Cygnet Committee

Lover To the Dawn.
Cygnet Committee.
Cygnet Committee (BBC, 1970).

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.”

“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.

8 Responses to Cygnet Committee

  1. Maj says:

    The version that is on Bowie at the Beeb is IMO superior to the one of the album. That live version is what hooked me on to the song. Yes it does seem Bowie is trying a bit too hard, but I personally agree with those calling this song an early Bowie masterpiece. But the key to this opinion is the live BBC version.

  2. Steve says:

    I always liked this one. It has a dreamy, epic, yet very emotional feel to it, and a certain part always reminded me of a whale’s song for some reason. All in all it’s a melange of different musical ideas with provocative lyrics.

    “Lover to the Dawn” is clearly an early version, and it seems Bowie also took some musical inspiration from Led Zeppelin’s “Your Time is Gonna Come,” which came out earlier in 1969 (also, the title of Bowie’s “Unwashed and Somewhat Slightly Dazed” might be inspired by the title of “Dazed and Confused” – musically the two songs seem pretty different).

    In fact, Bowie quotes the memorable bass riff of “Your Time is Gonna Come” early on, then takes the song into a different direction. We know that Jimmy Page and Bowie knew each other, so this piece of evidence just furthers the connection between the two.

  3. crayontocrayon says:

    I get Hendrix’s Burning of the midnight lamp when I listen to this although as Steve points out there are plenty of late 60s songs that could count as influences

  4. nj says:

    Not sure I am supposed to post as I am no expert and only rediscovering Bowie after decades… But as you see diving diving because I am fascinated –and it may also be a sort of way for me to reconnect fragmented parts of my life and of myself. This song was important to me as a teenager struggling with various intense personal and social issues –and so many of these are right there in the song, which keeps moving me.
    You say “For an artist often accused of being cold and calculating, it’s a messy, wildly human performance.” Thanks for saying that. As a rediscover Bowie’s work and get a fuller picture of his career I do sense again and again some very unattractive “coldness and calculation” and indeed this song sheds another light.

    Other details of his live (like for ex. his relationship with Iggy Pop and how he saved him) and other songs help too but to me, this one leaves no doubt. A man that so deeply and entirely cared about the crazy world he lived in. Certainly he had to cool down drastically to keep going –and to keep connecting generously with the world through the gift of his creations.

    I’ll read more on this blog. Thank you!

  5. nj says:

    there is this statement about Cygnet recording session, which may come from Angie, who apparently was there in the studio:

    “Tony, (Visconti) told David to come up at the end, but David said no and instead headed straight for the bathroom where he cried for twenty minutes”

    madly human, humbly human, bleeding himself, yes…

  6. leonoutside says:

    Great review in Rebel Rebel. Insightful as always. The word, “Cygnet” though. Should that be considered too? It’s not too common in song titles. If Bowie thought of himself as a cygnet in 1969, did he consider himself a swan later on? The word “swan” comes from “to sound”. To be “swan like”, is “to greet ones death with a song of exceptional beauty”.

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