Bowie and the Velvets

In January 1971 Bowie first visited America, on a promotional tour that in under a month took him to Washington DC, Philadelphia, New York City, Houston, San Francisco, San Jose, and Los Angeles.

While in New York on 29 January, he watched a performance by the Velvet Underground at the Electric Circus, unaware that their core line-up had changed since their first album.

I’d come back from New York, having caught one of the last performances of the Velvet Underground, who I had admired tremendously since around ’66, ’67. I was one of that tiny bastion of Velvet Underground fans in London at the time, before they were kind of generally known.

And I’d gotten into the Electric Circus to see the gig – the Electric Circus is a very famous rock club in New York, which has subsequently closed; I think it must have closed in the Seventies – and I watched the entire show and there were not many people in the audience, ’cause their star had begun to dim in New York. The whole band were there, with Lou Reed singing the songs upfront and all that. And I thought it was just tremendous, and I was singing along with the band, stuck right there at the apron of the stage…

At the end of the show I went backstage and I knocked on the door, and John Cale came to the door. And I said: “Is Lou Reed in there? I’d love to talk – I’m from England, and I’d love to talk, ’cause I’m in music too, and he’s a bit of a hero to me.”

He said: “Wait here,” and so Lou comes out, and we’re sitting outside talking on the bench for about quarter of an hour, about writing songs, and what it’s like to be Lou Reed, and all that. And afterwards I was floating on a cloud. I went back to my hotel. The guy that I knew in New York whilst I was over there, I said: “I’ve just seen the Velvet Underground and I got to talk with Lou Reed for fifteen minutes.” He said: “Yeah? Lou Reed left the band last year. I think you’ve been done.” I said: “Well who the hell was that?” He said: “What did it look like?” I said: “It looked just like Lou Reed.” He said: “Well that’s Doug Yule – he’s the guy that took over from Lou Reed.”

I thought, what an impostor. Wow, that’s incredible. It doesn’t matter really, ’cause I still talked to Lou Reed as far as I’m concerned. And coming back to England, one of the things, one of the memories I brought back was all that, so I wrote ‘Queen Bitch’ as an homage to the Velvet Underground.

David Bowie
Top Of The Pops 2, 1999

On 8 July 1972, Bowie headlined a charity concert at London’s Royal Festival Hall, in aid of Friends of the Earth. Towards the end of the show Bowie introduced Lou Reed with the words: “He’s still playing and he’s now in England and this is his very, very, very first appearance anywhere in England. Ladies and gentlemen, Lou Reed.”

They performed ‘White Light/White Heat’, ‘I’m Waiting For The Man’, and ‘Sweet Jane’. The following month Bowie and Mick Ronson co-produced and performed on Reed’s breakthrough Transformer album.

I met David when he came over on a promotional visit for RCA a couple of years ago. I hadn’t heard any of his records. I can’t remember how it happened. Maybe a friend introduced us. He had longer hair then. Anyway, we all went out to dinner, and I got drunk as usual. Then he played me Hunky Dory, and I thought, “Aha, how about that.” And I knew there was somebody else moving in the same areas I was. I especially loved ‘Queen Bitch’. David’s always been so upfront about these things.
Lou Reed
Fan Magazine, April 1973

Bowie sang ‘Queen Bitch’ as a duet with Reed during his 50th birthday concert at New York’s Madison Square Garden on 9 January 1997. It was the first song of the first set of encore performances.

There are very, very few parallels between me and Lou Reed. I think I’ve only ever written one song like his, and that was ‘Queen Bitch’, and it was only recognized as a Lou Reed song – and I know this for a fact – because I wrote next to it “For Lou.”
David Bowie
Melody Maker, February 1978

On 15 September 2005 Bowie appeared with Arcade Fire at SummerStage in New York’s Central Park. They performed ‘Queen Bitch’ and Arcade Fire’s song ‘Wake Up’. It was one of his final performances.

BBC recordings

David Bowie recorded ‘Queen Bitch’ on three occasions for BBC radio.

The first was for an edition of In Concert presented by John Peel. It was recorded on 3 January 1971 and first broadcast on 20 June.

Bowie was accompanied by the Spiders From Mars, plus additional rhythm guitarist Mark Carr-Pritchard, and singers George Underwood, Dana Gillespie, and Geoff MacCormack.

They performed ten songs: ‘Queen Bitch’, ‘Bombers’, ‘The Supermen’, ‘Looking For A Friend’, ‘Almost Grown’, ‘Oh! You Pretty Things’, ‘Kooks’, ‘Song For Bob Dylan’, ‘Andy Warhol’, and ‘It Ain’t Easy’.

The second BBC radio recording was for Sounds Of The 70s, again presented by John Peel. The session took place on 11 January 1972 and was broadcast 17 days later.

Although the recordings were intended to promote Hunky Dory, released the previous month, Bowie was already moving on. ‘Queen Bitch’ was the only song from the album to be performed, the others being ‘Ziggy Stardust’, ‘I’m Waiting For The Man’, and ‘Lady Stardust’.

Bowie appeared on another edition of Sounds Of The 70s on 18 January 1972, this time presented by Bob Harris. It was first broadcast on 7 February 1972.

As with the previous session, it featured just Bowie and the Spiders: Mick Ronson, Trevor Bolder, and Mick ‘Woody’ Woodmansey.

They performed five songs: ‘Hang On To Yourself’, ‘Ziggy Stardust’, ‘Queen Bitch’, ‘I’m Waiting For The Man’, and ‘Five Years’.

All of the songs from this session were released on Bowie At The Beeb in September 2000.

On 7 February 1972 Bowie made an appearance on the BBC television show The Old Grey Whistle Test, a late addition after one of the scheduled acts dropped out.

Singing live over pre-recorded backing tracks, Bowie performed ‘Queen Bitch’, ‘Oh! You Pretty Things’, and ‘Five Years’. All three songs were included on the 2002 DVD Best Of Bowie.

Previous song: ‘Song For Bob Dylan’
Next song: ‘The Bewlay Brothers’