doo-wop song that had been the only hit for the LA vocal group the Flares. But Alomar had come up with a new riff, and Bowie liked that riff so much that he didn’t want to throw it away on a cover. So Bowie and Lennon wrote a whole new song on the spot, throwing lines back and forth and eventually coming up with something stupendously bitchy.
Elizabeth Taylor had introduced Lennon to Bowie at a 1974 party, and they’d bonded over music-business fuckery. Lennon had told Bowie that his management was screwing him out of money — something that Lennon knew plenty about — and Bowie, on Lennon’s advice, began the long and expensive process of firing his managers. Lennon and Bowie put a whole lot of bitterness into “Fame.” The song is all about the weirdness of fame — of being treated like a zoo animal, of being friends with everybody but close to nobody, of giving yourself over to the insanity of celebrity: “Fame! What you like is in the limo / Fame! What you get is no tomorrow / Fame! What ya need, ya have to borrow.” The song’s best line is also its nastiest: “Is it any wonder I reject you first?”
You could hear “Fame” as two massive, beloved superstars sneering at all the people who’d made them so massive and beloved. Neither Lennon nor Bowie seemed to think much of their own stardom. Lennon was just easing into a long break from recording, one that he would spend raising his son and keeping the outside world out, while Bowie was getting ready to dive into the drugged-up expansive delirium of Station To Station and his Berlin albums. (You can hear some of the sonic blockiness of those records in “Fame.”) And maybe Lennon and Bowie were right to keep the world at arm’s length; after all, one of those rejected-feeling fans would murder Lennon five years later.
But “Fame” isn’t just ugly and spiteful. It’s also playful. That comes down to the sound. The Carlos Alomar riff that inspired the rest of the song is a thing of real beauty, a spidery funk line that twists and wriggles and worms. (In the ultimate nod of funk approval, James Brown’s band would completely hijack that guitar line on the 1975 single “Hot (I Need to Be Loved, Loved, Loved).”) The riff is both rhythm and melody, and Bowie slithers right through it, giving out stentorian declarations in that unearthly baritone.
Lennon sings and plays guitar on “Fame,” too, and he works as a counterpoint. His vocals are high, mocking, echoing just outside Bowie’s boom. Bowie and co-producer Harry Maslin take Lennon’s acoustic guitars and twist it around in the studio, spinning it backwards and transforming it into a dubbed-out sound effect. Bowie plays guitar, too — a fuzzed-out lead that cuts right through Alomar’s riff, sounding like a horn section. And Bowie and Maslin even make a melodic instrument out the word “fame,” manipulating the word until it’s a series of notes on the outro. It’s a beautifully frisky groove that never sits still, with all these studio tricks that jut out at strange angles. And yet, against odds, it’s catchy as all hell. Even as Bowie and Lennon shove us away, they invite us in.
It made sense that Bowie was nervous on Soul Train. He should’ve been nervous. He was meddling with forces that he could only barely understand. And yet his meddling produced something colossal. And it wasn’t the last time that would happen. Bowie will return in this column, but not for years, and not until the next time he dives headlong into black American dance music.
BONUS BEATS: Here’s Jeff Daniels and Melanie Griffith dancing to New Jersey indie greats the Feelies’ cover of “Fame” in Jonathan Demme’s wonderful 1986 movie Something Wild:
BONUS BONUS BEATS: “Fame” has been sampled on many, many rap songs, but I’m only going to mention one. Here’s Jay-Z’s world-shattering and immortal 2001 Kanye West-produced diss track “Takeover,” on which Saliva frontman Josey Scott interpolates the “Fame” hook during the anti-Nas verse:
(Jay-Z will eventually end up in this column, and so will Kanye West. As for Josey Scott, he was featured on Chad Kroeger’s 2002 single “Hero,” which peaked at #3. It’s a 6.)
THE 10S: Bad Company’s transcendently horny, weirdly beautiful air-humping dick-rocker “Feel Like Makin’ Love” peaked at #10 behind “Fame.” It’s a 10.