Joe Elliott: Bowie turned my world from black-and-white to colour
Def Leppard's frontman pays tribute to the man who wrote his favourite song. "Without him, I wouldn’t be doing what I’m doing"
On Monday morning I got a text that said: ‘Have you heard?’ Those are the three most hated words in my life. I’m used to them now. I know what they mean. So I looked at my emails: ‘David Bowie dead.’ I thought it was a hoax. Then I turned on the TV news and there it was, confirmed by Duncan, his son.
It was already a bad couple of weeks in January. We’ve had the thirtieth anniversary of Phil Lynott’s death, and the twenty-fifth anniversary of Steve Clark dying. Lemmy’s gone, and now Bowie.
As I’ve been saying for a lot years, for people of our generation, we’ve got a lot of this ahead. When you think about McCartney, or Mick and Keith, they’re not going to be around forever.
David Bowie was an absolute idol to me when I was a kid. Without him, I wouldn’t be doing what I’m doing. He was a big part of what made me want to be in a band.
The first time I heard a Bowie song was Space Oddity in ’69. I was nine. The song didn’t really resonate with me then. It was three years later when I really found Bowie – or should I say Bowie found me? July 6, 1972: that infamous Top Of The Pops performance, Bowie doing Starman. I felt like I’d seen something I’d never seen before. I was mesmerised by his image.
When you reach a certain age, around twelve or thirteen, you need to find your own thing – and for me, it was glam rock. I’d heard The Beatles and the Stones, but they were not my generation. Glam rock felt like it belonged to me. TV had just gone from black-and-white to colour. The timing was perfect. We had Marc Bolan and Sweet and Slade. Then Bowie came along with Starman. When you heard that song, or Virginia Plain by Roxy Music, you knew you were listening to something that was a little bit more sophisticated than Cum On Feel The Noize or Ballroom Blitz. You just knew it was different.
As an innovator, Bowie was right up there with The Beatles. He moved on quickly from glam rock, just as The Beatles, in a very short period of time, took us from Love Me Do to Taxman and then moved on to Sgt. Pepper and A Day In The Life. They radically changed, and Bowie obviously learned from that. He figured that a man on the move would never get tied down. That seemed to be his mantra. I loved the Berlin trilogy – Low, Heroes and Lodger – because by then I was seventeen, eighteen years old, and I was staring to realise there’s more to life than electric guitars.
With Bowie it was never about one song – it was like the entire album was one piece of music. All the great songs – Heroes, Five Years, Moonage Daydream, Boys Keep Swinging – they’re like pixels that make up a picture of a face. Even now, if I’m listening to Low or Young Americans, the album has to be listened to as a whole. But there is one Bowie song that means more to me than any other.
All The Young Dudes is my favourite song of all time. Bowie wrote that song and gave it to Mott The Hoople. They needed it. And for me and many other people, that song became the anthem of our generation.
Everything about that song works. I love the teenage angst in it, the pace of the song, Bowie’s voice on the chorus, and the lyrics, with that whole ‘me against the world’ thing. It’s speaking to the kid in a bedroom who’s thinking: ‘Nobody understands me.’ And then, all of a sudden, this song understands you. This song is my anthem. It certainly was for a lot of kids growing up in the seventies. And that message has carried through generations.
All The Young Dudes is the most perfect pop song I’ve ever heard. I’ve heard that song ten thousand times, and the hairs on my arms still go up whenever it comes on. And I’ve already got it written in my will that it gets played at my funeral.
The first time I met Bowie was in 1990, at Bono’s house in Dublin. Bowie was on the Sound + Vision tour. I had just moved into my place in Dublin and I got the call from Bono: ‘We’re having a barbecue at my home, come on over.’ When I got there, he said, ‘Come here, I want to show you something.’ He took me upstairs to this room and Bowie was sitting on a snooker table. Bono said, ‘I thought you might want five minutes.’ My first thought was: shit, what am I going to do now? I wasn’t prepared for this, and it felt a bit weird. But he was very nice, and engaging. At that point we had just come off the back of an eighteen million selling album with Hysteria, and I think Bowie liked the fact that somebody that had sold so many records was a fan of his. I’m not stupid: David Bowie didn’t have any Def Leppard records in his collection. But I was a fan and he was good to me.
The next time I met him was in 1992 at the Freddie Mercury tribute gig at Wembley, when I actually got up on stage with him. What a moment for me. The song was All The Young Dudes, and what a band it was: Brian May, Roger Taylor and John Deacon from Queen, Bowie’s on sax, Mick Ronson’s playing guitar, and Ian Hunter’s singing it. And there’s Phil (Collen, Def Leppard guitarist) and me on backing vocals. Phil wasn’t going to get up, but I said, ‘If you don’t, you’ll regret it for the rest of your life!’ I pulled him out with me and we sang down Brian May’s mic. I looked along the line: Hunter, Ronson, Bowie and Queen. Then I turned to Phil and said, ‘This doesn’t suck, does it?’ That was the best three minutes of my musical career right there.
I met Bowie two or three other times after that, and he was always very friendly. I can understand people thinking: why would Bowie be talking to the singer from Def Leppard? But he wasn’t a snob like that. He wasn’t like, ‘Oh, I’m only going to talk to Bryan Ferry.’ There’s more to Bowie than meets the eye. It wasn’t just the avant-garde that got his attention. He was very open to everybody – that’s how it seemed to me, at least.
Bowie’s death is genuinely a tragedy for me, because his music has been in my life for more than forty years. That’s a long time. I’ve recorded more than twenty of his songs over the years, with my side-project Cybernauts and with Leppard. We did four with Leppard: Drive-In Saturday on the Yeah! album, Rebel Rebel as a b-side, Space Oddity as a bonus track for Yeah!, and acoustic version of Ziggy Stardust. So I’m heavily invested in Bowie’s music.
What I loved about him was that over the years he always evolved in ways you could never have predicted. Tom Waits is the same. Dylan used to be. And Bowie was making great records in the last few years.
I loved the album he did in 2013, The Next Day. I’ve played it a lot and it’s now sinking into my DNA. It’s never going to catch up with Space Oddity or Young Americans, because that would take forty years to happen. I’m always going to favour the stuff that first got me into Bowie – Aladdin Sane, Ziggy Stardust, Hunky Dory, The Man Who Sold The World. That’s always going to be the stuff that I go back to the most. But on this last album, Blackstar, some of the stuff is absolutely brilliant.
Blackstar is a tough listen, but the fact that he made this avant-garde Miles Davis-style jazz record is so typical of Bowie. And the fact that he made this album while he was dying, that’s incredible. We didn’t know he was dying, but he did. Blackstar is a requiem. It must be. And he went out making great music. To the very end, he was a true artist.