DAVID BOWIE – ” Pin Ups ” Released 19th October 1973

Posted: October 19, 2015 in CLASSIC ALBUMS, MUSIC
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David Bowie: Pin Ups” is the seventh album by David Bowie, released on October 19th, 1973. It reached and topped the UK Albums chart.

Pin-Ups” is Bowie’s tribute to the artists that he admired in the London years of 1964-67. It is the last time that Bowie would record an album with Mick Ronson on guitar and Ken Scott at the production helm. “Pin Ups” was Bowie’s last studio album with the bulk of ‘The Spiders From Mars’, his backing band throughout his Ziggy Stardust phase; Mick Woodmansey was replaced on drums by Aynsley Dunbar.

“Pin-Ups” is the underrated classic in David Bowie’s glam-era crown. A lot of Bowie’s own fans overlook and even disdain it, citing everything from the politics that led to its creation (of which, more shortly) to the absence of any fresh Ziggy classics on board.

Outside of the U.K., it must be said, a degree of cultural bias also plays a part in the album’s dismissal. For British listeners of the time (and even today), most — if not all — of the album’s contents were recognizable hit singles, the key exception being a Kinks B-side. And what records they were — two apiece by The Yardbirds, The Who and the Pretty Things, individual cuts by The Kinks and Them, The Easybeats and The Mojos, The Merseys and what Bowie referred to as “Syd’s Pink Floyd.”

It seems incredible today, but not one of them was 10 years old at the time Bowie swooped upon them — Floyd’s “See Emily Play” was barely six! But, already, they felt like relics from a different era, which of course they were. The calendar might insist it took just a decade for rock to reach from the beat boom to glam rock, but in musical terms it might have been centuries, with both psychedelia and progressive rock having enjoyed their heydays in between.

Bowie was still hot off his July 1973 “retirement” when he headed over to the Château d’Hérouville studios in France to begin work on his next album, the successor to the now four-month-old (!) “Aladdin Sane”. Behind the scenes, however, matters were fraught. A dispute with his publishing company, Chrysalis, had effectively sent the writer out on strike — a situation, of course, that Chrysalis assumed could have just one winner. Bowie was contracted to deliver another LP before the end of the year. What was he going to do — record a bunch of cover versions?

Some of the bands, he pointed out, “are still with us….” and indeed they were. The Who and The Kinks were both alive and kicking, the Pretty Things were poised on the cusp of a comeback, and Pink Floyd were celebrating one of the biggest albums of the year (and now of all-time), “The Dark Side of the Moon“.

The beast that cut that epic, however, was very different from the one that created Bowie’s selection; “See Emily Play” was just their second 45, from spring 1967, and was penned by their original principle songwriter, Syd Barrett — and he certainly wasn’t still with us. Rather, two years had elapsed since Barrett’s last public appearance, in an age when two years seemed a very, very long time, and the rumours of his so-called “madness” were already beginning to circulate.

The idea behind “Pin Ups” was to create a pause between Bowie’s intense conceptual albums “Ziggy Stardust”, “Aladdin Sane” and “Diamond Dogs“. In order to do so, he recorded a cover album, without losing the glam rock atmosphere.

But that was not true for all territories — in the United States, for example, only four of the originals even made the Top 40. A few more may have been familiar from their parent LPs, but still… what Bowie designed as a seamless examination of a specific period of time and place was easily translated into a hopelessly random gathering of unknowns and obscurities.

“Pin-Ups” alone can truly be said to capture the spirit of the days it evokes, as well as the music. “Pin-Ups” took an honest look at the songs’ impact on one generation, and effortlessly engineered them to have the same effect on another. And “Pin-Ups” alone made you want to hunt out the original records, just to hear what Bowie himself heard in them.

Within the MainMan organization established by Bowie’s manager Tony Defries, Jayne County was seething. “I had given David a set of demos, only for David to decide it would be better to do this album of covers. He thought that was a great idea. We would do songs by [Iggy] Pop, Alice Cooper, the Velvets, Nico, and one of his own. And it would probably have been a great album, but even that he just talked about for a few weeks before going off to do something else… which turned out to be “Pin-Ups.”

Over at Island Records, meanwhile, Bryan Ferry — whose own band, Roxy Music, had been opening for Bowie just one year earlier was contemplating his own collection of favoured oldies.

There was no correlation whatsoever between the two records; while Bowie focused on a narrow window in the mid-1960s, Ferry swept up a more catholic (not to mention idiosyncratic) gaggle, dating back to 1935 (the title track) and forward to the end of the ’60s (“Sympathy for the Devil”).

Nevertheless, for a few weeks that summer, the watching world was treated to the quite unedifying spectacle of two top pop stars battling it out over who came up with such a notion first. There was even talk of legal action, with each party apparently assuming that the other was out to steal their thunder, and it was surely only the sheer stupidity of the entire feud that ultimately saw it sink from view. At least, one hopes that’s what it was because, in truth, the only people who really had a bone to pick were The Sweet. They’d been talking about making a covers record for over a year.

It’s unclear precisely when Bowie hit on the final vision for “Pin-Ups”although it was certainly on his mind in the days following his retirement concert. One report even reckons he sat up late that night, playing through old records and concocting a running order there. Nevertheless, when another NME writer, Charles Shaar Murray, visited the studio, he spotted the sheet music to Roxy’s “Ladytron” lying around, while rumour insists that they also taped The Beach Boys’ “God Only Knows” (hopefully making a better job of it than Bowie did on “Tonight”, a decade later), The Lovin’ Spoonful’s “Summer in the City” and The Stooges’ “No Fun.”

However, the only confirmed extra was the backing track for a version of the Velvet Underground’s “White Light/White Heat,” a song that had been a part of Bowie’s live set for much of the last 18 months. In any event, it remained unheard until guitarist Ronson took it for his own second album, 1975’s “Play Don’t Worry”, and, in any case, they also recorded versions of Bowie’s own “Watch That Man” and “The Man Who Sold the World” for release as Lulu’s next single.

Neither does there appear to have been much discussion over which songs would be recorded, with the only known casualty being Bowie’s own contribution to 1967, “The London Boys,” which he intended slicing up to form bridges between tracks on the album (he eventually returned to the song in 2000, during the sessions that became “Toy“). Plus, it would have fit the “Pin-Ups” concept perfectly.

“Pin-Ups” was recorded with much the same team as Bowie had employed throughout his golden years — producer Ken Scott, guitarist Mick Ronson and bassist Trevor Bolder, plus keyboard player Mike Garson, sax player Ken Fordham and backing singer Geoff MacCormack.

Spiders from Mars drummer Woody Woodmansey, however, had been let go, to be replaced for the sessions by Aynsley Dunbar — a player whose own pedigree on that ’60s circuit was as bold as any of the songs he was now rerecording. In fact, as a member of the Merseybeat band The Mojos, he’d actually played on one of them, “Everything’s Alright”!

The sessions were smooth; Dunbar aside, the personnel had been working together for over three years at this point, and they slipped immediately into their expected roles.

The choice of material, too, delighted them all Ronson, for example, had been a massive Yardbirds fan during the 1960s, and just weeks after jamming with Jeff Beck at the farewell show (a surprise, he admitted, that he had in no way expected), he was thrilled to be re-creating two of their early masterpieces, a version of Billy Boy Arnold’s “I Wish You Would,” which was a single for the band’s Eric Clapton incarnation, and “Shapes of Things,” a massive hit for the Beck era lineup. Plus, as Yardbirds drummer Jim McCarty, cowriter of the latter, later remarked, “Bowie introduced us to a whole new generation of fans, some of whom had barely stepped out of their nappies when we made those records.”

Bowie, too, played favourites with the spotlight. Two Who numbers, “I Can’t Explain” and “Anyway, Anyhow, Anywhere,” he explained at the time, reminded him of his days as a mod, “wearing clothes that no one else was wearing” (a decade later, little had changed!), and liking The Who because “they were kind of like us,” albeit clad in outfits that were “five months out of date. They were our band because they were very mod.”

The Pretty Things were another lingering passion. “David used to follow the band when we started out,” the Pretties’ late frontman Phil May said in 2013. “Every gig we did at the very start of our career, he was always there, just soaking up everything.

“But he wasn’t like a normal fan. I thought first of all, maybe he’s gay, or maybe he’s a stalker, because he was very different from the other fans. He was obviously very bright, very sensitive and very shy — I never would have thought he’d turn into Ziggy! But he was just absorbing everything,” And that included the passion of the Pretties’ first two singles, “Pin-Ups” opening “Rosalyn” and, later in the cycle, “Don’t Bring Me Down.”

“Here Comes the Night” (Them), “Friday on My Mind” (the Easybeats), the Floyd and Mojos numbers each one was painstakingly disassembled, and then thoroughly rebuilt. For “Pin-Ups” was never an exercise in the nostalgia that traditionally permeates ventures such as this. Rather, it was as if Bowie was asking, if these bands were starting out now, with the same players and the same songs, what would they sound like? It is unlikely that he was wrong in the majority of his conclusions.

The Kinks’ “Where Have All the Good Times Gone” is the clincher. Underpinned by the lascivious grind of Ronson’s guitar, the epitome of glam rock’s most subversive instincts, Bowie sings with genuine wistfulness, more so even than Ray Davies on the 1965 original. It is as if he, Bowie, knows that an era is ending — not only for the Spiders, whose last album this would be; not only for glam rock, whose day was slowly closing; but also for himself.

“Pin-Ups” was the last album Bowie would make for which he would neither be second-guessed by the critics or questioned by the industry. It was also the last upon which he could simply be himself, before the ch-ch-ch-chameleon image he had so carefully cultivated over the previous two years began — as he always knew it would to bite back.

The face on the cover of “Pin-Ups”, with 1960s model Twiggy (“Twig the Wonder-kid” from “Aladdin Sane’s” “Drive-In Saturday”) resting her head on his shoulder, was still recognizably Ziggy Stardust. True, when you flipped the sleeve over, you encountered a live shot that MainMan photographer Leee Black Childers complained resembled “a chicken liver sculpture,” but we remained in familiar territory.

Henceforth, however, every new album would demand a new persona — Halloween Jack, Philadelphia Soulboy, Thin White Duke, Berlin Hermit, New Romantic Clown, Trendy Restaurant Waiter — and it would be a new century before Bowie could return to such relaxed pastures again. Where had all the good times gone, indeed.

It’s ironic, then, that on an album that positively bristled with epic performances of immortal songs, the best known should be the one that least merits it a place in such company — “Sorrow,” a mawkish ballad that was initially composed for The McCoys by the American songwriting team of Bob Feldman, Richard Gottehrer and Jerry Goldstein. (It was covered in the U.K. by The Merseys.)

The Easybeats (Australia) and Them notwithstanding, “Sorrow” was the sole “foreign import” on the album; more importantly, it was the only song not penned at least partially under the influence of the British beat boom, as opposed to the American pop market, and it sticks out a mile.

Released as a late 1973 single, however, it reached No. 3 in the U.K., No. 2 in Ireland, and topped the chart in Australia, New Zealand and South Africa. It was still turning up in Bowie’s live set a decade later, and when the BBC Proms gave over an evening to the songs of David Bowie following his passing, “Sorrow” was the only cut from “Pin-Ups” that made it into the show (performed by John Cale). And it still sounded out of place.

For a lot of people, however, that’s what the entirety of “Pin-Ups” is out of place, a makeweight novelty space-filler that Bowie knocked out between the serious business of performing his own songs.

Which is a shame because, in many ways, it’s one of the most honest records he ever made. “This is me,” it says, “and this is the music I loved.” No great statements, no artistic license (compare anything from “Pin-Ups” with the grotesquely overwrought take on “Let’s Spend the Night Together” on “Aladdin Sane”), no overarching concept. Just a series of snapshots of the 1960s London club scene, and a night with one of the greatest jukeboxes in the world.

So, what are the chances of “Pin-Ups” receiving the same box-set treatment that predecessors “Space Oddity” and “Hunky Dory” have received, and Ziggy and “Aladdin Sane” likely will? Probably slim. Whether the fault lies with scheduling reasons, unforeseen delays or simply sheer bloody-mindedness, the popular assumption that every successive Bowie album would have its 50th anniversary marked with a deluxe edition has already swerved horribly off-piste.

At the time of writing, we are 11 months into Ziggy’s jubilee year, and we’re only now getting a box set of its predecessor. Assuming a Ziggy set makes it out in 2023 and “Aladdin Sane” in 2024, that places us halfway through the decade before Pin-Ups” even gets looked at, by which time the Bowie universe will be celebrating 50 years of “Fame,” while demanding to know what happened to the “Diamond Dogs” box.

There are certainly a few scraps that would make entertaining bonus material, most prominently the 15-minute promotional “Pin-Ups Radio Show”, featuring five songs from the album plus Bowie’s thoughts on the subject. It could include the three songs Bowie performed during the 1980 Floor Show NBC TV special in October 1973 — “I Can’t Explain,” three takes of “Everything’s Alright” and… you guessed it, “Sorrow.”

There’s the original Chateau cut of “I Can’t Explain,” ditched in favour of a new, slower version recorded at Trident Studios, London; the Velvets track; and maybe (or maybe not) there are the aforementioned rumored recordings. But in truth there really wasn’t time to mess around with too many songs. Interviewed in 1986, Ronson recalled the process as one of the most straightforward sessions he’d ever played.

“We had the records, we knew the songs, and the arrangements came together in the studio. It was just a quick run-through, then press record and next!” The entire record was completed in three weeks, during which time they also recorded the Lulu single and mixed the tapes of the farewell gig. Even the “Sorrow” B-side, Jacques Brel’s “Amsterdam,” was recorded close to two years earlier (although that hasn’t stopped it making the bonus tracks on sundry CD reissues).

Adventurously, a few of Bowie’s other stabs at mid-1960s covers could be considered he tackled The Who’s “Pictures of Lily” in 2001, and The Kinks’ “Waterloo Sunset” in 2003. Add the aforementioned Stones number, and live renderings of The Beatles’ “Love Me Do” and Cream’s “I Feel Free” but no. Different moods, different times, different intentions.

What else is there, though? There are no radio sessions, no latter-day remixes and, at least so far as we know, no deathbed demands that someone rip the original master tape to shreds and then rerecord it as a different album entirely. 

None of the faithful standbys that have sustained other posthumous Bowie packages are out there.

What there is, on the other hand, is a near-pristine, almost perfect and utterly unvarnished glimpse inside the musical mind of the single greatest British rock superstar of the 1970s. And, if anybody really wants to mark its anniversary, how about a compilation of the 12 original singles that Bowie stacked up to play while compiling the album?

Bowie’s liner notes explained the thought process behind the songs he was recording. “These songs are among my favourites from the ’64-’67 period of London. Most of the groups were playing the [Ricky Tick]-Scene club circuit. [Marquee, Eel Pie Island, La La].”

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