Many people are under the impression that 1972, when Ziggy came out, was Bowie’s biggest year in the early 70s, but in fact it was ’73 — the Ziggy tour caught on in the US, and he managed to get out two further albums (Aladdin in April, and this one in December) — both of which went to #1 in the UK and did well elsewhere on the strength of Ziggy alongside their own charms. Pin Ups was, ironically, released on the very same day as an album of covers by Bryan Ferry (These Foolish Things) — his debut solo album. Ferry didn’t do quite as well commercially (merely reaching #5 in the UK charts), but received more critical praise (and, frankly, is the better album of the two). While Bowie stuck to covers from a very specific and influential period for him (the bands and sounds he most often tried to emulate in his pre-first album period, 1964–67), Ferry picked his personal favourites from all across his youth, from songs that predate him quite considerably (probably favoured by his parents) to his pre-teen and early teen years in the 1950s.
We mention this not just because the two were such contemporaries, but because Ferry was pleased enough with the reception to do another covers album a year later (Another Time, Another Place, 1974), but Bowie — despite very much wanting to — did not. Pin Ups was, in fact, intended as the first installment of a two-part plan: it was intended to bring English songs specifically to a US audience that wouldn’t be that familiar with them, while the follow-up album (called, at least at one point, Bowie-ing Out) would have consisted of Bowie covers of US artists. A few of these selections were covered by Bowie much later (“God Only Knows,” “I’ve Been Waiting for You,” “I Took a Trip on a Gemini Spaceship,” and others). In 1973, though, Bowie’s hair was in full-on mullet mode, but as mentioned previously he appears to be the one male humanoid that made it work (ironically it became a popular hairstyle more than a decade later, among both men and women). The cover art with Twiggy was originally intended for Vogue, but they didn’t use it, so Bowie recycled it.
In addition to the two pretty things on the cover, Bowie also kicked off the album with his version of “Rosalyn,” a raucous rave-up R&B rocker based on the Bo Diddley sound originally written by the Pretty Things and issued as a single by them in 1964 (he also covered the band’s other notable single from that year, “Don’t Bring Me Down” later on this album), and referenced the band in at least two song titles in his career (“Oh You Pretty Things” and “The Pretty Things are Going to Hell”). Apparently he liked them, and it couldn’t be more obvious in his cover of “Rosalyn” — Bowie surprises by aping the Pretty Things’ lead singer Phil May so well that, to quote May, “[Bowie] even screamed in the same places I did.” The two versions are similar enough that Bowie fans would be forgiven for thinking that possibly May had guested the lead vocal on this one, with one of the few differences in the cover being Ronson’s meatier guitar work.
This segues directly into a cover of “Here Comes the Night,” a song of teenage angst and jealousy first recorded by future Bowie pal Lulu (it didn’t do well for her) and was later a #2 hit for Van Morrison and Them (though it was not written by Morrison) in 1964. Oddly, Bowie never committed anything written by Sir Van the Man to an album or b-side, though his band Hype did “Madame George,” and David incorporated Morrison’s “Gloria” into extended concert versions of “Jean Genie” alongside other song snippets, so there was clearly some regard there. I would speculate that Lulu may have suggested the number as a good choice for him.
Lulu’s version emphasised the sadness of humiliation and regret; Them’s version (with Jimmy Page as a session guy on lead guitar!) focused more on the anger and jealously. On Pin Ups, the song is done in more of a rock-musical style with a very theatrical, exaggerated vocal that sounds a lot like what I’d imagine Patti Smith or Tim Curry (again) might have done with it. Naturally, the Pin Ups version again has sterling guitar work, but also a strong saxophone presence missing from Lulu’s violin-centric, slower take, or the Rolling Stones-style interpretation Them recorded. Bowie clearly borrowed from both singles.
From there we go to a proper blues cover, a song written by Billy Boy Arnold (one of Bo Diddley’s sidemen) using a very borrowed Diddley beat. The song “I Wish You Would,” is only heard in its complete form on Arnold’s original; the Yardbirds’ version rearranges and generally fools around with the lyrics, and omits a verse, where the singer is supposed to reveal that the reason his woman done left him is because he was a drinker (as heard in the original 1955 single, above). Bowie’s cover, taken heavily from the Yardbirds single, also leaves that bit off. Curiously, Bowie and Ronson opted to replace nearly all of the signature harmonica line that was a defining characteristic of the 1955 song’s “blues-ness” — faithfully aped and augmented in the Yardbirds recording — with more guitar instead. If Clapton’s first band “whitewashed” the lyric, Bowie’s take on it whitewashed the music as well. Again, as with “Here Comes the Night,” he chose to go with rock rave-up type vocals that further cut the emotional heart out of the thing as well. Ronson outplays Clapton on this, but gets ever further away from the roots of the song.
This leads us into a brief return of David Bowie mk1, in the form of his cover of The Pink Floyd’s/Syd Barrett’s “See Emily Play,” very much the sort of music Bowie himself created in his first two albums. His take on it sounds like a fusion of the vocal style of his debut mixed with the backing band that created “The Man Who Sold the World.” Bowie backs himself up on Varispeed vocals to create a chorus of mental demons — he absolutely has a lot of empathy for the material and Syd, having had many mentally-ill relatives, the tragedy of his half-brother, his acquaintance with Barrett himself, and of course at this point in his life the madness of rock stardom. Garson again provides a lot of augmentation, while Ronson, Bolder, and Dunsbar create an arrangement significantly better than the original. The addition of strings at the end can, as O’Leary notes, be interpreted as the introduction of soothing medicine or a sign that the heroine of the song has completely withdrawn into her own troubled mind. It’s a great song made greater by Bowie, but it’s still rather jarring in the track mix, sandwiched as it is between the more typical “I Wish You Would” and the more typical rocker “Everything’s Alright.”
Speaking of, the only reason I can think of that this lightweight pub-rocker was included on the album is that drummer Aynsley Dunsbar also played on the original recording by the Mojos. This is the sort of song the early Beatles might have done in their Cavern Club/Hamburg days, and indeed Bowie’s version ends with him doing a multi-tracked “ooooh” finale that sounds lifted straight from “She Loves You.” Compared to two contemporary covers from 1965 — a very good one by the Liverpool 5 and an even livelier one from the Robin Hoods — Bowie’s version sounds rather by-the-numbers, though as usual the instrumentation is pretty solid.
Side One comes to an end with a strangely slowed-down cover the Who’s “I Can’t Explain.” Bowie openly ripped off The Who for a few of his early singles, in particular infusing his own “Can’t Help Thinking About Me” with all the fury the Who themselves could have mustered (and got called out on it by Townsend at their first meeting).
The odd choice to do “I Can’t Explain” as sort of a torch-song version that, but for Ronson’s presence, sounds like it could have been in Bowie’s cabaret act from six years earlier can only stem from his fundamental misinterpretation of the song. Bowie sings it like the chorus is a metaphor for an expression of lust in polite company, when in fact the song is clearly about a teen or pre-teens first inklings of sexual awakening, where they haven’t yet got the vocabulary for what they’re feeling. Despite having Dunsbar on board, the Pin Ups version strips down the drums, removes the teenage angst, and essentially neuters the song.
Side Two kicks off with “Friday On My Mind,” a hit for the Easybeats in 1966. The band perform the song admirably, but Bowie literally sounds like he can’t decide how to approach this as he’s singing it. Half the time, he’s doing it in his recently-favoured rave-up style (there’s no doubt in our mind that Bowie had taken in a performance of The Rocky Horror Show after it opened on the West End in June of ’73 with Tim Curry in the lead role), but for other parts — including some high notes he can’t quite reach — he goes the Tony Newley route from his early days. It’s very disconcerting when Bowie himself is by far the weakest element on a given track, but that’s the case here. That said, Bowie follows this up with by far the strongest of his performances on this album, “Sorrow.”
The track — originally written by Bob Feldman, Jerry Goldstein, and songwriting legend Richard Gottehrer — was first recorded by the McCoys (who used it for a b-side in ’65) and then the Merseys (who had a big hit with it a year later). Despite being a cover, it seems both like a natural Bowie number as well as one for which he has some obvious affection. As Bowie discographer Nicholas Pegg notes, the arrangement makes it sound very much like something he’d have written for his pal Lulu, and adds that an ironic reissue of Bowie’s own “The Laughing Gnome” is said to have caused RCA to hold back the “Sorrow” single for a while (the “Laughing Gnome” re-release actually hit #6 on the UK charts, such as the popularity for anything with Bowie’s name on it by this point). Bowie’s version went on to become one of his most successful singles ever in terms of chart staying power; it lasted 15 weeks in the UK Top 40, peaking at #3.
Back to the blues for the next number “Don’t Bring Me Down,” the other Pretty Things number, and the entire band turn in a solid performance, particularly Dunsbar (finally allowed to really shine on drums) and Bowie himself on harmonica. For everything Bowie and producer Ken Scott did wrong with “I Wish You Would,” they certainly nailed the blues down solidly on this track, mainly by closely copying the Pretty Things’ version (only turning down the mod stylings a tad, letting Dunsbar ply his trade, and clearly having access to a better recording studio). As with “Rosalyn,” it’s quite obvious Bowie really did like the Pretty Things, although this time around he lends the vocal a more mature style that he would make more use of as he, well, matured. I could see Bowie re-recording this in the same style 20 years later with no appreciable difference in the vocal stylings.
Listeners might be forgiven for feeling a bit of whiplash as the record veers wildly again, into “Shapes of Things,” the second Yardbirds cover on Pin Ups and their first self-penned single. The original had a nicely-mid-’60s youth rebellion feel to it (and clever use of overdriven guitar courtesy Jeff Beck), but Bowie and Ronson amp it up into a much more psychedelic arrangement that better suited the late ‘60s (but seemed just a touch retro in 1973), complete with a background string section. Much more Jefferson Airplane-meets-Moody-Blues than anything else on the album, with Ronson paying due tribute to Beck’s searing original solo. Again, this wouldn’t have been much out of place on The Man Who Sold the World.
The following track is a second slice of The Who, this time 180 degrees away from the lounge-y “I Can’t Explain” to a full-on, no-apologies imitation of the band outright on “Anyway, Anyhow, Anywhere.” Bowie does his best Daltrey, and Dunsbar does his best Moon — while Ronson and Bolder mostly refrain from trying to imitate Townshend and Entwhistle directly, yet they still capture the vibe. Apart from some tell-tale stylings, Bowie and the band manage to pull off a strong impression of The Who at their best (again). The album concludes with a faithful but again harder-edged cover of “Where Have All the Good Times Gone,” which (unusually for this album) was a Kinks b-side rather than an a-side. It’s a bit of a “response” in sentiment to the youthful worries of “Shapes of Things,” where a more cynical narrator bemoans his youthful idealism, and Bowie shows off how much he likes the Kinks with another homage-cum-impression, this time Ray Davies.
The 1990 Rycodisc release of Pin Ups includes two notable bonus tracks: an early Bruce Springsteen composition, “Growin’ Up,” which features Rolling Stone Ron Wood on guitar (!) for the Bowie version, and the long-delayed inclusion of Brel’s “Port of Amsterdam,” originally left off Ziggy Stardust and now added to this album of covers. Bowie likely came to “Growin’ Up” through the original demo version, before Greetings From Asbury Park came out in late ’73, but even way back then the Boss’ style and voice were quite distinct, and Bowie sounds (in hindsight) like he’s covering a Springsteen (or Jim Steinman) song, letting his fascination with Americana ride free. The cover was actually recorded during the Diamond Dogs sessions, and was likely intended for the US-centric sequel to Pin Ups, and thus doesn’t really belong on this album: the song was also appended (more appropriately) to the 30th anniversary release of Diamond Dogs.
Bowie (a year or so later) covered Springsteen again with “It’s Hard to be a Saint in the City” again from Brooooce’s debut album around the time of Young Americans and Station to Station, but although Bowie and Springsteen met during those initial sessions, and the former clearly had an affinity for what the latter was doing, they never worked together. Bowie, after meeting Springsteen and gathering that The Boss wasn’t too impressed with the cover, never released his version, which was actually quite prescient with regards to where Springsteen would later end up, and the track finally turned up on the compilation Sound + Vision.
The “Port of Amsterdam” cover — both the original “first mix” and the Ryko Pin Ups “second mix” bonus track — follows Scott Walker’s 1967 English-language version pretty closely (there’s a pretty amazing video of Brel himself performing it live; see below), and brings all the power and poetry of Walker’s version to a simpler arrangement of just him (or possibly Ronson) on 12-string guitar. O’Leary notes that after deciding to leave it off Ziggy, Bowie apparently wrote “Rock n Roll Suicide” as a faux-Brel replacement. There’s another “clean” acoustic version of the song Bowie did, even more passionate in its performance, now on the Bowie at the Beeb CD. Bowie performed the song a half-dozen times times on the radio, but the first mix of the studio version ended up as a b-side for “Sorrow.”
Although it would have technically broken the theme of UK singles from the mid-60s, I think an appropriate bonus track (should they ever get round to doing another reissue of Pin Ups) would be the “White Light White Heat” cover Bowie originally started, but never completed, during those sessions. Mick Ronson later sought, and got, permission from Bowie to use the tracks for his own cover of the song on his album Play Don’t Worry. Bowie covered the song about a zillion times in concert, however, and there are something like a half-dozen versions recorded for the BBC floating around. This one (below) is probably my favourite of them, as you can hear Bowie aping Lou for all he’s worth. Mr. Reed himself joined Bowie in some live versions, including one as early as 1972, and most memorably for David’s 50th birthday concert.
Regarding Pin Ups as a complete work: while there are definitely occasions on Pin Ups where Bowie covered songs well, there are almost as many where he appears to have missed the point of the song entirely. Though Bowie claimed in interviews that most of the songs chosen for Pin Ups were singles or albums he had at home from his early days, none of these bands (bar The Who) seem to have been big influences on him.
While he might have enjoyed the songs (either seeing them performed live back in the day, as he would claim, or from the records), it can’t be a coincidence that almost none of these songs ever reached US radio listeners, making this “contractual obligation” album seem like just a new Bowie album to many American fans, or to younger UK fans. Pin Ups is an collection of focused (and occasionally un-focused) nostalgia at a time when that was really coming into vogue: in addition to Bryan Ferry putting out the same sort of album at the same time, it was around this time that the simpler mid-50s and early-60s rock songs, now looking dated by comparison with the contemporary 70s, became nostalgic “oldies” to those who grew up on that stuff as teens themselves.
A lot of the songs Bowie chose for the record are good, though a surprising number offer rather empty, throwaway lyrics; the simplistic “Rosalyn,” the abridged “I Wish You Would,” the pointless “Everything’s Alright” — odd choices by an artist known for his multi-layered and often-complex verses, and affinity for others who specialized in allegorical and symbolic lyrics. There’s a troubling feeling, however, that Bowie didn’t really put his full effort into, let’s say, half of the material. It’s quite possible the influence of “The Rocky Horror Show” was playing a role here, but much of the first side sounds like theatrical takes on the songs rather than heartfelt covers (his a-game is much more present on the second side).
For those unfamiliar with the originals, Pin Ups is an uneven but fun (and now, rather underrated) album featuring a variety of styles performed by an incredibly solid band — but I have to say I got more enjoyment out of re-listening to the various original releases, even when Bowie’s version was arguably better. While far from his worst record thus far, Pin Ups does at times feel like a “contractual obligation” record lacking in focus and effort, only periodically interspersed with songs or bands that he actually did hold in high regard. The album did very well — better than Ziggy in some ways — but those awaiting the next chapter in Bowie’s rapid development would have to wait one more year: Pin Ups is more of an entertaining intermission.