The Ultimate Battle of The Titans – David Bowie vs. Peter Noone. Sort of, but not really.

As is often the case, I didn’t actually mean to write about what I ended up writing about. I meant to write about Baroque ‘n’ Roll again, but instead I ended up getting bogged down about Peter Noone out of Herman’s Hermits, David Bowie, Nietzsche, Edward Bulwer-Lytton, and Sandie Shaw.

Sandie Shaw – Managing to look gormless in two different ways in a single photograph. Unrepresentative, as she had thoughts, did our Sandie.

I feel that I ought to emphasise that I like David Bowie a lot. I like his mannerisms, his easy smile and his anecdotes. I liked his wonky teeth before he had them fixed, I like the way he encouraged further reading – and not just fancy arsed, difficult tomes either, and I especially like some of his records. I like his perky, early, Gor-Blimey-Strike-A-Light Anthony Newley inspired records, I particularly like Hunky Dory and Low, but a lot of singles too.

Here he is on Parkinson, telling an anecdote about watching The Rolling Stones in the 1960s, in which he pulls out an outstanding Mick Jagger impression.

There’s another clip I wanted to include here that I can’t find. It’s him being asked about his average day, in which he just acts daft and then tops it all off with, “…and then we celebrate the day.”, which is just beautiful, isn’t it? He was funny, Bowie, which is important and tends to get overlooked. Especially by people such as Charles Shaar Murray, who we’ll get to later…

However…

I started writing about Peter Noone’s 1971 not well, or especially fondly, remembered single Walnut Whirl, and from there, well… it just got worse, as it so often does. 

Oh, You Pretty Things 

“I don’t know if Peter Noone knows what it means, it’s all about Homo Superior. Herman goes heavy. He’s going to be a slightly more adult entertainer.” 

David Bowie, 1972 

 Before he was a spaceman, or an alien, or a cocaine-addled, milk drinking, pepper eating Alien from a planet with a water shortage, and before he was half man, half dog with his willy out, Hallowe’en Jack (and definitely not Winston Smith from 1984), or a pastel suited, bleached blonde 80s popstar, and definitely before he was wasting his time in Tin Machine prior to his elevation to Princess of Hearts From Mars, David Bowie wasn’t famous and couldn’t get arrested, even for having long hair. 

David Bowie: not doing himself too many favours in the 1970s.

What he was, despite not being famous, was a singer songwriter whose records didn’t sell.  He stuck with it, got better at it and, eventually other people who were famous started to record some of his songs.  The first of which that really got anywhere was former Herman’s Hermit’s heartthrob Peter Noone’s version of Oh!  You Pretty Things, which he performed on Top Of The Pops with the as-yet-unknown David Bowie playing the piano behind him.   

And so it was that the song began life with the title of “I’d Like a Big Girl With a Couple Of Melons” – I’m not joking – gave Bowie the push needed to get himself on telly, at least.  Even if it was with Peter Noone, which can’t have been too groovy, but needs must, eh?  The big girl element might unlock some sort of inspiration for Walnut Whirl‘s theme, but I doubt it. I live in hope though. not much, I admit.

Since Bowie’s elevation to the big time, following Ziggy Stardust, if anyone’s known for Oh!  You Pretty Things, it’s Bowie himself, even though he didn’t have the hit with it.  Hunky Dory (my favourite Bowie album) the album it features on, got in the charts on the back of the Ziggy Stardust explosion, despite being released long before that.  Hence, it’s a Bowie song, in all respects. 

Sort of. 

And, given the subject matter, it’s perhaps a strange song for the rapidly waning star of Herman’s Hermits to record in the hope of a hit.  At Bowie’s suggestion, the word “bitch” was changed to “beast” to avoid trouble with radio and television censorship who, apparently, would have issues with such language outside of Crufts or One Man & His Dog, both BBC2 staples of the 1970s.  The subject matter though?  The Nietzschean concept, of the homo superior taking over the world?  That’s alright.  As long as we know where we stand, eh?  That’s the main thing. 

I mean, it is about those things, but at least Bowie doesn’t just drop names entirely, although he was more than happy to do so in interviews in which he explained his philosophy – and he was a reader, was our Dave, credit where it’s due. 

It’s quite charming, in a way.  In the way that The Beatles quite often considered the points of views of the mums and dads, rather than the super-groovy teenagers.  Bowie’s lyrics were regularly excellent and had depth, but as is often the case, it’s the commentators with axes to grind, who want to show off how clever they are that tends to spoil it for fussy arses like me.  Because I’m not like that, am I?  Oh, good heavens, no… 

Where the books were found by the golden ones 

Written in pain, written in awe 

By a puzzled man who questioned 

What we were here for 

Sixth formers who thought that you could impress girls at parties by unlocking lyrics to pop songs were always going to lap this sort of thing up.  And good on them, you know?  In psychology, this sort of thing might be classed as an alternative mating strategy for non-alpha males.  And fair enough, eh?  Everybody needs something.  And, at this point, enter noted rock critic of the 1970s, Charles Shaar Murray… 

David Bowie and Charles Shaar Murray: imagine being as cool as Charles Shaar Murray thinks he is. you can’t, can you? No one can. (Peter) Noone can.

Peter Noone’s version of Oh! You Pretty Things was fantastically described by Charles Shaar Murray as “One of rock and roll’s most outstanding examples of a singer failing to achieve any degree of empathy whatsoever with the mood and content of a lyric“.  I fucking love that.  I suppose that because the song has an undercurrent of intellectual ideas that Bowie was immersing himself in from the likes of the self-styled “Britain’s Wickedest Man” Aleister Crowley* (the “golden ones/golden rays lyric; he’;s also referred to on Hunky Dory’s Quicksand), philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche (who Bowie had already harvested for Width of A Circle and The Supermen on his previous The Man Who Sold The World album), and Edward Bulwer-Lytton’s 1871 novel Vril, the Power of the Coming Raceand it was the singer out of Herman’s Hermits performing it, maybe Charles Shaar Murray had a point. 

On the other hand, I quite enjoy the incongruity of someone like Peter Noone singing about the impending obsolescence of the human race in favour of an alliance between arriving aliens and the youth of the present society.  Anyway, knickers to Charles Shaar Murray, because he’s the one who’s bought into the idea that dropping a few intellectual heavyweight’s names into your lyrics means that the song itself has intellectual credentials because, when it comes down to it, OYPT is nothing more than a sixth former’s bookshelf, filled up with impressive looking tomes that they’ve never read.  It’s a mirage.    

The tune’s pretty enough (no pun intended, unusually), which must be what brought it to Mickie Most (Noone’s producer, also famous for producing Donovan’s best records, among plenty of others), it’s all rather bucolic and bouncy, like a brain damaged cow on an undersprung trampoline.  Herbie Flowers plays the bass on it – more from him later – and it’s great as far as daft pop singles go. 

What it isn’t, I would suggest, is deep.  Man.  Not like Charles Shaar Murray wanted it to be, anyway.  The words are balanced and they do consider the effect of change on those who don’t really want to be changed.  However, more on that later.  I just hope it helped him get into some girl’s knickers, that’s all. 

Walnut Whirl 

Bearing that in mind, Walnut Whirl would appear to be lyrically – on the surface of things, rather less weighty in its inspiration: Walnut Whips.  Walnut Whirl might look like a mouth breather, but there’s more ideas, and more nourishment for the brain in its grooves than OYPT, that’s for sure.   

I’m currently a bit obsessed with it, Walnut Whirl, from 1971.

It was written by session bass player Herbie Flowers, who’s as famous as such people get for playing the great bass line on Lou Reed’s Walk On The Wild Side and for writing the markedly less great Clive Dunn single Grandad.  It was a co-write though, with former Morrissey icon, Sandie Shaw, under her real name, I guess: Sandie Tatham-Banks.

Herbie Flowers, having a right old laugh.

It’s a fantastic, bordering on oompah, slice of Baroque ‘n’ Roll.  Jaunty as you like, I suspect it was arranged in order to be a relatively like-for-like follow up to his previous hit single Oh! You Pretty Things, which David Bowie wrote.  There are a lot of similarities between the two records.  The lolloping Martha-My-Dear piano, the good natured bass guitar that wobbles around between that and the unobtrusive drums and, of course, Peter Noone’s matter-of-fact-but-pleasant-with-it voice. It was a flop, unlike Oh!  You Pretty Things

And, while it is about Walnut Whips, there’s a lot more going on here than the likes of Charles Shaar Murray might admit to.  On the surface, it seems light and fluffy – like the inside of a Walnut Whip, obversely enough –  but there are far, far deeper things going on in between the lines of this great, lost pop single from 1971. 

Walnut Whip: cheers. I don’t mind them, myself. Wouldn’t miss them either,

First things first, I expect that it’s not called Walnut Whip because “whip’s” not a great word as far as having a lot of rhyming options goes, rather than pressure from Rowntree’s chocolate factory.  And it doesn’t matter anyway, everyone knows what he means.  And it looks a bit like a whirl, the chocolate.  Why is it called a Walnut Whip?  Whirl would have been a better name for the chocolate.  Probably it’s whipped fondant, or whatever the hell the gunk in the middle of them is made of.  Still… 

So, what’s going on?  Ostensibly, Walnut Whirl is about a girl who thinks that nobody will want to go out with her because she’s fat, and the reason she’s fat is because she comfort eats because she’s lonely. 

‘Cause all she wants is one, someone to love and hold her tight
But no one seems to care, for a big girl
Takes her box of dairy chocs back to her bed
And sadly makes love to, a Walnut Whirl…” 

Another vicious circle, eh?  Classic. 

Most of the lyrics go into detail about the food she likes to eat, and the descriptions are sumptuous.  Like sweets themselves, there’s internal rhymes, alliteration, (licorice) all sorts going on in there. 

““She took the cream coated coconut candy coloured chocolate nut whirl…”

 Jelly roll and toffee ice, coffee cup and fluffy ice flops
Marshmallow marmalade, lime and barley lemonade drops…” 

But, after each description of the goodies she likes to snaffle, there’s a reference to her trying to lose weight. 

Work off another pound...” 

‘Cause nothing quite seems to fit, lets out her skirt a bit more
Vows she won’t eat again then feels her hungry tum roar
Can’t live on bread alone...” 

She’s a yo-yo dieter who starves herself until she can take the emptiness inside her stomach no more than she can take the emptiness in her heart and, without a boyfriend, “sadly makes love to a Walnut Whirl”, sending her back to square one again. 

But wait, here comes the second half of the song, following that line, and everything’s going to be alright because the narrator of the song, Peter Noone himself doesn’t subscribe to the view that only skinny women are beautiful… 

Disregard the slimming books ’cause I think cuddly women are fine
Stay as a welterweight you will have a double great time
Get some outsize fun...” 

The chorus lyrics subtly change afterwards into… 

All she wanted was someone to love and hold her tight
And now she knows I care, for a big girl
Fill my box with dairy chocs and eat me up
I’ll gladly try to be, your Walnut Whirl.” 

I suppose, to an extent, that’s that.  At least as far as the song goes, all two minutes fifty seconds of it.  Except, like all the best things, including Walnut Whirls, presumably, a little bit’s not enough.  What happens next? 

Maybe it’s just me, but if you take things to their natural conclusions, the inevitable next step is that this girl’s going to start losing weight now she’s got a boyfriend who loves her, isn’t she?  After all, she was only eating chocolates by the pound because she was lonely.  Now she’s filled the hole in her heart, she’s not going to need chocolate anymore, is she?  And, as her boyfriend prefers big girls, what’s going to happen to them?  Is he going to go off her as the weight drops off her? 

The natural conclusion would seem to be that once she loses weight, he’ll go off her and dump her, she’ll go back to the Walnut Whirls, put her weight back on, and then he’ll be back again. 

Yeah, alright, maybe it’s not about “the impending obsolescence of the human race in favour of an alliance between arriving aliens and the youth of the present society.” Like Charles Shaar Murray, and other po-faced commentators say Oh! You Pretty Things was, but, in a lot of ways, there’s more going on between the lines of Walnut Whirl than there is in Bowie’s hit.  In OYPT, it’s all on the surface, under spotlights in the shop window, if you like.  As if Bowie was a bit scared in case someone didn’t realise how clever he was.  OYPT is a great song, a great record, but there’s not very much for the listener to do.  All you can do with that one is sit there, like a good boy and clap at all the lah-di-dah cultural, intellectual heavyweight references to occultists and Nazi influencers.  Providing you’re that sort of person.  And good for you, I suppose. 

Nietzsche: “Just because you’ve got hairs around your lips, it doesn’t mean you have to talk like a ***t.”
imagine this being the future of humanity. Oh the humanity.

Walnut Whirl, while sounding similar, is the exact opposite, and not in a bad way.  You could take it for a slice of bubblegum pop if you wanted, but let your brain go on it, and there’s plenty of thinking space, and plenty of questions raised. 

Conclusion 

Oh! You Pretty Things is, ironically, more like a Walnut Whip than Walnut Whirl: tarted up to look like food (for thought).  It’s all surface, no depth.   It looks like it’s full of ideas, but actually, it’s another hippy song about how the kids are going to change the world and how the mums and dads had better watch out.  The line about Homo Superior, in fact, not even the line, just those two words have been leaped upon, and usually to make pub bores sound clever. The bastards. 

Walnut Whirl addresses a rarely-considered-in-the-pop-world vicious circle that, with the listener’s thought added to it, becomes an even bigger vicious circle.  A circle in another circle.  It has no pretence, no artfulness and no guile – just like the subject of it. 

The girl in Walnut Whirl, unlike the mums and dads in Oh!  You Pretty Things, does want to change, even though her admirer, the narrator, doesn’t want that.  Walnut Whirl, whether by accident or by design, is consequently a more nuanced, complicated and – more pertinently – pertinent (cheers) take on the possibility of change and how it affects those who bring the changes, and those who liked things better the way they were. 

And, like the bloke whose perspective it’s from, it might not be the popular choice, it might not seem like the obvious one to go for, but Walnut Whirl‘s got a lot more going for it than skinny-minny David Bowie’s manna for the Charles Shaar Murrays of this world would give it credit for.

Peter Noone – stoic. Charles Shaar Murray didn’t say that about him, did he?

*My favourite Aleister Crowley story is of the time he invited a friend to his house for a meal and, when they’d sat down to eat, Crowley politely asked his guest, “Would you mind if I invoked Satan before we eat?”

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