BOWIE: How did he write music?

NEIL A writes ...

Many writers use various means to create music, and Bowie seems to have been one of these. The early songs appear to have been written in a very traditional way, by sitting down at a guitar or piano and finding chord structures that worked, then putting a tune to that, and finally writing a lyric.

Lyrics always seem to have been added last, and this appears to have been a commonality throughout his career. His methodology of writing lyrics certainly changed, and has been well-document, although strangely there is very little written about how he approached writing music, so I will have to rely and the small comments he made over the years.

Bowie wrote lyrics quickly, yet they were complex and sometimes deeply personal and arcane. From about 1974 onwards he adopted a method pinched from William Burroughs, of using “cutups”. The technique was to write out sections of the song, or pieces that worked well together, physically cut these into strips, and pull them randomly, to create new ideas, lines and concepts, then use that as a the basis of a song. This is why some songs seem a little random in parts. The song Sweet Thing, from Diamond Dogs is assumed to be one of his first forays into the technique, and, while it has a sense of lyrical movement, also has a purposeful sense of chaos and confusion.

In later years he used a bespoke computer programme to achieve this. Meanwhile, he continued to use his extensive knowledge of literature as a base for ideas. Everything from Nietzsche, Kahlil Kibran, Burrows, Capote, Jean Genet, the Bible, the Beatles, Hitler, and the dwarves of Snow White have featured in songs. One writer he came back to often was occultist Alister Crowley, whose writings have influenced everything from Quicksand to Let’s Dance.

Several producers have stated that they had whole songs completed and recorded with no lyrical content being known, and Bowie would come in and deliver the lyrics in one or two takes near the end of the recording. It seems unlikely, although not impossible, that complex lyrics like Bewley Brothers, Quicksand, or Ashes to Ashes were cobbled together over night, so there remains a mystery of whether Bowie worked on lyrics in complete isolation from the music and put them together later, or actually created his lyrics at an incredible speed.

The approach to music was in many ways similar. After the Ziggy period he seems to have changed how he wrote music. Certainly from Low (1977) onwards, he seems to have developed a system of complete experimentation in the studio. In those recording he, along with producer Visconti, and musician Brian Eno, would layer sounds, create hours of noise over drums, rhythm guitar and bass, and loop sounds to create the base, over which Bowie would add tunes. This method produced much of the Berlin trilogy of Low, Heroes and Lodger, with the track Heroes being one of the best examples.

Later in his career he used improved technology to achieve this. By the time 1.Outside was recorded in the mid 90s he and Eno were inviting musicians into a studio and asking them to jam, but giving them parameters to avoid falling into set blues pieces (which is what most rock musicians do), then looping parts and creating songs from these.

There are certainly examples where he wrote whole songs the “old fashioned’ way. Nile Rodgers has said when he first heard Bowie play Let’s Dance it was a folk song that Bowie played on a 12-string acoustic. The track Bring Me the Disco King on Reality was jazz song Bowie had been working on since the 80s before recording.

He also wasn’t averse to pinching ideas from others and himself. Starman has a chorus stolen from Somewhere Over the Rainbow. Fame includes an idea pilfered from Superstition played backwards. Move On from Lodger came about because Bowie put a tape on backwards and liked the progression and so got the band to learn the music and lyrics backwards without knowing the song. It was actually All The Young Dudes. His failed attempt at fun folk song Ching-Aling Song had a riff that he re-used in the gothic dystopian track Saviour Machine. The intro to Laughing Gnome is musically very close to the intro to Scary Monsters, and Speed of Life.

He also learned and changed quickly. When recording his first album in 1967 he wanted a bassoon based score, and so took a book from the library on how to score music for a bassoon, and learnt the method in a month. My understanding is that his ability to read and write music was self-taught.

However, after all this, he wrote most pieces alone. Even his collaboration with Queen was largely isolated from the others. So it appears he wrote quickly, using various techniques, borrowing on others’ work and using other musicians for inspiration, and very secretively,

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