Pin Ups is the oft-forgotten runt of David Bowie’s Seventies albums. By the summer of 1973, Bowie, who had been touring since spring ’72, was exhausted and empty. He hadn’t written a song in half a year and RCA wanted a new record. So he made a covers album. RCA would have some fresh product for Christmas (and it would sell, too, hitting #1 in the UK) and Bowie would buy some time.
Bowie told an interviewer that Pin Ups‘ dozen covers were all “records I have back at home,” while on the LP sleeve he wrote that he had seen most of the bands at clubs like the Marquee or the Ricky-Tick. But these songs weren’t, for the most part, by Bowie’s primary musical influences. There’s no Jacques Brel, Lou Reed, John Lennon, Scott Walker, Anthony Newley, Bob Dylan, Neil Young, etc. Only Pete Townshend and Ray Davies perhaps qualified. On Pin Ups, Bowie mainly covered his jobbing contemporaries: the bands who had beat him out on the charts, who had outperformed him on stage, and who he had outlived.
Pin Ups was also crafted to serve two distinct audiences. For the British, it was a nostalgic tribute, with Bowie revisiting pop hits from nearly a decade before. So the record fit in well with the future-throwback ethos of the period, with the burgeoning “Fifties” revival (see “Drive In Saturday”), David Essex getting a hit song with a lyric composted from ’50s rock & roll choruses, or neo-Teddy Boy bands like Mud.
For Americans, though, Pin Ups might as well have been marketed as a new Bowie record. Only “Friday on My Mind,” “Here Comes the Night” and “Shapes of Things” had been US Top 40 hits. Bowie’s picks were generally obscurities, like a Kinks B-side, or tracks by bands unknown to Americans like The Mojos and the Merseys.
Most of these groups were young, decidedly unprofessional, seemingly more at home practicing for a teen dance than going out on national tour…they exemplified the berserk pleasure that comes with being on stage outrageous, the relentless middle-finger drive and determination offered only by rock & roll at its finest.
Lenny Kaye, Nuggets liner notes.
Most of all, Pin Ups‘ key counterpart was Lenny Kaye’s Nuggets 2-LP garage rock compilation, released in fall 1972*. The early ’70s, a time when the first generation who had grown up with rock & roll were having children, was unsurprisingly when the “official” history of rock & roll was being drafted. Call it the Whig (or Rolling Stone) theory of rock music, one which begins with, say, Bill Haley and culminates in Dark Side of the Moon: basically, it’s a steady climb from primitive teenage dance music up towards “relevance” and “complexity” with occasional refreshing dips back into “roots” music.
Nuggets/Pin Ups created a counter-narrative, which basically became the punk rebuttal: immediacy over history, the disposable trashy single over the concept LP, spontaneity over chops, with lyrics centered on dancing, alienation and sex. Yet Bowie didn’t commit to this line either, as on Pin Ups he often interpreted basic pop singles as campy affectations, sometimes seemingly at war with his more traditionalist band.
The oldest track Bowie covered on Pin Ups was The Mojos‘ “Everything’s Alright,” which had hit the Top 10 in Britain in March 1964. The Mojos were a Liverpool band who got better gigs and national singles by riding The Beatles’ coattails, along with other Mersey acts like The Big Three, Billy J. Kramer and Gerry and the Pacemakers. The Mojos followed their first single, the fantastic envy-ridden “They Say You Found a New Baby”, with “Everything’s Alright” (written as “Al’right” on the label), which seems inspired by the Beatles’ version of “Twist and Shout”: it’s a primal stomper crafted to get a club audience screaming.
“Everything’s Alright” barely has a verse, just a couple of lines to fill spaces between choruses, where the beatific promise of “everything’s alright” is fulfilled with “let me hold your hand—be your lovin’ man” or “let me give you lovin’ like nobody can” repeated like mantras. The chorus is standard IV-I-V, with the dominant (G) coming on “let me hold your hand”: the band rides the chorus until it nearly breaks, then spurs the song further with a step-by-step move from C to F. It’s a record of pure pleasure, offering the wonderful lie that it, or the dance, or the teenage night, will somehow never end, and just keep building to greater and greater excitement. So the single’s sudden collapse ending, with the final “everything’s alright” delivered with exhaustion, seems tragic.
Bowie’s version has some tight playing by Mick Ronson, Mike Garson and Trevor Bolder, and it’s dominated by Bowie’s new drummer, Aynsley Dunbar. Dunbar not only gave Bowie some cred, as he had played on the original Mojos track (so possibly he suggested covering it) but he’s also a far more dynamic presence on record then the steady but unspectacular Woody Woodmansey, who’d been sacked before the Pin Ups sessions (on his wedding day!). Bowie sings the verses pretty straight, undermines his chorus with a set of goony backing vocals.
“Everything’s Alright” ultimately lacks the original’s punch, as is the case with most of the Pin Ups covers. The original tracks were mainly recorded live in the studio, direct to two- or four-track, and mixed in mono, while the Pin Ups covers were given clinical, dry production by Ken Scott, with a stereo mix that sometimes confines Ronson’s guitar to one channel and often buries Bowie’s backing vocals. Back-to-back comparison of the originals and Pin Ups often makes the Bowie versions sound dissipated.
Recorded ca. July 1973, and Bowie performed “Everything’s Alright” in his 1980 Floor Show on 19 October 1973. It’s a respectably manic version that comes close to parody thanks to the spastic dance moves of Bowie’s backing singers.
Top: Don McCullin, “East End, London, 1973.”
* I’ll get to other major counterpart to Pin Ups, Bryan Ferry’s These Foolish Things, when we hit “Sorrow” in a few weeks.