In the studio
In April 1969, David Bowie and John ‘Hutch’ Hutchinson recorded acoustic demos of ten new songs. They included embryonic versions of five compositions that appeared on his self-titled second album: ‘Space Oddity’, ‘Janine’, ‘An Occasional Dream’, ‘I’m Not Quite’ (later retitled ‘Letter To Hermione’) and ‘Lover To The Dawn’, which became ‘Cygnet Committee’.
The bulk of the recordings on Bowie’s second album, including ‘Cygnet Committee’, were made between July and September 1969. The sessions were interspersed with live dates, television and radio appearances, and the death of Bowie’s father John Jones in August.
Seeing him record ‘Cygnet Committee’ was amazing and frightening. It symbolised everything he was doing at the Beckenham Arts Lab. Tony told David to come up at the end, but David said no and instead headed straight for the bathroom where he cried for twenty minutes.
At 9:40, ‘Cygnet Committee’ was Bowie’s longest studio recording to date. It was surpassed in later years only by ‘Blackstar’, ‘Station To Station’, James Murphy’s remix of ‘Love Is Lost’, and a handful of live performances including ‘The Width Of A Circle’.
This has always been an anthem for its time. It is certainly not single material at over nine minutes long, but a popular song in the Bowie legacy. It is a passionate amalgam of everything every young person was told to believe in and then critically questioned. The future is starkly defined by the words, ‘I want to live,’ and then, ultimately ‘Live’. Again, Junior’s Eyes are the band joined [by] Rick Wakeman playing harpsichord and organ.
Five Years (1969-1973) book
Both demos featured Bowie and Hutch on vocals and acoustic guitars. They were subsequently included on the Conversation Piece box set, which was released on 15 November 2019.
‘Cygnet Committee’ became the fifth song on Bowie’s self-titled second album, which was released in the UK on 14 November 1969.
Upon the album’s release, Bowie claimed it was its best song.
They say it’s too long, nine-and-a-half minutes as opposed to the usual three… but that’s a song in which I had something I wanted to say, it’s me looking at the hippie movement, saying how it started off so well but went wrong when the hippies became just like everyone else, materialistic and selfish.
David Bowie: Living On The Brink, George Tremlett
Bowie had hoped that ‘Cygnet Committee’ might have been issued as a single, although this was rejected by his record company.
I wanted this track out as a single but nobody else thought it was a good idea. Well it is a bit long I suppose. It’s basically three separate points of view about the more militant section of the hippy movement. The movement was a great ideal but something’s gone wrong with it now. I’m not really attacking it but pointing out that the militants have still got to be helped as people – human beings – even if they are going about things all the wrong way.
Disc and Music Echo, 25 October 1969
A remixed version of the album by Tony Visconti was released in 2019, and as part of the Conversation Piece box set.
Bowie performed ‘Cygnet Committee’ on one occasion for BBC radio. On 5 February 1970 he recorded a session for The Sunday Show, which was broadcast on Radio 1 three days later.
Backed by Mick Ronson on guitar, Tony Visconti on bass, and John Cambridge on drums, he performed a lengthy 15-song set. Six of the songs, including ‘Cygnet Committee’, were released on Bowie At The Beeb in September 2000. The full session, apart from ‘I’m Waiting For The Man’, was released on 2021’s The Width Of A Circle.
That first part is supposed to be the kind of guy who would put money into so-called underground activities, putting backing behind it hoping that he would get something out of it on a material level. And it did soothe his conscience a bit. There’s probably people over here like that as well. A kind of harmless… Okay call him a liberal, then. Ah, the second section were the Cygnet Committee, the people he had helped. I didn’t bother spelling this out at the time, but I realized very quickly after I recorded it that I should have been a little more specific. Although it’s worked nicely because some people have taken it totally different from the way I intended it and they’ve got a fine old meaning out of the whole thing.