“Velvet Goldmine” was barely a secret—journalists had heard about it before Ziggy Stardust was released and “Goldmine” eventually was issued as a B-side. But the other major Ziggy outtake, “Sweet Head,” was utterly forgotten. No one outside the Bowie circle knew the song even existed until it turned up on Ryko’s 1990 CD release of Ziggy. Ken Scott, who produced Ziggy, says he has no memory of recording it. Bowie has seemed ambivalent about it at best—he’s never performed the song live, and came close to yanking the track off the Ryko CD.
Yet “Sweet Head” is not only a great rocker, capturing the power of Mick Ronson and the Spiders better than most of the actual Ziggy tracks, but it’s also a polished recording, one whose lyric mentions “Ziggy” by name. It’s not some obscure studio jam: it seems as if it could’ve been the centerpiece of the whole record. Then Bowie dropped it into a well and pretended he never made it.
Blame the lyric. It’s nasty throughout, from the first verse’s Clockwork Orange-inspired violence and racist slurs to the double entendres (barely) of the chorus to later lines like “I’m your rubber peacock angelic whore.” You can’t blame Bowie for trying to forget a track where he sang “my guitar and Mr. Fag, we can give you sweet head.” (“It was about oral sex, and it was one I don’t think RCA particularly wanted,” Bowie told Musician in 1990.)
Shame, though, as the track’s as ferocious as Bowie and the Spiders ever got. Ronson opens with a twining guitar figure (moving between A and A6) that he extends into the verses, while he slams on the off-beats during the long chorus and outro. The lyric, while vulgar and ridiculous, also captures the Ziggy character arguably better than”Ziggy Stardust,” as it throws together blasphemy (“’til there was rock, you only had God”), sex and celebrity and ends with a verse that’s pure rock & roll:
You and I have a mutual vow,
We both like young and we both like loud.
I got pretty shoes and I’m kid and proud,
I’m street-side out with my ear to the crowd.
Recorded 11 November 1971. Finally released on the 1990 Ryko CD issue of Ziggy Stardust.
Top: Slade, 1972.
I really should trust myself more.
These have been my exact thoughts about Sweet Head since Ryko issued it; I love it, and I’ve puzzled and puzzled over its obscurity and neglect, finally concluding that I was missing something others were seeing. Glad to know such an astute Bowiephile is just as mystified.
That Bowie nearly kept Ryko from releasing it is a true puzzler and something I hadn’t known.
What’s particularly galling is that we lost this in favor of “It Ain’t Easy,” not only vastly inferior in every way, but the one truly weak spot on an otherwise stunning album, and the track without which sole authorship of the album would have been Bowie’s. It even sounds spectacular when sequenced where “It Ain’t Easy” was placed; try it. It follows “Starman” and closes Side One like a dream.
I remember hearing Bowie talk about this track back in ’90 when he was doing radio/studio interviews in support of S+V. The radio show in question chose to play ‘Sweet Head’ and when pressed for details, all Bowie really said was that it was cut because it was about oral sex and that he didn’t think the label (RCA) would allow it. I think I taped the radio show, I’ll have to go through my old shoebox and see if I still have it. Anyway, I love the song. The fact that this was unknown until its release (over 20 years ago(!)) gives me hope that there’s way more great Bowie material out there yet to be heard.
I am thrilled to have recently discovered this gem! Now one of my very favorites.
While your down there 😉 Love it!