Written by: David Bowie
Recorded: 9, 13, 16 November 1970; October/November 1971
Producers: Herbie Flowers (1970); Ken Scott (1971)
Released: 15 January 1971
The Width Of A Circle
David Bowie: vocals, 12-string guitar
Alan Parker: guitar
Herbie Flowers: bass guitar
Barry Morgan: drums
David Bowie: vocals
Mick Ronson: guitar
Trevor Bolder: bass guitar
Woody Woodmansey: drums
David Bowie recorded two versions of ‘Holy Holy’: firstly for a single in January 1970; and again during the Ziggy Stardust sessions in 1971.
Bowie taped a demo of the song in the autumn of 1970. Although now believed lost, the recording helped win him a publishing deal with Chrysalis.
The songwriting owed a clear debt to Marc Bolan’s T.Rex, whose breakthrough single ‘Ride A White Swan’ was about to be released. The two were friends and sometime rivals during the glam rock era, with Bowie’s star rising slower but ultimately far eclipsing Bolan’s.
‘Holy Holy’ also shows his burgeoning interest in Aleister Crowley and the occult, and specifically sex magick, the use of sex and sexual energy in ritualistic or spiritual scenarios. “I don’t want to be angel, just a little bit evil,” Bowie sang. “I feel the devil in me.”
Bowie would delve deeper into Crowley’s brand of mysticism on Hunky Dory, but ‘Holy Holy’ offered an early glimpse into his interest. “Righteous brother” was not just a reference to the 1960s singing duo, but also a term used in the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, of which Crowley was a member.
Bowie: I didn’t get into Crowley by the way, because he uses too much Greek. I’m always very suspicious of anybody who says they’re into Crowley because they’d better have a pretty fair handle on Greek and Latin otherwise they’re talking bullshit
Brett Anderson: You mention him in ‘Quicksand’.
Bowie: Yes… Haha! Caught out! Well, that’s before I tried reading him. Hahahaha! That’s when I had his biography in my raincoat so the title showed. That was reading on the tube.
There is also a wordplay in the title: holy relating to God or religion; but also referring to holes. Bowie would more succinctly – and successfully – explore the duality on ‘Moonage Daydream’, with the innuendo-laden “The church of man love is such a holy place to be”.
The Man Who Sold The World was released in the US in November 1970. When his UK label prepared to release it on 8 April 1971, Bowie briefly and unsuccessfully attempted to have it retitled Holy Holy.
Holy Holy was also the name of a 21st century Bowie tribute band featuring Woody Woodmansey and Tony Visconti.
In the studio
The first studio version was recorded at Island Studios in London’s Notting Hill on 9, 13, and 16 November. It was produced by Herbie Flowers, who also played bass guitar.
Flowers, who had previously worked with Bowie on ‘Space Oddity’, was a member of Blue Mink, and brought in guitarist Alan Parker and Barry Morgan from the band to perform on ‘Holy Holy’.
David was quick. He’d have a couple of takes and that was it, it was spot on. Even his vocals. He got it right every time. Bolan was the same. They run through one take, then another take for luck; then you go on to the next song. David asked me to produce a song called ‘Holy Holy’ and I made a complete and utter ass of myself. When I got out of the studio, I was shaking like a leaf. How dare I take up their time by pretending I knew what they were doing?
David Bowie: Ultimate Record Collection (Uncut)
A second, faster version was taped in the summer of 1971 during the sessions for The Rise And Fall Of Ziggy Stardust And The Spiders From Mars.
That version of ‘Holy Holy’ was recorded at Trident Studios and produced by Ken Scott.
The 1970 recording of ‘Holy Holy’ was released as a single by Mercury on 15 January 1971, with ‘Black Country Rock’ on the b-side. It was issued in Australia, Germany, Spain, and the UK, but did not chart anywhere.
Bowie promoted the single on the Granada Television show Six-O-One Newsday in the UK on 18 January, in a solo performance featuring vocals and acoustic guitar. During the appearance he wore a dress designed by Mr Fish.
The 1971 recording was an early contender for inclusion on the Ziggy Stardust album, but was later dropped.
It was eventually released as the b-side of the ‘Diamond Dogs’ single in June 1974, in Australia, Canada, France, Germany, New Zealand, Portugal, South Africa, Spain, the UK, and Yugoslavia. The single was also issued in Japan in August 1974, and in September in Italy.
‘Holy Holy’ was the b-side in all countries, although on some copies of the Yugoslavian single it was misspelt on the label as ‘Holly Holly’.
The 1971 recording was included on the Bowie Rare album in 1982, and on the Rykodisc reissue of The Man Who Sold the World in 1990. In the sleevenotes of the latter it was erroneously described as being produced by Herbie Flowers and featuring him on bass.
The remake also featured on the 30th anniversary reissue of Ziggy Stardust in 2002.
Both recordings of ‘Holy Holy’ were included on Re:Call 1, part of the Five Years (1969–1973) box set. It was the first time since 1971 that the original recording had been officially released.
‘Holy Holy’ was also included on The Width Of A Circle. The 2021 album featured the original single version and a new 2020 remix by Tony Visconti.