Guest musicians

As was usual, a number of guests visited the New York sessions, among them Blondie’s Jimmy Destri and Television’s Tom Verlaine – although Verlaine reportedly spent an entire session testing different guitar amplifier settings, leaving little time for recording.

We rented a small wall of guitar amps for him and he tested them all for hours before adding a guitar part to ‘Kingdom Come’, a song he had written, but it didn’t make it to the final mix in the end. Blondie’s Jimmy Destri dropped in with a view to play organ on something but that didn’t happen either. Still, it was a nice chat we had with him.
Tony Visconti, April 2017
A New Career In A New Town book

Another guest performer was Roy Bittan, who had previously played on Station To Station. Bittan was the pianist with Bruce Springsteen’s E Street Band, who were recording in the next studio.

When we were recording the backing tracks at the Power Station we also took the advantage of using the talents of local musicians. The Power Station was a huge multi-storeyed complex of five or six studios, mostly for tracking and some dedicated for mixing. Lots of projects were going on all the time. During our tracking time, Bruce Springsteen was in the studio next door. I hadn’t seen Springsteen since we recorded Young Americans at Sigma Sound in Philadelphia. One afternoon we happened to be having lunch together, our band and the E Street Band, in the lounge shared by both studios. Dennis Davis asked Springsteen something out of earshot but David overheard it and went red stifling a laugh. He scribbled something on a piece of paper and handed it to me. It said, ‘Dennis just asked Bruce what band he was in.’ Dennis could tell you the names of every jazz musician that ever lived but he wasn’t too up on the Who’s Who icons of rock yet.
Tony Visconti, April 2017
A New Career In A New Town book

Bittan performed on two of the album’s songs, ‘Ashes To Ashes’ and ‘Teenage Wildlife’. The intro melody of ‘Ashes To Ashes’ was performed by Bittan on the studio’s grand piano, treated with an Eventide Instant Flanger to give a new sound.

Another key contributor was Lou Reed’s guitarist Chuck Hammer, who used a guitar synthesiser to create a sound that he called ‘guitarchitecture’ on three tracks: ‘Ashes To Ashes’, ‘Teenage Wildlife’, and ‘Up The Hill Backwards’.

He came to our sessions with the first guitar synthesizer we’d every seen or heard. He gave us a quick demonstration of how he would pick a note and out of his amplifier would come a symphonic string session. Naturally we had to have this instrument on our Sgt Pepper, but I also had to do ‘my thing’ to it. Instead of putting a microphone on the amp, I had been told that there was great reverberation in the back staircase of the studio, a continuous four storeys. I asked Larry to put a microphone on the bottom landing and another on the top landing and we put Chuck’s amp just outside the door of our second-floor control room. The sound was glorious. It’s the warm string choir you hear on the part that goes ‘I’ve never done good things. I’ve never done bad things…’
Tony Visconti
Bowie, Bolan And The Brooklyn Boy

Working titles

A range of working titles were used for the backing tracks, including ‘People Are Turning To Gold’, which became ‘Ashes To Ashes’; and ‘Jamaica’, which was sung in the chorus of what became ‘Fashion’. Other working titles included ‘It Happens Every Day’ (‘Teenage Wildlife’) and ‘Cameras In Brooklyn’ (‘Up The Hill Backwards’).

One song from the sessions, ‘Is There Life After Marriage?’, was incomplete and was left unreleased, as was a cover version of Cream’s ‘I Feel Free’.

The album’s opening and closing song, ‘It’s No Game’, was based upon ‘Tired Of My Life’, which Bowie had written as a teenager and recorded a demo of in 1970. Another song, ‘I Am A Laser’, was recorded by Bowie proteges the Astronettes in 1973, and was reworked in 1980 as ‘Scream Like A Baby’.

Instead of improvising on the mic, as he had done on “Heroes”, or deploying cut-up or improvisational techniques such as Eno’s Oblique Strategies, Bowie opted to take a two-month writing break to come up with lyrics and melodies.

The lyrics taken on their own are nothing without the secondary sub-text of what the musical arrangement has to say, which is so important in a piece of popular music. It makes me very angry – and I’m not saying you’re doing it at all – when people concentrate only on the lyrics because that’s to imply there is no message stated in the music itself, which wipes out hundreds of years of classical music. Ridiculous.
David Bowie
NME, 13 September 1980