Album of the week: #1 “Pin-ups” (David Bowie)

Earlier this month, in this piece, I mentioned Sonita Alleyne, the new Master of Jesus College Cambridge. She had appeared on BBC Radio 4’s “Desert Island Discs” and, as that earlier piece noted, she is the first head of an Oxbridge college (as far as I know) who was born after me.

Her musical choices included many pieces of jazz, and several artists that were new to me, such as Gary Bartz and the NTU Troop, LJ Reynolds and Cassandra Wilson. There was only one familiar recording to my ears, “Martha” by Tom Waits, from his album “Closing Time”. While introducing it, Ms Alleyne said:

“I may be the first Master of an Oxbridge college to have an Album of the Week on my noticeboard. My album this week is ‘Rain Dogs’ by Tom Waits.”
[It’s at 18:33 on this link.]

She was introduced to the music of Tom Waits as an undergraduate, as I was, but it was his two albums before “Rain Dogs” that provided the soundtrack to my final year at university: “swordfishtrombones” and “One From the Heart” (featuring songs from the Francis Ford Coppola film). I am rather taken by the idea of having an “Album of the Week” and in the middle of last week decided on one, without much planning: “Pin-Ups” by David Bowie, released in October 1973.

There are Bowie albums that I have heard thousands of times, but this one had passed me by until now. I was aware of it but had never heard it. The only track I knew well was “Sorrow”, released as a single to accompany the album. It made it to #3 here in the UK, just like its two immediate predecessors “Drive-in Saturday” and “Life on Mars?”. Up to that point Bowie’s highest-placed single was “The Jean Genie”, stuck at #2 behind Jimmy Osmond’s “Long Haired Lover from Liverpool”. The album made it to #1, as had “Aladdin Sane” earlier that year.

During the autumn I picked up a copy of a book by Chris Welch, “David Bowie: All the Songs, All the Stories 1970-1980”. It takes you through his albums track by track, from “The Man Who Sold the World” to “Scary Monsters”. I read as far as “Pin-Ups”, revisiting Bowie’s first four 70s albums, all of which I have on vinyl and CD, and all of which I have played many times since the 1970s. Perhaps that was what prompted me to pick “Pin-Ups” last week. I downloaded it on my phone (and resisted the temptation to buy a copy of the CD as well) and read the relevant chapter in Welch’s book while playing the tracks for the first time.

They are excellent, a good mix of songs by artists like The Who, Yardbirds and Pink Floyd from the 1960s. The sleeve notes, written by Bowie and quoted by Welch, tell us, “These songs are among my favourites from the 1964-1967 period of London. Most of the groups were playing the Ricky Tick, Scene club circuit (Marquee, Eel Pie Island la-la). Some are still with us.”

One of the most surprising things about this album for me is that nobody I know has ever spoken about it. I have been a Bowie fan for over 40 years (hard not to be, as a teenager in 1970s London) and went to school with people who idolized him. We discussed every other Bowie release, from “The Man Who Sold the World” right up to “Let’s Dance”, many, many times, but not this one. Maybe, as it’s a covers album tucked in between “Aladdin Sane” and “Diamond Dogs”, it was viewed as less worthy, but I rather wish it had been part of my life before last week. It has endured well.

More than anything else, it sounds like Bowie and the band were having a lot of fun while recording it at the Chateau d’Hérouville, the “Honky Chateau” of Elton John’s 1972 release. That’s another 1970s album that I’ve never heard all the way through. Maybe it could provide me with a future Album of the Week, but I have already dug out the CD that will provide the next one: “entertainment!” by Gang of Four.



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