David Bowie – Space Oddity album coverWritten by: David Bowie
Recorded: June–September 1969
Producer: Tony Visconti
Engineers: Ken Scott, Malcolm Toft, Barry Sheffield

Released: 14 November 1969

Available on:
David Bowie (1969)
Bowie At The Beeb
Five Years (1969-1973)
Conversation Piece

Personnel

  • David Bowie: vocals, guitar
  • Mick Wayne, Tim Renwick: guitar
  • John Lodge: bass guitar
  • Benny Marshall: harmonica
  • John Cambridge: drums
  • Unknown: brass, saxophones

The second song on David Bowie’s second album, ‘Unwashed And Somewhat Slightly Dazed’ contains some of his darkest and most brutally disturbing lyrics.

Beginning with an introduction not dissimilar to the later ‘All The Madmen’, with Bowie’s 12-string acoustic guitar to the fore, the song soon mutates into a frantic Bo Diddley-beat, a forerunner of the heavy rock of 1970’s The Man Who Sold The World.

The lyrics also touch upon the alienation and madness that would be explored more fully on his next album. According to Bowie, it was written in response to the death of his father, Haywood Stenton Jones, on 5 August 1969.

‘Unwashed And Somewhat Slightly Dazed’ describes how I felt in the weeks after my father died.
David Bowie, November 1969
David Bowie: Living On The Brink, George Tremlett

Bowie’s father, known as John Jones, died aged just 56 at the family home in Bromley, Greater London.

I could never, ever talk to my father. I really loved him, but we couldn’t talk about anything together. There was this really British thing that being even remotely emotional was absolutely verboten…

I would go back [home] when I wanted washing done. I never went back with a need to see them. I really felt like a user, which, of course, brought loads of regrets when my father died, in 1968. It was at a point where I was just beginning to grow up a little bit and appreciate that I would have to stretch out my hand a little for us ever to get to know each other. He just died at the wrong damn time, because there were so many things I would love to have said to him and asked him about – all those stereotypical regrets when your father dies and you haven’t completed your relationship. I felt so… ‘Damn! Wrong time! Not now, not now!’

David Bowie
Interview magazine, May 1993

Although grief provided the inspiration for the song, Bowie deploys alarmingly visceral surrealist imagery throughout the song, from the Braque painting that “slides down your front/And eats through your belly” to the protagonist himself, with a head “full of murders/Where only killers scream”:

I’m a phallus in pigtails
And there’s blood on my nose
And my tissue is rotting
Where the rats chew my bones
And my eye sockets empty
See nothing but pain
I keep having this brainstorm
About twelve times a day

There are also shots fired at capitalism, bankers and credit cards, possible a reaction to the poverty experienced by his father. In the late Sixties, John Jones gave financial and moral support to his son as Bowie sought success as a performer.

This was in keeping with Jones’ nature: in the 1930s he had invested a £3,000 inheritance trying to make his first wife, Hilda Sullivan, a singing star. Jones had lost all his money, struggled with alcoholism, and was left destitute, although he recovered and was in steady employment with the charity Barnardo’s throughout Bowie’s childhood.

The lyrics depict a boy left insecure by the relative affluence of his girlfriend. Upon the album’s release, Bowie indicated that he was the boy in the song, suggesting that the girl may have been his comparatively better off lover Hermione Farthingale.

This is a rather weird little song I wrote because one day when I was very scruffy I got a lot of funny stares from people in the street. The lyrics are what you hear – about a boy whose girlfriend thinks he is socially inferior. I thought it was rather funny really.
David Bowie
Disc and Music Echo, 25 October 1969

An outtake from the ‘Unwashed And Somewhat Slightly Dazed’ recording session was released as the brief unlisted album track ‘Don’t Sit Down’. This was omitted by RCA on the 1972 reissue, but restored by Rykodisk on the 1990 compact disc as a separate track.

Future CD reissues, however, joined ‘Unwashed And Somewhat Slightly Dazed’ and ‘Don’t Sit Down’ as one, with the latter being once again unlisted. This gave ‘Unwashed And Somewhat Slightly Dazed’ a deceptively lengthy running time of 6:54, as opposed to its actual 6:20.

In the studio

‘Unwashed And Somewhat Slightly Dazed’ was recorded at Trident Studios with Junior’s Eyes, the band which backed Bowie on the majority of the songs on the Space Oddity album.

The joy of singing with a real rock band coaxed a very exuberant vocal performance. This was Junior’s Eyes backing David on a classic Bo Diddley beat. The Hull contingent had already started its migration to London. John Cambridge became the drummer in the band and he suggested his mate Benny Marshall to play mouth harp for this song. The Hull connection is that they were all in a Hull band at various times called The Rats. The other two members who eventually joined the Bowie camp were, of course, Mick Ronson and Trevor Bolder. The next track, ‘Don’t Sit Down’, was an excerpt from an outtake of this song. Again, the exuberance and camaraderie are certainly obvious. There are brass players on this track and I can’t for the life of me remember who they are.
Tony Visconti, May 2015
Five Years (1969–1973) book

On harmonica was Benny Marshall, the singer of Hull band The Rats. Their ranks also included three future members of the Spiders From Mars: Mick Ronson, Trevor Bolder, and Mick ‘Woody’ Woodmansey.

I did it in one take. They gave me a standing ovation in the control room when I finished. Tony Visconti said to Calvin Mark Lee, ‘You’ve got to pay the man something for that.’

David bought the harmonica especially for the session and whenever I saw him performing he would call me up on stage to join them on that number. For a time he always had that harmonica with him.

Benny Marshall, 1990
Any Day Now, Kevin Cann

BBC radio sessions

David Bowie recorded ‘Unwashed And Somewhat Slightly Dazed’ twice for BBC radio sessions. The first, for The Dave Lee Travis Show, was recorded on 20 October 1969 and broadcast six days later on Radio 1. It was the only one of the three songs recorded; the others were ‘Let Me Sleep Beside You’ and ‘Janine’.

This version featured the Junior’s Eyes line-up which had appeared on the album version: Bowie on vocals and 12-string acoustic guitar, Mick Wayne and Tim Renwick on guitar, John ‘Honk’ Lodge on bass, and John Cambridge on drums. It was included as a bonus track on 1990’s David Bowie special edition reissue, and on the 2019 box set Conversation Piece.

The second was recorded for Radio 1’s The Sunday Show on 5 February, and broadcast three days later. Released on 2000’s Bowie At The Beeb, it had Bowie on vocals and guitar, Mick Ronson on guitar, Tony Visconti on bass, and John Cambridge on drums. Shortly afterwards, Bowie invited Ronson to join his band.

So, we went down to this radio show and I played along with him. I didn’t know anything, none of the material. I just sat and watched his fingers. I didn’t really know what I was doing, but everybody seemed to like it. I don’t know if it was treated as an audition or not, I never really thought of it like that, I was just playing, it was a normal thing for me. After that he said, “Well, how about coming along and playing with me all the time?” So I agreed. That was pretty much straight after the show.
Mick Ronson
Starzone, September/October 1984