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David Bowie Remembered

We pay tribute to the most influential musician of his – and any other – generation. John Hutchinson, Rick Wakeman and Nicky Horne look back...

On the title track of his 1977 album Heroes, David Bowie sang the words: ‘I, I will be king’. He ruled over rock during his lifetime but, if anything, since his death from cancer, at the age of 69, on January 10, 2016, his dominance has seemed even more pronounced. As his former guitarist, John ‘Hutch’ Hutchinson, told Classic Rock, “The reaction to his death, for me, has been greater than for Elvis or Lennon.”

Bowie’s final album, Blackstar, was released two days before he died, and contained lyrical portents of his demise, which seemed to confirm a lifelong commitment to music as transgressive yet populist art. He had been recording, in one guise or another, for almost five decades – and ‘guise’ is the word for this musician, fashion innovator and provocateur, whose ever-shifting nature helped make him one of the biggest stars of the 1970s, and the natural heir to The Beatles.

He was born David Robert Jones in Brixton, South London on January 8, 1947, 12 years to the day after Elvis Presley. He was as revolutionary as his forebear, with his fluid sexuality, alien charisma, and ability to absorb various music styles to create something radical and new. After flirting with mod, musical hall, psychedelia and folk in the 60s, he seemed to come alive at the dawn of the new decade, blazing a trail with his outlandish glam image and startling yet commercial hybrid of Detroit rock and British pop. His performance on Top Of The Pops for the single Starman, during which he slung an arm around guitarist sidekick Mick Ronson’s shoulder, remains one of the most thrilling and pivotal moments in rock history.

Moreover, his 12-album run from 1970’s The Man Who Sold The World to 1980’s Scary Monsters (And Super Creeps) represents the greatest example of sustained creativity and dedication to progression and transformation in all of rock’n’roll. From neo-heavy metal and proto-goth, to glam, white soul, funk, ambient and electronic music and all points in between, Bowie’s golden age of albums covered all bases and invented several new ones. His many phases – Ziggy Stardust, Aladdin Sane, the Thin White Duke, his ‘Berlin period’ – gave countless imitators whole careers.

Bowie embodied the 70s, predicted the 80s, became a role model and technological innovator in the 90s, and spent much of his last decade as a reclusive, if ever-present, observer . He was an actor, a producer, a genuine modern-day Renaissance Man with an ability to surprise right up to his final two albums, 2013’s The Next Day and this year’s Blackstar. He was the ultimate rock star: bold and brilliant, cutting a swathe for others to follow. We will never see his like again. 

JOHN ‘HUTCH’ HUTCHINSON was Bowie’s guitarist no fewer than four times between 1966 and 1973 – in The Buzz, Feathers, Bowie & Hutch and, briefly, The Spiders From Mars. Here he looks back on the man before the myth.

The first time I met David, it was at an audition for his new band. He was looking for a replacement for the Lower Third, who had all been sacked, and I was the first one he picked. He seemed very professional, organised and experienced. He looked skinny, more London than me – I was from Yorkshire. If you had to categorise him, he was a mod.  

I played with Bowie and The Buzz for about six months. We played places like the California Ballroom in Dunstable, supporting people such as Jon Anderson’s band The Warriors. We also had a residency at the Marquee club. 

David, as a frontman, used to dance a lot. Very energetic – like Jagger, only better. He had a great voice. He was protected by his manager, Ralph Horton, who treated him like a precious piece of china and kept him apart from me and the other guys in the band – although we all drove to gigs together in an old ambulance. 

After The Buzz, I left for Canada. I came back in 1968, and David and his then-girlfriend Hermione Farthingale asked me to join Feathers, who were a folk group. David and I looked similar with our jumpers and soft haircuts. Feathers played the odd arts centre, and folk clubs where we didn’t get paid. We lasted a few months, and then when Hermione left we became Bowie & Hutch. We did a dozen tracks as demos – Bowie experts on bootlegs will have heard most of them. I was pleasantly surprised that I got a full credit for singing the ‘ground control to Major Tom’ part on the demo version of Space Oddity, which sometimes gets played on the radio. The first time David played me it I thought: “What an unusual song.” I thought it sounded like the Bee Gees. He was very inventive, although I thought it was a bit strange when he brought the Stylophone along. I remember him playing the song at Ralph McTell’s folk club in Bounds Green, with his curly perm and flares. We got some funny looks from the audience. 

After Bowie & Hutch I went back up to Scarborough where I knew I could get a job. It was difficult leaving David. Ahmet Ertegun, the head of Atlantic Records, had wanted to sign us as a duo, I found out later. 

I was working in the oil and gas industry when I got asked to join the Spiders From Mars as an auxiliary musician. I picked up the phone one day and it was Mick Ronson. He said: “Have you still got your Telecaster? Can you come to America with us?” David had decided to increase the size of his band and he wanted someone to play 12-string. I thought: “That’s the job for me.” One minute I was in a damp bedsit in Scarborough feeling sorry for myself, the next I was flying to New York. 

The States was our first tour. I socialised a lot with David in those first few days. I remember him playing me Roxy Music in his hotel room, saying: “Have you heard these guys?” We went to Max’s Kansas City, and we saw Charlie Mingus in Greenwich Village. 

None of the band was particularly druggy, but David lived a wilder life than any of the rest of us – he kept it under wraps. By the end of the tour I wasn’t spending much time with him – we’d just nod to each other at soundchecks, or he’d sometimes come to my room in the middle of the night to borrow a guitar. 

We stirred the Americans up. In the south they objected to us. We got banned from playing Memphis for being too lewd. Bowie was doing the fellating the guitar thing with Mick – he was a showman.

The Spiders’ last show was the legendary one at Hammersmith Odeon in July 1973. We had no idea it was coming to an end. In fact Bowie’s manager, Tony DeFries, had told us to keep 1974  free “because you’re going to be out of the country a lot”. Anyway, Bowie told me: “Don’t start Rock’N’Roll Suicide before I give you the nod.” He wanted to make the announcement. I thought he wanted to thank everyone for a great tour.

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