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How the 1971 Glastonbury Festival saved David Bowie’s career


“I don’t know where I’m going from here, but I promise it won’t be boring.” — David Bowie.

The tales of David Bowie’s performance at the 1971 incarnation of Glastonbury Festival are enshrined with a mist of retrospective myth. As the legend goes, the little-known extra-terrestrial protégée took to the stage at 5 am as the full furore of night acquiesced to the beckoning of tents, and the sun rose to the orchestration of chirping birds amid the sanguine dawning of new blue daybreak on June 23rd.

The mysticism that surrounds the set is not limited to the happenstance of a misty morning and a field of fried-out hippies, but because it saved David Bowie’s career. During his performance, a rather more metaphorical fog lifted, and it dawned on a struggling Bowie that there was no other way but music. It was the adoration of a sedated slew of agog onlookers that crystalised this in Bowie’s mind, and the rest of us have been basking in the deliverance of that heaven-sent sunup forevermore.

As incomprehensible as it seems now, the annals of musical history are propped up by an ever-expanding footnote under the doomed heading of ‘What Could’ve Been’, where ill-fated brilliance fades to obscurity, and there is no reason Bowie wouldn’t have been regrettably strewn into that same majestic reissue clad realm

Although the unscrupulous narrative of Bowie’s career has it earmarked that he struggled his way to ‘Space Oddity’ and then blasted himself into the celestial realm of greatness and stardom, the truth is that his rise followed a far more torturous trajectory.

In 1971 Bowie was as he always remained, a sui generis force of freakishly creative intent and albeit he amassed an army of devotees, he inherently survived on the old Mark Twain mantra of: “Whenever you find yourself on the side of the majority it is time to pause and reflect.” In short, soon to be released tracks like ‘Kooks’ and ‘The Bewlay Brothers’ might be masterful, but they are the antithesis of the sort of instant radio hits that garner an artist mainstream notoriety. Thus, when he arrived at Glastonbury in ’71 he was sheepish and weary following The Man Who Sold the World’s failure to chart on either side of the pond. 

Then, as if fate had planned it, the great Glastonbury turning point began to kaleidoscopically unspool. Bowie, his wife Angie, guitarist Mick Ronson, manager Tony Defries, Dana Gillespie, and Bob Grace had all travelled by train from London to Castle Cary and opted to walk the 10 miles of meandering country roads on foot owing to a combination of limited funds and fresh-legged naivety. When they arrived at the festival it was pandemonium, as Dana Gillespie recalled: “There was chaos over who was playing. Everyone was on acid – not David or Angie or Defries I hasten to add, or even me, for once.”

Bowie had originally been due to perform on June 22nd, but his slot was shifted amid the chaos of clambering bands and drugged-up organisers. Finally, he was bumped along once more and handed the sleepy morning slot, on paper dreaded treachery for any performer, but as it would turn out in reality, it offered him a chance to imbue the sobering minds of the morning with the beautiful boon of music at its pure magical best. 

As Bowie once told Time Out, “All I can remember is staggering out of the Worthy Farmhouse at some ungodly hour. I had been ensconced in there for some of the night, drinking and smoking and such like with the tremendously talented Terry Reid and Linda Lewis. None of us were in the best of shape. No curfew in those days so I was playing to a mainly sleeping crowd. They awoke benignly enough and gave me much encouragement as I fumbled through about nine songs.”

Amongst that benignly awaking crowd was John Lundsten, a sound engineer for London’s Radio Geronimo. “I came out of my tent and heard this glorious sound,” Lundsten told Nicholas Pegg, “So I pounded down the hill. The recording equipment was on a platform immediately under the stage, so I crawled under and got to work. I only missed the very beginning.”

Following the opening track ‘The Superman’, Bowie performed ‘Quicksand’ and debuted the empyrean pop wonderment of ‘Changes’, in what is surely the most fantastical alarm clock that has ever been set, or for the foolhardy all-nighter’s a beguiling clutch of lullabies. With the aura of a crystalising zeitgeist beginning to embalm the set and the sleepy on-lookers with a sense of ordained awe, Bowie performed his best-known single ‘Oh! You Pretty Things’. 

He announced to the gathering crowd: “This is the original thing I wrote,” and divulge the following gaudy verse: “I’d like a big girl with a couple of melons / A bad girl but not a teensy bit rebellious / Hard of hearing with a great big behind / A short-sighted raver with filth on her mind / Oh lord, I’m getting desperate…” An intoxicated Scandinavian girl clambered onto the stage, which Bowie would later make reference to when he returned to Glastonbury as an all-conquering hero from another world in 2000. Bowie joking yelled, “she’s here!” as though his lewd verse had conjured a fantasy into life and the stoned Scandanavian girl plonked herself down on Bowie’s piano stool. 

However, her backing vocals left a lot to be desired, and Bowie sent her packing saying, “This is about homo superior, love. You’re letting the lyrics down badly!” Sending her off by asking her to “go and get some bacon and eggs,” and concluding the song unhindered. 

Dana Gillespie recalled watching the myth unfurl before her awestruck eyes, “People were waking up in their sleeping bags having been frozen all night in the mud. It was quite extraordinary. He didn’t have a full audience in attendance, but the ones he did have, he completely won over.”

Before reappearing for a triumph encore, he announced to the enraptured crowd, “I’ll try and be serious for a second… I just want to say that you’ve given me more pleasure than I’ve had in a good few months of working, and I don’t do gigs anymore because I got so pissed off with working and dying a death every time I worked, and it’s really nice to have somebody appreciate me for a change.”

Then he befittingly performed ‘Memory Of A Free Festival’ with the lyric, “The sun machine is coming down, and we’re gonna have a party,” ringing in the dreamy heads of some 8000 onlookers who had been converted to his otherworldly ways by the pure benevolence of the boon which he had casually bestowed upon them on that ether drenched misty morning. 

As Bowie told Time Out when summing up the experience, “All in all, a delightfully light and silly couple of days, all Tolkieny and mushrooms and Oranges. The whole thing was pretty much pulled together by Jeff Dexter, the only DJ in those days to actually know what music to play for big crowds. He used up his own funds to finance the thing and arranged for most of us performers to appear and got not a word of thanks from the then co-promoters, as far as I know. Ah! Now I remember why I want to do it again. I left my Bipperty-Bopperty hat there, in the farmhouse. I wonder if it’s still on the chair? With my bottle of cannabis tincture? Also, I can’t resist the idea of encouraging all those slightly dazed and glazed peeps to give their voices full throttle to a chorus or two of a song or three. Just one last time. Oops! I’ll never say ‘never again’, again. Possibly.”

More than anything, this seismic moment in the Starman’s career reaffirms the fact that for all his celestial otherworldliness, it was the soul-clutching human connections he was capable of that sparkle brightest in the iridescent swirl of his euphoric career. As for Glastonbury, it might not be returning in earnest this year, but the inviolable sanctity of live shows will be back before we know it, and when they return, they will be vivified and re-energised as the masses pour into music venues clutching ticket stubs in a grateful grasp of gladdened appreciation as the great sonorous bludgeon to drudgery hopefully rings out once more.