Hunky Dory album coverWritten by: David Bowie
Recorded: 30 July 1971
Producer: Ken Scott, David Bowie

Released: 17 December 1971

Available on:
Hunky Dory

Personnel

David Bowie: vocals, acoustic guitar, piano
Mick Ronson: electric guitar, acoustic guitar, vocals

The closing track on David Bowie’s fourth album Hunky Dory, ‘The Bewlay Brothers’ remains one of his most intriguing and lyrically opaque songs.

He was always willing to jump on things. There’s a track on Hunky Dory called ‘The Bewlay Brothers’ – it was the last song we recorded for the album and I remember David coming in and saying, ‘I’ve just written this new song, we’ve got to record it but don’t listen to the lyrics.’ I said, ‘Why?’ He said, ‘Because they don’t mean anything. I wrote it specifically for the American market to read things into it.’ I must’ve heard 10 or 15 different stories as to what ‘The Bewlay Brothers’ was supposed to be about, and I know that David would have agreed with every single one. He took what was given to him and ran with it, quite often.
Ken Scott
David Bowie: Ultimate Record Collection (Uncut)

In the studio

‘The Bewlay Brothers’ was one of the last songs recorded for Hunky Dory, with only ‘Life On Mars?’ recorded afterwards.

The song was taped on 30 July 1971 at Trident Studios in London, and was the only one on the album not to have been demoed previously.

Let’s see, there’s a piano through a Leslie cabinet, some backwards guitar from Ronno and the end chorus is a multitude of vari-speeded voices, you can even hear the Laughing Gnome in there!

I loved David’s main vocal on this, right in your face and dry, which is how I kept it almost the whole time, but for a slightly different spatial effect I put a lot of reverb on his low verse vocal which set it back in the mix and at a distance from his lead.

Ken Scott, May 2015
Five Years (1969-1973) book

The recording features only Bowie’s vocals and multi-tracked guitars by him and Mick Ronson, including backwards electric guitar in the choruses.

That’s one of my favorite songs. I don’t think anyone was in the studio apart from Ken and David. It was one he’d been creating lyrically while we were in the studio. We’d been to a club, and we came in at the end of the session and he just played it, and it was one of those that took you somewhere. I think David’s knack as a lyricist is putting together words where there’s so much space for you to put in your own interpretation. That’s his art. He generally doesn’t say, “This is about…” even though the chorus might sum something up. It still leaves it wide open for you to interpret and that’s really what he’s good at, which is why he’s a cut above the rest.
Woody Woodmansey
Kooks, Queen Bitches And Andy Warhol, Ken Sharp

The cascading melody of the eerie closing section – “Lay me place and bake me pie” – is notably similar to that of the opening theme to the British horror film Blood On Satan’s Claw, released in mid-1971. The voices, meanwhile, are a revival of Bowie’s ‘Laughing Gnome’ tricks from 1967, last heard on 1970’s ‘After All’.

Live performances

Despite the song’s popularity and its clear significance to Bowie, it is notable that he did not perform it until more than three decades after its release.

The live debut came on 18 September 2002, when Bowie performed a show for fewer than 100 people at the BBC’s Maida Vale studios in London. The event was a BBC Radio 2 special broadcast on 5 October, titled David Bowie – Live and Exclusive.

Bowie’s set was a mix of old songs and new numbers from Heathen. Prior to the performance of ‘The Bewlay Brothers’ he revealed that he needed to use lyric sheets to remember the words.

This is, sincerely, this is really quite unique to our situation. This song I have never – please don’t correct me, anybody, ’cause I’m sure I’m right on this – I’ve never, ever performed this in my life, until this minute. One of the reasons, probably, is that there are more words in this than there are in Tolstoy’s War And Peace, and this thing goes on, and goes on. It’s not just these three pages, this entire book! Let’s all wish this – all of us – luck.
David Bowie
18 September 2002

Bowie performed ‘The Bewlay Brothers’ in public on four subsequent occasions. It was played twice again during the Heathen Tour, at London’s Hammersmith Apollo on 2 October 2002, and ten days later at St Ann’s Warehouse in New York.

The final two performances were during A Reality Tour in 2004. On 25 May he played it at Shea’s Performing Arts Center in Buffalo, New York, and four days later it was performed for a final time at the Borgata Events Center in Atlantic City, New Jersey.

‘The Bewley Brothers’ is just so beautiful and sad. It really uses his voice. It’s one of those songs that would be a very hard cover. Maybe that’s why I like it most. His best songs are just so wonderfully coverable, because they’re such good songs. But ‘The Bewley Brothers’? So sad, and it really uses his voice in a really cheesy, borderline hack-Broadway kind of way. But it’s so good!
James Murphy, LCD Soundsystem
Uncut, March 2008