“Oh, You Pretty Things”
It was Herman’s debut single.
Phil May of the Pretty Things died. The band meant little in the U.S. Although I did buy their 1974 album “Silk Torpedo,” because it came out on Swan Song. When we think of labels that could do no wrong, where every release mattered, like Pixar in films, at least until the sale to Disney, the obvious choice is David Geffen’s Asylum, and then Swan Song.
The very first release on Swan Song came during the summer of ’74, it was the Bad Company debut, with its out of the box hit single “Can’t Get Enough.” Despite Paul Rodgers singing one of the all-time rock staples, Free’s “All Right Now,” most people in the U.S. did not know his name. Nor did most people know Mick Ralphs, the longtime guitarist of Mott the Hoople, which had finally broken through after their switch to Columbia and Bowie’s gift of “All the Young Dudes.” But one thing people did know was rock and roll music, and the combination of a great vocal and great guitar playing and melody was an elixir listeners could not deny. Actually, I preferred the opening cut on the second side of the LP, the eerie eponymous track “Bad Company,” which sounded like a bunch of outlaws alone on the prairie who suddenly started to swagger in the middle of the track. And to some people, the most memorable cut on the debut LP was the final one, “Seagull,” a Rodgers/Ralphs composition that evidenced the flip side of the power of rock, there’s in your face bluster, but there’s also internal resonance, quiet songs that speak to the listener’s alienation, a core element of humanity on this planet we call Earth, where we have more questions than answers and look to music to make us feel whole. The fact that the follow-up, “Straight Shooter,” was even bigger than the debut was confounding, “Feel Like Makin’ Love” with its stinging guitar explosion emanated from dashboards all over America, and “Shooting Star” is one of the two best songs about being a rock star, the other being the Kinks’ “A Rock ‘n’ Roll Fantasy,” and “Deal With the Preacher” and “Wild Fire Woman” demonstrate that Rodgers can emote with the best, that he’d listened to McCartney through Little Richard to…remember when you used to have to have a great voice to succeed? And speaking of the Kinks, David Bowie covers “Where Have All the Good Times Gone” on “Pinups,” although Van Halen’s cover on “Diver Down” is superior but neither can beat the Ray Davies sneer in the original Kinks iteration. Anyway, based on the Swan Song imprimatur, I purchased “Silk Torpedo” with its memorable cover, but I can’t say I ever cottoned to it.
So I was reading Phil May’s obituary, and it said that Bowie covered two Pretty Things songs on “Pinups,” and I decided to pull up the LP to listen to them. And “Don’t Bring Me Down” resonated, I bought “Pinups” upon release, was always a bit disappointed with it, but I listened to it, so I knew the track. The album’s opener was the other Pretty Things song, “Rosalyn,” but I never loved this rendition, I hadn’t even heard the original. Funny the roots of these rockers in retrospect, you can trace the direct line from the aforementioned Little Richard on through, but not anymore.
Now if you want to talk “Don’t Bring Me Down,” my favorite song with that title is the one by the Animals. The funny thing is for a band from Newcastle on Tyne, the track has the U.S. stamped all over it, the composition was by Goffin and King and the producer was Tom Wilson, whom of course you know from the work he did with Bob Dylan.
And since I’ve referenced Newcastle on Tyne, I’ve got to note the Elton track wherein the burg is referenced. I’m speaking, of course, of “Can I Put You On,” which most listeners do not know, but should. The original studio version was actually released after the live recording. And although the live take is a killer, there’s magic in the studio take that warms my heart. The song was part of the soundtrack for the long forgotten 1971 flick “Friends,” and the LP with the pink cover released by Paramount opened with the title cut, which was lost to most until it was released on CD as part of Elton John’s boxed set “To Be Continued…” in 1990. I owned this LP and the arm on my turntable that steadied stacked records scratched it and I always lamented this until the CD version was released, it’s one of my favorite Elton John cuts. Anyway, the lines in “Can I Put You On” are:
And a second cousin works in the pits in Newcastle on Tyne
And he don’t care if it rains outside, there’s coal dust on his mind
Now many rockers associate the title “Don’t Bring Me Down” with ELO, but to tell you the truth I think the Electric Light Orchestra peaked with “Eldorado.”
And one of the best cuts on “Pinups” is “Sorrow,” and I’d completely forgotten, if I ever knew, that the original was done by the McCoys, yes, of “Hang on Sloopy” fame. The funny thing is this b-side for “Fever” was a big hit in the U.K., it meant nothing in the U.S.
So thinking about the Pretty Things and Bowie, my mind segued to that track on “Hunky Dory,” “Oh! You Pretty Things.” I’m partial to “Ziggy Stardust,” it was the first Bowie LP I purchased, I saw that tour, but I can make a strong argument that “Hunky Dory” is Bowie’s best album. At this late date “Changes” still gets airplay, and since David’s death there’s been a focus on “Life on Mars?,” but “Kooks” is sheer magic, “Andy Warhol” is great, and “The Bewlay Brothers” is haunting, David had a thing about ending his LPs this way, “Ziggy Stardust” ended with “Rock ‘n’ Roll Suicide.” And reading about “Oh! You Pretty Things” I was stunned to find out that Peter Noone had the first released version of this song, he’d gotten it from Bowie’s publisher. And the truth is Noone’s take is pretty close to the one ultimately released by Bowie. Neither was big on the hit parade, but both contain magic, there’s less gravitas in Herman’s take, but it’s got a whimsy that’ll remind you of the English countryside.
And doing further research on “Pinups” I was reminded that Bowie did a cover of Springsteen’s “Growin’ Up,” from “Greetings From Asbury Park” that was added to the initial Rykodisc CD of “Pinups.”
The song was added to the 2004 remaster of “Diamond Dogs,” which is available on Amazon Music, but for some reason not on Spotify or Apple Music. Hmm… I guess the 2016 remaster superseded the 2004 version, but something was lost in the transition. In any event, in case you don’t subscribe to Amazon Music, you can listen to Bowie’s version of “Growin’ Up” on YouTube here:
It’s not super-memorable, but the interesting thing is it was cut before Bruce’s big breakthrough with “Born to Run” a full year later. Funny how Bowie knew about it. “Greetings” got a ton of hype, but it was cut like an acoustic Dylan album as opposed to the E Street Band experience that came thereafter.
Now Bowie was changing direction. “Aladdin Sane” did not live up to “Ziggy Stardust,” it was hard to convert those that were not already on the bus. At this late date, most of the focus is on “The Jean Genie,” and that is good, but I like “Panic in Detroit” even better, but the song I ended up playing most from the album is one that never gets any mention, another slow, meaningful closer, “Lady Grinning Soul,” an old torch-like song that builds to a climax, it’s a mini-movie.
And then Bowie broke through with the less than satisfying “Diamond Dogs,” finally getting a huge hit in the public consciousness, now that everybody was tuned into FM, “Rebel Rebel,” which was castigated as meaningless, there was now a Bowie backlash in the critical community.
And then Bowie completely changed direction. He reincarnated himself as a Philadelphia soul singer, the Thin White Duke, and suddenly he was monumental, everywhere, embraced by black and white audiences both.
“Young Americans” did not jump out of the box, fans bought it but AOR was flummoxed by it and black radio didn’t immediately embrace it, it was a slow burner until suddenly it was everywhere. And if I never hear “Fame” again, I’m cool with that. And I like the title cut just a smidge better, but the opening cut on the second side, it’s a killer! But before I get to “Somebody Up There Likes Me” there’s a magical track on the first side that never gets any ink, which never comes up in conversation, that is my second favorite on the LP, “Fascination,” which was cowritten by Luther Vandross before almost anybody knew who he was, actually you’ve got to credit Bowie with popularizing the soul singer.
But we were talking about “Somebody Up There Likes Me.”
This is the only track on “Young Americans” without its own Wikipedia page, but it’s the one that sticks out for me.
What do I like about it?
It’s long, six minutes and thirty six seconds. Bowie and the band stretch out, the track goes through movements, but the best part of the cut is it allows Bowie to emote. And David Sanborn’s saxophone contribution is an integral part of the record, but Bowie dances all over the track and the background singers testify, their vocals were arranged by Mr. Vandross, and it’s like being in church, not one constrained by a roof, but the open landscape, where you can feel the joy of nature and music.
I’d slept in my car behind the Hart ski factory in Reno on my way to Mammoth Mountain on April 30th, 1975. I was awoken by a security guard in the middle of the night. He bought my reason for being there and when the factory opened I went inside and got a pair of replacement skis and got back in my 2002 and spun the dial of my Blaupunkt as I left the metropolis and entered the Sierra Nevada and I wasn’t sure if somebody up there liked me, I’m still not sure of that, but at that particular moment, for those six plus minutes, I liked myself and my life, I was in heaven.