Song Machine: the (also eponymous) second album (David Bowie a.k.a. Space Oddity, 1969)

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If Bowie’s first album was notable for catchy tunes (albeit in an outdated style, with some blended-in quirkiness), what are we to make of his second, also eponymous, album? Who does this guy think he is, Peter Gabriel? 🙂

For those only familiar with Bowie’s major hits and not much of his history, it will seem like he has undergone a huge stylistic and personal change from his first to his second record, but there is more of a transition to be discovered than is obvious from just the long-players — as with every subsequent Bowie album. There was, for example the Love You Till Tuesday promo film, made to showcase Bowie to other labels, which included a strange (to the audience) mime/story sequence in the middle, and several non-LP songs ranging from downright juvenile to a new, more hippy/folkie tone than seen on the Deram-issued album. Some fans refer to the second album as the first “proper” Bowie album, a perception I’m sure Bowie himself fostered at the time.

51ttn5ks0clTo really understand this second album, it occurs to me that the hidden context is crucially important. No less than five major negative events occurred between the release of the previous album and the one now most commonly known as Space Oddity, and they reshaped Bowie in several ways. The first was having his debut album not do well and, despite recording some interesting (and more commercial) new songs for a planned second album, his label dropping him. This, on the heels of his unsuccessful singles, must have been a difficult blow. It was followed in rapid succession by more tragedies: his first real love left him (though it was, as he later admitted, his own fault); his delvings into hippie culture and creating an arts community didn’t pan out to his satisfaction; he split with influential manager Ken Pitt; and his father Haywood Jones, who had been supportive of his artistic efforts, died rather unexpectedly.

It wasn’t all bad news, though: there were at least five positive events as well. Bowie and his new manager landed a new record deal; he became more aware of Bob Dylan and other poet-songwriters; he met Tony Visconti, who shared a mutual interest in Buddhism and other offbeat topics; he met a new girlfriend, Angela Barrett; and western society was, in the year of his “second debut” album, becoming fixated around a single cultural event: the space race. Understanding the cultural context of the period in which the work was created gives a lot of insight into the work itself, and at this stage of his life Bowie was still more of a mirror than a leader. Most of these various good and bad happenings in his life can be found throughout the second album

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The two US versions: A recreation of the 1969 Mercury original issue on the left, and the 1972 reissue on the right

It was issued simply as David Bowie on Phillips in the UK, and as Man of Words, Man of Music on Mercury in the US. That’s not the half of it, though: when the album was reissued in 1972 after Ziggy Stardust became a monster hit, it was renamed by Bowie’s new US label RCA after its lead track, “Space Oddity.” To avoid confusion with the earlier Deram album, we’ll use the reissued Space Oddity title in this review. Bowie’s life was clearly in a lot of flux between late 1967 and late 1969 musically and personally, but there were other things going on as well; it’s fair to say that there was an increasing influence of some various mind-altering substances, he was continuing his rapid post-school cultural education and cultivating a variety of interests — including mime and performance — along with his increased love of reading; and he was experimenting with a new look via home permanents kits (apparently).

90903842-749a-11e5-8070-1a249684d8c0That his hair seems to have “exploded” both on the Phillips/Mercury original and more punk-looking RCA cover (where he looks for all the world like a young John Lydon) is oddly symbolic of the growth of both his mind and talent, and the UK cover was a strong visual indicator of the hippie style he had now fully embraced rather than just flirted with. As it turns out, it was a blessing in disguise that Bowie’s first album didn’t do well; had it done, he would have been unlikely to follow some of the various paths he eventually took, becoming more of a conventional and “pleasant” pop star in the mold of a Barry Manilow or Neil Diamond (though undoubtedly a bit darker and odder than either; imagine an entire career similar to the work he did in Labyrinth).

Of course, his natural restlessness might have lead him away from mainstream success anyway; his friendship with Visconti right at the end of his Deram period certainly changed his sound significantly, and he was already demonstrating a more mature lyrical sense, but there is still a lot of obvious influences, from the Beatles (“Karma Man”) to the Stones (“Let Me Sleep Beside You”) to the Kinks (“London Bye Ta-Ta”). Still, one track not released for decades after he left Deram, the Visconti-produced “In the Heat of the Morning,” is a clear indicator of the direction Bowie was heading in, and is said to have been the blueprint for what would have been his second Deram album. It was probably a “thank you” to Visconti’s influence on his sound that Bowie re-recorded “Let Me Sleep Beside You” and “In the Heat of the Morning” for his unreleased 2001 Toy album; Visconti’s role in helping David define his vision is hard to understate, though the producer and sideman wasn’t the only one who fed Bowie’s flame.

The rejected Deram single “In the Heat of the Morning”

Also as previously mentioned, Bowie’s determination to become famous was not slowed or broken by his seemingly-endless string of failures to this point, and this was vital to how he eventually became successful: constantly rehearsing for success, and always looking forward, never back. Thus, there really was only one path he could take in his career at this point: re-invention. As with the TV show Doctor Who, this methodology was periodically re-deployed to give him an almost-unique place in pop culture: a seemingly never-ending set of “fresh starts” to go along with his “regenerations” of looks, and a genuine unpredictability that guaranteed new attention and an infusion of fresh audiences each time. Elton John, among others, certainly seemed to take note of how clever that gimmick could be.

As a diary of the rapid “growing up” Bowie was doing, complete with “highs” and lows, Space Oddity is a remarkably candid document. As a commercial album, on the other hand, it had some clear faults: for starters, any fans Bowie might have picked up from his first solo effort would be just as put off by the “new direction” of his second album as folkies were when Dylan went “electric” three years earlier. Not only that, but nearly every song starts with and/or heavily features David on 12-string guitar. It is also fair to say some of the songs ramble a bit, with “Unwashed and Somewhat Slightly Dazed” or the entire second half of “Memory of a Free Festival” as examples. Loads of talent on display, not a lot of discipline.

Bowie himself has said (contradictorily) that the former song is about how he felt in the weeks following his father’s death, and also that it was about the class difference between him and his girlfriend, which caused some friction (another reference, most likely, to Hermione Farthingale). There are certainly elements of both in it, and the song also marks his first encounters with members of the Hull-based group The Rats, who would continue to pop up in his life for decades to come (one of them is responsible for the harmonica on this song, while another is the drummer on the album).

Structurally, the song is a downright manifesto of Bowie giving up on folk music for rock, starting with a softly psychedelic and gentile opening, then across an unusually long bar devolving into basic blues chords and finally spending its final three minutes in a Grateful Dead-style jam. In its original form (and restored in the 2009 remaster), the end of the song is appended with a short separate jammy outtake, called “Don’t Sit Down,” that foreshadows the “candid” outtakes and ad-libbed moments in Hunky Dory.

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Bowie performing with The Strawbs in Beckenham

Other problems with the album include repetitious subject matter (“Unwashed” references the same time period as “Memory of a Free Festival,” which also touches on his disillusionment with the hippie movement). The song also revisits the Farthingale breakup, which is also the subject of the very next track, “Letter to Hermione” as well as “An Occasional Dream.” “Cygnet Committee” revisits the theme of previous album’s “We Are Hungry Men,” and the messianic character trope is revisited yet again in “Wild-Eyed Boy From Freecloud,” which itself is another paean to Buddhism — in common with the then-unreleased “Karma Man.” There are as many throwbacks to the style of his previous album (“Letter,” “An Occasional Dream,” and the lovely but sad “God Knows I’m Good”) as there are pointers to the next one (he would essentially remake “Cygnet Committee” with “Saviour Machine” next time around, and the jam half of “Unwashed” is a foreshadowing of “Black Country Rock”).

On top of all this, as you might expect, the weight of the negative events that fuel much the songwriting cast a dour mood across the record most of the time, which can’t have helped sales. One further issue was that the lead single, issued four months in advance of the album originally, and a brilliant blend of Bowie’s folk stylings and sci-fi lyrics, was nothing like the rest of the album — and thus the long-player was perceived as disappointing. Although the single made Bowie a household name in the UK, where it reached #5, it was largely not played in the US until after the Apollo 11 astronauts had safely returned to Earth (credit where it’s due: the lyrics would have been seen as disturbingly prescient if all hadn’t gone according to plan). Indeed, the album didn’t do terribly well on either side of the Atlantic until it was re-released under the Space Oddity title three years later, in 1972, following Ziggy Stardust).

The song “Space Oddity” is a real gem, very imaginatively recorded by Visconti’s then-assistant Gus Dudgeon (Visconti himself felt it was a bit of a “novelty song” and didn’t want to produce it — in context, he was absolutely right, but Dudgeon’s production and Bowie’s strong lyric made it something a bit more than that, and Visconti has since admitted as much). When the album was reissued in 1972, photographer Mick Rock created a short film for the song featuring Bowie’s “Ziggy Stardust” look (so different from the version in Love You Till Tuesday). As a youngster in 1972, this short film (which got a lot of play on TV for some reason) hit me like a mind bomb.

The 1972 Space Oddity video by Mick Rock

I think what attracted me so strongly to it was both the startlingly-androgynous man I already knew about, the new-to-me look, and the ambivalence of the lyric — as a child, of course, I’d heard it more as a song about the strangeness of space travel; the drug allusions were completely lost on me, but I was struck by the fact (even then) that the story didn’t have either a happy or sad ending. On two different levels, Bowie was telling me there was “in-between space” in things — nuance rather than than clear-cut lines — and that was a concept I was just old enough to start grasping when I heard the song in 1969. Subversive stuff, that number, and a nice appetizer for what was to come later.

Apart from the lead track, the rest of the album paints less of a beguilingly-alternative picture than it does a confusing one. A number of the songs, at least in a casual listen, teeter between two conflicting ideas in its main motif: Bob Dylan-like songs about how awful hippies are, sung and performed in a hippie/rock style (with occasional forays back to folk). The disenchantment Bowie had experienced with his dabblings in hippie culture (such as the Beckenham Arts Lab from whence the “Free Festival” tableau is drawn), which had started years before in his first TV appearance promoting long hair for boys as stylish, was an important rite of passage — the crashing of idealistic political and social dreams against the rocks of reality. This must have been disappointing, but it along with some other elements of the culture — free love and drugs among them — helped push his songwriting out of his previous local focus and made him start painting on a bigger canvas.

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Bowie at the Beckenham Free Festival from whence the song originates

While Visconti’s production on the album is mostly very good, the sequencing (whoever was responsible for it) is another obstacle. While “Space Oddity” explores the heavens and “Unwashed” tears up his folk stylings for electric rock, “Letter to Herminone” is a last-album relapse — a roughly-sung but folkie love letter to a lost girlfriend from a young man who still can’t quite let go, and sitting between “Unwashed” and the malevolent break-up with the hippies that makes up “Cygnet Committee,” it’s like the album has taken a turn down a bitter alleyway. “Cygnet” can be taken as a ego-centric indictment of the Beckenham Arts Lab, which Bowie apparently hoped would become an artistic-development haven but turned into “I’ll do all the work and you guys just enjoy it and do nothing” (hello and welcome to the world of civic volunteering, young master Bowie!) and even as a “goodbye” rant to the entire hollowness of the late 1960s hippie culture, it likewise meanders and indulges itself to nearly 10 minutes.

The closing chanting of “We/I want to live” is an unsettling cry of someone not really sure where to go from here; cut off as Bowie was from his childhood ideals, from his former friends, lovers, and management, and even his supportive parent, it sounds like a young man who suddenly finds himself more alone in the world than he realized, and is striking back angrily. It’s uncannily echoed on the future “Rock and Roll Suicide” and later numbers.

Next up, “Janine” is an Elvis-like number that paints itself warning to someone trying to get close — there’s a dark side here that I’m not sure I can control, Bowie seems to be saying (“You don’t wanna get mixed up with a guy like me,” said Pee-Wee. “I’m a loner, Dottie. A rebel”). With a motif that would later be more identified with “Southern Rock,” the bluesy flavourings of proto-glam show off an early Bolan influence, though there is also a bizarrely-similar song by Gordon Lightfoot called “Walls” from his 1967 album The Way I Feel, but the thought of Bowie nicking ideas from Lightfoot is too bizarre to contemplate, so I’m putting that down to coincidence for once. This song is more notable for the references to multiple or alternate personalities, a theme Bowie would make a centerpiece of his 1970s work. Not content to let these bad relationships go, following this is “An Occasional Dream,” again about his missing Hermione. Of all Bowie’s albums, this one might be one of the most up-front about his turbulent emotional state at this time in his life.

Skipping over the aforementioned “Wild Eyed Boy,” we get to another real gem in the album — “God Knows I’m Good,” which to these ears sounds a bit like Bowie’s take on “Eleanor Rigby” if Dylan had written it. The song is an observational tale of a desperate woman stealing some food and getting caught, sprinkled with slight Flamenco touches. It is a direct folk song wrestling with the wisdom of believing in a monolithic God, a subject Bowie would return to throughout his entire career. It also references a 1984-type dystopia, which will of course pop up again later.

God Knows I’m Good

The last song on the original release is the previously-mentioned “Memory of a Free Festival,” and it is not much like anything else Bowie ever wrote for a variety of reasons: aside from the odd structure of the number (including an entire second half spent chanting just two lines) and it’s “Hey Jude”-esque finale, it has the unusual intro of Bowie actually announcing it over his own (badly-played) organ intro, giving it a misleadingly funereal air, before (very awkwardly) shifting gears into a festival-style singalong that morphs into a slightly-restrained choral rock jam-out, repeating the two new lines for another three-and-a-half minutes.

With no second single released after the pre-release hit “Space Oddity,” Bowie finally convinced his label — seven months after the album was released — to do “Memory” as a single. By now it was mid-1970, and there was much change in the air musically. The record company balked, but a compromise was reached: the song would be re-recorded to be closer to the glam rock sounds Bowie was already shifting to, and cut in half so that the more repetitive chant part was the b-side, with the a-side rearranged to get to the true heart of the song faster. This turned out to be fortuitous indeed, as the single version of “Memory of a Free Festival” is not only vastly better, it’s also the first Bowie recording Mick Ronson appears on, and the impact is very obvious right from the start.

Memory of a Free Festival, part 1 (single version)

Memory of a Free Festival, part 2 (single version)

Despite the clear influence of Lennon/McCartney, these lyrics still have a distinct Bowie flair: the lines “Touch, We touched the very soul/Of holding each and every life/We claimed the very source of joy ran through/It didn’t, but it seemed that way” hit on his now-trademark ambiguity, and the closer on that verse of “I kissed a lot of people that day” has exactly that touch of wistfullness and androgyny that would prove so potent in the near future.

Amusingly, English producer Paul Spencer — recording under the name Dario G — managed to unlock the full potential of that hippy-dippy second half of “Memory of a Free Festival” by building a house-y dance track around those two lines of Bowie’s lyric, eventually securing the permission (and isolated original vocals) of the man himself. The re-working also included a specially-recorded flute solo from Tony Visconti to make a track that wallows in its repetitiveness to the point that it comes out the other side as a brilliant dance number. The song became the title track of Dario G’s album, Sunmachine, and reached into the top 20 on the UK singles chart in 1998, probably Bowie’s most indirect entry into the top 20 ever.

Sunmachine by Dario G.

Speaking of chart action, the original 1969 release of Space Oddity — despite posting a massive top five hit single, again didn’t perform well as an album. Furthermore, the single didn’t do well in the US either, reaching only #124. When the album was re-released in 1972 following the success of Ziggy, the album reached #17 in the UK chart, and #16 in the US chart. “Janine” was mooted as a possible follow-up single, as was a remake of “London Bye Ta-Ta,” but in the end Bowie went with the non-LP “The Prettiest Star,” about his new girlfriend Angela (more about her next time as well) backed with another non-LP cut, “Conversation Piece,” an unusually candid portrait of a frustrated thinker that really should have gone on the album. The original single of “The Prettiest Star” is now most notable for featuring Marc Bolan of T. Rex on guitar; one of their rare recorded collaborations.

The Prettiest Star (featuring Marc Bolan)

Conversation Piece

The 2009 Rykodisc release of the album also includes a second disc chock full of interesting stuff, including a previously-unheard demo of “Space Oddity” that has Hutch taking the lead vocal, the much-more-earnest demo of “An Occasional Dream,” stereo mixes of “London Bye Ta Ta” and “The Prettiest Star,” (later to be remade for 1973’s Aladdin Sane) along with “Conversation Piece.” While many have said that “Cygnet Committee” is Bowie’s first real masterpiece, I think “Conversation Piece,” while not first, is an overlooked gem — like “God Knows I’m Good.”

There are also a clutch of BBC Radio versions, alternative mixes, a very orchestra-ed up version of “Wild Eyed Boy,” and the winner for “most bizarre song Bowie has ever done” award, the completely new lyric (sung in the rare Bromley-Italian dialect) for the Italian version of “Space Oddity,” known as “Ragazzo Solo, Ragazza Sola” (Lonely Boy, Lonely Girl). Yes, odder even than “The Laughing Gnome,” primarily for the explanation from the translator, someone named Mogol, about why the lyric had be completely changed: “there is no way to translate [your lyric] in a way that Italians will understand.”

Ragazzo Solo, Ragazza Sola

Next time: Wham Bam, Thank You Glam!

Photo credits: Images of Bowie in Beckenham by Ray Stevenson/REX/Shutterstock (563068a and 563056e, respectively).

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Deram a Little Deram With Me: the first album (David Bowie, 1967)

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Let’s start with the obvious: even in the context of 1967, this record was rather behind the times — and if you’re unfamiliar with Anthony Newley’s career around this time, but do know what Bowie achieved later, this album may seem borderline unlistenable, though it is not far out of line with what Deram was charged with putting out — what we might now refer to as “high-concept chamber pop.” As with his pre-album singles, Bowie seemed to need a musical motif to glom onto, and for reasons never really clear — but probably his own — for this first long-player the overriding influence (but not the only one) was Newley. This was presumably due to Bowie’s determination to succeed where his unfocused earlier efforts had not (and indeed, the record got some kind reviews that called it “fresh” and a talent worth watching). That said, there is still a growing songwriter with a decidedly bent view and a flair for psychedelia poking out from under all that “cabaret/music hall” styling.

bowie-davidbowieFor the purposes of this review, we are using just the first half of the two-CD David Bowie: Deluxe Edition set that includes an entire second disc of material, including single and alternate versions of LP songs, non-LP a- and b-sides, and even a few songs intended for a second Deram album that never ended up happening. The first disc has both the stereo and mono versions of David Bowie as released on 1-June 1967 (indeed, it was one of the first to get both a stereo and mono release in the pop genre) and while there are very minor differences between them, they are essentially equivalent for all but the nit-pickiest of listeners. The deluxe release is highly recommended for its rich supplementary material and the definitive remasterings of the original album mixes. It is truly the alpha and omega of Bowie’s Deram period, and expands what was going on with the still very much developing songwriter and singer beyond what the original album release imparted.

If Newley was the template, Bowie was equally determined to subvert it in various ways, most often lyrically — and so even in this relative step backwards from his progression as a songwriter in the Decca/Parlourphone/Pye period, we see the growth in some areas. You can hear it right off on the lead track, “Uncle Arthur” — a quixotic little Kinks-esque tale of a socially inept man who lives with his mother until he meets a girl, marries her, and makes a break from the oppressive thumb of his parent. As the song unfolds, though, we learn that he quickly returns to the fold, all forgiven and his safe-but-unhappy status restored. There’s a bit of Tony Hancock in Bowie’s story-ish lyric for this, and that influence turns up again on some other songs in this period as well.

Uncle Arthur

This one also, as noted by brilliant Bowie blogger Chris O’Leary of Pushing Ahead of the Dame, is one of the rare tracks on this album told seemingly from a boy’s perspective (rather than a man’s, as most of the other tracks seem determined to prove Bowie to be): Uncle Arthur returns to his domineering mother because his bride can’t cook, and of course is referred to as “Uncle” throughout the song. By contrast, track 2 (“Sell Me a Coat”) is a much more poetic and worldy-wise affair, a sad sonnet of a romance that went south using the age-old summer/happy, winter/sad metaphor you might have heard on a Moody Blues record of the period.

Bowie’s previous producer Tony Hatch was once quoted as saying Bowie was a definite talent, but tended to spend too much time writing about “London dustbins” — that is to say small, ordinary subjects with decoratively vivid but arms-reach details, such as the description of the coat here, or in the Victorian flavour of “Come and Buy My Toys.” The descriptions are certainly more intricate than you would find outside of The Kinks or Van Morrison typically, and the “vision” of many of the songs is narrowly focused: one person, one area, one town, one girl. A later (long thought lost, but rediscovered) 1968 demo which is sadly not included on this expanded release, called “April’s Tooth of Gold,” really shows off how much influence the Kinks had on Bowie’s late-60s songwriting, and perhaps the direction that a second Deram album would have gone in.

April’s Tooth of Gold

More so than on his previous recordings, Bowie’s voice on his debut album is always placed front and center — and also unlike his previous records, the production and arrangements quality is top-notch. Today we’d call this “quirky soft rock,” or the pre-80s definition of “pop” at best, but it features some very high-quality guitar playing (in part from the now-legendary John Renbourne) and other instruments from “Big Jim” Sullivan, among other session musicians added to augment The Buzz.

Still, the youthful fire of his previous singles is all but extinguished in an attempt to make Bowie sound more adult and sophisticated. That’s not to say it’s all vocal-heavy elevator music: “She’s Got Medals” is a ballsy (in-joke, that) number that rocks along nicely and proves that the story-song jokey-narrator motif can really work: the number — about a tomboy who disguised herself as a man to join the army, then deserted just before an enemy attack by reverting to female gear — is just clever and grand from start to finish, not to mention his first-ever hint of the gender-bending/androgyny/bisexuality he would indulge in his near future. It’s one of my favourite songs on the album, and would have worked brilliantly in the hands of Marc Bolan, or Mick Ronson when he was working with Bowie … alas, that wasn’t yet in the cards.

She’s Got Medals

That said, most of it is pretty tame stuff, with holdover folksong and pop-type arrangements you’d have run across more often in the very early 60s, distinguished primarily by Bowie’s oddish lyrics and strong voice. Occasionally, Bowie hit on a great combination of the two: “Love You Till Tuesday” is genuinely witty as well as lovably catchy, and unsurprisingly became the third (and final) single related to the album — and the subject of a surprising long-form promotional film intended to help shop him to another label when Deram declined to do a second album. Interestingly, a remixed version of “Sell Me a Coat” was used in the later “Love You Till Tuesday” promo film, but overdubbed with new backing vocals from Bowie’s then-girlfriend Hermione Farthingale and then-collaborator John Hutchinson that were mixed much too loud, resulting in half of Bowie’s lyric and voice being drowned out.

Love You Till Tuesday (Bowie’s original 1966 demo)

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Hutch, Hermione, David

The Love You Till Tuesday promo film, despite heavily supporting a (mostly) a pretty disjointed album, is chock full of gems — and constitutes Bowie’s first “videos” if you take them as separate pieces. Firstly, this is your only extended look at Bowie’s first great love, Hermione, as well as Hutch in the trio configuration they referred to as Feathers. The movie features four songs hat didn’t appear on the album (“When I’m Five,” about which we’ll chat later, the lovely and grown-up “Let Me Sleep Beside You,” the Feathers version of “Ching-a-Ling,” and the original version of “Space Oddity” — yes, more than a year ahead of its album arrival!). Of the latter, the original version is jazzier and more beatnik than what we got later.

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Well.

There’s also a Bowie mime (something he was really getting into by the time this was filmed, studying under Lindsey Kemp) with narration smack in the middle of this, which also tackles both the underside of fame (ironically, at this point) and explores his predilection for putting on “characters.” Fans of Bowie’s trousers in the 1980s film Labyrinth will find much to enjoy throughout Love You Till Tuesday, a showcase film best seen as perhaps the prototype for the “Electronic Press Kit” (EPK) which is now the industry standard. The film as a whole makes even the weaker numbers more palatable, in hindsight, being as it is a time capsule of very early Bowie — but like everything else thus far, it was not much help to his career. Worse, Farthingale (later the subject of the  songs “Letter to Hermione” and “An Occasional Dream”) gave up on Bowie — who had been philandering, by his own admission — during filming, and ran off with one of the dancers. Ouch.

The Love You Till Tuesday complete promo film

Back to the album proper, another strong entry is “Silly Boy Blue,” which certainly sounds like it should have been a hit for somebody to these ears. As O’Leary refers to it, this number is “Bowie’s first great song,” a “stately” number that gives voice to Bowie’s ongoing interest in Buddhism. It features an unusually (for this album) passionate vocal performance, a third verse of chanting la-la-las (he uses this fill-in-missing-lyrics trick a lot in his early work), and a beautiful multi-tracked ending. Along with the wildly different and cheeky “Love You Till Tuesday,” these are both the album’s highlights and an illustration of why the album doesn’t work: the subjects and treatments zig-zag between light and dark, straight and odd, serious and whimsical — robbing the album of thematic coherence.

It’s no surprise that Bowie opted to include “Silly Boy Blue” in his 2000-2001 sessions for Toy (with a more appropriate atmospheric arrangement, that offered sitars and chimes along with more upbeat flourishes) — this is the number where you can see that Bowie will not be a one-hit (or, at this point, no-hit) wonder. It has “great artist” and “real songwriter” written all over it. Billy Fury thought so, evidently — he covered it the year after it came out, in a very faithful but frankly better production, though it continued the curse of not being terribly successful for him or Bowie.

Silly Boy Blue

Silly Boy Blue (Billy Fury cover version, 1968)

Silly Boy Blue (Toy-style version for Tibet House Benefit, 2001)

The first single with Deram, incidentally, was “Rubber Band,” another story-song about a former soldier who loses his girl to the leader of the titular brass band. This was actually the first song Bowie did in this “Next Newley” style, and part of what got him a very unusual full-album contract on the strength of this and two other pre-contract, post-Pye recordings. “Rubber Band” is claimed in some circles to have been heard by, and influenced, the Beatles and their “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” song — but while there is eerily similar subject matter, the connection, if any, is a bit tenuous (though the two albums came out on the very same day, bizarrely enough). This was Bowie’s very first recording for Deram, and it fairly shouts out its change of direction: it depends heavily on its orchestrated arrangement with woodwinds aplenty. All that greasy rock-n-soul stuff was right out.

The “Rubber Band” single was backed with Bowie’s first real leap of lyrical sophistication, “The London Boys,” which had started life as a rejected single for Pye. It was turned down due to an explicit reference to drug-taking then, but under Deram it was preserved, albeit relegated to a b-side. Ironically, Deram — the company that finally gave Bowie his big break — was a new subsidiary of Decca, the first label to record (and reject) the young songwriter.

It is, perhaps, poetic justice that Deram didn’t do much better with him this time round, though by all accounts Deram brought its folly upon itself by not promoting the record. Apparently, the executive who had signed Bowie left before his album came out, causing the rest of the company to take less interest in him. As with other failures, Bowie used his time at Deram as a learning experience; part-time manager Ken Pitt’s taking him to West End shows and sharing his own musical tastes with Bowie undoubtedly aided and abetted his decision to go for a more poetic, older approach aimed at more adult buyers than the teen scene he had previously pursued.

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“Now is the time on Schprockets ven we DANSE!”

That post-school mentoring, the interests he developed in mime and other artforms, and — in a funny way — the failure of his first album also turned out to be the push into expanded horizons that would lift his songwriting out of the “what I see around me/describe my own life” mold it had been in up to this point. As others have noted, if he’d had a hit with any of the songs on his first record, he might have stayed in the safe, comfortable world of “adult contemporary” and been a Vegas staple by the 1980s.

Oddly enough, the second Deram single for Bowie was a non-LP cut, the notorious “Laughing Gnome” (backed with the far darker and again non-LP cut “The Gospel According to Tony Day”), which was marketed as a novelty record (a popular trend in the mid-60s, even for some bands that were usually more “professional”). While it is best approached as a light-hearted aberration from Bowie’s then-current (and all other) fare, it does show off both his fascination with vari-speed recording (a technique frequently used to more serious effect right up to and including “Blackstar”) and his sense of humour. Beyond the silliness of the song proper, there are various (Tony) Hancockian-like “asides” that rattle off a string of “gnome”-related puns. Listeners can only catch them all with careful and repeated hearing, which is probably why few people are even aware that they’re there, but they are in fact quite amusing, as is the song itself — if one can overcome the jarring effect of such a comedy bit from the earnest fellow who wrote and performed “Please Mr Gravedigger” straight-faced.

That the b-side is a slab of black humour sung in a dour style which couldn’t have been a worse choice to help with the single’s commercial prospects, but does succeed in showing another side to Bowie’s humour, as well as how personal his lyrics could be — this one rattles off a string of presumed friends, as if he’d lost a bet where the penalty was to incorporate them all into a song. Other friends and collaborators have frequently described Bowie as a genuinely witty and funny fellow: seen as an “outtake” not unlike some of the Beatles’ fan-club singles, or the Monkees’ lighter efforts, “The Laughing Gnome” becomes somewhat more charming and marginally less farcical.

Some of the other songs point to future Bowie development: “We are Hungry Men” in particular foretells a recurrent dystopian fascination that runs right the way through his later and more signature work, from “Cygnet Committee” on his second album and “Saviour Machine” on his third, into the 1984 influence on Diamond Dogs and cyberpunk flavours of 1. Outside, as well as the messianic qualities that would later decorate “Oh You Pretty Things” and his periodic revisits to Major Tom, among many other references. “We are Hungry Men” also stands out for breaching a number of “taboo” subjects (as with the b-sided “London Boys”) as he did again in his early 70s work and the Berlin trilogy (and lots of other places), even though it starts off with Bowie’s best Goon Show impersonation of a German newscaster for a darkly silly intro. The song is remarkably ill-suited for the album, except perhaps as the “telegraph” of his next direction Bowie claimed was found in most of his albums.

We Are Hungry Men

“Join the Gang” is another mismatched-with-the-album’s-theme effort to cover much of the same lyrical ground as “The London Boys,” and “There is a Happy Land” (again a song sung from a child’s perspective) is not the last time he would revisit child-viewpoint or the idea of children as a better class of human than adults. For what is undoubtedly Bowie’s most cringe-worthy attempt at capturing a child’s perspective, please see the non-LP ditty (accompanied by an equally appalling visualisation in Love You Till Tuesday) “When I’m Five,” found on the bonus disc of the reissue. The song has some value in that it appears to be semi-autobiographical (referencing his grandfather’s name, for example) and funny in spots, but it comes off as cloying, precocious and far more ham-fisted than comedian Lily Tomlin’s not-dissimilar “Edith Ann” character.

Which brings us to “Please Mr. Gravedigger,” a non-musical sung soliloquy told from the point of view of a murderer who has killed a child and is watching the gravedigger dig her grave. This is not just bizarre and dark, it gets positively creepy: at mid-point in the piece, the murderer decides he will need to kill the gravedigger as well (to hide evidence of his crime, possibly). It’s just him and some sound effects.

Please Mr Gravedigger (fan-made video)

Bowie would later (very often) claim he usually didn’t know what his own songs were really about, but this one goes right to the heart of his psyche — scarred as it must have been from the tragedy of his mentally-ill half brother Terry — and the history of such problems running through his family tree. Everyone has dark thoughts at times, but most people don’t record and put them on an album, complete with detailed voice and sound effects. This is a singularly-unique diary of some very disturbing ideas, and reminds us that even Bowie’s brightest numbers are often inhabited by oddball and ominous characters — perhaps influenced by Syd Barrett as much as Ray Davies. It’s quite a dark, Edgar Allan Poe-ish ending for a record that, despite its mostly upbeat pop overtones, grapples with a darker side much less gracefully than was seen in Bowie’s later work.

Next up: The Song Machine — the second album

Pye in the Sky: Before the First Album

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David in 1965, spotty face and all

One thing is very clear: David Bowie was, from before he even left Bromley Tech, very determined to do whatever it took to become famous. He and his musical compatriots managed to convince Decca, Parlourphone, and most notably Pye Records that there was something about them — and in particular, him — that deserved a shot at the big time. Although the singles recorded during this early period weren’t too successful, they managed to position Bowie (then just Davy Jones) as a leader and potential star with definite talents in singing (if not quite yet songwriting).

Over the course of six 45rpm singles that came out before he ever landed an album contract, Bowie quickly goes from blatant mimic to testing the waters of his own style. With each release, there’s more of the emerging artist adding his own element to the stew of styles and techniques. Although he goes off in a very different direction for his debut album (for a variety of reasons we’ll explore when the time comes), these early recordings with various bands and his first forays into songwriting were clearly vital in shaping Bowie’s own artistic vision and identifying his strengths.

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Taken as a group, one can say this about Bowie’s earliest recordings: they’re quite derivative, they’re stolen from only the very finest, and they’re quite a bit more fun to listen to than his official first album. This is, really, how one learns songwriting (or painting, or fiction writing, or most other crafts): you start off by aping heavily from your influences, adding your own bit of a twist or stamp on it, and over time the borrowing (usually) recedes to a minimal degree — allowing one’s own personality/talent/originality to fill it in. In Bowie’s case, these first records with his various sidemen-bands (he was always chief songwriter and lead singer in these setups, right from the get-go) show you what he was listening to, as well as why various record companies and industry figures took such an interest in him: he could sing, he could write, and he was obviously growing into a real performer. The only question was when.

He never gave up being the bandleader, he was always most comfortable with his singing talent, and he never stopped borrowing. He was hardly the first artist to get into the spotlight this way, but there is a lot of mash-up and blatant lifting evident in both the early recordings and his later work throughout his entire career — even when the artist he was “borrowing” from was his own younger self, all the way through to “How Does the Grass Grow” from The Next Day — co-credited to The Shadows’ “Apache” writer Jerry Lordan for the direct lift in the chorus, and the song also smuggles in some bits of thematic resemblance to Bowie’s own “Boys Keep Swinging.”

Writer W H Davenport Adams was believed to be the first to say, referring to poets, that great ones “imitate and improve” but lesser poets “steal and spoil” in 1892. This was later reversed by T S Eliot in 1920, who said that “immature” poets borrow, while “great” poets steal. Variations on this thought have been circulating for more than a century, changing “poets” to “artists” — Apple co-founder Steve Jobs often mis-attributed a similar quote to Pablo Picasso. In any event, the pre-first album recordings from Bowie fit Eliot’s version of the idea to a T: he was a good artist, on his way to becoming a great one.

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Ain’t nothing but a hair-hopper!

Sometimes because of how blatantly the influences are on display, and sometimes because of Bowie’s strong performance or the twist he put into his nascent songwriting, most of his singles from before 1968 are highly listenable (if occasionally a bit awkward) and “borrow” from still-recognisable sources — making Bowie’s take on them enjoyable in their own rights. It is nothing short of exciting to hear Bowie start off as a “dedicated follower of fashion” with identifiable role models, and then listen as he starts to branch out, stretch and mash up the forms he has appropriated, and infuse more of his own perspective and personality into budding “original” compositions.

Many sound like they were, if we’re being charitable, written as songs to be sold to other artists, and tailored for them. Our own view is that Mr. Jones — as he was known then — and his record companies thought the fastest way to climb the ladder of show business was to cleverly (or ham-fistedly on occasion) “borrow” and rearrange existing hits into familiar-but-slightly-different new works (not unlike book publishing, let it be noted).

While not completely definitive, the compilation Early On from Rhino Records gathers together most of the early stuff from Davie/Davy (the former sometimes used to distinguish him from that Monkees singer) with the King Bees, The Manish Boys, The Lower Third, and The Buzz. By the time the latter band was formed, Davy Jones was long gone — and David Bowie was now the marquee name, despite the string of flop singles. The failure of these homages to gain chart traction likely led Bowie to be willing to drop the pretense of a backing band, and adopt a completely different, more “cabaret” style under new part-time manager Ken Pitt for his first “real” album later on. That said, the early singles are very noteworthy (and mostly very good) in and of themselves.

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Gathered together as they are in Early On, listeners can really follow the progression of Bowie both as a singer and, later, a songwriter. The single “Liza Jane,” his first record, came out in June 1964 on Decca (who had famously rejected the Beatles) with The King Bees, and was as one might expect very Beatles-influenced — right down to a Lennon/McCartney-esque vocal, with some early Rolling Stones thrown in for seasoning — Bowie later re-recorded this song for the unreleased Toy album in 2000/2001 (which we will get to in a future digression). The b-side, a cover called “Louie Louie Go Home,” is even more of a Beatles homage, including a “woooo” straight off “She Loves You,” which had become a hit single for the Liverpudlians just two months earlier.

Louie Louie Go Home

In this first b-side, we see Bowie throwing in multiple influences, changing the original Paul Revere and the Raiders’ title of “Louie Go Home” to a nod to the Kingsmans’ version of “Louie Louie,” and just flat-out ripping off the “a little bit louder now” call-and-response bit from the 1959 single “Shout” by the Isley Brothers (though more likely Bowie stole it from the Beatles’ performance of the song in May 1964 for a TV special called Around the Beatles). His discerning ear and good taste in what to lift was already apparent.

His next single, for Parlourphone, was a straight up blues-driven R&B number, a cover of Bobby “Blue” Bland’s 1961 single “I Pity the Fool.” It features a nicely smoky vocal from Bowie (going all Mr. T on us), but the song is most notable for its guitar work by a young Jimmy Page. The record is poorly produced, muddying up the nice horn work and, according to former Manish Boy members, eliminating some counter-melody and other complexity from the final mix.

I Pity the Fool / Take My Tip

The b-side here, “Take My Tip,” is Bowie’s first original composition to make it to a record, though ironically US singer Kenny Miller managed to get a cover of the song out on a b-side for one of his own singles a bit before the Manish Boys’ delayed version appeared. Again using Page (this time as a rhythm guitarist), it’s also a derivative R&B type number that is informed and inspired by Georgie Fame’s “Yeh Yeh” — but introduces us to the story-song style Bowie would employ more frequently in his early songwriting, and keep as a colour in his musical palette for decades.

Third single, again for Parlourphone (now with The Lower Third) but released under just “Davy Jones,” was “You’ve Got a Habit of Leaving,” and the a-side’s theme this time was “let’s be like The Who.” The 1965 version features some extremely Who-like guitar freak-outs redolent of the period. Bowie re-recorded this song 36 years later, also for the Toy album. The 2001 version shows off why Bowie liked this one — it’s a real diamond in the rough — and even tacks on an explicit homage to The Who once again on the end of the newer version. The flip side, “Baby Loves That Way,” is so blatantly a faux-Herman’s Hermits number that this reviewer actually guffawed in surprise upon hearing it for the first time. Interestingly, Bowie also re-recorded this song for Toy, slowing it down and making it less obviously Peter Noone-inspired, to the later version’s detriment.

You’ve Got a Habit of Leaving

Baby Loves That Way

Six months later, in January of 1966, we get the fourth single (now billed under the name “David Bowie and the Lower Third” and on Pye): “Can’t Help Thinking About Me” backed with “And I Say to Myself.” It’s a rather self-centred pair of songs, but for this reviewer the pairing amounts to the first full-throated, full-on Bowie single. Again a very Who-inspired number, “Can’t Help” was his first single to make it to the US (on Warner Bros), but like the others didn’t do well. Still, we get a terrific vocal performance with real enthusiasm that rivals the more-established bands he so often aped.

Can’t Help Thinking About Me (1966)

A fantastic 1999 performance of ”Can’t Help Thinking About Me”

The b-side is equally joyous in delivery, though the influence of the day switches to Sam Cooke, with obvious thefts from “What a Wonderful World” and a Righteous Brothers-style arrangement (as noted by Nicholas Pegg in his brilliant The Complete David Bowie, your humble narrator’s top go-to for trivia research). We also get another retread of Bowie’s favourite subject (at this point in his life): a woman who has rejected the hero of the piece. Both songs are wonderful, benefitting greatly from the musical direction and better production of Tony Hatch (best known as the producer-songwriter behind some of Petula Clark’s biggest hits, among many other accomplishments).

And I Say to Myself

The fifth single, again with Hatch but now with The Buzz replacing The Lower Third (but the first single to be credited to just “David Bowie”), was another R&B-style number with a rather Tom Jones-meets-Elvis sort of vocal called “Do Anything You Say,” featuring yet another stolen call-and-response courtesy of The Who. Listened to out of its original mid-60’s context, it’s quite a charismatic number with a bold delivery (albeit lacklustre backing vocals) that still holds its power to thrill.

Do Anything You Say

Even better, the b-side (“Good Morning Girl”) sounds for all the world like a time-traveling song by Swedish garage-rock, late-80s band The Creeps, featuring a bit of scat singing (!) from Bowie. The Creeps (who are definitely worth looking up) were devoted to sounds like this, with the song borrowing styles and phrases from the Spencer Davis Group and other contemporaries, with a bit of Dave Brubeck jazz thrown in for good measure. As Pegg notes, it should have been the a-side; it’s a damn catchy mash-up.

Good Morning Girl

Bowie’s last single for Pye was another milestone: “I Dig Everything” came off as almost original in origin (though very much a product of its time, and marked by some more Georgie Fame borrowing). While it still has that now-trademark Sam Cooke style to it, the song dispenses with most of the soul/R&B trappings, has an interesting story presumably drawn from Bowie’s own life as a bohemian at the time, and a surprisingly much-more-hippie influence than had been previously seen (and wouldn’t been seen again until his second official album). As a forerunner of what was to come after his faux-Newley period, it captures the flavor of 1966 very well indeed. The 2001 Toy sessions’ re-recording of “I Dig Everything” is disappointing by comparison — the “swing” of the song is removed for a slower tempo that slicks up the backing vocals, though the remake retains its hippie flavourings.

I Dig Everything

The b-side of the 1966 single was a fairly forgettable number (“I’m Not Losing Sleep”) that is surprisingly jaunty (and suspiciously “Downtown”-like, being produced again by Hatch) given its rather bitter subject matter, a calling-out of a betrayed friendship. That said, the vocal performance is similar (but much richer and more powerful) to “Do Anything You Say” in terms of presence, and really foreshadows (vocally) the more mature voice he would bring to Ziggy and later efforts. This is the first time Bowie really sounds like a grown man, rather than a college student, even if the lyric itself is embarrassingly juvenile.

I’m Not Losing Sleep

Speaking of bitter, it is no coincidence that this entry covering some of his first recorded works has appeared on the first anniversary of Bowie’s tragic death from complications due to liver cancer. We have no set schedule when future reviews might appear, we will commit to nothing, except that we’ll try to update things often enough that you’ll remember to check back for new entries. As Bowie himself made clear following a decade of relative silence: here we are, not quite dying … and the next day, and the next, and another day …

Next up: Deram a Little Deram With Me — the first album

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PreFace the Strange

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This project is in honour of David Robert Jones, aka David Bowie, and starts today — what should have been his 70th birthday — with a little preamble of what Bowie Base One is all about. What we will do in this space, or try to do at least, is listen to and review his full studio and live album discography — and this will take however long it takes. There could will be a few notable detours; I think he would have liked that.

It is impossible to fully assess the impact this artist had on my life; I’ve tried to put my feelings into words for a year now, and have experienced a rare failure to be sufficiently eloquent for the job. Perhaps it is best to simply say that I happened to be the right age at the right time for exposure to his music and artistry, and that it opened up an entirely new world to me that took me in a very different direction than it would have otherwise on multiple levels — from showmanship to sexuality. It is no exaggeration to say his influence on me throughout my entire pre-teen, teen, and adult life has been profound. His sudden death two days after Blackstar was released, on the 10th of January 2016, was the closest I have ever come to what being hit by lightning must be like, and it too changed me on some deep levels. I am glad to have been alive during most of his residency on this planet, and sorry to have been here for the terrible year which was foretold with his passing.

We’ll continue on the first anniversary of his passing with a look at some of his earliest, pre-first-album material, followed by his official UK albums in order (with notes on deluxe editions and other ephemera). In addition to offering a wealth of great (and sometimes not-that-great) music and visual imagery, the albums and related work also paint a portrait of an artist coming into being, flowering, branching out, exploring his possibilities, combusting, re-inventing, selling out, roaming the wilderness, getting his mojo back, retiring, and eventually surprising us all with a brief second flowering before retiring from this planet.

Few indeed are the artists that offer such a complete timeline of their development, warts and all, across six decades. What we hope to accomplish with this project is to get to see this artistic growth and change in full through this series, as well as enjoy a lot of inventive, commercially-risky, artistically-daring (most of the time), mainstream (sometimes), fascinating (always), and memorable music.

I hope you’ll come along for the ride.

— Charles

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