Editor’s Note: We continue our celebration of the life and art of David Bowie with a look at 10 magical collaborations. Keep checking back all week for more new and reshared content reflecting on our favorite Starman. And, if you’ve missed anything, you can experience it all again here.
David Bowie was a singular force, blurring gender and genre lines in a career that spanned over half a century. Along the way, he gifted listeners with a slew of memorable, solitary personas: Ziggy Stardust, the Thin White Duke, the Man Who Fell to Earth, the Goblin King, and, in his stunning final act, the Blind Prophet.
While Bowie will rightly be remembered as a brilliant solo artist who consistently pursued new inspiration, he would be the first to tell you that his musical odyssey was never conducted alone. Along with seeking out new sounds, the Bowie legacy is intertwined with his knack for reaching out and creating with others. From his partnership with Mick Ronson and the legendary Berlin triptych concocted with Brian Eno to assuming the mantle of producer on iconic albums by Mott the Hoople, Lou Reed, and Iggy Pop, some of Bowie’s most memorable and important moments were birthed through the spirit of collaboration.
His various collaborative endeavors serve as a meaningful prism through which to view his remarkable life and career. What follows are 10 key collaborations that touch on his entire 50-plus years as a recording artist. Many of them you’ll know. Some you may not. None of them are “Under Pressure”, a fantastic song that doesn’t particularly require further discussion. But all of them are important touchstones in understanding the talent and personality of one of the most vital figures in the history of popular music.
“Growin’ Up” featuring Ronnie Wood (1974)
A folkie in the years before becoming glam-rock god Ziggy Stardust, Bowie was drawn to transcendent singer-songwriters (look no further than his 1971 tune “Song for Bob Dylan” for proof of that). By 1974, Ziggy was coming to a close, and Bowie was ready for the next phase in his evolution. With soon-to-be Rolling Stone Ronnie Wood handling lead guitar on this unused Diamond Dogs cut, Bowie gives a nod to the next great lyricist and lays a future foundation with his cover of Bruce Springsteen’s “Growin’ Up”. He takes The Boss’ Dylan-indebted cascade of words and bends it to fit a sound that merges his glam present with his Philly soul future. Wood, no stranger to soul through his work with Faces and Rod Stewart, provides the tasty fretwork to pull it together and set the stage for Young Americans a year later.
“Fame” featuring John Lennon (1975)
Bowie was a star before “Fame,” but the second single off Young Americans raised his status even further. After achieving stardom with Ziggy Stardust, a management dispute and a series of lawsuits had left Bowie feeling cynical about his success. While staying in New York City, he bumped into John Lennon, deep in the throes of his “lost weekend” period. One thing led to another, and who better to riff on the perils of fame than the most caustic member of the Fab Four? Out of this impromptu hang came the funky, biting “Fame” and Bowie’s first No. 1 single on the Billboard Hot 100. While Bowie consistently claimed that Lennon provided the inspiration to make “Fame” possible, it’s unclear how much Lennon actually contributed to its composition. Regardless, the collaboration created an enduring classic and, in deferring credit to Lennon, serves as an example of Bowie using his own stardom to boost a peer.
“Success” from Iggy Pop’s Lust for Life (1977)
After Bowie’s death, Iggy Pop said, “…this guy salvaged me from certain professional and maybe personal annihilation.” He wasn’t fooling, as their friendship is marked by multiple resuscitations of the Iguana’s moribund career prospects. Bowie produced four Iggy albums, starting with the punishing Raw Power in ’73 and culminating in Blah-Blah-Blah in 1986, Pop’s best-selling album. The creative pinnacle is the definitive solo Iggy Pop record, Lust for Life. Bowie also plays keyboard and backing vocals on the album (and subsequent tour), and it crescendos on the madcap dream of “Success”. In a manic call-and-response outro, the duo squeals, “I’m going to go out on the street and do anything I want…oh shit!” Bowie, only a couple years after the cynicism of “Fame” and at the same time his own Berlin trilogy defined him as a serious auteur, treats celebrity with the playfulness and warmth that defines the second half of his career. It’s such a blast.
“Tonight” featuring Tina Turner (1984)
In the grand scheme of things, “Tonight” is one of the most inconsequential singles in Bowie’s career. But it also sums up much of his ‘80s work: commercially successful and ultimately forgettable. An arena-rock god and too big to fail, he coasted, content with high-profile duets, covers, or rehashing material from his days with Iggy Pop. “Tonight”, from the album of the same name, checks all those boxes. Bowie jettisons the idiosyncrasies of Iggy’s rendition and recruits a re-ascendant Tina Turner for a number that vaguely hints at the considerable charms of either icon. Bowie made use of this formula again a year later, teaming with Mick Jagger for a popular cover of “Dancing in the Streets”. In the years to come, Bowie would view Tonight and his later ‘80s material as creatively lacking. The relative blandness of “Tonight” would make his next phase even more jarring.
“I’m Afraid of Americans” featuring Nine Inch Nails (1997)
In 1990, Bowie retired his hits on the “Sound and Vision” tour. In the years to follow, he would embark on a divisive half-decade exploration into industrial and electronic music. Bowie dubbed his 1995 tour for the album Outside “commercial suicide,” sharing the stage with Nine Inch Nails and performing obscurities and unreleased electronica tracks. Fans raised on ‘80s hits were put off and the crowds were there for Nine Inch Nails. Bowie was undeterred and follow-up LP Earthling followed a similar sonic template. It wasn’t until former tourmate Trent Reznor provided a remix of Earthling’s fifth single, “I’m Afraid of Americans”, that the material connected with a wider audience. It charted highly on Billboard’s Modern Rock Tracks and provided an accessible entryway into Bowie’s abrasive new style. Reznor’s role did more than ensure chart success; it served to highlight the profound role Bowie played in the development of modern rock.
“Sector Z” from Rustic Overtones’ Viva Nueva! (2001)
When you think of Bowie collaborations, Rustic Overtones isn’t an act that springs to mind. But in 1999, the indie rockers from Portland, Maine, were signed by Arista Records and longtime Bowie producer Tony Visconti was tabbed to produce the group’s major-label debut. One day, guess who shows up to visit his old friend and check out the band he’s working with? After proffering some constructive feedback that included recommending potential singles, the topic of a guest appearance arose, and Bowie provided guest vocals on two tracks. “Sector Z” is the more memorable, and it’s Bowie at his most playful. Singing on the spacey chorus, he pokes fun at his past alien personas, imbuing the track with an extra layer of personality that helps it stand out. In addition to supporting an upstart band, Bowie’s contribution provides an insight into his next character: classic rock’s graceful elder statesman.
“Slow Burn” featuring Pete Townshend (2002)
It’s easy to forget that before Hunky Dory, David Bowie was David Jones, a sax player and fringe player in England’s Mod scene in the ‘60s who worshipped The Who. In the ensuing years, Bowie would pay tribute to The Who, covering “I Can’t Explain” and “Anyway, Anyhow, Anywhere” on Pinups and “Pictures of Lily” for a 2001 tribute album. On “Slow Burn”, Who guitarist Pete Townshend makes an appearance and, in the process, provides some of his most inspired playing in decades. Bowie’s vocals are stunning, and the doom-filled lyrics pair with Townshend’s impassioned, distorted solos to capture the anxiety and apocalyptic dread of the post-9/11 world. Nominated for a Grammy for Best Male Rock Vocal Performance, “Slow Burn” is the start of latter-day Bowie’s ability to use his own history as a means to move his art forward.
“I’ve Been Waiting for You” featuring Dave Grohl (2002)
The release of Heathen in 2002 was hailed as a return to form for Bowie. The LP, almost a hidden gem in his catalog at this point, is full of moments that take the past and move it into the future. A cover of the brooding, desperate Neil Young track “I’ve Been Waiting for You” is one of those moments. Bowie’s take is a nod to a peer and artist he admired, but its arrangement is firmly rooted in the 2000s. Gone is the folk structure of the 1968 rendition, in its place a big guitar-and-drum sound. To bring it to life, he sent the track to Dave Grohl, who plays guitar and delivers thin, squealing leads that combine with a taut Bowie delivery to put a new spin on the haunting anxiety of Young’s original vocal track. A solid song, Bowie would improve upon the approach used here on his masterful final two LPs.
“Reflektor” from Arcade Fire’s Reflektor (2013)
After a decade of silence following the release of Reality in 2003, Bowie returned with a flurry of activity a decade later. In March 2013, he issued the phenomenal The Next Day. A few days later, he surprised his friends Win Butler and Arcade Fire by dropping in on them in the studio. He fell in love with “Reflektor”, a shimmery dance-rocker that evokes memories of Bowie’s music, circa Station to Station. An enthusiastic Bowie urged them to finish the song, lest he take it for himself. Instead, he contributed vocals and provided an extra stamp of approval to the stylistic change “Reflektor” was for Arcade Fire. This flurry of recording activity, from his own material to a high-profile cameo, shocked a public that generally assumed he had retired from music. Instead, he was quite busy and his 2013 work was a prelude to one of the most brilliant and shocking final acts in music history.
“Cosmic Dancer” duet with Morrissey (2020)
It’s not surprising that Morrissey and David Bowie had a complicated relationship. Considering what we know about both, that’s more likely due to Moz. But before Morrissey backed out of a tour that required he open for Bowie, the two were on good enough terms to share the stage for a duet of T. Rex’s “Cosmic Dancer” in 1991. Morrissey is characteristically melodramatic. Bowie’s participation, however, is fascinating. He had spent 1989 and 1990 retiring his back catalog, but this cover takes him all the way back to his friendship with T. Rex mastermind Marc Bolan. His vocals are subdued, eerie, as if he’s conjuring up the ghost of his deceased friend. Morrissey officially issued this track last year. In releasing it now, Moz is calling back to his solo pinnacle. But it more effectively, and knowing Morrissey, inadvertently, serves as a tribute to the enduring legacy and popularity of one of the greatest artists of all time.