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From The Beginning: David Bowie – The Man Who Sold The World (1970-71)

Essentials of the Era
Unwashed and Somewhat Slightly Dazed” – BBC
Width of a Circle
All The Madmen
The Man Who Sold The World
The Supermen

Starting in 1970, David Bowie locked into an album-a-year rhythm he would maintain for nearly the entire decade as he left behind his more folk-influenced sound on Space Oddity and prepped material for The Man Who Sold The World. With this increased pace come necessarily briefer album cycles – Bowie would be on to the next era of material even before the final singles from this LP were released.

The Man Who Sold The World frequently gets lost between retrospective adoration for “Space Oddity” (not so big of a success at the time) and the three-album glam hits-capade that began with “Changes” from Hunky Dory. This marooned album had no terrific singles of its own. Nirvana did more to promote “Man Who Sold” as a song than Bowie did in the period. The period also occupies a peculiar sonic territory, with Bowie’s pre-Spiders band more interested in sounding heavy than glamrous despite Mick Ronson’s membership in both lineups.

The result is that most latter-day Bowie fans don’t know the music from this era especially well. That makes a deep dive into it all the more interesting … and challenging! This took me over a week to digest despite already having a familiarity with the LP.

bowie-1970Before The Man Who Sold The World

This era begins during the last: Bowie made his first appearance with The Man Who Sold band on the BBC on February 5, 1970, as he was still promoting singles from his second self-titled album.

This appearance was a full-length concert, though only about half those tracks are readily available today. Opener “Amsterdam” by Jacques Brel would later be recored on Pin Ups. Here, Bowie attacks it with verve, first singing in a fine theatrical baritone, but gradually growing more frenzied along with the acoustic guitar that drives the track. It’s not as though any of us are at risk of forgetting Bowie was a theatrical nerd (especially with his many alter-egos looming ahead) but it’s fun to think about how surprising this performance may have been to fans of the day. The host certainly seems a bit shocked by it.

“God Knows I’m Good” is less Dylanesque here than on Space Oddity, but its refrain is less indelible. The next sequence is lost – “Buzz The Fuzz,” “Karma Man,” “London Bye Ta Ta” and “An Occasional Dream.” We pick back up with the first of The Man Who tracks, “The Width Of A Circle.” This is a fascinating early glimpse into the track, which would grow to be impenetrable on the album. Stripped to its acoustic trappings it’s much more driving, but Bowie isn’t quite up to the howling vocal here. He warbles and cracks on the higher notes.

We then skip “Janine” and “Wild Eyed Boy From Freecloud” for a vicious version of “Unwashed And Somewhat Slightly Dazed.” Here, the lower-fi sound of the radio session focuses the track’s fury beneath Bowie’s practiced vocal. Unfortunately, there’s no remaster of “Fill Your Heart” or “The Prettiest Star” – both would be fascinating. We do get a sprawling, eight-minute version of “Cygnet Committee” that’s perhaps a bit slighter than the album cut. Bowie’s highs are not as a clear, and his lows not as resonant. Finally, the show ends with “Memory of a Free Festival,” here just prior to its release as a single. However, this is more like the LP version than the fascinating single mix, with unadorned organ until the “sun machine refrain.” (A final take on “Waiting For The Man” is not collected.)

On the whole this session is unremarkable. Bowie is not in his finest voice, and “Unwashed and Somewhat Slightly Dazed” is the only song strong enough to leave a lasting impression. Indeed, it is the band unleashed on “Unwashed” that seems to best presage the heft of the impending LP despite being still months out from its recording.

The band would return a little over a month later, already fused into a more metal stomp. They show it off on a pulsing version of “Waiting For The Man” with nothing of Lou Reed’s strut (which gets a little weary by the close). Mick Ronson, in particular, is in strong form. “Width of a Circle” has grown hugely in the intervening month. Bowie’s vocal is massive and confident, and Visconti and Woodmansey are beginning to lock into the riffing and fills that would appear on the LP without overdoing them. The song had yet to grow its epic tale of gods and demons (more on that below), so this isn’t really a definitive take on it. A plain electric guitar version of “Wild Eyed Boy From Freecloud” feels out of place even after the band kicks in after the “really you and really me” refrain.

The Man Who Sold The World – Released November 4, 1970

The original UK cover.

The original UK cover.

This might be a weird statement to make about a David Bowie record, but I find it hard to enjoy The Man Who Sold The World because so much of it feels insincere.

When is David Bowie ever really being sincere? He’s not known for his confessional lyrics, that’s for sure. Yet, I would propose there is an inherent honesty and weight in how he portrays many of his fantastic characters with real emotion. They matter to him, so they matter to us. Here, Bowie’s narrative creations feel like nothing more than window dressing to a squalling live band of Mick Ronson, Tony Visconti, and Mick Woodmansey, with Ralph Mace on synthesizers.

The band rocks hard – as hard as anything in Bowie’s catalog until Tin Machine. They lean into a prog-rock, proto-metal sound on this disc that isn’t so far from early Black Sabbath, doubling down on the vibe of the heaviest cuts from Space Oddity. It all sounds terrifically heavy under Visconti’s production, but it isn’t a terrific fit for a fey young Bowie who famously appears on the LP’s cover in an ornate dress. The band’s driving sound leaves little room for Bowie’s flights of lyrical fancy. His vocals are often pushed to their most shrill rock belt, with none of the cutting nasal tone he would use in the Ziggy era.

Opener “Width of a Circle” shows off both the heaviness and the weakness of the band. After an appropriately circular opening riff played by all of the members together they explode! Each of them plays amazing, memorable fills, especially Visconti on bass, yet at points the song sounds like a competition between band members. Bowie’s allegorical lyrics make for fantastical prog rock, but they come off as lightweight nonsense as they compete for attention amongst the arrangement.

Those lyrics bear a deeper examination. After a crackling Ronson solo they reveal a journey to self-understanding that leads Bowie to fall into hell, entwined in near-sexual writhing with a demon god like Gandalf and the Balrog.

He swallowed his pride and puckered his lips
And showed me the leather belt round his hips
My knees were shaking my cheeks aflame
He said “You’ll never go down to the Gods again”
(Turn around, go back!)

He struck the ground a cavern appeared
And I smelt the burning pit of fear
We crashed a thousand yards below
I said “Do it again, do it again”
(Turn around, go back!)

His nebulous body swayed above
His tongue swollen with devil’s love
The snake and I, a venom high
I said “Do it again, do it again”
(Turn around, go back!)

It almost feels as though Bowie is apologizing for his fantastical vision by dressing it in such hard-rocking trappings. The song feels overlong at four minutes before we even get to the passage above. And it, the song’s most passionate moment, isn’t rendered with the same ferocity as the opening – it’s dressed with an almost-silly boogie blues when it should have been the peak of volcanic riffing.

The result is something fascinating but unbalanced, like a beautiful sword carried at the hip of a king that is not meant to be unsheathed in battle.

It’s easy to tag these excesses on “Width of a Circle” because “All The Madman” treads the same sonic ground with care and precision. It feels like a tidier version of Space Oddity‘s “The Cygnet Committee.” A dirge-like introduction is ferried by a cymbal ride and mellotron flourishes into thunderous mid-tempo rock complete with a harmonic guitar solo. Here, the band never swallows their leader. Bowie nearly sighs, “Don’t set me free … ’cause I’d rather stay here with all the madmen.” This is Bowie both genuine and surprising melancholy, as our narrator admits it’s better to be crazy and glad than sane and sad outside in the real world. This resigned madness is a familiar Bowie emotion. It’s conveyed perfectly here even as the song descends into chanting French gibberish at its close.

What has become the official and most widely-known cover of The Man Who Sold The World.

What has become the official and most widely-known cover of The Man Who Sold The World.

At this point, the album seems to be doing something significant and singular. In the span of two songs and ten minutes, Bowie has broken ground on themes of self, sexuality, and sanity, and he’s makes it sound particularly heavy while retaining his signature acoustic base.

Neither the sound nor the themes persist in the middle section of the record. This vast, doughy middle of insincerity is the core of my struggle with this album.

“Black Country Rock” is similar to the American rock sound of “Janine” from Space Oddity. It’s a little lankier, with more swagger. The band sounds sure and limber, the guitar tone is devilishly piercing, and there is a grin behind Bowie’s delivery (especially in the third verse, as he imitates Marc Bolan). You can imagine the alternate history of this heavy metal incarnation of Bowie growing alongside Black Sabbath and Led Zeppelin.

This jagged arrangement had the power to speak more about the joys of madness, but it’s comprised of just one verse that feels more like an interesting collection of interesting sounds than a distinct a song (“Pack a pack horse up and rest up here”).

A later incarnation of Bowie could turn “After All” something remarkable. With a heavier swing it could be a pint-swaying drinking song. A more menacing arrangement would give it a seething, sinister bent. Without that drive it’s overburdened by its clumsy lyrics, like: “I sing with impertinence, shading impermanent chords, with my words.” This is the wordy, self-conscious Bowie of the prior two albums. The balance between Bowie’s low baritone and falsetto isn’t right, as it would be later on work like “Golden Years.” Instead, it sounds comedic.

“After All” closed the A-Side of the album on a pessimistic note. Paired with “Saviour Machine” as the opener of the B-Side, it feels that Bowie is already issuing a gentle rebuke of the free love, carefree feeling of “Memory of a Free Festival.” He even draws a direct parallel to the free-floating white balloon and sun machine party of “Festival”:

We’re painting our faces and dressing in thoughts from the skies,
From paradise
But they think that we’re holding a secretive ball.
Won’t someone invite them
They’re just taller children, that’s all, after all

The B-Side of the album holds up a mirror to the A, starting with missteps before approaching the more remarkable material. “Running Gun Blues” is an unfortunate mess. We find the band in tight form as on “Black Country Rock,” but Bowie squealing a lumpy story of a Vietnam soldier gone berserk. It feels more like a political version of the silliness from David Bowie than a contemporary of the rest of this material. It’s also one of his weakest vocals. “She Shook Me Cold” is a wheezing knockoff of “Whole Lotta Love.” It’s catchy and might have been a deserving single, but hopelessly flimsy compared to the rest of the album.

The band fights against (or, amongst) itself less on the similarly overwrought “Savior Machine.” Bowie joins them in working himself into a froth with operative baritone vocals on the refrain, filled with wide swaths of vibrato. It is altogether so grand it feels like a years-early outtake of the Orwellian Diamond Dogs (“You can’t stake your lives on a Saviour Machine”), but it also returns to the themes of logic versus madness of the opening duo of songs.

When the droning, three-note riff of “The Man Who Sold The World” cuts the air it’s immediately apparent that we’ve arrived at something very different. It’s not only notable for being the title cut of the disc or the song later made as famous as any other Bowie original. It stands apart from the rest of the LP sonically, as well. It’s by far the lightest cut on the disc. The elements feel as though they would be a better fit on the prior LP, although they form a gestalt moreso than the arrangements on either Space Oddity or this release. The almost-lounge vibe of brushed drums, guiro, and acoustic guitar, the phased effect on the vocal, the laser-fine electric guitar tone – each is distinct in the mix, yet they don’t compete for attention as the band’s playing does elsewhere on the disc.

There’s also the subject matter of a benevolent post-messiah – a god amongst men who chose to depose himself:

I spoke into his eyes
I thought you died alone, a long long time ago

Oh no, not me, I never lost control
You’re face to face With The Man Who Sold The World

The cover was reissued when Bowie's dress was considered too risque. Despite clearly being from the next era, this cover remained the one in circulation until the 90s!

The cover was reissued when Bowie’s dress was considered too risque. Despite clearly being from the next era, this cover remained the one in circulation until the 90s!

The message is intriguing. Instead of heavy metal wrestling with gods and logic, instead we casually meet a man who gave everything away with a natural ease. As he shares a conspiratorial handshake with the narrator, he seems to pass something else along with his firm grip – a certain electricity, yes, but also a sense of connectedness. Now the singer understands, and the final chorus reflects that with the revision to “we never lost control.” There will be no wagers on messianic machines or battles of logic with gods. The easiest thing to do is to give it all away so you can never lose your grip.

If there is a suggestion of a glimpsing a past life in “Man Who Sold The World,” it is the “The Supermen” that expands on that lost history. It is one of Bowie’s most straight-up fantasies of all time, on par with “Wild Eyed Boy From Freecloud.” It neatly matches with the engorged god he wrestles in “Width of a Circle,” as he describes a lost race of lumbering gods policing the Earth.

The “strange games they were playing” evokes for me the images of Plato’s Symposium, later put to song in Bowie descendant Hedwig and the Angry Inch. The ominous chanted backing vocals, throbbing bass, and tom-heavy drumming perfectly evokes massive feet trundling across the earth. Yet, even as Ronson unleashes a storm of distorted electric guitar, Bowie’s vocal floats above it – the mix favors him, and he’s singing in a lower and more powerful range than elsewhere on the LP. Bowie slowly climbs a scale above the lumbering rhythm section and deluge of guitar until the apex, a distinctive howl on “a supergod cries!”

There is no rule in music that you must write songs that form a cycle, or even that sound like they belong together. Bowie would later master this art, and here we witness his discovery of it. So how does this album not succeed in its mission? In aggregate, it is the sound of Bowie not at the controls of his own destiny, which is a mode that he’d repeat only sparingly during the rest of his career. Indeed, writing on the era emphasizes his disconnection absenteeism from the studio. That’s at odds with the consummately prepared technician Bowie we’d see for the rest of the 70s.

It isn’t surprising, then, that Bowie’s band is so often in the spotlight here – and, not in a way he would later encouraged in his songwriting. It’s as though he had some portion of a vision for where the record could go but couldn’t quite fulfill his own lofty goal. That is how this album lacks in sincerity – it doesn’t feel whole.

Even if I consider the effort to be a net failure, an ineffable magic remains. Bowie broke ground here that he would continue to mine for forty years more. There is still the title cut, still that fey image of Bowie on the cover, still his evolving philosophic opinion of big brother versus free will and the disaster that lies in wait on either side of the spectrum. There are still gods who are men later in Bowie’s career, but that parting shot of “a supergod dies” is something we would never see again – Bowie retiring a race of elder gods to shift his focus to the kind of gods who we could see, touch, and fuck.

“Holy, Holy” b/w “Black Country Rock” – Released January 15, 1971

bowie-holyholyFirst, note that the “Holy, Holy” generally associated with CD releases of The Man Who Sold The World is actually a later recording from 1971 that was released as a Diamond Dogs B-Side.

As for the original 1971 single, two things are obvious: why it was chosen over album cuts and why it was not a hit. Considering hardly anything on the disc had a proper chorus, there weren’t many other options for singles. On the other hand, this song is a mess.

Here the band doubles down on the confusion of “Width of a Circle.” Everyone sounds as though they are playing a different style of song without listening to the others. The bass suggests a chugging four-on-the-floor rhythm while the drums sketch a military march. The electric guitar mostly follows Bowie’s vocal, while the acoustic has a sort of Flamenco flourish to it. Bowie sings in his penetrating higher range and here is a peculiar pattern of lines growing higher and higher before the melody drops on the chorus hook.  Somehow it both gallops and drags.

This is an interesting indicator of Bowie’s demos of the period. Altogether, it has a very Ziggy mid-album feel to it, and not just for the “lie lie lie” refrain’s similarity to “Starman.” In fact, he was already penning much of the Ziggy material, but he hadn’t worked out the magic Spiders formula for the songs. This is evident on the impending Arnold Corn material, as well.

“Moonage Daydream” b/w “Hang On to Yourself” by Arnold Corns – Released May 17, 1971

bowie-arnorld-corns

Pictured here is Freddi Buretti, Bowie’s friend and fashion designer, who was feted as the lead singer of this imaginary band.

In a bit of slight-of-hand, Bowie circumvented some label woes by launching a mysterious parallel glam act, Arnold Corns, which was actual his own band with him playing hype man. Not so different than the Ziggy Stardust formula, if you think about it. He gifted this act with two of the best Ziggy-era deep cuts, “Moonage Daydream” and “Hang On to Yourself.”

Neither had developed into their future indelible versions. “Moonage Daydream” doesn’t even have many of its final lyrics intact, and Bowie sings it all in a howling legato that has none of the deadpan sexiness of the final version. The song is primarily acoustic save for the solo, which alternates with each verse instead of it coming before a final refrain. There is no epic Mick Ronson finale.

“Hang On to Yourself” is similarly neutered by odd performances choices, though it’s much closer to its final form than “Moonage.” Crazy to thing that if Bowie hadn’t pressed on through Hunky Dory and gained some notoriety that these might be the only two versions of these songs we know – especially considering that the Ziggy version of “Moonage Daydream” is one of my favorite songs of all time!

The famous acoustic piano demo of “Lady Stardust” which later appeared on reissues of Ziggy Stardust may also originate in this era. It’s remarkable how fully-formed it is, perhaps owing to the gestalt of piano arrangement rather than contributions of the band.

(Some Bowie biographers would argue with my placement of this single, as Bowie didn’t commit any Ziggy material to demo until after the promotional cycle of Man Who Sold The World. However, it occupies a space of uncertainty between his record contracts, before there was certainty of Hunky Dory being committed to record, and was recorded before any Hunky Dory material was debuted live on the BBC. For my purposes, it slightly predates the formal start of the glam era, rather than kicking it off.)

Other Material

bowie-1970-haddonhallAn early demo of “The Supermen” is not as ominous, with incongruous peals of electric guitar solo, while a demo of “All The Madmen” is huge and hard-rocking – nearly verbatim to the LP. The mono single of “Madmen” is a bit of a mess, showing how importing the transition to stereo was to Bowie’s emerging sound.

“Lightning Frightening” is a acoustic sketch included on some reissues of Sold The World that could have gone in the direction of “Black Country Rock,” but it was recorded along with Hunky Dory material.

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I came away from this critical listen with a much deeper appreciation of this LP, and a tendency to sing “Black Country Rock” on loop for hours on end. Even if I’m not a major supporter of this period of Bowie’s early work, I can concede how important it was for his future – both sonically, and in helping him gain some traction in the American market. In a career of transformations, the wake of this era lead Bowie to undergo one of biggest reinventions and most-prolific periods.

That means I’ll have plenty to talk about in my next post, where I focus on a lifelong favorite, Hunky Dory.

From The Beginning: David Bowie – David Bowie AKA Space Oddity (1969-70)

Essentials of the Era
“Space Oddity”
“Unwashed and Slightly Dazed”
“Wild Eyed Boy From Freecloud”
“Memory of a Free Festival part 1” (single version)
“London, Bye, Ta-Ta” (unreleased)

This is the third in a series of posts following my listen to David Bowie’s entire catalog from beginning to end. Last time, I listened to Bowie’s treacly full-length debut and discovered several gems (that were not on the album).

David Bowie’s 1969 had an auspicious start – while he recorded an ambitious promotional video to try to generate new label interest he simultaneously ended a serious relationship (perhaps during the actual filming). However, it was something that had happened just before those events that would define his year and even his entire career.

That something was his penning a song called “Space Oddity.”

Before Space Oddity – Early 1969

bowie_1969Early demos of “Space Oddity” from spring of 1969 show it had all the fine skeletal structure that makes it an arresting performance even today – the countdown, the layered “ground control” vocals, the drifting out in a tin can, and the extended break. A notable early demo features a live duo performance with Bowie handling the countdown himself. Yet, this was admittedly another curio – a gimmick song coinciding with increasing attention on the space race. Just as Bowie’s debut album couldn’t be shaped entirely around the theme of a giddy gnome, “Space Oddity” wouldn’t set the theme for the rest of its record.

After the recording of the LP but shortly before its release, Bowie appeared on the BBC for a three-song set. Only “Unwashed and Somewhat Dazed” saw radio play at the time, although its the other two songs that saw later release on Bowie At The Beeb.

“Unwashed” has a similar feel to “Space Oddity” to start with the major-to-minor strumming and chiming high electric guitars. It transforms into something much heavier as the band enters, thanks to a big, rubbery bass and heavy drumming. There is not an obvious hook, but it’s more enjoyable than the entirety of his debut. “Let Me Sleep Behind You” is more driven than the original, but the beat pushes past the distinct melodic hooks on the “let your hair hang down / wear the dress your mother wore” refrain. “Janine” has an southern-rock feel to it, with Bowie even effecting an American accent.

The sound was much hipper than Bowie’s previous incarnation. The band still had not found any special alchemy together, despite their time in the studio.

“Space Oddity” b/w “Wild Eyed Boy From Freecloud” – Released July 11, 1969

Bowie_SpaceOdditySingle“Space Oddity” is a singularly peculiar song. Everything from it’s slow fade up and wheezing stylophone, to its measured countdown leading to liftoff, to it’s insistent lack of choruses. David Bowie told many fantastical stories in the songs of his debut LP with Deram, but none so dramatic or immediate as this one. It’s the little touches, like the love to his wife and the oscillating flutes behind the “sitting in a tin can refrain.”

It also had the great fortune to see release less than two weeks before man first set foot on the moon. After a series of failed singles and a flop of an album, David Bowie was finally gaining notice on another song that could be accused of being a novelty, though this one thankfully did not include laughing gnome. While the song was not a hit in the US, it reached the top five in the UK.

The B-Side is an early acoustic guitar and cello take on the fantastical “Wild Eyed Boy From Freecloud.” It’s missing its first verse and orchestra to truly set its scope and drama, but this version (long unearthed until the Sound+Vision box set) is simply an astounding performance. I’d hold up Bowie’s “really you, really me” refrain here as one of his finest vocals of all time, and the cello has many intricate little passes to suggest the motion of the later version.

David Bowie AKA Space Oddity – Released November 4, 1969

For as many people who know “Space Oddity” today, few have heard another song from David Bowie’s redebut, which was later rechristened in name of its one hit – more massive in later years than it had been at the time.

The only other single from the album is the peculiar “Memory of a Free Festival,” which bookends the disc with “Space Oddity.”  It starts dirge-like, thrumming on a lone electric organ, perhaps an elegiac memory of the recent-passed summer of love.

We claimed the very source of joy ran through
It didn’t, but it seemed that way
I kissed a lot of people that day

Oh, to capture just one drop of all the ecstasy that swept that afternoon
To paint that love upon a white balloon
And fly it from the toppest top of all the tops
That man has pushed beyond his brain
Satori must be something
just the same

bowie-space-oddityIn a tangle of noise, a refrain emerges: “The Sun Machine is Coming Down, and We’re Gonna Have a Party.” Eventually a chorus of voices swallow Bowie’s vocal until it disappears, and all that is left is the chorus, a fuzz bass, and a ponderous drum beat, which too fade until we are back to Bowie himself beating on his tiny toy organ.

It’s weird, evocative, and remarkable in almost the exact same way as “Space Oddity” despite the two songs having nearly nothing in common other than appearing on the album together. Both are perfect frames to peer through at a specific person and place, even though this one does not have a character or even tell a story. Despite not being very interesting or catchy up until the refrain, it is distinct and memorable.

This is the unique power that Bowie had found, seemingly from the ether, in the two years since his last release. While that album is full of story songs, none of them set a precedent for the sudden raw power of Bowie’s inventive song structures and arranging. What might we credit for this transformation? Was it simply the music that surrounded Bowie in the popular culture of the day? Was it his future wife Angela? The team at Mercury Records? Did he “Join the Gang” he warned us about on that last record, merrily running alongside “London Boys” until he was ragged and sick from the pills?

The album that stands between those two songs is fascinating because that very identity struggle is on display across its length. Bowie vacillates between respectable young man, member of an art movement, and an untrustworthy longhair. He takes that last role on the would-be single, “Unwashed and Slightly Dazed.” It’s a scorcher – a bluesy stomp about stalking around the house of a pretty upper-class girl. It begins disguised as another “Space Oddity” with minor chords abuzz on Bowie’s twelve-string, but once a pretty girl looks down her nose at Bowie it explodes into rock.It blends in themes of class warfare with hallucinogenic imagery. “Unwashed” wears the vocal stamp of Dylan, the contemporary influence of the Stones, and could neatly serve as prelude to Jethro Tull’s tramp in “Aqualung” two years later.

I’m a phallus in pigtails
And there’s blood on my nose
And my tissue is rotting
Where the rats chew my bones
And my eye sockets empty
See nothing but pain
I keep having this brainstorm
About twelve times a day
So now, you could spend the morning walking with me, quite amazed
As I’m Unwashed and Somewhat Slightly Dazed

There is more poetry and sheer lusty power in a single verse of this song than on Bowie’s entire last album, so it can be for an over three-minute funk breakdown that inexplicably brings in a breakdown horns by the end. It’s hard to believe no one pushed for it as a single.

“Letter To Hermione” is a folk song with a slight jazz influence that feels more of a piece with Joni Mitchell’s Clouds, released the same year. The theme of an unrequited love letter might have fit better on Bowie’s debut, but the texture of multiple acoustic guitars adds new depth to Bowie’s repertoire. It’s unfortunate that he acquires a frog in his throat at the midway point, as prior to that it’s one of his prettiest vocals. Despite lacking a traditional hook, the refrain of “I’m not sure what I’m supposed to do” clings after each listen.

“Cygnet Committee” is Bowie going full 1969, with backwards guitar. It starts out a soundalike to “Dear Prudence,” with a stepwise descending bass with a a tremendous vocal performance from Bowie. Yet, this isn’t another love letter, nor is it a lusty blues. This is one of Bowie’s first dystopian song stories (“As a love machine lumbers through desolation rows, plowing down man, woman, listening to its command, but not hearing anymore”), complete with an uplifting ending refrain that presages “Rock’n’Roll Suicide.” It still stands as one of his most complex epics. Unfortunately, the ring of adolescent petulance still clings – it reads like the spiteful goodbye letter to an ungrateful school club (and, in fact, was likely about Bowie’s disillusionment with the Beckenham Arts Laboratory he helped to found). Yet, there’s just not enough fuel for this one – the petulant lyrics in its buildup deflate what should be a victorious ascending climax emerging from the serpentine structure spread across its nine-minute length.

The one other fine specimen here is “Wild Eyed Boy From Freecloud,” which finds Bowie in his fantastical mode from “When I Love My Dream” on his debut. Yet, this song is not just a neutered love song, but a fantasy epic of its own about a messianic young boy who is embraced by nature just as his village rejects him. It is magnificent in scope, switching from orchestral Disney to rock, stopping for a carton-climax worth refrain of “It’s really me, really you and really me.”

“Freecloud” could easily be expanded into its own rock opera – there’s enough content there for an entire album. In fact, it’s eerily similar to “Ziggy Stardust.” Sure, Ziggy didn’t live in a Henson-esque fantasy world, but he was another of Bowie’s messiah figures who was briefly a savior until the kids consumed him and his sweet hands were crushed. Bowie simple switched the fantasy to sci-fi and brought his fictional Christ to down to earth – plus squeezed him into a traditional AABAB song structure.

Among the chaff is “Janine,” not transformed much from its BBC material; the sappy, flute-tinged “An Occasional Dream;” and a Dylan-influenced, finger-picked protest-song “God Knows I’m Good” (“the cash machines were shrieking on the counter”). These weaker songs are the puzzle of this album, and not just for their weakness. You can feel Bowie trying to find his voice, and these songs are remnants of some in-between phase we missed – the one that swallowed up his lovely “Let Me Sleep Beside You.”

There was probable one good folk-tinged rock album in Bowie in this time period – one that gave context to “God Knows I’m Good,” where “Letter To Hermoine” could be a rightful centerpiece, and where “Janine” could have teed up the meltdown of “Unwashed and Slightly Dazed” on the follow-up record. That might have been an album that yielded great commercial success – but we all had the misfortune to miss it.

It’s probably better for his career that we got this instead, an uneven album dotted with weird narrative monsters that feel doubly strange when held against the slighter songs in their midst.

bowie-the-prettiest-star“The Prettiest Star” b/w “Conversation Piece” – Released March 6, 1970

There are several intriguing elements of this single. First, it’s not on the album – having been recorded in January 1970. Second, it features Marc Bolan of T-Rex on lead guitar. Third, this version of the song is not the one you’re thinking of – most Bowie fans are familiar with the version from Aladdin Sane. This early version is too disarmingly pretty, with its twinkling chimes, compared with the more sour-sounding later version. Still, the fine quality of Bowie’s songwriting shows through – this cannot be compared to anything on his debut, or even the more forgettable songs on Space Oddity.

B-Side, “Conversation Piece” is a stumbling monologue that would have felt more at home on the prior album.

“Memory of a Free Festival Part 1” b/w “Memory of a Free Festival Part 2” – Released June 12, 1970

In a peculiar move, Bowie’s record company passed over “Unwashed and Slightly Dazed” to have Bowie re-recored this odd pick of a single. I can’t help but think they had become enamored with the idea of him as a gimmick singer at this point, although that begs the question why they didn’t run with “Wild Eyed Boy From Free Cloud” (and then from there directly to the bank).

Granted, this recording carries a bit more structure and kick, overlaying an acoustic three-piece, Mick Ronson’s Bowie guitar debut, and spacey Moog synthesizer. This take brings the song much more in line with “Space Oddity,” and it’s downright anthemic. Also, for purposes of 45 single length, it splits the majority of the “Sun Machine” section into a second cut.

Score one for the A&R guys, I guess? There’s really no downside here

Other Space Oddity Era Material

Ragazza_solo_ragazza_solaBowie committed a rocking update of “London, Bye, Ta-Ta” to record in January 1970 but passed over it to make “Prettiest Star” a single. He probably should have gone with “London,” because’s it’s a knockout. It has the queazy style mash-up quality of his Young Americans work, evoking that same plastic soul feel. Particularly, the “I loved her” refrained backed by a cooing girl group is fantastic. (There’s a cleaner mix without the phased vocals, but it might be a little too normal, you know?)

“Space Oddity” was repurposed as “Ragazzo Solo, Ragazza Sola” – “Lonely Boy, Lonely Girl” – for single release in Italy to ward off bands covering his hit. It’s performed to the original “Space Oddity” track, but the song is completely different! Not only is it not at all about an astronaut, but there are different combinations of voices and uses of harmony. I can’t comment on Bowie’s performance in Italian.

Bowie provided music for a piece of theatre called Pierrot in Turquoise or “The Looking Glass Murders” that was later broadcast on BBC. The recordings included an all-organ version of “When I Love My Dream,” the manic “Threepenny Pierrot” played on a ragtime piano to the tune of “London Bye Ta-Ta, plus two new songs. “Columbine” is an acoustic ode to the traditional leading lady of commedia dell’arte, while “The Mirror” bemoans the simple and foolish Harlequinn. The latter is quite a lovely bit of poetry, especially if you know your dell’arte archetypes:

Wash your face before your faded make-up makes a mark
The mirror will watch over you
Pierrot never comes so pack your face and chase the dark
The mirror’s hung up on you
Don’t be last, your friends and your reflection
It’s all so direction now
Poor harlequin, you’re quite an exception
Fay troubadour, on a downer
Gay harlequin, doesn’t believe in you
Doesn’t believe it’s true, such a downer.

An alternate mix of “Wild Eyed Boy From Free-Cloud” plays down the rock elements – it’s good, but not as great.

##

Despite a brief breakthrough, Bowie entered 1970 much in the same position as he began the prior year despite considerably more acclaim for his second David Bowie than he’d received for his first. However, the process of playing behind this album netted him Tony Visconti, who would produce both his next LP as well as many later-in-life albums, and the kinetic guitar playing of Mick Ronson. As for the alchemy they summoned together on The Man Who Sold The World, you’ll need to await my next post.

From The Beginning: David Bowie – The Deram Years (1966-1968)

Essentials of the Era
Sell Me a Coat” – David Bowie
Let Me Sleep Beside You (mono)” – David Bowie (Deluxe)
Silly Boy Blue” – The Lost BBC Tapes (bootleg)
In The Heat of the Morning” – Bowie at the Beeb

This is the second in a series of posts following a listen of David Bowie from beginning to end. Last time, I listened to Bowie’s earliest work, including material from before he christened himself “Bowie.”

After his brief but unremarkable sprint on Pye Records, Bowie signed with Deram Records. That’s not a typo of “dream” as I had assumed for years, they were really called “Deram.” The company was a subsidiary of Decca, who Bowie had auditioned for in previous incarnations.

He issued two singles with Deram prior to releasing his first full-length effort, then added some trailing work before being dropped and signed to Mercury to release another self-titled LP, later renamed to Space Oddity.

As a note, I’m using both Wikipedia and the book The Complete David Bowie to guide my chronological listening.

“Rubber Band” b/w “London Boys”

Promotional bio from the "Rubber Band" single. Click to view on the source site, bowie-singles.com

Promotional bio from the “Rubber Band” single. Click to view on the source site, bowie-singles.com

This was one of the first handful of records released on Deram, a close follow-up to Cat Stevens performing “I Love My Dog”/”Portobello Road” (bet you don’t know those two, either). They can be found on the second disc of David Bowie (Deluxe Edition).

Along with the “Bowie” name and the new record contract, there are a few other signs of future Bowie-ness on this A-Side. The voice is there, the low baritone straight off of “Rock’n’Roll Suicide.” Also, while this is still technically a sappy love song, the shift of focus from the girl to a related group that Bowie directly addresses telegraphs a future style to which he’d return frequently.

Rubber band
In 1910 I was so handsome and so strong
My moustache was stiffly waxed and one foot long
And I loved a girl while you played teatime tunes

Dear Rubber band, you’re playing my tunes out of tune, oh
Rubber band, Won’t you play a haunting theme again to me
While I eat my scones and drink my cup of tea

Granted, this is all accompanied by “oom-pah” brass band accompaniment, maybe connected with Bowie’s frequent covering of “Chim-Chim Cher-ee” from Mary Poppins? Who knows. Yet, focusing on the steely, controlled vocal you can easily imagine this as a much later Bowie cut. Maybe less brass, minor key… can you feel it?

B-Side “London Boys” masquerades as male retread of Petula Clark’s 1965 hit “Downtown,” and yet…

You take the pills too much
You don’t give a damn about that jobs you’ve got
So long as you’re with the London boys

A London boy, oh a London boy
Your flashy clothes are your pride and joy

…there is the subtle genius of this song. It sounds like it could be about a girl being seduced by London Boys, but it’s actually about becoming one of the boys. And, let’s be honest here: the seduction angle is still there. Was Bowie beginning to find ways to thread themes of his bisexuality into his work even at this early point?

“The Laughing Gnome” b/w “The Gospel According to Tony Day”

There’s something to be said for having the low-point of your fifty-year career during your third year in the business. This song is the worst. The literal worst. There is no worse song in Bowie’s entire catalog and, trust me, I know I’m going to be listening to some clunkers here and there.

Click to view the original on Flickr.

Click to view the original on Flickr.

I’ll try to type this with a straight face: This is a song is a novelty single about David Bowie befriending a mischievous gnome.

I was walking down the high street
When I heard footsteps behind me
And there was a little old man (Hello)
In scarlet and grey, shuffling away (laughter)

The parentheticals are lyrics delivered by the gnome. The little scamp loves making puns.

“Here, where do you come from? ”
(Gnome-man’s land, ha-hehehe!)

And…

Here, what’s that clicking noise?
(That’s fred, he’s a “metrognome,” ha-ha!)

Then, Bowie gets into the game:

“Didn’t they teach you to get your hair cut at school? You look like a rolling gnome.”
(No, not at the London School of Ecognomics!)

David Bowie’s career is even more amazing considering this was his first ignominious (HEY-OH!) flirtation with wider attention. In Bowie’s scant defense, I’ll at least point out that The Chipmunks predated this by a decade as a novelty record. Actually, that’s not a very good defense, is it? At least he avoided rhyming “telly” with “belly.” At best, this single places his songwriting focus firmly in the mode of the fantastical for the first time.

B-Side “The Gospel According to Tony Day” is also weird, but in a different way. It’s essentially just a rhyming game, or perhaps a drinking song. Bowie sings the name of someone repeatedly, and then delivers a punchline:

The Gospel According to Tony Day (x3)
If I find a girl he’ll take her away
Rotten Tony!

The weird part is that the song is not merry in the least. It sounds a bit slinking and sinister with a low, booming sax and stings of electric guitar. I expected the subject matter to be darker and was surprised to read the rather plain lyrics. Perhaps that is because Bowie has come into his full, mature voice here – you would instantly recognize him as the singer of any song from Ziggy Stardust. Combined with the ominous music, you expect something more dire.

I feel like both of these songs, taken with the prior single, act as points of triangulation towards Hunky Dory – but, I’ll get to that in a few more posts! They are both included on the second disc of David Bowie (Deluxe Edition), despite not appearing on the album.

David Bowie, released June 1, 1967

David Bowie’s three years of hard work and seemingly constant failure paid off in the release of his first LP of original songs on Deram. Unfortunately, it was another failure and lead him to be dropped from the label the following year.

Bowie-David-Bowie-DeramThis album cannot really be compared to any other LP in Bowie’s career. It was easy-going British chamber-folk that has more in common with The Monkees than with The Beatles. Even if you’re tempted to compare it to “The Benefit of Mr. Kite,” consider that Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Heart’s Club Band was released on the same day as this record!

That makes for a useful tent-stake for comparison – Bowie released this frippery on the same day The Beatles released one of the most significant works in the history of popular music. The entire record is insubstantial – snapshots of the big city life flowing around a shiftless narrator. Yet, the nascent young Duke already has his sights fixated on the underbelly of these magical moments. The record is filled with disappointed go-go girls and their heartbroken small-town loves (“Maid of Bond Street”), children who’ve set fields afire (“There Is a Happy Land”) sad and incapable adults on the dole (“Uncle Arthur,” who “still reads comics … follows Batman”), and the occasional child-murderer (the less said about “Please Mr. Gravedigger,” the better).

This sort of baroque pop needs something more ornate in its arrangement to become fixed in your brain, but all these arrangements feel too thin by half. “Love You Till Tuesday” is a grand example. After a charming xylophone and horn riff opens song like a segment of Laugh-In, the band all-but disappears, leaving a scampering vocal from Bowie to fend for itself. It could be a catchy little go-go song – there’s really nothing wrong with it (aside from the image of Bowie grinning wide and fake as he delivers the inane lyrics), but there’s nothing to it to get your skirts and bellbottoms snagged on.

You begin to get the feeling that all of the attention and budget went into the first four bars of every song, and after that Bowie was left to his own devices. “Sell Me a Coat” comes closest to being anthemic of the entire LP with it’s easy-to-chant chorus, yet it is unmemorable. The same is true for “When I Live My Dream,” which would achieve Disney-ballad payload if it was more substantial. Bowie manages to work himself into a sobbing froth on a new arrangement of “Rubber Band” (even getting off a trademark “oh yeah!” in the background), but the sad trudge of the brass band does him no service.

“Silly Boy Blue,” one of the most overtly weird and forward-looking of the songs, is similarly sparse. Is it a torch song for the Dalai Lama?

You wish and wish, and wish again
You’ve tried so hard to fly
You’ll never leave your body now
You’ve got to wait to die
La la la la la la la la la la
Silly boy blue, silly boy blue
Child of the Tibet, you’re a gift from the sun
Reincarnation of one better man
The homeward road is long
You’ve left your prayers and song
Silly boy blue, silly boy blue

In hindsight, can we attribute a pied-piper’s intent to Bowie? It could be that he is drawing the children close now to expand their mind later. There are a few examples, the clearest being “Join The Gang,” which paints a manic picture of a bunch of drugged up hipsters crashing to party to party on sheer inertia. Despite warning us, “You won’t feel so good now that you’ve joined the gang,” it all sounds quite mad and gay.

Then, there is is the frightening “We Are Hungry Men,” with Bowie’s narration taking on the role of a despotic cannibal ruler whose support of suffrage and reproductive rights are only meant to tighten his iron fist control of society. You can imagine this as an early output of a fascination with dystopia, before Bowie realized the appear was in writing from the role of the revolutionary rather than the rule. (Unless, of course, we’re talking about the fashion police.)

You can follow the same thread to “Little Bombadier,” a doting man (perhaps the same as “Uncle Arthur”) whose spoiling of children is seen as sinister by those despotic iron fisters and Mr. Grown-ups out to spoil everyone’s fun. It’s a terrible song, but there’s a clear through-line from here to “Starman” – you can easily insert his, “Let the children use it, let the children use it, all the children boogie” refrain.

If there is one song on this effort that most telegraphs the Bowie to come, it is surely “She’s Got Medals.” It’s the only song on the disc to approximate the madcap energy of Jagger, though Bowie has scant resources to achieve it with his neutered band. More significantly, it’s a prototype of “Queen Bitch” that begins Bowie’s exploration of gender dysphoria:

Her mother called her Mary, she changed her name to Tommy, she’s a one, oh
She went and joined the army, passed the medical, don’t ask me how it’s done
They sent her to the front line
Fighting for her country’s name
She’s got medals
She got very tired of picking up girls
Cleaning her gun and shaving her curls
She got very tired of picking up girls
Cleaning her gun and shaving her curls
Then the enemy dropped a bomb
Survivors there were none

Despite some hints of weightier themes, there is not much to say for the treacly folk of David Bowie’s debut. Luckily, it was adept enough to earn him some notice – he managed to garner some appearances on the BBC. More on that below.

“Love You ‘Til Tuesday” b/w “Did You Ever Have a Dream”

The single version of “Love You ‘Til Tuesday” is considerably more dressed-up than the album-cut, adorned with strings in place of its twinkling xylophone and with a barrelhouse piano tucked deep in the mix. On the whole, the song comes off as more romantic than manic, though it doesn’t take away from the awkwardness of Bowie crooning “Don’t be afraid it’s only me, hoping for a little romance” and then giggling madly.

Prepare yourselves – I have video evidence:

B-Side “Did You Ever Have a Dream” is pure adolescent fantasy – literally! The lyrics are about dreaming about traveling the world as a polygot superman even while you’re rooted in one place. It’s childish, even compared to the rest of the LP.

Other Deram Material

Bowie cut a single version of his Disney-worthy “When I Live My Dream.” The more plaintive album version has a vocal more suited to a cartoon prince, but the broken chord piano of the single version is more in line with other hits of the era.

“Let Me Sleep Beside You” is the first essential recording of Bowie’s career. It’s a stunner – it’s hard to believe any record company would decline to release it (reportedly, the “sleep” bit was considered risqué!). The song sounds entirely rock and roll and contemporary, which can be attributed to it being the first collaboration between Bowie and his longtime producer Tony Visconti. A more complex rhythm section and oo-ing harmonies underscore the descending melody of the title, which is followed by a groovy wah-infused guitar riff.

Yet, even as an acoustic demo the song would stand out for the mature, nuanced lyrics:

Baby, baby, brush the dust of youth from your shoulder
Because the years of fretting days are right behind you now
Don’t return to fields of green where rainbow secrets were told
Place your ragged doll with all the toys and things and deeds
I will show you a game where the winner never wins

Let your hair hang down, wear the dress your mother wore
Let me sleep beside you

Bowie welcomes his lover to bed as a peer with the intimation is he’s telling her to grow up, but threaded through the lyrics we see it’s him who is feeling suddenly mature and worthy of a lover’s touch.

“Karma Man” was recorded in the same session, but it doesn’t have the same pedigree. It pays lip service to the public fascination with eastern mysticism, but Bowie was getting these influences second-hand and the best lyric he can muster is, “He’s clogged and clothed in saffron robes.”

“London By Ta-Ta” was another intended single penned toward the end of Bowie’s doomed Deram contract. This song gets everything right that’s wrong on his album. It’s got the urban obsession, the hip swing, but it’s ornate. It even has a little bluesy flourish beneath the “I loved her” refrain that will feel instantly familiar to glam era fans.

Yet, my true favorite of this era is the “In The Heat of the Morning.” Again, adding a budding sexuality and a bluesier bass to these compositions makes a world of difference. Bowie’s pained delivery of the chorus above quivering strings is the essence of desire:

No man loved like I love you
Wouldn’t you like to love me too
In the heat of the morning
In the shadow I’ll clip your wings
And I’ll tell you I love you
In the heat of the morning

I’ve always thought that lyric was “In the shadow of the doorway,” which is so much better.

We’ll leave aside any comments on “When I’m Five,” as the title says all you need to know. No, wait, I have to add something: “When I’ve five I’ll jump in puddles, laugh in church, and marry my mum.” It’s roughly at the level of the LP material and not the more mature work that follows. “Ching-A-Ling” is sung by a rotating line-up of vocalists, intended for a potential Bowie-starring Mamas-and-the-Papas style vocal group. Thank goodness that fell through! The same gang added overpowering vocals to a recut of “Sell Me a Coat” – it was better without them.

As a note, I prefer the mono mixes of all of these songs when available, as they have a more gestalt period sound.

Live Material in the Deram Era

Bowie performed his first BCC session on December 18, 1967, which was broadcast a week later on Christmas eve. It was mostly composed of debut album tracks, including a go at “Love You Till Tuesday” with the studio orchestra consistent with the single version. “When I Love My Dream” is still more like the dull LP cut than the aborted single mix, but the live version of “Silly Boy Blue” gets across the gray skies mood of the song much better than the studio cut. This session also carries a sedate early version of “In The Heat of the Morning” with different lyrics. It’s a fascinating artifact, but not worthy compared to the later version.

On the whole, the session is much more compelling than the album. Per The Complete David Bowie, he was coerced to perform “Little Bombadier” by the host. Apparently, his self-preservation instincts were still developing. You can find this lost session, and other songs omitted from the Beeb box set, on this Lost Tapes bootleg (the sound quality is on par with the official release).

Bowie returned on May 13, 1968 for a set of his post-LP songs. This session leads off his fantastic Bowie at the Beeb box set with a simmering version of “In The Heat of the Morning.” I prefer this one slightly to the studio cut for the faster tempo, piercing organ, and Bowie’s more mature vocal. There’s also a charming version of “London By Ta Ta” marked by a double-tracked and chorused vocal on the refrains, an energetic run at “Karma Man,” and another fantastically yearning “Silly Boy Blue” with cello doubling the vocal. (The official BBC collection wisely leaves off “When I’m Five.”)

There are live versions of “Penny Lane” and “A Little Bit Me, A Little Bit You” in this era sometimes attributed to Bowie, but I don’t know that I believe it (neither does The Complete David Bowie). The vocal is a bit too uncharacteristic, even if you picture Bowie trying to deliver a clean, work-for-hire performance.

##

As Bowie retreated from the nonsense of “The Laughing Gnome” with a string of remarkable and mature intended singles, little did he know his major breakthrough would be on another sort of novelty song! That’s right, next time I’ll be listening to the one and only “Space Oddity”!

From the Beginning: David Bowie – The Early Years (1964-1966)

David Bowie, 1966. Photo by David Wedgbury.

David Bowie, 1966. Photo by David Wedgbury.

David Bowie was born on this day, forty years ago.

Not the person, mind you – his birthday was last week on January 8. No, I mean the name. The moniker that bloomed into a legendary persona and universal star. Indeed, David Bowie was first credited on a single called “Can’t Help Thinking About Me” on January 14, 1966. It was his fourth single, but his first as Bowie.

I’m pretty certain you’ve never heard of that song. I hadn’t even heard of it until this week, and I count myself as a rather large David Bowie fan!

It’s easy to fall under the mistaken belief that David Bowie emerged fully formed from his own forehead. If you’re a Greatest Hits fan, or just someone who has never fell down the Wikipedia hole too deeply, you’d be perfectly reasonable in thinking there was some olden-days EP containing “Space Oddity,” “Man Who Sold The World,” “Changes,” and “Life On Mars” and then Bowie as we all love him exploded into being on Ziggy Stardust.

That’s not the case at all. David Bowie spent eight years as a recording artist before the release of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars. He released a pair of glam albums before that. He had an entire folkish pastiche of an eponymous album prior to his more well-known eponymous album in 1969, later rechristened Space Oddity. And, even before that, for three years he issued a string of unremarkable vinyl singles. He began at the tender age of 17.

Thus, that is also where we’ll begin in my epic chronological listen to David Bowie. This post covers his first single in 1964 to material from before his first album in 1967.

“Liza Jane” – Davie Jones with The King Bees

Young David Jones first appeared as a member of The Kon-Rads, who recorded for Decca but were never officially signed or released. His first release as a bandleader was a 1964 single called “Liza Jane,” as performed by Davie Jones with The King Bees.

The song itself was much older than young Mr. Jones. It was written in 1910 by Countess Ada de Lachau and became a standard (here’s Nina Simone singing it). Bowie’s version is a sort of unremarkable post-Skiffle British R&B that the Beatles had perfected in the past year. It’s fascinating to think that 17-year old David Bowie cut this single after a year of likely hearing non-stop John, Paul, George, and Ringo on the radio. This is unsophisticated, by comparison, with its gallumphing lead line and wheezing sax (yes, played by David Bowie). but that’s no different than today. Someone breaks through on the radio with a new genre, and the next year a heap of imitators clumsily follow their lead.

The B-side of that release was “Louie, Louie Go Home,” originally recorded by Paul Revere and the Raiders as a sequel to their famous “Louie, Louie.” The King Bees’ version sounds like a decent teenage band in a garage covering one of their favorite songs but not really being sure how to end it. Their cacaphonous shouting of staccato “home home home” backing vocals is charming, but there’s nothing too memorable here.

You can pick up “Liza Jane” on Bowie’s Nothing Has Changed retrospective – it is the final track.

“I Pity The Fool” – The Manish Boys

David+Bowie+-+The+Manish+Boys+-+Davy+Jones+And+The+Lower+Third+EP+-+7-+RECORD-98577Bowie’s next incarnation was “The Manish Boys” in 1965, which issued one single: “I Pity The Fool” b/w “Take My Tip.”

The A-Side, “Fool,” was a cover of a 1961 Bobby Bland tune. It iss straight-up blues and, if you think about it, the closest David Bowie has ever really got to the blues was when he sang that one line in “Let’s Dance.” That should tell you how good this effort his. He doesn’t have the gravity in his delivery to make this remarkable. He sings in the reedy high-end of his baritone, and a hyperactive lead line thinks its adorning another song entire. Once again, it’s the saxophone that steals the show, though we can’t necessarily credit Bowie – there are multiple horn players on this cut.

The more interesting song here is “Take My Tip.” It was Bowie’s first published act of songwriting, as Davey Jones. For 2:15 in length, there’s a lot to dig into here. It has the familiar bounding bass and organ of his pre-glam work, and check out these lyrics:

You think you’re gonna please her
So you walk right up and tease her
But she walks right on by
You’re scared to walk beside her
‘Cause you’re playing with the [tiger? spider?] who possesses the sky

Totally normal English beat song and then all of a sudden we’re playing with a the [something] who possesses the sky. Despite all of our desperate wishes that David is singing “Spider” so we can call this song the secret origin of Ziggy Stardust, I’m pretty certain he says “tiger.” Still, that is a pretty bizarre line in an otherwise totally normal song.

The vocals here remain adolescent, but he’s beginning to sing in that slightly-nasal, cutting way he’d use on later choruses. Also, there is a brief drum break with chromatic changes in the middle that definitely hints at future arrangements.

This pair of tunes appear on a Bowie! 1965 MP3 release from Parlaphone.

Davy Jones & The Lower Third

From The Manish Boys, later that same year we hop to Davy Jones (& The Lower Third). Clearly he was going with the “Davy Jones” name before The Monkees hit it big. Their first single was “You’ve Got a Habit of Leaving” b/w “Baby Loves The Way.” Both are Bowie writing credits and are both inoffensive, at best. He has abandoned his R&B sound of the prior single, but he hasn’t replaced it with much else. He tries on a cutesy, whiney boy voice that must have been popular on the radio at the time.

The interesting thing is the entrance of a fuzz bass on “Leaving” that leads to major psychedelic breakdown in the middle of the song. Despite some fluttering harmonica, it’s legitimately heavy – but just as it settles in to a groove, out pops the acoustic guitar from the other side. By contrast, “Baby Loves That Way” is super-vanilla, aside from a lovely little reverb guitar chord intro.

Both songs appear on the Parlaphone Bowie! 1965 EP.

I located another handful of songs that profess to be “Davy Jones with The Lower Third” tunes. They are “Glad I’ve Got Nobody,” perhaps a bit more Who-flavored than the prior two, and “I’ll Follow You,” which feels a bit like the throwback-y Beatles tunes like “Mr. Moonlight.” It’s very Sonny and Cher, but his plaintive singing is enjoyable. There’s a hint of some of the fluidity and grit to come.

There’s another obscure tune, “Baby, That’s a Promise,” which isn’t on any compilations though it’s easily findable on the web. It’s one of the catchier and better-performed of the songs of this period. A delightful, throaty vocal from Bowie shows some signs of his fine vibrato and falsetto.

David Bowie on Pye Records

1c2c11b116ab472681ddab4ca4e56b06Here, we arrive on January 14 1996, the debut of David Bowie – still with The Lower Third – with their single “Can’t Help Thinking About Me” b/w “And I Say to Myself.” This not only introduced David Bowie, but it’s was his first song to find its way to official release in the US (though it was a flop).

With the name change came some trademark Bowie-isms. The B-side, “And I Say To Myself,” is a sort of Motown-y R&B song, but it’s also the first time we get a lengthy listen to Bowie’s lower baritone vocals. And, the way he belts “guilt-ay!”on “Can’t Help” before the first refrain is pure glam-era, it gave me chills when I first heard it. While it is a pretty basic mod-rock acoustic guitar-driven track, the lyrics are edging into familiar dystopia:

Question-time that says I brought dishonour
My head’s bowed in shame
It seems that I’ve blackened the family name
Mother says that she can’t stand the neighbours talking
I’ve gotta pack my bags, leave this home, start walking, yeah
I’m guilty! I wish that I was sorry this time
I wish that I could pay for my crime
I can’t help thinking about me

Bowie then discarded “The Lower Third” (by the way, such a bad name – does that refer to them singing his underneath harmonies? Here’s some history on them) in favor of backing band “The Buzz” on “Do Anything You Say” b/w “Good Morning Girl.” Of the lyrical vomit and scatting on “Good Morning Girl,” I will say nothing further, but you will immediately recognize the throaty baritone on “Do Anything You Say.” It sounds like Bowie of five years later.

His next 1966 single, “I Dig Everything,” is so very much of the moment that it would fit perfectly into a montage in an Austin Powers movie. It has everything you associate with that sound – the organ, the guiro, the shuffling drums, the occasional mellotron. It’s pretty much a song about Bowie walking around town with a string of somewhat terrible things happening to him, periodically declaiming, “Everything’s fine and I dig everything.”

It was b/w “I’m Not Losing Sleep,” which is in the same vein but with a lower vocal that is a bit reminiscent of Tom Jones. The melody on the chorus of “I’m just counting sheep, I’m not losing sleep, my friend” is a bit catchy.

All of the Pye songs are available on I Dig Everything: The 1966 Pye Singles, more cheaply had as MP3s than a physical CD.

##

I wonder if David Bowie had many fans from this string of singles in the UK, following him from band name to band name. Earlier this week, Bowie’s response to fan letter from 1967 circulated and mentioned a British fan club. However, that was from September of 1967 after his solo full-length debut on Deram Records – but that’s a topic for another post!

bad breakfast of hallucinatory champions

I close my eyes and drift into the hallucination like a piece of flotsam being carried upward by the wave of music flowing in my ears. It lasts for a second, maybe five, but it feels like I’ve glimpsed a whole day of some alternate earth where an arbitrary detail of the laws of physics or nature has been altered.

The trolley lurches to a halt. I lose the alternate earth. It disappears in a wink, along with any memory of it. We are two stops before mine – enough time for two, maybe three, alternate days before I absolutely must pull the ripcord and bobble my way to the front of the vehicle.

Does this happen to you? I always assumed it was universal – that adding music to a state of half-awakeness yielded a kaleidoscope of unknown realities. Maybe it’s not. Maybe it is a form of synesthesia that I’ve always had, which might explain why I am and have always been so obsessed with music, and also with the literature of psychedelia.

This week at work we discussed Breakfast of Champions.  We have a book club at work, that’s a thing I should probably tell you. I hated it, a little. The book that is, not the club. I love the club, partially because it inspires me to do things like read my first Vonnegut novel despite mostly hating it while I read. (Later, other members of the club confessed they thought it was a terrible idea to read Breakfast of Champions as a first exploration of Vonnegut, but they did not want to intercede in our plan.)

I didn’t like the book for a few different reasons. Primarily, it was basically the worst in medias res ever. It says what will happen at the end, spends an entire book describing the rather dull steps leading to that point, and then the thing that happens turns out to be relatively inconsequential. It’s an entire book of prologue to some interesting thing of which we only catch a glimpse.

Despite hating it a little, I’m very happy that I discussed the book with other humans(/robots). It helped me to pull out the things I loved about it. One was the synopses of the bizarre sci-fi stories of author Kilgore Trout, our of our protagonists (sort of). He invents stories of alien worlds that would fit perfectly in Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. Our club debated which otherworldly tale was our favorite. The world of eating petroleum where real food is considered pornography. The world where all art is assigned an arbitrary value and venerated appropriately. The world where language is as beautiful and distracting as a song, so anything serious like a law must sound deliberately ugly.

As I popped out of the final micro-hallucination of my commute, it occurred to me that my fractional alternate dimensions were a lot like Kilgore Trout’s stories. Each one of them change just one or two fundamental things about reality, all seemingly droll in summary but potentially dull if explored at length.

Maybe having a form of synesthesia is just a way to know you are a robot programmed to ingest music and output the fantastic.

The Ultimate 1989 Mix Tape, by Swift & Adams

1989-taylor-swift-ryan-adam1989. The haters gonna hate, hate, hate, hate, et cetera, but they cannot change the fact that Taylor Swift released an undeniably good pop album.

Now, having spawned five monstrous singles, Swift the songwriter is getting some of the credit she’s due, as in this amazing Grammy-Pro seminar where she exposes the process of writing and recording the LP.

I play in a cover band that’s touched at a least a third of these songs, and I occasionally play the album front to back on acoustic guitar for EV. I already know it has great bones, but also that some of Swift and her producers’ flourishes don’t translate well to an acoustic guitar.

In September, storied songwriter Ryan Adams covered the entire thing front-to-back. This is the sort of treatment typically reserved for gods of rock like Dylan or the Beatles, or at least Hall & Oates.

My question was: is it any good? And, more intriguingly: is it any better?

Let’s be clear here – I’m not approaching this head-to-head as a look at Ryan Adams mansplaining how great these songs are. They were already great. I’ve been on the praise-train of 1989 since first listen – I think it’s a timeless pop masterpiece that’s at once current and retro. But Adams is an ultimate chameleon, able to pen squalling rockers and sensitive ballads, many of which have been hits in hands other than his own. What happens when we reverse the process and bring someone else’s hits to him?

That’s the draw for me here. Adams is stepping onto a cover band high wire by bringing his own arrangements to some of the most-heard songs of the past year. If he delivers too many straight-up takes his effort will be castigated, but if he tears them all apart too much people will complain they’re unrecognizable.

What’s a master singer-songwriter to do? As it turns out, make a pretty damn compelling LP that would stand on its own just fine without the Swift comparisons. Unfortunately, that world doesn’t exist – so let’s make all the comparisons! The result? The ultimate 1989 mixtape.

“Welcome to New York”
Advantage: Adams

This is the only song on 1989 that feels fake and plastic to me, both in sound and sentiment. It’s sort of necessary as an introduction to the concept of Taylor Swift as the big city pop girl, but in the scope of the LP as a whole it’s disposable. Ryan Adams wisely snatches up the stylistic mismatch to recreate this as a Bruce Springsteen stomper, and it’s perfect. That’s what I want to hear welcoming me to the Big Apple.

blankspacetaylor1“Blank Space”
Advantage: Swift

No matter how you slice it, this song is pretty sparse. Swift builds the verses mostly with passing synths, which can make it a bitch to cover in an interesting way – we cut it from our sets in favor of “Bad Blood.” Ryan Adams goes to an Elliott Smith placeson it with a tremulous voice and two Travis-picked guitars mixed over one another. In sum, it takes this song to a much more wistful place. It’s a smart take, but I enjoy Swift’s big neon pre-kiss-off version more.

Notable Lyric Modification: “So damn reckless”

“Style”
Advantage: Swift

Ryan turns this into a sort of big 80s stadium rocker (or maybe an Arcade Fire outtake?). He messes with the sorta robotic Swiftian cadences a bit too much and doesn’t take all of Swift’s interval jumps (especially from her brilliant pre-choruses). Also, the main verse riff just isn’t making the best use of that Bm7 riff – I’ve done more interesting stuff with it. This song has some of the most interesting elements to work with, but Adams seems to just blow by them.

Notable Lyric Modification: “Daydream Nation look in your eye.”

“Out of the Woods”
Advantage: Adams

E and were just discussing how silly this sounds when we play it acoustic. You’re just chanting “OUTOFTHEWOODSOUTOFTHEWOODS” and trying to sneak in breaths where you can. Do you suppose Taylor Swift really wrote it that way sitting at her acoustic guitar, or was that a later insert? (Actually, you can find out in those Grammy Pro videos.)

Adams reimagines it in bedroom demo form as a plaintive strummer, and as much as I love the driving rhythm of Swift’s version the melancholy of this take feels so very right for the lyrics. By the time it breaks into a bigger arrangement in the second chorus it might supplant your original vision of how the song is supposed to sound. It also adds a pleasant instrumental outro, which Swift as a lyrics-focused rocker doesn’t tend to indulge in (no shade there, I don’t do them either). The only thing I’m missing is Swift’s descending counter-melody cutting through stacks of harmony on the final chorus.

“All You Had To Was Stay”
Advantage: Tie

shakeitofftaylor1Adams has such a great stripped-down rhythm section intro to this, it could almost be a Ramones song. But it’s unrecognizable! I couldn’t even figure out what song it was until we got to the chorus lyrics. But, oh-my, the Elvis Costello jangle-pop of that chorus. It’s overwhelmingly welcome – Swift is at her processed squeakiest on this machine-tooled hook. Yet, the verses do too much hanging out on the high melody note without a lot of contrast.

Given the choice, I’d mash-up Taylor’s verses with Adams’s choruses. They could be so happy together.

“Shake It Off”
Advantage: Swift

Don’t fight the dark side, Ryan!

Taylor Swift wrote a perfect 3-chord dance tune that holds up in cover sets next to songs like “Twist and Shout” and Adams seems to have a beef with every element of it. His cover could be described as “boringcore.” He strips down the rhythm to a simple snare rim, inverts the verse melodies and strips them of their variations, and doesn’t play with the repeated words on the chorus. You didn’t have to pick up the horn section to make an awesome cover of this – the Springsteen model would have worked.

Also, no attempt to interpret the whacky half-rapped bridge? Weak.

“I Wish You Would”
Advantage Swift

This starts with Adams seeming allergic to all of the best melodic elements of the original. Then the band leaps in to ape the big snare hits on the 3s and Adams snaps into one of the more straight-forward impersonations he’s delivered so far. There’s a lovely pile of guitars and organs to recreat all the fuss of the original chorus, and to be sure Swift’s version could have benefited from some more organic touches. Yet, the song gains nothing from anonymizing the verses.

Taylor_Swift_Bad_Blood_character_Poster.jpg.CROP.promovar-mediumlarge“Bad Blood”
Advantage: Adams… maybe?

Look: both versions are undeniable high points of their respective albums. Swift’s version was the first song on the LP that made me stop and say, “Oh, shit, this is great.” So maybe it’s not a surprise that it holds the same position on Adams version.

It’s an incredibly straight-forward take that just slightly alters the rhythm by bringing more texture to the verses. Yet, it’s the texture that makes it so fascinating – especially a twinkling high guitar on the choruses. That all points to how strong the bones of this tune truly are. If you can see past trying to duplicate the massive drums, there’s a lot to work with in this four chords.

Notable Lyric Modification: “These kind of wounds, they always last.”

“Wildest Dreams”
Advantage: Adams

There’s an almost REM sensibility to the layered riffs in this one, flirting with each other and then departing on their own missions. This is another tune with great structure, but Swift’s version is SO cloying with how her voice lilts up on every phrase. Adams keeps it on the verses and cuts it on the choruses, and it makes all the difference. Adams handles Swift’s machine-gun bridge rhythm well, softening it without making it unfamiliar. Minor points off for having to insert “YOUR dress” – the line would have read more interesting without it.

“How You Get The Girl”
Advantage: Neither

This is one of the more basic songs on the album, but Ryan doesn’t do anything close to making it memorable, even with a gratuitous string section.. Some of his elements are just fighting each other. Meanwhile, Swift’s version should have been relegated to be a late-album-cycle soundtrack hit.

Bonus track “New Romantics” deserved this spot on both discs!

“This Love”
Advantage: Swift

Despite me not being much for ballads, this tune leapt out at me from early plays of the album for its liquid ease and patience in unfurling its chorus. Adams turns in a fine version with some lovely falsetto on the choruses, but Swift has got this late-80s power-ballad game on lock.

“I Know Places”
Advantage: Swift

The fascinating thing about this song is it’s Swift being menacing. Everything about it is a little scary, from the minor key descending leaps to the vultures, hunters, and foxes. It translates terrifically to a single acoustic guitar. Adams is a little too focused on dressing it up with castanets and not giving the creepy arrangement its due. Also, the first hit in his chorus is a muddle.

“Clean”
Advantage: Adams

Swift’s take on this song is a bit too languid, but a song about cleaning up your addictions should have a little bit of rubber-band snapping on the wrists tension to it. Adams fixes that, and the great lines stick out a bit more, like “butterflies turn into dust.” There’s not a moment of sensing that Adams is re- engineering something. The song feels solid and whole.

all-consuming

My life of eight years ago was much simpler, but not in the way you think. I’m not grumbling about working at a start-up, having a child, or owning a house. Those all complicate life, but that’s not what was so different about my life of eight years ago.

I’m talking about consumption.

Eight years ago this is what my consumption looked like: I listened to tons of new music on my iPod on my commutes. We had a three-at-a-time movie plan from Netflix. We had just started watching DVDs of Supernatural. I read an occasional book and subscribed to Rolling Stone and The Atlantic. 

That resulted from a conscious decision to give up TV, watching football, playing internet games, and going to all but the most major of movies.. Even with the Netflix, when I got home from work, I usually had vast gulphs of time to fill with writing and arranging music. I could create just as frequently as I consumed. If I had money to spare, I spent it on gear so I could create even better and more interesting things.

Now, I feel beholden to all the media I consume – not just by consuming it, but keeping it all straight. I listen to more new music than ever and keep careful track of release calendars and critics scores to know what to buy. We have streaming content from Netflix, Hulu, and Amazon, constantly checking for new things to watch along with my handful of ongoing TV shows and a few YouTube channels, so I need to know when there are new episodes. I read more than 70 ongoing comics, and it takes almost as much time to order and organize them as read them. I play one internet game that can eat a few hours each weekend if it introduces new content. And, in an attempt to be less beholden to screens, I’m suddenly reading more actual books and playing board games (plus, again, devoting time to learning about and rating and organizing those, too).

Predictably, my creative output has fallen to close to nill, aside from the awesome month of blogging I just did. Frankly, the effort of keeping up every day exhausted me, and I went into an even more consuming-heavy month as a result.

Recently, a comic from The Oatmeal about “Fear of Missing Out” circulated in my social media circles. Basically, when the author was younger he never wanted to miss a social event. (I’m not linking to it because I don’t actually like The Oatmeal. Oooo, blog drama!) That’s not what I thought it would be about! What is there to miss about social events? They’re just filled with people you can enjoy elsewhere in less stressful settings.

Clearly, I am that person who answers, “I prefer books to people” on the Myers-Briggs.

What I’m afraid to miss out on is all that other stuff. Missing shows means you can’t be in the dialog about them. Missing albums means you can’t chat about critic’s best-of lists each year. Missing comics means you might have to pay hugely for them once their collections are out of print.

In that way, weirdly, I am at my happiest right now. I’m not missing anything I don’t want to miss! I have every LP, movie, and comic I’ve ever wanted and I realize how privileged that makes me. I love being a recommendation agent for my friends and being able to jump into any conversation on media with a well-formed opinion. It makes me feel incredibly content. Yet, I’m actually missing something really important. No, not people – again, major self-centered introvert here, this is so not about people other than me.

That’s what I’m missing out on. Me. The thoughts and feelings I have that might be worth documenting or exploring, writing or singing about. Books written, albums recorded – missing out on all of that. And the more I consume, the more my creative output becomes just an echo of what’s going in – it’s all critique and response, and little genesis.

That leaves me paralyzed. I want to consume all this stuff and get that dopamine shot of contentedness every time I reel in incrementally more of it. I don’t want to stop now and get behind! Then I wouldn’t have the completeness in my possession, even though with every new cohort of music or comics that arrives the chance that I’d have the time to re-read an old one grows less and less.

I’m not sure how to balance this. Maybe it’s months on and months off, so I add a programmatic ebb and flow to my consuming and creating. All I know is that for as drained as I felt after a solid month of blogging, I also felt really awesome.

I’d like to find a way to do the contentedness and the awesomeness at the same time, and maybe also do some exercise that isn’t carrying gear and lifting longboxes full of comics.