...hours album coverWritten by: David Bowie, Reeves Gabrels
Recorded: 1998; February-June 1999
Producers: David Bowie, Reeves Gabrels
Engineer: Kevin Paul

Released: 4 October 1999

Available on:
‘…hours’
Something In The Air (Live Paris 99)
At The Kit Kat Klub (Live New York 99)

Personnel

David Bowie: vocals, keyboards
Reeves Gabrels: guitar, synthesizer
Mark Plati: bass guitar
Mike Levesque: drums, percussion

‘The Pretty Things Are Going To Hell’ is the seventh song on ‘…hours’, David Bowie’s 21st studio album.

That was really dangling a carrot, wasn’t it?! That’s such a fun song. It’s a good song. I like it a lot. I can’t wait to do it live.
David Bowie
Q magazine, October 1999

The song started life as a piece of music intended for Reeves Gabrels’ 1999 solo album Ulysses (Della Notte), as did ‘Seven’ and ‘Survive’.

Because the album was taking a decidedly more introspective turn, it meant that I needed to approach the guitar playing in a different way in order to wrap around the vocals and support the mood of the song in the solos. As co-writer and co-producer I had to be extra careful that the guitar player in me was responding to the lyric content of the songs. The music for ‘We All Go Through’, ‘Survive’ and ‘The Pretty Things Are Going To Hell’ came from songs that I had started for my solo record.
Reeves Gabrels
Strange Fascination, David Buckley

Bowie’s title and lyrics, meanwhile, were designed to recall various facets of his past: the 1971 song ‘Oh! You Pretty Things’; the Pretty Things, whose songs ‘Rosalyn’ and ‘Don’t Bring Me Down’ he had covered on Pin Ups; the Tin Machine song ‘Pretty Thing’; and the Iggy and the Stooges track ‘Your Pretty Face Is Going To Hell’, from the Bowie-mixed 1973 album Raw Power.

Obviously, I’m aware of those… I think these are tough times. It’s a tough period to live in. And I was thinking of that Evelyn Waugh idea of the bright young things, the pretty things… I think their day is numbered. So I thought, well, let’s close them off. They wore it well but they did wear themselves out, y’know, there’s not much room for that now. It’s a very serious little world.
David Bowie
Uncut, October 1999

In the studio

‘The Pretty Things Are Going To Hell’ was recorded in Bermuda, London, and New York. At the time Bowie, newly richer from selling the so-called Bowie Bonds of his back catalogue, was planning to move to Bermuda for tax reasons, and the song was started there on Reeves Gabrels’ portable digital eight-track recorder.

‘Pretty Things’ is actually one of the first songs we recorded, but one of the last to get completed vocals. The main guitars took me about twenty minutes to do in London in February 1999, and the vocals are largely from a rough vocal done in May 1999. I thought that one was going to remain unfinished, but it lived through David’s period of dislike long enough for it to become a fan favourite.
Reeves Gabrels
Strange Fascination, David Buckley

‘The Pretty Things Are Going To Hell’ is the most up-tempo rock song on ‘…hours’, an album on which Bowie largely abandoned the experimentation of 1.Outside and Earthling in favour of more introspective and classic songwriting.

That’s definitely a Reeves-influenced tune, it’s our rocker. We were trying to come up with a fill for the last two measures, so you have that wild drum fill. I kept trying all this crazy shit, and I think Reeves said something like, ‘Do something like ‘American Band’, Grand Funk Railroad’, so that’s how that ended up there. That’s a big Neanderthal rocker.

I remember cutting it and the vocals were not distorted and crazy yet, so that’s a mixed thing. It was very strange to cut it without this monstrous voice in the verses. Really fun to play. In the second verse, after the first line there’s this completely wacko drum fill that sounds like something I would have played out of frustration, like I’m fucking this up, you know? And it’s totally kept. It’s wild.

Mike Levesque, drummer
David Bowie: Ultimate Record Collection (Uncut)

On bass guitar was Mark Plati, who had first worked with Bowie on Earthling.

That was one of the first things I went to play on. They put up the song and it’s long. It’s not only long, it’s one of those deceptively simple song forms; it’s not that simple, it’s quite complicated. There’s not so much logical repetition that goes on – there’s strange little twists and turns, and even though it’s a four- or five-chord song, it’s a really odd roadmap. I started to write it out thinking, ‘It’s gonna be tricky for me to read this.’ So Reeves said, ‘Here’s a way to do it.’ I’m gonna say the chords in there were C, G, F, maybe D, whatever they were. So he took four pieces of paper, and he writes a huge C. Another one, he writes a huge G, he writes a huge F, whatever. And he’s like, ‘I’ll hold it up and when it changes I’ll hold another one up.’ So that’s how I played that, like the Bob Dylan video [‘Subterranean Homesick Blues’] where he holds up little cards.
Mark Plati
David Bowie: Ultimate Record Collection (Uncut)

The release

Reeves Gabrels and Bowie’s record label, Virgin Records, had both wanted ‘The Pretty Things Are Going To Hell’ to be the first single from ‘…hours’. That honour went instead to ‘Thursday’s Child’.

An edit of ‘The Pretty Things Are Going To Hell’ was released as a single in Australia and Japan, which reduced the running time from 4:42 to 4:01.

On this track we went for something Reeves and I called ‘bonehead’, playing the simplest Neanderthal part possible. It’s harder to do than you think – it’s always easier to play loads of things. The bass in that song is low and ugly and simple – and perfect. The guitars just chug along nastily, little flourishes poke out now and then but for the most part it is kept under tight, gnarly, control. The solo is boneheaded perfection! The drums, however, were anything but simple. Mike Levesque had been reading a biography of Keith Moon around this time, so I think he saw an opening to rise to the occasion. I think he’s the instrumental star of that track.
Mark Plati
Strange Fascination, David Buckley

A remix of the song appeared in the 1999 film Stigmata, and in the computer game Omikron: The Nomad Soul. A different remix appeared on the soundtrack album, which was released in September 1999, one month before ‘…hours’. The soundtrack also included an original score by Smashing Pumpkins’ Billy Corgan and long-time Bowie pianist Mike Garson.

Both Stigmata remixes – Stigmata Film Version and Stigmata Film Only Version – were included on the 2004 reissue of ‘…hours’, as well as the single edit.

One of the ‘Survive’ CD singles, released in January 2000, contained ‘The Pretty Things Are Going To Hell’ (Stigmata soundtrack version). It also appeared on Re:Call 5, part of the 2021 box set Brilliant Adventure (1992-2001), along with ‘The Pretty Things Are Going To Hell’ (edit).

The third UK ‘Seven’ CD single, meanwhile, included a live versions of ‘Seven’, ‘Something In The Air’ and ‘The Pretty Things Are Going To Hell’, recorded at the Kit Kat Klub in New York City on 19 November 1999.

Live performances

David Bowie performed ‘The Pretty Things Are Going To Hell’ live on 15 occasions in 1999, and once in 2000.

Recordings of the song from the brief Hours Tour can be heard on the live albums Something In The Air (Live Paris 99) and At The Kit Kat Klub (Live New York 99).

Previous song: ‘What’s Really Happening?’
Next song: ‘New Angels Of Promise’