Every key stage of Bowie’s career was marked by a different creative foil: Mick Ronson’s lead guitar work helping to launch Ziggy Stardust into the stratosphere; Brian Eno’s game-changing technical wizardry during the “Berlin period”; Nile Rodgers’ trademark grooves taking Bowie to new commercial heights in the 80s; Donny McCaslin’s jazz ensemble aiding his charge into new territory on his final album, ★.
Across his 50-plus years as a recording artist, Bowie welcomed guitarists as varied as Carlos Alomar, Earl Slick, Robert Fripp, Chuck Hammer, Pete Townshend and Stevie Ray Vaughan into the studio to lend their distinctive styles to his work, while long-term producer Tony Visconti, who manned the decks for 13 Bowie albums in total (among them The Man Who Sold The World, Young Americans, the “Berlin Trilogy” and Scary Monsters (And Super Creeps)), remained crucial in helping him bring his vision to life. As pianist Mike Garson told Bowie biographer Paul Trynka in the superlative Starman: The Definitive Biography: “I tell people Bowie is the best producer I ever worked with, because he let me do my thing.”
If Bowie knew how to get the best out of his musicians to suit his own ends, he could also be more forthrightly collaborative. From helping to launch Iggy Pop’s solo career to striding to the top of the UK singles charts with Queen, and even lending his unmistakable vocals to the title track from Arcade Fire’s 2013 album Reflektor, Bowie was unfailingly generous throughout his career.
We take a look at some of his finest collaborations…
John Lennon: ‘Fame’ (1975)
Worked up during a jam session with the former Beatle, and based around a cover of The Flares’ ‘Footstompin’’, ‘Fame’ gave Bowie his first No.1 single in the US, and was that same year pilfered by The Godfather Of Soul himself, James Brown, for his December 1975 single ‘Hot (I Need To Be Loved, Loved, Loved)’.
Iggy Pop: ‘Lust For Life’ (1977)
Bowie had produced The Stooges’ third album, but Iggy Pop’s debut solo outing, The Idiot, was a more collaborative effort. By the time the pair embarked on its follow-up, Lust For Life, Pop had a firmer hand on the pen, though Bowie picked up a co-writing credit for the title track.
Marc Bolan: ‘Standing Next To You’ (1977)
The late T. Rex frontman had played guitar on Bowie’s first version of ‘The Prettiest Star’, released as a single in 1970, and also inspired the lyrics to ‘Lady Stardust’. Not until 1977 would Bowie and Bolan collaborate on a song together – more of a jam, really, as the brief snippet broadcast at the end of an edition of Bolan’s TV show, Marc, proved. Sadly, Bolan fell off the stage during the riffage, and the credits rolled on while Bowie laughed it off…
Queen: ‘Under Pressure’ (1981)
An iconic song for both artists, ‘Under Pressure’ captured both Bowie and Queen at their best, the former’s voice soaring majestically in one of his most emotive performances.
Giorgio Moroder: ‘Cat People (Putting Out Fire)’ (1982)
A very different version to the one re-recorded for Bowie’s 1983 album Let’s Dance, this brooding collaboration with the pioneering electronic producer was released as a single after being recorded for the horror movie of the same name.
Bing Crosby: ‘Peace On Earth’/‘Little Drummer Boy’ (1982)
An unlikely pairing on the face of it, but hailed by the Washington Post as “one of the most successful duets in Christmas music history”, this single went to No.3 in the UK and immediately became a seasonal standard.
Pat Metheny Group: ‘This Is Not America’ (1985)
From Mike Garson’s avant-garde stylings to Donny McCaslin’s experimental skronk, Bowie often looked to jazz musicians to help push him forward. Another soundtrack collaboration, for the film The Falcon And The Snowman, ‘This Is Not America’ saw him team up with Pat Metheny’s group and remains chillingly affecting.
Mick Jagger: ‘Dancing In The Street’ (1985)
Recorded to raise money for Live Aid, what’s not to love about two rock legends having a hoot on a Motown cover?
Pet Shop Boys: ‘Hallo Spaceboy’ (1996)
Setting their controls for the heart of the dancefloor, Pet Shop Boys put their stamp all over this remix for a stand-out cut from Bowie’s 1995 album, Outside, complete with cut-up lyrics from Bowie’s first introduction to the intrepid Major Tom, ‘Space Oddity’.
Trent Reznor: ‘I’m Afraid Of Americans (V1)’ (1997)
One of many incarnations of a song which started life as an album outtake that found its way onto the soundtrack for Paul Verhoeven’s much maligned movie Showgirls, Nine Inch Nails mainman and former Bowie touring partner Trent Reznor helped take ‘I’m Afraid Of Americans’ into the charts with one of five remixes to bear a NIN credit when the song was released as a single.
Placebo: ‘Without You I’m Nothing’ (1999)
Bowie found kindred spirits in Placebo, and, as Brian Molko told uDiscover last year, after hearing the title track from their second album he tracked the Placebo frontman down in Barbados to tell him, “I really, really like it, so I’ve written my own harmony part.” Initially wanting to perform it with the band at the BRIT Awards, Bowie was later convinced to record it with them for a single release.
Arcade Fire: ‘Reflektor’
In one of his final ever live performances, Bowie took to the stage with Arcade Fire at the Fashion Rocks concert in New York, on 8 September 2005, performing two of his own numbers and giving the then newcomers a nod by joining them for their own track, ‘Wake Up’. Eight years later, Bowie followed his surprise comeback with some haunting intonations on the lead track from the group’s 2013 album.