Released: 20 April 1987
David Bowie: vocals, keyboards, synthesizer, harmonica
Carlos Alomar: guitar
Erdal Kızılçay: bass guitar, drum programming
Errol ‘Crusher’ Bennett: percussion
Reeves Gabrels: lead guitar, rhythm guitar
Tim Lefebvre: bass guitar
Sterling Campbell: drums
Mario J McNulty: percussion
Nico Muhly: string arrangement
Rob Moose, Laura Lutzke: violin
Nadia Sirota: viola
Gabriel Cabezas: cello
The title track of David Bowie’s Never Let Me Down was its last song to be written and recorded.
The song ‘Never Let Me Down’ is quite gentle and romantic. I’m very pleased with it. It was literally written and recorded overnight, whereas most of the others took a few weeks to put together and arrange. It was completely finished in 24 hours from the beginning to of the writing to the end of the arranging.
Music & Sound Output, June 1987
It was recorded during overdub and mixing sessions at New York’s Power Station studio, shortly before the album’s completion.
David came in one day and said he had a great idea for a new song. Power Station Studio A just happened to be free. So we flew down the elevator to start recording in the other room, leaving Bob on the third floor to mix ‘Zeroes’. We already had a drum track from a song that had been abandoned in Montreux. And after David had sung over this, it already sounded fantastic. By 11:00 that night, Carlos had been in to add some guitars and Crusher some percussion. The song was finished and was called ‘Never Let Me Down’. We rushed back upstairs to hear Bob’s mix of ‘Zeroes’, which, of course, was wonderful. And the very next day Bob was in again, mixing ‘Never Let Me Down.’ It was so exciting to have the two studios going at once, and to have that kind of creativity happening all around us. It’s something I will never forget.
Music & Sound Output, June 1987
‘Never Let Me Down’ was co-credited to Bowie and guitarist Carlos Alomar.
The usual process is that he has a little something that he has and plays a few chords from it. He and I have a very basic understanding – less is more… The only thing that he had [for ‘Never Let Me Down’] was the chorus, then you hear the chords that I put in. Those chords build and build, then finally the song delivers you to the chorus.
That’s what it feels like when somebody never lets you down. They just build you up and then deposit you just where you need to be. So that’s what I was thinking when I was doing that arrangement.
David Bowie: Ultimate Record Collection (Uncut)
The chords were based on an Alomar composition named ‘I’m Tired’, although Bowie’s song also briefly had the working title ‘Isolation’.
I had a basic chord change I wanted to use, but it sounded ponderous and funereal. I gave it to Carlos, and he did something with it.
The Complete David Bowie, Nicholas Pegg
In 1987 Bowie described ‘Never Let Me Down’ as “a pivotal track for me. I don’t know if I’ve written anything quite that emotive of how I feel about somebody.”
The song was written about Coco (Corinne) Schwab, Bowie’s long-term confidante and personal assistant, whom the singer credited with helping him kick his cocaine addiction in the 1970s. She remained loyal to Bowie for 43 years, and was bequeathed $2 million in his will.
It’s basically about Coco, more than anybody else… It’s platonic. But there is a romance in it, I guess, inasmuch as it’s hard for two people to feel totally at ease in each other’s company for that period of time and not expect too much from each other. Always being prepared to be there if the other one needs someone, you know? There’s not many people you find in life that you can do that with, or feel that way with.
Rolling Stone, 23 April 1987
‘Never Let Me Down’ was performed during Bowie’s Glass Spider Tour in 1987. The version from 30 August 1987 can be heard on the live album Glass Spider (Live Montreal ’87).
Bowie also performed the song on the BBC’s Top Of The Pops on 16 September 1987. It was included on the first American edition of the show.