We knew David Bowie could pretty much do it all—glam rock, jazz, funk, Philly soul, cabaret, pop, drum and bass, folk, avant-garde, you name it. In front of the camera, he could stretch himself into the beautiful but wounded alien in The Man Who Fell to Earth, the scary-sexy-cool Goblin King of Labyrinth, the mystical genius Tesla in The Prestige. Nothing he attempted seemed beyond his grasp, including, as you can hear above, off-the-cuff, mostly spot-on impressions of friends and fellow singers like Iggy Pop, Lou Reed, Tom Waits, and Bruce Springsteen.
The audio clip you hear comes from outtakes producer Mark Saunders happened to capture on tape during the 1985 sessions for the Absolute Beginners film soundtrack (“a better soundtrack than it was a movie!” Saunders remarks). While recording a lead vocal, Saunders writes, Bowie “broke into the impersonations and I realized that these might get erased at some point, so I quickly put a cassette in and hit ‘record.’” You can read his full recollections at The Talkhouse in a short essay he wrote to accompany the audio—introduced by Zach Staggers of indie band the So So Glos, who writes:
Bowie goes through a handful of sung impressions, including but not limited to, Bruce Springsteen, Iggy Pop, Tom Waits, Loud Reed and Anthony Newly, who was such a big influence on the iconic singer that the impersonation almost sounds like Bowie mimicking himself. Between takes you can hear Bowie having fun and going back and forth with the engineers. Jokes.
Bowie also does what sounds like Bob Dylan (or Tom Petty, or Marc Bolan as some have speculated?) in the second take and a passable Neil Young in the last. His Springsteen, Reed, and Pop are excellent (Bowie called the Iggy impression “difficult, he’s somewhere between all of them.”) He closes the impromptu performance with “That’s it, night night.”
Bowie did indeed have jokes, though anyone who followed him over the decades knows of his comedic talents, whether playing straight man to Ricky Gervais’ obnoxious superfan or displaying impeccable timing in his deadpan delivery of “Bowie Secrets” from Late Night With Conan O’Brien in 2002.
Despite the kiss-off he gives Gervais in their comedy bit, those who knew and worked with Bowie all testify that he never took himself too seriously or, as Saunders remembers, threw his weight around by “using a big rock star ‘Hey, I’m David Bowie and I want it done my way.” He may have seemed to many like an alien or a god, but he was apparently in person a pretty humble, and very funny, guy.