Sunday, 2 October 2011

David Bowie & the Plastic Ono Band

Influence is sometimes obvious, sometimes more subtle. For example: the Beatles openly demonstrated how much they respected their American rock'n'roll heroes by filling their early stage shows, BBC radio performances and records (from 'Twist And Shout' to 'Bad Boy') with their songs. Bob Dylan was an equally important influence on their work from 1964 onwards, yet they never covered any of his songs (George Harrison's endless introduction of Dylan tunes into the 1969 Let It Be sessions aside, of course). Dylan's inspiration is reflected in the way that the Beatles' songwriting changed between 1964 and 1965, and in their subsequent willingness to escape from the I-love-you, she-loves-me school of composing. (On another occasion I'll tell you about George's home demo of Dylan's song 'Every Grain Of Sand', cut alongside several takes of the Everly Brothers' 'Let It Be Me'.)

Several months back, I mentioned that I'd had to abandon this blog because I was writing a book about David Bowie & the 1970s. It's called The Man Who Sold The World, and it is out in the UK now (and available from Amazon here; US publication follows next year). In this interview, I talk about the way that the book grew out of the project that Ian MacDonald of Revolution In The Head fame was contracted to tackle at the time of his death.

As I've said before in this blog, I was struck during the research of the Bowie book by the influence that the Beatles had on Bowie's work in the 70s. Some of that influence is obvious - the McCartney-inspired piano styling of 'Oh! You Pretty Things', for example. As early as 1965, in an obscure song entitled 'That's Where My Heart Is', Bowie sounded as if he was learning how to write songs by listening to With The Beatles. Other musical links between Bowie and the Beatles were more surprising: in the book I talk about the apparent Fab Four influence on 'Blackout' from the 'Heroes' LP. In more recent times, of course, Bowie actually covered George Harrison's 'Try Some, Buy Some', claiming that he hadn't realised that George had written the song.

But the single most dramatic role played by the Beatles in Bowie's 70s work was exerted by John Lennon's Plastic Ono Band album. You can hear a touch of Lennon in the way Bowie sings 'Space Oddity' in 1969; some Beatles-inspired backing vocals on 'Star' from the Ziggy Stardust album; and, of course, yer actual Lennon voice and guitar on Bowie's cover of 'Across The Universe' and his hit single 'Fame'. For the full Plastic Ono Band effect, however, listen to this:


The acoustic opening section is orthodox enough. Where the track gets interesting for Beatles fans is about 50 seconds in, when Bowie is suddenly supported by exactly the same blend of piano, bass and drums that pushes Lennon through songs like 'Mother' on Plastic Ono Band. There's even a solitary bass drum exposed before the instrumental solo, borrowed from Lennon's 'Isolation'.

All of which made me wish that Bowie had made a whole album (1980's Scary Monsters, perhaps) in similar vein. So I was intrigued to learn from Bowie fan Martyn Mitchell that guitarist Adrian Belew recalled working on a whole set of Plastic Ono Band-inspired tracks with Bowie around this period, but that Bowie never completed or issued them. Perhaps he was hoping that he might persuade Lennon himself to join him in the studio - until fate, and a madman, intervened.

5 comments:

  1. Any truth to the rumour that "I Wanna Be Your Man" is a re-write of an old blues song?

    http://werelateforclass.blogspot.com/2011/01/53-i-wanna-be-your-man-45.html

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  2. POB was such a fine album, still probably my desert island pick among all Beatles and Beatles-related albums, although there is certainly competition. But in spite of how acclaimed it was, I don't think I have ever heard anything where its influence was more obvious. Bowie cannot not have been thinking of it on this track.

    Makes me want to check out your Bowie book. Thank you.

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  4. Great! But in the last Space Oddity version, isn't there the actual Lennon voice in a small part of the song ("Tell my wife I love her very much")?

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  5. What a coincidence. I was thinking about it last night...Yes, about the Beatles influence in Bowie' music. I could detect the MacCatney piano style in more than one song, and now I found this Space Oddity version...Gee...it's pure Lennon. I imagine your book is quite good. I contratulate you for that.

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