In the studio
On 19 January 1975, 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!
The ‘Across The Universe’ session took place at Electric Lady Studios on New York’s 52 West 8th Street. After completing the song, Lennon – as impatient as Bowie in the studio – suggested they record something else, and with guitarist Carlos Alomar they quickly wrote and recorded ‘Fame’.
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.
Musician magazine, May 1983
Bowie later claimed that Lennon’s presence in the studio was his key contribution to ‘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.
Melody Maker, 1 March 1976
Bowie’s girlfriend and backing singer Ava Cherry was present during the session, although she did not perform on either song.
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.
David Bowie: A Life, Dylan Jones
Young Americans producer Tony Visconti had returned to England to mix the album, so Bowie and Maslin co-produced the session. The other musicians were members of Bowie’s touring band: Alomar on guitar, Emir Kassan on bass, and Dennis Davis on drums.
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.
In addition to rhythm guitar and vocals, 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.
David Bowie: A Life, Dylan Jones
Another key element of ‘Fame’ was pitch-shifted vocals, which were recorded painstakingly with the tape machine running at different speeds.
The vocals on ‘Fame’ that go from high to low were already recorded. It was a process of slowing the tape down and recording a vocal, then progressively speeding the tape up in small increments and recording each increment. When the tape is slowed down to half speed and you record a vocal, when it is played at normal speed it would be high-pitched. That’s how those old records by Alvin and the Chipmunks were made in the ’60s.
David Bowie: Ultimate Record Collection (Uncut)
Tony Visconti was upset not to have been involved in the Lennon session.
At the same time I was working on the strings and new mixes something was afoot in New York. David personally phoned me to tell me he had met up with John Lennon and got him into the studio with a band now consisting of Carlos Alomar, Dennis Davis and bassist Emir Ksasan. They wrote and recorded Fame in one evening, also recording Lennon’s ‘Across The Universe’ for good measure. David said, ‘I’m sorry Tony, but they have to be on the album.’ I also met John Lennon earlier for the first time with David and responded with, ‘If you gave me a day’s warning I would’ve flown myself on the Concorde to do that session.’ I was quite upset. Well, anyway, ‘Fame’ is a great song; a great record and we all love it.
Who Can I Be Now? (1974-1976) book
Despite rumours that Bowie and Lennon also recorded a version of ‘Let’s Twist Again’, it is unlikely to be genuine. An early mix featuring a flute part, performed by Jean Fineberg, has appeared on bootleg recordings.
My wife, May Pang, was there and tells me that those two tracks [‘Fame’ and ‘Across The Universe’] were all David and John recorded together. I’ve heard about this flute recording before and someone asked me if John Lennon played it. May informs me that John couldn’t play flute. I don’t know any more about this version.
Fineberg was credited on the Young Americans album notes, although her flute part did not make the final mix.
My friend Jean Millington from Fanny was friends with David and said, ‘He’s recording an album, let’s go up to the studio and check it out.’ She introduced me to him, and John Lennon was there too.
We were all listening to the tracks and my friend told him I played sax and the flute. David asked if I had my horns with me, and I said I had my flute with me. So he said, ‘Why don’t you go in there and put something down?’ So I went in and put down a wild flute solo on ‘Fame’. Which, as I’m sure you know, did not make it on to the record. So after that was done he said we need to record the voices.
I didn’t think any more about it, then later on I got a call from David’s office asking for my union number. The album comes out, and there’s no flute solo on it, but I’m listed under vocals. I still get cheques for it.
David Bowie: Ultimate Record Collection (Uncut)