Released: 1 June 1967
David Bowie: vocals, handclaps
John Renbourn: guitar
Derek Boyes: piano
Dek Fearnley: bass guitar
John Eager: drums
Unknown: shawm, oboe
‘Uncle Arthur’ was the opening song on David Bowie’s self-titled debut album, released in June 1967.
The song’s protagonist is an infantilised Batman-loving adult who reads comic books and lives with “his mummy” well into adulthood. On his 32nd birthday he brings home a girl, Sally, to his mother’s dismay and resentment. Arthur and Sally marry and set up home together, but Arthur finds domestic bliss lacking, and soon returns home to his mother and job at the family shop.
Like so many of Bowie’s other songs of the mid-Sixties, it is little more than a pen-portrait of a curious figure, although he clearly implies that 30-something adults should strive for independence.
Bass guitarist Dek Fearnley believed himself to be among the song’s inspirations. In 1966 Bowie spent time at Fearnley’s brother’s Sussex home, enjoying the carefree environment and playing with Dek’s nieces and nephews.
At one point early in their friendship Fearnley admitted to Bowie that he was in fact 27, seven years older than he had originally claimed. The teenage Bowie was astonished that he had been spending time with someone so old, and who furthermore an uncle. Three months later, when Bowie first unveiled ‘Uncle Arthur’, Fearnley became convinced that it was based on him.
However, as Bowie scholar Nicholas Pegg notes, a more likely source is Alan Sillitoe’s short story ‘The Disgrace of Jim Scarfedale’, one of the pieces in his collection The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner. The story follows a similar trajectory to Bowie’s song: a man who marries against the wishes of his domineering mother, but who returns home when the marriage fails after six months.
There may also have been a gay subtext to Bowie’s song. The closeted confirmed bachelor and mummy’s boy who marries out of denial of his true sexuality was a trope that had long been part of drama and literature. Bowie’s choice of words – “he’d found a chum”; “Sally was the real thing, not just lust ” – indicates chasteness, as does the description of Arthur’s turmoil during the brief marriage:
Round and round goes Arthur’s head
Hasn’t eaten well for days
Little Sally may be lovely
But cooking leaves her in a maze
In the studio
‘Uncle Arthur’ was recorded on 14 November 1966, along with ‘She’s Got Medals’, during the first studio session for the David Bowie album. The shawm (a medieval wind instrument) and oboe parts were arranged by bassist Dek Fearnley.
The album was released in mono and stereo variants. Only the stereo version contains handclaps, presumably by Bowie, in the introduction and outro.