Apart from Bowie’s ‘80’s output, Pin Ups, released during the man’s golden era of creativity, has received its fair share of derision over the years. Why that’s so is difficult to understand. The concept of musicians covering other people’s songs was by then certainly nothing new. The Byrds had been reinterpreting Dylan for nearly a decade, along with just about everybody else it seemed (Hendrix, Manfred Mann, The Band, the next door neighbour’s Tabby). But what sets this LP apart, is that it was one of the very first of what is now known as the rock tribute album (Brian Ferry released his first album of covers, These Foolish Things that same year). And looking at the track selection, it becomes quite clear that these were songs extremely close to Bowie’s heart.
Critics (both then and now) saw it generally as a disappointment. Some commenting that Bowie’s vocals are too high in the mix, too “manicured”, while the rest of the musicians are too low. Others have emphasised at how the recordings themselves lack the immediacy and urgency of the originals. And let’s face it; most of these tunes were laid down by horny young working class men living in a post Elvis world, fuelled by testosterone and electricity, singing and playing as if their very hormones depended on it. Rock and Roll was like the Pandora’s jar of teenage fury. Or so it was in mid-sixties England, where to be young was everything, and where pop songs had become the pinnacle of orgasmic expression, lasting no longer than two, maybe three minutes tops! But for all of Pin Ups imperfections, Bowie had a secret weapon up his sleeve, in the name of one Mick Ronson, who could turn shit into gold when called upon, and who was the vital ingredient needed to muscle things up a bit.
“Rosalyn”, by The Pretty Things, is a raucous opener if there ever was. And while the band indeed packs a pretty decent punch, Bowie’s vocals aren’t quite as convincing. The same goes with Them’s authoritative version of “Here Comes the Night”, which fails to ignite because, let’s face it, there was only one Van Morrison. On the Yardbirds’ “I Wish You Would”, Bowie, Ronson and co get down and dirty, thanks mainly to some gritty guitar work by Ronson himself. Fans of Pink Floyd will no doubt be intrigued by the inclusion of “See Emily Play”, by Syd Barrett. The chorus has an almost demonic, schizophrenic quality, enough to make any eight year old hold his teddy in fear of what might be lurking under the bed at night. As if Edward Lear were possessed by Aleister Crowley. “Everything’s Alright” is rock and roll by numbers, played by a bunch of talented musicians with too much time and technology on their hands.
Things heat up with The Who’s “I Can’t Explain”, where Bowie adds a bit of Philly-Soul and languor to what was originally an urgent declaration of sexual frustration. Dear Oz gets a mention with The Easy Beats’ “Friday on My Mind”, one of the most perfect pop songs you’ll ever hear, and which seemed to capture the innocence and eagerness of youth, all in the space of some two and half minutes. But Bowie’s adaptation just sounds too slick and affected for my taste. He’s more in his natural element on “Sorrow”, which had ‘radio hit’ written all over it, and more in sync with David’s style at the time. The bluesy “Don’t Bring Me Down” by The Pretty Things is brisk enough, but ultimately falls flat when compared to the original. The same goes for “Shapes of Things”, another Yardbirds song, where Bowie injects a theatrical aspect into the arrangement, not unlike a German cabaret, to the point where you’re half expecting Kurt Veil and Marlene Dietrich to join in on the chorus.
The Who’s “Anyway, Anyhow, Anywhere” gets the full Bowie treatment here, while never straying too far from the vision of its creators. Aynsley Dunbar does a pretty good job too in attempting to replicate a little of Keith Moon’s bi-polar drumming. It’s also one of the more successful interpretations David chose to include. “Where Have All the Good Times Gone”, by The Kinks, is given a respectable rendering, remaining faithful to the arrangement of the original, but nevertheless lacks some of the personality and sneer of this 1965 classic.
In 1990, Ryko released a remastered and (slightly) expanded edition of the album, including two bonus tracks, the first of which “Growin’ Up” (a Bruce Springsteen song, can you believe) was a previously unreleased outtake from the Diamond Dogs LP, and “Port of Amsterdam”, originally the b-side to “Sorrow”, apparently a very popular French tune, concerned with some sailors on shore leave. An earlier live version can be heard on the superb “Bowie at the Beeb”, recorded in 1970 for those who are interested.
As well meaning as its intentions obviously were, Pin Ups was the weakest link in Bowie’s oeuvre up to that point (his 1967 debut not withstanding). But now, more than four decades on, Pin Ups remains a satisfactory and enjoyable homage to some of Bowie’s favourite bands of the previous decade, a time when he himself was just a fledgling performer struggling to find his wings. These were important and informative compositions, no doubt, and I hope that if anything what this LP will do is inspire future generations to seek out the originals and discover for themselves what all the fuss was about from a time when London was the epicentre of half the Western world’s youth culture. Where have all the good times gone indeed you could say.