Oh! You Pretty Things (LP, 1971).
Oh! You Pretty Things (Peter Noone, 1971).
Oh! You Pretty Things (broadcast, 1972).
Oh! You Pretty Things (Hammersmith Odeon, 1973).
You must face the fact that yours is the last generation of homo sapiens. As to the nature of that change, we can tell you very little. All we have discovered is that it starts with a single individual—always a child—and then spreads explosively, like the formation of crystals around the first nucleus in a saturated solution. Adults will not be affected, for their minds are already set in an unalterable mould.
In a few years it will all be over, and the human race will have divided in twain. There is no way back, and no future for the world you know. All the hopes and dreams of your race are ended now. You have given birth to your successors, and it is your tragedy that you will never understand them…
Arthur C. Clarke, Childhood’s End.
He stands there thinking, the kids keep coming, they keep crowding you up.
John Updike, Rabbit, Run.
“Oh! You Pretty Things” was the first composition to emerge from Bowie’s composition binge in late 1970 (Bowie’s new publisher nabbed it for Peter Noone to record as his debut single) and it signals a change in Bowie’s writing. For one thing, it’s likely the first song Bowie composed on piano rather than on guitar. Songs composed on piano are often more harmonically adventurous than guitar songs—in “Pretty Things,” some fifteen different chords appear over the course of a three-minute song (with every pitch in the D-flat scale (the home key) eventually used). John Lennon in the late ’60s started composing on piano because it led him to unexpected chord progressions, and some of Bowie’s songs from this period suggest he was following a similar design.
There’s also a greater irony and clarity in Bowie’s lyric. Sure, Bowie’s singing about the supplanting of homo sapiens by a more evolved species (you know, your basic pop lyric), territory he already covered in “The Supermen,” but where “The Supermen” is brutish and ridiculous, with its naked Titans grappling each other on some lost island, “Oh! You Pretty Things” is charming, eerie and domestic. It opens one peaceful morning in a quiet English home:
Wake up you sleepy head,
Put on your clothes, shake off your bed.
Put another log on the fire for me,
I’ve made some breakfast and coffee.
And when the cataclysm comes, the singer regards it as he would a traffic accident:
Look out my window, what do I see?
A crack in the sky and a hand reaching down to me…
The lyric owes a great deal to Clarke’s Childhood’s End (Nicholas Pegg suggests another likely inspiration, Bulwer-Lytton’s The Coming Race, which Bowie namechecks). In Childhood’s End, a race of aliens called the Overlords arrive on Earth to end war, hunger and unrest. (Spoilers ahead.) But the Overlords are revealed as midwives, here to supervise the birth of the next species of humanity. It ends with the final generation of homo sapiens living out their days in empty peace while their children roam about the stars, acting in unknowable ways.
I think that we have created a child who will be so exposed to the media that he will be lost to his parents by the time he is 12.
David Bowie, new father, interview with Melody Maker, 22 January 1972.
The resonance of “Oh! You Pretty Things” comes from how it uses these Nietzschean SF trappings as a metaphor for how a generation regards its successor with longing, fear and resentment (never more so than with the so-called Greatest Generation and their children the Boomers), or, even closer to home, how a parent can regard his or her children. Once you become a parent, you lose precedence in your own life—your own needs and desires are shunted aside, and you spend years as servant and guide to your replacement, who will go on to have richer experiences and greater opportunities than you ever had (that’s if you’re lucky). More bluntly, once you reproduce, your genetic purpose is fulfilled and all that remains is age, redundancy and death.
So Bowie, who was about to become a father when he wrote this song, offered a funny, extravagant depiction of paternal anxiety, something of a kinder cousin to David Lynch’s Eraserhead (which in part was inspired by Lynch’s fears after the birth of his daughter).
There’s as much acceptance in it as there is anxiety. Just listen to the way Bowie delivers the lines “All the nightmares came today/And it looks as though they’re here to stay,” with a shrug, even sounding a bit cavalier (the only harsh note comes with the jarring line “the earth is a bitch”). Wry acceptance is all one can offer when the world is so eager to leave you behind. After all, the world into which we are born and which forms us—its people, its colors and faces, its houses, its music and smells—dies so many years before we do, leaving us to spend much of our lives in unconscious mourning for it.
“Pretty Things” isn’t mournful. It ruefully celebrates its generational turmoil, in the way of a man faintly grinning while his house is being torn down; if it’s also a coming-out song, as some have argued, it’s from the perspective of an older man watching liberated boys cavort on a street he was afraid to be seen on. It marvels at the young, beautiful and allegedly revolutionary (the way Michelangelo Antonioni made two vacant pretty kids into icons in Zabriskie Point) and takes comfort that the kids are doomed to suffer the same displacement.
We’ve Finished Our News
Hunky Dory is Bowie’s early self-compilation, a shop window for his wares to date: folk meditations (“Quicksand”), mime performances (“Eight Line Poem”), Velvets-esque rock (“Queen Bitch”), tributes to elders (“Andy Warhol,” “Song For Bob Dylan”), fractured music hall (“Fill Your Heart”), marquee pop (“Changes,” “Life on Mars”) and even an oddity epilogue, “The Bewlay Brothers,” in which Bowie brings back the Laughing Gnomes.
“Oh! You Pretty Things” would seem to fall in the music-hall category, its three verses carried entirely by Bowie’s voice and piano*, while Mick Ronson, Woody Woodmansey and Trevor Bolder are confined to support work in the choruses. The track denies the pleasures of simple pop, however—the piano sounds harsh and dry, and the song itself is constructed oddly. It has a 9-bar opening in F major that moves from 2/4 time to a single bar of 3/4 and ends with two 4/4 bars of pounded chords, and in the verses the piano accompaniment is restless and agitating, never letting the vocal rest comfortably: chords are constantly shifting (“a crack in the sky and a hand reaching down to me,” scarcely more than a bar’s length, goes from Bb7/D to Ebm to Gb/Fb to Cb/Eb), while the bass often alternates between single notes and repeated octave leaps, and even falls suddenly out in the penultimate bar of the verse. An odd 2 1/2 bar break, briefly changing time, separates the first and second verses.
The chorus—hummable, harmonized, pounding (a piano chord for each beat), jaunty—comes twice as a relief. It’s the song’s sunny public face. But the restlessness returns soon enough, and the song closes with a ritardando bar ending in C, the dominant of F, leaving the song with a sense of unease (cleverly, however, Bowie sequenced the track so that it was followed immediately by “Eight Line Poem,” which starts in F, and so resolving the earlier song).
“Oh! You Pretty Things” was demoed ca. December 1970, and its studio take was recorded ca. July-August 1971: on side A of Hunky Dory. Bowie’s version was preceded by the Noone single (RAK 114), which was released in April 1971 and reached #13, the best showing of a Bowie song since the ’60s (to appease censors Noone changed one line to “the Earth is a beast,” which is an improvement).
Bowie played “Pretty Things” three times in BBC sessions—the first is lost, the second (3 June 1971) is on the Japanese Bowie at the Beeb, while the third (22 May 1972) is on the standard Bowie at the Beeb. Bowie also played it on the BBC’s The Old Grey Whistle Test on 8 February 1972, and during the Ziggy Stardust tour of ’72-’73 he often included the song in a medley with “Wild Eyed Boy From Freecloud” and “All the Young Dudes.” The last murky recording here is from the Spiders’ last concert at the Hammersmith Odeon, on 3 July 1973.
* Rick Wakeman (of Yes fame) played the piano for most of the Hunky Dory sessions, but I’m pretty sure Bowie’s on piano here—the rawness of the performance, for one thing (compare it to the assured playing in “Changes,” for example), and also because Bowie’s piano during the BBC sessions is very close to the studio track.
Top: Sirkka-Liisa Konttinen, “Children in the backlane of Kendal Street,” 1971.