Hang Onto Yourself

Hang Onto Yourself (demo).
Hang Onto Yourself (The Arnold Corns single, 1971).
Hang Onto Yourself (Ziggy Stardust).
Hang Onto Yourself (live, 1972).
Hang Onto Yourself (live, 1973).
Hang Onto Yourself (live, 1978).
Hang Onto Yourself (live, 2004).

America is the noisiest country that ever existed.

Oscar Wilde, Impressions of America.

On 27 January 1971 David Bowie finally came to America. He had dreamed of an entrance like Oscar Wilde’s: Wilde had stepped upon a New York City dock after a cross-Atlantic cruise and was met with a mob of reporters eager for choice witticisms. Instead Bowie had to endure a flight (which he hated) and when he landed at Dulles Airport, with his Lauren Bacall haircut and “wearing a purple maxi-coat and a white chiffon scarf” (Christopher Sandford), he was detained by customs agents, who searched him, sniggered at him and finally released him after an hour. Only Mercury publicist Ron Oberman and his immediate family were there to meet him (here’s a great photo from Bowie’s first night in the U.S., during which Bowie went to a kosher deli in Silver Spring, Md.).

Bowie was in the U.S. to promote The Man Who Sold the World. He brought only his guitar, a satchel of notebooks and few dresses selected by his wife. He went from Washington DC to New York to Chicago to Los Angeles, where he made friends with DJ/scenester Rodney Bingenheimer. He also met RCA house producer Tom Ayers, which set in motion a courtship that culminated in RCA signing Bowie later that year.

The United States of Bowie’s first visit was a fantastically prosperous country that had gone mad and now seemed to be at war with itself. Nineteen seventy-one would see the Attica prison uprising; anti-busing forces in Detroit blowing up school buses with dynamite; a radical group called Movement for Amerika planting bombs in banks across the country; the Weather Underground bombing the U.S. Capitol; another leftist group called Rise planning to poison the Chicago water supply. In Wilmington, NC, a band of vigilantes called Rights of White People assembled. Hippies were occasionally lynched in New Mexico—for example, a sixteen-year-old hippie girl who passed a bad check was shot to death by a storekeeper in Albuquerque (no charges filed). Crime rates hit staggering new levels, fueling a general belief that violence in America had become as common as it was random (in LA, a man drew a gun on Bowie and told him to “kiss my ass”).*

Bowie traveled through America in absorption: listening to top 40 radio (“Rose Garden,” “Stoney End,” “Groove Me”), meeting producers and starlets, gorging on new records (in San Francisco, Bowie heard a Stooges LP for the first time). On sheets of hotel stationery he wrote out his ideas for a fake rock star, inspired by another new find, the Legendary Stardust Cowboy. Perhaps he’d name the plastic rock singer Iggy.

“Hang Onto Yourself” (or “Hang On To Yourself,” depending which record it’s on) is the fruit of Bowie’s U.S. trip. A rock & roll blast, a groupie sex song, it was first recorded at a session where Bowie met Gene Vincent. Tom Ayers had introduced Bowie and Vincent in LA and, depending on who you believe, Bowie jammed with Vincent on a studio demo of “Hang Onto Yourself,” or Vincent was at the demo session but didn’t play, or Vincent had utterly nothing to do with it. Bowie would use one of Vincent’s signature stage moves (crouching at the mike with his injured leg behind him) in his Ziggy Stardust act; Vincent died of a stomach ulcer some eight months after meeting Bowie.

Rock and roll

Bowie came back to the UK with his demo of “Hang Onto Yourself,” which was still a sketch—just a single verse, a chorus and the makings of what would be the song’s guitar hook. Bowie initially used the song for the first draft of his “fake rock star” project, where he wrote and produced songs for a Dulwich College band The Arnold Corns and their cherubic lead non-singer Freddi Burretti (more on this when we reach “Moonage Daydream”).

The demo and the Corns versions of “Hang Onto Yourself” are plodding and underwritten, and seem to be a botched attempt to mimic the Velvet Underground’s “Rock and Roll” (the line “and me, I’m on the radio show” echoes Lou Reed’s “and me, I’m in a rock & roll band”). The Corns single ends with a minute or so of elaborate grunting, suggesting that once again Bowie was parodying Marc Bolan.

“Hang Onto Yourself”‘s main riff (it opens the track and follows the end of the choruses) is also storied plagiarism—it seems to be nicking The Move’s “Fire Brigade,” which in turn had raided Eddie Cochran’s “Something Else.” The tradition continued, as the Sex Pistols’ “God Save The Queen” in part ripped off “Hang Onto Yourself” (Glen Matlock admitted the Pistols nicked a number of Spiders riffs, while future Pistols guitarist Steve Jones actually stole the Spiders’ gear, taking the line “the bitter comes out better on a stolen guitar” literally).

Throughout much of 1971 Bowie and his reconstituted band of Mick Ronson, Woody Woodmansey and Trevor Bolder kept up a brutal rehearsal pace, often playing all night in the top room of a Beckenham pub. Over the months they honed Bowie’s tentative rockers like “Hang Onto Yourself” into hard shapes. The version of “Hang Onto Yourself” cut for the Ziggy Stardust LP is faster and has better dynamics—much of the chord structure has been moved up a step (so the signature riff is now D/C/G, compared with C/Bb/F in the Arnold Corns version), Bowie’s lyric is saucier (“she’s a funky-thigh collector,” “we move like tigers on vaseline”) and Bowie now softly insinuates the chorus, rather than belting it out. Trevor Bolder’s bass holds the track together in a tight grip, while Ronson, in his own words, strapped his guitar on “and thrashed it to death, basically.”

The “Gene Vincent” demo was recorded ca. mid-February 1971 in Los Angeles; the Arnold Corns single was recorded in April 1971 and released as B&C CB149; the Ziggy Stardust track was recorded on 8 November 1971. Much of the Ziggy Stardust record uses rock & roll as a concept more than offering it as a reality—“Hang Onto Yourself” has no such troubles.

It was a classic lead-off song, and Bowie opened most of the Spiders from Mars sets of 1972-1973 with it, as well as many of his 1978 concerts (a Philadelphia recording leads off Stage, the 2-LP live record culled from that tour). Bowie revived “Hang Onto Yourself” on his 1983 tour, letting his rent-a-gun guitarist Stevie Ray Vaughan play with it, and brought it back again for his “Reality” tour of the mid-2000s.

Top:  Michael Caine in Get Carter.

* most examples of 1971 America are taken from Rick Perlstein’s essential Nixonland.

6 Responses to Hang Onto Yourself

  1. Roman says:

    This was also played on the early dates of the Sound and Vision tour.

  2. Stolen Guitar says:

    They were the Spiders from Mars and we were truly blessed!

  3. I’ll have to disagree with you on this one. I’ve always liked the early live versions (on “Bowie at the Beeb” and “Santa Monica ’72”, to name a couple). I think they’re far more dynamic, kinetic and frantic sounding. I always found that the softening of the chorus on the “Ziggy” cut sucked the air right out of the whole song – which is probably why I always somewhat dismissed it until I heard said live versions years later,

  4. Rusty (aka "hard as") Nails says:

    The story of the Sex Pistols nicking the Spiders’ gear is a great idea, connecting as it does with the line from “Hang Onto Yourself”, but it is apocryphal. There is no supporting version from the Spiders’ camp to suggest their gear had ever been nicked. All credit to Steve Jones though for coming up with a cracking fake anecdote.

  5. Matthew says:

    Whilst looking online for something to do with reggae I came across an interesting article linking this song to the pivotal 1985 track by Wayne Smith called “Under Me Sleng Teng” which then spawned hundreds of versions of what became known as the Sleng Teng riddim. This was a preset on the Casio MT-40 keyboard
    Listen here

    Axischemicals makes a good case for this being based on “Hang onto Yourself”

    You can read the orginal article
    here

    If this is indeed the case, I just love the way things sometimes work out.

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