The Bewlay Brothers

The Bewlay Brothers.
The Bewlay Brothers (broadcast, 2002).

The only pipe I have ever smoked was a cheap Bewlay. It was a common item in the late Sixties and for this song I used Bewlay as a cognomen in place of my own. This wasn’t just a song about brotherhood so I didn’t want to misrepresent it by using my true name. Having said that, I wouldn’t know how to interpret the lyric of this song other than suggesting that there are layers of ghosts within it. It’s a palimpsest, then.

David Bowie, 2008.

“The Bewlay Brothers” was one of the last songs cut for Hunky Dory and the only song of the lot Bowie wrote in the studio (he had demoed the rest of the tracks, often months before the LP sessions). Decades later, Bowie described the song’s creation as being impulsive, almost emetic: “I had a whole wad of words that I had been writing all day. I had felt distanced and unsteady all evening, something settling in my mind.” He recorded the song after the rest of the band had gone home (though obviously there were overdubs later), and then went out drinking at “the Sombrero in Kensington High Street or possibly Wardour Street’s crumbling La Chasse.”

Bowie called it a song for the American market. Asked why by his producer, Bowie said that as Americans loved over-analyzing records, finding clues on LP sleeves and in throwaway phrases, he wrote a song to baffle them. He was dismissive of “Bewlay Brothers” at first, describing it as “Star Trek in a leather jacket,” calling his own lyric incomprehensible. In retrospect it seems like Bowie was deliberately evasive, trying to dilute the song’s power, keeping his audience from getting too close to it.

Biographers have offered definitive interpretations of the lyric, mainly focusing on Bowie’s schizophrenic half-brother, Terry. (Christopher Sandford: “The song, in fact, dealt with the schizophrenic Terry Burns,” while George Tremlett went further, specifying that the song was about a seance Terry and Bowie held in the ’60s). Certainly the ill-fated Burns (who Bowie would soon effectively disown, cutting off all contact with him) is at the heart of the song, as lines like “My brother lays upon the rocks/he could be dead, he could be not…” or “we’d frighten the small children away” suggest the times when Burns would have seizures on the street, writhing on the pavement while his step-brother watched him, helpless. But mere autobiography is too narrow a lens—the Bewlay Brothers could as well be gay hustlers, or daemons, or the two sides of a fractured personality. (Bowie, interviewed in 2000: “I was never quite sure what real position Terry had in my life, whether Terry was a real person or whether I was actually referring to another part of me.”)

The truth, if there’s any truth to be found, will never be disclosed: it’s buried somewhere within Bowie’s masterful song, which offers as recompense shards of imagery, passwords whispered in dreams, titles of lost paintings: “stalking time for the Moonboys”; “the grim face on the cathedral floor”; “the whale of a lie like the hope it was”; “kings of oblivion”; “they bought their positions with saccharin and trust”; “the crust of the sun”. The weary loss felt in a line like “And the solid book we wrote/cannot be found today.”

Lester Bangs: “I saw Bowie the other night.”

Lou Reed: “Lucky you. I think it’s very sad.”

LB: “He ripped off all your riffs, obviously.”

LR: “Everybody steals riffs. You steal yours. David wrote some really great songs.”

LB: “Aw c’mon. Anybody can write great songs! Sam the Sham wrote great songs! Did David write anything better than ‘Wooly Bully’?

LR: “You ever listen to ‘The Bewlay Brothers,’ shithead?”

“Let Us Now Praise Famous Death Dwarves,” Creem, March 1975.

“Bewlay Brothers,” after a somber intro of acoustic guitar and distorted piano, consists of three long verses whose last 14 bars also serve as choruses (a structure similar to earlier songs like “Cygnet Committee”); the verses are separated by four-bar guitar breaks, and are finished off by the bizarre coda sung by a vari-speeded choir of grotesques, the return of the Laughing Gnomes as specters.

Consider the track a series of doubles—the song begins in two dueling keys, modulating from D to E minor and back again; Bowie’s voice is echoed on occasional lines; the piano and Mick Ronson’s guitar are so distorted at times they could substitute for each other; Bowie builds the first lines of each verse out of paired one-syllable beats (i.e.,SO it GOES/we WORE the CLOTHES/they SAID the THINGS/that MADE it SEEM, etc.); the two guitar breaks pit the musings of Ronson’s elegant lead guitar against the regular strums of Bowie’s acoustic. And the coda shifts between B minor and F, chords not fit for each other (if B minor is the key, then it should be F-sharp, or if it’s F, it should be B-flat): it’s an irreconcilable pairing, much like the Brothers themselves.

Recorded ca. July-August 1971. An alternate mix (hardly different from the LP cut: the voices are just mixed louder in the coda) appeared on the Ryko CD reissue of Hunky Dory. Bowie never played the song live until 2002, when he recorded a version for BBC radio, joking that the lyric had more words than War and Peace. He spoke like a man who wouldn’t recognize his younger self if he passed it on the street.

Top: Peter Brook’s King Lear, 1971.

37 Responses to The Bewlay Brothers

  1. David Dent says:

    Not a comment about the lyrical content, but an observation about the descending notes on the ‘Lay me place and bake me Pie…’ section at the end of the song. You can hear almost the same note sequence in the opening theme to the 1971 British horror film ‘Blood on Satan’s Claw’, released in January of that year – music written by the very talented Marc Wilkinson. As Mr Reed said, ‘everyone steals riffs’. Coincidence? Rent the film (it’s freely available) and see what you think.

  2. John says:

    Beautiful and insightful analysis of a song that has haunted me for over 25 years. Thanks.

  3. Steve Ison says:

    “He spoke like a man who wouldn’t recognize his younger self if he passed it on the street.”

    There’s something incredibly sad-but obviously true- about that

    How did he lose the intuitive and magically musical genius of his younger self so ?
    Almost all of his 60s n 70s contemparies are creatively just ghosts of what they once were..
    Its a question thats never properly addressed anywhere and baffling to me..
    You get older as an artist and become weaker and less potent ?
    It really shouldn’t be that way…

    • Charles Faris says:

      Rock and roll is a young man’s game it seems. In Bowie’s case I think he just seriously scared himself straight.

  4. Like John, above, says, thanks for an analysis of this song. It’s haunted and puzzled me for years too. I love Ronson’s electric guitar work on this track. One of Bowie’s most under-rated songs I think,

  5. sp_design says:

    Ditto to everything that’s been said about this song above. It’s such a strange and beautiful song, like nothing else in the Bowie canon. And very perceptive writing about the older Bowie walking past his (intense, learned and self-absorbed) younger self, sad it should be this way. But isn’t it with everyone?

  6. Jingleballix says:

    Tremendous song, very evocative of both the innovation of the era and the nuances of the sensitive, intellectual side of glam rock. Which is why Bowie has endured…..he could play and rock like Bolam, Glitter and Slade – but he was really saying something ……..or at least people believed he was.

    ‘The Bewlay Brothers’ is quite simply genius; probably one of the ten best songs he has written……..even three.

    This review is a very nice summary of the song, and what it MIGHT mean.

    It is what it is……..enigmatic, stylish, progressive, sombre, moving and brilliant.

    Quite why more people don’t know about it I don’t know – but I’m glad they don’t.

  7. davetherave says:

    I have considered the lyrics and would suggest that it is a statement of closet homosexuality or possibly cross dressing. With main theme being that the Bewlay brothers meet up to enact their alternative life that no-one else knows about. This is reinforced by the closing line sung in harsh or manly tones suggesting the person that the singer is mostly known as. The title may be a play on the name of someone who was involved in a Homosexuality scandal when it was illegal.

  8. stuartgardner says:

    Has Bowie ever been asked why he named his publishing arm Bewlay Bros. Music?
    The song is an absolute tour de force, simply stunning.

  9. Andy B says:

    i was born a year after this album was released, it is in my all time top 10. I imagined the Bewlay Brothers to be performance artists of the era that Bowie et al knew. The song being a homage to them and their indecipherable performances; ‘we were so turned on by your lack of conclusions’…..

  10. zebideedoodah says:

    As good an analysis as anyone’s, better than most. Which only goes to emphasise that no-one really knows what’s going on in there. Certainly one of the richest of Bowie’s songs in terms of imagery and symbolism, though, I’d say.

    One thing that does come to my mind is that there seems to be something of a thread from Cygnet Committee, through All The Madmen (perhaps even also After All) to The Bewlay Brothers. I don’t particularly mean in terms of the content or subject matter but in terms of the kind of song it is. As if something had spent a long time bubbling away in his subconscious before properly spilling out onto the page. I can’t really think of anything else he wrote after this, that’s at all similar in approach.

    • Harlequin says:

      I also feel a connection between this and ‘All the Madmen’ (and ‘After All’). Both seem to be in part about Terry, of course, but there’s also something about the ‘Zane, Zane, Zane …’ and ‘Please come away …’ at the ends (along with the ‘Oh by jingo’s in ‘After All’).

  11. Charlie says:

    Excellent analysis of a song that has puzzled me for 40 years. Just listening on headphones to an early pressing lp i purchased recently. I dont recall hearing the creaking chair and pipe smoking sound that precedes the song. Did i forget about it or did this not appear on some versions?

    • col1234 says:

      i don’t think there were any other versions, though could be wrong. There was an alternate mix released on the Ryko Hunky Dory but the differences were mainly in stereo separation and use of reverb

    • Mikaal says:

      Always been there.

  12. pipe tobacco says:

    WOW just what I was searching for. Came here by searching for smoking pipes

  13. CragRaven says:

    Something else to ponder when considering ths song. A classic symptom of schizophrenia is the ‘clang’ – grouping together of meaningless short phrases with similar words, or rhyming words.
    (From a medical site – Clang – Meaningless use of rhyming words (“I said the bread and read the shed and fed Ned at the head”)

    So with that in mind:

    ‘The story goes they wore the clothes’…

    ‘And the Goodmen Tomorrow
    Had their feet in the wallow
    And their heads of Brawn were nicer shorn’…

    ‘And our talk was old and dust would flow
    Thru our veins and Lo! it was midnight
    Back o’ the kitchen door
    Like the grim face on the Cathedral floor’ etc.

    Segments of the song have been deliberately written in the style of a schizophrenic clang.

    Maybe some of these were even paraphrased from his brother? They don’t have to make sense – but I think he has layered meanings into them as well. Very clever.

    • RealCoolTrader says:

      Interesting about the rhyming clang. Also the alliteration clang, the grouping together of meaningless words starting with the same letter ie. chameleon, comedian, corinthian and charicature

  14. colintron says:

    Just discovered The Replicants’ cover. Go listen.

  15. K. says:

    It’s a little mysterious to me why people are finding this so opaque: if it’s any help the most inscrutible of the lyrics has been mis-transcribed and repeated like a chinese telephone game. It’s “the way we live a lie like the hope it was”. Does that make more sense? Put on the ‘phones, and listen again. I think you all are missing the forest for focusing on the trees,

  16. I’m pretty sure the lead guitar fills are in reverse, you know, recorded with the multitrack tape flipped over so the song is heard backwards.

  17. ragingglory says:

    To be frank I think this is just another one of those songs that sounds like it is about something, but actually is not. This is actually relatively easy to pull off, you don’t need to be a genius. Just keep loading the lyric with symbolism and keep a thesaurus to hand.

    • Anonymous says:

      It’s inspiring creativity decades after it was written…why are joining the conversation?

      • stuartgardner says:

        I was going to ask the same thing as anonymous, prompted by noting that ragingglory seems to have registered for the express purpose of his less than less than illuminating post.

  18. Michelle says:

    I wonder what ever became of Terry? ‘Bewlay Brothers’ is a hauntingly beautiful song. I first heard the song when I bought the album when it was released, I still love the album today, I have it on my ipod, but I’ve still got the vinyl copy. Some really interesting comments on here, good to know other people share my love for the song. The lyrics are definitely strange, but they just fit together somehow.

    • Delia. says:

      I can answer that Michelle, he was a very handsome guy, much in the mould of his half brother but with a softer face and dark haired..he spent his life in Cane Hill Mental Hospital in Surrey UK, he used the opportunity when the staff were low in the hospital, due to snow, to go to the local train station, and take his life on the tracks. Very, very sad.

  19. Ned Pegler says:

    A lovely article. This is probably my favourite Bowie song on my favourite Bowie album, both menacing and charming. I wondered about the lyrics for years, then a chance comment on a blog somewhere gave me a shoehorn in. Now I am also yet another moonboy who understands the lyrics with all too much clarity (stop the voices, mummy). What I’m about to say is written as fact. It’s probably crap but it allows the lyrics to make sense to me.

    ‘The whole of the second side of Hunky Dory is a comment on the arts culture of the 1960s, particularly but not exclusively its music. ‘Fill Your Heart’, a cover version and perhaps the last song to be chosen for this side, is a send up of late 1960s hippy values. It replaced ‘Bombers’, which didn’t seem to fit with the other tracks. ‘Song For Bob Dylan’ is a critique of how Dylan, presumably one of Bowie’s heroes, had lost his lyrical way, writing songs about women and not serious issues anymore. ‘Andy Warhol’ is a gentle send up of the arts culture of the time. ‘Queen Bitch’ is of course a homage to another 60s hero, Lou Reed.

    ‘How does ‘The Bewlay Brothers’ fit into this? It’s as an acid critique of the Beatles, and particularly John Lennon (from the second verse onward it is written in his voice). It’s main argument is that the Beatles never produced anything of worth, simply peddling a message of turning on, without saying anything of significance.

    ‘Where Bowie’s criticism is particularly pointed is in saying that the Beatles’ (particularly Lennon’s) inane, drug influenced lyrics, dressed up as deep philosophy, had a profoundly negative effect on impressionable, and mentally unstable, young people trying drugs for the first time in the late 1960s. Perhaps the most famous case of this was the Beatles-inspired Manson killings of 1969. Interestingly, this was a point re-iterated 40 years later by Ian MacDonald in his book ‘Revolution in the Head’.

    ‘If the song has anything to do with Terry Burns it’s because Terry was one of those casualties of the drug culture advocated by the Beatles. Whatever, the brothers of the song are Lennon and McCartney, not Terry and David.’

    Whether the paragraphs above are right or not, Bowie did end up being friends with Lennon and, of course, the song is bound to have changed its meaning over the years in Bowie’s head. Palimpsest just about sums this song up. Enjoy it whichever way you choose.

  20. Ned Pegler says:

    Oh, and I forgot to mention, the guitar recording in the chorus is played backward.

  21. Hikikomori says:

    “He could be dead, he could be not, he could be you”

    ^ Does David Jones’s death actually come back all the way to this song? after all it was Jones’s choosing to be identified as Bowie?

    “Bowie” could already be dead for all intents and purposes

    On the flipside: Bowie could also be not, at least that’s what i’d like to think

  22. Martin Sirl says:

    I’ve read several times that, as a child, Bowie was sent for a short holiday at a kids’ activity centre in the New Forest. I live nearby and there is only one such centre I know of that would have been around then; it’s in a village called Beaulieu which the locals pronounce ‘Bew-lee’. Partly conjecture I know but I’ve always assumed parts of this song harked back to that, particularly if Terry went too. I’ve also read that Bewlay Brothers was the name of a Croydon tobacconists. It would have been just like Bowie to take a few disparate references and mix them all up together.

  23. Paula Clark says:

    One of my favorite lyrics is..”We were so turned on by your lack of conclusions..” As Terry was David’s intellectual tutor in so many ways, I always admired the’ turn on’ it would have been to (inconclusively) explore ideas, philosophies, art, and coming of age within this relationship.

  24. eekahil says:

    It’s the coda that continues to confound me. It seems like it must be a fragment of Trad Arr Anon – some Chanty, or a fake aulde song sung by “medieval” “prisoners” in a film..that he’d heard somewhere.

    • Ned Pegler says:

      I agree. That last bit’s darned weird. As a tune it seems not very complicated and more like a made up nursery rhyme, just being two descending scales with modifications.

      The first minor descent starts from the tonic, as it should and (apart from the third note (‘place’), being sharpened to give a major), continues to drop down until it lands on a creepy fourth (‘me’), then repeats and holds the last note (gra..’) and goes up one to resolve on a fifth (‘..vy’). There’s no harmony, only a repeated voice varispeeded an octave higher (?and lower) in laughing gnome style.

      The second repeats this, but when it gets to the end of the descent and repeats the last note (‘away’), follows it by playing three ascending notes, starting on the creepy fourth (‘just for the’), before jumping back to land on the fourth again (‘day’), then repeats to fade, never resolving.

      The rhythm guitar behind, doing a kind of Spanish thing (Bowie himself?), alternates between two major chords (one the sharpened version of the other), which seems to resolve and unresolve the whole thing, repeatedly giving the impression of sadness and unfinishedness.

      Great stuff. If only for this ending, Bowie, Ronson and Visconti should be called genii.

      • col1234 says:

        genius yes but also good magpies. See David Dent’s comment at top of thread—melody was taken, at times note for note, from a contemporary horror film theme (mentioned in my book revision)

      • Ned Pegler says:

        Yes, the date fits, but Blood on Satan’s Claw is an obvious chromatic descending scale and very unlike the choice of notes on the end of this song.

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