In the studio

‘Five Years’ was recorded on Monday 15 November 1971 at Trident Studios, London.

So many first takes on this track. Ronno’s two ending guitars, one take each. David’s vocal, first take beginning to end. Well if I’m to be totally honest we did have to punch [drop-in] for four words, ‘We’ve got five years’. We had to do that because by the end of the take David was bawling his eyes out. He put so much into that vocal performance he was sobbing and just once those four words were completely incomprehensible and so we re-did them. Not bad eh?
Ken Scott, May 2015
Five Years (1969-1973) book

During the session David Bowie and the Spiders From Mars also recorded ‘It’s Gonna Rain Again’ and ‘Shadow Man’, neither of which was completed. ‘Shadow Man’ was re-recorded in 2000 for the aborted Toy album.

If you listen very carefully at the end as the orchestra dies out you can hear reverb on Woody’s drums. I actually kept the drums completely dry throughout, but back when this was recorded, the orchestras refused to wear headphones and so we had to feed them the track through large speakers. If it was loud enough for the musicians to hear it was certainly loud enough to be picked up on the mics, therefore that brief moment of reverb on Woody comes from the reverb on the orchestra.
Ken Scott, May 2015
Five Years (1969-1973) book

Live performances

‘Five Years’ was performed throughout David Bowie’s Ziggy Stardust Tour, which opened on 29 January 1972 in Aylesbury, and finished at London’s Hammersmith Odeon on 3 July 1973, having traversed the UK, USA and Japan in between.

A live version from 20 October 1972, recorded at the Santa Monica Civic Auditorium, was released on 2008’s Live Santa Monica ’72.

Bowie retained ‘Five Years’ in his live sets during the Isolar and Isolar II tours in 1976 and 1978. Recordings from the tours can be heard on Live Nassau Coliseum ’76, Stage, and Welcome To The Blackout (Live London ’78).

‘Five Years’ was intended to have closed Bowie’s set at the Live Aid concert in 1985, but was dropped to make way for a video showing footage from the Ethiopian famine, soundtracked by ‘Drive’ by The Cars.

Bowie and Bob were in my office trying to work on the reggae song when we started playing a lot of the videos that people had sent in for use in the show. The BBC had sent a lot in, and we had videos from all over the place. I had one of those pop-up televisions and we started working our way through the videos, looking for suitable material to play at Wembley. When that piece popped up, of all the terrible news footage, with the Cars’ ‘Drive’ already on it [‘Who’s gonna drive you home tonight…’], we all looked at it and welled up immediately. And Dave immediately said, ‘Take one of my numbers off and put that up instead.’ That was another iconic part of the day. David Bowie actually gave up one of his songs – he was going to finish with ‘Five Years’ – at one of the biggest concerts he’d ever done, in front of what was going to be the biggest TV audience ever, in order to play this video. We were all blown away by his generosity of spirit, as I’m not sure there were many performers who would have done that, or at least not volunteered to do so.
Harvey Goldsmith, Live Aid promoter
David Bowie: A Life, Dylan Jones

Bowie’s next performance of ‘Five Years’ was not until 2003’s A Reality Tour, and can be heard on the album of the same name.

In soundcheck today, Sterling began playing the drumbeat to ‘Five Years’ and David actually started singing it – and enjoying it. Me, I would just die and go to heaven if we would do ‘Young Americans’ one time. That has been my one request for the last eight years.
Gail Ann Dorsey, 29 October 2003
A Reality Tour diary

The final outing came on 8 September 2005, when Bowie performed the song with Arcade Fire at the Fashion Rocks concert. The recording was subsequently released as a digital download.

BBC recordings

David Bowie recorded ‘Five Years’ once for BBC radio.

It was for an edition of Sounds Of The 70s presented by Bob Harris. The appearance was recorded at the BBC’s Maida Vale Studios on 18 January 1972 and first broadcast on 7 February.

Bowie and the Spiders From Mars recorded five songs: ‘Hang On To Yourself’, ‘Ziggy Stardust’, ‘Queen Bitch’, ‘I’m Waiting For The Man’, and ‘Five Years’. All of the songs were included on Bowie At The Beeb in September 2000.

On Monday 7 February the band recorded an appearance on the BBC TV show The Old Grey Whistle Test, a late addition after one of the scheduled acts dropped out.

Bowie sang live vocals over pre-recorded backing tracks. He sang ‘Queen Bitch’, two takes of ‘Oh! You Pretty Things’, and ‘Five Years’.

At the beginning of February we recorded a session for The Old Grey Whistle Test, presented by Bob Harris, which was British TV’s major music programme at the time. We performed ‘Oh! You Pretty Things’, ‘Queen Bitch’ and ‘Five Years’. I’ve never forgotten what happened with ‘Five Years’.

We’d done a run-through so we knew where the cameras were going to be and I felt fine. But on the final run-through someone had decided that, as ‘Five Years’ ends with just drums, it would be better to finish on a close-up of me. I wasn’t aware of this until we were actually recording and at the end of the song the main camera started coming closer and closer to me… It was unexpected and I was absolutely terrified. All I could think was that millions of people were going to be watching me. I hope I managed to disguise my feelings but I’m not sure if I did. When June saw it on TV she spotted my suppressed terror.

Woody Woodmansey
Spider from Mars: My Life with Bowie

The show was broadcast on 8 February, without ‘Oh! You Pretty Things’, which was not aired until 1982. All three songs appeared on the Best Of Bowie DVD.

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