She has a powerful weapon. She’s also the wee Scottish songstress who, despite that big voice, isn’t always as remembered for her music as perhaps she should be. But famous she’s always been, so much so that my parents named their dog after her, I kid you not.*
With David Bowie’s The Man Who Sold The World celebrating its half century, let’s rewind back to 1974 and the year in her oddly shaped career when Lulu did Bowie and Bond, though not at the same time. She’s too small for that.
When I was a mere snip of a boy, Marie McDonald McLaughlin Lawrie was a middle of the road, family friendly showbiz person who was in a bit of a downmarket career lull. Never far from the limelight in Britain, even when her career was foundering she was a constant presence on television and in the papers but reduced to celebrity status: a star without hits in other words. Though the doldrums could still be a busy place.
Hers was the face you saw smiling at you brightly from the front of the Freemans catalogue your mum ordered your clothes from. The same lady that played Adrian Mole’s mother on the telly; as well as the princess in distress in the video for Adam And The Ants’ Ant Rap, one of the first singles I ever bought. And so on and so forth.
Heaven forbid that she might actually be a bit of a singer herself, because you’d hardly have known it from her output. It seemed like it was easier — and certainly more profitable — to show up in panto or the latest Royal Variety Performance than making music; she released just two albums in the 1980s, neither of which had any trouble troubling the charts.
And then in 1993 suddenly Lulu — for it was she — was everywhere. Belatedly, she’d tried her hand at songwriting and ended up as co-authoring a huge hit for Tina Turner (the wistful but resolute I Don’t Wanna Fight). As for her own career, with the help from a certain electronic pop duo (no, not that one, but we’ll come to them later) called Brothers In Rhythm, Lulu reinvented herself as a dance diva on the club-minded house anthem to liberation, Independence, the first fruits of new material for over a decade and a declaration that she was, in the words of its follow-up, back for more, now that she was newly single, having become disentangled from her second husband, celebrity hairdresser John Frieda.
A No.11 hit on the UK charts that February, the surprise success of the record confirmed that the singer was back with a boom bang-a-bang and led to the first of several appearances on the BBC’s biting, acid-faced comedy Absolutely Fabulous.
Played to viper-tongued perfection by Jennifer Saunders, AbFab’s lead character Edina Monsoon is a faltering, forgetful and hideously shallow PR PR person whose main achievements are to “make the crap into credible” and the “dull into delicious.” In other words, according to her eternally dull as dishwater daughter Saffy (Julia Sawalha) she’s good at persuading people to “buy a cheap bit of plastic junk that they don’t even know they want.”
In New Best Friend, an episode of the sitcom’s second series filmed in ‘93 and aired in ‘94, the wee one encounters Eddy and her fash mag slag gal pal Patsy Stone (Joanna Lumley). The partners in crime have had a tiff and are competing to befriend celebrities over lunch, filmed not at Harvey Nichols Fifth Floor as you might expect, but at what was one of David Bowie’s favourite London eateries, Joe’s Cafe in Kensington.
Patsy: “Oh look, it’s little Lulu. Hi Lu!”
As Patsy gatecrashes Zandra Rhodes and Britt Ekland’s table, Eddy spies a small person.
Eddy: “Lulu! Lulu! Hello!”
Lulu: “I’m not meeting you, am I?”
Eddy: “No, no, Edina. We’ve met before.”
Lulu: “Yes, I know, but I’m not having lunch with you. I’d rather be on a table on my own.”
Eddy: “No, you wouldn’t. No, you wouldn’t.”
Lulu: “Let go of my jacket!”
Eddy: “I need to talk to you.”
Lulu: “Not about those benefits or one of those awful parties or something? I haven’t forgiven you for the Albert Hall fiasco.”
Eddy: “Sorry about that one. But I’m sure it said on the invitation it’d be lovely if you got up and did a few numbers — sang Shout, that sort of thing.”
Lulu: “There wasn’t even a band!”
Eddy: “But it was for charity!”
Lulu: “What do you want?… I’m off.”
Eddy: “I may well have a gun in my bag. I will shoot you and then try very hard to turn it on myself if you leave. I’ll pay for the meal. Alright, and the champagne… and a substantial donation to the charity of your choice, alright?”
Lulu: “Three courses and a pudding or I’m walking, and don’t talk to me. And don’t smoke. (reaches for the menu) I’m starving!”
Eddy: “What would you like, Lulu?”
Lulu: “Ooh, I’d like one of those. And I’ll have two of those. And I’ll have three of these.”
Eddy: “Steady on, sweetie.
Lulu: “And let’s get that champagne.”
Eddy: “Champagne for Lulu!
They eat. And drink.
And to finish, in what can only be described as her appreciation of a good meal Lulu licks her plate clean. (Video helpfully cued up below.)
Lulu: “Oh, that was delicious, thanks.”
Eddy: “Now she talks, now she talks. I was gonna say, actually, that I really enjoyed your last single, Independence. (sings) Independence!”
Lulu: “I’ve had two since then.”
Eddy: “Have you? I didn’t know about that. That’s ridiculous, I thought you’d just gone quiet. Do you know what you need? You need a really good publicity machine. Who does your PR?”
Lulu: “You do.”
Pertinently written to perfection, the scene’s brilliance was that it sent up Lulu’s rough and tough upbringing in a Glasgow tenement (on a dirty street) and makes fun of her sporadic chart success — though it would have been even funnier had she not just enjoyed her biggest ever hit as guest vocalist on Take That’s disco barnstormer Relight My Fire, which hit No.1 in between the episode’s recording and transmission.
Nevertheless, the scene showed that the wee warbler’s a game gal willing to poke fun at herself (she’s “unoffendable” (sic), according to Lumley) at the drop of a kilt. As Eddy’s long suffering client, Lulu made several subsequent appearances in AbFab, where it was de rigueur to mock her age, her cosmetic procedures, and especially her size. For instance:
Eddy: You can’t sit there! That’s Lulu…
Claudia Bing: She’s not here.
Eddy: She’s very small.
If nothing else, the team up with Take That saw Lulu reclaim her place as one of British pop’s most distinctive and expressive voices, a reminder that The Smiths revitalised Sandie Shaw, the Pet Shop Boys resuscitated Dusty Springfield and now it was her turn for another stab at the limelight that had kicked off in spectacular fashion three decades earlier.
By the time she was 12, Marie Lawrie was fronting a local r&b band. She left Glasgow when she was just 15 to become Lulu, the throaty ginger shortcake who belted out Shout, a top ten hit in 1964 but a perennial karaoke fave for eternity.
She also diversified into acting, appearing in the 1967 film To Sir With Love with Sidney Poitier, the title track of which bagged her the biggest selling single of 1967 in the US. A variety of television specials and light entertainment programmes followed, and then there was Eurovision: in 1969 she came joint first — tying with entries from France, Spain, and The Netherlands — with the tremendously silly Boom Bang-a-Bang, still her biggest solo hit to date and a No.2 in more ways than one.
Commercially, the 1970s were when Lulu’s lean years kicked in. Nonetheless, out of the blue in 1974 she did find herself landing her only substantial hit of the decade and a James Bond theme to boot, though they were two completely different projects that just looked like they might be related: The Man Who Sold The World and The Man With The Golden Gun.
Of the two, The Man Who Sold The World is by far the superior song, but a surprising choice at the time considering its author had all but disowned it since its original release on the album of the same name in 1971 — not just prior to hooking up with Lulu but virtually its entire existence, only performing the “mystical… trance-like” track live on one very memorable occasion until Nirvana famously repopularised it in the mid 1990s.
It’s matter of oft-repeated record that the song’s writer David Bowie and Lulu first encountered each other at 1970’s a Disc & Music Echo Awards ceremony in London, however briefly. Following a chance meeting in Hollywood in October 1972 (Bowie was with Iggy Pop, mixing The Stooges’ Raw Power album in an adjoining studio to a Lulu vocal session), it was on 6 June 1973 when things started moving, after “a splash of orange caught [her] eye” when they found themselves staying at the same Hallam Tower hotel in Sheffield.
She was the pocket-sized kook with the huge voice who’d just split from her husband (the Bee Gees’ Maurice Gibb**), and he was the outlandish eyebrow-less Grandmaster of Glam on the final leg of the Ziggy Stardust tour, and just a month from spectacularly killing off his alien alter-ego at a “farewell” show at Hammersmith Odeon: “He looked like a stick insect with his white face, carrot-coloured hair and thin limbs and platform boots,” recalled Lulu.
“David Bowie walked in dressed as Ziggy Stardust and came straight over to greet me. David had just become hot and he invited us to his concert that night. I was a Bowie fan and delighted to see him on stage for the first time… absolutely wonderful.
“After the concert I had to do my own show in a club. When I returned to the hotel there was a note from David. Would I join him upstairs at a party? Angie Bowie was there, with her American boyfriend. The atmosphere was very relaxed. People were drinking, smoking dope and singing around the piano.
“Mike Garson, David’s pianist, and Mick Ronson, his equally talented guitarist, played for us. It was absolutely magical. David wanted to show me videos of his recent concert tour of Japan. We sang and watched videos into the wee small hours.
“Although I had never thought he was particularly sexy, there was an aura about him. It was the way he moved and measured people up. When he focused on me I felt like the only person in the room… in the universe. He was very charming and not at all fey. Instead he was like a chameleon. He could be ‘Jack-the-lad’ — very manly and tough talking — and then suddenly become attentive and flirtatious. This fascinated and excited me. David told me I was a hell of a singer. When the party began winding down, he asked me to stay. It was after five in the morning when I went to bed.”
— Lulu, The Man Who Sold The World album sleeve notes, 1999 and I Don’t Want To Fight book, 2002
Lulu also recalled how in that initial get-together, “David said ‘I’d love to write a song for you.’ I said, great, never thinking it would come through. But he came through.”
“I was woken by the telephone. It was David to say he was going to record me and that we were going to have a hit. I was very excited. He telephoned the following weekend and invited me to what was supposed to be his farewell concert. David was serious about my recording one of his songs. Jagger, magnetically attractive as ever, was at the party after the concert. He made a point of telling me what a great idea it was for David and me to record together.”
Bowie – struck by Lulu’s gutsy, earthy voice and a whole lot more – attempted to chart the course of her direction, telling her in slightly heated language, “I want to make a motherfucker of a record with you because you’re a great singer.” With her hit-making career on a downward spiral, his unlikely patronage came as a welcome boost, as he later recalled.
“We started talking about the possibility of working together. I was keen to get something fixed up, because I really have always thought that Lulu has incredible potential as a rock singer. I didn’t think this potential had been fully realised. We decided on The Man Who Sold The World as being most suitable.”
“Lulu is such a bright, funny and talented little thing. When I first heard her version of Shout I was initially gobsmacked that anybody British had the nerve to cover that Isley Brothers classic. Then I realised that she had actually done a great job with it. How the idea came up for having her do a version of The Man Who Sold The World I have no clue*, but I’m so glad we did it. I used the Pin Ups line-up to back her, including Ronson and drummer Aynsley Dunbar, and played the sax section on overdubs. I still have a very soft spot for that version, though to have the same song covered by both Lulu and Nirvana still bemuses me to this day.
— David Bowie, Moonage Daydream, 2002
(*Allegedly, DB’s original idea was to have MWSTW recorded by Marianne Faithfull as her come back record.)
“I loved everything he did. I didn’t think The Man Who Sold The World was the greatest song for my voice, but it was such a strong song in itself. I had no idea what it was about. In the studio Bowie kept telling me to smoke more cigarettes, to give my voice a certain quality. We were like the odd couple. Were we ever an item? I’d rather not answer that one, thanks!” — Lulu, Uncut, 2008.
Well, that would change. Big time. After a meeting at the Hyde Park Hotel to select the most suitable song (“He played several tracks for me. We couldn’t decide between Watch That Man and The Man Who Sold The World. In the end we agreed to do both of them.”), it was arranged that Lulu would join Bowie and his slightly reconfigured post Spiders band at the recording sessions for his next album, Pinups, in France, arriving just as Twiggy was leaving.
“Making a record with David Bowie was pretty rock ‘n’ roll! When he met me, he said, ‘You have a fuck off voice and I’m going to make a hit with you’. He was über cool at the time and I just wanted to be led by him.”
Which she did in more ways than one, confessing to Lorraine’s Ross Kelly in 2019: “We had a unique relationship. I probably fell in love with Bowie, for a minute… I had a little bit of a thing about him, I would say. And it was reciprocal.”
Reciprocal enough that the pair ended up having a brief affair, of which the Glaswegian has spoken candidly in recent years: “Not quite an affair, dear,” she told The Scotsman. “I had a small window when I was involved with Bowie.” So what would she call it then? “A moment in time, a fleeting moment.”
During an interview with News Corp after Bowie’s death in 2016, Lulu was at pains to downplay their “brief thing,” though she conceded “it was the sexual chemistry which drew us together.”
“I don’t think you could call what we had dating, we had a little intimacy. I don’t think David Bowie dated people did he? He maybe just called up on them or invited them in!”
Never one to shy away from publicity, Lulu stuck around for long enough to notice that The Dame sported “the best thighs” she’d ever seen.
“David Bowie’s thighs were incredible. Long and slim but muscled, not pumped up but really powerful. They were strong, even though he was emaciated at the time. I often think that he had similarly shaped thighs to Naomi Campbell. We were so connected because of the music – it was the personal stuff that was… odd.”
“Has there ever been an odder couple?” is how Lulu herself summed up her dalliance with Dave in her 2002 memoir, I Don’t Want To Fight. “I was perceived as the girl-next-door, while David Bowie was a weird, androgynous ‘alien’ and the hottest star in the world.”
And it’s true — even Stevie Wonder would have noticed that David Bowie and Maurice Gibb seemed like very different men. Poles apart in fact.
“The thing about them is that I was really attracted to their music, then the other stuff that comes with it. I fell in love with the Bee Gees music, then I met Maurice. I fell in love with Bowie’s music, and then I met him.” So was her music similarly part of the attraction for them? “I think there was a mutual respect, definitely.”
David was, Lulu says, “totally seductive”, “mesmeric,” with a “magnetic sort of personality that was intoxicating to be around. He had a reputation for being very sexually adventurous, and I’m sure it’s true,” she wrote. “But with me he stayed within fairly normal territory. It wasn’t wild or anything like that… When he focused on me I felt like the only person in the room, in the universe.”
Still, from her comments it’s obvious Lulu knew that, in physical terms at least, she was just another of his lust interests, a tiny notch on Bowie’s king-sized bedpost to add to a whole roll-call of showbiz shags he wham-bammed that year, which included Ava Cherry, Mick Jagger, Marianne Faithfull, Amanda Lear, Claudia Lennear, Dana Gillespie, and possibly even his own non-singing wife Angie.
Ensconced at the ‘Honky’ Château d’Hérouville just north of Paris, the recording of the Pinups covers project, Bowie’s seventh album, was briefly put on hold on 16 July for the recording of both sides of Lulu’s single The Man Who Sold The World backed with Watch That Man, the latter also not quite a new song, having opened Bowie’s Aladdin Sane LP just a few months earlier.
“It was amazing we got it together so quickly, because I was working, and he was working. I had two days, and flew over to Paris, did it and came back.” — Lulu, 1973.
Bowie contributed guitar, saxophone and some soulful, very prominent backing vocals, while the remainder of the band included Mick Ronson on guitar, Trevor Bolder on bass, Mike Garson on piano, Geoff MacCormack on backing vocals and congas, and new boy Aynsley Dunbar on drums.
Due to an ongoing dispute with David’s management company MainMan over some unresolved financial issues, Ken Scott, producer of Pinups and the previous trio of Bowie albums, was not contracted to work on the Lulu 45, and his manager advised him to make himself scarce for her sessions. With the original track’s haunting weirdness downplayed in favour of a grimy glam-disco workout, Ronno arranged the A-side’s rework and replaced his own Zen-like circular guitar riff with a pseudo cabaret saxophone motif. And thank heavens they ditched the cheesy, raspy güiro woodscraper too.
“The final result was a funky, sax-driven song that sounded incredibly cool. I thought the lyric was about Jesus but David would have probably said it was about something completely different.” — Lulu, 2002
Along with the more faithful flip-side, both tracks were credited as being produced by Bowie and Ronson. The reality was the bulk of the technical work was actually done by in-house engineer Andy Scott (no relation) manning the board with levels pre-set by Ken, as the latter recalled in his 2012 memoir Abbey Road To Ziggy Stardust.
“Unbeknownst to me, David was set to produce a version of The Man Who Sold The World for pop singer Lulu and had asked her to come and stay at the Château for a couple of days while we were recording. I called Jack Nelson, who was looking after me and all the other producers for Barry and Norman Sheffield, and he told me not to work on the Lulu sessions under any circumstances. ‘OK, fine,’ I said, but it was a really ridiculous situation where we’d put down a track for Pin Ups, I’d have all the sounds together, then Lulu would walk in and I would walk out. Everything was already set and they didn’t have to do anything except press the record button, but that’s what I was instructed to do. Because of all the legal wrangling going on, I had to follow instructions. Nearly every time Lulu came in over the next couple of days, I had to go.”
With overdubs and mixing completed at London’s Olympic Studios in the new year during sessions for Diamond Dogs, workaholic Bowie’s eighth album, the single was finally released on 11 January 1974, as Lulu recalls in I Don’t Want To Fight.
“It was another six months before the single was released. In that time I saw David every few weeks. If we found ourselves in the same place at the same time, the sexual chemistry drew us together. Angie knew but she didn’t seem to mind. She and David had their lovers and sometimes shared them. If she was interested in me, I ignored the signals.”
Fuelled by huge artistic ambition and an increasingly megalomaniac, cocaine-fuelled confidence that from now on everything he laid his hands on would be a success, the Thin White One made plans to record an entire album with his new protégé — even attempting to direct things in Lulu’s aesthetic department by famously telling her she could do with shifting a few pounds.
“Some of the conversations we had were insane. He told me I should lose weight. ‘Thanks a lot,’ I said, pretending to take offence. I was a bit embarrassed because I was always a little chubster, but he was talking in terms of my image. He didn’t say it when I was in a compromising situation with him of course… it was more a professional observation. He was one of the pioneers of the emaciated, heroin-chic look and he thought it would help my career. It was typical of David. He could be charming one moment and blunt and forthright the next. My mum thought he was the anti-christ, the weirdest thing she’d ever seen, and to a mother of course he was.”
A top tenner in Ireland and Holland, The Man Who Sold The World would climb as high as No.3 in the UK charts, giving Lulu her second biggest hit in Britain to date, and one which would only be bested by the Take That team-up twenty years later. In a stunning case of the influenced becoming influencer, she promoted the single with a striking appearance on the BBC’s Top Of The Pops on 10 January, with David tagging along “to [sort] out the sound.”
The singer performed her new release looking like a pint-sized Sinatra in a “tight-fitting black suit with wide lapels, a black waistcoat, white shirt, a tie, and a white fedora hat with a black band shielding my eyes. I looked like a Chicago gangster. I also had the complete opposite: a white suit, black shirt and black hat.”
Not only was this surprising foray into cross-dressing a playful twist on the Weimar androgyny of Marlene Dietrich but she inadvertently pre-dated the wardrobe of Bowie’s own Man Who Fell To Earth persona by a good couple of years. “Bowie loved that look!,” enthused little Lu. Indeed, all he needed was a pack of Gitanes poking out of the waistcoat (a minor detail but one swiped wholesale from Ron Wood a few months later) and, voila, the Thin White Duke was born.
And is that the sound of grunge fans sharpening their pitchforks? Before you cast judgement or indeed one of the said tridents, just take a few minutes to enjoy Lulu’s arresting performance. Filled with enough divine decadence to make your weekend feel naughty it remains one of the best versions of Bowie’s belatedly iconic song, and in some ways the definitive recording until Kurt & co imbued it with that last throw of the dice pathos.
Watch the video and try to disagree.
“For the video, people thought he came up with the androgynous look, but that was all mine. It was very Berlin cabaret. We did other songs, too, like Watch That Man, Can You Hear Me and Dodo. The Man Who Sold The World saved me from a certain niche in my career. If we’d have carried on, it would have been very interesting.” — Lulu, Uncut, 2008
Originally titled You Didn’t Hear It From Me, Dodo is a murky, paranoid piece concerning Tom Parsons, Winston Smith’s neighbour in George Orwell’s novel; a “spy song” according to its author in the sleeve notes for Sound + Vision. It’s the lesser track in the brief Bowie-Lulu canon and has the distinction of being shelved on three separate occasions: once as a conjoined medley with 1984 for an abandoned musical of the same name (and the last recording to feature the trio of old hands Ronson, Bolder and Scott), then it was consciously uncoupled and re-recorded at Olympic in Barnes, which David then palmed off on Lulu as a potential follow-up single to TMWSTW.
The whole shebang got as far as the wee one laying over a try-out vocal over the existing Bowie funk, so if it sounds tentative and underdeveloped that’s because it was. It’s an unmixed recording of Lulu in the middle of learning a slightly lacklustre song with David’s ‘guide’ vocal in her ears, and though apparently Robbie Williams declared it “brilliant”, she refers to Dodo herself as not much more than an abandoned “hilarious nursery rhyme.” Either way, the recording would remain in the vault until a Rykodisc reissue of Diamond Dogs in 1990, but shorn of her additional vocal, though the longer ‘duet’ version has surfaced online in recent years.
If Lulu was decidedly nonchalant about The Man Who Sold The World and Dodo, she did suggest to The Herald Scotland in 2015 that the best cut from the Bowie period is a totally unreleased number, and one that went awol soon after its recording that it’s hitherto evaded even the most ardent of bootleggers.
“I was cool and hip again. David was particularly happy with the success. Partly I think it fed his ego. He had set out to be my Svengali. The idea seemed crazy at forest but he pulled it off. The package was great but for me, personally, not for a minute did I think The Man Who Sold The World was the greatest thing. I just thought, ‘Do what Bowie tells you,’ but that song Can You Hear Me, that was more my thing. It was a very soulful track.”
Beginning life as Take It In Right, Bowie cut a studio demo of the newly written Can You Hear Me on New Year’s Day 1974, on 25 March he prepped the bare bones of a new recording at Olympic with Lulu intended to be the trailer for a full-blown album he intended to produce for her. For a while, David had been toying with the idea of producing a succession of female singers, something he hadn’t done — officially — since Dana Gillespie in 1971 (though, again, it was ostensibly Mick Ronson doing the work).
Then came Ava Cherry, Bowie’s American paramour at the time. In October 1973, Bowie had formed The Astronettes vocal trio for her but the Latin and R&B-inspired sessions fizzled out when Olympic Studios banned Bowie from the building due to MainMan not paying their bills. A single he produced for Amanda Lear was also abandoned at the last minute, never even getting to test pressing stage.
“It was hard for Lulu to do anything after that with the particular thing that I gave her, and she started dressing up in these funny suits and looking like a boy. She was trying to get lost in my identity of her, so when I’d done Lulu I thought ‘I better stop doing this because I felt somewhat like a Svengali and it was very easy for me to do that, fall into that role. I was again giving vent to my cinematic pretensions and creating little pastiche filmlet things for people and casting them in roles and sort of directing the whole thing.” — David Bowie, 1976
With Lulu, her musical magnate wanted to go take things to the next level and cut a whole album with her in Memphis or Philadelphia, á la Dusty Springfield.*** With Bowie leaving Britain a few days later — never to return as a full time resident — vocal and musical overdubs were added to the latest recordings on 17 April at RCA’s New York recording facility at West 44th Street, not at 155 E 24th St as many lesser researched Bowie biographers erroneously claim, for the simple reason that RCA had moved from Kips Bay to a more modern Midtown complex in the late sixties.
“We discussed doing more songs and perhaps even an album. It was difficult because we both had so many commitments. We managed to do a few sessions at a studio in London, and then in early April 1974 I flew to New York where David was preparing a tour of America. He had written a song for me, Can You Hear Me, which he wanted me to record.”
Though all the protégé projects faltered and Bowie would never again produce a female artist, the day at RCA did bear fruit in another way: at the session David made use of the studio’s regular session player, a young Puerto Rican guitarist named Carlos Alomar. Alomar would be recruited for Bowie’s next LP, the brown-and-blue-eyed soul record that would become Young Americans, as well as innumerable records and tours through to the 2000s.
“I met Bowie not doing Young Americans but as a studio guitarist at RCA studios, when he was producing some tracks for Lulu. I knew Lulu because of To Sir With Love – she was a movie star who was a blue-eyed soul singer and I thought she was amazing. He was so thin, about 100 pounds, and one of the first things I said to him was, ‘Man, you look like shit. You’ve gotta come to my house and eat some decent food.’ And he did. Next thing I know a limousine rolls up to my house in Queens.” — Carlos Alomar, 2016
Can You Hear Me would be rescued from obscurity on his ninth long-player, with David telling the NME’s Anthony O’Grady that the elegant ballad was “written for somebody, but I’m not telling you who it is. That is a real love song. I kid you not.” While it was convenient for Lulu to assume it was about her, received wisdom suggests that the song was most likely addressed to Ava Cherry, who, with delicious irony, wound up singing backing vocals on Bowie’s version.
Still, even as he was preparing to put the elaborate Diamond Dogs on the stage, Bowie was still enthusing about Lulu, not to mention giving more than a hint of the musical direction he would follow for Young Americans.
“Have you heard Ann Peebles? Yeah, well Lennon’s right, ain’t he, best record in years. I mean that’s what I’d like to do producing Lulu, take to Memphis and get a really good band like Willie Mitchell’s and do a whole album with her, which I will do. Lulu’s got this terrific voice, and it’s been misdirected all this time, all these years. People laugh now, but they won’t in two years time, you see! I produced a single with her — Can You Hear Me — and that’s more the way she’s going. She’s got a real soul voice, she can get the feel of Aretha, but it’s been so misdirected. English singers do all this ‘Oh yeah’, ‘Alright now’ on soul songs, and it’s wrong, but when she doesn’t do that she just has the feel naturally.” – David Bowie, Rock magazine, April 1974
Neither album nor single happened, and the existence of Lulu’s Can You Hear Me has been something of a mystery for over 45 years. It’s a huge missing piece of the puzzle assumed lost when Bowie, in a state of narcotic paranoia, parted company with Tony Defries and MainMan a few months later. There is the possibility of further recordings, if you zoom in on the fact that Alomar mentioned “tracks” in the plural sense, though it’s possible he was referring to a “salsa” revision of Bowie’s own Rebel Rebel that was laid down at the same session.
Either way, the missing material is regarded as the holy grail of not just Bowie fans but Lulu herself, who announced a few years back that she was trying to track down the tapes.
“New York was the turning point in our collaboration. Yet I already felt myself backing away. I don’t know why. I think it was something to do with the incredibly decadent and hedonistic life that he led. David excited and intimidated me at the same time. He lived on the very edge, sometimes not eating or sleeping for days at a time, experimenting with anything and everything. His scene at the time was very druggy and weird and I never felt very comfortable with it. I was drawn to him but I knew it was never going to last. David wanted the darkness to emerge in me, and if I had hung around with him long enough I could easily have become lost in it.
“In London I had been seeing a lot more of John Frieda. The more time I spent with David the more I thought about John. At one point in New York I was on the telephone to John when David overheard us. He wrinkled up his nose and said, ‘Hairdressers are all poofs!’ I looked him up and down, as if to say, ‘Have you seen yourself in the mirror lately?’ He laughed.”
“We didn’t see each other after New York. I think David realised I wasn’t going to drop everything for him. In truth, I don’t think he cared that much. It wasn’t as though either of us had fallen in love, and he was heading down a dark road. Soon afterwards he split with his manager. There was a lot of acrimony about recording and publishing and as a result the songs we recorded were never released.”
“I saw David about 12 years ago,” she recalled in 2012. “Meg Ryan and I went to see him do a radio concert for the BBC. He was very charming. Bowie is Mr Charm – he has totally got that gift. When he talks to you, you are the only person in that room, the rest of the world kind of dissolves – it’s like being hypnotised. He really is something else. A one-off.”
Lulu also revealed that “I want to try to get the tapes I did with him in New York after The Man Who Sold The World was a hit,” and that when they met backstage at the BBC Radio Theatre show in 2000 he told her, “I have those songs, I have to get them to you,” yet never did.
Still, it must have been flattering to be singled out by Bowie as worthy of attention – both on a professional and personal level? “Oh it was,” she says today. “A thousand million times. I was not cool and he was cool, so I was unbelievably flattered.” Did the relationship have long-lasting effects on her confidence, perhaps? “Did it change my life and I then became something else?” she ponders. “I think it influenced my life. But then I married John Frieda. I didn’t stick around with David Bowie.”
The Dame’s comment that Lulu’s “got this terrific voice, and it’s been misdirected all this time” echoes the slightly more coded comments he gave in a BBC documentary on Tina Turner, The Girl From Nutbush (transcript here) — that, in plain-speak, she was a great and sexy performer with no real overarching vision, a vocal dynamo that was better than the songs she was being given to sing.
The parallels with Tina are interesting. There is three inches difference, and that’s minus the wig, but there are more that connects them, especially the obvious: they are two soul survivors from the sixties who, against all odds, had an unexpected career renaissance in their mid 40s.
For me personally, Tina remains the only singer who worked with all three of my favourite entertainment things: Bowie, Bond and Pet Shop Boys. Lulu, too, would have been touched by that holy trinity had Neil Tennant and Chris Lowe not rejected her suggestion they write and produce a song for her sometime after they spectacularly revived Dusty Springfield’s career in the late eighties. That’s probably why she ended up going with Brothers In Rhythm instead.
Talking of Bond, no sooner had she parted company with Bowie, it was a matter of minutes before Lulu was being snapped up by another British institution.
It’s curious that Bowie had inadvertently effected the choice of singer for a James Bond theme. And not for the last time either.
“Being linked with Bowie gave my recording career a boost. One of the things I was asked to do was the title song for the new James Bond theme, The Man With The Golden Gun. Don Black wrote the lyrics and I did publicity shots with Roger Moore.”
That’ll be the foties where she looks like a cross between Arthur Scargill and my gran while wearing a hairy beret then.
As for the song itself, The Man With The Golden Gun was described by one critic as “one long stream of smut”. But don’t let that put you off your cornflakes, because if you wanted out and out Carry On-style innuendos then you’ve come to the right place.
“I thought – try and write provocative, sensual lyrics. They were a bit on the nose. It’s a piece of delicious nonsense – cartoon hokum!” – Don Black
The kinky kitsch of The Man With The Golden Gun served as perverse proof that 007 was here to stay — because if this laughable ode to Roger Moore’s penis couldn’t kill the spy series, nothing could.
Chosen over an equally awful offering from Alice Cooper with backing vocals from Liza Minnelli (she’s the daughter of Judy Garland, if you weren’t sure), Lulu is a capable and versatile singer as we know, but no sooner had Bowie been shown the door she started to suffer from the same malaise as the Bond franchise itself in the mid Seventies, namely that it was starting to feel passé, maybe even a bit silly.
Mind you, I think any song which dares to have its opening line proudly announce “He has a powerful weapon” can’t be all bad. But in some ways it is. There are thirty-seven instruments playing at any given moment in a Wall of Sound doom. As such, the Boom Bang-a-Banger is all over the place, forced to ham her way through material which, although spirited, is only really an impression of great Bond songs of the previous decade.
Lulu’s shrill cat lady vocals snake a porno guitar riff through a jagged atonal horn section that’s doing everything in its power to distract from the words. Then, in a quiet moment during the storm, she wonders “His eye may be on you or me. Who will he bang?”, then triumphantly prophesies in her best Bjørk: “WE SHALL SEEEEE!!!”
Oh yeah, those lyrics are real. You can even Google them.
“I felt it was really more of a Shirley Bassey song, but I also felt I did a really bad impression of Shirley. She would have probably done it much better than me. But, I was excited. It was an honour.” – Lulu
The soundtrack’s celebrated composer John Barry considered the theme tune – the only Bond film title track not to chart as a single in either the UK or US – to be among the weakest of the series: “It’s the least interesting Bond song. It’s the one I hate the most. It’s the one thing I think was really bad.”
Even his successor David Arnold found it hard to get anyone to tackle it for his Shaken And Stirred covers project in 1997, telling an interviewer, “I wanted The Human League to do it, but I think Phil Oakey thought me wanting him to sing “He has a powerful weapon” was taking the piss.”
What a contradictory conundrum Lulu’s life has been. And guess what, Pats she’s 72. And she’s a really good friend of mine. I’ve met her. In Harvey Nicks of all places, and she was wearing Ray-bans inside the store.
Absolutely fabulous and absolutely true.
*During the course of writing this article, my mother called me to say their dog was at the vet’s for an operation. In human years, she would be around the same age as her namesake. When I asked what made them choose the name Lulu, Mum replied: “Well, after the singer. It was either that or Lola. When I responded that I was penning an article on the human one, and that she’d recorded with Bowie, Mum couldn’t recall which ones I was talking about. “The Man Who Sold The World,” said I. “Oh yes! I remember now. And she performed it wearing the trilby.” It was actually a fedora so close and half a cigar them.
**Maurice Gibb and Lulu married six days after my parents’ own wedding in February 1969, about twenty miles apart.
***To put Bowie’s “Lulu’s really a soul singer” revelation in context, Lulu had already begun her American recording career at the famous Muscle Shoals Sound Studio in Alabama, under the production auspices of top Atlantic Records execs Tom Dowd, Arif Mardin and Jerry Wexler. Laid down shortly after Dusty Springfield’s Memphis and Philadelphia records, they were 1969’s New Routes and 1970’s Melody Fair, the former having been released on my first birthday and the latter featuring the Memphis Horns despite being recorded in Miami. More’s the point, they sold virtually zilch.