In the studio
David Bowie played piano and sang on Peter Noone’s version of ‘Oh! You Pretty Things’, which was recorded on 26 March 1971 at London’s Kingsway Studios.
As Noone told the Melody Maker, “We wanted the same feel as the demo he sent us, so he played piano on the record.”
He could only play the song in F#, which became the new key. Suddenly with him playing the piano, the song came alive. We cut it sort of half-live, I kept the original scratch vocal and then just doubled the high notes. It was mixed in 30 minutes.
Mojo, August 2011
The other musicians on the recording were bass guitarist Herbie Flowers, who had played on ‘Space Oddity’, and later performed on the Diamond Dogs album and tour; and Clem Cattini, one of England’s most prolific session drummers.
A new arrangement for the song had been written by Johnny Arthey, which began with the chorus rather than Hunky Dory’s piano intro.
Noone changed the line “The earth is a bitch” to the less abrasive “The earth is a beast” – losing much of the potency of the original, but making it far more palatable to radio and TV audiences.
Another Bowie song, ‘Right On Mother’, was also recorded during the session. This was intended to be the b-side of Noone’s single, but was held back by Most, who thought it had potential as the lead song on a future single. It was released in October 1971 as Noone’s follow-up single, a double a-side with the non-Bowie song ‘Walnut Whip’.
Bowie’s own version was recorded during the Hunky Dory sessions, in June or July 1971 at Trident Studios in central London.
The reverb on the claps was accomplished by delaying the echo send via another C37 [Studer tape machine] with vari-speed on it.
Five Years (1969-1973) book
Peter Noone’s version of ‘Oh! You Pretty Things’ was issued by the RAK label on 30 April 1971. It peaked at number 12 on the UK charts.
Noone’s single was renamed ‘Oh! You Pretty Thing’, although he sang the plural ‘things’ during the chorus.
The sheet music was also published in April 1971, and named Bowie as the song’s composer, and also mentioned his album The Man Who Sold The World as well as his forthcoming Arnold Corns single, ‘Moonage Daydream’.
Bowie’s own version was released on 17 November 1971, as the second song on his fourth album Hunky Dory.
A slightly different mix had been included on BOWPROMO, a promotional sampler containing seven songs from the album, and six recordings by Dana Gillespie. The version of ‘Oh! You Pretty Things’ is notable for having more reverb during the choruses.
Just 500 copies of BOWPROMO were pressed. On 22 April 2017 it was reissued for Record Store Day, in a limited edition of 15,000.
I always thought John Wyndham’s Midwich Cuckoos was a more likely influence on this song.