You might be aware that I’m a bit of a David Bowie fan. If you share my remarkable good taste, you might also be aware that a couple of milestones have just popped up. Alarmingly, today is the 20th anniversary of the release of 1.Outside, the album that marked the pinnacle of the gloriously uncompromising avant-garde phase through which Bowie nonchalantly strode in the mid-nineties. Almost certainly the only concept album ever to be made about ritual murder, performance art, architecture and Minotaurs, 1.Outside sounds as fresh today as it did in 1995, when its experimental ambient leanings, its spoken segues, its juxtapositions of bleepy synths with jazz piano and thunderous guitar, and its downright confrontational weirdness elicited bafflement and hostility from some critics – in much the same way that albums like Diamond Dogs, Young Americans and Low were initially greeted back in the seventies. Like those classics, 1.Outside has since taken its place among the great man’s acknowledged masterpieces. If it’s not an album you’re familiar with, I urge you to rectify that situation without delay.
But we’re not actually here to talk about 1.Outside. Today also sees the release of Five Years (1969-1973), a lavish new box set containing remasters of eight albums from Bowie’s first golden age, accompanied by two discs of B-sides and rarities. For Bowie anoraks everywhere, present company included, the most enticing nugget in the new box set is the original single version of ‘Holy Holy’, a recording so obscure that it has been unavailable on any format besides crackly bootlegs since its short-lived vinyl release back in 1971.
And so, to mark this long-awaited reissue, here’s a piece I originally wrote last year for the liner notes of a single by the supergroup Holy Holy, a band which takes its name from David Bowie’s song and is headed by veteran Bowie collaborators Woody Woodmansey and Tony Visconti, together with Glenn Gregory of Heaven 17 on vocals, Steve Norman of Spandau Ballet on saxophone, and many more besides. My essay is reproduced here with thanks to producer Tom Wilcox and to all in the band. And thank you again, Holy Holy, for those fabulous gigs.
Just a little bit evil: the story of Holy Holy
As 1970 dawned, David Bowie was teetering on the brink of success. ‘Space Oddity’ had given him his first hit the previous autumn, and there had been critical acclaim for the accompanying album despite its disappointing sales. To those in the know, Bowie was one to watch. But beyond the rarefied world of the music business, the word wasn’t really out: not yet, not quite.
Meantime, 1970 would be a year of mixed fortunes. Despite making no commercial impact whatsoever on its initial release, The Man Who Sold the World was a creative and critical triumph for Bowie: a truly remarkable album on which the ever-growing scope and ambition of his songwriting were matched by a series of dazzling contributions from the core team of drummer Woody Woodmansey, guitarist Mick Ronson, and bassist/producer Tony Visconti. Earlier in the year, before the album sessions began, Bowie had enlisted the latter pair and Woodmansey’s predecessor, drummer John Cambridge, to record the single version of ‘Memory of a Free Festival’ and to play a series of gigs under the band name Hype (just Hype, by the way – not The Hype. That’s a common mistake). Rocking out in lurex tights, thigh boots, silver capes and other outrageous superhero accoutrements long before anyone else had thought to do the same, Hype would be credited in retrospect with presiding over the birth of glam rock – but in February 1970 their outlandish stage gear was way ahead of the game, and Hype’s audiences were as much bemused as impressed. By the early summer, with work now completed on The Man Who Sold the World, the band went their separate ways, and things fell quiet… until ‘Holy Holy’ came along in the autumn and kick-started the next phase of Bowie’s career.
To unpack the story of ‘Holy Holy’, we must first leap ahead. Bowie’s most familiar version of the song – the one we all know from bonus tracks and compilation albums – is actually a re-recording, taped a year later during the Ziggy Stardust sessions and briefly slated for inclusion on that album. Dropped from the final selection, it wouldn’t see the light of day until 1974, when it became the B-side of the ‘Diamond Dogs’ single. As befits the Ziggy sessions it’s a superb track, crackling with energy, confidence and flair, and showcasing Mick Ronson and his fellow Spiders from Mars at their shimmering, coruscating best. And yet this version of ‘Holy Holy’ isn’t the original: the composition pre-dates the Ziggy sessions by 12 months, which might not sound like much, but at this particular point in Bowie’s sensationally rapid evolution as a songwriter, a year was a very long time indeed – and ‘Holy Holy’ is a song whose lyrics have less in common with Ziggy Stardust than with the darker psychosexual milieu of The Man Who Sold the World.
The first thing that hits you about ‘Holy Holy’ is, of course, the title. David Bowie’s writing has always been informed by a complex relationship with spirituality and religion: at the heart of many of his best-known songs there’s a nagging sense of existential anxiety, sometimes articulated via an interest in such systems as the Kabbalah or Tibetan Buddhism, but more often through his ongoing dialogue with the icons, litanies and rituals of his own suburban Christian upbringing. From the very earliest songs right through to more recent controversies, Bowie has always sung of God and man, of heaven and hell, of heathens and believers, of churches and cathedrals, of divine prophets and false messiahs. It’s a preoccupation which rears its head throughout his 1960s work, but the first album on which it becomes systematic – at times, perhaps, obsessive – is The Man Who Sold the World. From the wayward spiritual journey of ‘The Width of a Circle’ (‘when God did take my logic for a ride’) to the messianic super-computer of ‘Saviour Machine’ (‘They called it The Prayer, its answer was law’), the album finds David pushing himself into a series of uncomfortable confrontations with what he would later describe as the ‘devils and angels’ within himself. The theme of madness, a topic of great immediacy for David at the time owing to the mental health issues faced by his own half-brother, has been well documented; less so the fact that the album is steeped in religious imagery. There’s a recurring motif of journeying to a high vantage-point where a disturbing, apocalyptic or revelatory experience unfolds. It happens again and again, in song after song: ‘We met upon a hill’, ‘We passed upon the stair’, ‘It’s pointless to be high cos it’s such a long way down’, ‘Some say the view is crazy but you may adopt another point of view’, ‘He struck the ground, a cavern appeared’. In and among all this ‘mountain magic’, there’s surely an echo of Christ’s encounter with the Devil who, in Matthew’s Gospel, ‘taketh him up to an exceeding high mountain, and showeth him all the kingdoms of the world’ – before tempting him to become, in effect, the man who sold the world.
But Bowie was doing far more than just dipping into hazy memories of Sunday School; he’d recently been reading Nietzsche too, and a dash of Crowley for good measure. The introduction of the German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche into the faux-fairytale landscape already mapped out by Bowie’s earlier albums paved the way for the nightmare visions of ‘Saviour Machine’ and, more obviously, ‘The Supermen’. The album also marks the point at which the voice of the occultist poet Aleister Crowley, sometime member of the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, scourge of Edwardian decency and peddler of his own dubious interpretations of morality, begins to echo through Bowie’s work, most clearly in the sweetly sinister ‘After All’ with its imprecation to ‘live till your rebirth and do what you will’. Both Nietzsche and Crowley would return with a vengeance on Hunky Dory, and they’ve continued to crop up in Bowie’s work ever since.
It’s in the light of such themes that we should consider ‘Holy Holy’. For anyone whose childhood even remotely resembled Bowie’s, the song’s title instantly and ineluctably calls to mind the Christian hymn ‘Holy Holy Holy’, a ubiquitous fixture for English churchgoers since the nineteenth century – but, with a casually blasphemous swagger of the kind he would later hone to perfection on the Ziggy album, Bowie promptly subverts such associations with an opening verse that drips with sexual suggestiveness: there’s a palpable relish in his voice as he sings ‘slowly, we get good and holy’. The angels and devils are circling again, but the key reference is once more to Aleister Crowley: when Bowie likens himself in ‘Holy Holy’ to ‘a Righteous Brother’, he’s not referring to the popular Californian blue-eyed soul duo, but to an everyman character who appears in the texts of Freemasonry and was later adopted in the terminology of the Golden Dawn. Thus the lyric ‘I don’t wanna be angel, just a little bit evil, I feel a devil in me’ hints none too subtly at a journey into the arcane pseudo-religious practices of Crowley’s infamous ‘Sexmagickal’ system. In a few brief lines, ‘Holy Holy’ plunges us into dark, kinky, transgressive territory.
Bowie’s original version was recorded in November 1970, during that brief but significant fallow period between The Man Who Sold the World and Hunky Dory. Poised midway between those two masterpieces, ‘Holy Holy’ captures a moment of transition: there’s something of both albums in it, and yet at the same time it belongs to neither. The songwriting, although distinct and evocative in ways unique to Bowie, can’t quite match the dizzying heights soon to be scaled on Hunky Dory – and sonically, the absence of The Man Who Sold the World’s studio personnel is keenly felt. Tony Visconti, whose visionary production style and pneumatically pumped-up bass guitar had lent the previous album so much of its energy, identity and power, was now out of the picture, busy working with Marc Bolan. In years to come he’d be reunited with Bowie many times over, but for ‘Holy Holy’ David had to look elsewhere. The single was produced instead by Herbie Flowers, another doyen of the bass guitar whose previous credits included not only ‘Space Oddity’, but such diverse pleasures as Blue Mink’s ‘Melting Pot’, Elton John’s Tumbleweed Connection, and Clive Dunn’s novelty hit ‘Grandad’, the latter released just a week before ‘Holy Holy’ entered the studio. A distinguished career lay ahead for Herbie Flowers – among many other highlights he would later play on Lou Reed’s Transformer (that’s his brilliant bassline on ‘Walk on the Wild Side’), Bowie’s Diamond Dogs, and Jeff Wayne’s War of the Worlds, before becoming a founder member of the hugely popular classical-rock fusion group Sky – but few, least of all Flowers himself, have ever claimed that the original version of ‘Holy Holy’ was his finest hour. On guitar and drums, Flowers drafted in two of his Blue Mink colleagues, Alan Parker and Barry Morgan: fine musicians both, but the line-up failed to connect with Bowie’s music or to find that explosive alchemy so evident in the spectacular work of The Man Who Sold the World’s Visconti-Ronson-Woodmansey trio. Today, the seldom-heard original version of ‘Holy Holy’ sounds turgid and plodding by comparison with Bowie’s other work of the period. Released as a single in January 1971, it sank without trace.
But although the single flopped, its place in Bowie’s story is absolutely crucial. It was the original demo of ‘Holy Holy’ which, in the autumn of 1970, secured David his all-important new publishing contract with Chrysalis, a development which was of fundamental significance in the sudden and miraculous upswing in the quantity and quality of his songwriting over the coming months. By the spring of 1971, new songs were pouring from the young artist as never before: songs like ‘Changes’, ‘Queen Bitch’, ‘Moonage Daydream’, and many more besides – classic numbers which would go on to grace the Hunky Dory and Ziggy Stardust albums. ‘Holy Holy’ was the composition which helped to unleash that tsunami of talent.
And make no mistake about it: back in the day David Bowie believed in ‘Holy Holy’, promoting it to the hilt. Remarkably, there was even an attempt to give his new LP a last-minute change of name to support the single. David’s favoured title for his 1970 album had originally been Metrobolist, which the record company considered too abstruse, prompting them to change it – without consultation and somewhat to David’s chagrin – to The Man Who Sold the World. It was released in America in November 1970, just as Bowie was recording his first version of ‘Holy Holy’ – but unusually, the album wasn’t scheduled for release in Britain until April 1971. Such was Bowie’s enthusiasm for his new single, coupled perhaps with displeasure at having already seen the album’s title changed against his wishes, that he tried to persuade Mercury Records to rename the forthcoming UK album release Holy Holy – despite the fact that the song wasn’t even on it. In a letter to Mercury on 10 November 1970, David’s manager Tony Defries wrote: ‘if the single is a success then it will generally assist the album sales to have the same title, notwithstanding that the title track is not on the album.’ In the event, as we’ve already seen, the single was a flop, and the album remained The Man Who Sold the World on both sides of the Atlantic.
The failure of the single wasn’t for want of trying: on 18 January 1971, resplendent in an embroidered Mr Fish frock of the kind soon to be seen on the The Man Who Sold the World’s UK sleeve, Bowie performed ‘Holy Holy’ for Granada Television’s magazine show Six-O-One: Newsday. While in Manchester to record the performance (one of several TV spots from the period which are sadly long lost), David encountered a budding television writer called Roger Price, who admired Bowie’s work and shared his long-standing interest in UFOs, the paranormal, and all manner of things strange. Their conversation that day helped to light a spark under one of the new songs that Bowie was working on, a slice of Nietzschean sci-fi about a race of super-developed children called the Homo Superior. The song would shortly bloom into the classic ‘Oh! You Pretty Things’ – while two years later Roger Price made his own mark on popular culture with the launch of his fondly remembered ITV children’s series The Tomorrow People… about a race of super-developed children called the Homo Superior.
‘Oh! You Pretty Things’ was destined to become David Bowie’s second hit, albeit in a version not his own: Peter Noone’s cover, featuring David on piano, reached number 12 in the summer of 1971, giving Bowie his most significant commercial success since ‘Space Oddity’. It was a good omen: by now the Hunky Dory sessions were in full swing, and at last the word was beginning to creep out that the singer-songwriter with the flowing hair, the striking clothes and the head full of books was a serious contender. ‘Holy Holy’ had played its quiet but vital part in the chain of events – and within a year, David Bowie would be a superstar.
This article originally appeared in the liner notes of the 7” single ‘We Are King’ / ‘Holy Holy’, released in September 2014.
I can also recommend Holy Holy’s live album The Man Who Sold the World: Live in London, recorded at Shepherd’s Bush Empire on 22 September 2014.