Dave Amitri on Pin Ups
Month five of 12 Bowie albums in 12 months brings me to “Pin Ups”. Another striking piece of cover art featuring Bowie and Twiggy looking like a couple of mime artists fresh from Covent Garden their faces frozen in a mixture of melancholy and terror. It puts me in mind of an old Word Blog collection of photos depicting “Pop Stars Breaking Wind”. Twiggy is clearly the guilty guffer here and Bowie the horrified guffee. Anyway, enough of that, on to the album….
A collection of covers from various bands from the 60’s and 70’s. I knew of some of the originals others were completely new to me. When writing the other pieces in this project I’ve been able to rely heavily on influence and connections I’ve heard through Bowies music whether it was Bowie being the influencer or being influenced, guffer or guffee….. This collection of songs makes that really tough because they are all covers and for the first time all pretty much of the same style. The over riding feeling I got on the first few listens was that the style here was “Pub Rock”. Three years before the “Pub Rock” scene really took off Bowie had decided to leave his characters behind causing some consternation among his “Spiders From Mars” band mates and under record company pressure for an album chose 12 songs to record over two months. I love this snippet from the album booklet that I found while doing some reading on the album.
“These songs are among my favourites from the ’64-67’ period of London. Most of the groups were playing the Ricky-Tick (was it a ‘y’ or an ‘i’?) scene club circuit (Marquee, eel pie island la la . Some are still with us. Pretty Things, Them, Yardbirds, Syd’s Pink Floyd, Mojos, Who, Easybeats, Merseys, The Kinks. Love on ya!”
Had Bowie invented “Pub Rock” or was he following a trend set back in the 60’s with bands just trying to catch a break? Had he tapped in to a scene? Was it just a lazy throw away filler? Was it actually a catharsis, a break from the old showie Bowie hiding behind an fancy image? Maybe I’ll find out when I move on to “Diamond Dogs”. He was top of his commercial game at the time with “Pin Ups” becoming his sixth album in the charts. Whatever it was it feels very different to what I’ve covered so far. In fact it has a feel of a live album and may well have been better for it. So I’m going to ask you to imagine a seedy, smoky, sticky carpet of indeterminate colour pub with a small stage in Camden or Hammersmith or some such in 1973. A clientele dressed like extras from The Sweeney on a Friday night looking for some action and some live music and stumbling across this band with the slightly odd front man. “Is that a fella?” Coming on to the stage and about to rip through one of the best nights out you’ve never had……
“Rosalyn” is a fantastic opener. Pure rock ‘n’ roll catching the crowds attention and convincing them that this lot can do it and they’ll be able to leave the pub in one piece. Even the weirdo. A few more pints of light and bitter, to be downed as the crowd moved towards the stage to catch some more and then…. They go straight into “Here Comes The Night” Bowie nearly loses his crowd with the caterwauling wooahs at the start. Nervous looks among the band as the heavies at the front stop nodding along and stare with a “What the fuck?” look in their eyes but the band turns things around, especially the sax man and they’re off again with another meat and two veg standard that veers off the path but keeps the punters happy. Two songs in and they’ve earned some credit in the bank. “I Wish You Would” with it’s heavy metal riffs and Bowie’s vocal really working takes things off to another level and a couple of fights break out as beer gets spilled and the nodding turns to more aggressive movements. You could never call it dancing. I really love this and want to be in that pub right now with an Embassy Number 6 on the go and a pint of Watney’s looking like Jack Regan on a night off. “See Emily Play” becomes a bit of a jazz / prog freak out but they need to get back to the bar and it passes pretty much unnoticed thanks to some inspired drumming. They kept all the songs around three minutes, going for over four here could have caused a riot but a barrel needed changing and they’ve got away with it. “Everything’s Alright” get’s the place jumping again another heavy metal rip snorter that builds and builds to bizarrely a Beatlesque “wooooo” at the end. “I Can’t Explain” is a familiar tune over and done in just over 2 minutes which seems a bit pointless but the crowd are into it now and he can’t possibly lose them. Can he? They storm through “Friday On My Mind”. There’s one for the ladies with “Sorrow” all the lads go for a slash trying to maintain their “laddish” thoughts while actually wondering if they fancy the singer. This just makes them angrier and drink and smoke more, god help their girlfriends tonight. They return to the brilliant “Don’t Bring Me Down” that almost brings the house down. Classic pub rock that ticks every single box. The lads are fired up now, what’s next, these lads can really play. What a night. “COME ON!!!” And then it happens, Bowie does what Bowie does. He goes full on musical theatre with “Shapes Of Things” and a riot breaks out. Tables smashed, glasses thrown and bottles broken. Police are called and it’s like the wild west as the band play on. The landlord calls over “Play something normal for fucks sake, what is this shit!!”. Bowie plays on to the last note, he’s changing for no one. Then finishes the set with a storming “Anyway, Anyhow, Anywhere” and brings the crowd back to earth with a “Where Have all The Good Times Gone?”. Last orders is called and everyone goes home happy. What a night, some of the lads said they’ll be back next week.
It’s a brilliant album for me bringing to mind Dr Feelgood, Kilburn and the Highroads, The Blockheads, The Motors and even The Jam on The Who covers. Did Deep Purple ever play a pub? If they did, that’s in there too. I’m too young to really remember Pub Rock in it’s pomp but my older sister’s first Husband, Colin, was a drummer in a band, more wedding than pub but he dressed like he meant it. Sort of 70’s snooker meets Sweeney with a serious moustache under a mop of dark hair. Colin was a huge fan of Cozy Powell but my memories of him rehearsing are very much 1-2-3-4., tshhh…. My one real experience of pub rock was Rick Astley (yes I’m going there, stay with me) and his band The Luddites at The Grey Horse in Kingston in 2011. He played drums and hammered his way through a set of rock covers from Neil Young to The Kings of Leon. It was brilliant. You could sense it was blowing off the cobwebs of those early songs, more catharsis. Playing to 100 people in a dingy pub before reinventing himself and moving on to become the king of Magic FM. So I’m left wondering if “Pin Ups” was a pivotal moment in Bowie’s career. I’ll find out next month. “Pin Ups” is great, maybe only let down by the lack of power in Bowies vocal but he gets away with it and his insistence at overplaying it even in a 3 minute romp. Whisper it quietly but I think it’s my favourite, most complete Bowie album so far………