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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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