London Bye Ta-Ta

October 29, 2009

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London Bye Ta-Ta.

In Victoria Station Bowie overheard a West Indian family calling “London bye ta-ta!” to relatives boarding a train out of town. And the song Bowie wrote with that title is, in part, about immigrant London: a city that, by the end of the ’60s, had a rising population of West Indians, various Africans, Pakistanis, Indians and other nationalities. Many of the newcomers had been members of the British Commonwealth or of its former colonies—the result was a new complexion for the UK (the BBC: in 1945, Britain’s non-white residents were in the low thousands, by 1970 they were approximately 1.4 million). Reaction was swift: Enoch Powell‘s notoriety (or infamy) began a month after Bowie first recorded “London Bye Ta-Ta,” one of several songs of the period to touch on immigration (not only was The Beatles’ “Get Back” originally a satire on Powell, the “get back to where you once belonged” addressed to Pakistanis, but “Ob-la-di, Ob-la-da”‘s title was coined by the Nigerian conga player Jimmy Scott, a friend of McCartney’s.)

One of Bowie’s prettiest ’60s songs, “London Bye Ta-Ta” is also the latest variation on Bowie’s provincials-come-to London theme, in the line of “Can’t Help Thinking About Me,” and “The London Boys.” What’s fine here is a broadening of perspective—two young bohemians meet and flirt, but the singer also realizes they’re part of a greater exodus, mere ripples in a sea of population change. Everyone flooding into town is looking for some form of renewal: a new name, a new face, a better job. “The poet in the clothes shop sold me curry for a pound,” the singer recalls in passing. London has become, seemingly overnight, a strange young town.

It’s a rewrite of “Threepenny Pierrot,” though Bowie greatly improves the song in revision. “Threepenny” is just a catchy chorus and a tinkly little verse; “London Bye Ta-Ta” keeps the chorus but the verse is now in three stages—first just four descending notes (“gi-gi-gi-gi,” “red light green light”) countered by four rising ones (“take me away,” “make up your mind”) punctuated by a clang, then four bars of developing melody (with a third chord, G, finally introduced—it’s only been D and C up to now). It leads to the verse’s final and loveliest four-bar section, in which a neat guitar riff anchors an upward sweep of Tony Visconti’s strings arrangement and, even higher, Bowie’s vocal.

“London Bye Ta-Ta,” as much as it captures the beauty and sweep of a city in the flush of reinventing itself, winds up a tragedy. The two kids don’t make it:

She loves to love all beauty,
And she says the norm is funny
But she whimpers in the morning
When she finds she has no money

“I loved her! I loved her!” the singer pleads with us. But he’s out the door all the same.

Recorded on 12 March 1968 (it was proposed as the B-side to the rejected “In the Heat of the Morning” single); also cut a day later for the BBC (the version linked to above, which is on Bowie at the Beeb). Bowie still thought it had potential and considered it as a follow-up single to “Space Oddity,” cutting a revised version (with Marc Bolan on guitar) between 8-15 January 1970. But it was ultimately scrapped, and the Bolan version wasn’t released until the 1989 Sound and Vision compilation.

Top: London, May Day 1968.


In the Heat of the Morning

October 27, 2009

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In the Heat of the Morning (BBC performance, 1967).
In the Heat of the Morning.
In the Heat of the Morning (Toy, 2000).

This marks the end of the line for David Bowie and his label Deram: it was the second single Bowie recorded that Deram rejected, despite the fact that, as with “Let Me Sleep Beside You,” Bowie was writing more commercial songs than he had in the past. It didn’t matter: Deram just wanted rid of him and Bowie left the label in April 1968.

So “In the Heat of the Morning” is a fragment of an uncompleted work. It was meant to be the centerpiece of Bowie’s second Deram LP, and Bowie and Tony Visconti do their best to shine it up: another luxurious strings arrangement, some odd instrumentation (guitar doubled with the Sooty Pixie Xylophone, the latter played by Tyrannosaurus Rex’s Steve Peregrin Took, who dubbed it the “Pixiephone”) and a Bowie vocal that’s ditched the Anthony Newley-isms for a sultrier, more commanding tone. Like “Sleep Beside You,” it’s basically a come-on with pretensions, but, hey, those can work sometimes.

First recorded in a BBC session on 18 December 1967, though the lyric was different and worse (“where cunning magpies steal your name“) and the opening riff hadn’t been developed yet. The proposed Deram single version was cut on 12 March 1968 and another BBC version was recorded a day later (as with “Karma Man,” the BBC version of this song might be its definitive recording—there’s more guitar, and Bowie’s vocal and the beat are much stronger, IMO). On Deram Anthology. Covered by The Last Shadow Puppets on their 2008 EP “The Age of The Understatement.”

Top: Shopping on King’s Road, 1968 (Another Nickel In the Machine).


Even a Fool Learns to Love

October 25, 2009

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Even A Fool Learns to Love.

Someone must have enjoyed or at least tolerated Bowie’s lyrics for “Pancho,” as Bowie was offered further translation work at the start of 1968. This time it was for Claude François’ “Comme D’Habitude,” written by François, Gilles Thibault and Jacques Revaux.

“Comme D’Habitude” in the original French (here’s a multi-language translation guide) has the singer stoically noting that something has died—his lover, he’s realized, responds to his actions out of habit, “as usual,” and he goes on to admit that he too has been living without inspiration: it’s a post-mortem for a failed relationship, in which even the various infidelities, despairs and fights have a weary, bloodless feel to them. (François allegedly liked it because the song encapsulated his recent breakup with France Gall.)

By contrast, Bowie’s translation, “Even a Fool Learns to Love,” is purple, self-pitying and, worse, full of sad clowns—it’s basically another version of “When I Live My Dream” combined with some Pierrot-isms. It’s pretty dreadful stuff, and unsurprisingly Bowie’s lyric got shot down (Geoffrey Heath, who worked at Essex Music, later said that the powers that be “wanted a star to record the song, not this yobbo from Bromley”).

Soon afterward, Paul Anka heard “Comme D’Habitude” on French television and wrote a new set of lyrics for it, again completely at odds with the original song. Anka titled it “My Way.” You know the rest.

Bowie’s demo (which weirdly consisted of Bowie singing over François’ original recording) was recorded in January-February 1968. Bowie seemed to regret not getting the song—he performed it as part of his failed cabaret auditions later in 1968, and as Nicholas Pegg has noted, Bowie’s “Life on Mars” is something of a rewrite.

Top: Rudy Meisel, “Piccadilly Circus, 1968.”


The Mime Songs

October 21, 2009

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Threepenny Pierrot.
Columbine.
The Mirror.
The Mask.

For a time, during the tail end of the ’60s, David Bowie became a professional mime who occasionally sang on stage. His label wanted to be rid of him, every record that he had released had flopped, he didn’t have a band, and often his only regular work came from mime shows, whether in stage productions or even (disastrously) opening for rock bands like Tyrannosaurus Rex.

Mime, like it or loathe it, is essential to Bowie’s art—it’s as important an influence as Bowie’s love of R&B and jazz, or science fiction, or Buddhism, or Lou Reed. It lies behind everything that he did after 1968: Ziggy Stardust, Halloween Jack, The Thin White Duke, even the wan extraterrestrial figure of his “Berlin” trilogy are basically all mimetic interpretations of rock musicians. Coming full circle, Bowie dressed as Pierrot in his 1980 video for “Ashes to Ashes,” winding down his most creative period.

Bowie had followed the path of a typical British would-be rock star—leaving school early, playing in beat groups, getting a manager, cutting singles, making a moderately psychedelic LP. His mime years broke this frame; it marked him with a different aesthetic than the typical rocker. It’s in part why Bowie is hard to fit into the standard “’70s rock star” slot, though radio stations and retrospectives try, and why some critics have considered him a poseur, a campy thief, a heartless vampire figure. Was Bowie really only a mime who “played” a rock musician? Or was he someone who considered mime to be an aesthetic equivalent to rock & roll, thus denying one of the music’s core myths—that its purity and simplicity made it superior to more elaborate, ‘higher” forms of art? When a mime can do rock as well as a “real” rock & roll singer, what does it say about the latter?

[Bowie] in class would drink up my words and do exactly as I asked of him. And a few years later, when he invited me to stage Ziggy Stardust for him at the Rainbow, he was still a joy to direct. I would keep encouraging him to simplify his performance, which he did, and we never had any artistic disagreements. He was an ideal student.

Lindsay Kemp, quoted in The Bowie Companion.

It was everything I thought Bohemia probably was. I joined the circus.

David Bowie, 1997, on working with Kemp.

Bowie met the mime Lindsay Kemp in mid-1967 and by the fall was taking dance lessons from him. Kemp later claimed, deliberately creating a legend, that he had saved Bowie from becoming a Buddhist monk, as Bowie had visited a Buddhist monastery in Scotland and allegedly was considering taking vows. Kemp asked Bowie to perform and write songs for a new production he was mounting, Pierrot in Turquoise. (Bowie suggested “turquoise” as it was the Buddhist symbol of eternity.) The play featured Pierrot, the sad, ever-trusting cuckold, his love Columbine and her lover Harlequin, variations on classic Commedia dell’arte types. The production became a traveling soap opera: Bowie was having simultaneous affairs with Kemp and the costume designer Natasha Korniloff, and once Kemp found out, he lived up to the role of the betrayed Pierrot and slashed his wrists before a show. When he reopened the wounds while performing that night, blood stained his Pierrot costume and the audience roared at the audacious realism.

For Pierrot in Turquoise, Bowie wrote “Threepenny Pierrot,” “Columbine” and “The Mirror” and revived, yet again, “When I Live My Dream.” While the jaunty “Threepenny Pierrot” (soon to be rewritten as “London Bye Ta-Ta“) could have fit on Bowie’s debut LP, “Columbine” and “The Mirror” show a new, emerging compositional style for Bowie—somber folk-esque songs, in which an elaborate lyric is countered by a basic, repetitive acoustic guitar figure. The type would dominate the Space Oddity LP. Bowie quarried from “Columbine” in particular—its guitar line is reused in “Unwashed and Somewhat Slightly Dazed” and a variation turns up at the end of “Width of a Circle.”

Bowie continued to work as a mime and dancer throughout 1968 and 1969, dancing in a Kemp-choreographed version of Pushkin’s The Pistol Shot and performing his own Tibetan-inspired production Yet-San and The Eagle. When Bowie’s manager Ken Pitt, seeking to revive his client’s career, arranged for Bowie to record a promo film, Bowie included in the mix a mime piece (with narration) he had written entitled “The Mask.” During its five minute span, Bowie calmly and ominously depicts his future stardom and the subsequent near-madness it caused him. He acted out his future, then endured it.

“Threepenny Pierrot,” “Columbine” and “The Mirror” were debuted at the premiere of Pierrot in Turquoise in Oxford on 28 December 1967; their only recordings are from a 1970 production of the show, The Looking Glass Murders, that aired on the BBC. “The Mask” was recorded for Bowie’s promo film Love You Till Tuesday on 5 February 1969.

Top: David Bowie at the Middle Earth Club, 19 May 1968.


Karma Man

October 19, 2009

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Karma Man.

The much-discussed surrender of John, Paul, George and Ringo to the soothing influence of the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi makes, in my view, depressing reading…The unfortunate Beatles, like many of us, it seems, are in grave danger of coming into contact with the Spirit of Universal Truth, an unhelpful tipple which has in the past turned the great mind of Aldous Huxley to mystical blotting paper.

John Mortimer, The New Statesman, 29 September 1967.

There’s high, and there’s high, and to get really high—I mean so high you can walk on water, that high—that’s where I’m going. The answer’s not pot, but yoga and meditation, and working and discipline, working out your karma.

George Harrison, Holiday, February 1968.

All at once, or so it seemed, the pop aristocracy of the UK turned to “Eastern” religion. Seemingly everyone was now devising his or her personal path to enlightenment: Pete Townshend with Meher Baba, Richard Thompson with Sufi Islam, even Dave Davies was reading Vivekananda’s Rajah Yoga. And of course The Beach Boys, Donovan and The Beatles had found the Spiritual Regeneration teachings of the Maharishi, a sort of pop fusion of Buddhism, Hinduism and even stray bits of American “power of positive thinking” boosterism.

The mystery is explained in part when you consider that many of these people had been taking LSD in great doses for a long time (Tony Visconti and his wife tripped once a week for a whole year, for example, and Visconti eventually became a Tibetan Buddhist). Eastern teachings resounded with celebrities who were trying to make sense of a world in which “all limits had been magically removed” (Bernice Martin). Also appealing was that many of the Eastern religion varietals on display didn’t require much in terms of material renunciation or moral strictures from novitiates.

The “new” religions also had appeared in somewhat of a vacuum. Since the late ’50s, there had been a general falling off in religious observance among the young in the UK (you might recall John Lennon’s infamous “we’re more popular than Christ” comment was specifically about British teenagers). So Buddhism, Confucianism and Hinduism, particularly the watery blends offered by various celebrity mystics and sages, found little competition. Buddhism in particular was hip with the young because it had no ruling omniscient god who mandated antiquated moral codes, and its priest caste was best known for a) protesting war and b) wearing colorful psychedelic outfits. It was seemingly devoted solely to the “now,” and was misinterpreted as something of a Pop religion.

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David Bowie had been studying Tibetan Buddhism since 1965, if not earlier. So while his “Karma Man,” which he cut a few days after The Beatles and their spouses had decamped (in a blaze of press coverage) for Bangor, Wales, to be initiated into the Maharishi’s teachings, may have seemed like a trendy affectation, it was actually a sequel to Bowie’s earlier Tibetan homage “Silly Boy Blue.”

That said, by late ’67, Tibetan Buddhism was just as trendy as the rest of the lot. For many weekend Buddhists, “Tibet” was something of an Atlantis in the mountains, the land of Shangri-La, the site of the Lost Continent of Mu; it was a magic kingdom in which everyone was holy and wasn’t hung up on material things. ITC’s 1968 TV drama The Champions, for example, featured secret agents crashing their plane in Tibet and being healed (and given superpowers) by lamas. (Identifying as a Tibetan Buddhist would eventually become a political act, as taking the side of the Tibetans drew down the wrath of the student Maoists of 1968, some of whom heckled Bowie’s mime performance Yet-San and the Eagle, which featured “Silly Boy Blue.”)*

So something has changed since the days of “Silly Boy Blue,” which was a realist attempt to depict Tibetan culture, to the point where it sounded a bit like a National Geographic article turned into a pop song. “Karma Man” is nowhere as literal—its title figure, clad in saffron robes and kneeling on the floor in meditation, is something of a Buddhist superhero (even the name’s right out of Doctor Strange). He seems akin to Ray Bradbury’s Illustrated Man, with sigils and runes tattooed on his skin that offer lost wisdom and future prophecies. Bowie’s Karma Man is also now set in opposition to the West—the deceived and the blind mock him, consider him a carnival freak, and keep trying to slow him down.

Recorded on 1 September 1967 as the proposed B-side to “Let Me Sleep Beside You” (an attempt at nirvana for the flip side of an ode to maya); on Deram Anthology. A live recording (a BBC session arranged by Visconti on 13 May 1968 and available on Bowie at the Beeb) is so superior to the studio cut that I prefer to think of the latter as merely a rough draft.

Top: The Beatles seek enlightenment in Bangor, August 1967; Romano Cagnoni, “British Museum,” 1967.

*A point originally made by Tat Wood and Lawrence Miles, in About Time 2, a study of cultural influences on Patrick Troughton-era Doctor Who.


Let Me Sleep Beside You

October 16, 2009

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Let Me Sleep Beside You.
Let Me Sleep Beside You (Toy, 2000).

Tony Visconti, a 22-year-old bass player from Brooklyn, came to the UK in April 1967 to illegally work as an apprentice record producer. He managed to convince Customs that he was traveling with four guitars because he was a dedicated vacationing musician who had to practice on each guitar daily. In New York he had caught the eye of British producer Denny Cordell by writing a complete arrangement for a Georgie Fame overdub session in an hour’s time, and once in the UK Visconti was put to work on tracks by The Move (“Cherry Blossom Clinic,” “Flowers In the Rain,” “Mist on a Monday Morning“) and Manfred Mann (“So Long Dad“).

Soon after David Bowie’s LP was released in June ’67, Visconti met Bowie at the office of David Platz, Cordell’s business partner and Bowie’s song publisher. Platz thought the two might hit it off as Visconti already had a reputation of being able to work with “hard to understand” artists (e.g., Marc Bolan, whose band Tyrannosaurus Rex Visconti would soon convince Cordell to sign). The first thing Visconti noticed was that Bowie had different-colored eyes. The two talked about American music for hours (both were fans of Ken Nordine‘s Word Jazz LPs), went for a walk in Chelsea, saw Roman Polanski’s Knife in the Water together and had become fast friends by the end of the day. So when Bowie went in to record a new prospective single for Deram at summer’s end, he asked Visconti to arrange and produce it.

Bowie often has been reliant on his producers, using them as interpreters, mirrors, secondary composers, performers, muses and casting directors. Along with Gus Dudgeon, Visconti was the first of the major Bowie producers, and where Dudgeon’s work is that of someone fleshing out an unusual, occasionally brilliant sketchwork (the role George Martin often played with John Lennon), Visconti’s style is both practical in its studio realism and aggressive in its scope: feeding, then realizing, Bowie’s nascent ambitions.

Visconti helped convince Bowie to push “Let Me Sleep Beside You” as his next single, flattering Bowie by pronouncing the song “almost American.” Also, Bowie was dead broke—his LP had stiffed—so “Sleep Beside You” was a bald attempt to ape the success of the Stones’ “Let’s Spend the Night Together” (blunt requests were in vogue). It marks a turn away from the eccentricity and provincial theatrics of Bowie’s earlier Deram material, as “Sleep Beside You” is a basic rock & roll sex song, just sweetened up and given to putting on airs.

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It’s a fairly basic composition—the chord progression of the verse (C-Bb-F)  has become so cliched that it’s simply dubbed “the classic rock progression” in Richard Scott’s music theory guide (it’s used in everything from The Who’s “Won’t Get Fooled Again” to ZZ Top’s “Sharp Dressed Man”). Visconti offers stage settings and mood lighting: a cello section; a dominant bass that doubles Bowie’s initial sung hook; and drums (by Alan White, later of the Plastic Ono Band and Yes) that serve as accents and occasional fireworks—the acoustic guitar (Bowie?) is what really drives the track. The strings are a moody, luxurious contrast to the wind-based arrangements that had dominated Bowie’s first LP and “Laughing Gnome” single. In the first verse, the strings repeat a five-note pattern, then offer a series of long-held notes until, after the song peaks with the bridge, Visconti gives the cellists a whole eight-bar verse to sweep through.

What works is the restraint: Bowie and Visconti set up hooks but don’t overuse them (the opening distorted guitar riff (likely played by John McLaughlin) doesn’t appear again until the fadeout, for instance), while Bowie’s figured out how to best display his voice—go low on the verses, high and imperious on the bridge, where he’s trying to close the sale.

“Let Me Sleep Beside You” is a rake’s come-on in the well-worn style of Andrew Marvell and Robert Herrick—the singer frames his seduction as being empowering, the rake merely serving as a means of liberation. He appeals to youth’s vanity; he flatters his conquest with the promise of her alleged maturity: “Brush the dust of youth from off your shoulder/because the years of threading daisies lie behind you now,” Bowie murmurs, keeping a straight face. “Lock away your childhood…child, you’re a woman now/your heart and soul are free.” (Neil Diamond’s “Girl You’ll Be a Woman Soon” had been released as a single in April ’67, and so might have been an influence, but then again the late ’60s were rife with “girl, you’re a woman now” type of lyrics.)

It’s the most lustful Bowie song since “Liza Jane,” but as the track goes on, its aim seems less about Bowie bedding the girl than Bowie wanting to convince the listener that he really is a seductive, charismatic rock star (the promo film for the song, made in early 1969, has Bowie burlesquing the image of rock-star-as-sex-god, years before Ziggy). Bowie’s at last hit on the idea that a reflection, perfectly arranged, of an Elvis-Jagger figure will serve just as well as the original.

Recorded on 1 September 1967. Deram’s review board uniformly rejected it as a single, and it wouldn’t be released until the 1970 patchwork LP World of David Bowie that Deram issued to cash in on Bowie’s post-”Space Oddity” fame; on Deram Anthology.

Photos: Kim Farber, Miss February 1967, with winter flower arrangement; the author Adam Diment in a fertility dance, London, 1967.


The Dee Dee Translations

October 14, 2009

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Pancho.
Love Is Always.

I debated whether these songs merited an entry, and since Bowie did record demos of them (which I’ve not heard, sadly) they make the cut. Plus, we’re talking about “Pancho” here. Never shirking, always fighting!

Both tunes were written by the Belgian singer Andrée “Dee Dee” Giroud and the composer/pianist Willy Albimoor. Bowie, who was still sitting around waiting for his LP to come out, was asked by his publisher Essex Music to come up with some English lyrics. Bowie’s “Pancho” is a motorbike-riding, law-breaking charismatic thug with a “face lit from inside” (like a jack o’lantern?).

Giroud seemed to vanish soon after this single, but Albimoor would have a long career (he died in 2004). Starting out as a pianist in jazz bands, backing the likes of Josephine Baker, Albimoor by the ’50s was composing for seemingly anyone in Belgium, including the homegrown studio “Hawaiian” band The Waikikis. His camp masterpiece (even beyond “Pancho”) was “Jungle Fever,” which he arranged for Belgium’s The Chakachas in 1970.

Bowie’s demos were likely recorded in April-May 1967, and the Dee Dee single was released (by “Dee Dee and Her Panchos”) on 10 June 1967 as Palette PB 25.479.

Top: Simon Dee, 1967.


1967 Demos

October 12, 2009

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Everything Is You.
Social Girl.

These two lesser Bowie compositions were demoed around the same time as “Silver Treetop School For Boys.” “Everything Is You” was eventually recorded (again by the Beatstalkers) while the wan “Social Girl” would forever lack an interpreter.

The lumberjack love ode “Everything Is You” is wonderful in its odd way, with a dorky opening guitar riff that’s mirrored by the wordless chorus, a galumphing shanty rhythm (the demo sounds like it’s been cut one afternoon in a pub) and a lyric that reads as if it had been directly translated from Finnish: “A little piece of leather ’round my head/to stop the sweat from dimming up my eyes/I feel your grace in all the trees/your strength is in the axe I wield.”

“Social Girl” isn’t as sweet. It’s a nasty little barb, a bit of neighborhood gossip and slander disguised as a sub-Beach Boys song. The demo’s lousy-sounding and is sung and played with utter indifference—you get the sense Bowie knew this one wasn’t going anywhere.

Both were recorded ca. April-May 1967 and believed lost until the acetates surfaced a few years ago; the recordings now occasionally pop up on the Internet. The Beatstalkers’ version of “Everything Is You” (which is a holy mess) was cut as the B-side to 1968′s “Rain Coloured Roses.”

Top: David Malcomson, “London Tourists,” 1967.


Silver Treetop School For Boys

October 8, 2009

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Silver Treetop School for Boys (The Slender Plenty).
Silver Treetop School for Boys (The Beatstalkers).

The great lost Bowie song of the 1960s, “Silver Treetop School For Boys” is nostalgia tempered by psychedelia. A boy notes the boundaries and the landmarks of his school days. All falls within the standard range, to the point of being generic memory—rolling the cricket pitch, headmasters barking commands—until the bridge, when the singer is called out to see “a thousand boys and masters” sitting upon the cricket ground together and sharing joints. It’s an edenic image of cross-generational harmony that’s tinged with the ominous (the English master who thinks he’s a purple mouse, the head “who’s usually sad…swinging from a tree”).

“Silver Treetop” (especially in its interpretation by the mysterious band The Slender Plenty) is a study in relentlessness, its lyric tightly welded to its melody. The first three verses are set back-to-back-to-back with just a measure’s worth of “yeah yeah”s separating them; the dense lyric (there’s a syllable seemingly for every piano note played) is countered by a descending guitar riff that hits at the start of each bar (and “SIL-VER-TREE-TOP-SCHOOL-FOR-BOYS” is a basically a guitar riff transposed to words). The bridge, with its longer phrasing and its leap to falsetto, breaks the pattern, followed by an empty verse of “la la” singing (the Beatstalkers do a guitar solo) and ends with its masters-and-boys communal tripping.

In the months while he was waiting for Deram to release his debut record, Bowie recorded a few demos, hoping to place songs with up-and-coming bands. He was allegedly inspired to write “Silver Treetop” after reading in the newspaper about a pot-smoking scandal at Lancing College (Bowie’s own formal education had ended in 1963 when he left Bromley Tech to be a pop idol, or so he told his housemaster).

Ken Pitt sent Bowie and the Riot Squad’s demo of “Silver Treetop” to producer Steve Rowland in May 1967. A few months later, two UK bands cut it–Glasgow’s The Beatstalkers (who shared Pitt as a manager and who were known for their riot-inducing live act and their tartan trousers) and The Slender Plenty, of whom almost nothing is known. Listen and compare (for me, the Slender Plenty’s version crushes the Beatstalkers’). Various writers have claimed that Bowie is singing backup on both, either or neither.

Bowie’s demo was recorded ca. April-May 1967; the Beatstalkers’ version was issued as CBS 3105 c/w “Sugar Chocolate Machine” in December ’67; and the Slender Plenty’s was released in September ’67 as Polydor 56189 c/w “I’ve Lost a Friend And Found A Lover.” Neither of the singles charted.

P.S.  I don’t know how the song’s title should be written. References like Pegg’s guide list it as “Silver Treetop,” where the labels of both the Slender Plenty and the Beatstalkers singles have it as “Silver Tree Top.” I go with the former simply because “treetop” looks better when written.

Top: Gateshead Grammar School for Boys, badminton team, February 1967.


Little Toy Soldier

October 7, 2009

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Little Toy Soldier.

“Little Toy Soldier” features a little girl Sadie, a toy soldier and lots of whipping. Amazingly, it was never released.

It’s an obvious rip on the Velvet Underground’s “Venus In Furs,” to the point where Bowie pilfers whole lines from the earlier song. There’s a grubby adolescent sensibility to it: the lyric seems like it’s by a boy who stole a copy of Justine out of the library. It also marks the fittingly perverse, gruesome end to Bowie’s novelty song series.

Gus Dudgeon, Bowie’s dedicated noisemaker by this point, festoons the verses with cackles, whipcracks and creaking springs. That’s just the warm up. Halfway through, after the soldier (a bit too wound up, it seems) kills Sadie in a fit of passion, the track descends into a maelstrom: Indian war whoops, explosions, shattering glass, coughing, motorway noise, and, just as in “Please Mr. Gravedigger,” a loudly blown nose.

Of interest (besides the S&M and noises) for being a document of the battle for Bowie’s soul—Bowie delivers the verses in his Anthony Newley-inspired voice, the choruses in his Lou Reed imitation.

Recorded on 5 April 1967 with the Riot Squad, a London band that Bowie took over for a few months in ’67, playing about 20 shows and cutting a few demos with them. They were Rod Davies (g), Croke Prebble (b), Bob Evans (sax, flute), George Butcher (keys) and Derek Roll (d); “Toy Soldier” is found on bootlegs (where it’s sometimes called “Sadie”) like Pierrot in Turquoise.

Top: Action Man in the field.


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