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.

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The Supermen

January 5, 2010

The Supermen (LP version).
The Supermen (1971 remake).
The Supermen (live, 1972).
The Supermen (live, 2004).

I teach you the superman. Man is something that is to be surpassed. What have you done to surpass man?…

Lo, I teach you the superman: he is this lightning, he is this madness!

Friedrich Nietzsche, Also Sprach Zarathustra: “Zarathustra’s Prologue.”

His other great inspiration is mythology. He has a great need to believe in the legends of the past, particularly those of Atlantis; and for the same need he has crafted a myth of the future, a belief in an imminent race of supermen called homo superior. It’s his only glimpse of hope, he says—“all the things that we can’t do they will.”

Michael Watts, Bowie profile in Melody Maker, 22 January 1972.

Bowie, who never had the sunniest of dispositions, grew apocalyptic at the dawn of the 1970s. He knew what was coming: neo-fascism, nuclear war, authoritarian cults of personality, decadence, civilization’s end (he gave the human race 40 years to live, soon cut it down to five). Worse, he had started reading Nietzsche, mainly Also Sprach Zarathustra and Beyond Good and Evil, and took from the former the concept of a new race of overmen who would supplant homo sapiens. For Bowie, this was cause for slight optimism.

“The Supermen,” the first fruit of this new infatuation, isn’t as much future prediction as it is primordial memory, with overmen at the dawn of time on their “loveless isle,” playing and battling (which seem to be one and the same). It’s akin to Donovan’s “Atlantis,” from 1968, but where Donovan had envisioned the few survivors of Atlantis bestowing art and civilization upon the human race, Bowie’s supermen are brutes, nightmare Teutonic demigods. In a 1976 interview, Bowie called the song “pre-fascist.”

Nietzsche wasn’t the only influence: Bowie’s overmen also have (no surprise) some resemblance to the Buddhist monks of his ’60s songs, like the carnival sage of “Karma Man.” Bowie also was likely inspired by the supermen and mutants who populated postwar SF novels and comics, whether The Mule, the superhuman of Isaac Asimov’s Foundation series, who is the unforeseen variable that alters the predicted path of “psycho-history,” or the mutant children of Theodore Sturgeon’s More Than Human, who discover that together they form a new entity, homo gestalt, a plural form of human being (cf. Bowie’s line: “where all were minds in uni-thought.”)

Even though he is immortal…mankind is affected by mortality…above the cosmic framework, he became a slave in it…He never sleeps because he comes from one who is sleepless. Yet love and sleep are his masters.

Poimandres, the Shepherd of Men.

Bowie’s supermen, however, are locked in the past, once-gods who became mortal. As the very Gnostic lyric says, they are “wondrous beings chained to life.” The song chronicles their fall: the chorus boasts that the perfect men cannot die, but then the overmen dream of murder and rotting flesh; in the last repeat of the chorus, Bowie alters the final word and releases his supermen into death.

Strange games

Jimmy Page allegedly gave Bowie the lumbering riff that opens “The Supermen”—a primal sway between F and G—which on the LP is first played on Tony Visconti’s bass, then Mick Ronson’s guitar. (Page supposedly gave Bowie the riff during the session for Bowie’s 1965 single “I Pity the Fool“—if true, you have to admire Bowie’s packrat sensibilities, stowing away the riff for half a decade.)

For the album cut, Bowie, Ronson and Visconti made, as Visconti later said, an “outrageous sonic landscape.” The track opens with a fanfare on echo-tracked drums, which, like the end of “Width of a Circle,” suggests the tympani of the first movement of Strauss’ “Also Sprach Zarathustra.” (This marks the debut of Woody Woodmansey, who Ronson brought in to replace John Cambridge on drums after Cambridge couldn’t master the song’s odd time signatures.) There’s a wordless, moaning chorus soaring throughout, while Ronson offers a solo constructed from three harmonized guitar tracks.

Bowie, for whatever perverse reason, sings his lyric in an exaggerated, nasal, near-Cockney tone (“strAYnge gAYmes thAY would plAY then”), even gasping horribly while he sings “nightmAYre dreams no mortal mind could ‘OLD”. It causes the track to war between self-parody and stone-faced seriousness.

Bowie re-recorded “The Supermen” in November 1971 during the Ziggy Stardust sessions, and gave the track to a compilation LP to benefit the Glastonbury Fair (causing at times the remake to be erroneously labeled as a live recording). The new arrangement suggests a rethink of the song, with the verses now only carried by Bowie’s acoustic guitar while Ronson comes in hard on the choruses. The band would use this arrangement in most of its 1972-1973 live performances (see the 1972 recording from Boston above). Bowie has occasionally exhumed his master race on a few recent tours.

“The Supermen” was first recorded at a BBC session on 25 March 1970 (I’ve not heard it, but Nicholas Pegg writes that it’s close to the studio version, with a few slightly altered lyrics and Cambridge’s “dodgy” drumming); the studio track (sequenced as the final cut on the LP, and so ending the record with the death of gods) was recorded between 18 April-22 May 1970. The remake, recorded on 12 November 1971, was first included on Glastonbury Fayre and is now on the reissue of Ziggy Stardust; the Boston recording, from 1 October 1972, is on the 30th anniversary issue of Aladdin Sane.

Top: Jack Kirby’s New Gods #1; detail from cover of Sturgeon’s More Than Human.


The Width of a Circle

January 3, 2010

The Width of a Circle (Man Who Sold the World).
The Width of a Circle (live, 1972).
The Width of a Circle (live, 1973).
The Width of a Circle (live, last Spiders gig, 1973.)
The Width of a Circle (live, 1974).

The devil has the most extensive perspectives for God; on that account he keeps so far away from him.

Friedrich Nietzsche, Beyond Good and Evil: “Apothegms and Interludes.”

Circumference: Much of David Bowie’s ’60s music was weak (compared to his contemporaries), partly because Bowie was young and unformed, partly because he lacked a creative equal as a collaborator. Sixties Bowie can seem isolated, his records the work of an autodidact. In the first months of 1970, Bowie finally found, to quote Charlie Parker, a worthy constituent.

Mick Ronson was from Hull. As a child he played piano, violin and recorder until settling on the guitar (one reason, he later said, was that you got grief for walking around Hull with a violin case). He had played in local bands in the ’60s, but at the start of the ’70s he was working as a groundsman for the Hull City Council, marking rugby pitches. One of his old bandmates, Bowie’s drummer John Cambridge, told him that Bowie was looking for a new lead guitarist. Ronson came to London and met Bowie again (the two had first crossed paths at a 1969 recording session); two days afterward Bowie and Ronson first played together at a concert taped for the BBC. One song was a new Bowie composition, “The Width of a Circle.”

Bowie likely wrote “Circle” in late 1969, as its first draft is a surreal folkie excursion (centered on Bowie’s 12-string acoustic) in the vein of Space Oddity LP tracks like “Cygnet Committee” or “Unwashed and Somewhat Slightly Dazed.”

On the BBC track, the first recorded version of “Width,” you can hear Ronson thinking aloud—filling in spaces, working out angles. He would turn “Width of a Circle” into a high mass for the electric guitar, leaving Bowie a bystander in his own song. By 1973 Bowie was letting Ronson solo for ten minutes on “Width” while he went backstage for a costume change.

Diameter: Ronson broke and reassembled “Width,” opening it (and The Man Who Sold the World LP, as it turned out) with an ominous, sliding guitar riff. Ronson loved Led Zeppelin, the Hendrix Experience and Cream, and took from their records how to anchor a track with a titanic riff. While Ronson’s opening “Width” riff appears in the first BBC recording, it emerges tentatively after eight bars of Bowie’s strumming, and soon is lost in the sprawl of the ramshackle performance (the under-rehearsed players seem to be running through ideas and using whatever they can remember: a riff from “Unwashed” flashes by at 1:25).

By the time the studio take of “Width” was recorded two months later, Ronson had made his riff the cornerstone of the track. After a brief squall of feedback, Ronson slides along his A string to his fifth, fourth and second frets. He repeats the riff, now mirrored by Bowie’s acoustic guitar, now shadowed by Tony Visconti’s bass, now with the entire band hitting on it.

The riff only appears once more (after the third verse, just before the “second half” of the song), but Ronson’s guitar dominates the rest of the track by various means. In the first three verses, Ronson repeatedly uses another motif, a bit of fast riffing (E-E7-E), to fill in after Bowie’s pauses and to rev up the ends of lines. Most of all, there’s his first solo, a 40-bar series of staggered explosions that begins with Ronson bending a G string as if he intends to snap it off. Loud, fleet (Ronson plays the same lick nine times in five seconds) and magnificent, the solo is Ronson’s grand debut: nothing of its like had ever been on a Bowie record.

Secant: “Width of a Circle” lacked an ending. Bowie’s original version petered out after two verses (listen to the first BBC recording, where, after a Ronson solo, everyone trudges along for a minute-plus of aimless guitar). Ronson and Visconti, who did much of the arranging, mixing and playing on The Man Who Sold The World, decided that “Width” needed a second half. On one take, they played what Visconti described as a “spontaneous boogie riff,” which they liked so much they appended it to the song and asked Bowie to come up with melodies and lyrics for it.

So Bowie, faced with a suddenly-elongated song, had to write a batch of fresh lyrics. And where his original verses are odd and nightmarish (the two opening stanzas, which are filled with dreamscapes, Nietzchean steals (“the monster was me”), a few striking lines (“God’s a young man, too”) and hip references (Khalil Gibran, whose A Tear and a Smile was standard-issue for a hippie’s library, along with Brautigan poems and Watership Down)), the newer ones grow increasingly ridiculous. The quartet of verses Bowie wrote for the “boogie riff” section—in which his narrator has rough sex with a demon (or a god, or himself, or all of the above), with lines like “his tongue swollen with devils’ love” or “I smelled the burning pit of fear”—are worthy of Spinal Tap.

Ronson and Visconti mortared in the cracks, trying to make the second half sound like a natural extension of the earlier song. Ronson piled on yet more guitar, whether in his second solo, an elaboration on the dirty D-based blues riff that he used to propel the “boogie” verses forward, or in the way he introduces the new section with a soaring guitar line that Bowie then sings. Visconti’s bass is mixed so high in the track (Ronson’s doing, Visconti later claimed) that at times it’s the lead melodic instrument, hitting against Bowie’s vocal in the final verses, tolling under Ronson’s first solo.

The track ends with a quotation (on drums) from Strauss’ “Also Sprach Zarathustra.” Given what’s come before, it doesn’t seem too over the top.

Tangent: On stage, “Width of a Circle” became even more grandiose. In a concert recorded in Santa Monica in late 1972, Ronson is all vicious power chording and shredding; by the final Spiders from Mars show in July 1973, Ronson’s opening solo has become a primer for metal guitarists—one-handed playing, steeplechase runs, often accompanied by Ronson’s classic “guitar face.” It’s as impressive as it is wearying.

After Bowie and Ronson parted company, Bowie rearranged “Width” for his “Diamond Dogs” tour of summer 1974. As if he was trying to reclaim his song, Bowie downplayed guitar in favor of saxophone and keyboards. But Bowie’s new guitarist Earl Slick delivered a squalling solo of his own midway through the performances—Ronson had made the song a guitarist’s feast, and Slick wasn’t one to abstain.

Arc: “Width” was recorded twice in BBC sessions, on 5 February and 25 March 1970 (the former, hosted by John Peel, is on Bowie at the Beeb); the LP cut is from April-May 1970; the recording from Santa Monica, Calif., 20 October 1972, was put out on disc a few years ago; the version from the last Spiders From Mars concert at the Hammersmith, 3 July 1973, is on Ziggy Stardust: the Motion Picture; the “Diamond Dogs” tour recording, from Philadelphia on 11-12 July 1974 , is on David Live.

Top: Robert Smithson, “Spiral Jetty,” completed in 1970.