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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!

Master of Kung Fu gets collected (or: After 100 years, Fu Manchu is still a villain)

This was the news last night from the Diamond Retailer Summit via Heidi MacDonald, EIC of Comics Beat:

Photo by Heidi MacDonald

Photo of Marvel’s slide from the summit by Heidi MacDonald of ComicsBeat.

This is a series you’ve probably never heard of, yet it’s both historically significant and solidly entrenched in the top 10 most-wished-for Omnibus editions from Marvel’s online collector community.

What’s the story behind the excitement and why does this seemingly obscure series merit four massive volumes? To figure out the answer, we need to travel back in time over 40 years to 1974.

Similar to Marvel 70s horror titles Tomb of Dracula and Werewolf by Night that emerged in 1972, Master of Kung Fu both featured a major non-Marvel character and was built to serve a public craze.

In this case, the craze was the titular Kung Fu. It was blowing up in the summer of 1973 thanks to a culmination of factors including the television show Kung Fu, a number of successful movies imported from China’s booming cinema, and one man: Bruce Lee. To read more background, I suggest starting with a marvelous pair of blog posts from “A Shroud of Thoughts” – parts 1 and 2.

Marvel wanted to license the popular Kung Fu to take advantage of the nationwide interest in martial arts (which also yielded Iron Fist), but they failed to obtain the rights. Instead, they turned to another pre-existing mythology: the story behind villain Fu Manchu, a fictional criminal mastermind who coined the mustache of the same name. He was created by author Sax Rohmer in 1912 in a serialized novel, The Mystery of Dr. Fu-Manchu.

Fu Manchu was popular enough to merit an initial trilogy of serialized books in the 1910s and even more starting in the 1930s, plus a number of film adaptions ranging from 1929 to 1980. The character can be a controversial one – even in the 1930s he was seen as a racist caricature representing the “Yellow Peril” of an East-Asian threat to the wider, whiter world.

MoKFv01 - 0038Enter Marvel Comics. They licensed the Fu Manchu universe from Rohmer’s estate, which was mostly focused on film adaptations in the 60s after Rohmer’s death and final book in 1959. Instead of keeping it isolated in its own continuity they created Shang-Chi as a part of the Marvel Universe and made him the son of Fu Manchu! What used to be Special Marvel Edition introduced Shang-Chi and then quickly made him the headliner of the book, swapping the title to Master of Kung Fu with issue #17.

The Master of Kung Fu series remains well-regarded by fans not only because of its rarity, but due to the pedigree of its creators. It was written almost entirely by Doug Moench (creator of Moon Knight) for 100 issues and includes a 30-issue run of pencils by Mike Zeck (you know him as the artist of original Secret Wars). That places MoKF alongside some of the other most notable single-creator runs of the period (like Uncanny X-Men) when it comes to the strength and coherence of the ongoing plot.

In the same month they launched MoKF, Marvel also launched a magazine called The Deadly Hands of Kung Fu. DHoKF featured martial arts editorial content with B&W backups from a laundry-list of martial arts characters characters like Shang-Chi, Daughters of the Dragon, Iron Fist, and White Tiger (debut in #19).

Unlike Dracula, who has always been in the public domain in the US and who entered that status in the 1960s in Britain, Fu Manchu has remained the intellectual property of the Rohmer estate. While all Dracula stories are fair game to tell, print, and reprint, Fu Manchu requires a licensing agreement to use. At some point after the series ended in 1983, Marvel let their rights to the Fu Manchu universe lapse. While they still retained Shang Chi and brought him back in 1988, they could no longer name his villainous father in print. Further, Marvel could not reproduce or reprint those Fu Manchu stories in print and digital collections.

The announcement of this reprint implies some form of agreement as been reached with the Rohmer estate. Also, characters that belong to Marvel but originated in some of these series could very well be a part of their Netflix plan, since Iron Fist is tied closely to characters like Misty Knight and Colleen Wing. (Incidentally, this may also clear the way for some other core Marvel heroes issues to be reprinted due to Fu Manchu appearances. This is considered to be the hold-up in continuing the Marvel Team-Up Marvel Masterworks line.)

As to what’s going to be included in these four massive tomes, the sure bet is Marvel Special Edition #15-16, MoKF #17-125 and Annual 1, and the later-published anthology story from Marvel Comics Presents #1-8. Weighing in around 115 actual-length issues, that makes for four 28-issue volumes … that’s a bit under Marvel’s typical par, especially when it could easily fit into three volumes and knowing a fourth volume will be a hard sell. (For reference, Marvel has produced some omnis in the >45-issue range.)

What will merit stretching out to the fourth volume? It’s likely the companion book, Deadly Hands of Kung Fu. If Marvel only reprints the original stories, that would add #1-9, 11-18, 29, 31-33 and Special #1. That’s another 20+ issues. Yet, every issue – even the ones that order skips – included original editorial content, like Kung Fu how-tos.

While that material likely isn’t affected by any manner of licensing embargo, this is the best and most sellable chance to reproduce it. It also easily extends this material into the four-volume range, since each issue was 64 pages – that counts for about 70 more standard comics worth of content. Even if Marvel ditches some of the content, that places these books somewhere in the hefty 40ish issue range that would merit stretching out to four volumes.

Regardless of the contents of the collections, the announcement of this release is not only a major win for classic Marvel collections, it’s a terrific example of Marvel’s complex and sometimes thorny licensing relationships.

(Of course, the best example is the biggest licensing game of all – Star Wars! Marvel produced reams of original Star Wars stories in the late 70s and early 80s, but Dark Horse held the licensing rights up for over two decades until this year, when the Disney house brought them back into the fold. [Disney owns both Marvel and LucasFilm.])

 

 

All-New, All-Different Marvel – a book-by-book break-down

ANAD-Marvel-Comics-2It’s upon us! Even though Marvel’s mega-event Secret Wars won’t quite be over until December, they’re pressing ahead with a line-wide All New, All Different Marvel relaunch starting in October with over sixty new books debuting into the spring, and more announced each week. That’s a lot of comics, many of them with completely fresh directions and creative teams – how can you wade through to find the most-interesting titles?

As always, I took care of the sifting for you! Here’s a list of every book Marvel has announced to date, the amount of hype I’m feeling on it, a one-sentence summary of the concept and creative team, and the elevator pitch on why you should care.

Ready? Here we go! Updated November 2!

A-Force
Hype Factor: 3.5 stars
What is it? An all-female team of Marvel heroes
Who’s creating it? Written by G. Willow Wilson (Ms Marvel) with art by Jorge Molina, one of Marvel’s most consistent artists

Why read it? Even for someone like me who lives for the women of Marvel, this assemblage of female heroes seems like a bit of a hodgepodge. At least Marvel Now’s Fearless Defenders had a cleverer central trope, but, it began with a pair of B-list players. Here, Marvel is pulling out all of the stops short of Storm and it’s probably going to pay off. Plus, Wilson was ace on her brief run on X-Men Vol. 4 – she clearly did the homework on the character’s rich histories, and they never sounded so good.

Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.
Hype Factor: 2 stars
What is it? Marvel’s comic version of the TV team
Who’s creating it? Original Green Arrow showrunner Marc Guggenheim

Why read it? It’s Agent Colson and friends mashing up with/against Hydra, which should be very palatable to Marvel’s TV fans. However, it’s going to take a lot for this to top both the prior Coulson-starring books, Ales Kot’s Secret Avengers and Mark Waid’s Agents of SHIELD. Plus, Guggenheim was weak on his X-Men arc in Marvel Now – the history was there, but the voices were off. Is that because a TV writer writes for actors and not pictures on a page? Either way, I’ll believe it when I read it.

ANADAvg-promoAll-New, All-Different Avengers
Hype Factor:4.5 stars
What is it? A team of second-generation heroes takes the Avengers mantle (but not the budget)
Who’s creating it? Writer Mark Waid with artists Adam Kubert and Mahmud Asrar

Why read it? Take four of Marvel’s hottest properties of the past few years – Falcon as Captain America, the black and hispanic teen Spider-Man, a female Thor, and the new Afgani-American teen Ms. Marvel. Add a pubescent Nova and cinematic smashes Iron Man and Vision. Oh, and Waid will write it hot off of one of the best (and most playful) Daredevil runs of all time. Yeah: everybody’s going to buy this comic book. I’m slightly less excited by the artists – Kubert is wildly uneven and Marvel has yet to find the right colorist for Asrar. Still, this book will be a smash.

Continue reading ›

10 Skills Every Queen Needs To Be Sickening on RuPaul’s Drag Race (according to data)

jinx-monsoon

Jinx Monsoon is by no means my favorite queen, but when it comes to a dectuple threat on this show she’s as close as we ever got, even if a lot of her fashion wasn’t so great…

Like wishing for snow in the dead of summer, right now we’re about as far from a new season of Drag Race as we can be, even though we know both Season 8 and a new All-Stars Season are already shot and in the can!

In the past year I’ve watched every season of Drag Race except for the storied and hard-to-obtain first, and I’ve noticed some trends. Specifically, 10 skills that are positive indications of a queen’s potential success as supported by the data of every main challenge ever performed on the show.

Will these skills get you surely to safety every week? No – there’s always something that only vaguely relies on these traits, whether that’s a parade float boat to sink you or a magazine concept to tear you down. Yet, if you’re killing it in these 10 categories all season long, you’ll probably survive even turning yourself into a Presidential candidate or Hello Kitty character. Plus, what deadly challenge used every one of these ten skills?

Of course, what do I know? Last time I was in drag as a woman was as Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, and that was almost 20 years ago.

The Criteria: For the purpose of this post, the seven seasons I evaluated were Season 2-7 and All-Stars. I did not specifically evaluate final runways for the potential of a sewing challenge unless that happened to be the main challenge.  Continue reading ›

Music Monday: “Chasing Time” – Azaelia Banks

azealia-banks-chasing-timeStop whatever you are doing and fall in love Azaelia Banks.

(I was supposed to be loving her in person in a few days during her first big national tour along with K. Michelle, but it was cancelled and now I am bereft, so the next best thing is sharing my love with the rest of you.)

If you’ve heard of Ms. Banks, I can 98 and 3/4 percent guarantee that it’s for one of two reasons. First, it could be for her international smash debut single “212.” (Yeah, it was awesome.) Second, it could be her ongoing social media feuds that critics use to paint her as the crazy foil to more media darling rappers like Nikki Minaj or Iggy Azalea.

My bold proposal is that Banks’s music ability and virtuosic genius far outstrips any perception of her being a loudmouth on social media, and that in fact her loudmouthedness is really just the combination of her relative youth and intellect manifesting as rage at all the injustices small and large in the world around us. And, not for nothing, but we accept young loudmouthed men and white people all the time and merrily consume their music, but as a woman of color we’re expected to dissect every single thing she says.

Consider that.

Azaelia Banks does not need me to say these things. I don’t even want to talk about them. I am saying them for you, because if Bank’s media image as a Crazy Girl or Big Bad Wofl are getting the way of you listening to her music you are losing out. I fucking love just about every piece of music Azaelia Banks releases.

Case and point: “Chasing Time” from my favorite album of 2014, her debut, Broke With Expensive Taste.

This song. This fucking song. I’m not even sure where to begin.

Let’s start with her voice. The song starts with a husky contralto rap, then shifts up to that nasally standard female R&B voice, then through to the chorus it gets bigger and clearer until we we’re getting fully, throaty stacks of harmony unlike anything today’s crop of rap crossover stars are delivering. You can hear the influences in there, but you can also hear how Banks’ voice doesn’t fit simply into a box. There’s no straight-line to a single prior act.

(Spoiler alert: this is not a fluke. That amazing dynamic range is all over her album.)

Next, the music. Despite being born a few weeks after “Vogue” hit the charts in 1991, Banks has a sound that’s deeply rooted in the 90s house music of the period that Madonna summed up in her major hit. Yet, it’s not the only noise she knows how to make – “212” is a much more straight-forward beats-driven rap song. In fact, Banks even issued an EP titled 1991 that was bathed in this sound. Here its represented by sustain passing synth chords and rapidly changing clanging chords, but also a weirdly alien burbling drum track.

(Spoiler alert: this is a star whose brain is wired for ingenious arrangments. I’ve seen interviews where she describes singing all of the parts of an arrangement to her producers, a la Michael Jackson.)

Finally, the lyrics. While the chorus has a hook-and-repeat vibe, the track on the whole is a lot deeper than that. Here’s how it begins.

I want somebody who can take it apart, stitch me back together make me into who I wanna be.
But all you ever do is sit in the dark. Dealing with the Devil, you ain’t never ever gonna be mine.

Cause I’m born to dance in the moonlight
I feel like spending my nights alone
I try to give you a little more space to grow
White lies, I don’t wanna be around anymore
I’m through giving, I’ve got to go….

Am I chasing time? Cause I wasted all mine on you.
Am I chasing time? Cause I wasted all mine on you.

Check my watch, I had the future in my pocket, but I lost it when I gave it to you.
If tomorrow drops, I had my time right in my locket, but I lost it when I gave it to you.

These are all reasons I am in love with Azaelia Banks, and with “Chasing Time” in specific. She is a rare pop auteur putting the pieces together in new and interesting ways, made all the more interesting by the fact she is an outstanding rapper. Good rappers who are good singers are few and far between, and ones with ideas this interesting (and, frankly, images so seldom about sexual provocation) are far fewer.

I want you to give her a listen, and don’t take her advice from the final lines of this song.

And you’re like, “Girl, how you do that?”
My attitude is bitchy but you already knew that…
And since we can’t get along
I think we should both move on

my first custom-bound comics project

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Top to bottom: Marvel’s B&W Essential She-Hulk Collection, my bind of the same issues, my Sub-Mariner binder, a color Spider-Man Epic collection of about the same length, and a color Marvel Masterworks collection of about half the length without its dust jacket.

Just a quick one today to share a project I completed earlier this year.

Even with my primary focus being on graphic novel collections of individual comic books, I have a ton of single “floppy” comics boxed up in my house. Some of them are from my original 1990s collection, which I’ve bought others to fill gaps between official collected editions. The rub is I am completely disinterested in reading single comic book. So much picking up and putting down, plus those annoying bags and boards to keep them safe. I love a book I can bring with me to bed or on my commute.

As a result, I took a spare low-grade run of The Savage She-Hulk plus some cheap Saga of The Sub-Mariner recap comics and sent them off to be custom bound per my exact specifications. Some people carefully clip out unnecessary pages and back covers, but I wanted to begin by just getting some whole comics bound.

Here are the results – the only difference between the two books is that the She-Hulk bind is oversewn (stitches pass through all pages a short distance in from the spine) and Sub-Mariner is sewn through the fold (each comic is effectively one signature of the book, with stitches through the fold of the book).

What I loved about learning about book-binding was that it wasn’t just about comic books. I didn’t get to work on anything with a hardcover in my years of print production, and this really opened my eyes to the types of binding methods used in the books we encounter every day.

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Review: Red One, Vol. 1 – Welcome To America by Dorison, Dodson, & Dodson

Terry Dodson’s art occupies a space between cartoon and cheesecake. His men are muscled and smirking, his woman curvy with cheshire smiles. With his inking wife Rachel adding a slick, bold line on all of his figures his work is positively animated. That makes him a tremendous artist for a prior gig on Wonder Woman, but strange fit for some of the more grounded Marvel titles he’s graced, like Uncanny X-Men and portions of last year’s event flop Axis.

What Dodson hasn’t done much of is creator-owned work – and, why would he with the time restrictions of an artist who is in demand for Marvel’s highest-paying projects!

Yet, here his is, collaborating with French author Xavier Dorison. Together they’re penning a Communist superhero invading America in the late 70s to preserve its hedonism, a take surely inspired by The Americans.

How did it hold up?

Red-One-Vol01Red One, Vol. 1 – Welcome To America 1.5 stars Amazon Logo

Written by Xavier Dorison with art by Terry and Rachel Dodson

#140char review: Red One is a misguided mis-mash of 70s-worship and Cold War fetishizing, supposing the commies would win if we stayed Hedonists. Disjointed.

CK Says: Skip It

There’s a very interesting premise here: The Cold War served the ruling class of Russia as much as that of America, and the best way to extend that was to make sure America was a land of increasingly liberal hedonists. What if America was suddenly gripped by an evangelical vigilantism that threatened to plunge the country into a conservative movement bordering on Neo-Fascism? What if Russia was willing to send in their best agent – Black Widow under another name – to disrupt the trend?

If you think that sounds like an amazing concept, you’re not alone – I think so, too! However, Red One never quite gets there.Xavier Dorison’s script and his direction of Terry Dodson’s animated panel work is disjointed, with word balloons that don’t quite make sense and actions that don’t quite track from panel to panel. What should be a rich mythology winds up a flimsy plot that barely keeps the pages turning in this outlandishly oversized tome – it’s the size of a 70s magazine, like the old format of Rolling Stone.

The size serves Dodson’s artwork well. It is bold and beautiful, with Rachel Dodson using a seemingly-slimmer line on her inks. Maybe that’s the size of the format, or Dodson handling his own colors (which are beautiful). Yet, even this beautiful oversized format has some flaws, among them mis-sized letter balloons and badly fit words – completely uncharacteristic of super-pro Clayton Cowles.

The true problem here might not be bad storytelling, but a flawed premise. While setting this book forty years ago gives it a chance to play in a historical context predating the dissolution of the USSR, the present day would be a better fit for the thematic context. A few touches of same sex relationships, sex-positive attitudes, and polyamory come off as lurid rather than thoughful. Even if you can make the leap to root for the Russian disruptors and against the cultish, prudish anti-hero The Carpenter (yeah, really, it’s that subtle), there’s the implication that Russia likes all this hedonism because it’s bad for America. That puts a oily film over all of it, even though Red One is weirdly okay with it all (because it totally makes sense that Russia’s top agent, trained for 21 years of her quarter century of life, would actually be a total party animal).

I don’t mean this to come off as some form of thought-policing. Your superhero book can be about the downfalls of redefinition of morality and still be good. The problem here is that there is just no nuance to Red One’s chauffeuring of a famous porn director while beating up Neo-Cons on her breaks.

Red One is the boring cartoon fairytales The Americans might tell their children before bed, and not one you should spend your time reading unless you are a prohibitive Terry Dodson fan.

Marvel Now In Hindsight: Every Comic Book Series, Ranked

marvel-now-bannerAfter Avengers vs. X-Men at the end of 2012, Marvel reloaded their entire line save for a handful of just-launched books and dubbed the era of titles “Marvel Now.” There have been a few incremental waves of additional launches since then, but the main spine of Marvel has been telling consistent stories since then – the Avengers and X-Men flagships, their big three Avengers heroes, and Spider-Man.

The stories haven’t only been consistent – they’ve been really good. Unlike the 2011 DC New 52 launch, Now hit the stands with nothing bad in the bunch. Even as some books declined as the period wore on, we got other amazing winners in the intermediate waves.

Now that we’re only weeks away from the next major period of Marvel where every book will be refreshed, I thought it was the right time to look back about what was so awesome about Marvel Now by ranking every book we got along the way – over 70 ongoing titles!

As with my Writer-Rankings last week, being low on the list doesn’t mean a book was bad – just that it’s not my top pick for you to spend your hard-earned dollars on.

The criteria: I’m a trade-waiter, so books had to release at least one trade by this week. Books from before Now only count if they made it through 2014. No series that were explicitly disclaimed as limited (short series that got cut off by Secret Wars do count). Two volumes of a book by the same author or with continuous story count as one entry – like Daredevil Volume 3 and Volume 4, both by Waid, or Iron Man and Superior Iron Man.

The final trades for these series were too late-breaking for me to evaluate them fairly, but I’ll add them into the order with the appropriate post-dated annotation when I catch up: All-New Captain America, Amazing Spider-Man Vol. 3, Bucky Barnes: The Winter Soldier, Deathlok, Savage Hulk, Silk, Spider-Gwen, Spider-Woman, Unbeatable Squirrel Girl, Uncanny Avengers Vol. 2, Wolverines.

Let’s get to it!

CK Says: Must buy!

Thor, God of Thunder + Thor by Jason Aaron

The pinnacle of what Marvel Now had to offer in every regard. Writing, character voice, plot, art – all of the above were the best they could be in this landmark run on Thor, which gave way to a historic makeover for one of Marvel’s biggest heroes. It’s like watching Thor as it’s own multi-part cinematic epic with a scope as large as Lord of the Rings. It has my highest recommendation.

Start with Thor, God of Thunder Deluxe Hardcover Vol. 1 or visit the guide.

Silver Surfer by Dan Slott & Mike Allred

Utter perfection in every issue. A wry love-letter to the totally zany Marvel comics of the 60s, where space contained the most improbable things. It was a delight to see Dan Slott step away from his Spidey-mode and push his storytelling to the limits. It makes me wish he had the time and inclination to start up some indie comics, but this is even better – a classic, never-better take on a character who has gone a bit under-appreciated in the past few years. Oh, plus a dozen issue run of Mike Allred’s art? No way to go wrong there.

Start with Silver Surfer, Vol. 1

Storm by Greg Pak

Sometimes you see fans ask Marvel editors why a certain character hasn’t yet had their own series, and the reply is usually, “No one’s made the perfect pitch.” Greg Pak had the perfect pitch on Storm. This has everything you could hope for from a series starring the weather goddess and Wakandan ex-royalty, from humanitarian missions to hand-to-hand combat to thievery to clashing with the FBI. Pak executed every moment on this high-wire with precision, and artists Victor Ibanez, Alejandro Barrionuevo, and Neil Edwards gave a real world weight to Ororo’s adventures.

Get it all: Storm Vol. 1 and Vol. 2

Superior Spider-Man by Dan Slott w/Christos Gage

Who knew something so bad would feel so, so good? Spider-Man as a reluctant hero and a recovering villain made for some of the most page-turning issues in his recent history. Even as this All-New Peter Parker reversed his infamous Parker Luck, Dan Slott piled on the misfortune for New York City until the scales tipped and our Superior hero had to make some challenging choices when it came to his newfound success. They say that good stories sometimes put their characters through the worst, and never has that been both so enjoyable.

Start with Superior Spider-Man Deluxe Hardcover, Vol. 1 or visit the guide.

Deadpool by Gerry Duggan & Brian Posehn

I am not a Deadpool fan. I AM REALLY NOT A DEADPOOL FAN. This is a character that induced groans from me in every previous iteration, but Duggan and Posehn found a special magic in decrepit old Wade and turned him into one of Marvel’s most-readable heroes – yes, even with the gags intact. It’s hard to believe. Art from Tony Moore, Mike Hawthorn, and Scott Koblish was consistent, flashback issues were a hilarious bit that never got old, and we even found some weighty highs and lows between Deadpool’s marriage, his friendship with Agent Preston, and the reveal of his lost family. If you like even the idea of the Merc With a Mouth with a half-decayed secret heart of gold you must read this run.

Start with Deadpool Deluxe Hardcover, Vol. 1 or visit the guide.

Superior Foes of Spider-Man by Nick Spencer

Nick Spencer crafted a beginning-to-end farcical delight that wound up more of a Rubik’s cube than anyone would have guessed at the start. This sort of clever, indie-style book that elevates minor characters into majors is one of the things Marvel does best in the NOW era, and despite declining sales this book was every bit as clever as the similar tone and look on Hawkeye – and usually a lot more fun to read. Primary penciller Steve Lieber was the only real superhero on the book, delivering classy, pitch-perfect, gag-filled art for the majority of issues. Even fill-ins from James Asmus struck the right tone. A major success.

Get it all in the Superior Foes of Spider-Man Omnibus

Avengers Arena / Avengers Undercover by Dennis Hopeless

We all love seeing teens take up the mantle of our favorite heroes, but seldom do we ask, “What’s the price they pay?” Avengers Academy did a fine job exploring their scarring origin stories and PTSD, but it never touched on the vengeance a true villain could wreak on an impressionable generation of superheroes. Who would have ever thought that villain would be Arcade, the carrot-topped constant failure who habitually plagues the X-Men and Spider-Man for no reason other than his own amusement? Dennis Hopeless drew together dozens of disparate characters and themes to craft a Marvel-style Battle Royale or Hunger Games, yet there were twists within beyond either of those two works. Meanwhile, Kev Walker bloomed before our eyes from the steady-eddie from Thunderbolts to one of Hickman’s headline artists on Avengers! If only Hopeless got another 10 or 20 issues to extend his ideas on Undercover! Yet, even the aborted themes of descent and redemption there were crafted perfectly.

Start with Avengers Arena, Vol. 1 or visit the guide.

Hawkeye by Matt Fraction & David Aja

For all it’s lateness and idiosyncrasies, it’s hard to ignore the heart in Clint Barton as a unloveable screw-up with enough charm to get by and Kate Bishop as an unrepentant A-Student taking a test she can’t study for. Was it worth the wait for every issue? Maybe so, maybe not, but I don’t think anyone wishes that Fraction, Aja, and Wu were pulled off the book at any point to speed things up.

Get it all with Hawkeye by Fraction & Aja Omnibus

Magneto by Cullen Bunn

Here’s the pitch: Magneto, solo *kinda) – but good (kinda), without powers (kinda), and bald (totally) with a serviceable author (Bunn, who has crashed several series to date). Sounds like a surefire miss, right? Instead, it was a glorious, twisted, dark run that breathed life into a Magneto who has been humbled for many years. This run touched many parts of his long and somewhat-mangled history, from surviving the Holocaust in Germany to the genocide of mutants in E for Extinction. I was expecting a X-Men: First Class cash-in, but instead we got some of the best stories every written about this villain.

Start with Magneto, Vol. 1

Secret Avengers Vol. 2 + Vol. 3 by Nick Spencer & Alex Kot

A messed-up superhero story that didn’t quite require you to read every issue but improved if you did. Spencer and Kot were two of the only authors to innovate on a team book in a period of strong solo work across the Marvel line, and they did it by doing the unconventional – creating a team of heroes that couldn’t remember their deeds, and then augmenting the team with MODOK and a living bomb. Also, Deadpool. It was glorious, and the art – especially by latter-run artist Michael Walsh on Kot’s run, had an appropriately slight cartoonish bent (though never so much as the blocky covers).

Start with Secret Avengers, Vol. 1 or visit the guide.

Daredevil Vol. 3 + Vol. 4 by Mark Waid

As nimble as its title character, Daredevil is a title that hops genres and tones and never gets caught off-guard. A slight bobble at the end of each volume is no reason to be down on this all-time classic book, the first one in a long time to put a shine in Murdock’s smile and a devlish glint in his eye. It doesn’t hurt that the artwork was top-notch throughout, with some truly groundbreaking work from ARTIST at the beginning to define the look of the book.

Start with Daredevil by Mark Waid Deluxe Hardcover Vol. 1 or visit the guide.

Loki: Agent of Asgard + Thor & Loki: The Tenth Realm by Al Ewing

Is it blasphemy to love a new Loki other than Kieron Gillen’s? If it is, then Odin is going to strike me down where I stand. Al Ewing’s genre- and gender-bending take on the god of mischief was full of smarts and smirks in every issue, and his artistic collaborators were always on their A-Game. An enjoyable riddle of a book that tapped into Hiddleson’s mischievousness while making Loki more relevant to the onoing story of Asgard than ever.

Start with Loki: Agent of Asgard, Vol. 1

Avengers Assemble by Kelly Sue DeConnick w/Warren Ellis

If Bendis’s multi-year addition to Avengers was giving a soul to a sometimes randomly collected team, DeConnick gave it a heart. There were so many small moments in this run where we saw the human connections that result from battling alongside each other for years. Whether it was the Stark vs. Banner rivalry, the Spider-Woman and Hulk playfulness, the Captains America and Marvel’s exasperation, or Black Widow’s ability to be the subtle social glue to get their best out of a team while never being the obvious “leader.” Every issue and arc here was massively enjoyable, and scratched an itch no other Avengers title has ever before quite hit.

Start with Avengers Assemble: Science Bros or visit the guide.

Angela: Asgard’s Assassin by Kieron Gillen & Marguerite Bennett

Kieron Gillen’s parting love letter to Loki and Asgard comes in this brisk single arc exploring Angela’s first solo adventure as a woman without a realm – not accepted within Asgard, and never truly a winged creature of Heven. What results is nothing you’d expect – an unusual tryst, a touch of darkness, and a best friend who is not all that she seems (nor is that sentence). If you’ve enjoyed any of Thor or Journey Into Mystery in the past few years but wished it had more of a female touch, this is it – especially thanks to awe-inspiring art from master Phil Jimenez and the heavenly Stephanie Hans.

Get it all with Angela: Asgard’s Assassin!

Ms. Marvel by G. Willow Wilson

Ms. Marvel was the major can’t-miss-moment of Marvel Now! It’s rare that Marvel creates a new hero from whole cloth, rarer still for them to debut in their own book, and even more shocking to see that book be given so much room to breathe without crossovers and tie-ins. As we roll into a second and third set of stories the bigger villain arc got less interesting and the interpersonal relationships got stronger. It will be interesting to see what G. Willow Wilson does with the next volume to set up a nemesis for Kamala.

Start with Ms. Marvel by Wilson Deluxe Hardcover, Vol. 1 or visit the guide.

Elektra by Haden W. Blackman & Mike Del Mundo

Finally, Elektra who is more than just a killer or just a killer pair of legs and sais! Blackmun’s Elektra was driven by her assassin’s code and a need to be right, and nothing else mattered. While every move seemed to entangle her further in a plot where she had no control, instead of seeing a defeated hero we met one who grew ever more determined. It made for a slick plot and Mike Del Mundo’s art could have been the best interiors of Marvel Now this side of Thor.

Get it all with Elektra Vol. 1 and Vol. 2 and visit the guide for more Elektra.

Keep reading for the books that I recommend and ask you to kindly consider, plus a few I think you ought to avoid.

Continue reading ›

Newly Released Graphic Novels & Collected Comics – Sept. 15, 2015 Edition

Sometimes being a comics fan is about branching out.

As I have documented in the past, I started reading comics with Marvel’s X-Men #3 in 1991.  At the time I had no aspirations of reading other titles or publishers – I just wanted to know what these mutants were all about. However, once I visited a comic store, the purchase pattern started expanding. All the X-Men. Then a bit of Image. Oh, and Wonder Woman of course. Hey, these new Dark Horse superheroes look cool!

That’s part of why I like putting together this list. I’m a complete Marvel Zombie, a phrase historically indicating someone who reads the entire Marvel line. However, I’m not just a Marvel fan – I’m a fan of the comic medium. That means sometimes I need to just see what’s out there to break out of my normal fan comfort zone.

Hopefully this list helps you with that, too!

heart-in-a-box-ognCrush of the Week: Heart In a Box OGN

Buy this comic. Buy it. Buy it!

Kelly Thompson is the brilliant author of the CBR “She Has No Head” column and the books The Girl Who Would Be King and Storykiller who finally exploded as a comic author in 2015 with Jem from IDW and Captain Marvel and the Carole Corps from Marvel. She is the real deal when it comes to amazing characters, and she also weaves in a thick vein of feminism (i.e., everyone has an equal opportunity) into all of her work. This is her first original graphic novel, paired with artist Meredith McClaren, about a girl who needs to literally put her heart back together after a breakup. You need it.

Interesting Unknown: Universal War One 

From writer/artist Denis Bajram, the solicit: The whole world is at war. And it’s about to get worse. 2058. Humanity has colonized our entire solar system. In the middle of a civil war between the core planets and distant outlying planetary settlements, an immense black wall appears, cutting our solar system in two.”

This is a French comic translated and released by a Marvel imprint. The confusing thing is that it’s hit hardcover before – once for the original series, and once for the follow-up Revelations. This is longer than each of those , but not long enough to be both of them in one book(the original series were 64pg issues, the follow-up 48 – we’d have to assume 20% ads to fit into this sub-300pg book, which is high). I’m not sure what to tell you, but it looks cool!

Now, on to Marvel and the rest of the publishers!  Continue reading ›

#MusicMonday: “Open Window” – Sarah Harmer

At 1:30 PM on Saturday it was raining in Maryland.

I love the rain. Maybe it’s because I’m not a hot weather person or someone who spends much time outside. I think it has more to do with the cement porch on our row home on 64th street growing up. I would sit on the stoop when it rained and watch it come down safe from the storm, and enjoy that spicy cement petrichor of the city that followed.

I love the rain, but I’ve also never planned an outdoor wedding in a state park. That’s what I was considering at 1:30 PM on Saturday as our car idled at the foot of a little hill that lead up to the pair of pavilions that would house our good friend Karen’s wedding to her partner Matt. From our position, the rain seemed less lovable.

Karen was one of my earliest and most-persistent theatre friends at Drexel, and we worked on a run of shows together. She is like a Chaotic Good version of a typically mean Kristen Schaal character. Also, she is a experienced alto, a lawyer, and a librarian. As with E, she is one of those human beings that can and will achieve seemingly anything set before her.

I finished lacing up my boots and we mounted steps set into the hill. It was raining hard and I tilted my head sideways to keep my lacquered blue hair safe under E’s umbrella, lest my Super Goo [actual product name] run down my face in rubbery sluices. We did not know anyone in the pavilion. We picked up a pair of programs mounted on wooden handles, a bit spongey from the rain. Printed on the rear was SATB version of Charles Welsey’s “Hallelujah.” We squinted at the first measure to see if the starting pitch in bass was a G or an Ab and E gave me my starting pitch.

It rained during the ceremony, which was delightfully rooted in literature, law, and pop culture. At one point a sustained peal of thunder caused the pavilion to shudder, and while some guests winced Karen grinned madly and gave us all a thumbs up. It was an extremely Karen moment. Inside the pavilion there was love.

After the ceremony, we guests shuffled through the rain across a stone patio to a second pavilion. Inside this one there was magic – lights and glass and color and a murmuring of friends reuniting. I hewed closely to Hillary and her husband, who I can never spend enough time with, and their friend Amanda, who I have met a half a dozen times yet never had a conversation with. We discovered a guest book was full of empty pockets and were supplied with library cards on which we could write our notes.

I decided to catalog the check-outs and returns of our relationship, Karen and Peter: A Brief History (abridged). There was a gap in the middle 00s as we graduated and Karen accumulated degrees, which ended on E and my wedding day; Karen sang “Open Window” for our first dance. I still remember our first listen to Sarah Harmer’s record, driving around in Karen’s dinged little car to buy groceries or supplies for a fraternity event. The memory is mirrored by dozens (if not hundreds) of occasions of E and I singing through the entire You Were Here LP in our car, trading harmony and vocal percussion, me crying during the refrain “Lodestar” every single time.

I looked up from my sketching of our timeline to see that it wasn’t raining anymore. The sun was low and obscured, casting a pinkish hue across the cement patio between the two pavilions. It was perfect light – a sustained “magic hour” to capture every wedding memory in photograph. (“Are you a photographer,” our neighbor inquired later as I extolled the virtues of the light. “No, I learned it from E.” “Oh, she’s a photographer? “No, she’s an an engineer, but her degree is in photography.”) I heard a certain melody lilting through the air…

Here, witnesses appear
And recognize how sacred
Love can be when stated

I leapt up from my seat on our bench to find E already on the patio waiting to dance. We spun slowly and whispered the melody into each other’s ears, pausing occasionally to smile away a potential sob.

As the song ended, a whirling dervish of smiles and flowing white enveloped us in a muscular hug: another perfect memory with Karen.

Review: Birthright, Vol. 1 – Homecoming, by Williamson & Bressan

Image Comics knows what’s up with finding readers outside of the Direct Market. Valiant, too. Really, everyone except DC and Marvel.

These companies realize that buying the first collection an untested property from an author you may or may not know is a risky proposition, and generally not something you’ll plunk a $20 down for. That’s why nearly every Image first volume trade paperback is a handy $9.99 – which puts it in the five to eight dollar range when you buy it online.

That’s the story of how I wound up with a copy of Birthright, Vol. 1 – a $6 gamble on a book with a beautiful cover that evokes Sword In The Stone with hints of more dire elements along the edges. I was completely unfamiliar with creator Joshua Williamson by virtue of him solely writing for DC after his first pair of creator-owned works, both short-form. That’s changed in the past two years, with Williamson writing a trio of ongoings for Image – Ghosted, Nailbiter, and Birthday (plus Robocop for BOOM!).

When I wrote up Nailbiter in last week’s new comic roundup and decided to grab the first volume (again: $6), I realized I had another Williamson book in my in box (an actual longbox) waiting to be read!

How was it?

Birthright, Vol. 1 – Homecoming 4 stars Amazon Logo

Birthright - Vol01

Written by Joshua Williamson with art by Andrei Bressan and color by Adriano Lucas

#140char review: Birthright is Goonies crossed w/Sword In the Stone plus something sinister, like Harry as an agent of Voldemort. Bressan’s art = perfection.

CK Says: Buy it!

Birthright is a batter of different genre tropes that baked up into something a lot tastier than its individual ingredients.

Birthright is primarily a Chosen One narrative in the Joseph Campbell model, like Star Wars and Harry Potter before it. Where it deviates is that we’re getting the story after the fact, and we see that part of the reason all of those stories end so pat is that the orphan hero tends to make some choices that haunt him after his victory. That’s the case here with young Mikey, who disappeared into the woods on an early birthday without a trace during a game of catch with his dad.

Here’s where creators Joshua Williamson and Andrei Bressen do something a little weird. They spend their start-up issues focusing on the human trauma behind a child who disappears, writing a family drama and a police procedural for a few pages before the fantastic main plot gets underway. It’s a risk. It gets a little too simple at points (random cop dude insists, “He is a security risk.” To what, exactly?). There’s a repeated rubber-band snap as we get yanked out of the fantasy-themed pages we crave and back into a dingy interrogation room. Yet, that tension and genre-hopping is what marks Birthright as not the hero story we’ve come to expect. It’s what makes this book a page-turner even before the biggest twist is unfurled.

The remainder of that success comes from artist Bressen and a remarkable set of colors from Adriano Lucas. Many indie comics are well-executed but don’t achieve the right color palette or gradient shading, but here Lucas breathes three-dimensional life into Bressen’s characters. They nearly leap off the page when they are in motion.

It’s difficult to say more without completely spoiling the super-punch surprises of the plot here. It turns out that the fantasy world has an ongoing relationship with Earth, as represented by several unusual visitors who have crossed over. They are working at cross purposes to each other, and it’s hard to know who to trust – especially if you are a family that has been shattered by grief for the past year. Would you believe anyone who told you what you wanted to hear and offered you a means of putting your life back together? Or, would you be skeptical of everything offered to you after such a tragic loss? How Mikey’s family answers these questions divides them down the middle.

Ultimately, the heroic tale and the familial drama are one and the same, and to enjoy them both you might need to forgive the police procedural portion of its weaker spots. What shines through each element is that the whole Chosen One business is unfair. It picks on kids who don’t know who they are or want to be and it tears families apart by necessity. Every one of the four family members has been damaged in the process, and with so much book ahead of us it’s unknowable whether they can help each other heal or if the wounds will just fester.

The dual-worlds narrative plus a last page reveal might leave you a little cynical that this is very much a post-Saga derivative. I’m optimistic. I believe in Williamson’s easy scripting and the consistently gorgeous visuals from Bressan and Lucas enough that I’m signing on for a full-priced second volumeBirthright has the potential to be a lasting epic if it can keep up the momentum of this first five-issue sprint.

Marvel Now In Hindsight: Every Writer, Ranked

ANMN-promoNext month, Marvel launches an all-new era of series and storytelling (with the same history and continuity) called “All New, All Different Marvel!”

What does that really mean? Think of it this way – Marvel treats every few years of their comics as like a TV Season or one of their Cinematic Phases. Every comic released from October 2012 to right now was part of “Marvel Now.” As of the end of this month, every one of those comics will end, and we’ll start a new season or phrase, called All-New, All-Different Marvel.

That means we just had three whole years of brilliant, interconnected storytelling in the largest and most long-running shared universe in the world – and I read every comic along the way.

As a look back at what was awesome about Marvel Now, I’m ranking every writer in the bullpen. What’s great about this list even the writers at the bottom of the rank turned in some five-star issues for me, but the ones at the top are the unquestionable best-of-the-best of Marvel Now – they write the books I immediately snag from the box and read in the middle of the floor like an eager little kid.

The criteria: Writers had to be the sole pen behind more than six issues or more than a single arc in the main Marvel Universe during Marvel Now, beginning with Uncanny Avengers in October, 2012 and extending through titles currently in their Last Days arcs during Secret Wars like Magneto, Ms. Marvel, Loki, Black Widow, and Punisher.

Honorable Mention: Warren Ellis – If we let Ellis loose on this list he may very well be its ruler every time, so let’s call him “Warren Ellis the King Emeritus of Marvel”. His 2014 run on Moon Knight (go to the guide!) was a jagged reboot of eminent readibility and his Avengers Assemble (go to the guide!) team-up with Kelly Sue DeConnick was a delight. That’s what Ellis does for Marvel: parachutes in once a year to leave things nice and messy for the next writer up at bat. We love him for it.

In ANAD: Writing Karnak, the Inhuman. This should be pretty interesting since Karnak was dead last time I checked. He’s also one of the most interesting Inhumans, so getting him back under Ellis’s pen is an awesome development.

Now, on to the list! Do you have some different opinions? Sound off in the comments! Continue reading ›