David Bowie’s 1971 album, Hunky Dory, proved that he was a talent incomparable with anybody else around, confirming that The Man Who Sold The World was no fluke. While many people doubted whether Bowie could follow it up, he went one step further and bettered it.
The album spawned an endless supply of timeless hits that one would argue emerged as Bowie’s finest moments in the sun, and there’s a strong case to be made that the record is The Starman’s magnum opus. While every track on the record is adored by his avid followers, Bowie simply didn’t have the stage-time to perform every song from Hunky Dory live. The powerful album closer, ‘The Bewley Brothers’, wouldn’t be aired live by Bowie in public until over 30 years after its release.
The show in which ‘The Bewley Brothers’ received its live debut was a special one, considering Bowie had grown accustomed to playing stadiums across the world. However, for one night at Maida Vale, he played a career-spanning set to just 100-people for the BBC in 2002. As there were no casuals in the vicinity, Bowie used this opportunity to finally play rarities and perform a more relaxed show than a choreographed tour concert.
“Ultimately, it was this simple idea of wanting to have fun and not get bored,” his former drummer, Sterling Campbell, later said about the show. “We learned a lot of songs and we were egging him on at soundcheck. We’d be like, ‘C’mon, let’s do ‘Panic in Detroit.” And he’d just get on the mic and do it and then it would be in the show. I wrote him a bunch of emails prior to the [Reality] tour. It was so long with all that kind of stuff, like ‘Fantastic Voyage.’ I knew if I put them all down, he’d at least say yes on some things.”
The track is one of Bowie’s all-time favourites, and he included it on a hand-selected compilation that came free with The Mail on Sunday in 2008. Commenting on ‘The Bewlay Brothers’ in the liner notes, the late singer recalled: “The only pipe I have ever smoked was a cheap Bewlay. It was a common item in the late sixties, and for this song, I used Bewlay as a cognomen – in place of my own. This wasn’t just a song about brotherhood, so I didn’t want to misrepresent it by using my true name. Having said that, 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.”
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’,” which was met by applause by the crowd. “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.
“This song I have never, please don’t correct me, anybody, because I’m sure I’m right on this,” Bowie defensively continued. “I have never, ever performed this in my life until this minute. One of the reasons, probably, is that there are more words in this than in Tolstoy’s War and Peace. It’s not just these three pages, but this entire book. I wish us luck on this one. Off we go.”
The performance is a lesson in muscle memory; despite Bowie never playing the track live before, and spending over 30-years gathering dust on the shelf, he didn’t miss a single word or note. He enjoyed playing ‘The Bewley Brothers’ so much so that he snuck it back into his set on four more occasions after this show. Take a few minutes out and watch the long-awaited live debut of ‘The Bewley Brothers’, below.