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.


Unwashed and Somewhat Slightly Dazed

December 9, 2009

Unwashed and Somewhat Slightly Dazed.
Unwashed and Somewhat Slightly Dazed (BBC, 1970).

In late July 1969, while David Bowie was performing at the Maltese Song Festival, his father, Haywood “John” Jones, took ill. He died soon after Bowie returned to Britain. Jones had been a source of great stability—financial and emotional—for Bowie in the ’60s, and his death, coming at around the same time Bowie was breaking with his longtime manager Ken Pitt as well as ditching many of his old friends, left Bowie angry and withdrawn. Bowie later told George Tremlett that “Unwashed and Somewhat Slightly Dazed” was his attempt to capture the surreal feeling of the weeks after his father’s death.

“Unwashed,” however, seems more about class anxiety and Dylan-worship than anything else. Bowie told an interviewer in late ’69 that an inspiration for the title had come from the “funny stares” he got on the street, and critics like Nicholas Pegg suggest the song also seems to be revisiting the Hermione Farthingale breakup (Farthingale was of a higher class than Bowie and allegedly didn’t approve of his pop music leanings, and the song is in part a dig at a girl with a “red parquet floor” and a Braque painting on her wall).

The song is a slow reduction, moving from complexity and nuance down to hard basics, and seems, symbolically if not intentionally, to be Bowie throwing over folk music for hard rock. It opens with 12-string acoustic, alternating between Asus2 and D9 chords; Bowie’s dreamy vocal and the occasional sweep of electric guitar suggests it will be another delicate rambling folk song in the vein of “Letter to Hermione.” Then a 20-bar verse destabilizes the song until at last Bowie hits ground with a Bo Diddley beat and riffing guitars and harmonica (the latter played by Benny Marshall, lead singer of the Hull-based Rats, which would be the source of most of the Spiders From Mars).

A frustrated Bowie once said during the Space Oddity sessions that “It’s gotta rock!” and he finally got his wish here. The rest of “Unwashed” is centered on the primal chord progression C-F-C (and occasionally F-Bb-F, which is the spine of Dylan’s “Fourth Time Around”), with Bowie sneering that “I’ve got eyes in my backside” and “my head’s full of murders!” and so on. After a last yelp Bowie lets his players jam for two minutes, the harmonica backing the riffs while Tim Renwick and Keith Christmas solo on electric guitar, and even a horn section stumbles in towards the fadeout. By far the liveliest track on an otherwise somber and leaden record.

Recorded ca. September 1969; on Space Oddity.

Top: multi-generational summit, London, 1969 (Romano Cagnoni).


Cygnet Committee

December 8, 2009

Lover To the Dawn.
Cygnet Committee.
Cygnet Committee (BBC, 1970).

People, especially young people, more and more find themselves in the iron grip of authoritarian institutions. Reaction against the pigs or teachers in the schools, welfare pigs or the army, is generalizable and extends beyond the particular repressive institution to the society and the State as a whole. The legitimacy of the State is called into question for the first time in at least 30 years, and the anti-authoritarianism which characterizes the youth rebellion turns into rejection of the State, a refusal to be socialized into American society. Kids used to try to beat the system from inside the army or from inside the schools; now they desert from the army and burn down the schools.

First manifesto of what would become Weatherman, published in New Left Notes, 18 June 1969.

This country is crying out for a leader. God knows what it is looking for, but if it’s not careful it’s going to end up with a Hitler.

David Bowie, interview with Music Now!, 20 December 1969.

And we can force you to be free
And we can force you to believe

“Cygnet Committee.”

“Cygnet Committee” begins as David Bowie’s break-up letter to the Arts Lab, a communal arts venture he had co-founded that was run out of the back room of a Beckenham pub, and over its near-ten-minute span the song becomes a bile-filled, self-righteous attack aimed at the counterculture itself.

So something whose roots are in petty, specific gripes (Bowie had hoped the Arts Lab (which featured everything from tie-dying lessons to free-form jazz performances) would be a free-flowing exchange of ideas, and found it was mainly a bunch of grubby, needy kids trying to latch onto the slightly-more-famous types like Bowie—“I opened doors that would have blocked their way…I ravaged my finance just for those”) blossoms into a jeremiad against the New Left, cult figures, false hippie capitalists, deluded kids and their various empty slogans (including “kick out the jams” and “love is all we need”): it’s an unrelenting damning of a movement that Bowie was barely part of.

Two centuries before, England had avoided the revolutions that overtook America and France, and by 1969-1971 it seemed like the pattern was repeating—where French students had rioted in Paris and nearly caused DeGaulle’s government to collapse, and radical American students were bombing the Capitol and the Pentagon, the UK had remained relatively quiet (“London was the vacuum of late 1960s rebellion,” Peter Doggett). So “Cygnet Committee”‘s sustained burst of rage and elaborate paranoia seems unearned. After all, what did the guy who wrote “Laughing Gnome” or “Space Oddity” really have to say about the Revolution?

Bowie wasn’t the only one to sense a blackness at the heart of the counterculture—Pete Townshend had just written a rock opera about false messiahs, pop cultism and the rise of mob philosophy (or just listen to the way Merry Clayton’s voice cracks when she sings “Rape! Murder!” in “Gimme Shelter”). For Bowie, “Cygnet Committee” is the portal through which he would descend into his ’70s obsessions—supermen, glam violence, glam fascism, cults of personalities and various dystopias—and some of those figures appear in shadowy form here, slitting throats, killing children, betraying friends. Although Bowie ends the song with a plea for love and freedom, you’re left mainly with the phrase “I want to live,” the simplest, humblest request that a human being can make.

The song seems like a patchwork of three or four different pieces sewn together (it has at least one recognizable ancestor: the second/fifth verses and the start of the third/sixth are reused from a Bowie composition called “Lover to the Dawn” which he had demoed with John Hutchinson earlier in 1969). Two fairly concise four-line verses (sung over acoustic guitar, a fluid bassline and legato electric guitar) are followed by a 13-line, 48-bar rambling monster of a verse, which begins with a basic 4/4 rock accompaniment and then slackens into looser, almost free-form lines. The pattern repeats and this time the rambling verse (call it the radical faction) now conquers the song, extending for over five minutes until the fadeout. There is a coherence to it all, as the three verses are in step-up pattern (they begin in D, Eb and F, respectively, with the “rant” section of the third verse, for lack of a better word, starting in A Minor). The final exhortation (“I want to believe!”) is delivered over twining guitar and keyboard lines.

“Cygnet Committee” can be wearying to listen all the way through (at least I find), as the players either won’t or can’t rock when the song cries out for it—if you’re quoting the MC5, you ought to be laying down some heavy fire. Bowie’s vocal, in which he seems to be bleeding and purging himself so as to be ready for the years to come, carries much of the track.

Several writers have called this Bowie’s “first masterpiece,” which seems an overreach, though Bowie certainly was clawing here after something grander and more resonant than most of his earlier works. For an artist often accused of being cold and calculating, it’s a messy, wildly human performance.

Recorded ca. August-September 1969, on Space Oddity.

Top: Bernardine Dohrn, La Pasionaria of the Weather Underground, Chicago, September 1969.


God Knows I’m Good

December 3, 2009

God Knows I’m Good.

Oscar Wilde’s quip that “all bad poetry springs from genuine feeling” (often misremembered as “all bad poetry is sincere”) applies to rock songs as well. A case in point: Keith Christmas, one of the guitarists on the Space Oddity LP, recalls Bowie weeping uncontrollably while listening to a playback of “God Knows I’m Good.”

A poor old woman in a modern supermarket (the kind that has “cash machines” that are both “spitting” and “shrieking”—surprised they aren’t “vomiting” as well) shoplifts a can of stew. As she goes to the door, a security officer nabs her. She cries out “God Knows I’m Good!” (repeat 50 times) and falls to the floor. To hammer the point home, we also get some snide asides about all the “honest people” who smugly walk past her unknowing, and of course the backdrop of our tale is the Horror of Modern Consumer Society—soulless machines, roaring money, that sort of thing.

It’s all cheap, adolescent sentiment, with the lyric focused on a pathetic paper figure intended to generate sympathy—Bowie even made the old creature deaf to make her more woeful. Where “Conversation Piece” (a vastly superior track this thing might’ve knocked off the LP, as the two songs have some similarities) has richness and restraint in its character study, “God Knows I’m Good” just makes empty, loud demands and soon wears down its listeners’ patience. The chorus is appalling, and the 20 bars or so of guitar busking at the end complete the illusion that a three-minute track has lasted as long as an entire LP.

Recorded ca. August-September 1969; on Space Oddity.

Top: William Doherty, “Belfast Children,” 1969.


Don’t Sit Down

December 1, 2009

Don’t Sit Down.

“Don’t Sit Down” is a squib, a 40-second lazy jam with a Bowie guide vocal that soon cracks up. Its presence on Space Oddity is part of the deliberate informality of late ’60s LPs, from Jimi Hendrix coughing at the start of “Rainy Day, Dream Away” to Dylan murmuring “Is [the tape] rolling, Bob?” on Nashville Skyline to the king of them all, the Beatles’ White Album, which is riddled with mutters, coughs, false starts, control room chat, outtakes (the fiddle scrapings at the end of “Don’t Pass Me By,” etc.) and tiny shards of discarded tracks. Something that would get an engineer or producer reprimanded in 1963 was now proof that a band was keeping it real.

RCA deleted “Don’t Sit Down” when it reissued the Space Oddity LP in 1972 and the track finally was restored on the Rykodisc 1990 CD release. No one had missed it.


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.


Janine

November 19, 2009

Janine (demo).
Janine.
Janine (BBC, 1969).

George Tremlett, a freelance British music journalist, interviewed Bowie in late 1969 and wrote that while Bowie was effusive about most of the tracks on his recently-released LP, he avoided mentioning one song entirely—”Janine”—leading Tremlett to speculate that Bowie considered the song a dud and had regretted putting it on the album.

That doesn’t seem to be the case, as Bowie actually mooted “Janine” as a follow-up single to “Space Oddity” and played it during some 1970 BBC sessions, but true enough, “Janine” has been mainly forgotten in the forty years since. Which is a shame, as it’s one of the few fun songs on a rather serious, dour album. Tony Visconti liked it best of all the Space Oddity tracks, and you can hear why—it’s much like the type of hippie glam that Marc Bolan had begun writing (the first key Bolan single, “King of the Rumbling Spires,” had come out in the summer of ’69).

As opposed to the winsome, unattainable “Hermione” figure of Bowie’s recent songs, “Janine” sounds like a much better time. “You’re fey, Janine, a trooper to the last,” Bowie sings, with some admiration. “Take your glasses off and don’t act so sincere.” Of course, this being Bowie, the center of the love song winds up being its singer, who’s more concerned with protecting his true self than sharing it.

“Janine” is a rocker hidden within a folk song (the acoustic demo has some energy, and even goes into the “Hey Jude” chorus at one point, but it’s hobbled by its staid rhythm) and the studio cut, which attempts to liberate it, winds up being a bit of a hash. The beat’s weak and diffuse and the track is crying out for a simple, solid riff to keep it together. It’s a shame that Bowie didn’t turn Mick Ronson loose on this song a couple years later, as it finally could’ve become the swaggering beast it had potential to be.

Inspirational verse: “If you took an axe to me/you’d kill another man not me at all.” Or even better, “Like a Polish wanderer I travel ever onwards to your land.”

Demo recorded ca. mid-April 1969 with John Hutchinson (Bowie’s introduction claims that the song’s about the girlfriend of George Underwood “who does very nice album covers”); studio version cut ca. July-September 1969 for Space Oddity.

Top: Diana Rigg, doomed newlywed, in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service.


An Occasional Dream

November 17, 2009

69addict

An Occasional Dream (demo).
An Occasional Dream (LP).
An Occasional Dream (BBC, 1970).

As young love often does, it sort of went wrong after about a year.

David Bowie, Golden Years documentary, 2000.

The other “Hermione” song Bowie composed in early 1969, “An Occasional Dream” replaces the studied heartbreak and intimacy of “Letter to Hermione” with a more stoic approach. Bowie was taken with Jacques Brel (his folk duo Feathers often performed Brel’s “Amsterdam,” which Bowie would later record), and “An Occasional Dream” has an attempted Gallic sensibility—a dead love affair is examined, pinned to a card and cased up. The singer seems to mourn more the passing of his beautiful youth than he does his departed lover.

“An Occasional Dream” is pretty enough, if it doesn’t have as memorable a melody or a vocal as “Hermione,” and it seems far more affected: the way Bowie swoons out the title phrase, or lines like “we’d speak of a Swedish room/of hessian and wood.”

The demo was recorded with John Hutchinson ca. mid-April 1969 (Hutchinson sings lines a bar after Bowie, or gives backing vocals, and gets the occasional lead vocal); it’s the best recording of the song, as the studio version, featuring dippy flute accompaniment, hissed interjections (“TIME!”) and a Bowie vocal that sounds like a Barry Gibb impersonation, is overcooked. It was cut ca. July-August 1969 for the LP Space Oddity. Bowie played “Occasional Dream” once on a BBC session on 5 February 1970 and then retired it.

Top: Mary Ellen Mark, “Heroin addict behind a door in London, 1969.”


Letter To Hermione

November 16, 2009

bowieherm

Letter To Hermione (“I’m Not Quite” demo).
Letter To Hermione (LP).

Elvis Costello, irritated by biographical interpretations of his songs, once said in frustration to an interviewer something like “if Bob Dylan or I meant for you to take us literally, we’d have included a verse that said: So-and-so, my ex-wife, is a real bitch, this is where she lives, go burn down her house.”

Bowie’s “Letter to Hermione” appears to fit that bill: it’s a diary entry of a song, addressed to his actual ex-girlfriend by name, detailing what his biographers have described as a devastating break-up. Hermione Farthingale wasn’t her real name (no one knows, or will disclose, the true one). Bowie met her through Lindsay Kemp, danced with her for the film The Pistol Shot and the two were a couple by the summer of 1968, living together in South Kensington, forming a folk trio. By the time the two filmed Love You Till Tuesday in early 1969, it was over (Farthingale apparently had dumped Bowie for another dancer), and Bowie and Farthingale’s last day together was on a soundstage, miming “Sell Me a Coat” and “Ching-a-Ling” for the cameras.

So we have these facts, which impress the songs that Bowie wrote about the break-up (this and “An Occasional Dream“) with the engraved stamp of truth. “Letter to Hermione” isn’t just a sad break-up song, it’s a real sad break-up song. Marc Spitz, Bowie’s latest biographer, calls the song “plaintive and literal,” Nicholas Pegg calls it “painfully intimate.” Here, at last, we believe Bowie took off the mask—here is the true Bowie, dripping out his heart accompanied by guitar, so much that the song should have been credited to David Jones.

It’s understandable, because Bowie remains such an unknowable creature that any visible crack in the wall is worth a sortie. But do we consider something like “Letter to Hermione” an essential, “painfully intimate” Bowie song mainly because we believe it to be true? Is its formal beauty—the tender melody of the verses, the sweep of Bowie’s guitar—not enough?

Because the song isn’t a raw diary spewing at all, but has as much artifice and craft as “Space Oddity”: it’s structured neatly with a mirrored guitar intro and outro which enclose three verses (the first details how desolate “Bowie” is feeling, the second notes the rumors he’s getting about how “Hermione” is faring, and the third speculates about her new lover and her happiness). In the middle of each verse, Bowie, in desperate confidence, suggests that “Hermione” misses him (“You cry a little in the dark”) answered by a short four-syllable line (“well so do I”). And as James Perone notes, as the song is a “letter” it discards typical “love song” standards, shunning, for the most part,  short melodic hooks in favor of long, meandering phrases, while its rhymes are often assonant or half-rhymes (“well/girl,” “pain/same”).

The demo (called “I’m Not Quite”) furthers the sense of “reality,” with its poor, scratchy sonic quality, muffled guitar and Bowie’s tender- and awkward-sounding vocal. (The demo literally is a bedside confessional.) But as John M. Cunningham wrote, the demo’s rawness was refined away by the time Bowie recorded “Hermione” for his LP four months later. There he sings in a more mannered style, choosing a carefully forlorn and wistful tone to deliver his lines. He seems comfortable with it being a work of art, even if we aren’t.

The demo was recorded ca. mid-April 1969, likely in Bowie’s shared flat in Foxgrove Road, Beckenham; the studio cut was recorded ca. August 1969 and is on Bowie’s second LP, called David Bowie in the UK, given the woeful name Man of Words, Man of Music in the US and eventually rechristened Space Oddity by RCA.

Top: Bowie and Farthingale already heading in opposite directions, 1968.


Space Oddity

November 11, 2009

69NA

Space Oddity (first version).
Space Oddity (Bowie and Hutchinson demo).
Space Oddity (single).
Space Oddity (first live TV performance, 1970).
Space Oddity (“1980 Floor Show” rehearsal, 1973).
Space Oddity (live, 1974).
Space Oddity (1979 remake).
Space Oddity (live, 1983).
Space Oddity (live, 1990).
Space Oddity (live, 2002).

“Space Oddity” is an officially sanctioned beginning: Bowie’s first single for Philips/Mercury; his first Top 10 hit (and, years later, his first UK #1); lead-off and title track of the subsequent LP; lead-off track of every greatest hits compilation from ChangesOneBowie on; lead-off track on his Sound and Vision career retrospective. When Bowie dies, the TV tributes will lead off with it.

So it’s “classic” Bowie, its now-iconic status won slowly and circuitously, but then “Space Oddity” has always seemed slightly out of time (its biggest chart placings, both in the US and the UK, came years after its first release). It began as a novelty song with a sell-by date (the first moon landing in July 1969), something like a grandiose, more dignified “Laughing Gnome,” and Tony Visconti, for one, refused to have anything to do with it, considering the song a cynical sell-out. Which it was. “Space Oddity” is close company to early Bee Gees hits like “New York Mining Disaster 1941” and Zager and Evans’ dire “In the Year 2525″: it’s a gimmicky folk song dressed up in extravagant clothes.

“Space Oddity” has come to define Bowie, perhaps because it’s as protean as its creator has tried to be. It’s a breakup song, an existential lullaby, consumer tie-in, product test, an alternate space program history, calculated career move, and a symbolic end to the counterculture dream—the “psychedelic astronaut” drifting off impotently into space (Camille Paglia suggested the last); it’s a kid’s song, drug song, death song, and it marks the birth of the first successful Bowie mythic character, one whose motives and fate are still unknown to us.

The major

2001

Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey opened in London in May 1968 and played for months. As in many cities, its most frequent repeat viewers were the young and the altered. Visconti, in his autobiography, recounts a typical 2001 viewing—while high from drinking cannabis tea, Visconti had to talk down the tripping couple behind him who were terrified by the film’s “Star Gate” sequence. Bowie saw the film (stoned “off my gourd” he recalled) several times that summer and was especially struck by the final images of a “child” floating in space over the Earth.

So when at the end of 1968 Bowie’s manager asked him to write a new song for his Love You Till Tuesday promo film, Bowie had a scenario in mind. While 2001 was a primary influence, Bowie, an SF fan (e.g., “We Are Hungry Men“), may have raided other sources. One candidate is Ray Bradbury’s The Illustrated Man story collection, which includes “The Rocket Man” (later used by Bernie Taupin), where an astronaut’s life is as dull and isolating as a traveling salesman’s; “Kaleidoscope,” where astronauts burn up in space, their dying embers seen as a shooting star on Earth; and, most of all, “No Particular Night or Morning,” where an astronaut in deep space doubts whether the Earth or even the stars are real and kills himself by going out the airlock:

Clemens blinked through the immense glass port, where there was a blur of stars and distant blackness. “He’s out there now?”

“Yes. A million miles behind us. We’d never find him. First time I knew he was outside the ship was when his helmet-radio came on on our control-room beam. I heard him talking to himself…Something like “no more space ship now. Never was any. No people. No people in all the universe. Never were any. No planets. No stars…Only space. Only space. Only the gap.”

 

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And of course there was the ongoing Apollo moonshot program, which many hippies and New Left types detested for embodying the absurdities of “plastic America”: a made-for-TV waste of resources undertaken at a time of war, repression and political chaos. Bowie wrote “Space Oddity” around the time of Apollo 8 near Christmas 1968, the first manned rocket to the moon, which made two TV broadcasts during the flight (on Christmas Eve, the three astronauts read from the Book of Genesis, a performance immediately followed by a rocket-eye view of the Earth hanging cold and alone in space).

The disaster that befalls Major Tom (is it a disaster at all?) also reflects the general, if unspoken, fear at the time that the Apollo missions could go terribly wrong, with gruesome death or exile shown on live global television. Richard Nixon had on his desk a memorial speech in case the Apollo 11 astronauts were stranded on the moon (its author, William Safire, had suggested that a clergyman should “adopt the same procedure as a burial at sea”).

The musician

spaceodd

When Bowie began writing the song, working with his then-partner John Hutchinson (who likely came up with a few of the chord sequences), he was at low ebb. His prospects as a pop singer had faded and his intense relationship with Hermione Farthingale was ending. (During 1968 Bowie also had “a flirtation with smack,” he admitted years later, and some have argued the icy majesty of “Space Oddity” suggests it’s really a heroin song, the “liftoff” section marking when the needle hits the vein.)

So it’s not surprising that Bowie created a character who’s been sent into orbit by Establishment figures, who monitor him, give him orders and want him to do his share of media promotion. The line “Now it’s time to leave the capsule—if you dare” suggests Major Tom could even be a contestant on a television show. Bowie made the first recording of the song the day after his final break with Farthingale, which has led biographers to speculate that Bowie’s state of mind at the time reflected Major Tom’s blissful sense of isolation, a desire to free himself entirely from human entanglements and just drift off into the void.

Yet while alienation is key to the song, it’s not a bleak or despairing track at all, as it has childlike qualities: the lyric at the start sounds like a game played by two boys on walkie-talkies; it has simple wordplay based on common sounds (the way “Can you hear me Major Tom? Can you hear” segues directly into “here am I floating round my tin can“) and as David Buckley notes, Bowie often uses a child’s word to replace an “official” one: so “spaceship” instead of “rocket,” “countdown” instead of “ignition sequence,” and even the name “Major Tom” seems that of a ’50s action hero rather than of a legitimate astronaut.

The composition

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I’m always trying to find that special thing in pop music. For me, it started with Space Oddity by David Bowie—it has that semi-tone shift which fascinated me. I played it endlessly to my mum and it made me feel this yearning. It’s a kind of sweetness, and it can turn up in the strangest places.

Roddy Frame, 2002.

“Space Oddity” was the most intricate song Bowie had yet written, and you could consider it a neatly controlled collision of two forces—the often-simple lyric, with its memorable, childlike lines (“the stars look very different today“); and the density and complexity of the song’s structure.

In the span of five minutes, there’s an intro, two verses, two bridges, two four-bar acoustic guitar breaks, a “liftoff” sequence with guitar and strings, a 12-bar electric guitar solo, a third extended verse that’s partially a refrain (the “Can you hear me Major Tom?” bit) and a long outro which also contains a second guitar solo. There are something like 15 different chords used and the lyric at times seems synchronized to the changes (in the bridge, when Major Tom is floating alone in space “far above the world,” the first chords are Fmaj7 and Em7, the two chords that the ominous intro had moved between). Despite this complexity, the song has atmosphere and space; constantly in motion, it has a stillness at its center.

It was intended to be a duet: the opening verse was originally sung by Hutchinson (as you can hear in the demo), who had a lower range, while Bowie harmonized an octave higher. Hutchinson as “ground control” again opened the second verse until the big reveal: Major Tom speaks at last, with Bowie finally appearing in his most resonant tone. Hutchinson recalled that he and Bowie loved Bookends, and here Hutchinson keeps to the ground as “Simon” while Bowie wafts in as “Garfunkel.” Bowie’s skill as a singer had developed enough, however, that he could play all the roles when he recorded the song as a solo vocal a few months later.

The song is a series of neatly-designed stages, as though it was a rocket itself—the way the “countdown” verse (a descending number marking the start of each bar) is met by the eight-bar liftoff (something of a neatly-tailored version of the orchestral upward sweep in the Beatles “A Day in the Life”); the bridge that begins weightlessly and then slowly falls to earth in its last four bars; or the way Bowie’s sharp acoustic break (C-F-G-A-A, strumming hard on the last two chords) serves as stage-clearing, first to set up the dreamy electric guitar solo, then to prepare for the long outro.

The recordings

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“Space Oddity”‘s first recording, cut for the Love You Till Tuesday promo on 2 February 1969, sounds like a tentative full-band rehearsal. While it shows that most of the song structure was in place at an early stage, the rhythm’s not right, much of it sounds thin and reedy, and a few sections are just lousy (the flute squawk solo was thankfully replaced by electric guitar). By the time Bowie and Hutchinson re-recorded the song as a demo (as part of Bowie’s successful audition for Philips/Mercury) in March-April 1969, Bowie had introduced the Stylophone, which would become one of the track’s defining sounds.

The Stylophone, whose manufacturer had sent a promotional copy to Bowie’s manager, was a primitive portable synthesizer that had two settings, “normal” and “vibrato.” You played it by touching a stylus to a tiny keyboard, which closed a circuit and emitted a tone. Bowie toyed with it for a bit and figured out how to create a basic droning progression that would become the backbone of the song’s early verses. (It naturally gave the song some SF cred to have an “alien” computer noise in much of the mix.)

The Stylophone was just one facet of Gus Dudgeon’s production for the Philips/Mercury single (Visconti had turned Bowie down, saying he’d produce the LP but not the cheesy single), a session that Dudgeon plotted like a military operation, mapping the song’s progress out on paper—Dudgeon couldn’t write music, so he used colors (cellos were brown, for instance) and squiggly lines to indicate where various instruments came in. Paul Buckmaster had to translate it into charts for the players.

This past summer Bowie re-released “Space Oddity” as a digital EP, including, wonderfully, the original eight-track Dudgeon recording now broken into its separate tracks, revealing some of the production’s tricks—for example:

The signal: Bowie’s Stylophone and Mick Wayne’s electric guitar share the same track. In the opening, the two instruments seem an extension of each other, the drone of the Stylophone pricked, every two bars, by a plucked note on the guitar. It sounds like an interstellar radio transmission. The Stylophone is the defining instrument of the song: it plays only three tones in the opening verse, the highest setting held and “waggled” as the verse gives way to the liftoff sequence; it plays a repeated two-note pattern that sounds like a police siren whenever Bowie extends a line (for example, on “made the GRADE” or “most peculiar WAY”); it underpins the guitar solo with a single held note. And in the outro sequence, while the guitar spirals out a string of notes the Stylophone frantically taps away as if making an SOS call.

Strings, old and new: Much as the song is a balancing act between its lyric and its knotty chord structure, the recording contrasts traditional orchestral instrumentation (eight violins, two violas, two celli, two double basses and two flutes) and the synthesizer future. The synths serve as the primary colors (while the Stylophone appears in the first verse and extends through most of the song, the richer-sounding mellotron (played by Rick Wakeman) is held back until the bridge, then replaces the Stylophone for much of the third verse). The orchestral instruments are used more as sound effects (the note-by-note string buildup during the liftoff sequence, the darting flute and moaning celli and basses in the bridges) and backdrops.

The bottom: One revelation is the isolated track of Herbie Flowers’ bass and Terry Cox’s drums. This was Flowers’ first-ever session (he’d go on to craft the trademark bassline of “Walk on the Wild Side” and played on Bowie’s Diamond Dogs), and he’s a marvel—buried under the layers of “Space Oddity” is a bassline that goes from a stark single-note repetition to a jazzy fluid movement in the later verses to a full-on bass solo during the song’s outro. Cox’s drumming isn’t very funky—he was the drummer for Pentangle, after all—but it serves the material well, from the parade-ground snare warmups at the beginning, to the bolero pattern Cox develops in the first verse, to coming down hard on the third beat in the later verses.

The single

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The Philips “Space Oddity,” recorded on 20 June 1969, debuted over the PA system at the Rolling Stones’ free Hyde Park concert on 5 July, which had become an impromptu funeral service for Brian Jones. The BBC did play “Space Oddity” during the moon launch (though they mainly used “Also Sprach Zarathustra,” which had become the official soundtrack of outer space thanks to 2001). It’s impossible to verify when or how often “Space Oddity” was played during the coverage, however, as the BBC later erased its recordings of the moon landing (along with scads of Patrick Troughton and William Hartnell Doctor Whos, performances by every British band of the ’60s, early appearances by pre-Python Michael Palin and John Cleese, etc., etc.).

“Space Oddity” didn’t chart upon release, however, and initially seemed yet another Bowie flop. Then (possibly due to Bowie’s manager Ken Pitt, who offered some payola) the single rebounded in the fall and finally hit the UK Top 10, reaching #5 in November 1969. Mercury had released the single in the U.S. to utter indifference, but when Bowie finally broke in America in 1972, his then-label RCA (which had purchased most of Bowie’s Mercury material) re-released “Space Oddity,” forcing an exhausted Bowie to make a Mick Rock promo film while in full Ziggy garb. This reissue hit #15 in the US in 1973.

And in 1975, a slack year for pop music, RCA boosted its back catalog in the UK with its “Maximillion” series, repackaging singles by Elvis and reissuing “Space Oddity” backed with “Changes” and “Velvet Goldmine.” Whether it was due to a lack of chart competition, or whether the record had gone from being the voice of an ominous future to the sad, reassuring sound of a lost past, “Space Oddity” at last hit #1 in the UK.

Epilogue

Space Oddity (Langley Schools Music Project version, 1976).

The record’s one real insight: “Planet Earth is blue and there’s nothing I can do”—the idea that near-space exploration is not a frontier but instead the limit of human endeavour, revealing nothing so much as impotence.

Tom Ewing, Popular entry on “Space Oddity”.

Once during the mission I was asked by ground control what I could see. “What do I see?” I replied. “Half a world to the left, half a world to the right, I can see it all. The Earth is so small.”

Vitali Sevastyanov, USSR cosmonaut, Soyuz 9, Soyuz 18.

When I originally wrote about Major Tom, I was a very pragmatic and self-opinionated lad that thought he knew all about the great American dream and where it started and where it should stop. Here we had the great blast of American technological know-how shoving this guy up into space, but once he gets there he’s not quite sure why he’s there. And that’s where I left him.

David Bowie, interview with NME, 1980.

Bowie cut a new version of “Space Oddity” in late 1979, which he debuted on Kenny Everett’s New Years Eve Show; in it, he sheared the song down to its skin—just Bowie’s harrowed voice, acoustic guitar, basic accompaniment and, in place of the liftoff sequence, 12 seconds of silence. He performed the song with an intensity it had never had before, and soon afterward, he decided to exhume Major Tom and see what had become of him (but that’s a tale for later).

“Space Oddity” is forty years old, and listening to it now it seems prematurely but accurately mournful. Few at the time of its birth, not even its creator, could have imagined that after the moonshots, the American space program would decline into irrelevance, waste and pointlessness; that the year 2001 would not be marked by lunar bases and a Jupiter mission, but the barbaric destruction of NYC skyscrapers and fresh, endless war; that in 2009 mankind would have gone no further into space than it had when “Space Oddity” first charted.

Major Tom’s fate is a resignation of sorts to the cosmos—Bowie had intended it to be the technocratic American mind coming face to face with the unknown and blanking out—but the song wound up being a harbinger of our cultural resignation, predicting that we would eventually lose our nerve, give up on the dream, and sink back into the depths of the old world. Perhaps we aren’t built for transcendence, and the sky sadly is the limit. Or as the song goes, “planet Earth is blue, and there’s nothing I can do.”

Photos (top to bottom): Neil Armstrong, en route to the moon, July 1969; Dave Bowman (Keir Dullea) meets fate, and the last spacewalk of Frank Poole (Gary Lockwood) in 2001: A Space Odyssey, 1968; the original Philips single, BF 1801; Bowie’s 1969 self-titled LP, later renamed after its hit single; a spacesuit-clad Bowie demonstrates the Stylophone to the world; Dutch single, 1969.


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