January 1975: Electric Lady Studios

The final recordings for David Bowie’s Young Americans album took place in mid-January 1975 in New York, at Electric Lady Studios on 52 West 8th Street, and featured John Lennon on vocals and guitar.

I was there the day David brought John Lennon into the studio. He actually wrote a diary entry that day where he says, ‘January 30th, introduced Ava to a Beatle.’ We were going in that day to record ‘Fame’, and before the session David was freaking out because he was so nervous. He really admired John Lennon, and that day David was like a little kid. And then John comes in the door and John had those granny glasses on, right? And David looks and me and says, ‘He really does wear those granny glasses!’ He really liked the fact that Lennon had the whole Lennon look.

What you imagine John to be is exactly how he was: Charming, funny, and they both hit it off immediately. They became really, really good friends. It was only me, Carlos, John, and David in the studio – and I think Geoffrey [MacCormack] might have been there. Yoko came and brought us some sushi and then she left. She was very sweet. I liked her. She was not how I imagined her and how the Beatles said she was.

John was sitting there at one point with his twelve-string getting ready to play ‘Across The Universe’, and he looks up and says, ‘Are we having a good time?’ We were all so happy that John Lennon was so relaxed. David was just over the moon. He drew David a caricature of himself. And David put it in this solid gold frame. He really loved it. I didn’t think Fame would turn out the way it did. I thought because John Lennon was on it that he was going to get lots of critical acclaim, but it was just a James Brown groove at one point.

Ava Cherry
David Bowie: A Life, Dylan Jones

Tony Visconti had returned to England by this time, so Bowie and Maslin produced the session. The other musicians members of Bowie’s touring band: Carlos Alomar on guitar, Emir Kassan on bass, and Dennis Davis on drums.

David told me he was going to do a version of ‘Across The Universe’ and I thought, ‘Great,’ because I’d never done a good version of that song myself. It’s one of my favourite songs, but I didn’t like my version of it. So I went down and played rhythm on the track. Then he got this guitar lick, so me and him put this together in another song called ‘Fame’ which is on his next album too, I had fun and it’ll be out soon.
John Lennon
Melody Maker, 8 March 1975

On 19 January, John Lennon typed a letter to the Beatles’ former publicist Derek Taylor, which read:

BOWIES CUTTIN “UNIVERSE” (LET IT BEATLE) .AM A GONNA BE THERE(BY REQUEST OF COURSET).THEN POSSIBLEY DOWN TO NEW ORLEONS TO SEE THE McCARTKNEES…ITS A LONG WAY TO TIP A NEGRO!

After quickly finishing ‘Across The Universe’, Lennon – as impatient as Bowie in the studio – suggested they record something else. Bowie suggested a version of the Flares’ 1961 single ‘Foot Stompin”, which he had first performed on the Dick Cavett Show in November.

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The song worked less well in the studio, but the musicians continued to experiment with the central riff, played by Carlos Alomar. Bowie and Lennon also played guitar on the song, which became ‘Fame’.

Tony Visconti took the tapes to a studio for the 5.1 mix last year and found that Carlos had only overdubbed one extra guitar. The other electric guitar which makes the long ‘Wah’ and the echoed ‘Bomp!’ sound was played by myself, and John Lennon played the acoustic. John supervised the backwards piano on the front. I also spent several hours creating the end section.
David Bowie, 2006

Lennon also played the backwards piano chord at the very start of the song.

I decided to start the record off with a backward piano chord leading into the downbeat of the song. Without telling him my motive, I asked John if he would be so kind as to go out to the piano and just hit one chord when given the appropriate cue. He agreed and sat himself down at the grand piano. In preparation, I proceeded to take the multitrack tape I was recording on and give it a backward/upside-down wind, my usual technique of recording something backwards.

I recorded some snare rim hits as a cue for John. He was waiting patiently through all of this but as I got on the studio talkback to explain what I needed him to do, he gave me a bit of a puzzled look. John hit the chord perfectly (of course) and it came off exactly as planned. He came back into the control room and as I was turning the tape over to hear the desired effect for the first time, his curiosity got the best of him and he asked me what I was doing.

I then explained to him what I was trying to achieve. He followed up with a statement that could have been devastating to me had it not been that I knew he meant no harm. ‘The Beatles never did it that way,’ he said. Crushing! Trying to save myself from humiliation I said in a bit of a sarcastic, mimicking voice, ‘OK, John, how did the Beatles [with emphasis] do it?’ He told me that the Beatles would have just recorded the chord directly to a piece of quarter-inch tape in a normal manner, given that tape a backward wind and then ‘fly’ it on the multitrack, which would be running in the normal direction.

Trying to save my ass and professional self-esteem (and with a smile) I told him that of course I had considered that technique but due to the precise timing I was looking for, had chosen the alternate method. So we did well with the album, although at that point I didn’t know if I was ever going to hear from David again.

Harry Maslin
David Bowie: A Life, Dylan Jones

‘Fame’ became Bowie’s US number one in the summer of 1975. That song and ‘Across The Universe’ displaced ‘Who Can I Be Now’ and ‘It’s Gonna Be Me’ from the Young Americans running order.

God, that session was fast. That was an evening’s work! While John and Carlos Alomar were sketching out the guitar stuff in the studio, I was starting to work out the lyric in the control room. I was so excited about John, and he loved working with my band because they were playing old soul tracks and Stax things. John was so up, had so much energy; it must have been so exciting to always be around him.
David Bowie
Musician magazine, May 1983

Bowie later claimed that Lennon’s presence in the studio was his key contribution to the song ‘Fame’.

Was John Lennon an important contributor to ‘Fame’? “No, not really. I think he appreciates that. It was more the influence of having him in the studio that helped. There’s always a lot of adrenalin flowing when John is around, but his chief addition to it all was the high-pitched singing of ‘Fame’. The riff came from Carlos, and the melody and most of the lyrics came from me, but it wouldn’t have happened if John hadn’t been there. He was the energy, and that’s why he’s got a credit for writing it; he was the inspiration.
David Bowie
Melody Maker, 1 March 1976

Tony Visconti was upset not to have been involved in the Lennon session.

‘I would’ve happily paid to fly over on Concorde just to be at that session,’ I told him. David genuinely felt bad for me. He said he’d also had some afterthoughts and that he’d continue to overdub some last minute things on our tracks with engineer Harry Maslin. In the end I think the album is largely my work; the Maslin remixes are so close to mine, with the backing voices and synthesizers that David added. I have to go down on record as saying that I love ‘Fame’ and would’ve liked to be a part of the team that made it. Maybe this was my karma for refusing to record ‘Space Oddity’ (I jest).
Tony Visconti
Bowie, Bolan And The Brooklyn Boy