Smiling and Waving and Looking So Fine: Aladdin Sane (1973)

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It’s a funny follow-up from a hit album, this: stylistically all over the place, but with enough of what people liked about Ziggy that they stayed with it. Bowie wasn’t kidding around when he killed off Ziggy: there’s no overriding concept, no clear “character” (though there is plenty of the drug-and-sex excess of the end-times-rock-star to be found, so it comes off as more of a sort-of continuation of Ziggy), and while the haircut remains the same, the song does not (quite). Speaking of the haircut, it’s moving steadily into “mullet” territory, though amazingly Bowie just about manages to carry that off.

91lAnG7d-bL._SL1500_Bowie’s skill at aping others also rears its head again: having done credible pastiches of Lou Reed and Marc Bolan (among others) on the last album, Aladdin Sane kicks off with an “homage” to the Rolling Stones, “Watch That Man.” It’s a straight-up rave-up designed rather cynically to catch the ear of both radios station programmers (back when humans did that job) as well as fans who climbed on board with Ziggy — not to mention a great way to start off the album.

There are echoes back to “Suffragette City,” and another pointer towards his future backup-singer-heavy “white soul” period. It’s no accident that Bowie is (and this happened only rarely) buried in the mix compared to Ronson’s guitars, Bolder’s bass, Woodmansey’s drums, Bowie’s own sax, and even the backup singers on occasion — reflecting perfectly the style of the Stones at this point in their career. It’s a great little rocker, and good enough that it would have been in “The Rocky Horror Show” if there were any justice in this fallen world. Certainly at least a Tim Curry cover version during Curry’s brief recording career would have been a fine idea.

This is followed by a straight-up psychic anticipation of future Steely Dan in the form of the title track, “Aladdin Sane.” It’s no accident that pop music raconteur Joe Jackson routinely covers both Steely Dan and Bowie on the road: perhaps Bowie had heard Becker and Fagan’s 1972 debut Can’t Buy a Thrill — and drew some ideas from the more piano-dominant songs (as did Elton John, no doubt). Where this song really shines, though, is new pianist Mike Garson’s utterly insane solo; surely one of the most anarchic and brilliant ever committed to vinyl, and his incredibly witty playing throughout the album. The wisdom of this curveball immediately following “Watch That Man” is questionable, but even early Bowie fans must have known that his forte was his unpredictability as much as his fluid sexuality.

I can’t claim to know what Bowie’s actual lyric calls for on the line, but I’ve always believed it was “Paris or maybe Hull,” since that’s funnier than the (probably correct and more widely posted) “Paris or maybe Hell,” as clearly heard in the video above. The song is very interesting, because really it’s quite a bit different than anything Bowie has committed to vinyl up to this point, and as mentioned I think Fagan and Becker were influenced by it in their own development, as it is brilliant jazz-theatre-rock (probably in that order). It’s remarkable to think that this could easily have been (only modestly) re-arranged and fit on Blackstar, 43 years after the fact.

164bff58d7c312dfcbf60985b87158bbThe third track is often hailed as Aladdin Sane’s highlight — and indeed it was one of Bowie’s biggest hits in the UK, rising to #3; it remained unissued as a single in the US, however (RCA choosing “Time” instead, oddly) and as a result did not appear on any of Bowie’s greatest-hits compilations until the 1990s. Although this reviewer prefers “Cracked Actor” as his own favourite track, that song’s explicit balls-out lyric made it unsuitable for commercial release. Thus, it was Bowie’s pastiche/update to the 1950s songs of his youth, “Drive-In Saturday” — which still celebrates sex, but far more subtly through the device of a SF narrative where people have forgotten how to have it — made for a more suitable choice.

The song itself — a fusion of 50s and Sci-Fi featuring some bloopy synth cameos that might remind some people more than a little of Roxy Music — kicks off a series of songs in which Bowie reverts back to his old habit of writing about half to two-thirds of the normally-required lyrics, and just letting the band and various filler yips and exclamations do the rest of the work. Still, it is more than sufficient to fire the imagination, particularly with this incredible band and Ken Scott’s earnest production work. It can be argued that between artists such as Bowie, Elton John, Alice Cooper, and others at the time, rock music — as it’s own form, more distinct from either its blues roots or its progressive/quasi-classical indulgences — never had a better innings than it did in the early 70s.

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You little Wonder, little Wonder you

“Drive In Saturday” is followed with a return to the sort of rock the Ziggy fans were probably looking for, “Panic in Detroit.” This would not have been out of place on The Man Who Sold the World, and this is unsurprising given that it was originally written during the Spiders’ first tour of America, where Bowie saw with his own eyes some of the decadent dystopian vistas he’d been writing about fictionally for years. It’s difficult to understate the impact Bowie’s first run through Nixonland (and it’s yawning chasms between urban and sub-urban lifestyles and incomes) had been on the young artist: the fascination he had for this dichotomy never faded, and so sustained his songwriting that he was still writing about it towards the end of his life, having become a permanent resident of the US and specifically living in the former epicenter of America’s inequalities, New York City. Ironically, over the past few years, Detroit itself has come to portray that role. The song was also said to have been influenced by Bowie’s discovery that a former classmate from Bromley had become a South American drug dealer. Danger and glamour — two things America and Bowie in particular seem to never get enough of.

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“Cracked Actor,” starts off for all the world like a Ziggy song (and is considerably better that some of the substituted songs on that album), and continues the theme of decadence and degradation, ostensibly about a faded film star now reduced to hiring young prostitutes of various sexes for a high based off his former fame. Bowie saw a lot of this in LA, and the song is unusually explicit in being about that particular town. As O’Leary notes, this is yet another half-finished song in Bowie’s repertoire, relying on instrumental vamping and chorus repetition to stretch it out to about double the length of the lyric. It’s is interesting in its use of hard, short, words in its chorus (notably “suck,” but also “crack” and “smack”), and probably one of the most debauched of his official singles. Ironically, the title was later used for a documentary about how LA later corroded Bowie himself just a couple of years later; illustrating the lesson that if you get too close to the flame, you get burned.

The album then lurches all the way back to early Bowie cabaret style for the opener of Side Two and the intro to “Time,” though the lyrics quickly return to the sexual obsessions and the band eventually comes in to steer the song away from self-parody and back into the tributary of anthemic rock ballad. The lyric is, frankly, dumb and messy (albeit strong on visual imagery), and the “chorus,” such as it is, is quite unconventional in structure. Despite this, it is quite catchy — perhaps due to the singalong nature of the repeated verses, augmented by some powerful trading-off between Ronson’s guitar runs and Garson’s variety of piano tricks and counterpoints. Despite being something of a mess, it is at least a *hot* mess. One could easily see Queen covering this (and quite possibly doing a better job, save for Garson’s contributions).

The really brilliant bit is Bowie’s sudden and somewhat seductive heavy breathing during an unexpected break in the second verse; this and some of the hidden connections in the lyrics, along with the anthemic chorus of “We should be on by now,” lift what would have been a pretentious tone-poem into a rock-n-roll-star triumph, nonwithstanding the limp and mullet-besotten “1980 Floor Show” version, which must be seen to be believed.

Thus, we arrive at the misplaced-but-finally-appearing-on-an-album “The Prettiest Star,” done in a distinctly corrupted 50s arrangement that works better than the original single (but lacks Marc Bolan on electric lead guitar, as the earlier version has). The first release of the song, from early 1970, flopped as a follow-up to “Space Oddity” quite spectacularly — it sold fewer than 800 copies (originally backed with “Conversation Piece,” a Space Oddity holdover). Possibly Bowie thought the remade version would get a second shot at single status, or perhaps (as some believe) it was another attempt to reconcile with the song’s true subject, Bolan himself.

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NOT his best hair day …

Whether Bowie really wrote the song about Angela or Marc, there was clearly something more than just the whitewashing excuse of “creative rivals” going on there — “Lady Stardust” was originally titled “Song for Marc,” and Bolan was known for having a larger-than-life ego which Bowie, for all his excesses and periodic cold calculations, lacked. There was certainly a fascination with Bolan, at the very least, on David’s part, and I can’t help but think there was a bit more to it with these two than has ever really been let on — though exactly what that entails is, even to my mind, ill-defined.

At the start of this review I mentioned how much “Watch That Man” was made in the mold of The Rolling Stones of the day, and as if to prove the point that he can do the Stones better than the Stones can, the next track — “Let’s Spend the Night Together” — is a straight-up (or gay-up, if you believe some interpreters) version of Keith Richard’s suggestive single. Bowie’s take, which is faster and delivered more confidently than Jagger’s original and more hopeful version, was considered so well-done that the Stones themselves took to performing it in the Bowie style on future tours. On Aladdin Sane, it comes off more as a (well-chosen) filler track, following a remake of “Prettiest Star,” as though Bowie had run out of material (when in fact he hadn’t — as with Ziggy, Bowie discarded some original pieces he felt didn’t fit and replaced them with these fill-ins).

david-bowie-in-la-1Still, almost as though asking for direct comparison, Bowie runs back to his faux-VU style to top his Stones cover with one of his own, and one of the best blues-rockers he ever did, “Jean Genie.” The whole band really comes together on this one, with bassist Bolder acknowledging the song’s origins as a Bo Diddley riff (from “I’m a Man”) by simply playing the original’s bass line. Ronson and Woodmansley keep close to the riff, allowing Bowie’s Reed-esque rhyming rap free range (and an interesting use of emphasis, with Bowie tending to lean on the penultimate syllable in each line rather than the last one).

The song was, ironically, one of the first to be written for the album, and was acknowledged by Bowie to be about a lightly-factionalized version of Iggy Pop. Cyrinda Foxe, a sometime-girlfriend of Bowie’s he apparently saw a lot of on the *Ziggy* 1972– 73 US tour, can be seen as the dancer in Mick Rock’s promo film for the song, and Bowie is said to have written the lyrics in that style largely to entertain her as he was building up the song from the Diddley riff, inspired by a jam session with his band that happened on the bus heading to yet another city in the vast expanse of America.

The album concludes with “Lady Grinning Soul,” another change-up that switches into ballad mode. Garson’s piano brilliance returns with a vengeance, and Bowie’s vocal and the arrangement strongly suggest a movie’s closing title, or even a James Bond theme (as O’Leary correctly notes). The subject of the song is said to be the same subject as that of the Stones’s “Brown Sugar” — singer Claudia Lennear — who must have been an extraordinary woman indeed to foster such great songs about her. O’Leary also notes that this song was the last written and recorded for the album, and replaced another number about a woman not Bowie’s wife, “John, I’m Only Dancing.” Given that Bowie was fooling around with Cyrinda Foxe — and apparently others — on his American tour, if this album has a theme, it would be adultery and Stones homage, sprinkled with Glam and Americana in liberal doses.

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For reasons never to be explained, Bowie loved doing this gesture. As did every eight-year-old afterwards.

Thanks to Ronson and Garson, along with the clever use of harmonica and the wholesale homages to both the Stones and the source of many of their own songs (Bo Diddley), the whole thing works very well. Many have seen it as a lesser album than the (very slightly) more unified work of Ziggy, by in fact Aladdin Sane is also a terrific and versatile rock record, varying up the glam-rock tempos while including enough lyrical sex-imagery and salacious riffage to keep the hard-rockers satisfied. Although “Aladdin” could (and was) seen as a different character to Ziggy, Bowie himself saw it more a development of the “postmodern rock star” Ziggy was designed to be. He once referred to the album simply as “Ziggy in America.”

It would be fair to say that it is Bowie’s most superficial record, concerned as it almost exclusively is with sex, but it includes some of his best songs from this period of his career as well, and is at least as essential as Ziggy in our view. The album art, however — featuring Bowie’s most iconic portrait, particularly since his death — was described by Rock as “The Mona Lisa of album covers,” and frankly the shoe fits. The lightning-bolt makeup has inspired countless others, even reaching all the way into the (much smaller) version seen on Harry Potter’s forehead (oh yes Ms. Rowling, we see you back there). Although seen in the UK music press as somewhat weaker and shallower than Ziggy, Aladdin nevertheless went to the top of the charts in the UK, and reached number 17 in the US — Bowie’s best outing to date — and eventually sold some 4.6 million copies, making it one of his best sellers ever.

DAVID_BOWIE_ALADDIN+SANE+-+30TH+ANNIVERSARY+EDITION-250754For this review, we used the 1999 EMI/Virgin version of the album, remastered by Peter Mew but keeping close to Ken Scott’s original production (just updated for modern systems more than anything else). If you’re into contemporaneous bonus tracks, the 2003 EMI/Virgin “30th Anniversary” release is the one you want, as it has the 1999 version but also includes an entire second disc of single versions (including the non-LP “John,” and a mono mix of “All the Young Dudes”), along with four live tracks from Boston Music Hall and one track from the Santa Monica gig later that same month, as well as one previously-unreleased live track from a Cleveland show that happened a month later. There is also a 40th anniversary release of the album proper (no bonus tracks), featuring a new remaster from AIR studios, but we’ve not had a chance to compare it to our 1999 version.

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

30 years on …

… and I am still discovering cool bands from the early 80s I knew nothing about!

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