Pictures of Lily

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Pictures of Lily (the Who, 1967).
Pictures of Lily (Bowie).

An early order of business once Bowie reconvened his band at Looking Glass Studios in early October 2000 was to cut a Who cover. Pete Townshend had asked him to take part in a Who tribute album (Bowie was the bait to hook other contributors, like Pearl Jam and Sheryl Crow). Bowie devoted little time to the task, with much of the recording cut in a few hours.

“Pictures of Lily” was at the apex of an astonishing run of Who singles between 1965 and 1967, Pop at its oddest and most adventurous. I once described “Lily” as “masturbation to centerfolds as cross-generational bonding,” complete with John Entwistle orgasmic French horn solo, and it’s a credit to the gifts and sympathies of Townshend in 1967 that the single broke the UK Top 5 and had a sad, comic humanity despite its potentially grotesque subject. The kid truly falls in love with Lily: Townshend’s guitar thrashing in the last verse is a curse at time.

Covering Townshend in the past, Bowie had bled the life out of his songs (see “I Can’t Explain“) and he kept up the tradition here: halving the Who original’s tempo and generally making a dirge of it. Using only Mark Plati for guitars and bass and Sterling Campbell on drums (with a later-dubbed Lisa Germano for the violin solo), Bowie’s version of “Lily” “came out sounding like a glam version of Crazy Horse,” Plati wrote in his web journal. “We did the entire thing in an afternoon, complete with Stylophone solo, Ronson homage outro and football hooligan chanting courtesy of the three of us.” Thanks to the molasses tempo, Plati’s guitars verge towards shoegaze at times while Campbell has to plot out his drum fills; the key change midway through the chorus, which erupts out of nowhere in the Who single, is as labored as a jet takeoff here.

Townshend reportedly liked Bowie’s aged glamster take on his song (he’d soon return the favor on Heathen). A sympathetic reading of the cover is that it’s about a kid who wants to grow up to be Lily, not just fantasize about her. As a treat, Bowie took his band to see the surviving Who at Madison Square Garden.

Recorded ca. 10-13 October 2000, Looking Glass Studios. Released on 12 June 2001 on Substitute: the Songs of the Who (Edel 0126242ERE).

* Townshend once said the Lily of the song was inspired by a postcard of “an old vaudeville star, Lily Bayliss” but he was likely confusing Baylis, who was a renowned theatrical producer, with the actress Lillie Langtry, who has indeed been dead since 1929. Though this being Townshend, who knows.

Top: Jennifer Connelly and Jared Leto, Requiem for a Dream (Aronofsky, 2000).

44 Responses to Pictures of Lily

  1. J.R. Clark says:

    Has any artist ever covered a Who song and improved on the original? It’s a fool’s errand.

  2. james says:

    This is as awful as the Extra songs on the Next Day.

    • StevenE says:

      Atomica aside (Atomica is OK) I really, really like the Extra songs. I’m not sure any of them would have worked on the full album at all (despite what Visconti seemed to suggest in the NME) but it bodes well for future projects I think.

      That being said, part of me hopes Bowie radically changes up his band, producer and general recording process some time in the near future. The set-up of Toy/Heathen/Reality/TND(E) has worked incredibly well for him, but I hope it’s not his last sound. It’s probably been taken about as far as it can go.

      I would probably be jumping on the he-should-work-with-James-Murphy bandwagon, were it not for the fact that (title track aside) Reflektor was sub-par and wearisome.

      • Ramzi says:

        I agree completely about the extra songs – while I’m glad none of them were on the original album, I do think they are good and they’re often the songs I have stuck in my head.

      • StevenE says:

        yeah Born in a UFO, God Bless The Girl and Like a Rocket Man are all incredibly catchy. The Informer is one of the strongest tracks from TND sessions, and tbh I’m tempted to say I like these songs (especially God Bless The Girl) as much as anything from the album proper – the title track and Dirty Boys aside.

        I’m still clueless as to what purpose the Venetian mix of I’d Rather Be High serves (am I right in thinking it’s different from the LV advert? Perhaps wasn’t paying enough attention) but it possesses it’s own charm. Interesting video too…

      • s.t. says:

        Here’s hoping he jumps on the he-should-work-with-James-Blake bandwagon. He hasn’t done smooth and moody in a while…maybe it’s time to re-embrace a melancholy groove.

      • s.t. says:

        My metaphor’s a bit confused. I’m going off the rails of the wagon train.

      • simonkaye says:

        James Murphy would be a good collaborator. Or he could perhaps capitalise upon his relationships with Arcade Fire or TV on the Radio (or Lorde?!), put together a real joint project. Something to cleanse the palate.

      • StevenE says:

        I like Province a lot but I don’t think I’d be hugely enthused about another collaboration. Arcade Fire likewise – though I am always happy to have new Bowie.

        I can’t really imagine what a Lorde collaboration would sound like or even take the form of, but I’m sure that’s no bad thing. I quite like her.

        In my ideal world he’d team up with someone like Holly Herndon. Big tour, weird new album, new chapter.

      • postpunkmonk says:

        I’d pay good money to hear Bowie produced by Benge of John Foxx + The Maths

    • fluxkit says:

      I really like the extra disc all together. Sure, it’s not a classic on its own, but it’s an extra disc. I like Atomica a lot. It’s fun.

    • Vinnie M says:

      Aww come now, “So She” is simple and lovely.

      • Mr Tagomi says:

        I have to say I like everything on TND’s bonus disc. It’s all world-class stuff as far as I’m concerned. Of them all I’d probably go for Atomica as my favourite.

        I think the “Venetian” mix of I’d Rather Be High justifies its own existence through the Choir of Bowies bit towards the end. Fascinating and beautiful.

  3. crayontocrayon says:

    Now I really love the original. I think its one of my favourite Who songs and that is saying something. The tactic of slowing cover versions down and drawing everything out seems to be a common tactic for Bowie and on ocassion it works – but just imagine if he had ramped it up a notch in the vein of ‘lets spend the night together’. I am joyful just thinking about it.

  4. Phil Obbard says:

    I think I am in the minority but I LOVE this track — one of my favorite Bowie rarities — I can’t get enough of it. From beginning to end — the layered guitars, the vocals, everything. (Disclosure: I’m not a Who fan, and don’t care for their version of this track, really). I love his earlier “I Can’t Explain”; to me, “Lily” revisits and improves on that earlier approach.

    In my opinion, this is as good as anything (that should have been) on TOY.

    (Random personal fact: My great-grandparents are buried a few feet away from Lillie Langtry, in the 1929 section of the cemetery).

  5. Mr Tagomi says:

    Sounds to me like DB is correct that there’s a good glam-ised version of this song, although he makes only an approximate stab at it.

  6. postpunkmonk says:

    Wow. I had no idea of this, but if it revisits the failed gambit of “I Can’t Explain” then I guess i didn’t miss much. One Who cover I liked a lot was Ramones cover of “Substitute” on “Acid Eaters.” Pete Townsend guests on it, but what I liked about it was that here was a band that had been around for 17 years, and could still cut a ripping version of this early Who classic. As opposed to The Who at 17 years! 17 Years after they debuted, they were making dross like “Face Dances!”

  7. fantailfan says:

    My touch of snark for the day:
    It makes me wonder why Bowie doesn’t do covers well. (There may be exceptions*, but Pin Ups proves the rule.) It’s like a blind spot in his vision that he doesn’t seem aware of it.
    So, on the one hand, he has the gall to cover “Can’t Explain” and “Pictures of Lily,” in which the original is so startling as would seem to forestall anyone trying to cover it;having done so on the other hand, he applies a brute force sensibility to them. No subtlety at all, no Bowie-esque touches. I don’t think he improves even The Pretty Things tunes, which shouldn’t take much work to do.
    It’s okay if he doesn’t do covers well; Neil Young doesn’t either, but Neil doesn’t even try.
    *An example of which is upcoming.

    • col1234 says:

      What I really came to regret doing the revisions is the lack of any recordings of live shows of DB 1964-1966, when he was doing lots and lots of covers on stage. Were they straight-forward or was he already doing the “slow down a fast song” thing? was he already doing the Pin Ups-esque goofy voices? It’d be fascinating to hear

    • ric says:

      there was a Lets Dance-era BBC radio interview where bowie admits (claims, even) his covers are generally not great; forced to pick a favourite he goes for Can’t Explain.

    • postpunkmonk says:

      Talking about no subtlety at all, Tin Machine’s massacre of “If There Is Something” was like a kick in the teeth for me. The covers he’s done that I’ve liked are generally instances where I have never heard the original song ["Nite Flights," "Cactus," "Kingdom Come," "I Took A Trip On A Gemini Spaceship"] … with the bold exception of “Pablo Picasso.” Then again, I’ve never heard a cover of “Pablo Picasso” that I didn’t like.

      • fluxkit says:

        I know the originals too but “Gemini Spaceship” in that list, but I’d have to concur with that list. Those are all good songs. I like “Criminal World,” too, myself.

  8. audiophd says:

    Ah, Ms. Connelly. All grown up here…after having survived the ‘Labyrinth’ and the Goblin Tights…er, King. Love that woman.

  9. s.t. says:

    Wow, two posts in one week! A very pleasant surprise. The write-up that is, not the song.

    Pin Ups may not be a masterpiece of refashioning, but it makes up for its lack of ideas with energy and fun punk insouciance. In contrast, “Lily” drains the original of its ideas, energy, and any sense of irreverence. It’s not as bad as Bowie can get with covers, but like “Mother,” and “Working Class Hero,” the question that loops in my head as the songs play on is….why?

  10. Rufus Oculus says:

    Why? Because Pete Townshend asked him and it was an afternoons’ work probably. Since PT reciprocated on the superb “Slow Burn” I think DB (and us) come out well from this.

  11. MC says:

    I’m second to none in my low opinion of most of DB’s covers, but something came to me when I contemplated all the songs PAOTD will soon be dealing with. I think that DB may have mastered, or at least improved at the interpretive singing game. Most of the covers he did between 2001 and 2003 (and you can add the live Syd Barrett tribute from 2006 to that list) are actually quite excellent. Even the less inspired ones don’t insult the original by any means. On one listen, I would maybe add Pictures of Lily to the latter group. It’s not that exciting, but considering it uses basically the same approach as the dire Pinups reading of I Can’t Explain, it’s not all that bad an interpretation. The arrangement at least coheres with the subject matter, rather than cancelling it out. On the other hand, it doesn’t rock like Anyway Anyhow Anywhere did with Ronno and company.

  12. StevenE says:

    I didn’t know this song before today – and having played it a couple times my first impressions are pretty positive. I like it – Bowie’s vocal especially – ‘I don’t feel bad at all’.

    Admittedly it probably helps that The Who have never done a thing for me.

    There might be a case to be made that the basic sound that emerged on this track is the first to carry to basic sound of his post-hours work – a sound which through Reality, Heathen and The Next Day is shaping the Twilight ‘classicist’ phase of his career. Bowie’s Pictures of Lily might well be a milestone, in it’s own small way.

  13. Maj says:

    Well I don’t have a strong relationship to the original, so Bowie’s version of it works for me. Everything about it apart from Bowie’s vocal, that is. The low supporting vocals are cool, I don’t like the higher parts of the vocal though, just doesn’t feel right for the song to me. Almost sounds like a live cut on the singer’s bad throat day…
    But other than that I actually dig the Suede/T-Rex approach to this (and yes, sounds to me like those two bands, not Glam!Bowie).

  14. Sky-Possessing Spider says:

    Chris, I have to disagree with your summation that Bowie “bled the life out of I Can’t Explain”. Sure, he slowed the tempo down, but in doing so I think he made something far more interesting out of a bog standard rock song. To me the Pin-ups version is like listening to something emerging eerily and shivering from some kind of slow-boiling fog.
    Pictures Of Lily on the other hand sounds more like the rush job that you describe. But then l don’t think the original is anything to write home about either. Something about making silk purses out of sow’s ears would be applicable here.

  15. Bruised Passivity says:

    Firstly, I’ll admit from the start that my knowledge of The Who’s catalogue isn’t strong so I wasn’t familiar with the original version when I first heard this one. That being said, I rather like the Bowie version.

    For me, the slower pace of Bowie’s adaptation brings forward the feeling of heartbreak and longing inherent in the lyrics where as the original Who version’s pacing evokes sexual frustration and teenage angst which was, conceivably, unique for it’s time but, to me, simply sounds clichéd. I suppose it’s a case of apples and oranges with this one.

    As for Bowie’s track record with covers in general I’d say, like with most artists, he’s hit and missed. Working Class Hero, Alabama Song, Across The Universe where clearly misses where as Nights Flights, Wild is the Wind and Sorrow were arguably hits. My all time favourite covers by Bowie have yet to be discussed so I’ll not go any further on that subject.

    Chris, I think an insight into how young Bowie sounded when performing covers in those early years may possibly be found in his cover of Fill Your Heart; an overly exaggerated vocal style and a lot of enthusiasm. Still, finding an actual recording or two from that period really would be fantastic.

  16. stuartgardner says:

    This is entirely new to me. Many thanks!

  17. Mike F says:

    Cute. He made “Pictures of Lilly” sound like “All the Young Dudes.” Too bad it runs out of energy midway and barely limps across the finish line. It’s not saying much but I prefer it over the two previous Toy tracks posted here.

  18. roobin101 says:

    Call me a Pavlovian but I often wonder about the physical aspect. I remember working the bar at a festival when a very famous modern band came on stage. The first three songs they played were slightly but perceptibly slower than the original versions. I said to my friend “they sound REALLY tired.” Two songs later they had a fight on stage, swore at the crowd and walked off early.

    I suspect there is a point beyond which most musicians find it physically difficult to compose or perform uptempo songs.

    • Sky-Possessing Spider says:

      Come on roobin, you can’t tease us like that. Who were the very famous modern band in question? Presumably there were many witnesses who could verify your story, so it wouldn’t be libellous to spill the beans…

      • roobin101 says:

        It was the 2009 Reading Festival. Wikipedia describes the band’s music as “an upbeat blend of Southern rock and blues influences [that] gradually expanded throughout the years to include a variety of genres and a more alternative, arena rock sound.”

      • Mike F says:

        Using roobin’s clue and this amazing new search tool called Google, it takes one second to determine the band is Kings of Leon.

      • roobin101 says:

        Indeed, get on T’Internet!

    • s.t. says:

      Doesn’t that make you more of a Jungian? I think Darwin also mused about emotional generalities in art.

      Plus, as far as wanking it to pictures of lilies goes, the young Charles D. may have pioneered the trend.

  19. roobin101 says:

    Actual song-wise – if Bernard Butler was to dub a bit of lead guitar on this you’d have a Suede song.

  20. KenHR says:

    I don’t think this is a bad version, really. It drags a tad toward the end, but I like DB’s take on the song.

    I do like the Who’s version, but always appreciated it more as a clever/funny lyric than as something that really got me in the gut.

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