Holy Holy

January 31, 2010

Holy Holy (single).
Holy Holy (remake).

The nightmare world of Christianity vanished at the dawn. I fell in with a girl of the theatre in the first ten days at Torquay, and at that touch of human love the detestable mysteries of sex were transformed into joy and beauty. The obsession of sin fell from my shoulders into the sea of oblivion. I had been almost overwhelmed by the appalling responsibility of ensuring my own damnation and helping others to escape from Jesus. I found that the world was, after all, full of delightful damned souls…

The Confessions of Aleister Crowley, ch. 7.

“Holy Holy,” yet another flop Bowie single, seems (in theory) like a sure thing: a dark conflation of sex and religion with a catchy chorus. Its timing was perfect, too—“Spirit In the Sky” had hit #1 in the UK a month before Bowie recorded this, Neil Diamond’s “Holly Holy” (which Bowie’s song seems like a slight parody of) was also a recent hit, and Jesus Christ Superstar would come out in the fall of 1970. But instead “Holy Holy” suffered the fate of every Bowie 45 barring “Space Oddity” and failed to chart.

Philips/Mercury sat on the record for six months, finally putting it out in January 1971, in part because of contract negotiations but also because the track sounds a bit dull: its timing seems off and the playing is leaden, whether due to exhaustion or indifference (Tony Visconti had just left Bowie’s band, and Mick Ronson and Woody Woodmansey likely knew by this point that Bowie was sending them back to Hull, possibly for good).

Bowie knew that he had whiffed this one, though, and went back to “Holy Holy” in September 1971 with his new Spiders from Mars (Ronson, Woodmansey and Trevor Bolder). The remake is leagues better than the original—Ronson in particular is inspired, moving from an ominous locomotive intro riff to his sleek solo, a different (though harmonized) guitar track for each speaker. The remade “Holy Holy” was good enough to have made the cut for Ziggy Stardust, but instead wound up as a B-side a few years later. Seemingly of its moment, “Holy Holy”‘s time never quite came.

The lyric hints that Bowie’s been reading some Aleister Crowley—the line about “just the righteous brother” isn’t only a play on the Bill Medley/Bobby Hatfield duo’s name but a reference to the Order of the Golden Dawn, to which Crowley had belonged. The whole song is a paean to sex magick, with the lyric moving from basic seduction (the verse) to an orgy in the chorus (which ends “but let go of me!!!”—suggesting the singer’s either under a spell or is moving onto fresher prospects nearby).

The original “Holy Holy” was cut in June 1970 (with the bassist Herbie Flowers, who allegedly produced the session) and released in January 1971 as Mercury 6052 049 (c/w “Black Country Rock”). The remake was cut ca. August/September 1971 and, originally slated for the Ziggy Stardust LP, finally surfaced as the B-side to “Diamond Dogs” in June 1974 (it was included on the Ryko reissue of The Man Who Sold the World, although the remake was mislabeled as the original cut, which has never been re-released).

Top: Terry O’Neill, “Margaret Thatcher ca. 1970.”


Tired Of My Life

January 29, 2010

Tired of My Life.

No one’s sure when exactly this dreary thing was recorded—the best guess (by Nicholas Pegg, the most reliable of Bowie chroniclers) is that it was taped around the time of The Man Who Sold The World, ca. May 1970, at Bowie’s residence in Haddon Hall. The song’s a return to the folkie ruminations of Space Oddity, now with a more pronounced Crosby, Stills & Nash influence (especially in the bridge). Mick Ronson likely sings harmony.

Bowie left it in the bottom drawer for a decade, then dragged it out and tarted it up (recycling a few lines and the vocal melody) for a much better song on Scary Monsters, “It’s No Game.”

Top: Harold Chapman, “Glasgow, the Gorbals,” (slum neighborhood cleared in 1970).


Amsterdam

December 21, 2009

Amsterdam (Jacques Brel).
Amsterdam (Scott Walker, 1967).
Amsterdam (David Bowie, BBC, February 1970).
Amsterdam (Bowie, studio version 1971).

Jacques Brel, according to legend, composed “Amsterdam” in Roquebrune-Cap-Martin, in a house overlooking the Mediterranean. He read the completed lyrics to a fisherman friend, who wept and cut open some sea urchins. After Robert Guillaume first sang “Amsterdam” at the Village Gate in January 1968, he recalled in his memoir there was a “disconcertingly long hush—followed by a roar so damn loud I jumped.”

Brel never recorded “Amsterdam,” despite it being one of his best-known songs: its only official release is on a 1964 live LP of Brel at the Olympia, in Paris. Bowie likely first heard “Amsterdam” via Scott Walker’s cover recording, which was the final track on Walker’s 1967 debut LP. Bowie also attended the stage show Jacques Brel Is Alive and Well and Living in Paris, which, having debuted at the Village Gate in Greenwich Village, had come to London in the summer of 1968. The play had no libretto, just a series of performances of Brel compositions, with Mort Shuman (who also performed in the play) and Eric Blau translating Brel’s lyrics (freely and racily).

In late 1968 Bowie began covering “Amsterdam” with his folk trio, keeping the song in his stage repertoire until 1972 (he replaced it with Brel’s “My Death,” which better suited the times). Bowie even originally intended to end side 1 of Ziggy Stardust with his studio version of “Amsterdam,” with Side 2’s closing song, “Rock and Roll Suicide,” being a thematic twin of sorts, Bowie’s own rock & roll Brel song.

Like “Waiting for the Man,” the other song Bowie obsessively covered in this period, “Amsterdam” offers street life as stage material, but where Lou Reed’s lyric is the narrow perceptions of its junkie narrator, Brel’s “Amsterdam” is sprawling, a Bruegelian vision: a port filled with drunken, paunchy sailors who chew fish heads with their rotten teeth, piss in the street, fight, sing in broken voices and use the port prostitutes “for a few dirty coins.” The sense of life as a canvas, the vulgar proletarians as actors in their own dramas, appealed to Bowie, whose ’60s lyrics had tended to be obscure or bloodless—he sensed a method, via Brel, to connect with reality more directly, to use stagecraft to build more resonant songs.

Bowie also took from “Amsterdam” its sense of apocalyptic timing (such as how “Amsterdam” begins quietly, with the port slowly waking up, and builds to a wild, drunken spectacle) and its exacting demands on a singer, who has to deliver the entire lyric without barely a pause in three minutes, the intoned words “in the port of Amsterdam” serving as the unchanging hub of the song.

Bowie’s various covers of “Amsterdam” are as much interpretations of Scott Walker’s recording as they are Brel’s. In all his attempts, Bowie seems too much in awe of the material: when he tries to outdo Brel in intensity and Walker in moodiness (particularly in the studio recording) his vocal is stagy and strained, the lyric’s judgments seem unearned. It’s Bowie’s last apprentice work.

Bowie first recorded “Amsterdam” for the BBC’s Sunday Show on 5 February 1970 (on Bowie at the Beeb), and also for “Sounds of the ’70s” on 21 September 1971. The studio recording of “Amsterdam,” made in the summer of 1971 during the early Ziggy Stardust sessions, was eventually cut from the LP (though it was on the first master recording) and wound up issued as the B-side of “Sorrow” in 1973.

Top: “Renard Livres Echanges, near Les Halles, Paris,” 1970.


Buzz The Fuzz

December 16, 2009

Buzz The Fuzz.

The next one to follow is also another Biff Rose number. I’m a bit keen on his songs, I think they are very good, very funny. He’s a very overrated, er, underrated songwriter, sorry Biff, and he’s been working in America for about five years and nobody over here is buying his records, and not many people in America seem to either, and the album this comes from is called The Thorn in Mrs. Rose’s Side and it’s a good album to buy. It’s called “Buzz The Fuzz” and it’s a Los Angeles song.

David Bowie, Friars Club, Aylesbury, 25 September 1971.

Bowie had a taste for musical eccentrics, those further out on the limb then he ever ventured, whether it was Ken Nordine’s “Word Jazz” LPs or the odd figure of Paul “Biff” Rose. Rose was a banjo-playing comedian, born in New Orleans, who worked with George Carlin on various TV shows in the ’60s, including Mort Sahl’s, while releasing a series of comedy records.

“Buzz The Fuzz” is off Rose’s 1968 LP The Thorn in Mrs. Rose’s Side (as was “Fill Your Heart,” which Bowie also covered) and the song’s your basic sort of hippie drug humor, involving a rookie LA cop and the femme fatale he encounters, Alice Dee (rim shot). Removed from its narrow cultural/generational niche (Robert Christgau, watching Rose tweak Johnny Carson in 1969, admired Rose’s “hip aplomb” and ended his blurb with “Hurray for longhairs”), the song now seems smug and unfunny—a poor translation from a dead language.

First played at a BBC session on 5 February 1970, where Bowie sings it in a sideshow freak’s voice. While he kept “Buzz the Fuzz” in his stage repertoire until 1972, he never recorded it.

Top: Nixon meets the Queen, 3 October 1970. Elizabeth seems nonplussed.


The Prettiest Star

December 15, 2009

The Prettiest Star (single).
The Prettiest Star (Aladdin Sane remake).

Space Oddity” gave David Bowie a hit single at last and he had no clue how to follow it up. He dithered for months, considering “Janine,” among other Space Oddity tracks. The decision finally came down to either remaking “London Bye Ta-Ta” (his manager Ken Pitt’s choice) or cutting a new song that Bowie allegedly had just written for Angela Barnett, who he’d marry in a few months. Bowie went with the latter and got his old rival/colleague and emerging pop star Marc Bolan to play lead guitar on it. “The Prettiest Star” was simple, hummable, sweet and reassuring: it sold less than 800 copies.

Why did “The Prettiest Star” stiff so badly? Tony Visconti had warned about the danger of “Space Oddity”: it was such a dated one-off song that it threatened to consign Bowie into the bin of late ’60s novelties. Bowie resisted the obvious course, doing an SF-themed follow-up, but “Prettiest Star,” compared to “Oddity,” was quite square, its sentiments treacly, its tone warm and nostalgic. Many ’70s pop listeners would have a yen for those very qualities, but maybe March 1970 was a bit too soon. By the spring Bowie was recording heavy metal songs.

“The Prettiest Star,” lovely and neglected, is in retrospect the first sign of a countercurrent in Bowie’s ’70s work. Seventies Bowie is remembered mainly for glam rock anthems and “avant-garde” electronic records, for dressing as an alien or a Kabuki drag queen. But littered throughout all of that are the occasional regressions—stage ditties, warm reminiscences, tributes. Bowie followed his hard rock Man Who Sold the World LP with a return to music hall shenanigans, chased the sleazy glamour of Aladdin Sane with homage to his old Mod rivals and inspirations, and did a Christmas song with Bing Crosby while promoting “Heroes.”

“The Prettiest Star” has a basic verse-and-refrain structure, simple rhymes (“one day” with “someday”), dyslexic rhymes (“tried” and “tired”) and a pretty if unadventurous melody. There are a few tricks. Take the way the first three guitar notes serve as a count-in before the first bar of the intro, a pattern replicated before other verses by piano or strings. Or how in the first two verses Bowie stays on the C chord when it seems like he’s going to move up (“it can all but break your heart…in pieces,” “I moved up to take a place…near you”), only to break the pattern in the third verse, the chords moving to F and F7 as Bowie sings the title phrase. And the song’s other main part (the 10-bar section that begins “staying back in your memory“) is either a refrain or a bridge—it can serve either role.

All of this is overshadowed by the lead guitar, whose eight-bar intro is both overture for the verse (it’s the same underlying chords) and the song’s central motif. In the original version, the guitar intro reappears after two verses and is granted three more repetitions at the end—as a result, the track can feel like padding between a series of guitar solos. (When Bowie and Mick Ronson remade “Prettiest Star,” they corrected this flaw—the original’s draggy midsection, with two back-to-back bridges glued together by the repeated opening riff, is streamlined with the third verse now separating the two bridges and the riff repeat eliminated (the final guitar repeats are also reduced by one).)

“The Prettiest Star” seems to offer a battle of two lead guitarists—Marc Bolan on the single, Mick Ronson on the remake—but comparison listening makes it pretty clear that Ronson ceded the field to Bolan. While some critics have claimed Ronson reproduces Bolan’s solo note-for-note, which isn’t quite the case I think, he comes pretty close (Ronson even plays a vibrato-laden chord against Bowie singing “HOW you moved” in the bridge, just as Bolan did).

You can see why Ronson didn’t change it up: Bolan’s vibrato-saturated solo is one of the most melodic guitar lines he ever recorded, and it’s more memorable than Bowie’s vocal. In January 1970 Bolan only recently had switched to electric guitar (one reason he agreed to the Bowie session was that Visconti and Bowie had flattered his playing) and he plays the near-identical riff throughout the song, changing it only in the final repeat.

Ronson, when he remade “Prettiest Star” in late 1972, had his own well-established sound—plug his Les Paul directly into a cranked-up amp (occasionally using just a single wah-wah pedal), and, like Jimmy Page, use precise overdubs to fatten out the track (here he puts in a scratchy, distorted second guitar at the end of the intro). Bolan’s lead had been supplemented by Bowie strumming on 12-string acoustic guitar, but Ronson has no need of that, as saxophones serve to beef up the verses, freeing Ronson to craft metallic washes of sound.

It’s unclear why Bowie remade “Prettiest Star” for Aladdin Sane: perhaps he was short of new material (this was when record companies wanted artists to churn out new LPs seemingly every nine months—today, Justin Timberlake gets half a decade between records) and for most record buyers “Prettiest Star” was basically an unreleased track, given its awful reception in 1970.

If the original version of “Prettiest Star” was a simple valentine, the remake is a rowdy, garish engagement party, with doo-wop backing vocals, a horn section, an aggressive piano and a heavier beat. They both have their appeal, though the Aladdin Sane edition sounds like a better time.

Recorded 8, 13-14 January 1970 (with Visconti on bass and Godfrey McClean on drums) and released in March as Mercury MF 1135 c/w “Conversation Piece”—the same group, including Bolan, also cut “London Bye Ta-Ta” but it was left on the shelf; the Aladdin Sane remake was recorded in New York between 3-10 December 1972, in one of the first sessions for the LP.

Top: The Bowies wed each other, Bromley Registry Office, 19 March 1970.


Memory of a Free Festival

December 11, 2009

Memory of a Free Festival (LP).
Memory of a Free Festival (Part 1).
Memory of a Free Festival (Part 2).

Free festivals are practical demonstrations of what society could be like all the time: miniature utopias of joy and communal awareness rising for a few days from a grey morass of mundane, inhibited, paranoid and repressive everyday existence…The most lively [young people] escape geographically and physically to the ‘Never Never Land’ of a free festival where they become citizens, indeed rulers, in a new reality.

Anonymous leaflet ca. 1980, quoted in George McKay’s Senseless Acts of Beauty: Cultures of Resistance Since the Sixties.

Is this the way they say the future’s meant to feel?
Or just twenty thousand people standing in a field?

Pulp, “Sorted For E’s and Whizz.”

“Memory of a Free Festival” is a false memory, experience refurbished by regret. The festival in question was an open-air concert and fair held at the Croydon Road Recreational Ground in Beckenham on 16 August 1969 (the same weekend the Woodstock Festival was happening) that featured performances by Bowie—including a reggae version of “Space Oddity,” thankfully not recorded—and other groups like The Strawbs, all introduced by John Peel, puppet shows (of course), Tibetan goods (natch) and coconut shies. Bowie’s new girlfriend Angela Barnett cooked hamburgers in a wheelbarrow. The festival was peaceful and a relative success, with some 3,000 attendees (Bowie was complimented by Bromley’s mayor and chief of police, who also showed up).

The song David Bowie wrote about the festival soon afterward, which became the last song of the Space Oddity LP and was possibly the last song he recorded in the ’60s, depicts a blissful afternoon in which Bowie’s narrator wanders through a happy crowd of flower children, exchanging kisses, greeting Venusians. It ends with a communal worship of the setting sun and hopes for pleasures in the night ahead.

This wasn’t quite the case in reality. The festival was held five days after Bowie had buried his father, and he was in a foul mood, calling his partners “materialistic arseholes” for making money on hamburgers and T-shirts, complaining about the lousy PA system and eventually storming off in a black cloud at the end of the night. Mary Finnegan, Bowie’s once-lover and collaborator in the Beckenham Arts Lab, later called Bowie a hypocrite for writing a peace-and-love anthem about a festival at which he had been such a bore.

But “Memory of a Free Festival” is a requiem more than it is a celebration, the first clue being in the title—the naivete, the warmth, the easy unity that the song commemorates are already receding into the past. Bowie calls the hippies “children of the summer’s end,” suggesting they will soon have to return home for the impending winter. And Bowie’s narrator has a touch of wit in his descriptions, with lines like “We claimed the very source of joy ran through/it didn’t, but it seemed that way” or “Satori must be something like the same.”

Free “spontaneous” festivals first appeared in the UK in the summer of 1969, with free concerts given in Hyde Park by Humble Pie and, more famously, the Rolling Stones; the template for the model became Woodstock, though of course Woodstock, like the 1970 Isle of Wight concert, was a for-profit event forcibly converted into a free one by the assembled mob. It’s arguable that the Arts Lab festival was the first intentionally free festival held in Britain, one that served as a vanguard for later editions like the Phun City festival in July 1970 and the Windsor Free Festivals of the early ’70s, which eventually were shut down by the police.

The insistence on a concert being free was both idealistic (music is meant to be free, it gets corrupted by the capitalists, etc.: the same sort of thing a pro-Napster person was writing on a message board in 2001) and hipper-than-thou purist (how very bourgeois to make money on hamburgers and ticket sales). Cynics would claim the free festival’s natural endpoint is the disastrous Altamont concert, with Hell’s Angels murdering concertgoers, though the dream of a spontaneous gathering of the tribes, something medieval in our souls, has kept the dream alive in the forty years since.

“Memory of a Free Festival”‘s original recording starts with Bowie playing the Rosedale electric chord organ (a sort-of electric harmonium that only has about twelve playable chords), which serves as the main accompaniment for the song’s four verses, offering a humble ecclesiastical complement to Bowie’s wavering vocal. A interlude of organ swirls, snippets of chatter and laughter and guitar grunts follows (this chord chart aptly terms it “WEIRD BIT”), leading to a four-bar refrain (D-G-C-D, repeat ad infinitum) that carries the song to its end: The sun machine is coming down and we’re gonna have a party!. Yes, it was 1969.

Bowie loved “Hey Jude” (having included the “na na na” refrain in his demo of “Janine”) and this is his obvious attempt to imitate McCartney’s structure—extend a three-minute song into an epic via five minutes or more of ragged communal chanting over three repeated chords (according to Pegg, some of the backing singers included future Sony VP Tony Woollcott and Radio 1 DJ “Whispering” Bob Harris).

In the spring of 1970, Bowie’s American label Mercury asked him to re-record “Memory of a Free Festival” as a single. Mercury thought it had potential to be a hit, instructing Tony Visconti to pick up the tempo and move the “sun machine” refrain to about two minutes into the track. The compromise was to break the track into two parts, with the single’s B-side being simply the “sun machine” bit. It’s a stronger record, with Mick Ronson quickly establishing himself as lead guitarist and a sumptuous Visconti string arrangement, though the fragile naivete of the original has been swallowed by grandeur and spectacle. Here come the Seventies.

The original was recorded ca. September 1969, on Space Oddity; the remake single was recorded on 3, 14-15 April 1970 and released as Mercury 6052 026 (it was a colossal flop, as Pegg found that it sold a mere 240 copies in the US in its first month of release).

Children of the Sun Machine

E-Zee Possee, The Sun Machine.
Dario G, Sunmachine.
The Polyphonic Spree, Memory of a Free Festival (Sun Machine).

The “sun machine” chant, having evanesced at the end of the ’60s, returned a generation later. “Memory of a Free Festival (Part 2),” a trance-inducing repetition of a meaningless earworm, was a natural ancestor of a rave chant, and in 1990 E-Zee Possee had a minor hit with “The Sun Machine,” in which the “sun machine” chant was sung over house piano. Dario G’s 1998 “Sunmachine” is something of an officially-approved sequel to “Free Festival,” with Visconti playing flute and Bowie graciously sending Dario G the master tape so they could isolate his vocal for the new recording. I’m not sure we’re done with the sun machine yet—expect Animal Collective to use it at some point.

From the top: The Stones bury the Sixties at Altamont, December 1969; “Memory of a Free Festival Pt. 1″ single; bathers in the Serpentine, Hyde Park, 1969.


Wild Eyed Boy From Freecloud

November 30, 2009

Wild Eyed Boy From Freecloud (B-side).
Wild Eyed Boy From Freecloud (LP).
Wild Eyed Boy From Freecloud (live, 1973).

“Wild Eyed Boy From Freecloud” is another of Bowie’s Tibetan songs, completing a cycle that began in fact (“Silly Boy Blue”), evolved into half-myth (“Karma Man”) and now ends as a fable, fit for a bedtime story or a puppet show. The ancestor of “Freecloud” is Bowie’s mime piece Yet San and the Eagle, the story of a Tibetan boy living under Chinese Communist oppression, and “Freecloud” seems as if it was meant to accompany the movements of actors, with the lyric sometimes doubling as stage directions (the hangman “folds the rope into its bag” or “so the village dreadful yawns”).

But the wild boy of Freecloud isn’t just a Tibetan monk under an assumed name—he’s also uncorrupted youth in nature, whose very existence offends the worldlings who live meanly in the village below him. Bowie described his storyline in an October 1969 interview with Disc & Music Echo: the boy “lives on a mountain and has developed a beautiful way of life…I suppose in a way he’s rather a prophet figure. The villagers disapprove of the things he has to say and they decide to hang him.” The boy resigns himself to death, only to watch in horror as the mountain takes revenge for him. “So in fact everything the boy says is taken the wrong way—both by those who fear him and those who love him.”

Feral children and noble savages cropped up everywhere in the late ‘60s and ‘70s, from Kaspar Hauser in Herzog’s Jeder Für Sich und Gott Gegen Alle, to Truffaut’s L’enfant Sauvage, to the reclamation of Henry David Thoreau as ur-hippie and draft-dodger (e.g., The Night Thoreau Spent In Jail). The wild boys, hippie Christ figures and other “naturals” served as court jesters for the modern age, or as walking rebukes to a conformist, plastic culture. Society usually converts or kills these types, though as the Wild Boy in Bowie’s song eventually leaves the town in rubble, you can’t really blame society.

“Freecloud” marries Bowie’s theatrical sensibilities with his recent folk leanings—Anthony Newley and Jacques Brel sit alongside Fairport Convention in the gallery. The result is an odd combination of staginess (“as the night…begins for ONE!” the narrator intones, hangman exits stage left) and naturalism, the lyric ranging from the carefully-observed details of the opening verses to the Streisand-esque self-acclamation in the bridge (the “REALLLY YOU and REALLY MEEEE” bit). The whole piece is a catalog of influences: the stage setting of a night before a hanging is out of the Child Ballads, the sense of divine retribution levied on a damned town hails from Brecht/Weill’s “Pirate Jenny” and the loftiness of the lyric describing the mountain (“where the eagle dare not fly” and so on) has a bit of Tolkien in it. (“Freecloud” was Tolkien-head Marc Bolan’s favorite Bowie song).

The Battle of Freecloud

“Freecloud” opens with Bowie playing variations on the D chord—D to Dmaj7 to D7 to D6—basically just supplementing a D chord on his 12-string acoustic guitar with additional notes. The pattern repeats throughout the song: it opens the verses and circles three times through them, the relative similarity of the chords creating a feeling of stasis (they occur even while the boy is singing that he’s really free, suggesting he’s just as trapped as the rest of us). The guitar intro also has the song’s other major motif: a sudden push to C, which Bowie later uses to dramatically end the verses and begin the refrain.

The song’s built like an inverted pyramid, opening with two long descriptive verses, each 11 lines long with no rhymes and no real meter; the pattern is finally broken when Bowie goes into the bridge, which, rhyme-strewn and full of long-held notes, comes as a relief to the ear. The song spirals downward faster and faster, first with something of a refrain (handclaps, the title finally sung), then a turbulent pair of verses that contain the destruction of the village within them. It ends with a quiet 10-bar coda, the boy picking his way free from the rubble while the guitar pattern of the intro reappears, suggesting the cycle will begin again, here or elsewhere.

“Freecloud” was first recorded on 20 June 1969 as the b-side of the “Space Oddity” single and a revised version for the LP was cut roughly a month later. Consider the two versions a struggle between Bowie’s two main producers of the ’60s—Gus Dudgeon, who helmed the spare guitar-and-bass initial recording, and Tony Visconti, who seemed hell-bent on trumping Dudgeon for the LP remake.

Visconti called the Dudgeon recording a “throwaway” (it had been recorded in about twenty minutes) while hearing “a Wagnerian orchestra in my head” for his remake, and the LP version of “Freecloud” is an elaborate one-upmanship to Dudgeon’s “Space Oddity” production: Dudgeon has eight tracks on “Space Oddity”? Visconti has 16 for the new “Freecloud”! Dudgeon uses a dozen or so string and wind players? Visconti gets Philips to fund a 50-piece orchestra, including harp and tympani!

But the orchestral arrangement has an overbearing presence—it begins at top volume and goes upward, so that the chaos of the later verses lacks the dramatic force it should have. It’s a crowded party in which each guest tries to dominate the conversation: nearly every line Bowie sings is accompanied by some swoop of strings, brass blast, harp plucks, or tympani crashes. It may be the old punk purist in me, but I find the original B-side recording—a duet between Bowie’s 12-string acoustic guitar and Paul Buckmaster on Arco bass (not cello, as many references have it)—has a cold severity and power that eludes the Visconti production. Because a fable only really needs a voice.

The Ronson-led 1973 live performance linked above, in which “Freecloud” segues into “All the Young Dudes” as if it was always meant to do, is a marvel.

Top: “Vietnamese civilians, countryside,” taken by Lt. Commander Charles H. Roszel, 1969.


Conversation Piece

November 23, 2009

69paris

Conversation Piece (1969 demo).
Conversation Piece.
Conversation Piece (Toy remake, 2000).


[The poor man] feels himself out of the sight of others, groping in the dark. Mankind take no notice of him. He rambles and wanders unheeded. In the midst of a crowd, at church, in the market, at a play, at an execution, or coronation: he is in as much obscurity as he would be in a garret or cellar. He is not disapproved, censured or reproached; he is only not seen.

John Adams, Discourses on Davila.

I get lonesome right in the middle of a crowd.

Elvis Presley.

There have been few songs written about academics, whether tenured or failed. All that comes to mind are REM’s “Sad Professor” and this one, and “Conversation Piece” may not be about an academic at all. An independent scholar, let’s say—a shabby young man with an old man’s habits, who lives above an Austrian grocer: his rug is scattered with the pages of unpublished essays, and he spends his time wandering the streets begrudging life. He may throw himself off a bridge at song’s end.

“Conversation Piece” was Bowie’s most recent composition when he made a demo tape in April 1969 (John Hutchinson calls it “a new one” and Bowie has to prompt him with the opening guitar chords (“G-D-G”).) It’s unlike most of the songs written in this period, which are either love ballads or self-mythical explorations, as it hearkens back to the oddball character sketches of the first Bowie LP, like “Little Bombardier” or “She’s Got Medals.” (That said, some, like Bowie’s manager Ken Pitt, have said the song is fairly autobiographical, a sketch of the frustrated composer and failed pop singer Bowie of 1968.)

Most of all, it captures well the curse of urban anonymity—its title is a cruel joke, the “conversation” only going on in the singer’s head. Once during a hard spell while living in NYC I spent a weekend almost entirely out of doors, going from shop to cafe to library, and realized at some point during it that I had talked to absolutely no one, except maybe to mutter thanks to a ticket-taker or cashier. The sense of moving among a great mass of people and feeling utterly invisible and isolated from them is almost addicting at first, and then it can just sink your soul.

It’s a fairly simple song—three meandering verses, three tight eight-bar choruses (half lyric, half wordless). For the final verse, Bowie uses a standard trick and changes key, bumping all the chords up one step (so while the third line of the verse—for example, “he often calls me down to eat“—has been C/G, it’s now D/A (“and they walk in twos and threes or more“), and so forth). To further the sense that the singer is breaking down, the last verse extends into a faster-paced section with shorter sung phrases until collapsing into the final chorus.

The studio take, recorded during the Space Oddity sessions ca. July-September 1969, was eventually released as the B-side to “The Prettiest Star” in March 1970. It’s unclear why “Conversation Piece” was left off the Space Oddity LP, as it’s stronger than most of the other cuts, and if LP time was an issue, they could’ve shaved at least three minutes off “Memory of a Free Festival” and no one would’ve wept. Over the years, it’s become many people’s favorite Bowie obscurity (Stuart Murdoch seems to have lived in this song at some point).

Bowie revived “Conversation Piece” in 2000 for his scotched LP Toy, and eventually released it on a bonus disc for his 2002 Heathen album. He sings it in a lower register and without much emotion. The flailing scholar of the original recording at least had energy in his desperation; here, all is resigned, empty despair.

Top: Pascal Grob, “Paris, 1969.”

That’s it until after the holiday. Happy Thanksgiving. For non-U.S. readers, happy Thursday.


The “Bowie & Hutch” Covers

November 20, 2009

69gilgeo

Love Song (Lesley Duncan).
Love Song (Bowie & Hutch, 1969).
Love Song (Elton John with Lesley Duncan, 1970).
Life Is a Circus (Roger Bunn).
Life Is a Circus (Bowie & Hutch, 1969).

After he and Hermione Farthingale broke up, Bowie reduced Feathers, their former folk trio with John Hutchinson, to a duo, writing songs with two-part harmonies. He and Hutch became a Simon-and-Garfunkel double act: Hutch singing low and playing the straight man; Bowie offering a new character—a chatty, fey persona able to crack up the audience between numbers.

Among Feathers’ concert repertoire at the time (February-April 1969) were Bowie compositions like “When I’m Five,” “Space Oddity,” “Sell Me a Coat” and “Ching-a-Ling,” along with a number of covers, including Jacques Brel’s “Amsterdam” and “Au Suivant,”* Leonard Cohen’s “Lady Midnight” (likely a Hutch suggestion, as he was up on Canadian folk) and even Victor Young’s standard “A Hundred Years From Today.

When Hutchinson and Bowie made their demo tape (which eventually sold Bowie to Philips/Mercury) in April, they mainly concentrated on newer Bowie compositions like “Janine” that would later wind up on Space Oddity. There were a few covers done for the session, however, suggesting that Bowie was considering them for possible inclusion (Bowie would soon make it a habit of having at least one cover per LP). They were:

“Love Song” was written by Lesley Duncan and later covered by Elton John on his 1970 Tumbleweed Connection. Duncan had a similar trajectory to Bowie—she cut a string of failed singles throughout the ’60s until finally breaking through at decade’s end (when John covered “Love Song”). Hutchinson has the lead vocal.

And “Life Is a Circus” was by the obscure folk group Djinn (so obscure that they’re often listed in Bowie references as an “American folk group,” though they were Brits, led by the late Roger Bunn, a sort of ‘fifth business’ character in early ’70s London).

Having a wife and child to support, Hutchinson soon realized he couldn’t survive playing the occasional meagerly-attended folk gig. So he left Bowie and went to work as a draughtsman. It wouldn’t be the end of Bowie’s association with Hutch, one of the more sympathetic figures in Bowie’s life, however, as he would later return at the end of the Spiders from Mars era.

Both are available on bootlegs like The Beckenham Oddity.

* Both covered by Scott Walker, the latter as “Next.”

Top: Gilbert and George perform Singing Sculpture, Cable Street, London, 1969 (Tate).


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