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.
For 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
“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.
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