Brilliant Bowie!

by Michael Watts / Melody Maker

20th October 1973

DAVID BOWIE: “PIN UPS” (RCA). It’s one of those ripe coincidences that within a few weeks of each other both David Bowie and Bryan Ferry, arch arbiters of current British fashion, should put out albums composed wholly of nostalgic tributes to previously fashionable eras in music – Ferry’s is essentially American and orientated to the singer-songwriter tradition of the early Sixties, Bowie’s concentrated entirely on the years of mod British pop from ’64 to around ’67.

There the parallels end, because whereas Ferry set about it with his tongue stuck firmly out and wound up looking exposed, Bowie keeps his well and truly lodged in his cheek and scores points for wit and style.

Possibly because that period of the early Who, the Mersey’s and the Pretty Things seems not so long distant, it takes a certain amount of daring to revive the kind of music that went with Lambrettas, Parkas, Carnaby Street and pill-popping. Bowie returns to the age of innocence and comes up with a pastiche that’s as funny as it’s marvelously insightful. If Ferry tended to be po-faced, Bowie moves towards irreverence, balancing on an acute knife-edge his enormous relish for the songs per se and his desire to re-invent them.

This album, in fact, is a natural for him because it affords him the chance of his favorite pastime: role-playing. His approach is to impersonate, and he’s masterful, not so much in his absolute fidelity to the originals as in his grasp of phrasing, nuance and style. This is at its most overt in his treatment of the famous Syd Barrett opus “See Emily Play,” where he employs deliberately screwy use of electronics in a fond pisstake of the Pink Floyd; and on part of the vocal he has a gruff, Cockney chorus, reminiscent of “The Bewlay Brothers,” but this time conjuring up the picture of singing pugs down at the Thomas a’ Beckett gym.

I had to bust out laughing at that. His ear is as sharp as his memory, and his taste is impeccable on both counts. He judges exactly that rough, punk sneer of Phil May’s on the Pretties’ “Rosalyn” and “Don’t Bring Me Down” – as good as any of the Stones early cuts – and he’s best of all on the Who (“I Can’t Explain” and “Anyway, Anyhow, Anywhere”), where he very subtly slows down his voice in a great approximation of Daltry (“Anyway” has an even finer absurdist quality in Ansley Dunbar’s attempt to parody Moon’s breaks).

Then again, there’s all the fun of Mick Ronson trying to ape Jeff Beck on “Shapes Of Things,” which I suspect he urged Bowie to include. The laughter is that of recognition at the accuracy of it all, and the humor is gentle. Though his production has used every advantage he can think of, he’s still got such an affection for the songs that, with the possible exception of the Floyd number, they remain virgo intacta in spirit. There’s not one version that usurps the original – maybe “Sorrow,” the single – but interpretation is valid. I suppose “Pin Ups,” in the context of his other work, will be seen as a trifle. I think it clearly emphasizes his brilliance as a stylist and innovator of modes, which is where his true originality lies.

Oh, and it was a nice stroke to get Twiggy on the cover.

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