Reality album coverWritten by: Jonathan Richman
Recorded: January-May 2003
Producers: David Bowie, Tony Visconti

Released: 15 September 2003

Available on:
Reality

Personnel

David Bowie: vocals, guitar, keyboards, saxophone
Earl Slick, Gerry Leonard: guitar
Mark Plati: bass guitar
Sterling Campbell: drums

‘Pablo Picasso’ originally appeared on the Modern Lovers’ debut album, and was recorded by David Bowie for his 2003 album Reality.

I always had a secret wish to record Nobody called Pablo Picasso an asshole. One of my all time favorite cruising songs. Modern Lovers. Great band.
David Bowie
BowieNet live chat, 27 April 1999

Written by Jonathan Richman, the song was recorded in Los Angeles in 1972 with John Cale producing, but remained unreleased until 1976. ‘Pablo Picasso’ has since been widely covered – in addition to Bowie’s version are recordings by artists including John Cale, Television Personalities, and Jack White.

‘Pablo Picasso’ was written by Jonathan Richman, who is the lead singer of the Modern Lovers, a fantastic group from the late 1970s. They were like the Velvet Underground, except with whimsy. There was something so light and dotty about his lyrics – the stuff he used to write was insanely comical. I just salvaged this one from the past because I always thought it was a fantastically funny lyric: “Well some people try to pick up girls/They get called assholes/This never happened to Pablo Picasso/Well the girls would turn the color/Of a juicy avocado when he would drive/Down the street in his El Dorado.” [laughs] You know, a babe watching Pablo driving down the streets of New York, it’s just so funny.
David Bowie
Interview magazine, October 2003

As with Pixies’ ‘Cactus’ on Heathen, ‘Pablo Picasso’ was a cover version as the second track on a Bowie’s album, again originally by an influential band from Boston, MA.

Bowie rarely did straight cover versions, and his take on ‘Pablo Picasso’ had a faster tempo and more elaborate production than the Modern Lovers’, including Gerry Leonard’s effective Spanish guitar solo.

Some things were straightforward, like ‘The Loneliest Guy’, [then] when we did ‘Pablo Picasso’ he wanted this weird, broken flamenco kind of vibe, so you’ve been given a brief: ‘Here’s the idea, here’s the song, but I want to bring this flavour in.’
Gerry Leonard
David Bowie: Ultimate Record Collection (Uncut)

Bowie also added new lyrics – the “Swinging on the back porch, jumping off a big log” refrain. As with his cover of ‘I Took A Trip On A Gemini Spaceship’ on Heathen, the end result was almost unrelated to the original, a brand new Bowie creation made from old basic ingredients.

Apologies now to Jonathan Richman, but I took the lyrics and made a song that is completely different. The original is a little dirgelike, and it’s all on one note. It doesn’t move much, which gives it a power, but it gives it the power of another era. I wanted to change the era and give it a more contemporary feel.
David Bowie
Interview magazine, October 2003

Live performances

David Bowie performed ‘Pablo Picasso’ 37 times during A Reality Tour in 2003 and 2004.

The earliest performances were pre-tour warm up shows, at the Chance in Poughkeepsie, NY, on 19 August 2003, and at London’s Riverside Studios on 8 September.

Bowie’s final outing for the song was on 20 June 2004, at a performance at the Provinssirock Festival in Seinäjoki, Finland.

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Next song: ‘Never Get Old’