|Essentials of the Era|
“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
Early 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 tune 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” couldn’t set the theme for the rest of its record alone.
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 the session’s other two songs were released on Bowie At The Beeb.
“Unwashed” has a similar feel to “Space Oddity” to start, with major-to-minor guitar strumming and chiming high electric guitars. It transforms into something much heavier as the band enters, thanks to a big, rubbery bass and forceful drumming. There is not an obvious hook, yet it’s more enjoyable than the entirety of his debut. “Let Me Sleep Behind You” is more driven than the original recording, but that beat pushes too quickly 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 of this session is much hipper than Bowie’s previous incarnation. However, 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
“Space Oddity” is a singularly peculiar song. Everything about it is peculiar, 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 that make it memorable, like the love to his wife and the oscillating flutes behind the “sitting in a tin can refrain.”
This single 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. Yes, it was on another song that could be accused of being a novelty, but 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 is missing its first verse and orchestral accompaniment to truly set up its scope and drama, but this version (which went long unearthed until seeing release in 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. [Read more…] about From The Beginning: David Bowie – David Bowie AKA Space Oddity (1969-70)