As a band we had just finished making Hunky Dory and Friars was the first gig we did with him and we were all pretty nervous doing a show where all these new songs were being performed for the very first time to an audience. So we were all putting an effort in for that show and of course it went down a storm.
The Aylesbury Friars Club gig sticks in my mind as one of Bowie and the Spiders favourite gigs. I remember the first time we played we’d spent weeks working out the show and it was the first airing of a Bowie and Spiders concert that we then took around the world! The audience reception was the best.
[Note: If you’d like something to look at while listening to the songs posted here, you could do worse than this series of photos from the Hunky Dory cover session.]
Having warmed up the audience and themselves, David and the band — who were not yet calling themselves the Spiders from Mars — launched into six straight Hunky Dory songs, beginning with “Oh! You Pretty Things.” It’s a rather ragged version, with a couple of real clunkers on the piano; by far my favorite part is the Eric Idle imitation in the intro.
Bowie often came across as a Serious Artist, but he loved his comedy. That love would culminate in this piece of televised gold from 2006:
Anyway, back to Aylesbury. As on the album, “Pretty Things” was followed by “Eight Line Poem”:
In fact, musically, “Pretty Things,” “Eight Line,” and “Pug-Nosed Face” all kind of fit together; they would make an interesting medley. For some reason I’m thinking of Jack Black. But this is another tangent. Focus, man!
“8LP” rarely comes up when people talk about Bowie’s greatest songs. Maybe it’s the title, which somehow suggests that it was tossed-off or trivial. But it is an absolutely gorgeous piece of work, with Mick Ronson spinning gossamer webs around David’s abstract impressionism:
The tactful cactus by your window
Surveys the prairie of your room
Mobile spins to its collision
Clara puts her head between her paws
They’ve opened shops down the west side
All the cacti’ll find a home
But the key to the city
Is in the sun that pins the branches to the sky
The Aylesbury version is marred only by another pretty bad clam on the piano, so one is not unhappy at the end when David brings on a real pianist, one Tom Parker (no relation to the Colonel). Parker is described by Wikipedia as an “arranger and multi-instrumentalist”; he had previously been in Eric Burdon’s New Animals and would go on to have a top 10 U.S. hit with a group called Apollo 100:
“The first thing we’re gonna do with Tom,” David says, “is one in which I don’t know the guitar chords, so I’m going to stand here like a twit.” And there he is again, Self-Deprecating Bowie; not my favorite Bowie, but another one to add to the long, long list.
After “Changes” we get the two tribute songs from Side 2 of Hunky Dory, but in the opposite order: “Song for Bob Dylan” followed by “Andy Warhol.” David introduces them by saying:
The presumptuousness of the songwriter is that he feels he can pick on anybody, write about anybody. I’m no exception.
Which he immediately qualifies by adding,
But this is not a picking song, it’s just about someone.
Is it though? “Song for Bob Dylan” isn’t a hatchet job, exactly, but it’s pretty snarky. The redoubtable Chris O’Leary says:
Bowie’s lyric begins by directly referencing Dylan’s own “Song to Woody” from a decade earlier, and so sets Bowie up as the heir presumptive — Bowie years later admitted that sheer opportunism in part drove him to write the song. “It was at that period that I said, ‘Okay, Dylan, if you don’t want to do it, I will.’ I saw that leadership void,” he told Melody Maker in 1976.
Dylan had declined to be the voice of his generation, but Bowie was quite willing to be the voice of his.1 Fortunately his was the burgeoning Me Generation, so it was a perfect fit.
Bowie wasn’t interested in the sort of leadership people wanted from Dylan — his “Dylan” is a pure construct, far removed from the actual Dylan’s roots in folk, blues and rock & roll. Bowie seems to be singing more about the Milton Glaser poster (Dylan in silhouette with rainbow hair) included in Dylan’s first greatest hits LP than anything else (“you gave your heart to every bedsit room/at least a picture on the wall”). His use of Dylan’s real name (only becoming known in the very late ’60s) suggests that Bowie was most interested in Dylan as another self-craftsman. Where John Lennon, as part of his list of false idols in “God,” had sneered “I don’t believe… in ZIMMERMAN,” arguing that Dylan’s pseudonym had shown him up as a phony, Bowie found it liberating — if “Bob Dylan” had been a fiction all this time, then a fiction is what people really wanted.
Afterward Bowie, in the by-now-familiar nervous version of himself I’d call “Stuttering Dave,” explains:
That was written during a spate of people songs… I got to writing about people, this kind of well-known figures and what they stood for. It’s very much in… in, uh… media of the streets, street messages. And one of the leaders in that field is a man called Andy Warhol, and this is about him.
“Andy Warhol” is also a pretty ambivalent tribute, which Warhol seems to have sensed when Bowie played it for him in September 1971:
I took the song to The Factory when I first came to America and played it to him. And he hated it. Loathed it. He went “Oh, uh-huh, okay…” then just walked away.
And that’s what I’m going to do now, just walk away, as this thing has gone on for far too long. We’ll cover the last three songs of the Aylesbury show next time.