Sharing a birthday with David Bowie, it was almost fate that John O’Neill would end up taking to the stage as the rock legend.
For the past decade, John has fronted Absolute Bowie, recreating the music legend’s ’70s and ’80s creative output, including the Ziggy Stardust era and his famed Berlin period, as well as the plastic soul days and his commercial peak with the like of Let’s Dance and China Girl.
‘I was an imitator of songs all my life really,’ says John, ‘and I can imitate almost anybody – I‘ve got a four octave range, but one thing that compelled me to do it was I saw an ad for a Bowie vocalist and I shared his birthday, so I thought that might give me a little edge.
‘Out of eight people who auditioned, I got the part. From that point on we formed our first tribute band Hunky Dory – this now is my third Bowie band.’
Bowie’s death on January 10 last year understandably hit John hard. The band usually perform a gig to mark Bowie’s birthday on January 8.
After the gig in London, John went to celebrate his own birthday in Brighton with his family.
‘That morning when I woke up I had about 42 messages on my phone, so I knew something had happened – and it was the news of his death.
‘We were all excited about the release of the new album, Black Star. It was something else, the song they previewed before it was released was really eerie, but when he died the penny dropped, especially with that song Lazarus.
‘It really affected me quite badly because I’ve been studying him for years. After he died it was a real big shock and we said to ourselves, should we try and learn Black Star? So the upset continued for the next six months, but we dedicated ourselves to learning Black Star.
‘Last year, I’m not ashamed to say it but I’ve never cried so much in my life. You try and keep it all inside, but it was traumatic trying to learn these songs.’
Although Absolute Bowie are bringing their ’70s and ’80s show to Portsmouth, they have now put together a show of material from his later period, which will make its debut later this year.
‘We’ve really got it down now, I’ve got the costumes made and everything. It created something else in me as well – all these people emailing us, asking to do this song and that song, so I knew the songs I wanted to do in order to create a ’90s and Noughties set along with the Black Star stuff – we’re now able to do 50 years of Bowie.’
John admits that even as a fan he focused on the older material.
‘There are some really amazing songs there. When I listened to Bowie initially, I was never really into that more recent stuff, I listened to the older period.
‘But he wrote 450 songs or something ridiculous, and it’s down to us as a tribute band to take those songs.’
New Theatre Royal, Portsmouth
Saturday, May 27