29 March 2017 | 12 °C

Meet The Men Who Are David Bowie For A Living

Meet The Men Who Are David Bowie For A Living
Charlie Fowler with his Bowie record collection. Note David B-owlie on top of the stereo.

David Bowie is not dead; he struts among us. Quite a few of him are in London.

But you won't catch London's David Bowies propping up the bar in their jumpsuits, discussing the finer sartorial points of 1987's Glass Spider tour with each other. It's like, if one Bowie met another, the whole universe might implode.

"We never speak to one another, it's strange," admits John O'Neill, frontman of tribute band Absolute Bowie.

The other Bowie doppelgangers agree.  

"Personally I find it a bit difficult to go and see another tribute band," says Scott Fuller, who fronts The Thin White Duke, when he's not at his day job working in IT at the Diocese of London. "I feel it's a bit too close to the mark for me, because it's such a personal investment."

"We probably hate each other," laughs Charlie Fowler, whose Bowie act is David Live. "If I go and see them, all I'll want is for them to be shit."

Charlie performs onstage as Bowie.

Inviting us round to his flat in Clapham, it's clear Charlie's got a lot of Bowie going on in his life. Memorabilia litters the flat (including a stuffed owl with a Ziggy thunderbolt called David B-owlie). He keeps singing us snippets of songs and putting on records. In a bid to demonstrate that Bowie found it impossible to be bad, he shows us a video of a medley sung with Cher, in which they were "probably both banging coke". It should make for car crash viewing, but somehow it's mesmerising.

Charlie himself has the slicked back, marmalade locks of the Thin White Duke-era, and that nasal baritone to match. There are moments we have to remind ourselves that it's not Bowie himself making us a cup of tea.

The similarities aren't lost on Charlie, who fell in love with Bowie while singing along to cassettes of Station to Station, as he drove to sixth form in his nan's car.

"He so influenced me in finding myself," he says, "Stephen Fry mentioned something like this, where you sort of put the masks on and then after a while the mask becomes you. And it is you.

"You've stolen bits of other people. I think I stole quite a lot from Bowie."

Scott Fuller, who says he feels most comfortable being Bowie.

That theme resonates with Scott, too. Almost to the point where it's easier to be Bowie than it is himself: "Naturally I'm a bit of a quiet guy," he says, "sometimes big social things I struggle with a bit.

"But I found I could perform in front of an audience, which is almost taking on a different character."

The characters, of course, were one of Bowie's big appeals. You never quite knew who he was, what he was going to become next. How is it possible to successfully channel a man who never stood still, vocally or otherwise, for a moment?

"I have to use three of four different voices per night," says John, who traded in his job as a builder, to flaunt his four-octave range, "You go through the 70s, which is very high, and you get to the 80s, some of which is very low. And you've got everything in between basically."

John also does a version of Under Pressure, in which he sings the parts of both Bowie and Freddie Mercury. Add in a few snappy costume changes, and you see it takes some gumption to believe you can pull everything off.

Scott onstage. Photo: David Yiu.

Even though these Bowies are on top of their game, they live in the shadow of someone consistently touted the greatest musician of all time — and under the constant scrutiny of some of his most ardent fans.

Charlie admits still being something of a wreck before shows: "I think 'what a stupid thing you're doing, what a stupid idea... when is somebody going to say how stupid it is?!'"

I know what he'd have said to me, he'd say 'What the fuck are you doing?!

John — who has the most swagger of the three — recalls being in a similarly shaky state of mind earlier this year. His band was performing Blackstar for the first time ever, at the Half Moon in Putney: "We didn't know how the crowd would react," he says, "we didn't know if the crowd would start shouting at us, or walk out in disgust."

John O'Neill. We're reliably informed the t-shirt is a Bowie one.

There was every reason to be nervous. Absolute Bowie's cover of Blackstar was likely the first in the world. The song had been the opener for Bowie's swansong album; two days after this was released, Bowie was dead.

As it was, things turned out OK at the Half Moon: "People were holding their hands over their mouth, loads of women were crying," says John, "But we had to do what he'd given us to do. If we didn't, we wouldn't have been doing our job properly."  

What was it like waking up on that morning in January 2016, and hearing the news?

"On the day it was like proper grief," says Scott, "because he had been such a big part of my life. It was like a family member, it was the same sort of feelings. I went to work that day feeling really out of it.

"And it's strange because you've got work colleagues... they'd just be on their computer going 'oh, have  you seen David Bowie's died?' not realising I've got this sort of attachment to it."

All three admit that Bowie's death brought the prospect of more work. For Scott, this came too soon:

"We were getting calls on the day he died, from venues, saying 'can you come and do a show this weekend or whatever'", says Scott, "I felt that was a bit insensitive, like these venues were just trying to grab a quick buck off the back of it.

John becomes Ziggy.

On the news of Bowie's death, the world and his (diamond) dog claimed to be touched by him one way or another. But Bowie has changed the lives of these three men in a more tangible way than most.

John admits the main reason he auditioned to be in a Bowie tribute band in the first instance was because he and Bowie shared the same birthday. Now it's not a tool belt and hard hat that hangs on the back of his door, but a range of jumpsuits and kimonos.

Charlie's story is similar; his days of chauffeuring a wealthy Russian family around are over. His wife of 11 years, Katya, meanwhile, fell in love with him after he sung Bowie songs to her on their first date. She still goes to most of his shows.

All three Bowies have discovered new sides to themselves — Scott especially undergoes a cosmic transformation when onstage.

Yet, in keeping with the unwritten rule that Bowie tribute acts must never cross paths, none of these David Bowies ever met the actual Bowie either. Charlie once had the chance; he was rehearsing with a band some years back, when he was informed that the man himself was in the room next door.

"They told me to go and speak to him and I refused of course. I'd have felt absolutely terrible.

"I know what he'd have said to me, he'd say 'What the fuck are you doing?! Why have you not listened to a word I've said about doing your own thing?!'"

Last Updated 04 October 2016