Released: 17 December 1971
David Bowie: vocals, piano, handclaps
Mick Ronson: backing vocals, handclaps
Trevor Bolder: bass guitar
Rick Wakeman: piano
Woody Woodmansey: drums
Believed to be the oldest original song on David Bowie’s Hunky Dory album, ‘Oh! You Pretty Things’ was first released by former Herman’s Hermits frontman Peter Noone.
I woke up and this song was going round in my head. I had to get out of bed and just play it out of me so that I could get back to sleep again.
Mojo, August 1995
The chorus of the song made reference to two 1960s bands, the Pretty Things and the Mamas and the Papas.
With The Pretty Things, you’d have lots of people who’d come around the stage at the end, from Bromley or Sidcup, even at the early art school shows we did. Lost souls who, like us, thought they were weird and different and yet, when they were in a place where music was played, suddenly didn’t feel such a weirdo. David was the one who struck me like a jackdaw. He was collecting, storing and taking in music like a sponge. He wasn’t like a fan. We talked about art, too – we’d been at the same art school.
I’ve always interpreted this song as a fantasy of outsiders taking over. In terms of using our name, I think we were a beacon to him. I’ve never had a conversation with him about it, but there was ‘Pretty Things Are Going To Hell’, too. I think the phrase is a euphemism for how he saw our band when he was starting up – somebody shining a light on his situation, when for the rest of his life, he was on his own.
Uncut, March 2008
The song’s references to Homo superior reflected Bowie’s interest in the works of Freidrich Nietzsche, whose works had already inspired ‘The Width Of A Circle’, ‘Saviour Machine’ and ‘The Supermen’. Nietzsche’s philosophical works referred to the concept of the Übermensch, or superman, as a goal for humanity to attain, and a clear influence on ‘Oh! You Pretty Things’.
Bowie was also immersed in the works of Aleister Crowley, the English occultist and member of the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn. Bowie mentioned the order in Hunky Dory’s ‘Quicksand’, but may also have referred to it with his phrases “golden rays” and “the golden ones”. Either way, his line “Homo sapiens have outgrown their use” is a Nietzschean concept couched in the language of Crowley.
Mickie Most heard a song I wrote and even though I really wanted Leon Russell to sing it I suppose Herman [Noone] has done it quite well. It’s called ‘Oh! You Pretty Things’. I don’t know if Peter Noone knows what it means, it’s all about Homo Superior. Herman goes heavy. He’s going to be a slightly more adult entertainer.
Melody Maker, 1972
Two science fiction novels are also likely to have been influential: Edward Bulwer-Lytton’s The Coming Race (1871), and Arthur C Clarke’s Childhood’s End (1953).
Bowie’s half-brother, Terry Burns, may have played a role too. Burns had been diagnosed with schizophrenia, and was a resident at Cane Hill, a psychiatric hospital, at the time Bowie wrote ‘Oh! You Pretty Things’. In 1966, while Burns and the younger David Jones attended a Cream concert in London, Burns suffered a psychotic episode, claiming to see visions of flames rising from cracks in the pavement.
One of the times I actually went out with my step-brother, I took him to see a Cream concert in Bromley, and about halfway through – and I’d like to think it was during ‘I Feel Free’ – he started feeling very, very bad… He used to see visions a lot. And I remember I had to take him out of the club because it was really starting to affect him – he was swaying… He’d never heard anything so loud; he was ten years older then me and he’d never been to a rock club, because jazz was his thing when he was young. He turned me on to Eric Dolphy…
Anyway, we got out into the street and he collapsed on the ground and he said the ground was opening up and there was fire and stuff pouring out the pavement, and I could almost see it for him, because he was explaining it so articulately.
NME, 27 March 1993
In Bowie’s new song, the crack was not in the ground but in the sky, and the emerging entity was not fire but “a hand reaching down to me”. A more benign image, perhaps, but to Bowie no less terrifying: “All the nightmares came today/And it looks as though they’re here to stay…”
A lot of the songs do in fact deal with some kind of schizophrenia or alternating id problems and ‘Pretty Things’ was one of them. The sky, the crack in the sky is always… According to Jung, to see cracks in the sky is not, is not really quite on. And I did, you know, the sky for me representing something solid that could be cracked and I still had a dome over the world which again I found out was just my own repressions. I haven’t been to an analyst, my parents went and my brothers and sisters and my aunts and uncles and cousins and … they ended up in a much worse state so I stayed away. I thought I’d write my problems out really.
David Bowie at the BBC, 1976