In the studio

‘Big Brother’ was recorded on 14 and 15 January 1974 at London’s Olympic Studios.

It was one of the first songs to be completed for Diamond Dogs, and on 26 January a report in the New Musical Express named the tracks ‘Big Brother’ and ‘Are You Coming? Are You Coming?’ for David Bowie’s proposed stage show, which had recently been renamed The 1980 Floor Show.

On 14 January photographer Kate Simon was at Olympic Studios, taking photos for Disc of Stomu Yamashta, who was recording elsewhere in the building. With her assignment completed, she sat in for part of Bowie’s session.

I can see David clearly now, sitting behind the huge desk in the main room, in a long green synthetic fur coat and a green felt hat, singing and playing acoustic guitar.

I was overwhelmed at how good he was, just accompanying himself. And he was lovely, gave me absolute freedom that day.

He kept calling me ‘Bette’ – he believed I looked like Bette Midler – and once I was done, said: ‘Bette, do you need a lift back into town?’

He was heading to Oakley Street [in Chelsea] and so I got a ride in this huge limousine to my flat in Fulham. He was very, very nice, but all the way – on what was quite a long journey – he didn’t say word, until I got out. Then he said: ‘I’ll see you again.’ Maybe he was kind of wistful that day.

Kate Simon

The song is structured unconventionally, opening with the two verses back to back, then a brief bridge (“Please, saviour, save your shores/Tell me I’m rapidly yours”) and chorus, followed by a lengthy instrumental passage and a predominantly acoustic middle section – with Bowie double tracking his vocals an octave apart (“I know you think you’re awful square…”) – before the final three choruses.

Bowie used sampled vocals and brass for the backing, played on a Mellotron. The sampled sounds can be heard throughout the track, but most prominently during the introduction.

On the album, ‘Big Brother’ segues into the Two Minutes Hate of ‘Chant Of The Ever Circling Skeletal Family’, although both pieces were recorded separately.

Live recordings

‘Big Brother’ was performed during the Diamond Dogs Tour, but was dropped when it became the Soul Tour towards the end of 1974.

A recording from July 1974 can be heard on David Live, and another from September is available on Cracked Actor (Live Los Angeles ’74).

‘Big Brother’ was revived in 1987 for the Glass Spider Tour, possibly due to its similarity to the verses of Never Let Me Down song ‘Shining Star (Makin’ My Love)’. A recording from the tour can be heard on Glass Spider (Live Montreal ’87).

Previous song: ‘1984’
Next song: ‘Chant Of The Ever Circling Skeletal Family’
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