Released: 1 June 1967
David Bowie: vocals
John Renbourn: guitar
Derek Boyes: piano, organ
Dek Fearnley: bass guitar
John Eager: drums
Unknown session musicians
The fifth song on David Bowie’s debut album was a sentimental look back at the joys of exploration and play, sung from a child’s perspective.
‘There Is A Happy Land’ shares a title with the 1838 hymn by Andrew Young, a Scottish schoolmaster, whose words were set to music by Leonard Breedlove. The phrase was also used by Keith Waterhouse as the title of his 1957 debut novel.
Bowie was an admirer of Waterhouse; Billy Liar appeared in his list of 100 must-read books. The song and Waterhouse’s debut share several similarities, including the rhubarb field in which the song is set, the fire which almost destroyed the field, and the assortment of street children – although the song’s names are mostly Bowie’s own.
The two works diverge, however, in their treatment of childhood. Waterhouse’s is an often bleak tale of life in the industrial north of England, and its bleak and brutal ending – including sexual assault and murder – is at odds with Bowie’s altogether more bucolic depiction of youth.
Although he hints at an underlying darkness (“Tommy lit a fire one day, nearly burned the field away/Tommy’s mum found out, but he put the blame on me and Ray”), Bowie’s happy land is one of hidden delights and secret joy known only to the young. “You’ve had your chance and now the doors are closed sir, Mr Grownup” is the distillation of this private wonder, sung by Bowie in the song’s final line.
The mid-Sixties was a time of nostalgia for songwriters including Syd Barrett, Ray Davies and Lennon-McCartney, with LSD providing a lens in which childlike whimsy and playful indulgence was encouraged. Bowie, still a teenager at the recording session, yet an adult at 19, was able to successfully straddle both worlds, none more effectively than on ‘There Is A Happy Land’.
In the studio
‘There Is A Happy Land’ was recorded at Decca Studios in London on 24 November 1966. It was one of four songs recorded that day, the others being ‘We Are Hungry Men’, ‘Join The Gang’, and ‘Did You Ever Have A Dream’.
The song’s unusually lengthy instrumental opening contains celesta and treated piano, followed by a flugelhorn solo and Bowie’s mournful vocals, at odds with the song’s childlike message.
The song was also briefly and erroneously the a-side of a French single, in place of ‘The London Boys’, before the labels were corrected and the two songs swapped.