If Bowie’s first album was notable for catchy tunes (albeit in an outdated style, with some blended-in quirkiness), what are we to make of his second, also eponymous, album?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.
To 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
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).
That 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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)
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.”
Next time: Wham Bam, Thank You Glam!
Photo credits: Images of Bowie in Beckenham by Ray Stevenson/REX/Shutterstock (563068a and 563056e, respectively).