Of the demos included in the Conversation Piece set, most of which were recorded between spring 1968 and summer 1969, “Animal Farm” is among the slightest. It sounds about two-thirds written: over jabbed acoustic guitar chords, Bowie scats through a chorus that’s still in a cloudy state, in which it may well have remained.
What to say about a song that’s barely there in its demo form? Lyrically it’s centered on the idea of some communal “animal farm” whose gates are barred to anyone over 30 years old. The verse has a 43-year-old woman (treated here as high old age) who “drinks the morning papers and reads the tea” and dreams of joining a group of hippies out in the country somewhere. The refrain is, apparently, the voice of the commune rejecting her.
The Kinks’ “Animal Farm” might have sparked Bowie’s title (it would depend on the date of Bowie’s composition, which isn’t known; The Village Green Preservation Society came out in November 1968). Ray Davies is in his usual state of being exhausted and terrified by the modern world and dreams of going off to live with the pigs and sheep and goats (though he wants his girl to come with him)—it’s a dry run for his even more civilization-cursing “Apeman” two years later. There was also the novel Logan’s Run, published in 1967, set in a future Earth where the maximum age is 21 (the film adaptation raised the limit to 30), upon which you commit suicide in the Sleepshop, get dispatched by a Sandman such as the title character, or try to escape to Sanctuary.
But this is all looking too far afield. The key ancestor is Bowie’s “There Is a Happy Land,” a song about the secret factions and legends of childhood, which adults can no longer access. “There is a happy land where only children live/ You’ve had your chance and now the doors are closed sir, Mr. Grownup. Go away sir.” In his songs of the late Sixties and early Seventies, Bowie regarded the counterculture as a desperate and ultimately-doomed extension of childhood.
Recorded: ca. late spring-autumn 1968 (possibly winter-early spring 1969), likely either 39 Manchester Street or 22 Clareville Grove, London. David Bowie: lead vocal, acoustic guitar. First release: 15 November 2019, Conversation Piece.
Top: John Olson: “The Family of Mystic Arts Commune, Sunny Valley, Oregon,” 1969. (LIFE, “The Commune Comes to America,” 18 July 1969).