Reissues: Holy Holy

Here’s another of the “lost” Bowie flop singles, from 1971—an odd beast, in that it was a pick-up recording session of Bowie and much of the band Blue Mink (at the time, the Spiders had gone back to Hull and Tony Visconti was gone). The original 45 version of “Holy Holy” was unavailable for decades–it took the recent Five Years set to finally issue it again.

Book revision goes a lot more into Aleister Crowley and even manages a reference to Anthony Powell’s Hearing Secret Harmonies.

Originally posted on January 31, 2010: “Holy Holy”:

Holy Holy (single).
Holy Holy (remake).

The nightmare world of Christianity vanished at the dawn. I fell in with a girl of the theatre in the first ten days at Torquay, and at that touch of human love the detestable mysteries of sex were transformed into joy and beauty. The obsession of sin fell from my shoulders into the sea of oblivion. I had been almost overwhelmed by the appalling responsibility of ensuring my own damnation and helping others to escape from Jesus. I found that the world was, after all, full of delightful damned souls…

The Confessions of Aleister Crowley, ch. 7.

“Holy Holy,” yet another flop Bowie single, seems (in theory) like a sure thing: a dark conflation of sex and religion with a catchy chorus. Its timing was perfect, too—“Spirit In the Sky” had hit #1 in the UK a month before Bowie recorded this, Neil Diamond’s “Holly Holy” (of which Bowie’s song seems like a slight parody) was also a recent hit, and Jesus Christ Superstar would come out in the fall of 1970. But instead “Holy Holy” suffered the fate of every Bowie 45 barring “Space Oddity” and failed to chart.

Philips/Mercury sat on the record for six months, finally putting it out in January 1971, in part because of contract negotiations but also because the track sounds a bit dull: its timing seems off and the playing is leaden, whether due to exhaustion or indifference.

Bowie knew that he had whiffed this one, though, and went back to “Holy Holy” in September 1971 with his new Spiders from Mars (Ronson, Woodmansey and Trevor Bolder). The remake is leagues better than the original—Ronson in particular is inspired, moving from an ominous locomotive intro riff to his sleek solo, a different (though harmonized) guitar track for each speaker. The remade “Holy Holy” was good enough to have made the cut for Ziggy Stardust, but instead wound up as a B-side a few years later. Seemingly of its moment, “Holy Holy”‘s time never quite came.

The lyric hints that Bowie’s been reading some Aleister Crowley—the line about “just the righteous brother” isn’t only a play on the Bill Medley/Bobby Hatfield duo’s name but a reference to the Order of the Golden Dawn, to which Crowley had belonged. The whole song is a paean to sex magick, with the lyric moving from basic seduction (the verse) to an orgy in the chorus (which ends “but let go of me!!!”—suggesting the singer’s either under a spell or is moving onto fresher prospects nearby).

The original “Holy Holy” was cut in June 1970 (with the bassist Herbie Flowers, who produced the session) and released in January 1971 as Mercury 6052 049 (c/w “Black Country Rock”). The remake was cut ca. August/September 1971 and, originally slated for the Ziggy Stardust LP, finally surfaced as the B-side to “Diamond Dogs” in June 1974 (it was included on the Ryko reissue of The Man Who Sold the World, although the remake was mislabeled as the original cut, which has never been re-released).

Top: Terry O’Neill, “Margaret Thatcher ca. 1970.”

30 Responses to Reissues: Holy Holy

  1. fluxkit says:

    I’m not able to get into this tune enough to really care what he’s singing about. It’s kind of a dud, I think, in either version.

  2. Jason Das says:

    Listening to the original for the first time ever as I type this. I definitely prefer the Spiders version, though the end—from the spacy “oho oh oh” through the reharmonzied/modulated bridges 2:10 in the original are cool, especially for producer Herbie Flowers’s bass flight.

    I do quite like this song. It’s catchy: I get it as an earworm even without listening to it for years. The Spiders’ version has a very compelling groove, great guitar, and that crazy pre-echo roar before the title line. I couldn’t care less about the lyrics, though learning about Bowie’s Crowley/occult interests is always interesting (thanks for that, Chris!).

    I was surprised that the band Holy Holy didn’t play their namesake song when I saw them recently!

    • col1234 says:

      it’s a bit funny that the band’s named after a song neither Visconti nor Woody played on (originally)

    • Jaf says:

      They released a cover of it about a year and a half ago as the b-side to a single called We Are King.

  3. Anonymous says:

    just been listening to the Rykodisc TMWSTW and the track would have fit really quite nicely on this album – instead of, say, Running Gun Blues or She Shook Me. It’s still not a great song, but in the context of the album it’s a winner.

  4. David Belbin says:

    First Bowie song I heard. Radio Luxembourg played it to death.

  5. Anonymous says:

    What a horrible picture

  6. s.t. says:

    The inclusion of the revamped version on Ryko’s Man Who Sold the World release led me to believe that it was a cut that had been lopped off of that album. When I finally heard the original, I totally understand why that would not have been included. Still not sure why they didn’t tack the remake onto Hunky Dory though.

    • fantailfan says:

      I think Ryko was led to believe the remake was the original. Bowie made no effort to correct the error, and didn’t seem to care about “setting the record straight.” It wasn’t for Ryko to correct it without official approval. (This goes for some of the misplaced artwork as well.) [I would believe that the change to Au20 ChangesBowie running order — replacing “Fame ’90” with the original–was made by Bowie, not Ryko.]

      To launch on a somewhat related tangent, Bowie’s public attitude towards his less-successful works is curious. Pete Townshend endlessly curates The Who catalog because he is interested in his past even if he doesn’t like it. Neil Young positively makes a fetish of it, and has for decades. Bowie just didn’t seem to care.

      I hate using the past tense.

      • fantailfan says:

        I’m being a bit harsh. Let’s say Bowie always had matters he considered more important than revisiting his back catalog, for his own, private reasons.

      • s.t. says:

        Very interesting, thanks.
        As for the matters of the past, I think it reflected his desire for tight control of his image as an artist. If an experiment failed, he wanted to toss the evidence in a locked vault. Thankfully, he sometimes came back around, like his Toy remakes and Time Will Crawl.

      • Dave L says:

        That’s an interesting point.

  7. Anonymous says:

    Even as one who needed a few listens to come around to this song, I’m a little bit curious as to why it’s so divisive.

    I found it to be a little by-the-numbers at first, a toss-off along the lines of Black Country Rock. But the same way I find that song to be unfairly maligned (it’s a throwaway T. Rex rip that’s as good as most of that band’s singles – and I say that as a moderate Bolan fan), Holy Holy revealed its charms to me eventually. Charms quite adequately summarized by Jason Das above – I’d add only a tremendously confident Bowie vocal to the list of positives.

  8. Phil Obbard says:

    Have always loved the remake — it would have worked beautifully on TMWSTW (if it had been available at the time, of course) and is stronger than some of the stuff that made it to Aladdin Sane. Or, if Bowie had left “The Jean Genie” as a single like “John, I’m Only Dancing”, it would have fit well on the LP in the same track position.

    The original “Holy Holy”, on the other hand, is a curio to me — like a demo, at best, and a lot less compelling than it’s immediate predecessor “The Prettiest Star”.

    As many others have observed, it’s odd how misaligned Bowie’s immediate post-“Space Oddity” singles were — it’s like the period from 1964-1971 is just a series of 7″ misfires for DB, with “Space Oddity” the exception the importance of which even Bowie didn’t recognize for a few years.

  9. steven says:

    absolutely incredible song… it’s one of the few tracks (blue jean is another) where it really proves just how amazing Bowie is by virtue of so clearly being one of the tracks where it’s not a top tier, A-list Bowie yet is still so, so good.

    prefer the remake. but there’s something really distinctive and great about this song. dunno. feel a lot of enthusiasm but no idea what to type.

  10. MC says:

    I got to know the Holy Holy remake very well thanks to its inclusion on the Bowie Rare compilation, which was a choice and very useful collection from the pre-Ryko, pre-Internet days. My completist side was pretty ticked off when I realized it was this version and not the original on the Ryko TMWSTW reissue, contrary to the labeling. When I finally got to hear the original for the first time last month (!!!) via YouTube, I realized why DB went with the Spiders revision: the earlier Holy Holy sucks!. I found it really limp and strained, demo quality at best. It’s odd considering the timeframe, but the later rendition matches up a lot better with TMWSTW; it’s almost the last gasp of that Black Country metal sound. It would have seemed really anomalous on Hunky Dory.

    As for the song itself, it’s pretty terrific. As sex music, it’s like the more serious counterpart to She Shook Me Cold. Great, spellbinding outro.

  11. Sky-Possessing Spider says:

    Just as an aside, I was in a branch of a store today we have here in Oz called “Mag Nation”, buying the latest Bowie tribute magazines from Q and Uncut.
    Just out of curiosity I asked the young girl at the counter who served me if she was a fan. She mumbled something about him being a bit before her time, before adding; “besides, he slept with thirteen year old girls”. Whether it’s true or not, and I hope it isn’t, I found it deeply disappointing that this was all that she took from the legacy of this brilliant and much-loved (and missed) artist.

  12. billter says:

    Today I find myself liking the sludgy tempo of the original single. It’s less like an inferior version of glam Bowie, more like a whole other direction that was never pursued.

  13. Matthew says:

    Well I’ve given it a few days but can’t say I can get into either version. Knew the remake from Rare lp and prefer it to the original, but that might be just familiarity. As I’m nothing if not partisan about Bowie I’ll get it more time. Anyone know if he ever played it live?

    • Jasmine says:

      Hi – he sang Holy Holy live on a UK (Granada) programme called Six O One: Newsday in Jan 71. But it’s not come to light as yet. Apparently he wore one of his Mr Fish dresses.

      • Matthew says:

        Thanks for the info, I’d love to see that. Not a show I remember, I wonder if they kept tapes back then.

      • col1234 says:

        yes, that’s (i think) its only performance. and tapes were allegedly wiped but who knows what’s out there?

  14. steven says:

    unrelated but i’m a big idiot for not putting Sell Me a Coat in my top 30

  15. Dave L says:

    I’d take this track over “It Ain’t Easy” any day.

  16. ge says:

    here’s a bit of trivia that few may know, the correct pronunciation of Crowley’s whole name: it rhymes with ‘an easter holy’
    uh-LEIS-ter Crow [like the bird] -lee’
    win bets, impress your roommates!

    and while while we’re at it, it’s ‘RD Laing[e]’, rhymes with ‘strange’

    • col1234 says:

      among those who didn’t know this was Bowie, who pronounces AC’s name as “CRAU-lee” on Quicksand

  17. Anonymous says:

    1st name = a buried detail in Confessions
    when he was toying with spellings as young man
    and the last name is rhymed with ‘holy’ in an AC poem
    [wonder if Jimmy Page could pass the quiz?, haha]

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