David Bowie is a mystic shaman of rock and roll, and his believers stretch far, wide and weird. I'm fairly convinced that at least one popular music magazine is contractually obliged to include one Bowie-based headline pun in each issue. Possibly they'll only be allowed to stop when they've covered his entire back catalogue, which could take a while.
I realised I was a Bowie convert when I first heard Starman and discovered that I already knew most of the words. Some might say this is because my parents played it a lot while I was small, but I prefer to believe that Bowie’s songs are so mighty they can become embedded in our souls without us even hearing them.
So, in an attempt to understand the creative process behind these life-transforming slabs of snazziness, here's some entirely made up research into some Bowie classics.
In 1971 Bowie went on a sight-seeing trip to the southern tip of Dorset. Inspired by the seaside resort of Swanage, he began writing songs for what was intended to be a concept album about a middle-aged fisherman suffering a nervous breakdown as changes in society and technology threatened his livelihood. Soon afterwards, Bowie decided that the world wasn’t yet ready for a glam-rock opera about trawler fishing, so he abandoned it in favour of space and aliens. Since this became ‘Moonage Daydream’, all that remains of the project is ‘Five Years’, about a traffic jam on the M27, and a series of puns about bass and Dover soul.
Trippy, sexually charged epic about a lingerie catalogue accidentally delivered to Bowie instead of Alvin Stardust, who, by bizarre coincidence, was then living in the flat next door. Became ‘Space Oddity’ after Bowie began his influential scientific research into dark matter.
The Man Who Sold Me A Second Hand Car In Camberwell
Every so often, David Bowie, despite being from Jupiter (not, as is often supposed, Mars – that was just a stage persona) feels the urge to write serious songs about terrible things that afflict poor old planet earth. Usually, the result is amazing, but almost entirely inexplicable. Is China Girl about imperialism? Is Heroes about the Berlin wall? Is Ashes to Ashes about anything at all?
This song was Bowie’s brave attempt to write a specific, straightforward song about a personal experience with the dark, brutal world of used car dealing. However, records suggest that he found the recording process too painful, and abandoned the original lyrics (except ‘and though I was not then, he said I was his friend’) in favour of lots of weird, vague metaphorical stuff, completing the song as ‘The Man Who Sold the World’.
Rock and Stone Suicide
In 1971, while high on life, Bowie had a dream of a previous existence. He became convinced that he was once a geologist who had uncovered a particularly interesting new part of the rock cycle, but whose discovery was covered up by a sinister conglomerate of geography teachers who were terrified that it would overcomplicate the national curriculum. The establishment’s persistent refusal to acknowledge his discovery eventually led the geologist to take his own life. This powerful, moving song was Bowie’s attempt to tell the tale. Changed to ‘Rock and Roll Suicide’ after Bowie saw his old school geography teacher lurking in a car over the road clutching a pair of binoculars.
Oh! You Shitty Things
David Bowie likes puppies. He’s less keen on toilet training them. By the time he reached the studio he’d forgiven them, though (they probably made puppy-dog eyes. It seems like a reasonable assumption), and the song became ‘Oh! You Pretty Things’.
When Scientology first came on the scene, Bowie was sufficiently intrigued to write this song about the peculiar processes of ‘auditing’ involved in the ‘religion’. His interest arose because of the possibility that the cult might have genuine links to aliens, who might be able to carry a message back to Bowie’s home planet. The song was re-titled to ‘Let’s Dance’ when Bowie realised that founder Lafayette Ronald Hubbard was actually just a greedy, power-fixated liar.
Incidentally, Bowie never sent his message home, after he discovered how high the postage costs would be. Its contents eventually became the lyrics for ‘Everyone Says Hi’.
John, I’m Only Lancing
A keen historian, Bowie wrote this early version of ‘John, I’m Only Dancing’ from the perspective of a medieval doctor attending to King John, who burst out in some nasty boils after the stress of dealing with the Magna Carta. The urgent rhythm and Bowie’s anguished squealing throughout the song are all remnants from the original version, representing the king’s agonising wailing as each boil was lanced.
Re-written as ‘John, I’m Only Dancing’ after an incident in a discotheque involving a misunderstanding with Lou Reed. The two made up and became firm friends, performing in a pantomime together in 1978. Bowie enjoyed himself so much that he refused to take off his costume until after the cover shoot for Ashes to Ashes, two years later.
I’m Afraid of Ayatollah Khomeini
Written in a spirit of artistic solidarity with Salman Rushie after the Ayatollah pronounced a fatwah upon him. The song was changed to ‘I’m Afraid of Americans’ after Khomeini, in an interview, declared his love for Bowie’s work, ‘even Tin Machine’. It has been suggested that the real reason for the change was jealousy after Rushdie wrote a song for U2’s All That You Can’t Leave Behind, rather than for Bowie’s Heathen, which was at one point intended to be a concept album about apostacy.
An early form of ‘Golden Years’, this was an unsuccessful attempt to repeat the ‘animal plus precious material’ formula of ‘Diamond Dogs’. See also the deleted track ‘Platinum Poodle’, which was later recorded by T-Rex.