One aspect of David Bowie’s recordings that I feel gets overlooked is the frequency with which he included covers on his albums. It wasn’t just reworking the American R&B classics of Chuck Berry, Bo Diddley, Holland/Dozier/Holland, and the Motown stable, as was common among the British bands of the 60s. Bowie’s covers were rarely obvious choices; instead, he would often pick songs from contemporary artists he respected (from Bill Rose on Hunky Dory, to Morrissey on Black Tie White Noise, to the Pixies on Heathen). Even when he picked older songs, it seemed less an exercise in pure nostalgia than a nod to fellow iconoclasts (Scott Walker or the Legendary Stardust Cowboy, anyone?)
That said, Pin Ups, Bowie’s second album of 1973, was an admitted shout-out to some of his favorite artists from the decade prior. It also had a secondary purpose of allowing him to avoid writing new songs, as he was having some trouble with his music publishers. But the end result was an album that celebrates the near-past with the gloss of some futuristic Ziggy dust.
Rock & roll nostalgia was still a fairly new attitude in 1973. The legendary Nuggets compilation had only come out the year before. Bryan Ferry of Roxy Music had just released his solo debut album, These Foolish Things, a collection of covers similar to Pin Ups, a couple of weeks before Bowie’s record. The ‘50s-throwback sound of “Crocodile Rock” had provided Elton John with his first U.S. number one single earlier that same year. John Lennon’s Phil Spector-produced Rock ‘n’ Roll album wouldn’t be released until early 1975. So the concept of having a record exclusively feature cover versions of older songs was still somewhat novel. And Bowie didn’t dip back into the early days, typical of nostalgic acts like Sha Na Na, but featured tracks from artist who were just barely older than he was. The Pretty Things, the Yardbirds and the Who (whose Pete Townshend would later appear on a couple of Bowie records) are all represented twice, while songs by the likes of the Kinks, Them and Syd Barrett-era Pink Floyd were included as well.
While none of Pin Ups’ tracks really transcend the source versions, it is still a fun exercise to see Bowie stretch out a bit on some more straight-ahead rock & roll material. Nor does the Spiders from Mars band (in their final outing with Bowie) do a disservice to any of the songs. Bowie had planned to release a second volume at some point, but it never came to pass, although some of the planned inclusions would be sprinkled throughout his later discography. All in all, Pin Ups comes off as a charming, playful record that, like all of Bowie’s 70s output, still sounds fresh to 21st century ears. Especially in retrospect, the song selections aren’t so common as to have been played out by ensuing years of oldies radio. It would take a serious Anglophile music nerd to have the originals of “Everything’s Alright” by the Mojos or “Sorrow” by the Merseys in their collection anyways.
After this look backwards at his own British past, Bowie was ready for his next reinvention, this time inspired by a new country (the U.S.) and a whole new, more soulful sound…