David Bowie had not played any instruments on Let’s Dance or Tonight>, keeping instead to vocal duties. On Never Let Me Down, however, he played numerous instruments: guitars, keyboards, Moog synth, harmonica and percussion.
Yeah, I’ve gone back to doing that because that was an integral part of what I used to do, and it produced the kind of sound that I really felt was me, because I was playing some of the stuff on it and I was kind of giving it some kind of foundation, on either the keyboards or a particular kind of rhythm guitar that I play—which is not like Carlos’s – but it works! You know, I mean, it’s not great, but it works! And so I wanted to kind of return to that. So I was happy to be – it was nice to be back in the band in that way, you know?
Vox Pop, 18 March 1987
Bowie assembled a set of musicians including rhythm guitarist Carlos Alomar, who had – with the exception of Let’s Dance – been by Bowie’s side since 1975’s Young Americans. Also returning from Let’s Dance, Tonight, and the Serious Moonlight tour were bass guitarist Carmine Rojas and the Borneo Horns.
The new line-up also included Turkish multi-instrumentalist Erdal Kızılçay, who had first worked with Bowie on the demos for Let’s Dance, and who subsequently became a key part of Bowie’s live and studio entourage.
As with the previous two albums, Bowie recorded demos of each of the songs prior to the sessions, from which the musicians were able to learn their parts and suggest amendments.
It’s very, very structured, this one. I made demos of everything before we went in, and I played them to everybody and I said, ‘I want it to sound exactly like this but better.’ [Laughs] Because I played everything. I programmed drum machines and then played bass and guitar, keyboards and synthesizer parts. I did the whole deal on the demos and then I played the demos to Carlos, and Erdal Kızılçay, who’s the drummer, and the bass player, and the synthesizer player, [laughing] and the trumpet player, and the string player on that album, and Peter [Frampton], and I said “This is where I’m going. That’s the approach I want.’ And the demos are not dissimilar from this final album—except, of course that it’s played much better. [Laughs]
Vox Pop, 18 March 1987
Bowie played lead guitar on ‘New York’s In Love’ and ‘’87 And Cry’, and Sid McGinnis did the same on ‘Day-In Day-Out’, ‘Time Will Crawl’, and ‘Bang Bang’. Otherwise, lead guitar was handled by Peter Frampton, a former schoolmate of Bowie’s from Bromley Technical High School, whose father Owen taught both boys art at the school.
Frampton had been a member of Humble Pie and the Herd, but had enjoyed huge international success with the 1976 live album Frampton Comes Alive!. Since then, however, his commercial fortunes had dwindled.
David and I had kept in touch over the years. He’d do stuff like invite me over to see him in the Elephant Man. And he was also there at the other end of the phone for advice. I think Dave was protective of me. He definitely felt bad for me because of the bad rap I got as the pin-up and the face again. That’s why I believe he called me to do Never Let Me Down, knowing full well that he wanted me to play on the Glass Spider Tour afterwards, and that doing both was a way of reintroducing me as a guitar player. For that, I can never thank him enough.
Uncut, November 2018
Frampton was three years younger than Bowie, yet even while at school it was clear to Bowie that the young guitarist was a prodigy.
At the time, in the art block, that used to be like where all the musos hang out, you know, we used to bring our guitars to school. When we weren’t painting we were playing guitar. And he used to come in over there and play over there, and he was just dynamite. I mean, already at thirteen he was a great guitarist. And then he went on and eventually went through the Herd and the Small Faces and all that.
And I kept running into him. We played with each other at various times. I was supporting him one time when he was with Humble Pie, and then he supported me at another time on another gig. And uh… all the way through I saw this dreadful stuff happening to him in the ’70s – I mean, it was all getting lost that he was a great guitarist. He was suddenly a pop hero, and then he was a face. And the camera just moved up from the fingers right up here [frames his face with his hands] you know, and it was this all the time. And he hated that. And I know how he felt about that because sometimes my songwriting got lost along with, you know – but that was probably my fault because I was pushing everything else so hard, theatricality and all that.
And then, last year it became apparent that Peter was really back on the trail again with the Stevie Nicks tour, and really wanted to play. And I thought, gee, that’s the guitarist I’d really like to work with on this next album, because he is great, and I’d give him a call. And I gave him a call and he’d said he’d love to do the album. And whilst we were doing the album the inevitable thing came up and he said, “Are you taking this stuff on the road?” And I said, “Yeah, do you think you want to come with it?” And he said “Yeah, that would be great!” And I said, “You don’t mind just being in the back?” And he said, “No, I’d love to do it.” And so, it really gives him a chance to showcase his talents as a guitarist, and then inevitably he’ll go out on his own next year, and with a bit of luck people will know him for what he is—which is a great guitarist. And a very good songwriter and singer, as it happens. But it’ll bring his guitar playing back into the forefront.
Vox Pop, 18 March 1987