Jemaine Clement on creating ‘Bowie’s in Space’, the Flight of the Conchords’ paean-parody to their musical hero.
In 1999 Bret McKenzie and I were sitting with our guitars in our dingy flat in Wellington trying to learn David Bowie songs. They were catchy, which usually translates to being easy to play. Not David Bowie. He’d taken Paul McCartney’s style of making an epic medley song and made it more subtle, parts seamlessly changing without you even realising it. You’d just feel the change like a change in your own mood.
He’d taken rock’n’roll and added parts of black soul music which somehow he’d made white without making it uncool. We couldn’t play these songs. They were too tricky to learn, too many parts – all those tricky chords, all those tempo changes, the changes in vocal range, sometimes a deep masculine growl, sometimes a high falsetto of some third alien gender.
We sat around defeated by our hero’s chord book but admiring him more. He’d made pop songs into mini operas but without showing off about it.
We continued to play our guitars, imitating him anyway. That was the solution. We would make up our own Bowie song and play it in our stupid hobby band that had a gig every second Thursday in Wellington. Despite being technically unable to carry off the originals, we would create our own David Bowie song.
Both born in the ’70s, we hadn’t witnessed a world without Bowie. Seeing him on music videos in the ’80s and of course, the movie Labyrinth, then later going back through his catalogue. Watching documentaries about his albums and groundbreaking recording techniques with other brilliant artists and producers. We were Bowie time travelers.
We started by asking him questions and referencing his lyrics as if we were sending transmissions to our hero through space. Do you read me Boweeeh!? Did you ever end up going to Mars, Bow-way? Was there life on it?
After tragedy struck and one of us broke a guitar string, we drove around that day in 1999 in Bret’s mum’s car mimicking Bowie, asking him more questions from our Honda space capsule. Are you in Spaaaace Bow-eeeh? Is it freak-eh Bowie? The car stereo informed us that the student radio station was running a competition where you could win a bottle of wine.
One of us had what was thought of as a novel instrument of space technology at the time, a cellphone. Still not breaking our twin Bowie characters, we called the prize line. We weren’t two guys from Masterton and Wellington. We were calling from London 30 years in the past with that somehow posh, somehow common Bowie accent.
DJ: Hello, you’ve called Radio Active, who is on the line?
Bret Bowie: It’s Bowie!
Jemaine Bowie: And Bowie!
DJ: Bowie?… Oooooookay…..
Jemaine Bowie: Yeah, and Bowie!
DJ: Uh … right. So, our question is, “What is something you’d carry in a brown paper bag?”
Bret Bowie: That’s a hard one, man, but I think the answer is Bowie.
Jemaine Bowie: Yeah, it’s Bowie!
Bret Bowie: Yeah, I’ve got to go with Bowie.
DJ: What? Bowie?
Bret Bowie: Yeah, man. You’d carry David Bowie in a brown paper bag.
DJ: You mean like … a CD?
Jemaine Bowie: No, David Bowie could go in the bag! Bowie could do it!
Bret Bowie: You’d carry the actual David Bowie that had been shrunk down to miniature size in that bag.
DJ: Ahhh… yeah… nah… I don’t know if I can accept that. I didn’t think anyone would get this wrong.
Bret Bowie: It’s not wrong man, it’s Bowie.
Jemaine Bowie: He could do it, man! Bowie could fit in the bag!
DJ: Okay, let’s give someone else a try!
We didn’t win, but we’d been Bowie on the radio. It had been transmitted into space. We weren’t from London any more, we were from Mars, transmitted via radio like a slow voice on a wave of phay-hay-hase.
Our guitars resurrected with new strings, we went back to writing. Trading sections, we tried to ape his style, still in character as Bowie as we had been all day. Are you hungry Bowie? I don’t eat food I only eat groove, Bow-ay-ay!
Two people working together, trying to imitate the creativity of one. A slow, floaty part as our questions to Bowie drifted unanswered through the universe. A major chord march signaling the joy of finding out Bowie was alive, communicating back from space – my wise terrestrial ‘Modern Love’-era Bowie communicating with Bret’s androgynous Ziggy Stardust Bowie.
A minor change signaling the sadness of discovering Bowie was drifting alone out there. A build-up. Had we lost communication with Bowie? Then changing to half time as we receive a transmission from Bowie again, floating in a beautiful unknown section of the cosmos. The major section chord coming back in as Bowie spreads across the universe. In our minds it was a Bowie-style epic where he was the main character(s).
We had never heard a parody song like this before, that fawned over the artist instead of mocking them. Would people laugh if it wasn’t mean? We didn’t care if they didn’t laugh, we were obsessed. We were in some kind of writing fever.
We played it to our flatmates, eight other Bowie fans who all threw in suggestions. Danielle suggested we change “Afronauts” to “Mick Jaggernauts”. Yes, he wouldn’t be alone out there, he would be accompanied by a whole race of alien Mick Jaggers, friends (rumoured lovers) and collaborators.
Audiences thought that we, by imitating a genius, had achieved some kind of genius ourselves, even if the genius had to be divided by two. Of course we knew we were just copying him. Flattering him. However the song was our closer. Our encore. We would even go to the effort of wearing very itchy but impressively sparkly tops just to sing it. A rare touch of showbiz for us.
We recorded it once for a local TV station in Wellington. The two of us were so skinny, not from anything as chic as heroin, just the humdrum malnutrition of post-student poverty. The nervousness of being in front of a camera for the first time made us ham up our usually subdued performances. We were trying way too hard. We didn’t care. We were two David Bowies.
Seven years later. We didn’t live in that dingy flat with eight others any more. We had our own dingy apartments in LA and our own TV show which was to be filmed in New York.
We were working with James Bobin on our TV show. We shared our ideas for episodes. One idea on my list had us visited, in the style of A Christmas Carol, by the ghost of a rock star. Jimi Hendrix? Sonny Bono? It felt like a story we’d all seen before. We were also trying to fit some of our existing songs into storylines. Bret said, “What if Bowie visits us in a dream and we do the ‘Bowie’s in Space’ song”? Yes. Obviously. Yes, Bowie would visit us in a dream. Now that Bowie was a character, the idea suddenly seemed more creative. We wrote the storyline together, as we did for all episodes. Bret, a slim man, would be visited by Bowie, a hero to slim men everywhere.
“I want to write the script!” I quickly claimed a stake on it, something I hadn’t done before. To be honest I felt bad for stealing one of the more fun story lines for myself: we usually tried to give those to our guest writers, but I really wanted to do it. I don’t remember Bret or James being into the idea at first, but we probably all needed a break from each other, so they allowed it with the upside being they would be rid of me for a while. Now I was again, several years later, in a Bowie-inspired writing fever, working late through many nights. Bret’s character wouldn’t just be visited by Bowie, but by many different personas of the artist. Like Bowie, I was brilliant!
We recorded the song. The computer-aided recording technology of the 21st century also struggled with Bowie’s changes in feel and tempo. The lawyers wanted us to change the part where we asked Bowie if he had many ch-ch-ch-changes to simply “changes”. We would not! Bowie wouldn’t sue us – he understood that art isn’t a commodity, it is a living thing that passes from one artist to another, growing and mutating because like all life it is subject to evolution! He himself referenced other songs! The Beatles’ ‘A Day in the Life’ was paraphrased in ‘Young Americans’! The guitar riff AND bassline from ‘Fame’ is nicked off … sorry … a reference to James Brown’s ‘Hot’! We will not change ch-ch-ch-changes to ch-changes! They argued back. We ch-ch-ch-changed it.
(I’ve since learned that the James Brown song came after David Bowie’s song – further cementing my opinion that Bowie would have been cool with it.)
Who would play Bowie, though? James said, “We’ll ask him. Gervais knows him.” Oh My Space Deity. Would it really be him? Were we really going to ask the Starman himself to act alongside us? Someone we knew was going to ask someone they knew – who knew a friend of his who would ask him who represented him, so someone who represented us would to talk to someone who would talk directly to him! We pretty much had a direct line. We could be considered friends, peers, contemporaries, albeit ones who were born slightly late.
We were at once excited, nervous, optimistic and pessimistic. What if he read it the wrong way? What if he thought our recording was square – our guitar playing lacking groove? What if he didn’t like the way I’d written him, his character reduced to a dandy who spoke in 70s jive talk? What if his coolness absorbed us like a black hole, ceasing our very existences? All reasonable questions.
The someone we knew talked to the someone they knew’s friend of someone who represented him and possibly approached him about it. And he (or quite possibly merely a representative) said that he’d just done Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant’s Extras and didn’t want to do another thing acting as a version of him. He’d rather just continue being the actual him. Fair enough, so would we. We wouldn’t be meeting our hero. Through the disappointment I was extremely relieved. As exciting as it is to meet your hero, the relief of not having to meet them is another, quite different and pleasant feeling.
Who then? We wrote big lists. Noel Fielding from The Mighty Boosh? Suitably glam. John Cameron Mitchell of Hedwig and the Angry Inch? A great singer and quite Bowiesque himself. They couldn’t do it. We cast a comedian friend of ours who was partial to jumpsuits, was British and knew his way around a keytar, Dan Antopolski. He would play Bowie from a studio in London (where Bowie was from!) advising the character played by Bret, who would film his part later in our apartment set in New York (where Bowie lived!).
Although we loved Dan’s performance, the episode was a minor disaster: having been filmed separately, the performances wouldn’t edit together smoothly. The green screen, rather than looking magical as we hoped, just looked cheap and fake. We were either going to have to live with it, get Dan to fly to New York to refilm (expensive for our little production), ask someone who knew someone who represented Bowie again so we could be turned down again, or get someone else to do it.
Troy Miller, who directed that episode, suggested I play the part on set with Bret. What a comedown. From the part being played by Bowie, to a friend who happened to be English and liked jumpsuits, to ol’ muggins. I was fitted for several tight and uncomfortable costumes. Whose dumb idea was it to fill the episode with all these personas?
I committed. I chose to imitate his voice as Jareth the Goblin king. I was David Bowie. I was dressed as David Bowie. No, I WAS DAVID BOWIE!
At one point during filming the first scene I informed Bret of the secret that only I was party to, that I was David Bowie. Bret improvised the quiet protest: “You don’t look like Bowie, you look like… Jemaine.” Oh yeah, he was right. I was probably close to twice Bowie’s weight when he wore the original Ziggy Stardust costume, my face not that of a rock star, more like an actual rock. My eyes are both quite boringly the same colour. The Less-Thin Less-White Duke. Indignant and off-script, I argued back: “No, I’m not Jemaine. I AM DAVID BOWIE.”
We filmed the music video within the episode. Both of us playing different incarnations. We were Bowie. We’d listened to him in interviews. We’d studied him dance. We’d given careful consideration to his songwriting style. My silver jumpsuit was so tight – my legs swelling from the accumulated blood no longer allowed to circulate – I had to be cut out of it. I didn’t care. I was David Bowie and this was art.
The original David Bowie (David Bowie) had probably suffered worse. We would share our tribute with the world, so everyone could celebrate Bowie. Perhaps people would quote the song and thereby themselves become Bowies. We would make everyone Bowies! All of them speaking in modulating British accents, Bow-weeeeeeeh. Perhaps the current David Bowie (also David Bowie) would see it, from his New York apartment, or from the console screen at Ground Control, or from space on a computer as he floated in his tin can.
I’m still asked to do my impression, as poor as it is, close to two decades after writing that song. My first thought is always, “Oh, you couldn’t get him to play himself either?” I’ve played two Bowie-inspired characters in cartoons in the past year, as he continues to inspire in different genres and mediums. I’m still, in some way, tied to him, in the wake caused by his passing spacecraft. He died on my 42nd birthday, so I can’t escape it.
Music, comedy, visual art, fashion, science fiction. Characters and whole movies influenced by the work of the man. Any artist who changes persona – not just their look, but becomes an entirely different character – gets credited for their creativity, but like us that day in our flat, they’re just copying him. Wonder if they’ll ever know? His influence isn’t just felt in art, though – people too are influenced. He made it cool to be a freak, to feel like an alien.
At the end of shooting I asked the make-up and costume departments if I could go home dressed as I was. Since it was our last day of shooting, they allowed it. I walked the Lower East Side of Manhattan by myself, dressed in my costume. If it hadn’t been for Bowie it would once have been dangerous for a man to walk the streets in tights, heavy eye make-up and a ruff. I wondered if I might even bump into him there, like a future version of myself. Or a past version of himself who’d travelled to 2007. Like the story in our silly comedy show.
I ran into my castmate Kristen Schaal, who played our real band’s fictional fan.
Still in character: “Ahhhh Kris-ten, so you think you can find your way through my Labyrinth?”
“Sorry do I know you?”
“I’m Jareth the Goblin King.”
She didn’t recognise me. In fact she looked frightened.
“It’s just me – Jemaine.” She thought that maybe I was one of her cousin’s drag-queen friends.
After our episode was edited together, we watched it. To our surprise, we weren’t convinced by our own performances. We weren’t from London or Mars. We were just two guys from Masterton and Wellington, New Zealand. We weren’t two Bowies. How could we be when there was only ever one?
We don’t know for sure if he ever heard our song. Someone we know who knew someone he knew told us once that it was on his MP3 player. Hey, that’s far out. He heard it too-hoo-hoo? I’m fine with not knowing for sure.
I’m still glad he didn’t meet us, perhaps he would have liked to, but he would have blown our minds.
Watch Flight of the Conchords perform ‘Bowie’s in Space’ on this Pulp Comedy Special from NZ on Screen below (the performance begins at 3’30” into part three):
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