Recording: The Prettiest Star, London Bye Ta-Ta

On 8 January 1970, his 23rd birthday, David Bowie took part in a recording session at Trident Studios – his first of the new decade.

It was to record the two sides of his next single, which at this stage were intended to be ‘London Bye Ta-Ta’ and ‘The Prettiest Star’. The latter was eventually chosen for the a-side, with a 1969 outtake, ‘Conversation Piece’ on the b-side.

This was an unusually early session, taking place from 1-4am. Tony Visconti was the producer.

Bowie was joined by Marc Bolan on lead guitar, at the suggestion of Visconti.

I think it was Visconti trying to get us back together again as pals and not have us quite so wary of each other. Which was fairly petty of me because I really think that Marc was a wonderful guitar player.
David Bowie, 1994
Any Day Now, Kevin Cann

Sadly, the session was not a happy affair. “Marc came to the session for an hour, played his solo and left promptly,” Tony Visconti said in 1983. “The atmosphere was very heavy.”

All I wanted to do was promote Marc as an electric guitarist; I thought it would have been a great coup to have him play on David’s record. David was extremely happy to have Marc play on the record.

But after Marc had played this brilliant solo – and he also played on another track too called ‘London Bye Ta-Ta’ – [Bolan’s wife] June just sniped at David, ‘He’s too good for you! He shouldn’t play on your music!’ and she dragged Marc out. It was one of the few times that I saw him at a loss for words.

Marc just wanted to be a star; this was like the carpet was pulled out from under him. If Bowie had asked him to join the band, he probably would have.

Tony Visconti
Spinner, February 2010

Bolan had previously sung on the 1969 version of ‘Memory Of A Free Festival’. ‘The Prettiest Star’ was their final public collaboration prior to Bowie’s appearance on the Marc TV show in September 1977, nine days before Bolan’s death.

This wasn’t the only time that Marc recorded with David, but it’s the only one that’s been released. I thought they’d get on great, but June’s comment that Marc was too good for David at the end of the session put a cap on that possibility. I censored Marc when he said nasty things about David; David, on the other hand, was always happy for Marc. But I saw a great opportunity to unite them for ‘The Prettiest Star’ because I knew Marc fancied himself as a lead guitarist. David never returned the favour; as much as fans swear that they hear David play sax on this or that T.Rex track, it never happened. There is a bootleg cassette of Marc and David writing a song in a NYC hotel room which is the real thing; Marc’s death stopped the possibility of them recording together. Towards the end their friendship was better, and they spent quite a lot of time socializing in NYC around the time that cassette was made.
Tony Visconti
Bowie, Bolan and the Brooklyn Boy (Uncut)

The line-up was completed by bass guitarist Delisle Harper, keyboard player Derek Austin, Godfrey McLean on drums and congas, plus backing vocalists Sue and Sunny (sisters Susan Glover and Heather Wheatman).

Harper, Austin, and McLean were members of The Gass, a British funk-rock band who were hoping to have Visconti produce an album for Polydor.

I was in a band called Gass, one of those bands who nearly made it but never quite. We had an LP deal with Polydor, and the album was going to be produced by Tony Visconti. He wanted to use the band to back Bowie, so that’s how that connection was made. It was a very low-key session: we sat down while he played the song. Then David said to me, ‘Could you keep your keys held down on the organ, so it just drones like a string section?’ I said, of course – but the sting in the tail was that it got a review in the Melody Maker where it said ‘The keyboard player sounds like he’s got his hands stuck to the keys’.
Derek Austin
David Bowie: Ultimate Record Collection (Uncut)

Harper’s bass guitar parts were later replaced by Visconti.

I thought they were great musicians so I gave them a break. The bassist didn’t do so well, so I played the bass as an overdub. I never worked with any of them again afterwards.
Tony Visconti
The Complete David Bowie, Nicholas Pegg

Ahead of the sessions, Visconti sent Bowie’s manager Kenneth Pitt a breakdown of the proposed costs:

Studio hire – 10 hours @ £25 per hour £250. 0.0
Engineer’s overtime @ £5 per hour 50. 0.0
Tape 20. 0.0
Mixing – 5 hours @ £15 per hour 75. 0.0
Drums 10. 0.0
Bass 10. 0.0
Two guitars 19. 0.0
Keyboard 9.10.0
Hire of Lowrey organ 30. 0.0
15 strings and 2 flutes + booking fee 119. 0.0
3 girls 19.10.0
My fee as arranger for both sides 60. 0.0
Total £672. 0.0
The Pitt Report, Kenneth Pitt

The recording of ‘London Bye Ta-Ta’ and ‘The Prettiest Star’ continued on 13 and 15 January 1970.

Last updated: 27 March 2023
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