Reissues: Cygnet Committee

In December 2009, I had been writing the blog for nearly half a year, at a steady pace. Readership was modest and comments were few—I imagine the majority of readers at the time were people who liked my old blog and wondered what the hell I was doing.

There’s an arc of inspiration when it comes to a sequential blog like this—initial burst of ambition and fleetness of movement; mild elation when the posts begin stacking up and you feel that the writing’s improved and that you’ve found the right tone; and the inevitable slackening of energy, “God, why am I doing this?,” inspired by a cold-eyed look at future obligations and knowing how much more unpaid work lies ahead of you.

So I likely would have given up around then had it not been for the wise choice to write about someone of whose early work I knew little, so that the blog was fueled by my curiosity as much as anything. I found late Sixties Bowie fascinating, even grim fare like “God Knows I’m Good.” But it was “Cygnet Committee” that did the business. I listened to it for the first time and thought it was just awful, an endless spiel of hippie blather. Further listens convinced me that it was brilliant, ghastly, draining, muddled, cutting, and so on. The blog entry wound up being a muddle itself, a cloudy response to a clouded song.

As I argue below (much of the book revision, minus the substantial end-noted material about Sixties radicalism [now there’s a selling point!]), I believe “Cygnet” was something of the same for Bowie—that it was a necessary song for him, a dark magic ritual, an extended middle finger to the Sixties. The Bowie we came to know would not have existed without it. Nor, as it turned out, would the blog, book, etc.

Originally posted on 8 December 2009, it’s the Cygnet Committee:

Lover To the Dawn.
Cygnet Committee.
Cygnet Committee (BBC, 1970).

“Cygnet Committee” was, consecutively, a break-up letter to a communal arts center Bowie co-founded, a scattershot attack on the counterculture and a desperate self-affirmation. Deep in this gnomic, nearly ten-minute screed was a struggle to find a workable design for the years ahead, Bowie pledging himself to a life of creative destruction while keeping clear of professional revolutionaries. It was the sound of Bowie willing himself to become a stronger artist, hollowing himself out to let a greater creative force, for good or ill, take hold in him. The possession took. In fleeting moments, you can hear the apocalyptic, utopian voice of “Five Years” and “Sweet Thing,” of “Station to Station” and “‘Heroes.’” The man who was able to write those songs had to go through the crucible of “Cygnet Committee” first.

Bowie and his lover/flatmate Mary Finnigan founded the Beckenham Arts Lab in May 1969, one of roughly 50 such Labs in Britain at the time. Along with weekly musical performances at the Three Tuns pub, the Lab (aka “Growth”) offered tie-dying lessons, poetry readings, puppet shows, lectures and mime routines. Hoping to attract local kids and subsequently “turn on their parents,” the Lab’s slogan was “Growth is people, Growth is revolution.” Bowie envisioned an escape valve for suburban dreamers; perhaps he saw the Lab as a way to find younger versions of himself. “There was nothing in Beckenham, just television,” he told a Dutch journalist at the time. “The lab is for extroverts who wish to express themselves, not for established artists.” This was Bowie as proud counter-cultural Beckenhamite, a character out of Hanif Kureishi’s The Buddha of Suburbia, which would gently satirize this era.

In August 1969, interviewed by Finnigan for the International Times, Bowie said he hoped “Space Oddity” became a hit because it would mean exposure and capital for the Lab. Using sparkling ad-man copy, he claimed “Arts Labs should be for everybody, not just the so-called turned-on minority. We need energy from all directions, from heads and skin-heads alike.” It could be a bit much. The guitarist Keith Christmas, who would play on Space Oddity, recalled Bowie being “a twerp in those days…strum[ming] a few folk songs in between a lot of crap about changing the world.

becknhm

Nothing in particular soured Bowie on the Lab, at which he’d play regularly until March 1970. By then he’d assembled a hand- picked artistic community at his house in Haddon Hall and no longer had to publicly recruit followers. Yet he was noticeably estranged early on. Roger Wootton, a Lab regular, recalled Bowie as being an “outsider” in the pot-reeking, student-infested Three Tuns shows. “He was never really a part of what was going on. He didn’t seem to be one of the other people.” As the most talented and charismatic figure in the room, Bowie resented the apathetic types the Lab attracted upon its (relative) success. He’d wanted collaborators and got spectators; his encounters with mediocrities in hippie garb spouting “revolutionary” slogans became a drain on him.

As he told the journalist Patrick Salvo, Bowie intended the first harmonically free section of “Cygnet Committee” to symbolize the ideal of the Lab. “It was saying—Fellow man I do love you— I love humanity, I adore it, it’s sensational, sensuous, exciting—it sparkled and it’s also pathetic at the same time.” His players make a staggered entrance, as if plugging in when the mood strikes them. Over a murmuring backdrop of Three Tuns-esque chatter, Bowie sang arcing, eleventh-spanning phrases while Mick Wayne, using a volume pedal, played off a descending chromatic bassline.

worthing

The leak of a Bowie & Hutch composition called “Lover to the Dawn,” demoed on the same tape as “Space Oddity” revealed Bowie had used “Dawn” as the basis of the opening sections of “Cygnet Committee,” from the opening riff and bassline (itself taken from Led Zeppelin’s “Your Time Is Gonna Come”) through the “they drained her [my] very soul…dry” section. And the long closing section Bowie appended to the reconstituted “Lover to the Dawn” was a bog-standard rock ‘n’ roll progression, the “Stand By Me” I-vi-IV-V sequence he’d used before (see “And I Say to Myself”). Regardless of its length and furor, “Cygnet Committee” was a folk number bluntly welded to a rock song.

“Lover to the Dawn” also shed light on what happened in the mutation that created “Cygnet Committee.” The original song starred yet another “Hermione” figure, called “bitter girl” in its refrains: a woman weary of the incessant demands of her lovers, who’ve drained her soul dry. The original refrain had a sympathetic Bowie and Hutch (“you gave too much and you got nothing!”) urging the bitter girl to get on with her life—it’s something of a hippie “Georgie Girl.”

In “Cygnet Committee,” Bowie cast himself as the bitter girl (not for the last time) and there was no larking Hutchinson to tell him to grow up and out of it. Instead, the self-pity of “Lover to the Dawn” got blown up to widescreen proportions. Bitter Boy isn’t just heartbroken, he’s set upon by parasites of all shapes; his tragedy isn’t personal but that of an entire generation. Its last venomous C major verse became a jeremiad, calling out New Leftists, cult leaders and cult followers, cursing hippie capitalists and their slogans (including “kick out the jams” and “love is all we need,” the revolution brought to you by, respectively, Columbia and EMI).

This extended damning of a movement of which Bowie was barely part requires a touch of context. The British underground lived in a bubble. Unlike in France, China and the US, British youth (apart from those in Northern Ireland) were passive and quiet, if discontented, in the late Sixties. There was nothing equivalent to the violence of the Democratic National Convention in 1968 or the May 1968 student riots in Paris. Colin Crouch, the student union president at the London School of Economics, saw the few substantial protests of the time quickly devolve into games of dress-up. British radicals seemed to get stuck on the idea of protest, raising protest “to a position of value in its own right,” Crouch wrote. “The sit-in became not so much a part of the sojourn in the wilderness for the chosen people of the revolution, but a trailer for the Promised Land.

student-march4_300

Bowie used this failure, the failure of the Arts Lab writ large, as a means to rid himself of the suffocating cant and pretense of the counterculture. In December 1969 he lamented the hippie set as being “the laziest people I’ve met in my life. They don’t know what to do with themselves. Looking all the time for people to show them the way. They wear anything they’re told, and listen to any music they’re told to.” As he sang, they knew not the words of the Free States’ refrain. He’d spent the last years of the Sixties burying himself in committees (“submerging myself,” as he told Mary Finnigan); now he was free.

So with its dead fathers and sons of dirt, the 39-bar-long closing verse of “Cygnet Committee” was the radical faction that took over the whole enterprise. The faceless villains who turned up, busy slitting throats, killing children and betraying friends, predicted the underground’s slide into cheap criminality. Yet the lyric, in turns grandiose, mocking (of Dylan’s “Desolation Row” among others) and fanatic, was more Bowie purging himself of “taste” and “narrative,” ridding himself of the stink of bedsit laments and cabaret, and exploring a inner darkness, calling up images of supermen, ringleaders, wraiths. The “talking man,” a summoned demon who gives the singer access to his “many powers,” would be the dark muse of The Man Who Sold the World.

As on “Unwashed and Somewhat Slightly Dazed,” “Cygnet Committee” suffered from an under-rehearsed band, having to master a lengthy, harmonically dense song, that couldn’t deliver the searing accompaniment its vocal demanded (if you’re going to quote the MC5, you should lay down heavier fire than this, or at least ditch the harpsichord). The production did the song little favors, as the drums sound like paper and John Lodge’s bass goes missing towards the close. Bowie gave a more vital, if still ragged performance for a John Peel BBC broadcast of the following year. Despite occasionally bungling lines from his ramble of a lyric, he sang with an eerie sense of self-possession. “Cygnet Committee” had spent itself out in its making, its recording the afterimage of some lost primal inspiration. Still, in its tortuous way, it was as critical to Bowie’s development as “Space Oddity.”

Recorded: (“Lover to the Dawn,”) ca. mid-April 1969, 24 Foxgrove Road; (album) ca. late August-early September 1969, Trident. First release: 14 November 1969, Space Oddity. Broadcast: 5 February 1970, The Sunday Show. Live: 1969-70.

Top: Bernardine Dohrn, La Pasionaria of the Weather Underground, Chicago, September 1969; Bowie at the Arts Lab, Three Tuns Pub, Beckenham (Rex Stevenson), 1969; John May, the Worthing Workshop, ca. 1969.

23 Responses to Reissues: Cygnet Committee

  1. Patrick says:

    Best thing about it is the title. “Cygnet Committee” would make a great name for a band, if by now, it hasn’t already somewhere.

  2. Love Cygnet Committee. I see it as a bookend, with Blackstar on the other end, as the beginning and end of Bowie’s long-form experimentation. I don’t believe he’d written anything this long before?

    • col1234 says:

      not songs, i don’t think, but he had drafted a full rock opera, “ernie johnson,” the year before

      • estelle (means star!) says:

        great to hear about that opera!
        in several much later interviews he mentions that this was the sort of stuff he wanted to do.. but as he did none i was wondering what sort of “bluff” that was. okay no bluff then. but yes it must take too long maybe so he reverted to concept albums and personages and so many of his songs have several characters. like mini operas… With Lazarus he could complete at last his vocation… Great to know. A very happy end then…

        Thanks for the blog and this page on Cygnet. no words for thag song….
        love to all (yes i want to believe…)

      • megan says:

        In 1974 (a time when Bowie surely had many irons in the fire), Bowie, Lindsay Kemp and Celestino Coronado enlisted the Spanish writer Vicente Molina Foix to work on a treatment for a Don Quixote opera/film–with Kemp as Sancho and Bowie as Quixote, set in Hollywood with classic films taking the place of the books in Cervantes’ work. Bowie got sucked into success and it never came together (though Coronado and Kemp went on to do a Midsummer Night’s Dream). It’s fun to imagine what a beautiful disaster it might have been. You can read the treatment (in Spanish) here: http://www.letraslibres.com/revista/convivio/el-quijote-de-david-bowie

  3. comicalArchitect says:

    I made a playlist of the best cover (in my opinion) of each song on this blog’s Top 100. It runs the gamut from dozens of views to tens of millions, from best-selling bands to guys in their basements with acoustic guitars. Can be found here: https://www.youtube.com/playlist?list=PL5y8o4Qom-MWzouig24HJPwywvz_AcNGd.

    Also, great writeup once again, Chris.

  4. JJ says:

    .and the inevitable slackening of energy, “God, why am I doing this?,”.

    Please continue doing this. I am learning a lot and seeing all those songs I have listened to over the years in a completely new light!

  5. MC says:

    I really had trouble assimilating this song when I first encountered the Space Oddity album at age 11. (Believe it or not, I actually found the Low instrumentals a lot more accessible at that age.) Over time, I came under the song’s spell, mainly due to DB’s towering vocal performance. On that basis as well, I would rank the BBC version above it, just because Bowie’s singing on that version is even more astonishing – definitely his early vocal peak. I tend to agree that the band aren’t what they could be – imagine the TMWSTW combo let loose on it. Call it a flawed masterpiece then, and the first bona fide Bowie epic.

    • estelle (means star!) says:

      I belive you. In fact to me Low B-side is plain classical music. Oh ok, not plain. but its sounds so logical somehow –means so classical, including the world ethnic classical style. A series of classics from the world including Kenya, Bulgaria etc. all revisited by Bowie. So no wonder a kid can feel its validity. But maybe I was a Bowie kid… As a fan put it on Youtube “he is part of our DNA.” To me that song is part of of my makeup.

    • megan says:

      I put together a compilation of all of Bowie’s albums through Scary Monster for my 14-year-old son and was surprised when he told me this was one of his favorite songs. He has interesting taste, so I gave it a deep listen.

      Bowie’s biting (and bitchy) critique of the late sixties political and cultural movements still feels relevant (especially in the tumultuous country where we live). Unmooring himself from the hippie ideology was critical to the development of his aesthetic and evolving sound. I could be wrong, but this may also be the first song where he overtly references 1984. He employs his “multiple voices” storytelling technique to create a sort of anti-manifesto-manifesto. It’s where he throws down the gauntlet with references to the Beatles, Dylan, MC5, etc. It reminds me of what Harold Bloom called “The Anxiety of Influence,” that moment when the follower overthrows the master and frees himself creatively.

      • Matthew says:

        After recently rereading 1984 (and with diamond dogs playing frequently) I was wondering the same thing. Something in the line about a child laying slain on the ground put me in mind of O’Brien’s remarks about being willing to kill or maim if the greater good required it.

        O’Brien 1984
        ‘You are prepared to give your lives?’
        ‘You are prepared to commit murder?’
        ‘If, for example, it would somehow serve our interests to throw sulphuric acid in a child’s face — are you prepared to do that?’

        I always thought this was DB writing a Dylan song although, as with any homage by him, it does contain some barbs. DB never seems to buy into the whole hero worship thing.

      • megan says:

        I like the idea of Cygnet Committee being a sort of rambling, distended Dylan song filtered through David Bowie’s radically different brain.

        And the idea of hurting children as the ultimate sign of mob rule and the total breakdown of society is also there in Five Years:

        “A girl my age went off her head, hit some tiny children
        If the black hadn’t pulled her off, I think she would have killed them…”

        There’s a lot of double speak in the song. A “love machine” that murders innocents. “The silent guns of love
        will blast the sky.” “God is just a word.” The quick progression from seemingly good intentions to totalitarian rule via linguistic permutations:

        I believe in the Power of Good
        I Believe in the State of Love
        I Will Fight For the Right to be Right
        I Will Kill for the Good of the Fight for the Right to be Right

      • Matthew says:

        The Dylan influence on Bowie is a bit of a interest of mine. This track specifically reminds me of Desolation Row, a song that is very hard to interpret, which was released in 1965. Desolation Row seems to be a place or state of mind which the counter culture idealists can enter but the unenlightened can’t. By 1969 it’s all collapsing, the mainstream back in control and Bowie is quite brutal about this. The ‘Love Machine’ I think is the corporate taking over the counter culture, it ‘lumbers’ and then;

        ‘Ploughing down man, woman, listening to its command
        But not hearing anymore
        Not hearing anymore
        Just the shrieks from the old rich’

        Love machine is a great example of doublespeak, just about the only thing a machine can’t do is have emotion.

        And after all just what is a Cygnet Committee?

      • megan says:

        I have no idea if this is really the case, but as a lit nerd, I’ve always thought of the Cygnet Committee as a lofty sort of neo-symbolist intellectual group run amok. The swan was *the* symbol for turn-of-the-century symbolist writers like Mallarmé and Bowie was so clearly influenced by symbolism’s “poètes maudits” like Verlaine, Rimbaud and Baudelaire. (These were the folks that first popularized “synesthesia” as a rhetorical device.) Dylan and the Beats were also hugely influenced by these writers–Dylan name checks Rimbaud and Verlaine in “You’re Gonna Make Me Lonesome When You Go.” As the symbol of impermanent, dreamlike grace and beauty, the swan often met a poignant bad end (getting frozen into a pond, having its beautiful neck twisted and strangled). And then there’s the ancient notion that swans–not known precisely for their beautiful voices–sing their most beautiful song as they are dying

        Dylan also has a “swan song”–the Ballad of the Gliding Swan. It’s quite the creepy, voyeuristic swan.

        How can you not love the image of a bureaucratic committee of baby swans, removed from reality, who get carried away forcing peace and love down everyone’s throats to the point that they (inadvertently?) bring about war and destruction.

      • Estelle says:

        I don’t know what a Cygnet committee is. I read that Bowie was spending hours and days ans weeks in those days discussing in various commettees. That’s for Commitee🙂
        As for Cygnet, someone made the remark that there was a pound in that park where they had that Free Festival… With ducks and all.
        Also, note that in 1970, a song called “Ride a White Swan” made Marc Bolan (a friend and model for young Bowie then) a star and that Swan boosted T.Rex’s fame and reputation (and the follow-up single “Hot Love” went to number 1 for six weeks as the phenomenon of glam rock took hold). And the producer was Toni Visconti. Maybe Toni is a missing link responsible for the word… Swan? Just a wild guess
        And anyway how come ‘Swan’ was turned into ‘Cygnet’? I suspect some words play there, because Cygnet is a rich word. But I won’t speculate further. Anyway for years I listened to that song enjoying the energy rather than the word-by-word story. I missed something, defintely, as I cae to realise since his passing, but I did not lose anything. It was very powerful and I am not sure knowing what a Cygnet Committee is will make it more potent. Plus as the first comment above said, the Cygnet Committee was a crap band.😉
        (love all comments here, so enriching, thanks everyone!)

      • Matthew says:

        As a youngster I just enjoyed this song too without really understanding all the nuances it contains or Bowie’s involvement with the hippy movement. I was always intrigued by the title though.
        On a more recent reflection the only other song I can think of that mentions baby swans is ‘The Ugly Duckling’. Maybe something about not realising what ones future potential could be in there somewhere?

  6. billter says:

    You previously connected this song (correctly) to “The Next Day,” and upon further review, it’s really the template for “Heroes,” isn’t it? A solitary voice crying out in the wilderness: “We want to live”/”We can be heroes.”

    As with “Heroes,” there are so many levels of irony and counter-irony here that we’ll never untangle them all. But when all is said and done the irony fades away, and all we’re left with is the very voice of life itself – fighting, for whatever reason, simply to continue.

    And the next day, and the next, and another day….

  7. Jet Boy says:

    As has been stated by your good self and others this is one of the signposts to Bowie’s future and as such I consider it to be an absolutely superb track.

    I felt compelled to write on the line “If you’re going to quote the MC5… you should at least ditch the harpsichord” which I found wonderful.

    And this in an absorbing and fascinating review

  8. Matthew says:

    I got the 40th anniversary edition for fathers day so I’ve been listening to it all over again. This song, particularly the latter half, still has plenty of resonance today. Things have been a bit turbulent over here (UK) recently and some people on tv and radio would definitely force me to believe. I’m sure some are not too far away from fighting for the right to be right etc.
    ‘So much has gone and little is new’

  9. Estelle says:

    Much later, DB apparently made another bitter reference to his experience with the art lab in 1996 when commenting on the process of art making –there it’s more about plastic arts, and the movie Basquiat in which he played Andy Warhol.

    First he states things like “the ability to make art is in fact inherent within all of us, [this] demolishes the idea of art for commerce, and that is not good for business” and later, bitterly “It’s nice to say [that] on the street, but you try and see and work in practice…”

    Starts at about min 27:10 here

    I just watched that and am glad to see the art lab came up decades later, still as a vivid ‘pain’ or concern. I mean, it makes me love DB even more –how concerned he was with freeing people, and yet had to live with the fact that thi is impossible. Well, he did free people, many people, to some extent. And he knew he did.
    Long life Bowie. David Jones is no more, but David Bowie Is.
    And this blogs helps tremendously.

  10. Estelle says:

    Does anyone have any idea where Bowie got the sort of analysis he offers in the discussion abovee, about the alchemy between Warhol and Basquiat. I am curious. He comments on the weariness of Warhol (and Amricanart) of religiousity in images, and the resulting attraction to the passion in the figurative art of Basquiat. Very impressive analysis, he himself is proud of. I wonder where he got that from. His own analysis, based on his knowledge? Or would he somehow quote somebody else, like the professional art critics he worked with in the mid 1990s?

  11. Estelle says:

    Wanted to apologise for the typos.
    Aslo to add that, as for ‘freeing people’, DB knew how influential he was on other musicians and was so happy about it. And in the discussion I mention above (I came to listen to it because of the current buzz abut his art collection), he also acknowledges a healing power of art for those who are at the receiving end.

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