INTERVIEWS, REVIEWS & RELATED ARTICLES
Australian Guitar MARCH 2016 - by Andrew P. Street
ZIGGY PLAYED GUITAR
Andrew P. Street sifts through five decades of the genius of David Bowie to work out his ten greatest six-string collaborators. Spoiler: Weird and Gilly don't make the list.
BOWIE'S GREATEST PLAYERS
No-one doubts the genius of the late, great David Bowie, but as with all geniuses, part of his brilliance was picking the people with whom he worked. And nowhere is this more evident than with his guitarists.
There are three broad types of Bowie axemen: rockers, jazzbos, and noisemakers. The former are the ones that play the blinding rock solos, typified by his Spider From Mars-era right hand man Mick Ronson, and chugging rock dog Earl Slick.
The jazzbos are the workhorses who built and inverted the songs, such as Pat Metheny (on their magnificent 1985 collaboration, This Is Not America) and Bowie's longest-serving sideman, Carlos Alomar.
And then there are the guitarists who were seemingly given the instruction, "Take this sweet-sounding track and fuck it with every weird guitar effect you have. Thanks": tasks taken with enthusiasm by Robert Fripp, Adrian Belew, and in recent years, Gerry Leonard.
Note that this isn't an exhaustive list, and leaves out several worthwhile names. For example, that's the legendary Albert Collins chugging away on the soundtrack to Labyrinth, which is hardly one of the man's most outstanding moments; Lenny Kravitz's sole collaboration was playing lead on Bowie's theme to The Buddha Of Suburbia, and Peter Frampton's tenure could have been fascinating had it not coincided with 1987's Never Let Me Down album, generally considered to be the most half-arsed effort Bowie ever (barely) made.
So, given the above, who were Bowie's ten best guitarists? Using the incontrovertible science (science!) of completely subjective assessments based on personal taste, let's count 'em down.
• • •
#10 DAVID TORN
Tenure: 2002, 2013
Key Moments: Slow Burn, The Next Day, The Stars (Are Out Tonight)
Through the '90s, Bowie was often using samplers to cut up guitar parts and mash them together, but by 2002, he was intrigued by the real-time possibilities of looping pedals and effects for the album that became Heathen. Enter Torn, a man whose work as a studio player and soundtrack artist was conveniently augmented with ambient recording work and development of looping tech. He didn't return for Reality, but was one of the main guitarists for 2013's surprise comeback The Next Day. If something sounds searing and distorted, that's probably Torn.
#9 BEN MONDER
Key Moments: Lazarus, Blackstar, Sue (Or In A Season Of Crime)
New York jazz player Monder only played on one Bowie album, but given that the album he played on is Blackstar, he deserves a place on this list. That's him playing against Bowie's vocal on Sue, going up the neck on the punch-to-the-gut that is Lazarus (while Bowie bangs out the noise lines on his Fender) or strumming out the suspended fifths on Dollar Days. With his gift for picking out the spaces between Bowie's melodies, it would have been fascinating to see what else he could have done had the collaboration continued.
#8 REEVES GABRELS
Key Moments: Under The God (with Tin Machine), I'm Afraid Of Americans, The Hearts Filthy Lesson
Let's get this out of the way: everyone laughed when Bowie formed Tin Machine with Gabrels and Iggy Pop's Lust For Life-era rhythm section Tony and Hunt Sales in 1988, but let's look at the facts: the much-hated band's little-loved two proto-grunge albums are a) not nearly as bad as you think, and b) was what rejuvenated Bowie and made him engage with music again, leading to his '90s-and-onwards renaissance. On the other hand, this was the era when Bowie and Gabrels were sporting those headstock-less Steinberger guitars that look more like art projects than serious instruments. Regardless, Gabrels turned Bowie onto the possibilities of sound-manipulating tech and digital recording, which was to prove central to the making of his '90s trilogy Outside (1995), Earthling (1997) and Hours... (1999).
#7 GERRY LEONARD
Tenure: 2002-2004, 2013
Key Moments: New Killer Star, Slip Away, Boss Of Me
The Irish-born Leonard had worked with the likes of Laurie Anderson and Suzanne Vega before he was tapped to join Bowie's live band, specifically in order to recreate the weirder guitar moments on stage for older songs - particularly the bits done by numbers four and five on this very list. However, he swiftly established himself as a worthy collaborator and occasional co-writer, as well as being the musical director for Bowie's final tour in 2003-2004. Heathen and Reality are awash in his atmospherics, and he returned to write and perform on The Next Day in 2013. It's worth watching the DVD of A Reality Tour just to try to work out what the hell he's using for outboard gear.
#6 Earl Slick
Tenure: 1974-1979, 1983-1984, 2002-2004, 2013
Key Moments: Station To Station, Fame, TVC 15
Slick is one of Bowie's longest-serving sidemen, having been pulled into the band in 1974 to replace the departing Mick Ronson (about whom you will read shortly). He was mainly part of the touring band, although he appeared on a couple of tracks for Young Americans before being part of the core players on Station To Station. Aside from Bowie, he worked with John Lennon and Yoko Ono (he plays on Double Fantasy), and was one third of Phatom, Rocker & Slick, and became the go-to guy for classic reunited bands whose guitarists had passed on (New York Dolls) or retired from music (The Yardbirds), and was regularly tapped to be part of Bowie's live band - as well as contributing to sessions as recently as The Next Day.
#5 Adrian Belew
Tenure: 1978-1979, 1990
Key Moments: Boys Keep Swinging, Look back In Anger, D.J.
Belew had been part of Frank Zappa's band in 1977-78, during which time Brian Eno had seen him play in Cologne. Thus when it came time to put the band together for the Isolar I tour before the making of Lodger - the last and most fractured of the "Berlin Trilogy" - Bowie knew who to call. Not that Belew really knew what he was doing once they were in the studio: reportedly, many of his parts were pieced together from multiple takes of him playing against backing tracks he'd never heard before, often without telling him such handy information as what key the song was in. It worked, though: just try to think of a better Bowie solo than Belew's demented scrawl over the coda of Boys Keep Swinging. You can't, because there isn't one.
Belew later joined King Crimson (meaning that he worked extensively with #4 on this list), but later returned for the 1990 Sound+Vision tour, where he was the only guitarist aside from Bowie himself.
#4 Robert Fripp
Tenure: 1977, 1980
Key Moments: Boys Keep Swinging, Look Back In Anger, It's No Game (No.1)
Another pal of Eno's was King Crimson's central figure (that's his laser-beam solo on Baby's On Fire) and got the call to come work with Bowie on what became the Heroes album. If the only thing he ever contributed to the canon was the pitched feedback melody line of the title track, that would basically make him a God (and for the record: that's Fripp angling his guitar into an amp, not an ebow), but the best was yet to come. While he didn't return for Lodger, he did contribute some of the most abrasively brilliant moments to what many writers - including this one - consider the last truly perfect Bowie album, 1980's Scary Monsters (And Super Creeps), giving the much-needed sonic weirdness to offset the hooks of the otherwise conventionally catchy singles, especially on the opening It's No Game (No. 1) and the paranoid gallop of the title track. For one album, Professors Bowie and Fripp provided a masterclass in how to perfectly mix discord and melody.
#3 Stevie Ray Vaughan
Key Moments: Let's Dance, China Girl, Cat People (Putting Out Fire)
Bowie had seen Vaughan and his band Double Trouble play their controversial career-making performance at the 1982 Montreux Jazz Festival, and invited him to come work on what was to become his biggest selling album of all time, Let's Dance. Every other musician on the album was chosen by producer Nile Rodgers, but Bowie sensed that the searing blues riffs would add something to Rodgers' slick disco-funk - and so it proved. Vaughan's work on the title track made his career, but he and Bowie fell out during negotiations for the subsequent tour (with Slick returning at the last minute to take his spot) and the pair never worked together again. In 1990, Vaughan was tragically killed in a helicopter crash: Bowie attended his funeral, and Rodgers gave the eulogy. It's worth adding that Vaughan plays on the (arguably superior) album version of Cat People; the 1981 single version features the aforementioned Fripp on lead.
#2 Carlos Alomar
Tenure: 1974-1980, 1983-1987, 1995-1996, 2002
Key Moments: Fame, Golden Years, Young Americans
The Puerto Rico-born Alomar wasn't as flashy as some of the players on this list, but is without doubt the most versatile guitarist that Bowie ever enlisted.
Midway through touring for Diamond Dogs in 1974, Bowie whimsically decided to make a "plastic soul" record while on a break in Philadelphia. For this, he called up Alomar - who he'd unsuccessfully attempted to hire for the first leg of the tour - who proceeded to put an entire band together for the sessions that became Young Americans, including the rhythm section of bassist George Murray and drummer Dennis Davis (AKA the engine room for every subsequent Bowie album until Let's Dance). Conveniently, Alomar also had a little riff that he'd been footling about with that Bowie liked, and after banging it around with David and John Lennon, they had Fame - Bowie's first US number one single.
Alomar remained for the rest of the tour, and pretty much everything else for almost a decade. That's Alomar burbling away on the fiddly bottom-string riff of Golden Years, and playing the rudimentary drum part on Boys Keep Swinging.
Despite doing six albums with Bowie, he was left on the bench for Let's Dance - supposedly after Bowie's management offered him an insultingly low fee - but he did come back for the subsequent Serious Moonlight tour. However, his return to the Bowiecave wasn't a triumphant one: he played on the critically-panned and commercially-sluggish albums Tonight and Never Let Me Down, and was musical director for the universally derided Glass Spider tour. That ended the partnership, but Alomar returned to play on 1995's Outside (for which he also toured) and 2002's Heathen.
#1 Mick Ronson
Key Moments: Oh! You Pretty Things, Ziggy Stardust, Life On Mars?
Starman, The Man Who Sold The World, Suffragette City, The Jean Genie, John I'm Only Dancing, Panic In Detroit...
There's only ever been one musician that seemed to be able to hold his own with Bowie as the perfect musical foil, and that was Mick Ronson. Ronson was at Bowie's side from his transformation from long-haired hippie nobody to bona-fide superstar, and it's no great stretch to posit that without Ronno, Bowie would never have made that leap.
He was first recruited as part of Bowie's backing band The Hype, playing on The Man Who Sold The World with drummer Mick "Woody" Woodmansey and bassist/ producer Tony Visconti. When Visconti bowed out, he was replaced by Trevor Bolder for the making of Hunky Dory, and thus, The Spiders From Mars were born.
The Rise And Fall Of Ziggy Stardust And The Spiders From Mars is not just Bowie's most accomplished album and the record that made him a star: it's not-coincidentally a showcase of Ronson's elegant lead work. Take for example the way his melody line weaves around Bowie's vocal on Starman: that's basically everything that Suede spent their first two albums attempting to match.
And he didn't stop at Bowie either: he and David co- produced Lou Reed's game-changing Transformer album, a stint with Mott The Hoople led to numerous collaborative projects with Ian Hunter, and he toured as part of Bob Dylan's Rolling Thunder Revue. What's more, while working on American Fool with US singer/songwriter John Cougar Mellencamp, he rearranged a tune that had been dumped from the sessions, thereby resurrecting Jack & Diane and giving Mellencamp his biggest hit.
He also produced dozens of artists, including Morrissey's career-best solo album Your Arsenal, although he only ever enjoyed a middling solo career despite his debut album, 1975's Slaughter On 10th Avenue, going top ten in the UK.
There are differing reports on what ended his and Bowie's working relationship in 1974: Bowie's management suggested that Ronson's desire to do solo albums was seen as a slap in the face, while Ronson told Melody Maker that he quit as a last-ditch attempt to "kick some sense" into Bowie, who he (correctly) feared was becoming seriously addicted to cocaine.
They repaired their relationship in the early '80s, and Ronson performed on Bowie's 1993 form-recovering Black Tie White Noise, before losing his battle with liver cancer at the far-too-young age of forty-six that same year.
He was also a charmingly down-to-earth fellow in both his life and work. And thus, let's remember the genius that was Ronson with this quote from 1983, after he'd made his first guest appearance on stage with Bowie since the mid-70s, playing The Jean Genie in Montreal on the Serious Moonlight tour:
"I had heard [Earl] Slick play solos all night so I decided not to play solos: I just went out and thrashed the guitar. It was funny afterwards because David said, 'You should have seen [Earl's] face...' I had his prize guitar and I was swinging it around my head and Slick's going 'Waaaa... watch my guitar', you know. Poor Slick. I mean, I didn't know it was his special guitar, I just thought it was a guitar: a lump of wood with six strings."
BOWIE THE GUITARIST
Let's not beat around the bush: he might have surrounded himself with killer players, but Bowie was no slouch on the axe. He was first and foremost a solid rhythm guitarist. His early albums rested on his chugging twelve-string acoustic, and that's him strumming away on Space Oddity and The Man Who Sold The World, and shimmering through A Letter To Hermoine.
However, he could also rock out when the need arose: he did the searing solo on Low's Be My Wife, played rhythm on the two Tin Machine albums and tours, and aside from one solo, he's credited with all of the guitar tracks on 1974's Diamond Dogs. That might explain why the title track is all open chords moving up the neck in the great tradition of self-taught guitarists (make that D-shape work, Dave!), but before you write him off, remember that the album contains Rebel Rebel. You know, the song with possibly the greatest riff in the entire Bowie canon? That's pure David, right there.