Released: 1 June 1967
David Bowie: vocals, handclaps
John Renbourn: guitar
Derek Boyes: piano, organ
Dek Fearnley: bass guitar
John Eager: drums
Unknown session musicians
‘She’s Got Medals’ was David Bowie’s first song to deal with challenging gender roles and the subject of cross-dressing.
It was a theme he would return to on numerous occasions, most notably in ‘Rebel Rebel’ and the video for ‘Boys Keep Swinging’. Unusually, however, ‘She’s Got Medals’ concerned a woman dressing as a man, whereas Bowie’s explorations tended to the opposite direction during the 1970s.
Bowie sings ‘She’s Got Medals’ in an exaggerated eccentric manner, somewhere pitched between Anthony Newley and Cockney – fittingly, for the titular ‘medals’ was a slang term for testicles.
The protagonist of ‘She’s Got Medals’ is Mary, who changes her name to Tommy and was accepted as one of the boys in her local pub, playing darts and buying rounds. She joins the army but deserts prior to a bombing raid. The song ends with her returned to London, having assumed the name Eileen and living once again as a woman.
There were various historical instances of women assuming male identities to fight in battle, going back at least to the time of Joan of Arc. A more modern instance was the journalist Dorothy Lawrence, who fought in World War One and was later institutionalised after being certified insane. Lawrence died in north London in 1964, just two years before Bowie wrote ‘She’s Got Medals’.
Bowie and bass guitarist Dek Fearnley appear to have been influenced by Love’s version of ‘Hey Joe’, which is based upon a similar F/C/G/D/A chord sequence. The song had been included on Love’s self-titled debut album, released in April 1966, and was later popularised by the Jimi Hendrix Experience.
Along with ‘Silly Boy Blue‘, ‘She’s Got Medals’ was unsuccessfully offered to San Francisco psychedelic rockers Big Brother and the Holding Company.
In the studio
‘She’s Got Medals’ was, along with ‘Uncle Arthur’, recorded on Monday 14 November 1966, the first day of recording for the David Bowie album.
The session took place in Decca’s studios at 165 Broadhurst Gardens in West Hampstead, London. Keyboard player Derek Boyes was unable to attend due to suspected appendicitis, so his parts were overdubbed on a later date.