In the studio

The 1970 version of ‘The Prettiest Star’ was recorded at London’s Trident Studios, over three sessions. The first took place in the early hours of 8 January, David Bowie’s 23rd birthday, with more following on 13 and 15 January.

In addition to ‘The Prettiest Star’, Bowie recorded ‘London Bye Ta-Ta’, a song which he had already recorded for Deram and for BBC radio.

Producer Tony Visconti sent Bowie’s manager Kenneth Pitt a breakdown of the costs for the sessions:

Studio hire – 10 hours @ £25 per hour £250. 0.0
Engineer’s overtime @ £5 per hour 50. 0.0
Tape 20. 0.0
Mixing – 5 hours @ £15 per hour 75. 0.0
Drums 10. 0.0
Bass 10. 0.0
Two guitars 19. 0.0
Keyboard 9.10.0
Hire of Lowrey organ 30. 0.0
15 strings and 2 flutes + booking fee 119. 0.0
3 girls 19.10.0
My fee as arranger for both sides 60. 0.0
Total £672. 0.0
The Pitt Report, Kenneth Pitt

During the ‘Prettiest Star’ sessions Bowie was backed by members of The Gass, a British funk-rock band who were hoping to have Visconti produce an album for Polydor.

A week later Mercury released another single, ‘The Prettiest Star’; it had been recorded in January, having been started during the day of the evening that we played the Speakeasy. It was finished a few days later, along with an old chestnut, ‘London Bye Ta-Ta’. This is the third time I recorded the song [‘London Bye Ta-Ta’], once for Deram, once for the BBC and now, possibly the quintessential version, with myself on bass, Marc Bolan on lead guitar and Godfrey McLean on drums, who was in a London soul band called The Gass.
Tony Visconti
Bowie, Bolan and the Brooklyn Boy (Uncut)

The band’s bass guitarist, Delisle Harper, was booked to perform on the sessions, although his parts were later replaced by Visconti.

I thought they were great musicians so I gave them a break. The bassist didn’t do so well, so I played the bass as an overdub. I never worked with any of them again afterwards.
Tony Visconti
The Complete David Bowie, Nicholas Pegg

The Gass’s Derek Austin played a Lowrey organ on the recordings.

I was in a band called Gass, one of those bands who nearly made it but never quite. We had an LP deal with Polydor, and the album was going to be produced by Tony Visconti. He wanted to use the band to back Bowie, so that’s how that connection was made. It was a very low-key session: we sat down while he played the song. Then David said to me, ‘Could you keep your keys held down on the organ, so it just drones like a string section?’ I said, of course – but the sting in the tail was that it got a review in the Melody Maker where it said ‘The keyboard player sounds like he’s got his hands stuck to the keys’.
Derek Austin
David Bowie: Ultimate Record Collection (Uncut)

What is also beyond doubt is that Marc Bolan played lead guitar on the 1970 recording. Bowie and Bolan started off as friends, although their professional rivalry – which increased as Bolan’s star temporarily eclipsed Bowie’s – meant that both men regarded each other somewhat warily.

I think it was Visconti trying to get us back together again as pals and not have us quite so wary of each other. Which was fairly petty of me because I really think that Marc was a wonderful guitar player.
David Bowie, 1994
Any Day Now, Kevin Cann

Sadly, the session was not a happy affair. “Marc came to the session for an hour, played his solo and left promptly,” Tony Visconti said in 1983. “The atmosphere was very heavy.”

All I wanted to do was promote Marc as an electric guitarist; I thought it would have been a great coup to have him play on David’s record. David was extremely happy to have Marc play on the record.

But after Marc had played this brilliant solo – and he also played on another track too called ‘London Bye Ta-Ta’ – [Bolan’s wife] June just sniped at David, ‘He’s too good for you! He shouldn’t play on your music!’ and she dragged Marc out. It was one of the few times that I saw him at a loss for words.

Marc just wanted to be a star; this was like the carpet was pulled out from under him. If Bowie had asked him to join the band, he probably would have.

Tony Visconti
Spinner, February 2010

Bolan had previously sung on the 1969 version of ‘Memory Of A Free Festival’. ‘The Prettiest Star’ was their final public collaboration prior to Bowie’s appearance on the Marc TV show in September 1977, nine days before Bolan’s death.

This wasn’t the only time that Marc recorded with David, but it’s the only one that’s been released. I thought they’d get on great, but June’s comment that Marc was too good for David at the end of the session put a cap on that possibility. I censored Marc when he said nasty things about David; David, on the other hand, was always happy for Marc. But I saw a great opportunity to unite them for ‘The Prettiest Star’ because I knew Marc fancied himself as a lead guitarist. David never returned the favour; as much as fans swear that they hear David play sax on this or that T.Rex track, it never happened. There is a bootleg cassette of Marc and David writing a song in a NYC hotel room which is the real thing; Marc’s death stopped the possibility of them recording together. Towards the end their friendship was better, and they spent quite a lot of time socializing in NYC around the time that cassette was made.
Tony Visconti
Bowie, Bolan and the Brooklyn Boy (Uncut)

The better-known version on Aladdin Sane was recorded in New York. Bowie and the Spiders From Mars recorded a number of new songs from 4-11 December 1972, prior to returning to the UK for Christmas shows at London’s Rainbow Theatre.

As the tour had been extended we were a little behind on recording so Ken Scott flew over to join us in RCA Studios to get some tracks in the can. We recorded ‘Drive-In Saturday’, which Bowie had written somewhere mid-tour and had already performed acoustically at one of our concerts. It’s one of my favourite Bowie songs from this period. It tells of a time in the future where people have lost the art of making love and have to resort to reading books and watching films to remind them. We also recorded ‘Prettiest Star’ and a version of ‘All The Young Dudes’. With those tracks finished we flew back home on 10 December. Bowie sailed back on the RHMS Ellinis with some of the entourage.
Woody Woodmansey
Spider from Mars: My Life with Bowie

Mick Ronson played the lead guitar on the 1973 release, although his performance was an almost note-for-note replication of Bolan’s.

One of the others recorded mostly in RCA New York. Nothing really special about the recording or mixing. Just lots of backing vocals and saxes. David worked his butt off on this one.
Ken Scott, May 2015
Five Years (1969-1973) book

In addition to ‘The Prettiest Star’, Bowie and the Spiders From Mars recorded ‘Drive-In Saturday’, an early version of ‘Aladdin Sane’, and ‘All The Young Dudes’. The recording of ‘Drive-In Saturday’ was completed at a later date at Trident Studios in London.