Materialistic arseholes and suburban dreamers: Bowie and the 1960s—Chris O’Leary

As a big fan of both Bowie and Chris O’Leary, it was as hard to select an extract from Rebel Rebel as it is to choose a favourite Bowie song; each song is covered in a self-contained entry, and they’re all fascinating. 
In the end I chose a series of 3 posts which make chronological/conceptual sense, and shed entertaining light on Bowie’s complicated relationship with late ‘60s hippy culture. Also contains The Prettiest Star, which is far from his best track but which, for sentimental reasons, remains one of my all-time favourites. 
Rebel Rebel (Zer0, 2015) is out on March 27th, there’s a list of stockists here  – TS 

 

Cygnet Committee

Recorded: (demo, “Lover to the Dawn,” unreleased) ca. mid-April 1969, 24 Foxgrove Road. Bowie: 12-string acoustic guitar, harmony vocal; Hutchinson: lead vocal, acoustic guitar; (album) ca. late August-early September 1969, Trident. Bowie: lead vocal; Christmas: 12-string acoustic guitar; Wayne: lead guitar; Renwick: rhythm guitar; Wakeman: electric harpsichord; Lodge: bass; Cambridge: drums. Produced: Visconti; engineered: Sheffield, Scott or Toft.

First release: 14 November 1969, Space Oddity. Broadcast: 5 February 1970, The Sunday Show. Live: 1969-70.

“Cygnet Committee” was, consecutively, a break-up letter to a communal arts center Bowie co-founded, a scattershot attack on the counterculture and a desperate self-affirmation. Deep in this gnomic, nearly ten-minute screed was a struggle to find a workable design for the years ahead, Bowie pledging himself to a life of creative destruction while keeping clear of professional revolutionaries. It was the sound of Bowie willing himself to become a stronger artist, hollowing himself out to let a greater creative force, for good or ill, take hold in him. The possession took. In fleeting moments, you can hear the apocalyptic, utopian voice of “Five Years” and “Sweet Thing,” of “Station to Station” and “‘Heroes.’” The man who was able to write those songs had to go through the crucible of “Cygnet Committee” first.

Bowie and his lover/flatmate Mary Finnigan founded the Beckenham Arts Lab in May 1969, one of roughly 50 such Labs in Britain at the time. Along with weekly musical performances at the Three Tuns pub, the Lab (aka “Growth”) offered tie-dying lessons, poetry readings, puppet shows, lectures and mime routines. Hoping to attract local kids and subsequently “turn on their parents,” the Lab’s slogan was “Growth is people, Growth is revolution.” Bowie envisioned an escape valve for suburban dreamers; perhaps he saw the Lab as a way to find younger versions of himself. “There was nothing in Beckenham, just television,” he told a Dutch journalist at the time. “The lab is for extroverts who wish to express themselves, not for established artists.” This was Bowie as proud counter-cultural Beckenhamite, a character out of Hanif Kureishi’s The Buddha of Suburbia, which would gently satirize this era. In August 1969, interviewed by Finnigan for the International Times, Bowie said he hoped “Space Oddity” became a hit because it would mean exposure and capital for the Lab. Using sparkling ad-man copy, he claimed “Arts Labs should be for everybody, not just the so-called turned-on minority. We need energy from all directions, from heads and skin-heads alike.” It could be a bit much. Keith Christmas recalled Bowie being “a twerp in those days…strum[ming] a few folk songs in between a lot of crap about changing the world.”

Nothing in particular soured Bowie on the Lab, at which he’d play regularly until March 1970. By then he’d assembled a hand- picked artistic community at his house in Haddon Hall and no longer had to publicly recruit followers. Yet he was noticeably estranged early on. Roger Wootton, a Lab regular, recalled Bowie as being an “outsider” in the pot-reeking, student-infested Three Tuns shows. “He was never really a part of what was going on. He didn’t seem to be one of the other people.” As the most talented and charismatic figure in the room, Bowie resented the apathetic types the Lab attracted upon its (relative) success. He’d wanted collaborators and got spectators; his encounters with mediocrities in hippie garb spouting “revolutionary” slogans became a drain on him.

As he told the journalist Patrick Salvo, he intended the first harmonically free section of “Cygnet Committee” to symbolize the ideal of the Lab. “It was saying—Fellow man I do love you— I love humanity, I adore it, it’s sensational, sensuous, exciting—it sparkled and it’s also pathetic at the same time.” His players make a staggered entrance, as if plugging in when the mood strikes them. Over a murmuring backdrop of Three Tuns-esque chatter, Bowie sang arcing, eleventh-spanning phrases while Mick Wayne, using a volume pedal, played off a descending chromatic bassline.

The leak of a Bowie & Hutch composition called “Lover to the Dawn,” demoed on the same tape as “Space Oddity” revealed Bowie had used “Dawn” as the basis of the opening sections of “Cygnet Committee,” from the opening riff and bassline (itself taken from Led Zeppelin’s “Your Time Is Gonna Come”) through the “they drained her [my] very soul…dry” section. And the long closing section Bowie appended to the reconstituted “Lover to the Dawn” was a bog-standard rock ‘n’ roll progression, the “Stand By Me” I-vi-IV-V sequence he’d used before (see “And I Say to Myself”). Regardless of its length and furor, “Cygnet Committee” was just a folk number bluntly welded to a rock song.

              Listen to Lover of the Dawn

“Lover to the Dawn” also shed light on what happened in the mutation that created “Cygnet Committee.” The original song starred yet another “Hermione” figure, called “bitter girl” in its refrains: a woman weary of the incessant demands of her lovers, who’ve drained her soul dry. The original refrain had a sympa-thetic Bowie and Hutch (“you gave too much and you got nothing!”) urging the bitter girl to get on with her life—it’s something of a hippie “Georgie Girl.”

In “Cygnet Committee,” Bowie cast himself as the bitter girl (not for the last time) and there was no larking Hutchinson to tell him to grow up and out of it. Instead, the self-pity of “Lover to the Dawn” got blown up to widescreen proportions. Bitter Boy isn’t just heartbroken, he’s set upon by parasites of all shapes; his tragedy isn’t personal but that of an entire generation. Its last venomous C major verse became a jeremiad, calling out New Leftists, cult leaders and cult followers, cursing hippie capitalists and their slogans (including “kick out the jams” and “love is all we need,” the revolution brought to you by, respectively, Columbia and EMI).

This extended damning of a movement of which Bowie was barely part requires a touch of context. The British underground lived in a bubble. Unlike in France, China and the US, British youth (apart from those in Northern Ireland) were passive and quiet, if discontented, in the late Sixties. There was nothing equivalent to the violence of the Democratic National Convention in 1968 or the May 1968 student riots in Paris. Colin Crouch, the student union president at the London School of Economics, saw the few substantial protests of the time quickly devolve into games of dress-up. British radicals seemed to get stuck on the idea of protest, raising protest “to a position of value in its own right,” Crouch wrote. “The sit-in became not so much a part of the sojourn in the wilderness for the chosen people of the revolution, but a trailer for the Promised Land.”

Bowie used this failure, the failure of the Arts Lab writ large, as a means to rid himself of the suffocating cant and pretense of the counterculture. In December 1969 he lamented the hippie set as being “the laziest people I’ve met in my life. They don’t know what to do with themselves. Looking all the time for people to show them the way. They wear anything they’re told, and listen to any music they’re told to.” As he sang, they knew not the words of the Free States’ refrain. He’d spent the last years of the Sixties burying himself in committees (“submerging myself,” as he told Mary Finnigan); now he was free.

So with its dead fathers and sons of dirt, the 39-bar-long closing verse of “Cygnet Committee” was the radical faction that took over the whole enterprise. The faceless villains who turned up, busy slitting throats, killing children and betraying friends, predicted the underground’s slide into cheap criminality. Yet the lyric, in turns grandiose, mocking (of Dylan’s “Desolation Row” among others) and fanatic, was more Bowie purging himself of “taste” and “narrative,” ridding himself of the stink of bedsit laments and cabaret, and exploring a inner darkness, calling up images of supermen, ringleaders, wraiths. The “talking man,” a summoned demon who gives the singer access to his “many powers,” would be the dark muse of The Man Who Sold the World.

As on “Unwashed and Somewhat Slightly Dazed,” “Cygnet Committee” suffered from an under-rehearsed band, having to master a lengthy, harmonically dense song, that couldn’t deliver the searing accompaniment its vocal demanded (if you’re going to quote the MC5, you should lay down heavier fire than this, or at least ditch the harpsichord). The production did the song little favors, as the drums sound like paper and John Lodge’s bass goes missing towards the close. Bowie gave a more vital, if still ragged performance for a BBC broadcast of the following year. Despite occasionally bungling lines from his ramble of a lyric, he sang with an eerie sense of self-possession. “Cygnet Committee” had spent itself out in its making, its recording the afterimage of some lost primal inspiration. Still, in its tortuous way, it was as critical to Bowie’s development as “Space Oddity.”

Memory of a Free Festival

Recorded: 8-9 September 1969, Trident. Bowie: lead vocal, Rosedale electric chord organ; Wayne: lead guitar; Renwick: rhythm guitar; Lodge: bass; Cambridge: drums, tambourine; unknown musician(s): baritone saxophone; Visconti, Bob Harris, Sue Harris, Tony Woollcott, Marc Bolan, “Girl”: backing vocals. Produced, arranged: Visconti; engineered: Sheffield, Scott or Toft; (remake, as “Memory of a Free Festival Pt. 1 & Pt. 2”) 21, 23 March, 3, 14-15 April 1970, Trident and Advision Studios, London. Bowie: lead vocal, 12-string acoustic guitar, Rosedale organ; Ronson: lead guitar, backing vocal; Ralph Mace: Moog; Visconti: bass, backing vocal; Cambridge: drums; unknown musicians: strings (arr. Visconti). Produced: Visconti.

First release: 14 November 1969, Space Oddity; (single) 26 June 1970 (Mercury 6052 026). Broadcast: 5 February 1970, The Sunday Show; ca. June 1970, Six-O-One: Newsday; 15 August 1970, Eddy Ready Go! Live: 1969-1971, 1973-1974.

The free festival was an open-air concert and fair, held on the Croydon Road Recreation Ground in Beckenham on 16 August 1969 (across an ocean, the Woodstock Festival was underway). Bowie performed, his set allegedly including a reggae version of “Space Oddity,” as did groups like the Strawbs. There were puppet shows, Tibetan goods vendors and coconut shies; his new girlfriend Angela Barnett cooked hamburgers in a wheelbarrow. The festival was peaceful and a success, with some 3,000 attending. Beckenham’s mayor and chief of police complimented Bowie for pulling it off.

The song he recorded three weeks later, sequenced to close Space Oddity as his last word on the Sixties, depicted a golden afternoon in which he wandered through a blissful crowd of flower children, exchanging kisses and greeting passing Venusians. In reality Bowie, who’d buried his father only five days before, had swung between near-catatonia and a foul temper, calling his partners “materialistic arseholes” for profiting off hamburgers and concert posters, complaining about the PA system and skipping the after-party. Mary Finnigan later called Bowie a hypocrite for writing a peace-and-love song for a festival at which he’d been so abrasive.

A contrary set of feelings, a man trying to reconstitute a bad day as the hope it ought to have been, gave “Memory of a Free Festival” depth and even bite, with Bowie making some depre- cating asides about the holy tribe: “We claimed the very source of joy ran through/it didn’t, but it seemed that way.” The warmth, the easy unity, of the Free Festival is already in the past. If the hippies are the “children of the summer’s end,” they should ready for winter.

Like the Arts Labs, the free concert was a child of the late Sixties. In summer 1968, the promoter Blackhill Enterprises began putting on monthly free rock shows in Hyde Park with the likes of Pink Floyd and the Move. The Rolling Stones hired Blackhill to run their own free Hyde Park concert the following summer (archly described by Richard Neville as “free, courtesy of Blackhill, of Granada’s groovy camera team, Marshall’s great amplification system and triple-priced Lyon’s ice cream.”) The Beckenham festival was a homespun version of this and it actually was free, unlike Woodstock, which had been forcibly converted into a free show. The happy chaos of Woodstock, soon followed by the 1969 Isle of Wight concert and the violent chaos of the Stones’ free show in Altamont that December, made the free festival yet another fault line between straight and hippie worlds. Parliament soon passed an act banning gatherings of over 5,000 at the Isle of Wight.

“Memory of a Free Festival” opens with Bowie playing a Rosedale electric chord organ that he’d found at Woolworths. As with the Stylophone, he gave a toy instrument dignity. The sole accompaniment of the song’s four verses, the organ was his voice’s rickety, ecclesiastic complement, making him sound like a wandering sermonizer.

Composing on the organ, even a toy like the Rosedale, liberated Bowie from the guitar’s melodic consistency; it foreshadowed the freedom he’d find when writing on the piano a year later. After politely announcing the piece’s title, he started by playing variations on E minor while nudging up the bassline stepwise from C to F. Settling into a loose 3/4 time, he sang the first two verses over a descending, nebulous chord sequence, shifting from B minor to B-flat (“felt the Lon/don sky,” “source of/joy”) while anchored on a D bass. The third verse gained momentum, Bowie singing more hurriedly while mainly keeping on an E note (pushing up slightly on “ecstasy”), slackening at the end of each phrase. A shift to D major (“scanned the skies”) marked the peak of the festival: the aliens arrive, the joints get passed around, the revelers “walk back to the [Croydon] road, unchained.”

What followed was a free-time interlude of organ swirls, snippets of chatter, laughs and guitar fills while John Cambridge kept loose order with his ride cymbal. A memory so far, the festival shifts to the present, a party as much ominous as joyful. The sequence’s real purpose was more practical: it had to glue the “Free Festival” verses to a three-chord (D-C-G) “sun machine” refrain possibly once intended for another song. Having considered using the “Hey Jude” refrain for “Janine,” Bowie now made the long coda of “Free Festival” in its image: loops of ragged communal chanting, with Bowie in Paul McCartney’s soul cheerleader role.

In early 1970, Mercury’s American wing asked Bowie to re- record “Memory of a Free Festival” as a single, requesting a faster tempo and to get to the refrain sooner. The compromise was to cut the track in half, devoting the B-side entirely to the sun machine. This new “Free Festival” found Bowie outshone by his backing band, who tromped in singly during the intro. Even with the Sixties fresh in the grave, there’s a feeling of getting down to business. Guitar, bass and drums kick in before the first verse starts, the Moog rolls over the humble Rosedale organ like a Panzer tank, the psychedelic interlude gets deep-sixed, the chanted backing vocals of the refrains could be from a football terrace. Mick Ronson, Tony Visconti’s free-flowing bass and Ralph Mace’s Moog used the long fadeout as a preview of coming attractions. “Memory of a Free Festival Pt. 1 and 2” was the sound of The Man Who Sold the World, hard glam rock, and a bit too hard and glam for summer 1970, as the single sold dismally.

The Beatles ended the Sixties by breaking up, the last record they made showing them walk single-file off stage. The Stones ended with blood and fire and the sense they’d survive it all (and they would). The Who had a messiah pulled down by his followers, the Kinks emigrated to Australia, Dylan and Van Morrison and a host of others went to ground in the country. Bowie closed a decade in which he’d been a footnote by throwing a party, singing a jaded memory of the summer’s end: the fun-fair of the Sixties was just prelude, his work’s troubled childhood. His “Memory of a Free Festival,” a last gathering of the tribes, had a sad, faded grandeur. Forty-five years on, it can still touch a medieval chord in the soul.

The Prettiest Star

Recorded: (single) 8, 13, 15 January 1970, Trident Studios, London. David Bowie: lead vocal, 12-string acoustic guitar; Marc Bolan: lead guitar; Rick Wakeman [?]: Lowrey organ; Delisle Harper, Tony Visconti: bass; Godfrey McLean: drums; unknown musicians: vibra- phone, strings. Arranged, produced: Visconti; (remake) ca. 18-24 January 1973, Trident. Bowie: lead vocal, 12-string acoustic guitar, tenor saxophone?; Mick Ronson: lead guitar, backing vocal; Mike Garson: piano; Trevor Bolder: bass; Woody Woodmansey: drums; Ken Fordham and/or Brian Wilshaw: saxophones. Produced: Ken Scott; engineered: Scott, Mike Moran.

First release: (single) 6 March 1970 (Mercury MF 1135); (remake) 13 April 1973, Aladdin Sane (RS 1001/LSP-4852, UK #1, US #17). Broadcast: 5 February 1970, The Sunday Show. Live: 1970, 1973.

The success of “Space Oddity” nearly ruined David Bowie. After some hemming and hawing, he cut two options for his next single in January 1970: a remade “London Bye Ta-Ta” and “The Prettiest Star,” which he’d written around Christmas for Angela Barnett, whom he’d marry two weeks after its release. He chose the latter, on which his rival and friend Marc Bolan played lead guitar. “The Prettiest Star” was hummable, warm and sweet: it sold less than 800 copies in its first week.
Bowie was indifferent to its fate. He declined to promote it, rarely singing “Prettiest Star” live and playing it just once on a BBC broadcast. Yet even had he spearheaded a promotional push, it wouldn’t have done much. “Space Oddity” was such an obvious one-hit-wonder that it almost left Bowie in the bin of discarded Sixties novelties with the likes of the Lemon Pipers and Peter Sarstedt. And while he resisted the obvious and didn’t do a SF-themed sequel, his alternative sounded square, its mood treacly and nostalgic. It was a dead end. A month after its release, Bowie was recording heavy metal.

Still, “The Prettiest Star” had a charming lyric, with its easy and dyslexic rhymes (“tried” and “tired”) and its tribute to Angela was as much for her professional ambition (“you will rise up high and take us all away”) as it was any love pledge. Working in the service of an F major progression with occasional spices from its parallel minor, its arrangement blended a Lowrey organ with a set of violins, but its dragging tempo made its senti- mentality leaden (Visconti later overdubbed the bass track, as he felt the bassist he’d hired wasn’t up to snuff).

The track was dominated by Bolan’s vibrato-saturated lead guitar. Bowie liked Bolan’s “totally naive approach to the guitar—a lot of what he played was ‘incorrect’ but it worked,” as he said in 1993. But as “Prettiest Star” would be one of his first notable electric solos (to recruit him, both Visconti and Bowie praised his skills on electric guitar, which he’d recently taken up), Bolan slaved over his lines on his Fender Stratocaster beforehand. He became cemented in his riff, playing without variation throughout the song, daring only to shift upward just before the fade. Cutting his part in under an hour, Bolan scarpered after his wife June soured the mood in the studio by loudly opining he was the only good thing about the track.

As Bowie remade “The Prettiest Star” with Mick Ronson three years later, it offers a rare A/B comparison of two lead guitarists. At first Ronson seems to concede the game to Bolan, as he keeps well within Bolan’s lines, including clashing a vibrato- laden chord against Bowie’s peak note in the bridge. Where Ronson overwhelmed Bolan was in his tone and his arranging instincts. He’d plug his ’68 Les Paul directly into a cranked-up amp, often using just a sole Cry Baby Wah-Wah pedal set in mid- range, and then fatten the track with precise overdubs. So on “Prettiest Star,” Ronson tracked a scratchy, distorted secondary guitar, beginning at the end of the intro. This gave the Aladdin Sane take more grit than the single, where Bolan’s lead was supported only by Bowie’s strummed 12-string acoustic.

It’s unclear why Bowie remade “Prettiest Star” in 1973. He may have considered the song to be close to an outtake, given its dismal reception (it was never released in the US), and its mood fit Aladdin Sane’s future-nostalgia theme, with its “movies in the past” linking the song to “Drive-In Saturday.” Ronson and Bowie gave it judicious edits, perking up the draggy middle section— where two identical refrains had sandwiched a guitar solo—by ditching the solo and slipping the third verse between the refrains. If the first “Prettiest Star” was a valentine, its remake was a rowdy engagement party, complete with doo-wop backing vocals, swinging saxophones and juke-joint piano.

An extract from Chris O’Leary’s Rebel Rebel (Zer0, 2015) , a song-by-song analysis of David Bowie’s life and work, collected and edited from his blog, Pushing Ahead of the DameRebel Rebel is out on March 27th, (stockists).