“Not only is it arguably the finest track on Aladdin Sane,”Drive-In Saturday” is also the great forgotten Bowie single…(it is) one of Bowie’s most underrated classics.”
–Nicholas Pegg, The Complete David Bowie–
“When the chorus came around there it was again, “Twig the wonder kid”, and I thought, blimey. I remember being absolutely bowled over and of course, I rushed out and bought it.”
-Twiggy, Twiggy in Black and White–
David Bowie’s overwhelming run of great albums in the seventies often overshadows the fact that he was also one of the great Singles artists of the period as well. One particular 45 stands above the rest as not only the best of Bowie’s career but as one of the greatest songs in rock history.
1973’s “Drive In Saturday” was originally written for Mott The Hoople, who were coming off a sizable hit with Bowie’s “All The Young Dudes”. Thinking it was a bad idea to follow up that smash with another Bowie cover, Mott turned the track down. Bowie would later admit that he was justifiably confused by the decision and said that “I never understood that because I always thought that would have been a great single for them.” Bowie recorded the song himself, and released the single in April 1973, a week before the masterful album it graced Aladdin Sane.
Written while Bowie was touring America promoting The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars, “Drive-In Saturday” is a song about a future where people have become so isolated from each other that they have to look at images from the past to remember how to make love. The track simultaneously is rooted in the rock from the fifties that Bowie had grown up with and yet still sounds slightly futuristic and totally progressive. The song features some of the most evocative and emotionally devastating lyrics that Bowie had written with its nostalgic nods to Mick Jagger, Twiggy, and an idealistic sixties very much lost.
Backed by the Spiders from Mars and featuring some of the most impressive guitar work that the incomparable Mick Ronson ever delivered, “Drive In Saturday” is one of the definitive glam rock tracks. Perhaps only Roxy Music’s “Virginia Plain” tops it as one of the most perfectly crafted songs of the early seventies, with Bowie’s altogether haunting synthesizer and saxophone playing adding to Ronson’s extraordinary arrangement. Featuring the always crisp and incredibly layered Tony Visconti production, “Drive-In Saturday” plays perfectly as a stand-alone single and an essential album track. Aladdin Sane would be unthinkable without the song and it helps give the album an emotional pull that, to my ears at least, makes it the finest Bowie album of the period and possibly the greatest Glam album ever.
Much like Nicolas Roeg’s The Man Who Fell to Earth, a film Bowie starred in a year later, there is something extremely prophetic about”Drive In Saturday”. It seems to anticipate the Internet and also our increasingly closed-off and isolated world. As more and more people live their lives with their cell phones and social media as their only real sources of communication, Bowie’s futuristic cold and emotionally cut-off world might be much closer than just around the corner…in fact, it might already be here.
I first heard “Drive in Saturday” as a teenager and I must admit that it wasn’t one of my favorites at first. It wasn’t until I heard him do it live in the late nineties on his Hours tour that the song really hit me. Backed by the superbly talented Holly Palmer, a singer whose voice melded in perfectly with Bowie’s, his Hours tour versions are majestic sounding and nearly top the original single.
The b-side for “Drive-In Saturday” is an exciting cover of Chuck Berry’s “Round And Round”. Originally recorded for the Ziggy Stardust record, “Round and Round” is a gloriously sloppy Spiders From Mars run-through of a track from Bowie’s youth. While not one of Bowie’s greatest covers or B-sides, it is a fun and perfect companion for the moving and nostalgic”Drive In Saturday”.
Twig the Wonder Kid herself recalled her excitement upon hearing that she was the star of one of Bowie’s most dazzling songs, writing in her 1997 memoir Twiggy in Black and White:
“I’ll never forget the shock…I was sitting sewing in my bedroom in Twickenham, when suddenly I heard him sing “Twig the Wonder Kid. Or thought I did. But because I wasn’t really listening, I thought no I must have misheard. When the chorus came around, there it was again and I thought blimey. I remember being absolutely bowled over and of course I rushed out and bought it. I had always wanted to meet him. Like The Beatles, Bowie is an original. Several originals. It’s hard to imagine the history of rock music without all of his various incarnations…I was a huge fan and as star-struck as anyone else would be. Ziggy Stardust is one of my favorite albums. Every track is completely different and completely brilliant…He was everything I could have hoped for and more, witty and funny and incredibly bright; into films, directors, literature and art…The pop world can be very egotistical and to meet someone who didn’t just want to talk about their latest record was a breath of fresh air”.
Despite its power, “Drive-in Saturday” never achieved the critical nor popular acclaim it so richly deserved. Critical notices and sales were good, but the song remained unfairly overshadowed by many of the great singles Bowie released throughout the seventies. Writing for the Democrat and Chronicle, critic Mark Starr noted Aladdin Sane’s “overwhelming sensation is pain and suffering” mentioning “the couple in “Drive-in Saturday” can no longer make it except in a Jaggerish fantasy video world.” Los Angeles Times critic Robert Hilburn praised the album but noted that while “Drive-in Saturday” had been a hit in England, he guessed that the more muscular rocker “Panic in Detroit” was probably a “better singles candidate” for the States. The Inquirer’s Jack Lloyd was more tempered in his praise for the album but called “Drive-in Saturday” “fun” and compared it, oddly enough, to Bob Dylan.
Several acts have covered “Drive-in Saturday” with the most notable being probably Morrissey’s powerful live stabs at it. The song remains a bit hidden as one of Bowie’s great works but to me, it is the equal of anything Bowie ever recorded and one of the most emotionally devastating songs I have ever heard. Twiggy would appear on the cover of Bowie’s next album (Pin-Ups) and she still speaks of how overwhelmed she was the first time she heard “Drive-in Saturday”. While the song only made it to number three on the charts and has been forgotten by many, I suspect that for myself, Twig the wonder kid, and for more than a few others, the track will always remain an overwhelmingly important and special one.
-Jeremy Richey, Originally Published at Moon in the Gutter January 19, 2016-
Enjoy these vintage press clippings, including the full articles I quoted above.