Saturday, July 25, 2015

An Ode to Fame

I remember the first time I heard David Bowie's "Fame." It was this day in 1975, the day the song hit the music stores and the air waves.

I remember it for the oddest of reasons. I was at my home in Arkansas packing for a family trip to Dallas to visit my grandmothers. It was the kind of trip my family had been making at least two or three times a year every year for as long as I could remember. It was a bit more meaningful for me this time, though. I would be attending a week–long workshop for high school journalism students at Southern Methodist University the next week, and, even before it started, I knew one of the participants — the son of some family friends. We had known each other all our lives.

Anyway, I had my radio on in my bedroom as I packed for the trip to Texas, and the D.J. announced the latest song from David Bowie. It had just been released that morning, he said, and he proceeded to play the song for his listeners. I stopped packing and sat down to listen to it. Forty years later, I still listen to it. For the last 25 years, I have tended to listen to the remix that was recorded in 1990 for the "Changesbowie" CD ...

... but hearing the original recording brings back sweet memories of those days. John Lennon, my favorite Beatle, was credited as a co–writer of the song, but Bowie did most of the heavy lifting — lyrically speaking. In late 1974, Lennon and Bowie met and started jamming together. In January 1975, they had a recording session that produced a cover of the Beatles' "Across the Universe" and a recording of the new song, "Fame."

Bowie said it was "nasty, angry," and acknowledged that it had been written with a malicious edge thanks to the nature of Bowie's relationship with the management group with whom he had been working.

Maybe Lennon's role in the creation of the song is why I was so drawn to it, but the truth is that I wasn't aware of his connection to the song when it was prominent on the radio. I just knew that I liked it.

I guess the style was funk — although I'm not really sure that's an accurate description. It was at a time when Bowie seemed to be obsessing over soul music. At any rate, anything that was co–written by Bowie and Lennon was bound to be unique.

Apparently, a lot of people were drawn to it. It became Bowie's biggest hit in the United States to that point. The song hit #1 on Billboard's Hot 100 and went to #1 in Canada as well. It was in the Top 10 in Norway and the Netherlands.

"Fame" was running through my head when I went to the SMU campus the following Monday to begin the journalism workshop. It was playing on my radio later in the day when I was back at my grandmother's house, and I could smell the evening meal cooking in the kitchen. If I close my eyes and listen to the original recording of "Fame," I probably can tell you what was on the menu.

For awhile there in the summer of '75, "Fame" was everywhere.

I like the remix. As I said, I've been listening to that version for many years. It doesn't revive memories from 40 years ago. But the original one sure does.

And, frankly, I have been surprised that more attention hasn't been paid to this milestone anniversary, especially when you consider how influential the song was in the summer of '75. Maybe people are too busy paying attention to the 40th anniversary of "Jaws."

But not Ryan Book. Last month, Book observed, in an article for Music Times, about Bowie's epic duets, that "perhaps the most legendary performer that Bowie ever formed a duet with was also the least present for the recording.

"'Fame' doesn't attempt to hide the fact that the former Beatle is included on the single,"
Book wrote, "yet it was hardly advertised as a duet. Bowie just happened to meet Lennon in New York while recording for Young Americans, and the pair shacked up for a few days and jammed. One of the results was a cover of 'Across The Universe,' but more unique inspiration was found when Lennon chanted the signature 'Fame!' line while guitarist Carlos Alomar improvised a riff. Bowie seized the initiative and quickly scribed the invective–laden lyrics, and keeping Lennon on as a rhythm guitarist, tasked vocally only with chanting the single word repeatedly. The song was tossed onto Young Americans at the last moment, and Bowie gave Lennon a disproportionate amount of songwriting credit, considering that he only contributed one word. Ah, but what an important word it was."