Friday, 25 May 2012

Pin Ups (1973)

I always liked the idea that Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars was supposed to include the Chuck Berry number 'Round and Round' as an example of the sound of the 'real' Ziggy and the Spiders. And one natural progression from that is that Ziggy and the Spiders ended up as a fifties and sixties covers band, and this album is a compilation of their live favourites.

That approach certainly fits with the quality on offer here.  I wouldn't go as far as some fans who have described the album as weak and individual tracks as 'failure[s] by any reading' but neither would I go with Iggy Pop's appraisal of it as 'tight as a bitch from the bottom up on every cut'. It's undeniable, I think, that some of the tracks on Pin Ups add very little to the original versions, which is the aim of a cover, to my mind (though, again, I wouldn't go as far as the Rolling Stone reviewer who, ungramatically, claimed that 'none stands up to the originals').  It's also an album where Bowie is very obviously trying out new vocal styles and voices, which some people see as a weakness. That said, Bowie apparently looked on the LP as a way of shaking the dust of Ziggy off his shoes, which it certainly does, so from his point of view (and whose else really matters?), it was a successful release.

Part of the problem for people who are not David Bowie is an obvious one.  If these are all songs Bowie loves from the period, then he's bound to approach with a degree of respect which prevents a really experimental approach.  So he either has Mick Ronson outplay the original guitarist, camps things up a bit or simply copies the original almost as is.

One thing which is immediately evident is that the originals are largely far more trebly than the remakes, with the result that listening to the original then the cover lends a murkiness to the Bowie versions.  On the first track, The Pretty Things 'Rosalyn', this has the added effect of drowning the great bassline of the source single, which is particuarly unfortunate.

Track two, Them's 'Here Comes the Night', is more successful for exactly opposite reasons.  Where 'Rosalyn' loses a key component as Bowie adds layers to his version, the Pin Ups version of 'Here Comes the Night' is infinitely preferable to Van Morrison's pretty weedy vocal and his band's dated, country-style guitar work.  From Mick Ronson's first screeching guitar note (my phone ringtone for long enough!) Bowie's version is beefier musically and if the vocal is typically mannered, I far prefer DB's emotional exaggeration to Morrison's dry intonation.  To be honest though, the version by Lulu is the best of the three, veering from resigned drawl to a near stacatto spit of anger and ending like an impersonaiton of Roy Orbison's 'Running Scared' (listen out for the weird backing vocals towards the end though).

'I Wish You Would' by the Yardbirds is virtually the definition of a UK garage band track - simple, circular guitar progression, harmonica in counterpoint, very basic lyric and the entire thing sounds like it was recorded by dropping a mic into a metal cow churn. Bowie tidies things up a bit and Ronson tries to do something interesting with the guitar line, but it's all a bit by numbers, even when Bowie attempts a bad boy growl.

Whereas Bowie's 'See Emily Play' manages to sound awesome even when compared to the brilliant original.  The best song recorded by Syd Barrett's version of Pink Floyd, 'See Emily Play' sounds like a child's song in Floyd's hands, with carnival organ sounds breaking the song in two, and lyrics which recount a small girl playing dress up, failing to understand the adults around her and getting lost in the woods.  Bowie's version, on the other hand, makes the line 'You'll lose your mind and play' the centre of the song, and as a consequence produced a more perverse song entirely, in which the adult Emily is insane, double and treble layered vocals shout at her like monsters, and the guitar is an assault on her health not a comfort.  Mike Garson hammers a single key on his piano as the song approaches its end, then starts interposing little runs as violin, guitar and drums create a dischord around the suddently silent singer.  The only genuine triumph on the album, but worth the cost of the whole just for this one track.

The next track up, 'Everything's Alright' by the Mojos is a rotten original, and a pretty bog standard cover which at least manages to make the song listenable.  That's more words than the track really deserves.

I'm starting to flag a bit now, so let's do both Who covers at once.  Both of David's versions of 'Anytime, Anwhere, Anyhow' and 'I Can't Explain' appear to get a bad press from fans of both Bowie and the Who but I don't see what's so wrong with them myself.  Which version you prefer largely boils down to a single question - Pete Townsend or Mick Ronson, and it'll always be Ronson for me.  I've seen 'I Can't Explain' described as 'an act of vandalism' but that, if you ask me, is due to a hagiographic attitude to the faintly unpleasant Townsend rather than any inherent weakness in either song as covered by Bowie.

For the rest, 'Friday on my Mind' is competent and no more, while Don't Bring Me Down' has a subtle reworking of the song's opening line so that Bowie has 'nowhere to roam' rather than 'just want to roam' and a peculiar bur effective near-spoken line towards the end where Bowie puts on his best drawling American accent to good effect.  Nicholas Pegg isn't wrong, too, when he says nowhere are Bowie's most basic influences more obviously on show than here.  'Shape of Things' and 'Where have all the Good Times Gone', om the othe rhand, are pretty decent originals given nothing extra by Bowie and his band.

Which leaves 'Sorrow'.  I love this song, but even I'd have to admit that Bowie's version doesn't really add all that much to The Merseys version (even if David Buckley described it as the album's highlight).  What it is though is MILES better than the Status Quo version below...

Great Lost Track

There's not one really, as evidenced by the way that Rykodisc padded out the 90s reissue with two covers not from the Pin Ups sessions - a note perfect cover of Springsteen's 'Growin Up' and the brilliant but utterly unlike Pin Ups cover of Jacques Brel's 'Amsterdam', at one point planned for Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars.

I suppose the best we can do is this - the instrumentation for a cover of the Velvet Underground's 'White Light/White Heat' was recorded but not used by Bowie, eventually ending up on Ronson's second album Play Don't Worry.

Compare and Contrast

And finally, have a listen yourself - a Spotify playlist with every Bowie song on Pin Ups alongside the original version...

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