The Bewlay Brothers
|"The Bewlay Brothers"|
|Song by David Bowie|
|from the album Hunky Dory|
|Released||17 December 1971
30 January 1990 (Rykodisc Reissue)
|Recorded||Trident Studios, London, 30 July 1971|
|Genre||Folk rock, psychedelic folk|
|Producer(s)||Ken Scott, David Bowie|
|Hunky Dory track listing|
30 second sample from David Bowie's "The Bewlay Brothers".
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"The Bewlay Brothers" is a song written by David Bowie in 1971 for the album Hunky Dory. One of the last tracks to be written and recorded for the LP, the ballad has been described as "probably Bowie's densest and most impenetrable song".
Bowie himself is said to have told producer Ken Scott that it was a track for the American market, because "the Americans always like to read things into things", even though the lyrics "make absolutely no sense". Reflecting on the song in 2008, Bowie wrote, "I wouldn't know how to interpret the lyric of this song other than suggesting that there are layers of ghosts within it. It's a palimpsest, then."
Some commentators have seen references in the song to Bowie's half-brother Terry Burns, who suffered from schizophrenia, while others such as Tom Robinson have discerned a "gay agenda". The coda features Bowie's voice distorted by varispeeding; NME critics Roy Carr and Charles Shaar Murray likened the effect to the Laughing Gnome, but "in considerably more sinister guise".
Some of these hinted interpretations showed up in the analysis of a Rolling Stone magazine's Readers' Poll: The 10 Best David Bowie Deep Cuts, in which "Bewlay Brothers" came in at #8 (after such hits as Panic in Detroit, Station to Station, and Teenage Wildlife). Compiler Andy Greene said,
Virtually no entry in the David Bowie songbook has confused the hardcores quite like "The Bewlay Brothers." It was the final track recorded for Hunky Dory and Bowie said at the time the lyrics were nonsense, but in later years he hinted it was inspired by his schizophrenic half-brother Terry. "I was never quite sure what real position Terry had in my life," he said in 2000, "whether Terry was a real person or whether I was actually referencing another part of me, and I think 'Bewlay Brothers' was really about that." Others have seen clear homosexual overtones in the surreal lyrics, but Bowie's never commented on that. He's also only played it five times, and those were all between 2002 and 2004.
John Mendelsohn of Rolling Stone magazine wrote, "'The Bewlay Brothers' sounds like something that got left off The Man Who Sold because it wasn't loud enough. Musically it's quiet and barren and sinister, lyrically virtually impenetrable — a stream-of-consciousness stream of strange and (seemingly) unrelated imagery — and it closes with several repetitions of a chilling chorus sung in a broad Cockney accent, which, if it's any help, David usually invokes when he's attempting to communicate something about the impossibility of ever completely transcending the mundane circumstances of one's birth."
The song was performed live for the first time on BBC Radio 2 in 2002. Introducing the song, Bowie told the crowd, "I don't want to do it unless everyone knows this thing. It was from a long time ago. We've never done it on the stage, in a theatre. It's called 'The Bewlay Brothers'." [The crowd applauds.] "You are a bunch of obscurists, aren't you?" Bowie repeats, "We've only ever, ever, ever done this once on a radio show; we've never done this on stage."
- The song appeared in the Sound + Vision box set in 1989.
- An alternative mix was released as a bonus track on the Rykodisc CD release of Hunky Dory in 1990.
- It was included in a self-selected compilation of favourite tracks titled ISELECT in 2008.
- John Howard on The Bewlay Brothers EP (Kid in a Big World, 2007)
- Elbow on 6 music, Bowie Day, November, 2004
- Momus on Turpsycore in 2015
- Replicants on Replicants (1995)
- Rhett Miller on The Interpreter: Live At Largo EP (Maximum Sunshine Records, 2011)
- AE Bridger MMR Studio (McGill, 2016)
- Red Hot Chili Peppers - guitarist Josh Klinghoffer briefly performed the song at the band's January 8, 2017 show
- Peter Murphy on Bare-Boned and Sacred (2017)
- David Bowie – vocals, acoustic guitar, piano
- Mick Ronson – electric and acoustic guitars, backing vocals
- Trevor Bolder – bass guitar
- Mick Woodmansey – drums
The song appears on the soundtrack of Bitter Lake (2015).
- Roy Carr & Charles Shaar Murray (1981). Bowie: An Illustrated Record: p.41
- David Buckley (1999). Strange Fascination - David Bowie: The Definitive Story: pp.114-115
- Bowie, David. (2008). "DAVID BOWIE: I went to buy some shoes - and I came back with Life On Mars", The Daily Mail, 28 June 2008. Retrieved on 11 July 2008.
- Nicholas Pegg (2000). The Complete David Bowie: p. 37.
- Greene, Andy (October 14, 2015). "Readers' Poll: The 10 Best David Bowie Deep Cuts". Rolling Stone. New York. Retrieved February 14, 2016.
- Mendelsohn, John (January 6, 1972). "Hunky Dory". Rolling Stone. New York. Retrieved February 14, 2016.
- Bowie, David (2002). "David Bowie – The Bewlay Brothers (live London 2002)". YouTube / SenseOfDoubt1. Retrieved 14 February 2016.