WannaBowies: The Top Twenty Bastards of Bowie

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When David Bowie tiptoes back into the public sphere, we celebrate; we talk about him, seek out his work, and reappraise his massive influence. His upcoming re-entry is super secret musical Lazarus, a new version of The Man Who Fell to Earth, co-written by Bowie and Dubliner Enda Walsh, who brought Once to the stage to much rapturous acclaim. Lazarus previews at New York Theater Workshop in November. It will feature Michael C. Hall (Dexter, recently Hedwig) as the alien Thomas Newton, and will include Bowie songs old and new. Sadly, Bowie doesn’t appear in the show. But we are still psyched.

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Way back in 1987, when David Bowie was still talking to the press (he doesn’t any longer and who can blame him?) he weighed in on the clearly Bowie-influenced new wavers Sigue Sigue Sputnik: “It’s so outré,” he told Rolling Stone ’s Kurt Loder, “so absolutely in the Ziggy court, you know?”

So absolutely in the Ziggy court. Was ever a more elegant withering glance given? And although he chose to focus discussion on his new album and tour, Bowie could easily have waxed on about numerous other bands and/or artists so absolutely in the Ziggy court. And this was 1987. If that conversation took place today, he’d have many more courtiers to list – wannabes in every decade, aping him both sonically and sartorially, helping him maintain his status as an adjective. I.e., you say, “That’s very Bowie,” and people know what you mean. Because the imitators keep coming, transcending genre and production technique; analog, digital, 80s, ‘aughts, lo fi, goth, punk, pop, metal, whatever; if it’s in the Ziggy court, you’ll know, you’ll hear: Bowie.

And speaking of sonics, for our purposes, the ensuing listicle (and playlist below) focuses more on sound than vision: (Although most herein went Full Bowie, i.e. copped look and musical cues.) Interestingly, as a singer, our David is himself a magpie, an amalgam of influences, homages, and brazen rip-offs. He’s never denied it. Thievery, after all, is a rock n’ roll tradition: Elvis tried to sing like Dean Martin and Arthur “Big Boy” Crudup’s lovechild, The Beatles wanted to sound like the Everlys hanging out with Buddy Holly in Motown, Dylan was initially derided as a Woody Guthrie clone, Robert Plant copped from Elmore James and Terry Reid. When it was his time to invent and then re-invent himself, Bowie stole from Lennon, Bolan, song-and-dance-man (and co-creator of Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory) Anthony Newley, Elvis, Lou Reed, Righteous Brother Bill Medley, and the Walker Brothers, among others.

T’was ever thus. As Steve Jobs reminds us (in his “own version” of a T.S. Eliot quote): “Good artists copy, great artists steal.” Meaning: in the hands of the great artist, the whole is (sometimes) greater than the sum of its stolen parts. In any case: it’s the sincerest form of flattery.

And with that, I give you these flatterers, these thieves: The Top 20 WannaBowies.

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1. Indigo Eyes – Peter Murphy

As singer of groundbreaking goth quartet Bauhaus, Peter Murphy built upon Bowie’s back-of-the-throat Lurch-y croon. Bauhaus even famously covered “Ziggy Stardust & the Spiders From Mars.” (More on them later.) On 1988’s Love Hysteria, Murphy smoothed it out a bit, swathing himself in chime-y guitars and 80s wind tunnel drums. But still, his roots showed. You would not be faulted for thinking this was Ziggy teleported to the days of Cruise, Miami Vice, et al..

 

 

2. In the Meantime – Spacehog

In 1995, four Leeds, England expatriates living in New York City won over legendary Sire A & R man Seymour Stein (signed Madonna, The Replacements, The Smiths, The Ramones). Stein gave them a contract, and introduced the foursome to the world via this epic WannaBowie tune. “In the Meantime” makes great use of bassist Royston Langdon’s drama-dripping vocal, arcing from the shadows into the stardust, buoyed by Ziggy guitars and Heroes synths.

 

 

3. Don’t Get 2 Close (2 My Fantasy) – Ween

From Ween’s 1993 major label debut, Pure Guava, this dark confection is, like several on this list, a conscious homage, shamelessly emblazoning its sleeve with a big red badge of Bowie Love. Recorded on a cassette four-track, it retains all the attendant hiss of the Lo Fi 90s, a time in which Nirvana had so changed the game that major labels were, for a minute there, investing in outsider music. (Britney Spears would change all of that.) Gene Ween’s faux English accent and double tracked vocal – one voice low, one high – recalls late 70s, Scary Monsters-era Bowie, while the sonics, tantalizingly, recall an obsessed young man’s bedroom. Strangely intimate, indeed.

 

 

4. Beat’s So Lonely – Charlie Sexton

In 1985, 16-year-old Texan Charlie Sexton was a guitar wunderkind tearing up stages in Austin when producer-songwriter-80s avatar Keith Forsey (Billy Idol, Simple Minds, Flashdance) took him into the studio with a state-of-the-art Linn drum machine (and, clearly, a huge budget) and did his best to turn Sexton into an 80s rock star. Despite striking chops, chart action, and a godlike, goth-y Bowie heartthrob look, it did not work out, but it’s all for the best. Sexton went from WannaBowie to in-demand session man, producer, longtime sideman to Bob Dylan, and an actor in last year’s Boyhood.

 

 

5. Party Hard – Pulp

Sheffield’s Pulp had been at it for two decades when they released their sixth album, 1998’s This Is Hardcore, the follow-up to their breakthrough, A Different Class. Front man Jarvis Cocker had made a name for himself as one of the more acerbic and witty of the Britpop bunch (many would say the most acerbic and witty), and enjoyed status as one of the more distinctive voices in pop. Yet he still brought the mid/late 70s Bowie when it suited him.

 

 

6. Midnight Radio – Hedwig & the Angry Inch

Singer-songwriter-guitarist Stephen Trask brought actor-writer John Cameron Mitchell’s Hedwig character to life with songs deliberately crafted to sound like Bowie (among other 70s icons like the Velvets, the Sex Pistols, and T. Rex). Although recorded in 1998, this triumphant rock ballad, which climaxes the show (best rock musical ever), could easily be a Ziggy outtake, especially with the “lift up your hands” coda and Mick Ronson-y distorted arpeggios. Bowie was flattered enough to produce the L.A. run of Hedwig & the Angry Inch.

 

 

7. Voices Carry – ‘Til Tuesday

If singer-bassist Aimee Mann hadn’t been persuaded by the record company to keep the song as it was – addressed to a woman instead of a bad boyfriend – this 1985 nugget would be even more Bowie-esque. It’s still pretty Bowie, though. Whereas one could say Madonna, St. Vincent, and Janelle Monae cop Bowie’s tendency to shape-shift, “Voices Carry” is a female-sung song that really sounds like Bowie, like Bowie’s badass little sister taking it to the lip of the stage. Disillusionment with Big Corporate Rock would help kill ‘Til Tuesday, but it would also drive Mann to become one of our finer DIY songsmiths.

 

 

8. Planet Earth – Duran Duran

This is the 1981 song that introduced Duran Duran to the world and coined the term “New Romantic.” It was huge and puffy, like the pirate shirts favored by these soon-to-be-global pop stars. Also: funky as hell. Bowie had left behind the big-throated caterwauling drama of earlier incarnations – the Berlin albums, Scary Monsters – and was edging toward the detached cool that would become Let’s Dance, but his acolyte Simon Le Bon was more than eager to take up the mantle.

 

 

9. A Girl Like You – Edwyn Collins

In 1995, former Orange Juice front man, Edinburgh’s Edwyn Collins, used the ever-more-accessible technology of sampling to grab the swinging beat from Len Barry’s 1965 hit “1-2-3.” Upon that funky bedrock he crafted this hypnotic bit of vintage-yet-modern sounding dance pop, inserting a buzzy, recurring lead and an irresistible vibraphone hook courtesy former Sex Pistols drummer Paul Cook. Atop it all is Edwyn’s fine version of an occasionally unhinged, baritone Bowie. The result: international, timeless, much licensed hit.

 

 

10. Bowie, a.k.a. Bowie’s in Space – Flight of the Conchords

Jemaine Clement and Bret McKenzie – a.k.a. Flight of the Conchords – devoted an entire 2007 episode of their HBO comedy series to Bowie Love. The episode ends with this besotted pastiche, in which F.O.C. simultaneously lampoon and adore (harder than it looks) Bowie, expertly performing a dizzying smorgasbord of Bowie phases: “Space Oddity” era, Ziggy/Aladdin Sane era, deep-voiced Sound & Vision era, and Let’s Dance 80s disco era. (Seen below at Wembley, but do yourself a favor and watch the clip from the show.)

 

 

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Bret McKenzie of Flight of the Conchords as Bowie

11. Bela Lugosi’s Dead – Bauhaus

Together for only a year, with rock n’ roll neophyte Peter Murphy (yes, him again) just finding his way along the Bowie Road, Northampton’s Bauhaus recorded this predatory dirge opus in 1979. Not technically “punks,” they nevertheless maintained a punk attitude, insisting on releasing all nine creeping storm minutes of their ode to the man who gave undead life to Dracula. Somewhere along the way, someone decided to call this stuff “goth,” and a genre was born, with Bowie in its very DNA.

The band re-recorded this seminal tune and performed it in the unforgettable opening of Bowie’s 1983 vampire flick The Hunger, in which Bowie does not sing. Because he doesn’t need to. Murphy is doing it for him.

 

 

12. Moving In Stereo – The Cars

The Cars brought “new wave” from Boston clubs to the mainstream, arriving in 1979 with leather trousers, skinny ties, mullets, and killer tunes now considered “classic rock.” Although widely considered guitarist-songwriter Ric Ocasek’s brainchild, credit must also go to singer-bassist Benjamin Orr, who shared frontman duties with Ocasek. Orr had the more supple pipes, and he sang most of the band’s hits in a rich Bowie-tone. He gives this synth-drenched mid-tempo affair (co-written by Ocasek and keyboardist Greg Hawkes) some Thin White Duke gravitas. For better or worse, the tune is forever linked to Phoebe Cates flashing Judge Reinhold in Fast Times at Ridgemont High, a scene that straddles both titillating and excruciating like no other.

 

 

13. The Look of Love – ABC

ABC was not really interested in sounding like Ziggy or Bowie’s moody Eno-produced Berlin albums. No, their template was all Young Americans, i.e. an Anglo stab at Philly soul in which synthesizers share space with strings and horns, all woven into the mix by 80s sonic architect Trevor Horn (The Buggles, Art of Noise, Seal, the resurrections of Yes and Tom Jones). The band’s 1982 debut The Lexicon of Love made ample use of singer Martin Fry’s Bowie-isms. And there was much rejoicing (and cashing of checks).

 

 

14. Sweet Transvestite – Frank N’ Furter/Tim Curry

Few artists tried to take Bowie’s style and be more outrageous, but that is what Rocky Horror auteur Richard O’Brien did when he created Frank N’ Furter in 1973, a year after Bowie broke big with his gender bending alien, Ziggy. Coincidence? Who cares? And boy, did O’Brien luck out when he cast young, Bowie-voiced baritone Tim Curry, who of course would go on to become a rock star and acclaimed actor of stage and screen.

 

 

15. Temple of Love – Sisters of Mercy with Ofra Haza

Beginning in 1979, Andrew Eldritch and his various drum machines and human cohorts took the dark, mechanical soundscapes of late 70s Bowie and crafted a harder, edgier version of Bowie at his most apocalyptic. Bowie himself would draw from this deep well with his own noise rock outfit Tin Machine.

 

 

16. Now You’re In Heaven – Julian Lennon

Julian Lennon hit big in the early 80s as a sound-alike of his father, but got fed up with the music biz and took three years off, during which, apparently, he listened to a lot of Bowie. Although his distinctive Lennon DNA is still audible, he is pushing pop Bowie-isms, big time, leaning heavily on his impressive low register, rather than the nasal croon that sounds so like his dad. It paid off, too. This 1989 tune was a hit. But the music biz still pissed him off. Like Aimee Mann, he’s strictly DIY these days. Dad would be proud.

 

 

17. So Young – Suede

In 1993, Suede were suddenly huge. They’d been bashing it out for five years, and finally, they nabbed a deal, and their self-titled debut caught fire. On fourth single “So Young,” singer Brett Anderson unleashes his usual combo Diamond Dogs-era howl and Lodger-era falsetto, all unabashed, dramatic Englishness, making no attempt, ever, to sound like he’s anything other than an angsty Brit. So like our David. Guitarist Bernard Butler, meanwhile, supplies the power chords and snaky, fuzz-heavy lead.

 

 

18. The Ballad of Maxwell Demon – Brian Slade/Jonathan Rhys Myers

Filmmaker Todd Haynes’ (and co-producer Michael Stipe’s) 1998 valentine to Ziggy-era glam is a proud, hot mess. Although it was not a hit in theatrical release, it lives on via the internet, Netflix, and DVD, garnering much ardor from up-and-coming oddballs and lovers of brazen, overtly sexual rock and roll freakishness. Jonathan Rhys Myers plays Bowie doppelganger Brian Slade, who falls for Ewan MacGregor’s Iggy doppelganger Curt Wild. Iggy happily licensed his songs for Curt Wild, but Bowie wanted nothing to do with it, so the soundtrack is filled out with glam-sounding songs penned by other artists. This one is by Shudder to Think’s Craig Wedren, providing Rhys Myers with an admirably accurate-sounding bit of Bowie-esqueness.

 

 

19. I’maman – Jobriath

Jobriath, “the American Bowie” burned bright and and brief. No WannaBowie was ever so blatantly slavish as the actor musician born Bruce Wayne Campbell, christened Jobriath by his manager. Elektra records hyped Jobriath’s 1973 self-titled debut with a decadent intensity; billboards over Times Square, posters on NYC buses, and this wonderfully rocking, take-no-prisoners appearance on The Midnight Special. He released only one more album, then retired from rock, becoming a lounge singer before being one of the first public figures to die from AIDS in 1983. But Lordy, did he leave a mark.

 

 

20. The Good Old Bad Old Days – Anthony Newley

Anthony Newley is no WannaBowie, but if we’re talking about influence, he needs to be here as one of the less-known, but significant inspirations for early 70s David Bowie. A hugely popular actor-singer-songwriter, Newley’s quavery, nasal, I-am-English style can be heard all over Hunky Dory in particular. With songwriting partner Leslie Bricusse, he wrote “Candy Man,” the songs in Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, as well as “Feeling Good,” a hit by Nina Simone, Muse, and Michael Buble. Clearly, a badass. Although not a rocker, he was, like Bowie, a master of the stage, and a master of persona delivered through song. The erstwhile Davy Jones, who knew he needed something different, something odd and un-rock to enhance his work, was paying very close attention.

 

 

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class dismissed

 

About Robert Burke Warren

Robert Burke Warren (@RBWUncleRock) is a writer and musician. He's written for Texas Music, Brooklyn Parent, The Woodstock Times, Salon, the Good Men Project, the Bitter Southerner,Paste, The Rumpus, The Bitter Southerner, Chronogram, and the Da Capo anthology The Show I ‘ll Never Forget. His debut novel, Perfectly Broken, is out now from The Story Plant. robertburkewarren.com
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