Kooks (BBC).
Kooks (demo).
Kooks (LP).

The baby was born and it looked like me and it looked like Angie, and the song came out like—if you’re gonna stay with us, you’re gonna grow up bananas.

David Bowie, promotional sheet for Hunky Dory.

On the last day of May 1971, David Bowie was sitting at home listening to a Neil Young record when someone from the hospital rang to tell him he had become a father. Angela Bowie, after a 30-hour labor, had given birth to a son, who would be named Duncan Zowie Haywood Jones. Over the next day or so Bowie wrote a song about his son—he debuted it at a BBC session less than a week after Duncan’s birth. It was Bowie’s Neil Young piece, or so he said. “For Small Z.,” he wrote on the LP sleeve.

“Kooks” is the obverse of “Oh! You Pretty Things,” in which parenthood is something odd and catastrophic, an unavoidable pre-determined obsolescence. “Kooks” is awkward, warm, funny and welcoming, and its lyric captures the bewilderment that many people (I’m assuming, not being a father) face upon becoming a parent—I’m such a complete mess myself, how on earth can I raise another human being?* With classic lines like:

Don’t pick fights with the bullies or the cads
‘cos I’m not much cop at punching other people’s dads.

The song is basically a set of choruses occasionally broken up by four-bar “intros,” while the two verses serve more as bridges. “Kooks” opens with Bowie alternating between the D and Dsus4 chords on his guitar (just moving the middle finger between two frets)—this continues into the chorus until Bowie finally breaks the pattern by moving to C on “we believe in you.”

The song’s harmonic stasis (both choruses and verses start in D, with Bowie moving up a step finally in the fourth chorus repeat) is masked by a dense arrangement: Trevor Bolder doubles on bass (a very busy performance, full of runs and octave leaps) and trumpet—the latter mainly bridges the intros and choruses, with Bolder playing the vocal line of the chorus, though he gets a tiny solo when Bowie mentions the trumpet in the lyric. Rick Wakeman’s piano dominates the verses, veering between the cutesy and the slightly abrasive, while Mick Ronson’s string arrangements, a typically lovely, melodic accompaniment, sweeten the choruses.

Ken Scott, Bowie’s producer, loved the track and thought Bowie should do a whole album of children’s songs—Bowie allegedly considered the idea but sadly never followed through on it.

First performed 3 June 1971 at the BBC; recorded June-July 1971 (the early mix linked above was done for a promo version of Hunky Dory issued in August). Duncan Jones managed to have a fairly normal life, as lives go, and went into the film industry: his first picture, Moon, is worth viewing.

* Well, that’s not the only interpretation. James Perone offers the theory that “Kooks” is about a couple offering an invitation to a ménage à trois to “an individual of indeterminate gender.” If so, that would make lines like “we bought you…a funny old crib on which the paint won’t dry” a bit perverse.

Top: The three Bowies, June 1971.

6 Responses to Kooks

  1. Sport Murphy says:

    Just discovered this blog yesterday and have been transfixed ever since. The level of scholarship and insight is exceptional; the writing, photo choices and tone are perfect. My two bits on this entry: The Neil Young song in question is almost certainly “‘Til the Morning Comes” (After the Gold Rush, 1970). The melody and instrumentation are similar, the feel identical — down to the horn (French? Flugel?) solo.

  2. Anonymous says:

    The BBC performance includes the end line to “if the homework brings you down then we’ll throw it on the fire and take the car downtown” – and we’ll watch the crazy people race around

  3. bzfgt says:

    Aside from Neil Young, is there not a bit of Ray Davies in this? Like “Bullies or the caads”? Or the rolled ‘r’ for now apparent reason on “brings you down”? Maybe they are both aping some musical hall thing I’m not hip to, but it sounds kind of like Ray Davies to me…

  4. aseddon2015 says:

    I just discovered your blog. I’m a big Bowie fan myself and I’m currently writing little notes about his songs for the April A to Z blogging challenge. Thank you for posting about these songs, both the popular ones and the not so well known ones.

  5. This kind of clever work and reporting!

  6. RockChickNYC says:

    Always really liked “Kooks”. Nice to hear him sing about Angie with love and affection, regardless of how it turned out later on both sides.

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