David Bowie’s first appearance at the Glastonbury Festival took place at around 5am in the morning of 23 June 1971.
This was Bowie’s first live UK appearance of 1971. He had been invited to play by DJ and promoter Jeff Dexter, who had recommended him to festival organiser John Coleman.
Bowie and Angie, guitarist Mick Ronson, manager Tony Defries, Dana Gillespie, and Bob Grace had travelled by train from London Paddington to Castle Cary on Saturday 19 June. They opted to walk the ten miles of country lanes to Worthy Farm in Pilton, where the festival was held.
I hated Glastonbury. It was so cold and I had to try and sleep in a little tent on the grass. It wasn’t much fun.
Bowie had originally been scheduled to appear the previous evening, 22 June. When the other acts overran he was originally moved to a midnight slot, but was eventually bumped to the next day so festival organisers could abide by a curfew set by the local authorities.
There was chaos over who was playing. Everyone was on acid – not David or Angie or Defries I hasten to add, or even me, for once.
The original running order for 22 June had been Bronco (2-3pm); Terry Reid (3.30-4.45pm); Mouseproof (5-6pm); Leafy, Limbo, Toad (6.15-7pm); David Bowie (7.30-8.30pm); Daevid Allen & Gong (9-10.15pm); Traffic (10.45pm-12.15am); and Pink Floyd (from 1am).
Bowie alternated between acoustic guitar and electric keyboard during the set, with additional harmonica on ‘Song For Bob Dylan’. He was joined by Mick Ronson on guitar, bass guitar, and additional vocals.
During his time on the festival site, Bowie wore a blue ‘magician’s cloak’, and a floppy-brimmed hat bought from the Universal Witness, Paul Reeves’ shop on London’s Fulham Road.
His set included the live debut of ‘Changes’, the little-known song ‘It’s Gonna Rain Again’, which would be recorded during the Ziggy Stardust sessions, and a cover of Jacques Brel’s ‘Amsterdam’ in the encore:
- ‘The Supermen’
- ‘I’d Like A Big Girl With A Couple Of Melons’
- ‘Oh! You Pretty Things’
- ‘It’s Gonna Rain Again’
- ‘Memory Of A Free Festival’
Bowie’s best-known song at the time was ‘Oh! You Pretty Things’, due to the recent UK chart success of Peter Noone’s rendition. Bowie introduced the song by explaining that it was “a thing I wrote in America” the previous February. He then told the audience: “This is the original thing I wrote,” before launching into a bawdy piano song:
I’d like a big girl with a couple of melons
A bad girl but not a teensy bit rebellious
Hard of hearing with a great big behind
A short-sighted raver with filth on her mind
Oh lord, I’m getting desperate…
During this performance, an apparently high Scandinavian girl climbed onto the stage. Bowie responded by laughing and saying: “She’s here!”, and invited her to sit next to him at the piano. He then explained how the song had evolved into ‘Oh! You Pretty Things’.
I had that as an intro, but it got dirtier and dirtier, so I chucked it out in the end. I was just left with the intro, so I thought, well, I’ll write another thing around that… and you’ll never believe what it ended up as.
During the song, the girl on stage sang – somewhat badly – backing vocals, to which Bowie joked: “This is about homo superior, love. You’re letting the lyrics down badly!” Sending her off by asking her to “go and get some bacon and eggs”, he then performed ‘Oh! You Pretty Things’ solo.
Not all of the 8,000 festival attendees saw Bowie’s set, due to its early start. However, much of it was recorded, with the festival organisers’ permission, by sound engineer John Lundsten, formerly of London’s Radio Geronimo.
I came out of my tent and heard this glorious sound, so I pounded down the hill. The recording equipment was on a platform immediately under the stage, so I crawled under and got to work. I only missed the very beginning.
The Complete David Bowie, Nicholas Pegg
The sun rose during Bowie’s performance of ‘Memory Of A Free Festival’, with its refrain “The sun machine is coming down, and we’re gonna have a party”. Prior to the song he told the crowd: “I’ll try and be serious for a second… I just want to say that you’ve given me more pleasure than I’ve had in a good few months of working, and I don’t do gigs any more because I got so pissed off with working, and dying a death every time I worked, and it’s really nice to have somebody appreciate me for a change.”
People were waking up in their sleeping bags having been frozen all night in the mud. It was quite extraordinary. He didn’t have a full audience in attendance, but the ones he did have, he completely won over.
Bowie and Defries eventually vetoed the release of the live recordings, feeling that they didn’t play well with his new Ziggy image. A triple album, Revelations: A Musical Anthology for Glastonbury Fayre, was released in June 1972 to raise funds for the loss-making festival. The album contained a 1971 studio version of ‘The Supermen’ which was remixed and included on the Rykodisc reissue of Hunky Dory and on the 2002’s 30th anniversary edition of Ziggy Stardust.
In May and June 2000, ahead of his appearance at that year’s Glastonbury Festival, Bowie kept an eight-part diary for Time Out magazine. In one entry he recalled his original appearance at the festival.
The first and only Glasto that I’ve done before was in 1971. All I can remember is staggering out of the Worthy Farmhouse at some ungodly hour. I had been ensconced in there for some of the night, drinking and smoking and such like with the tremendously talented Terry Reid and Linda Lewis. None of us were in the best of shape. No curfew in those days so I was playing to a mainly sleeping crowd. They awoke benignly enough and gave me much encouragement as I fumbled through about nine songs. I accompanied myself on poorly played guitar and an even worse outing on a Woolworth’s electric organ. A Dutch girl, even more stoned than myself, insisted on jumping onstage to duet with me on the then completely unknown ‘Oh! You Pretty Things’. All in all, a delightfully light and silly couple of days, all Tolkieny and mushrooms and ‘Oranges’.
The whole thing was pretty much pulled together by Jeff Dexter, the only DJ in those days to actually know what music to play for big crowds. He used up his own funds to finance the thing and arranged for most of us performers to appear and got not a word of thanks from the then co-promoters, as far as I know.
Ah! Now I remember why I want to do it again. I left my Bipperty-Bopperty hat there, in the farmhouse. I wonder if it’s still on the chair? With my bottle of cannabis tincture? Also, I can’t resist the idea of encouraging all those slightly dazed and glazed peeps to give their voices full throttle to a chorus or two of a song or three. Just one last time. Oops! I’ll never say ‘never again’, again. Possibly.
Glastonbury tour diary, Time Out
Also on this day...
- 1986: Album release: Labyrinth
Want more? Visit the David Bowie history section.