Released: 14 November 1969
David Bowie: vocals, guitar
Mick Wayne, Tim Renwick: electric guitar
John Lodge: bass guitar
Rick Wakeman: harpsichord, organ
John Cambridge: drums
The longest song on David Bowie’s second album, ‘Cygnet Committee’ was inspired by his disillusionment in the nascent Beckenham Arts Lab, and distaste with the counterculture movement of the late 1960s.
‘Cygnet Committee’ is one way of using a song. But these people – they’re so apathetic, so lethargic. The laziest people I’ve met in my life. They don’t know what to do with themselves. Looking all the time for people to show them the way. They wear anything they’re told, and listen to any music they’re told to. People are like that.
Music Now!, 20 December 1969
In 1969 Bowie was a co-founder of a regular night of contemporary folk and other forms of performance held at the Three Tuns pub in Beckenham. In June that year, after several weeks of success, it was renamed Growth – The Beckenham Arts Lab.
That summer a series of general meetings were held in the garden of the pub, to determine the events’ future directions. Inspired by these gatherings, Bowie came up with the title ‘Cygnet Committee’ for one of his new compositions.
The Arts Lab provided further inspiration for Bowie. ‘Cygnet Committee’ was born of his growing frustration with the events, which were conceived as a place for creative people to take part and develop their craft, but increasingly became a showcase for Bowie’s own work. As crowds arrived in greater numbers to see him perform, it became evident that he was swiftly outgrowing the Lab’s self-imposed confines.
What of me
Who praised their efforts
To be free?
Words of strength and care
I opened doors
That would have blocked their way
I braved their cause to guide,
For little pay
I ravaged at my finance just for those
Those whose claims were steeped in peace, tranquility
Those who said a new world, new ways ever free
Those whose promises stretched in hope and grace for me
Later in the song, however, his sights widen to encompass the hippie dream. Bowie had embraced his outsider status on previous songs such as ‘Join The Gang’, ‘Maid Of Bond Street’, and ‘The London Boys’, setting himself apart from the Swinging London set. On ‘Cygnet Committee’, however, his condemnation was far more splenetic, and went beyond the capital to target the capitalists who, in his view, soured the optimism of the 1960s.
Where money stood
We planted seeds of rebirth
And stabbed the backs of fathers
Sons of dirt
Infiltrated business cesspools
Hating through our sleeves
Yea, and we slit the Catholic throat
Stoned the poor
On slogans such as
‘Wish You Could Hear’
‘Love Is All We Need’
‘Kick Out The Jams’
‘Kick Out Your Mother’
‘Cut Up Your Friend’
‘Screw Up Your Brother or He’ll Get You In the End’
Shortly after the release of The Man Who Sold The World, Bowie was interviewed by US journalist Patrick Salvo. Published in the March 1973 edition of Interview magazine, the exchange – much to Bowie’s surprise – explored the lyrics of ‘Cygnet Committee’.
SALVO: In another one your songs, ‘Cygnet Committee’, you get totally involved in the so-called militant hippie movement.
SALVO: It’s rather long and involved and it is in segments isn’t it?
BOWIE: I basically wanted it to be a cry to fucking humanity. The beginning of the song when I first started it was saying – Fellow man I do love you – I love humanity, I adore it, it’s sensational sensuous, exciting – it sparkled and it’s also pathetic at the same time. And it was a cry to list O.K., that was the first section. And then I tried to get into the dialogue between two kinds of forces. First the sponsor of the revolution, the quasi-capitalist who believes that he is left wing and put support into a lot of the pure, what ended up being what I anticipated that particular movement for quite a few months over in England. People like Mick Farren, Jerry Rubin, etc…
SALVO: Mick Farren, formerly a deviant and a Pink Fairy, now leader of the British White Panthers.
BOWIE: And that’s what I saw coming up.
SALVO: Do you think they had a valid thing?
BOWIE: Rubin, no not at all, it’s set up so many false values, so many bad standards such intolerance and hypocrisy. I mean the truest form of any form of revolutionary left, whatever you want to call it was Jack Kerouac, e e cummings, and Ginsberg’s period. Excuse me, but that’s where it was at. The hippies, I’m afraid, don’t know what’s happening. I don’t think there are any anyway. The underground really went underground. Grand Funk, and all these people man are the moderate’s choice of music. Underground is Yoko Ono, The Black Poets. These people scare the hell out of most freaks. They laugh at Yoko Ono, but it’s the whole cliché.
SALVO: It’s like when Lennon makes a movie and everybody is told to disrobe, the cat who runs around fully clothes is the most obscene.
BOWIE: Right, John Lennon comes in the same period. He was into Ginsberg before he was into anything else.
SALVO: So do you think there really is or was a movement?
BOWIE: There was a movement but the revolution has been fought on an entirely different plane to the plane that I thought it should be fought on. It was intrinsically bad. Every time there was something to say for any and every form of people’s society. For instance, like capitalism can be all right, I mean Marx didn’t live to see what Roosevelt did with that depression. He pulled everybody out of that depressed and everybody hated Roosevelt. He got into office four times. One after the other, with everybody saying, he can’t get in again. Everybody voted for Roosevelt four times and he did a hell of a lot. Mind you I’m a little political, not too much but I’m branching off very much here. You see I’m just getting quick flashes of what I think.
Although predominantly bleak, ‘Cygnet Committee’ ends with a climax of positivity, as Bowie’s band taps out a militaristic tattoo beneath his repeated cries of “I want to live!”
I would like to believe that people knew what they were fighting for and why they wanted a revolution, and exactly what it was within that they didn’t like. I mean, to put down a society of the aims of a society is to put down a hell of a lot of people and that scares me that there should be such a division where one set of people are saying that another set should be killed. You know you can’t put down anybody. You can just try and understand. The emphasis shouldn’t be on revolution, it should be on communication. Because it’s just going to get more uptight. The more the revolution goes on, and there will be a civil war sooner or later.
Interview, March 1973