July 16, 2010

Rosalyn (The Pretty Things, 1964).
Rosalyn (Bowie).

The Pretty Things consisted of bearded guitarist Dick Taylor; a bizarrity named Vivian St John Prince, always photographed wearing a bowler, who was as much a lunatic behind the drum kit as Keith Moon; the dashing, indifferent Brian Pendleton (in group photos he looked like their lawyer, caught in the shot by mistake); and the thuggish near-twins Phil May and John Stax. In 1964, they released two singles on Fontana that should’ve gotten them arrested, and one was banned in the U.S. Bowie covered them both.

“Rosalyn,” the Pretty Things’ debut 45 from May 1964, is salacious teenage lust. May sings the lyric like a man tearing into a hunk of meat, rolling the name “Roh-sa-LYNN” around in his mouth, chanting it and spitting it out, while the band thrashes on a mutant strain of the Bo Diddley beat for two minutes. The song goes from jealousy to lust to obsession and back again; it begins relentless and ends in madness, May screaming “YEAH-GOTTA-KNOW! YEAH-GOTTA-KNOW!” at the girl who’s upturned his mind.

Bowie and Mick Ronson knew well enough not to tinker with this one, so their version holds up to the original: if it’s a more polished recording, Ronson’s guitar is even more ferocious than Taylor’s—there’s blood in it. It’s a bit unnerving to hear Bowie in total chameleon mode here, as he imitates Phil May’s singing voice, all sneers and slurs (“Rosalyn” was the lead-off track for Pin Ups, and I imagine a few people at the time wondered if Ronson or someone else was singing it). May, years later, tipped his cap: “Dave even screamed in the same places I did,” he told Christopher Sandford.

Recorded July-early August 1973.

Top: “WillemGT,”  “American girl in Paris,” 1973.