David Bowie and The Pretty Things

Undoubtedly Bowie was a fan of their music and the name of the band has featured in the lyrics of several of his songs. But just what was the connection between David Bowie and The Pretty Things? I’ll examine the clues scattered throughout his music and also discuss that fateful meeting in the early seventies when two musicians bumped into each other on Beckenham High Street and how it changed my father’s life forever.

Pictured above: David Bowie (second from left) and The Pretty Things; Phil May (center) and Brian Pendleton, my father (third from right)

Pinups (1973)

Released in 1973, “Pinups” was David Bowie’s seventh LP and was an album of cover versions of some of his favorite songs of the ’64–67’ period of the London music scene. It was planned to be the first in two “nostalgia” albums; the second covering his favorite American artists but the idea was later dropped. The iconic cover to “Pinups” shows Bowie with Twiggy; one of the very first supermodels and the face of British fashion in the sixties.

“Pinups” featured two songs by The Pretty Things and would go on to be number 1 on the UK Album Chart. Both “Rosalyn” and “Don’t Bring Me Down” are faithful renditions of the original recordings. Indeed, the album opener, “Rosalyn” includes the slide guitar part as played by my father, Brian Pendleton, on the original recording.

Pinups was mainly turned towards the US market since ‘he wanted to do songs that weren’t known as well in the States as they were in England.’ — Wikipedia

As “Pinups” demonstrates, David Bowie was undoubtedly both a fan of The Pretty Things music and of the bands name. And, as we’ll see, he would continue to do so throughout his career.

Hunky Dory (1971)

Two years prior to the release of “Pinups”, Hunky Dory was Bowie’s fourth LP and his first for RCA Records. The album has since received critical acclaim, making its way onto Time’s “100 best albums of all time” list in January 2010.

Oh! You Pretty Things

Oh You Pretty Things Don’t you know you’re driving your Mamas and Papas insane

The lyrics to “Oh! You Pretty Things” were inspired by Nietzsche, predicting the imminent replacement of modern man by “the Homo Superior”, however the title “Oh! You Pretty Things” is a definite nod to “The Pretties”, as The Pretty Things were known by press and fans alike.

The song’s chorus also perfectly described life for my father four years prior to the albums release, as his family put increasingly more pressure on him to quit the music business. As my grandfather so eloquently put it to my father at the time: “I don’t want the Pendleton name to be associated with rock and roll.”

Hours… (1999)

Hours… would be Bowie’s twenty-first album and his final release for Virgin Records. Also of note, is that “Hours…” was the first album to be available for download via the internet, two weeks prior to its actual physical release.

The Pretty Things are Going to Hell

You’re still breathing but you don’t know why Life’s a bit and sometimes you die You’re still breathing but you just can’t tell Don’t hold your breath But the pretty things are going to hell

Although the song’s title takes its influence in part from the song “Your Pretty Face Is Going to Hell” by The Stooges (produced by Bowie) it blatantly declares Bowies continued fascination with the “Pretties” name.

Tin Machine (1987)

Pretty Thing (1989)

Oh you pretty thing Shake your pretty thing Gimmee that pretty thing

The self-titled “Tin Machine” album marked a departure for Bowie; as the solo artist was now a lead singer in a rock band. As he put it at the time, the band formed “to make the kind of music that we enjoyed listening to.” Sales were initially favorable, with the album reaching number 3 in the UK Album Chart. Even though the soundscape had shifted to a more aggressive rock sound, it seems Bowie couldn’t help himself but write another track with “The Pretty Things” as an inspiration.

Brian Pendleton

My father, Brian Pendleton, was a famous musician. He was the rhythm guitarist in the original line-up of The Pretty Things. He toured Europe, Australia and alongside the rest of the band, was banned from New Zealand after an eventful tour that is documented in the book “Don’t Bring Me Down… Under: The Pretty Things in New Zealand, 1965.” He lived the life of rock and roll excess. And along the way became friends with David Bowie.

Beckenham High Street (early 1970’s)

My mother’s father Douglas Bell, or “Da Bell” as we called him, served in the Eighth Army during World War II leading Montgomery’s march across North Africa. And throughout the rest of his life he would rarely speak about his time abroad fighting for his country. I mention this because my father was exactly the same. Just like my grandfather he would rarely, if ever, talk about his life as a famous musician. So all the stories and anecdotes of his time in rock and roll came from my mother, Christine, who along with a couple of female friends, went to all of The Pretty Things’ London shows. Here is one such story as told by my late mother…

It was the early seventies and my father was taking a stroll down Beckenham High Street. He was married, a father, and working a desk job for a central London insurance company located behind St Paul’s Cathedral. He had long left the heady days of being in a famous rock and roll band far behind him. Gone was the mansion in Belgravia, central London which he shared with the rest of the band. Gone were the night’s clubbing with Bob Dylan, and gone were the fans knocking on his door clamoring for an autograph. Now he was left working a 9–5 job to pay back the taxes he thought the “Pretties” manager had paid on the band’s behalf years earlier.

As he walked down the street he heard someone calling his name.

“Brian.”

“Hey, Brian.”

He turned around and was met by his old friend David Bowie, whom I’m sure he hadn’t seen in quite some time. After exchanging pleasantries, Bowie asked my father a question. He was organizing a music workshop, he said, and he wondered if my father would participate. I am unsure of the year this meeting took place and unfortunately the only person still living who might recall the date is Bowie himself. I suspect that this music workshop would have been an informal audition for either the band that would eventually record “Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars” or for the band that played on the “Pinups” album.

My father considered the question for a moment and finally replied.

“No, thanks.”

And in that moment it all changed.

I have to wonder what would have happened had my father accepted David Bowie’s invitation to play guitar in his upcoming workshop/audition. Would he have had the opportunity to reprise his slide guitar work on “Rosalyn” for the “Pinups” album? Would my father have become a Spider from Mars? I can only wonder what might have been.

So, in closing, its “pretty” obvious that Bowie’s Beckenham days, the London music scene of the mid-to-late sixties and The Pretty Things themselves had a large influence on his songwriting, and in particular The Pretty Things name lyrically, throughout his musical career.

Many thanks to Mike Stax, editor of Ugly Things Magazine and co-author of Don’t Bring Me Down… Under: The Pretty Things in New Zealand, 1965, for catching an incorrect fact regarding the “Pinups” album.


Originally published at www.whenthemachinesrock.com on March 20, 2015.

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