The release

After the final January 1970 recording session for David Bowie’s next single, he attended a meeting with his manager Kenneth Pitt, producer Tony Visconti, and Philips A&R representative Ralph Mace. It was decided that ‘London Bye Ta-Ta’ should be Bowie’s next single, with the 1969 album outtake ‘Conversation Piece’ on the b-side.

It was a very difficult task for both were superb and there was little to choose between them, although their styles differed considerably. My personal preference was for ‘The Prettiest Star’, but I felt that ‘London Bye Ta-Ta’ had the edge on it if sales potential was the criterion. It seemed to me that this was the general view and I left the studio convinced that we had decided ‘London Bye Ta-Ta’ should be the next release. The ‘B’ side was to be a track that David had previously recorded.
Kenneth Pitt
The Pitt Report

That decision was reversed by February 1970, with ‘The Prettiest Star’ being chosen as the lead song. Without Pitt’s knowledge, ‘London Bye Ta-Ta’ was dropped altogether. It was just weeks before Bowie and Pitt parted company.

It came as a great surprise to me to learn from Philips that the ‘A’ side of the next single was to be ‘The Prettiest Star’ and not ‘London Bye Ta-Ta’. When I asked Ralph Mace why the change had been made he explained that the tape of ‘The Prettiest Star’ was the one that had been delivered to him by Tony Visconti and the choice had been David’s and Angela’s. The labels had been printed and the records were being pressed with ‘Conversation Piece’ as the ‘B’ side.
Kenneth Pitt
The Pitt Report

‘The Prettiest Star’ received positive reviews in the music press. Writing in the New Musical Express, Derek Johnson called it “a thoroughly charming and wholly fascinating little song. Set to a relaxed jog-along rhythm, with a wowing guitar picking out the melody line behind David’s subdued and sensitive vocal. The self-penned lyric is enchanting, if somewhat enigmatic – and the melody is haunting and hummable. It’s a quiet, inoffensive disc, with a touch of mysticism that holds the listener in its spell. I like it immensely, and I reckon it could do very well indeed.”

Others were similarly enthused. Record Mirror called it a “chart cert”, and in Disc, long-time Bowie supporter Penny Valentine described the song as “a lovely, gentle, gossamer piece… A hit indeed”. Annie Nightingale told Daily Sketch readers that Bowie’s “next step to fame comes next month with the release of ‘The Prettiest Star’.”

They could not have been more wrong. Released on 6 March 1970, ‘The Prettiest Star’ failed to reach the UK charts, selling just 798 copies in its first ten days on sale.

The single we did immediately after ‘Space Oddity’, ‘The Prettiest Star’, wasn’t science fiction, it was about his new wife Angie. It was bouncy, but it didn’t do anything.
Tony Visconti
David Bowie: Ultimate Record Collection (Uncut)

Its commercial failure quashed the chances of a US release. Besides, Bowie’s A&R man in America, Mercury’s Robin McBride, disliked the song, and the company opted for a re-recording of ‘Memory Of A Free Festival’ instead.

Despite being liked, although not loved, by the music press ‘The Prettiest Star’ was a huge disappointment for David, and for me; it probably sold less than a thousand copies. Considering how well the ‘Space Oddity’ single had done it was a double blow. It would be another two and a half years before David had a hit single in Britain.
Tony Visconti
Bowie, Bolan and the Brooklyn Boy (Uncut)

‘The Prettiest Star’ was released on the same day as The World Of David Bowie, a budget-priced selection of his Deram recordings. It fared better than the single, selling more than 5,000 copies in its first two weeks on sale.

Beautiful. Just hearing the original recording with David and Marc Bolan and the drummer and a bass and a little bit of piano. You can’t sit down and write a song with somebody if they’re your mortal enemy.
Herbie Flowers
David Bowie: Ultimate Record Collection (Uncut)

The single’s mono mix was later included in the compilations Sound + Vision and Re:Call 1. A previously-unreleased 1987 stereo mix made by PolyGram’s Tris Penna was included on The Best Of David Bowie 1969/1974, the 2003 edition of the Sound + Vision box set, and the 2009 reissue of the 1969 album David Bowie (Space Oddity).

Bowie’s song ‘Time’ was released as a single in the USA, Canada, France, South Africa, and India in 1973, with ‘The Prettiest Star’ on the b-side.

‘The Prettiest Star’ (Alternative Mix) was released on the 2021 album The Width Of A Circle, as well as a new 2020 mix by Tony Visconti. The ‘Alternative Mix’ had been created for promotion in the US, and was previously unreleased.

BBC recording

Perhaps stung by its commercial failure, Bowie rarely performed ‘The Prettiest Star’ live. He did, however, record it for BBC radio.

On 5 February 1970 Bowie appeared on BBC Radio 1’s The Sunday Show, which was broadcast three days later. He was accompanied by Mick Ronson on guitar, Tony Visconti on bass, and John Cambridge on drums.

They performed a total of fifteen songs, including ‘The Prettiest Star’. The other songs were ‘Amsterdam’, ‘God Knows I’m Good’, ‘Buzz The Fuzz’, ‘Karma Man’, ‘London Bye Ta-Ta’, ‘An Occasional Dream’, ‘The Width Of A Circle’, ‘Janine’, ‘Wild Eyed Boy From Freecloud’, ‘Unwashed And Somewhat Slightly Dazed’, ‘Fill Your Heart’, ‘I’m Waiting For The Man’, ‘Cygnet Committee’, and ‘Memory Of A Free Festival’.

The entire session, apart from ‘I’m Waiting For The Man’, was released on the 2021 album The Width Of A Circle.

Previous song: ‘Time’
Next song: ‘Let’s Spend The Night Together’