Released: 1 June 1967
David Bowie: vocals
Big Jim Sullivan: sitar, acoustic guitar
Derek Boyes: piano, organ
Dek Fearnley: bass guitar
John Eager: drums
Unknown session musicians
David Bowie’s critique of London’s young hippies was the eleventh song on his 1967 debut album.
‘Join My Gang’ was written on Sunday 6 November 1966, during a break in a photo session held on London’s Clapham Common.
The song’s genesis was documented in a Decca press release circulated with images from the shoot.
It was twelve o’clock and he had just got up. ‘I can’t do anything until I’ve had a cup of coffee!’ he groaned and we dashed off to an open-air cafe on Clapham Common. It was completely deserted.
‘I feel a tune coming on,’ said David, so we left him to compose it in peace. Half an hour later when we got back, he was still there surrounded by a pile of cups and plates. ‘What did I have? Um, six coffees, baked beans, spaghetti and eggs and two doughnuts. Oh! And I finished the song. It’s called ‘Join The Gang’ – about some kids, like most of my songs.
The lyrics were a dour appraisal of the flower children of swinging London, and contained Bowie’s dismissive attitude to alcohol, LSD, cannabis, and the young people “doing nothing altogether very fast”. This was familiar territory to Bowie, who had objected to the mod scene in ‘The London Boys’ earlier in 1966, but would later come to fully embrace the drugs scenes of London and Los Angeles.
Although Bowie took LSD in the 1960s, he claimed to have found the experiences underwhelming.
I did [it] three times. It was very colorful, but I thought my own imagination was already richer. Naturally. And more meaningful to me. Acid only gives people a link with their own imagery. I already had it. It was nothing new to me. It just sort of made a lot of fancy colors. Flashy lights and things. “Oh, look. I see God in the window.” So what? I never needed acid to make music, either.
Playboy, September 1976
Bowie had mentioned pills in ‘The London Boys’, but ‘Join The Gang’ contained yet more explicit drugs references to acid and joints. This was a departure for Bowie, whose debut album often touched upon adult themes yet was coated in a sheen of childlike innocence.
Bowie performed ‘Join The Gang’ a number of times with The Buzz, his band in 1966-67. It was also one of several songs unsuccessfully offered to US folk trio Peter, Paul and Mary.
In the studio
‘Join The Gang’ was recorded at Decca Studios in London on 24 November 1966. It was one of four songs recorded that day, the others being ‘There Is A Happy Land’, ‘We Are Hungry Men’, and ‘Did You Ever Have A Dream’.
It’s the most peculiar thing. I love the sitar at the front, it’s totally manic, bloody brilliant! The drums are also great on it and it’s like the Bonzos at the end – the sound effects are great. There’s a Hoover, and there’s farts, and there’s munching. I think the farts sound pretty genuine to me. One of them’s even got a delay on it, like a repeat; it goes from the right-hand side to the left on the stereo!
Strange Fascination, David Buckley
The session musicians included James George Tomkins, better known as Big Jim Sullivan, who played sitar and acoustic guitar on the song. Tomkins also performed on ‘Maid Of Bond Street’, and on Bowie’s later song ‘Let Me Sleep Beside You’.
We decided on that during the take. After he had played the sitar section, I was supposed to lift the sitar off his lap and give him the guitar. But Jim wasn’t having this – evidently the sitar had cost him a small fortune and he was the only one who could touch it. So that plan didn’t work.
Any Day Now, Kevin Cann