People, especially young people, more and more find themselves in the iron grip of authoritarian institutions. Reaction against the pigs or teachers in the schools, welfare pigs or the army, is generalizable and extends beyond the particular repressive institution to the society and the State as a whole. The legitimacy of the State is called into question for the first time in at least 30 years, and the anti-authoritarianism which characterizes the youth rebellion turns into rejection of the State, a refusal to be socialized into American society. Kids used to try to beat the system from inside the army or from inside the schools; now they desert from the army and burn down the schools.
First manifesto of what would become Weatherman, published in New Left Notes, 18 June 1969.
This country is crying out for a leader. God knows what it is looking for, but if it’s not careful it’s going to end up with a Hitler.
David Bowie, interview with Music Now!, 20 December 1969.
And we can force you to be free
And we can force you to believe
“Cygnet Committee” begins as David Bowie’s break-up letter to the Arts Lab, a communal arts venture he had co-founded that was run out of the back room of a Beckenham pub, and over its near-ten-minute span the song becomes a bile-filled, self-righteous attack aimed at the counterculture itself.
So something whose roots are in petty, specific gripes (Bowie had hoped the Arts Lab (which featured everything from tie-dying lessons to free-form jazz performances) would be a free-flowing exchange of ideas, and found it was mainly a bunch of grubby, needy kids trying to latch onto the slightly-more-famous types like Bowie—“I opened doors that would have blocked their way…I ravaged my finance just for those”) blossoms into a jeremiad against the New Left, cult figures, false hippie capitalists, deluded kids and their various empty slogans (including “kick out the jams” and “love is all we need”): it’s an unrelenting damning of a movement that Bowie was barely part of.
Two centuries before, England had avoided the revolutions that overtook America and France, and by 1969-1971 it seemed like the pattern was repeating—where French students had rioted in Paris and nearly caused DeGaulle’s government to collapse, and radical American students were bombing the Capitol and the Pentagon, the UK had remained relatively quiet (“London was the vacuum of late 1960s rebellion,” Peter Doggett). So “Cygnet Committee”‘s sustained burst of rage and elaborate paranoia seems unearned. After all, what did the guy who wrote “Laughing Gnome” or “Space Oddity” really have to say about the Revolution?
Bowie wasn’t the only one to sense a blackness at the heart of the counterculture—Pete Townshend had just written a rock opera about false messiahs, pop cultism and the rise of mob philosophy (or just listen to the way Merry Clayton’s voice cracks when she sings “Rape! Murder!” in “Gimme Shelter”). For Bowie, “Cygnet Committee” is the portal through which he would descend into his ’70s obsessions—supermen, glam violence, glam fascism, cults of personalities and various dystopias—and some of those figures appear in shadowy form here, slitting throats, killing children, betraying friends. Although Bowie ends the song with a plea for love and freedom, you’re left mainly with the phrase “I want to live,” the simplest, humblest request that a human being can make.
The song seems like a patchwork of three or four different pieces sewn together (it has at least one recognizable ancestor: the second/fifth verses and the start of the third/sixth are reused from a Bowie composition called “Lover to the Dawn” which he had demoed with John Hutchinson earlier in 1969). Two fairly concise four-line verses (sung over acoustic guitar, a fluid bassline and legato electric guitar) are followed by a 13-line, 48-bar rambling monster of a verse, which begins with a basic 4/4 rock accompaniment and then slackens into looser, almost free-form lines. The pattern repeats and this time the rambling verse (call it the radical faction) now conquers the song, extending for over five minutes until the fadeout. There is a coherence to it all, as the three verses are in step-up pattern (they begin in D, Eb and F, respectively, with the “rant” section of the third verse, for lack of a better word, starting in A Minor). The final exhortation (“I want to believe!”) is delivered over twining guitar and keyboard lines.
“Cygnet Committee” can be wearying to listen all the way through (at least I find), as the players either won’t or can’t rock when the song cries out for it—if you’re quoting the MC5, you ought to be laying down some heavy fire. Bowie’s vocal, in which he seems to be bleeding and purging himself so as to be ready for the years to come, carries much of the track.
Several writers have called this Bowie’s “first masterpiece,” which seems an overreach, though Bowie certainly was clawing here after something grander and more resonant than most of his earlier works. For an artist often accused of being cold and calculating, it’s a messy, wildly human performance.
Recorded ca. August-September 1969, on Space Oddity.
Top: Bernardine Dohrn, La Pasionaria of the Weather Underground, Chicago, September 1969.