Andy Warhol

March 2, 2010

Andy Warhol (first performance w/Dana Gillespie, 1971).
Andy Warhol (Hunky Dory).
Andy Warhol (Dana Gillespie, 1971).
David Bowie’s Factory Screen Test (14 September 1971).
Andy Warhol (live, 1972).
Andy Warhol (live, 1996).

What kind of man would paint a Campbell’s soup can? That’s what aggravates people. That’s the premise behind anti-style, and anti-style is the premise behind me.

David Bowie, ca. 1972.

William S. Burroughs: I don’t think that there is any person there. It’s a very alien thing, completely and totally unemotional. [Warhol]’s really a science fiction character. He’s got a strange green color.

Bowie: That’s what struck me. He’s the wrong color, this man is the wrong color to be a human being.

Bowie/Burroughs interview, Rolling Stone, February 1974.

Unlike Bowie’s earlier records, Hunky Dory is sequenced clearly: the first side showcases David Bowie, bright young composer, while the flip is the “tribute” side—the opening Biff Rose cover is followed by back-to-back homages to Andy Warhol, Bob Dylan and Lou Reed. Then, finally dispelling the past, the record closes with “The Bewlay Brothers,” a song no one but Bowie could have written.

Of the three tributes, “Andy Warhol” is the briefest and oddest, reflecting that unlike Dylan and (especially) Reed, who had been formative influences on Bowie, Warhol was a relatively new interest. Still, it was an intense one: Bowie’s seeming attempts to found a Bromley outpost of Warhol’s Factory was part of his overall fascination with Warhol’s world, as was his hobnobbing in 1971 with the London cast of Pork. Warhol maxims like “if you want to know all about me, just look at the surface of my paintings and films…there’s nothing behind it” fed Bowie’s designs for his own plastic rock & roll star.

In “Andy Warhol”‘s two verses, Bowie uses Warhol as a paper doll, placing him against various backdrops (“Andy walking, Andy tired…send him on a pleasant cruise”), observing his absent reactions, clucking at the tedium of his life (Warhol would’ve agreed that making art is boring). The chorus rewrites Warhol’s statement that he was indistinguishable from his paintings; to hang a Warhol on your wall is the same as (if not superior to) having Warhol over for dinner. The lyric views Warhol as he would view himself: at a distance, without visible emotion, and with a faint sense of amusement.

On the studio recording, Bowie’s detached vocal is met by a harshly-strummed, “dry” acoustic guitar accompaniment by Bowie and Mick Ronson, who plays the sinuous hook that first appears in the intro and returns at the ends of verses. The verses are built around the home key of E minor, moving from Em to A to C and ending strangely on the “leading tone” of D, which also begins the eight-bar chorus.

Furthering the alienation, the Hunky Dory track is presented as a deliberately artificial construct, a brief performance (only two verses and three choruses) framed by a fifty-second intro in which two synthesizer lines play while Bowie checks that his guitar’s in tune, and corrects producer Ken Scott’s pronunciation (“Andy Warhall, take one.” “It’s War-HULL, actually,” Bowie replies. “As in HULLS”), and a nearly minute-long guitar outro that seems intended to disorient a listener’s sense of time (for instance, the seemingly random stomps and handclaps). There are three guitars in the outro: one hits over and over on the chord (Em), another plays two alternating notes on the off-beats and the third (Ronson, I’m assuming) is the same chord shapes transposed over various frets on the guitar (there’s a better tab visual at this site). It ends with Bowie and Ronson applauding themselves.

Bowie had written “Andy Warhol” for the singer Dana Gillespie, who debuted it at Bowie’s 3 June 1971 BBC session (Gillespie’s recording of it, while cut in the summer of 1971, wasn’t released until 1974’s Weren’t Born a Man), and the Hunky Dory version was recorded ca. June-July 1971 (it served as the B-side of “Changes” in 1972, with the intro excised). Bowie played “Warhol” in two subsequent BBC radio sessions, as well as in many of his 1972 shows, then retired it. He later recast the song as a drum & bass-inspired piece in the mid-’90s that sounds more dated than the original. (And then there’s Rachel Stevens’ “Funky Dory.”)

Bowie and Warhol first met in New York in September 1971—Bowie happily let Warhol film and photograph him, then played Warhol an acetate of “Andy Warhol” (which Warhol hated so much allegedly he fled the room). They would meet several times over the following decade but only formally. Warhol died in 1987, and Bowie closed the circle by playing him on screen (wearing one of Warhol’s own wigs) in Julian Schnabel’s Basquiat.

Top: Andy Warhol, Dennis Hopper, 1971.


Fill Your Heart

February 9, 2010


Fill Your Heart.
Fill Your Heart (live, 1971).

Bowie seemed to adore “Fill Your Heart,” a collaboration between the hippie comedian Biff Rose and ’70s malignance Paul Williams: it was in his live sets by early 1970 and he led off the second side of Hunky Dory with it, his first cover song on record since “I Pity The Fool.”

Where the other Rose song Bowie covered, “Buzz the Fuzz,” was a hippie drug joke, “Fill Your Heart” is music for squares. It goes far beyond the realm of squares, really: it seems best suited to appeal to delusional old people, toddlers and good-tempered dogs. But you can see why “Fill Your Heart” entranced Bowie—its lyric offers comfort and peace (“fear is in your head/only in your head, so forget your head”), promising that the pain of consciousness can be alleviated by love, by losing yourself entirely in someone else. Lovers never lose, as the song goes.

Rose delivered those lines with the trace of a smirk, while Tiny Tim, who covered the song as the b-side of “Tiptoe Through the Tulips,” sang it with glee and amazement, as though he’d finally found a lyric that topped his own extravagant persona. Bowie, on Hunky Dory, is so committed to the song’s treacly philosophy that he descends into pure tastelessness—at times gurning like a gruesome holiday camp performer. In its way, “Fill Your Heart” is the most disturbing track on the record.

Mick Ronson does the light-orchestra arrangements (the LP sleeve credits the influence of Arthur G. Wright, who had arranged Rose’s recording),  Rick Wakeman gets the showcase piano solo and Bowie provides the saxophone.

First performed at the BBC on 2 February 1970, and again on 21 September 1971; the Hunky Dory version, recorded ca. July-August 1971, was a last-minute addition to the LP, replacing “Bombers” (probably still the right call); Bowie opened his set at Aylesbury with it, on 25 September 1971.

Top: “Drunk NCOs, Osnabruck,” 1970.


Oh! You Pretty Things

February 5, 2010

Oh! You Pretty Things (LP, 1971).
Oh! You Pretty Things (Peter Noone, 1971).
Oh! You Pretty Things (broadcast, 1972).
Oh! You Pretty Things (Hammersmith Odeon, 1973).


You must face the fact that yours is the last generation of homo sapiens. As to the nature of that change, we can tell you very little. All we have discovered is that it starts with a single individual—always a child—and then spreads explosively, like the formation of crystals around the first nucleus in a saturated solution. Adults will not be affected, for their minds are already set in an unalterable mould.

In a few years it will all be over, and the human race will have divided in twain. There is no way back, and no future for the world you know. All the hopes and dreams of your race are ended now. You have given birth to your successors, and it is your tragedy that you will never understand them…

Arthur C. Clarke, Childhood’s End.

He stands there thinking, the kids keep coming, they keep crowding you up.

John Updike, Rabbit, Run.

“Oh! You Pretty Things” was the first composition to emerge from Bowie’s composition binge in late 1970 (Bowie’s new publisher nabbed it for Peter Noone to record as his debut single) and it signals a change in Bowie’s writing. For one thing, it’s likely the first song Bowie composed on piano rather than on guitar. Songs composed on piano are often more harmonically adventurous than guitar songs—in “Pretty Things,” some fifteen different chords appear over the course of a three-minute song (with every pitch in the D-flat scale (the home key) eventually used). John Lennon in the late ’60s started composing on piano because it led him to unexpected chord progressions, and some of Bowie’s songs from this period suggest he was following a similar design.

There’s also a greater irony and clarity in Bowie’s lyric. Sure, Bowie’s singing about the supplanting of homo sapiens by a more evolved species (you know, your basic pop lyric), territory he already covered in “The Supermen,” but where “The Supermen” is brutish and ridiculous, with its naked Titans grappling each other on some lost island, “Oh! You Pretty Things” is charming, eerie and domestic. It opens one peaceful morning in a quiet English home:

Wake up you sleepy head,
Put on your clothes, shake off your bed.
Put another log on the fire for me,
I’ve made some breakfast and coffee.

And when the cataclysm comes, the singer regards it as he would a traffic accident:

Look out my window, what do I see?
A crack in the sky and a hand reaching down to me…

The lyric owes a great deal to Clarke’s Childhood’s End (Nicholas Pegg suggests another likely inspiration, Bulwer-Lytton’s The Coming Race, which Bowie namechecks). In Childhood’s End, a race of aliens called the Overlords arrive on Earth to end war, hunger and unrest. (Spoilers ahead.) But the Overlords are revealed as midwives, here to supervise the birth of the next species of humanity. It ends with the final generation of homo sapiens living out their days in empty peace while their children roam about the stars, acting in unknowable ways.

I think that we have created a child who will be so exposed to the media that he will be lost to his parents by the time he is 12.

David Bowie, new father, interview with Melody Maker, 22 January 1972.

The resonance of “Oh! You Pretty Things” comes from how it uses these Nietzschean SF trappings as a metaphor for how a generation regards its successor with longing, fear and resentment (never more so than with the so-called Greatest Generation and their children the Boomers), or, even closer to home, how a parent can regard his or her children. Once you become a parent, you lose precedence in your own life—your own needs and desires are shunted aside, and you spend years as servant and guide to your replacement, who will go on to have richer experiences and greater opportunities than you ever had (that’s if you’re lucky). More bluntly, once you reproduce, your genetic purpose is fulfilled and all that remains is age, redundancy and death.

So Bowie, who was about to become a father when he wrote this song, offered a funny, extravagant depiction of paternal anxiety, something of a kinder cousin to David Lynch’s Eraserhead (which in part was inspired by Lynch’s fears after the birth of his daughter).

There’s as much acceptance in it as there is anxiety. Just listen to the way Bowie delivers the lines “All the nightmares came today/And it looks as though they’re here to stay,” with a shrug, even sounding a bit cavalier (the only harsh note comes with the jarring line “the earth is a bitch”). Wry acceptance is all one can offer when the world is so eager to leave you behind. After all, the world into which we are born and which forms us—its people, its colors and faces, its houses, its music and smells—dies so many years before we do, leaving us to spend much of our lives in unconscious mourning for it.

“Pretty Things” isn’t mournful. It ruefully celebrates its generational turmoil, in the way of a man faintly grinning while his house is being torn down; if it’s also a coming-out song, as some have argued, it’s from the perspective of an older man watching liberated boys cavort on a street he was afraid to be seen on. It marvels at the young, beautiful and allegedly revolutionary (the way Michelangelo Antonioni made two vacant pretty kids into icons in Zabriskie Point) and takes comfort that the kids are doomed to suffer the same displacement.

We’ve Finished Our News

Hunky Dory is Bowie’s early self-compilation, a shop window for his wares to date: folk meditations (“Quicksand”), mime performances (“Eight Line Poem”), Velvets-esque rock (“Queen Bitch”), tributes to elders (“Andy Warhol,” “Song For Bob Dylan”), fractured music hall (“Fill Your Heart”), marquee pop (“Changes,” “Life on Mars”) and even an oddity epilogue, “The Bewlay Brothers,” in which Bowie brings back the Laughing Gnomes.

“Oh! You Pretty Things” would seem to fall in the music-hall category, its three verses carried entirely by Bowie’s voice and piano*, while Mick Ronson, Woody Woodmansey and Trevor Bolder are confined to support work in the choruses. The track denies the pleasures of simple pop, however—the piano sounds harsh and dry, and the song itself is constructed oddly. It has a 9-bar opening in F major that moves from 2/4 time to a single bar of 3/4 and ends with two 4/4 bars of pounded chords, and in the verses the piano accompaniment is restless and agitating, never letting the vocal rest comfortably: chords are constantly shifting (“a crack in the sky and a hand reaching down to me,” scarcely more than a bar’s length, goes from Bb7/D to Ebm to Gb/Fb to Cb/Eb), while the bass often alternates between single notes and repeated octave leaps, and even falls suddenly out in the penultimate bar of the verse. An odd 2 1/2 bar break, briefly changing time, separates the first and second verses.

The chorus—hummable, harmonized, pounding (a piano chord for each beat), jaunty—comes twice as a relief. It’s the song’s sunny public face. But the restlessness returns soon enough, and the song closes with a ritardando bar ending in C, the dominant of F, leaving the song with a sense of unease (cleverly, however, Bowie sequenced the track so that it was followed immediately by “Eight Line Poem,” which starts in F, and so resolving the earlier song).

“Oh! You Pretty Things” was demoed ca. December 1970, and its studio take was recorded ca. July-August 1971: on side A of Hunky Dory. Bowie’s version was preceded by the Noone single (RAK 114), which was released in April 1971 and reached #13, the best showing of a Bowie song since the ’60s (to appease censors Noone changed one line to “the Earth is a beast,” which is an improvement).

Bowie played “Pretty Things” three times in BBC sessions—the first is lost, the second (3 June 1971) is on the Japanese Bowie at the Beeb, while the third (22 May 1972) is on the standard Bowie at the Beeb. Bowie also played it on the BBC’s The Old Grey Whistle Test on 8 February 1972, and during the Ziggy Stardust tour of ’72-’73 he often included the song in a medley with “Wild Eyed Boy From Freecloud” and “All the Young Dudes.” The last murky recording here is from the Spiders’ last concert at the Hammersmith Odeon, on 3 July 1973.

* Rick Wakeman (of Yes fame) played the piano for most of the Hunky Dory sessions, but I’m pretty sure Bowie’s on piano here—the rawness of the performance, for one thing (compare it to the assured playing in “Changes,” for example), and also because Bowie’s piano during the BBC sessions is very close to the studio track.

Top: Sirkka-Liisa Konttinen, “Children in the backlane of Kendal Street,” 1971.