No Plan

March 23, 2020

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No Plan (Bowie).
No Plan (Bowie, video, 2017).
No Plan (Sophia Anne Caruso, Lazarus, 2015).
No Plan (Caruso, Lazarus cast recording, 2016).

When he dies, his spirit rises a meter. No music, but there’s sound. Nowhere, but Second Avenue just out of sight. The pieces of his soul—memories, loves and hates, dreams, idle ambitions, all his arable and barren selves—hold together but may soon drift apart. There’s no recognizable street plan anymore. North could now be west, Broadway could cross Avenue D. “This is no place,” the spirit says. “But here I am.” It steps aside into the not-quite-yet.

“No Plan” (called “Wistful (This Is Not Quite Yet)” in one Bowie draft of a Blackstar LP sequence) was always intended for Lazarus, Donny McCaslin believed. And Enda Walsh, the play’s co-author, said Bowie had asked him if Walsh had any lyrical ideas for the song. The most “Broadway” of the Blackstar-era pieces, its melody’s intervals are a bit suggestive of the leaps in Leonard Bernstein’s “Maria” or “Something’s Coming.”

It’s unknown if Bowie originally had a woman’s voice in mind for the song, but by the time Lazarus was cast in summer 2015, he wanted a young female singer for it. He found her in the then-fourteen-year-old Sophia Anne Caruso, who once described “No Plan” as “a new song by David Bowie just for my character.” Bowie sent her a card on Lazarus’ opening night to say how much he appreciated her interpretations of his songs (in an act worthy of great karmic retribution, someone stole the card afterward).

In Lazarus, “No Plan” is one of the spotlight songs for Caruso’s character, Marley, known mostly in the play as The Girl, a not-quite-dead murder victim who becomes the guardian angel of the exiled alien Thomas Jerome Newton. Singing “No Plan” is how she introduces herself, stating the terms of her confinement while Newton pours himself another drink.

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Bowie’s recorded version of “No Plan” predates Lazarus by nearly a year—it was among the earliest tracks that he and the McCaslin Quartet cut in January 2015, in the first batch of the Blackstar sessions.

McCaslin recalled to Mojo of Bowie’s “No Plan” “that there was more tinkering with the instrumentation than we did with the others, and more takes… It’s a bit more like a show tune. In fact the second time we approached it, he sent a new demo. First time was David and guitar. This one had acoustic piano [Henry Hey] and a female singer, and she had a dramatic musical theater approach.” McCaslin was central to Bowie’s arrangement, doing multiple overdubs: “I play a bunch of flutes and some clarinet and low-end tenor sax stuff,” he said. Also key is Mark Guiliana, whose drum pattern is a ribbon of tension in the verses—the Lazarus recording sounds weightless by comparison.

(Given the timing (early 2015), the demo singer couldn’t have been Caruso, who was cast the following summer—presumably it was someone with whom Hey worked. McCaslin also recalled the band remaking “No Plan” in the last Blackstar sessions of March 2015, though Nicholas Pegg has that the released “No Plan” was mostly tracked in the January 2015 sessions, including Bowie’s full vocals. Perhaps there was a March retake that wound up being discarded? Or maybe McCaslin was recalling the flute and sax overdubs he did in that period—Ben Monder’s guitar was recorded then as well.)

Sparse in its harmonic structure—the verses often hold on a B-flat major seventh chord, with a few feints, like a move to F# (“I’m lost” “nowhere now”); the refrains move to E-flat minor, now with shifts to F major (“without a plan” “here I am”)—“No Plan” is also subtly clever in its construction, having a five-bar verse that Bowie later extends. As McCaslin said, “he was playing with form, dropping this unusual five-bar phrase, then next time you come round to it, it’s a seven-bar phrase. And this diminished triad he inverts.”

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Bowie’s “No Plan” first appeared as a bonus track on the Lazarus cast recording, then was issued as the title track of the last “new” Bowie EP, on his birthday in January 2017.

Tom Hingston shot a video, in which that deathless YouTube artifact, the “lyric video,” is eerie and moving. Where the “Blackstar” and “Lazarus” videos depict the fall and death of “David Bowie,” “No Plan” is Bowie beyond the veil, turning up for a few minutes in odd corners of the city, an electrical ghost.

“The words of the song do play a central part, of course, but it’s as much about the surrounding situation and setting,” Hingston told Jenny Brewer in 2017. “There is a theme of disembodiment within the track and this sense of occupying another space, which is not of this time, indeed in places the song itself is out of time. So I wanted to create a situation which felt familiar, yet somehow out of place; a recognisable street setting, with its day-to-day rhythms and an otherworldly scene playing out within it.”

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There’s a heap of Bowie references—Newton Electrical, on Foxgrove Road (where Bowie lived in 1969), with its Man Who Fell to Earth-esque rows of televisions with their blue, blue, electric blue screens. (The actual location is a launderette in Brockley.) The first person drawn to the TV screens looks a bit like Leon Blank, from 1. Outside, and wears red shoes; screens show bluebirds and rockets.

Hingston said he also wanted to honor Lazarus, recalling an interview in which Walsh described his and Bowie’s structural idea for the play as “the notion of a stained glass window and how this could be used as a visual metaphor to tell a series of stories through one central image,” Hingston said in 2017. “I thought that was such a lovely point of reference. For me, the shop window and the screens form a device which allows the story to play out, yet viewed through a somewhat fractured lens.”

It was an inspired way to depict the unreality of the days after Bowie’s death in January 2016, the collective disbelief that he was gone, the common response to gather in groups and play his music. That in mourning there could be a new community. From the perspective of March 2020, that’s something else that’s been taken from us now.

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Bowie starts “No Plan” in what Tony Visconti, referring to how Bowie sang “Where Are We Now?,” described as the “fragile” Bowie voice. A weary-sounding voice without authority, one grappling its way into the melody and then, at once, surging with hidden strengths. It’s among the most beautiful of Bowie’s final vocals. His last phrase—a sinking “not…quite…yet,” each note held for a bar (or two, for the last), with the consonance of the “t”s as endstops—is answered by a McCaslin solo that sounds as if a sleeper is considering facing the day and then drifts off again, in bliss.

As Bowie’s humbled, yearning take on “No Plan” was cut before Caruso’s wide-eyed one, listening to the tracks in their recording order reverses the progression of Toy, where Bowie had remade his earliest songs as an older man, imposing the costs of age upon youth. It’s a different degree of tragedy here—Bowie’s “No Plan” assesses a full life at its end, while Caruso’s mourns one that was barely allowed to begin.

Recorded: (backing tracks, vocals) 7, 10 January 2015, Magic Shop; (overdubs, retake?) ca. March-April 2015. Bowie: lead and backing vocal, guitar?; McCaslin: tenor saxophone, clarinet, alto flute, C flute; Ben Monder: guitar; Jason Lindner: keyboards and synthesizers; Tim Lefebvre: bass; Mark Guiliana: drums. Produced: Bowie, Visconti; engineered: Kevin Killen, Visconti.

First release: 21 October 2016, Lazarus: The Original New York Cast.

Top photo: Zara Yaari, “New York, 2015.”


Animal Farm

January 14, 2020

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Animal Farm (demo).

Of the demos included in the Conversation Piece set, most of which were recorded between spring 1968 and summer 1969, “Animal Farm” is among the slightest. It sounds about two-thirds written: over jabbed acoustic guitar chords, Bowie scats through a chorus that’s still in a cloudy state, in which it may well have remained.

What to say about a song that’s barely there in its demo form? Lyrically it’s centered on the idea of some communal “animal farm” whose gates are barred to anyone over 30 years old. The verse has a 43-year-old woman (treated here as high old age) who “drinks the morning papers and reads the tea” and dreams of joining a group of hippies out in the country somewhere. The refrain is, apparently, the voice of the commune rejecting her.

The Kinks’ “Animal Farm” might have sparked Bowie’s title (it would depend on the date of Bowie’s composition, which isn’t known; The Village Green Preservation Society came out in November 1968). Ray Davies is in his usual state of being exhausted and terrified by the modern world and dreams of going off to live with the pigs and sheep and goats (though he wants his girl to come with him)—it’s a dry run for his even more civilization-cursing “Apeman” two years later. There was also the novel Logan’s Run, published in 1967, set in a future Earth where the maximum age is 21 (the film adaptation raised the limit to 30), upon which you commit suicide in the Sleepshop, get dispatched by a Sandman such as the title character, or try to escape to Sanctuary.

But this is all looking too far afield. The key ancestor is Bowie’s “There Is a Happy Land,” a song about the secret factions and legends of childhood, which adults can no longer access. “There is a happy land where only children live/ You’ve had your chance and now the doors are closed sir, Mr. Grownup. Go away sir.” In his songs of the late Sixties and early Seventies, Bowie regarded the counterculture as a desperate and ultimately-doomed extension of childhood.

Recorded: ca. late spring-autumn 1968 (possibly winter-early spring 1969), likely either 39 Manchester Street or 22 Clareville Grove, London. David Bowie: lead vocal, acoustic guitar. First release: 15 November 2019, Conversation Piece.

Top: John Olson: “The Family of Mystic Arts Commune, Sunny Valley, Oregon,” 1969. (LIFE, “The Commune Comes to America,” 18 July 1969).

 


(Still Not) The Last Xmas

December 21, 2019

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Do They Know It’s Christmas? (Live Aid, 1985).
Bowie’s 2013 Christmas “Elvis” Message.
Peace on Earth/The Little Drummer Boy.
Peter and the Wolf.
The Snowman.
Feed the World.

Ace predictions in my past year-end posts:

This project’s final year could be 2014—we’ll see how it goes. Xmas post, 2013.

But barring another Bowie album in 2015, this is the last Christmas post of the blog’s “primary” life. Xmas post, 2014.

2016 should bring…the rollout of a new music blog in the spring (ish). Xmas post, 2015 (for the life of me, I don’t remember what this idea was—it obviously didn’t happen).

It’s an established annual tradition that this blog will run a Christmas post and say, “well, this could be the last Xmas post, as we’re almost done.” And then Bowie would put out some new thing. But this time, I am very nearly sure, is the end. I can’t imagine I won’t get through the last nine songs before Dec. 2017.  Xmas post, 2016.

I’m assuming there’ll be a Tin Machine and/or a “Black Tie-to-whenever” box set in the new year. Xmas post, 2018.

At this point, you should really be betting against me, hard. So here, I’ll try to work some reverse magic: I expect next year that absolutely nothing of remote interest will be released by the Bowie estate. See you in December 2020!

I’d like to wish everyone a very merry Christmas, happy New Year, happy New Decade (or happy New Year Before the Decade Officially Ends on 31 December 2020, for the pedants). All my best, whether you’re a longtime reader or someone who pops in once in a while. The blog will continue, as it has been for some time now, with the occasional new entry on older “lost” songs that are reissued (one will probably be up next month); there’s also my new writing on 64 Quartets and the Patreon.

To everyone who bought Ashes to Ashes this year, thank you; for those who did so and also came to the readings, thank you again. I’m grateful to Bob Stanley, Rob Sheffield, Owen Hatherley and Billy Hough for hosting the readings, and to Rough Trade (NYC and London), McNally Jackson in NYC, and the Anthony Burgess Foundation in Manchester, UK. Thanks to Tariq Goddard and Repeater Books. Two friends who were essential to the writing of Ashes to Ashes have books of their own being released next year: keep an eye out for Rahawa Haile‘s In Open Country and Mairead Case‘s Tiny.

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A Bonus: Chapter End (Last). The Best of Bowie: the 2010s

My top 10 favorite songs of David Bowie’s last decade.

1. ‘Tis a Pity She Was a Whore (LP version). The Next Day had shown that Bowie was back; “‘Tis a Pity,” in its wild solo demo or its Blackstar take, showed that he wanted to go somewhere else. One of the loopiest songs that he ever wrote: you can find a world within it, then another one lurking within that. The studio version has a slight edge thanks to Donny McCaslin’s career-topper of a performance and Bowie sounding as if he was back in the Marquee in London, cheering from a crowd of Mods.

2. Blackstar. A counterpart to “Station to Station,” at the other end of the line. A great fake-out of a song, ominous and lovely and strange, shot through with jokes: “I’m the Great I Am” invokes both the Book of Exodus and Herman’s Hermits’ “I’m Henry VIII, I Am.” It’s a joy that Bowie, at age 68, could sit down and say, “well, I suppose I need an epic,” then whisk one together like an omelet.

3. Love Is Lost. The highlight of The Next Day: love as being under house arrest. The harmonies!

4. Dollar Days. Raging against the dying of the light, then sitting down to watch the sunset.

5. Where Are We Now? It was, in retrospect, the perfect way, the only way, for him to return. His last season begins with a notice that it’s going to end, sooner than you think. How Bowie sings “you never knew that, that I could do that,” in a way that suggests he’d never thought he could, either.

6. I Can’t Give Everything Away. As with all the Blackstar tracks, it’s as funny as it’s haunting—there’s a wonderful petulance in the title phrase, along with a deep sadness. The last, inevitably-disappointing box set that the estate releases should have this as its title, with a photograph of the sealed Bowie vault on the cover. It’s Bowie’s “Into the Mystic“—a fading away, a dissolution into sound.

7. Sue (Maria Schneider version). Bowie’s most essential collaboration since the Reeves Gabrels era is one in which he began with fewer chips on the table—the eternal dilettante meets a brilliant composer and arranger with a lifetime steeped in jazz, a genre Bowie would only dabble in. It wound up as a partnership of equals: Bowie’s distinctive presence is central to the track but he’s not allowed to dominate it.

8. The Next Day. Loud, full of piss and vinegar, clipped, blown out—the sound of his early 2000s “rock” style being set afire. An unreconciled life.

9. No Plan. Nothing has changed, everything has changed.

10. Like a Rocket Man. I came to love this throwaway track while writing the last chapter of the book. Utterly shameless steals from all over the place, a possible last dig at Elton John, rewriting the “coke magus Bowie” years as a cartoon serial. It has one of his last great lines buried in it: “Now I wish today that yesterday was just tomorrow.” RIP, DB.

Here’s to the new years.


The Reverend Raymond Brown (Attends the Garden Fête on Thatchwick Green)

December 2, 2019

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The Reverend Raymond Brown (Attends the Garden Fête on Thatchwick Green).

The release of the five-disc Conversation Piece hammers shut the year of “Sixties Bowie Redux.” The total, in terms of tracks unreleased until now: some 30 home demos, recorded between the autumns of 1967 and 1969.

At last in one place (expect to see more Spying Through a Keyhole and Clareville Grove sets, over-optimistically priced, in used record stores), these demos make a decent pile and give a sharper picture of Bowie’s work life in the late Sixties. How sharp, though? Is it really worth one’s time to sit through these rough drafts, these murky tapes of old songs, many of which didn’t make the cut for Bowie at the time? (You can hear his laugh: “ah yes, a real treasure trove you’ve got for 80 quid.”)

Well, of course I’m interested. And the devoted fan—I’ll define this as someone who’s voluntarily listened to a Tin Machine bootleg—may find some of it fascinating. The “average” fan, whoever they may be? I’m not sure what they’ll make of it, if they’ll even hear it.

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The collected demos* do a couple of things. They further document how the late Sixties were a proving ground for Bowie as a songwriter—his frustrations about lacking a record contract strengthened him as a composer; his songs develop in craft and form. “Space Oddity,” included here in what appears to be every demo ever made of it, no longer sounds like a sudden leap forward but more the culmination of years spent sitting at a reel-to-reel in his manager’s flat or in various bedsits and rented rooms.**

We also have a smoother transition between “psychedelic Mod” suburban Bowie and hippie Arts Lab Bowie of 1969. The Conversation Piece “demo” disc sequence opens with the set’s earliest recordings, in terms of composition: “April’s Tooth of Gold,” “Mother Grey,” “In the Heat of the Morning” and “When I’m Five” (the former two were copyrighted in December 1967; the latter two had studio versions cut in March 1968).

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“The Reverend Raymond Brown (Attends the Garden Fête on Thatchwick Green)” (hereafter referred to, for sanity’s sake, as “Rev. Brown”) almost certainly hails from the same compositional period—late 1967 through the first months of 1968. Its earliest appearance is as a title in Kenneth Pitt’s 1985 memoir, where it appears in a list of prospective songs to be recorded for Bowie’s second (and never-recorded) Deram album.

It makes sense: “Rev. Brown” isn’t far removed from Bowie’s Deram debut, in terms of subject matter (another jaundiced look at suburban England) and song structure—there’s still a lot of Ray Davies being processed, along with a newer influence, Syd Barrett, while the outro is all but Bowie saying on tape “and then it ends like a Who track.”

Its lyric is a film sketch. Quick shots of various supporting characters (a nameless milkman and magistrate; Mrs. MacGoony and Grouse and “naughty Fitzwilliam”) build to (in the four-bar refrains) the introduction of the title character: Rev. Raymond Brown, shown leading the band at a village fete, “noting down sin” with a pencil, and guiltily lusting after the “beauty of Thatchwick.” Bowie’s word-choked bridges have similar phrasings as those in “When I’m Five”—here done to imitate the chatter of a “women’s guild” who compare their hats and gossip about a local girl getting pregnant (Sally, perhaps the future/former wife of Uncle Arthur).

Clever but shallow, “Rev. Brown” is apparently among Bowie’s last attempts to do an “Angry Young Man”-type short story in music, as he had done repeatedly on his 1967 album. It feels compromised in tone, as if he was already writing with Peter Noone in mind to sing it—it’s far less weird than the likes of “She’s Got Medals” or “Little Bombardier” or “Please Mr. Gravedigger.” That said, all we have is a rough sketch—perhaps “Rev. Brown” could’ve been transformed in the studio, getting brass or woodwind accompaniment for the refrains.

What I do find a hoot is that the verse phrasings, especially at 1:20 (the introduction of the Beauty of Thatchwick, who seems written for Julie Christie or Jane Asher to play), appear again in Bowie’s work—I hear them in “Little Wonder,” thirty years later. As Earthling is one of Bowie’s “return to Britain” records, so Rev. Raymond Brown, “musical priest” and would-be dirty old man, gets dug up as an ancestor to Blur’s Tracy Jacks and Ernold Same. Whether for “Little Wonder” Bowie went back to his Sixties demos or recalled some traces of a long-abandoned song is something we’ll never know.

Recorded: ca. late autumn 1967-March 1968, (most likely) Kenneth Pitt’s apartment at 39 Manchester Street, London. David Bowie: lead and backing vocal, guitars, bass, percussion. First release: 15 November 2019, Conversation Piece.

Self-Promotional Paragraph. 1) Ashes to Ashes and Rebel Rebel are here for your Christmas shopping needs. They make great stocking stuffers—well, not in Ashes‘ case, as its weight would likely bring down the stocking. Put that one in a shoebox or something. 2) Those who have joined the Patreon got to read this entry early and are delighted, I’m told. They also get to read early versions of the 64 Quartets essays, my new series on the films of Howard Hawks, and some Bowie-related exclusives. Thanks to all; happy December! End of Self-Promotional Paragraph.

* Collected but far from complete. Still unreleased are “Social Kind of Girl” and “Everything Is You,” “Silver Tree Top School for Boys,” “C’est la Vie,” etc. “Tiny Tim” remains a title. The absence of the 1968 demo of Bowie’s rock opera Ernie Johnson is no surprise—it’s possible the estate no longer owns the tape (one copy was auctioned in the Nineties) and EJ is my guess as to one of the things DB never wanted to become public.

** Despite the track on Conversation Piece sounding like a third-generation cassette dub, “Rev. Brown” appears to have been made on a sophisticated, costly set-up for a struggling musician in 1967. The “Rev. Brown” demo—done to copyright the song, distribute it for potential cover versions and, possibly, as a blueprint for Tony Visconti (who was supposed to produce Bowie Deram 2)—has a complete bassline, tambourine and “drum” track, lead and harmony vocals and possibly two guitar tracks. It’s surprisingly intricate for the period. Maybe Kenneth Pitt got the set-up for a short-term period by a vendor, and Bowie no longer had regular access to it once he moved in with Hermione Farthingale. Later DB Sixties demos sound more like “hit ‘record’ and hope the mike picks it all up.”

Top: Batman (Adam West) in Kennington, May 1967; “St John Vianney Garden Fete, 1967” (Hartlepool Museum Service).


The Gift of Sound + Vision

September 25, 2019

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The first box sets that I bought, when I was 17 years old, were Product, a Buzzcocks collection by Restless Retro, and Rykodisc’s Sound + Vision. I got them in the autumn of 1989, and on cassette—not an ideal medium for a box set—because I didn’t own a CD player then.

Sound + Vision, released 30 years ago today, remains the essential Bowie career compilation, despite said career being confined to a mere 11 years on it. Its recent challenger is Nothing Has Changed, whose span is far greater but whose “backwards” sequencing feels more gimmicky with each year. Also Nothing Has Changed, er, changed nothing in how Bowie was perceived—issued, like a set of bonus discs, in the midst of his grand comeback of the mid-2010s, it already seemed forgotten by the time of his death.

By contrast, Sound + Vision was intended as a major reputational reboot. Like Neil Young’s Decade and Bob Dylan’s Biograph (the latter an obvious, and admitted, influence on the Bowie set), it imposed a narrative upon a set of disparate tracks—outtakes, studio warhorses, live performances, demos. It built David Bowie a past, if one cluttered like a Victorian house, and plucked him out of the Eighties just as the decade expired. Sound + Vision (which closes in 1980) was a set of knight’s moves, sending him back across the board in leaps. (That said, S+V used Bowie’s “Serious Moonlight” 1983 tour setlists as one guide as to what to include—note how many of those songs appear on it.)

Jeff Rougvie, who put together the set for Ryko in 1988-1989, has gone into great detail on his blog as to how S+V came together (he has a book about Ryko coming out next year, too). The timing was ideal: much of Bowie’s RCA work was out of print, and had scarcely been available on CD before then, and most previous Bowie compilations had been obvious label cash-grabs. The success of Biograph, Clapton’s Crossroads and the Springsteen Live 1975-1985 sets had shown there was a market for high-end, ambitious rock retrospectives, and this was certainly one of them—a custom-made plastic silkscreen cover lid, a Kurt Loder-penned booklet, and a then-cutting-edge (and now unplayable) CDV bonus disc.

Rougvie is an American, Ryko was an American indie label, and Sound + Vision was an American take on a British artist. The track choices aren’t those of a fan who saw Bowie at the Hammersmith Odeon or “Starman” on Top of the Pops. They’re to fill in the rough sketch that the typical American fan had of Bowie’s career—S+V was an extended answer piece to the 1976 ChangesOneBowie, Bowie’s biggest US seller after Ziggy Stardust and the template of Classic Rock radio Bowie—“Space Oddity,” “Changes,” some Ziggy, “Jean Genie,” “Rebel Rebel,” “Young Americans,” “Fame,” “Golden Years,” done.

Another theme of Sound + Vision was: Look, Really, This Guy Used to Be Cool. The aim of its third disc, which spanned from Low to Scary Monsters, was to show America what it had missed by not buying those albums when they were released, Rougvie said. It also made a hipper, arty contrast to the waning Glass Spider, “Dancing in the Street,” and Jareth era. The inclusion of Bowie’s cover of Tom Verlaine’s “Kingdom Come,” an odd pick to represent Scary Monsters, was in part because Rougvie wanted to show Bowie’s ties to the New York punk scene, which was becoming mythologized by the end of the Eighties.

So let’s go back to high-school me, listening to S+V for the first time in 1989. Side One of the first tape starts with the “Mercury demo” of “Space Oddity.” The compilation begins at Bowie’s bedside as he’s strumming together the song that will introduce him to the world (Rougvie: “Bowie delivered [the “SO” demo] separately from the rest of the vault, although he left me to assembling the track list & sequence. He didn’t specify it as the first track, but later confirmed he’d hoped we’d start with it”). Then comes the B-side of “Space Oddity,” “Wild Eyed Boy From Freecloud”; the Marc Bolan “Prettiest Star” (a single unreleased in the US; American fans, if they knew the song at all, knew it as its Aladdin Sane remake), and the outtake “London Bye Ta-Ta,” lone representative of Bowie’s Deram-era Sixties (it was originally cut in 1968), with Bowie sounding like a pilled-up cabaret act.

In four tracks, you get Bowie’s deep past, if its sources are greatly in shadow: Anthony Newley, John Hutchinson, the Arts Lab, Chimi Rinpoche, Bolan, Lindsay Kemp. Then—bang—comes the Seventies: “Black Country Rock” (huh? is he covering Zeppelin?), “Man Who Sold the World” (why have I never heard this on the radio?) and “Bewlay Brothers” (wait, what?) And the side ends with “Changes.” (Rougvie: “I felt like the newbies needed familiarity after a lot of material the casual fan would only be peripherally familiar with, if at all. Plus, it’s fucking “Changes.”)

Finishing this side, I sat for a moment, then rewound to the start again. It was a few days until I got to Side Two, a history of Bowie’s glam years in jump cuts. Ziggy Stardust is represented solely by “Moonage Daydream” and the “Round & Round” outtake/B-side; Aladdin Sane via “Panic in Detroit” and “Drive-In Saturday” (another UK hit/ US relative obscurity). It ends with Ziggy dying on stage at the Hammersmith in 1973.

You can, of course, point out everything that’s missing—and there’s a lot! Where’s “Queen Bitch?” “Quicksand?” “Life on Mars?” “Lady Stardust?” But the object of the box set wasn’t to be a greatest hits compilation (that would come in 1990) and Ryko didn’t want fans to buy the same outtakes twice—thus much of the cream of the unreleased tracks (“Some Are,” “Who Can I Be Now?” “Sweet Head,” the “Quicksand” demo, “Alternative Candidate,” etc.) was held in reserve for individual album reissues.

The second disc/tape was the weakest of the set, having to carry the still-basically-Ziggy Bowie over to Thin White Duke DB in 15 tracks. The Pin Ups selections seem chosen by lot, the David Live ones don’t represent that tour well, although ending on “Wild Is the Wind” makes thematic sense as a “European” transition piece to the Berlin years.

All compilations tell a story, if inadvertent ones; S+V‘s was deliberate. It gave order to decisions Bowie had made as whims, as instinctual bobs and weaves, of knowing when a style was played out and darting into another one; moves based upon little more than meeting a rhythm guitarist in New York, or dating an R&B singer, or agreeing to spend a summer making a movie in New Mexico. And by arranging these pieces in a (relatively) straight line, S+V brought out underlying patterns, the tics and oddities and continuities that Bowie brought to all his work, despite how much he felt the urge to move on, to discard his pasts. S+V showed him as the secret traditionalist he always was.

In 2003, EMI issued an “updated” four-disc S+V without Rougvie’s (or, apparently, much of Bowie’s) input. While some new selections were made in the spirit of the original—“Ricochet” is there to represent Let’s Dance—it was more hits-oriented. That said, it remains the only Bowie compilation to fully incorporate Tin Machine, including three tracks from Tin Machine II (and well-chosen picks at that—“Amlapura,” “Shopping for Girls” and “Goodbye Mr. Ed.”) For label reasons, it ends abruptly on Buddha of Suburbia, with an Earthling-era coda.

It had none of the impact of the original compilation (which had sold over 200,000 copies in under a year). Admittedly I wasn’t paying much attention to Bowie at this time, but I’ve no recollection that the updated S+V even existed—I found out about it years later. By 2003, no box set could’ve have rebooted David Bowie, a genial, regularly-touring, “regular guy” legacy rock act whose new songs weren’t heard on US radio. As it turned out, the way to refresh his public self would be to retire it for a decade.

Should the estate ever release Sound + Vision: The Remix, an eight-disc set that ends with the Blackstar outtake “Blaze,” what would it accomplish? The market is awash with Bowie retrospectives and the Bowie Story is canonical enough that there are children’s books about his life. Sound + Vision had made a workable past for David Bowie to use, and long ago it became part of it.


Who Knows Where the Time Goes?

July 29, 2019

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Liza Jane (first blog entry, 29 July 2009).

Forgive an indulgent entry. Ten years ago today, I wrote the first post on this blog (linked above). It was the work of a day or so: looking through some Bowie books, digging a tiny bit into the origin of the song “Liza Jane,” and being delighted to find a clip on YouTube of Bowie singing it live in 2004. (As Toy had yet to be bootlegged, Bowie’s 2000 studio remake of “Liza Jane” was still a mystery—I added that link some years later.)

A decade can feel like no time at all, until it does. When I published the “Liza Jane” entry that July evening, I didn’t put up a link on Twitter (I wasn’t on then) nor on Facebook (still in its “Brian from grade school! how are you?” sunny phase). YouTube was in its childhood: in fall 2009, I found few of Bowie’s Sixties tracks there. Spotify had barely started—I knew no one who used it yet. On occasion, I’d link to this sort-of RealPlayer set of Sixties Bowie tracks that I found on an Italian fan website.

I first made note of my new blog a week later on the other blog that I ran. So it’s quite likely that not a single person read the “Liza Jane” post on the day it came out! An auspicious beginning.

It helped that the first Bowie song to write about was a cover, and a cover of an old American song at that, as I’d written about a lot of old American songs in the 2000s. Plus information about the origins of “Liza Jane” was scant in many Bowie references at the time: I thought “well, here’s something I can offer.” As you can see from the original entry, I didn’t offer much. The Rebel Rebel version of the “Liza Jane” entry went far more into the song’s murky life. (Also, there’s a documentary about the song in the works.)

A month earlier, I was at the used record store Turn It Up! in Northampton (still standing, unlike a lot of record stores from 2009) and bought Bowie’s Early On and The Deram Anthology, which cemented the idea of doing a song-by-song thing on him. What were my other resources then? Nicholas Pegg’s Complete David Bowie, biographies by David Buckley, Christopher Sandford, the Gilmans, and George Tremlett, and a battered copy of Kevin Cann’s out-of-print Chronology. Liner notes. Bowie Wonderworld, the Illustrated DB Guide and Teenage Wildlife. That was about it. (Seeing myself quoted in a subsequent edition of Pegg’s guide was strange—felt like I’d time traveled and monkeyed with something.)

The blog started in a dry patch, as 2009 was one of the blank years of Bowie’s public life. He was rarely seen and wasn’t working on music (barring home demos, perhaps). The big Bowie news, when I began this site, was the 40th anniversary of “Space Oddity” and a digital release that let buyers isolate its tracks; upcoming multi-disc reissues of David Bowie and Station To Station, of VH1 Storytellers on CD/DVD and Labyrinth on Blu-Ray; “Cat People” being used in the new Tarantino movie.

So, much like now—an age of Bowie reissues, reprints, commemorations, anniversaries. The difference, of course, was that he was still here then, watching TV, traveling, escaping from being David Bowie for a little while.

As the 2010s, which will always be the “Bowie decade” for me, are almost over, so is the long autumn of this blog. Still, wintertime isn’t all bad. Pushing Ahead of the Dame will still be around. I’ll look back on various Bowie songs or albums or compilations, and cover whatever bits and bobs of his past turn up (there are a couple more Looking Through a Keyhole demos to deal with, for instance). If we have only Bowie’s past to consider now, it’s a rich past, one full of secrets and surprises—we could only be at the start of it, should the estate do a full archival series one day.

Whenever you discovered this site, I hope it answered a question you had about a song, or turned you on to some DB obscurity, or just distracted you from a bad work day. Thanks for stopping by.

My future is 64 Quartets; criticism pieces you can find via the Patreon; other articles here and there. Down the road, another book or two, I hope. See you soon.


Space Oddity At Half-Century

July 11, 2019

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Space Oddity (earliest demos, ca. December 1968-January 1969).
Space Oddity (“Clareville Grove” demo, ca. late January 1969).
Space Oddity (Love You Till Tuesday, full-band version, February 1969).
Space Oddity (“Mercury demo”).
Space Oddity (single).
Space Oddity (Hits à Gogo, 1969).
Ragazzo Solo, Ragazza Sola.
Space Oddity (Ivor Novello Awards, 1970).
Space Oddity (live, 1971).
Space Oddity (live, 1972).
Space Oddity (BBC, 1972).
Space Oddity (live, Hammersmith Odeon, 1973).
Space Oddity (“1980 Floor Show,” 1973).
Space Oddity (live, 1974).
Space Oddity (1979 remake).
Space Oddity (live, 1983).
Space Oddity (live, 1990).
Space Oddity (50th Birthday concert, 1997).
Space Oddity (Tibet House Benefit Concert, February 2002, w/ the Scorchio and Kronos Quartets, Adam Yauch & Philip Glass.)
Space Oddity (last live performance, 5 July 2002).
Space Oddity (a last snippet, March 2004.)

It was the beginning: Bowie’s first single for Philips/Mercury, his first British Top 5 hit, his first American Top 20 hit and, some years later, his first British #1. “Space Oddity” led off the album it titled; it leads off Bowie compilations and retrospectives. When he died, some television tributes led off with it; that night, they sang it in the streets.

An odd beginning, though. Its status as the first “classic” Bowie song came circuitously. Though it was a novelty single with a sell-by date (the July 1969 moon landing), “Space Oddity” didn’t chart until months after the moonshot and its highest chartings came in the mid-Seventies. Some in the Bowie camp thought it was a mistake at the time—his friend Tony Visconti refused to produce the single, considering it cheap, a publicity stunt (“it’s not a David Bowie record, it’s ‘Ernie the Milkman’,” he later said). Visconti wasn’t wrong. In hock to the great Bee Gees’ death bubblegum hits “New York Mining Disaster 1941” and “I’ve Gotta Get a Message to You” (Major Tom to Ground Control: in the event of something happening to me; Ground Control to Major Tom: for once in your life you’re alone), “Space Oddity” is a gimmicky folk song clad in extravagant garb.

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In December 1968, Bowie’s manager Kenneth Pitt funded the production of Love You Till Tuesday, a collection of promotional videos. He hoped to revive Bowie’s moribund career, with LYTT serving as a visual resume for film and stage producers, and possibly to be sold to a television network (it wasn’t released until 1984). While there were films shot for David Bowie tracks, Deram outtakes, a mime piece, and a Feathers song, LYTT lacked anything fresh, so Pitt asked Bowie to come up with “another strong song.”

It’s unknown when Bowie first got the idea for a “spaceman” song, but an almost certain starting point was May 1968, when Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey opened in London. The film played there for months, mostly to the young and the altered. In a typical 2001 screening, Visconti, high from drinking cannabis tea, had to talk down a tripping couple terrified by the “Stargate” sequence, as he wrote in his autobiography. Bowie saw 2001 (allegedly “out of my gourd…very stoned”) several times and was taken by Kubrick and Geoffrey Unsworth’s shots: a star-child looming above the Earth; the dead astronaut Frank Poole floating off into space; a man in space talking to his daughter on Earth via video-phone.

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Like 2001, much of postwar SF had offered that humanity’s ventures into space would drive it mad or transfigure it in some way. In Gordon Walter’s “No Guarantee,” an astronaut violently hallucinates while talking to Ground Control. An astronaut in Terry Pratchett’s “The Night Dweller” realizes “we were in a void with nothing below us…it was cold and empty and hostile.”

And in Ray Bradbury’s “No Particular Night or Morning,” an astronaut hurls himself into the void:

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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Jane Conrad, Barbara Cernan & Leslie Bean celebrate their husbands’ moonlaunch on Apollo 12; 16 November 1969 (Lee Balterman)

Against this stood the American astronauts: ex-athletes and Air Force pilots with pretty, television-ready wives and scads of healthy-looking children. They all seemed to live on the same suburban street. “NASA was vending space,” wrote Norman Mailer, who interviewed the Apollo 11 crew before the moonshot. Neil Armstrong, the first man on the moon, was “a salesman with a clear mild modest soft sell.” But there was something strange in the Apollo astronauts too, something that lay beyond the jokes about astronaut food and golf and the hundreds of tedious tasks they’d perform, as if they were celestial mechanics. For Mailer, an astronaut like Armstrong had “something close to schizophrenia in his lack of reaction to the dangers about him.”

The astronauts had an easy familiarity with death; they were salesmen over an abyss. Major Tom’s disaster (is it a disaster at all?) voiced the collective dread that the moon landing could go horribly wrong, with death or lunar exile (an extended death) shown on live TV. “A song-farce,” Bowie called “Space Oddity” not long after the moonshot. He’d written it as an “antidote to space-fever.” That “the publicity image of a spaceman at work is of an automaton rather than a human being and my Major Tom is nothing but a human being.”

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It’s fitting that Bowie made “Space Oddity” demos while he had a serviceman’s haircut (due to a bit part in The Virgin Soldiers in late 1968)

The man on earth, playing his 12-string acoustic in his room at 22 Clareville Grove in South Kensington, working up a song. After four years in pop music, David Bowie had no record contract and was reduced to a relative handful of folk and mime gigs. In 1968, he’d tried his hand at film parts and musical theater (he unsuccessfully auditioned for Hair), did a cabaret audition, some modeling. Though among his more lucrative jobs of the period was for a TV spot for Luv Ice Cream, his manager kept telling him that work would turn up. So Major Tom is sent into orbit by Establishment figures who monitor him and need him to do his share of media promotion. The song ends with Major Tom ignoring his cues and walking off stage.

Bowie also was writing as the first serious relationship of his life crumbled. He cut the first studio take of “Space Oddity” during his final break with Hermione Farthingale. There was a numbness in the song, a longing to sever ties and drift into the void. As Bowie said of it in summer 1969, “at the end of the song Major Tom is completely emotionless and expresses no view at all about where he’s at…he’s fragmenting.”

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Among the first substantive interviews of Bowie’s professional life, by Mary Finnigan for the International Times (15-21 August 1969).

All of this was swirling in “Space Oddity”—a technocrat American astronaut cracking up, a failed pop singer out in space writing a letter to his lost girlfriend—but there were pantomime qualities in the song as well. The hand-wringing “she KNOWS!” cried by Ground Control when Major Tom tells his wife he loves her; the stage-Italian pronunciation of “most-a pe-cuil-ee-ah way.”

As with “When I’m Five” or “There Is a Happy Land,” it was fundamentally a child’s song, one they could perform via walkie-talkies. Using simple rhymes (“can you hear” jump-cuts to “here am I floating…”), Bowie favored the kid’s word over the bureaucrat’s: it’s “spaceship” instead of “rocket,” “countdown” instead of “ignition sequence.” “Major Tom” was an action hero’s name, another Dan Dare. The Apollo 11 astronauts called their capsule “the cathedral.” But it was a tin can here: you could see the wires it hung from.

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Ground Control fears the worst (Love You Till Tuesday; Thomson, 1969)

In John Hutchinson’s memoir, he recalled first hearing “the bare bones” of “Space Oddity” a week or two before the Love You Till Tuesday filming. This would place its earliest extant demos (as heard on the Spying Through a Keyhole box) around the tail end of 1968 through mid-January 1969. Farthingale said she first heard “Space Oddity” in November 1968 (Bowie also once said that he wrote the lyrics in that month) and there’s an intriguing Feathers setlist from the period with an unknown piece called “Here Am I,” suggesting that its bridge may have been written first.

(There have been dubious co-authorship claims—LYTT’s director Malcolm Thomson once said some of “Space Oddity” was communally written over a few nights when he and his assistant Susie Mercer visited Clareville Grove—“we all produced lines. It was very much a spontaneous thing among a group of people”—and Marc Bolan told Spencer Leigh that he’d written “part” of the song (declining to say which part) and had suggested that Bowie sing it like Robin Gibb.)

What could be the first recording that Bowie ever made of “Space Oddity” is a fragmentary solo demo in which the bridge is all but completed, while the verse melody and the Ground Control/Major Tom dialogue structure are close to being set. The way that Bowie sings the verses reminds me a bit of John Lennon’s verse phrasings on the then-just-released “Bungalow Bill” (“he went out tiger hunting with his el-e-phant and gun”). There are some clunky early lines (“I think my life on earth is nearly through”), and a clearer depiction of what happens to Major Tom—his spaceship goes “off course, directions wrong”— but it’s striking how much of the song is already in place.

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Some “Space Oddity” chords, from Acoustic Guitar, February 2007.

Its chord sequence was the fruit of a year’s dabbling in folk music, with Hutchinson translating some of Bowie’s ideas into proper chord shapes (he was essential to tacking down the bridge, as Hutch contributed the opening Fmaj7 and the quick run of ninth chords (wrongly omitted in the above chord chart: see below).

Bowie had fingered through progressions on his 12-string, following internal voices of his guitar—playing chord changes that sounded right to his ear and that he achieved with easy movements, like converting a F major barre chord (“and I’m”) into F minor (“floating in a”) by lifting a finger. Later compositions like “Quicksand” would share this tactile sense of movement.

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Parallel movements of electric guitar and Stylophone (“Sty.”) in the opening verse

So the chord pairings of the intro (a slow dance of Fmaj7/E and E minor) and the first verse’s alternating C majors and E minors, present a division to be exploited. On the single recording, the guitarist Mick Wayne sounds two harmonics (E and B) while Bowie’s Stylophone drones two whole notes a half-step apart (C and B). Before the first verse starts, Major Tom is already high in space, Ground Control far below him.

The song was full of these resonances, its harmonic language telling half of the story. Take the E7 chord that appears in the second verse (“really made the grade”) to question the prospective key of C major. It was as dramatic a move harmonically as the vocal leap on the post-liftoff  “this is Ground Control to Major Tom” was melodically. Shifting to E7 instead of the expected E minor brightened the song, expanded it outward. Or take the bridge’s “planet earth is blue” section (B-flat major 9/ A minor add9/ G major add9/ F), a folk-style descending progression whose opening chord (Bbmaj9) was a far distance from C major, a move ratifying Major Tom’s choice (or doom) to stay out in space.

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The “liftoff” bars

He’d never written anything on such a scale before. In a touch over five minutes, there was a faded-in intro, a 12-bar solo verse, a “liftoff” sequence, a duet verse, a bridge, a two-bar acoustic guitar break, a six-bar guitar solo, a third verse, another run of bridge, break, and solo, and a “Day in the Life”-style outro to the fade.

In 2002, Bowie said he’d been “keen on…writing in such a way that it would lead me into leading some kind of rock musical…[that’s] probably what I really wanted to do in the late Sixties. I think I wanted to write a new kind of musical, and that’s how I saw my future at the time.” He storyboarded the song, each section setting up the next. The spoken “countdown” backing vocal built suspense in the latter half of the opening verse, leading to a D major chord (“God’s love be with yoooou”) aching to be resolved by the “liftoff” sequence. The acoustic guitar breaks (C-F-G-A-A, Bowie slamming out the last two chords) worked as stage-clearing (they may well have come from the Fifth Dimension’s “Carpet Man”).

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At present, the only surviving video of DB’s 1969 TV appearances to promote “Space Oddity”: the Swiss Hits à Gogo, 3 November 1969 (the dry ice was a leftover from its Halloween show)

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.

“It was a song always intended to be sung by a duo,” Hutchinson wrote of “Space Oddity,” whose initial vocal arrangement evoked another, more successful folk pair—Hutch as Ground Control Simon, Bowie as Major Tom Garfunkel. Hutchinson was the song’s primary voice until midway through the second verse, when Major Tom transmits back at last: Bowie soaring over a seventh for his opening phrase (because it’s a seventh interval rather than an octave, Bowie’s phrase has a yearning, striving quality; it’s a goal not quite reached.)

Hutchinson, having left working with Bowie in the spring, would be a ghost in the single recording, his absence heightening its sense of loss and dislocation. Bowie now sang the opening verse in imitation of his former partner, harmonizing with himself in octaves. (In live performances in 1972-1973, Mick Ronson took over harmonies.)

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A studio recording of “Space Oddity” was cut for Love You Till Tuesday on 2 February 1969, a few days before its tonally bizarre promo film was shot: a half-panto, half-borderline softcore short. Marred by leaden drumming and a wheezing Bowie ocarina solo, the LYTT “Space Oddity” oddly downplayed the Stylophone, which Bowie had started playing around Christmas 1968 and had been key to the song’s development—the Stylophone is central in all but the earliest demo.

A small portable synthesizer with two settings, “normal” and “vibrato,” the Stylophone was played by touching a stylus to its tiny metallic keyboard. Bowie worked out a progression on it for the opening verse, a two-note sequence that he later shifted up an octave (on “papers want to know,” the Stylophone moves between A-flat and G). Heard isolated in the mix, the Stylophone is a futurist police siren. In the single’s outro, while Wayne sends guitar notes into the exosphere, Bowie frantically taps at his little keyboard as if making one last SOS.

Making the Stylophone prominent in the “Space Oddity” mix gave the single a futuristic hook and added to its hokey charm. Although recorded at a top studio at a substantial budget (£493.18), the single had a winning sense of amateurishness. Orchestral instruments would play only secondary roles: the strings’ massed entrance in the liftoff sequence; the spacewalk of darting flute and moaning celli in the bridges; the bow scrapings in the outro, a homage to György Ligeti’s “Atmosphères,” used in 2001. Meanwhile, the two synthesizers, doughty little Stylophone and brooding Mellotron (the latter played by Rick Wakeman and held in reserve until the first bridge), bore much of the song’s dramatic weight. They were its vocal chorus, its other string section.

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A Dudgeon memo right before the “Space Oddity” session, via Kevin Cann’s Any Day Now

Gus Dudgeon, who produced the single, mapped out its recording like a battle plan (much of it was cut on 20 June 1969, but there was an overdub session a few days later). Unable to write music, Dudgeon used colors and squiggly lines to mark where he wanted various instruments to come in, with Paul Buckmaster helpfully translating his scrawls into charts.

With only eight tracks at hand at Trident Studio, Dudgeon had to be economical, which led to such inspired moves as recording Wayne’s Gibson ES-335 on the same track as the Stylophone, furthering the sense that the two instruments were astronaut and home base. Struggling to keep his borrowed Gibson in tune, Wayne cut a take with a flat low E string, “the warped note swamped with reverb,” but Dudgeon liked the sound and told him not to retune. Wayne used any trick he could muster, picking between his guitar’s bridge and tailpiece, using a chrome-plated cigarette lighter as a bottleneck slide for the takeoff sequence, giving a distorted pressure-drop tag to his first solo (he sounded like a bass synthesizer), moving off his fingerboard for the outro. His two solos, for which Bowie asked him to play like Wes Montgomery (“which meant to play octaves”), were a pair of sweeping orbits, the last escaping Earth’s pull.

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Flowers and Cox’s lines in some of the last bars of “Space Oddity”

Herbie Flowers and Terry Cox were the track’s secret movers. Drumming for Pentangle at the time, Cox served the song well—a man with a funkier bent would have struggled with what was basically a pop tone poem. Opening with parade-ground snare, Cox soon develops a pattern to drive the track: for each bar, two sets of kick drum/closed hi-hat eighth notes he punctuates with a pounded snare and crash cymbal. (He subtly shifts to ride cymbal 16ths and high toms for bridges and solos.) In Flowers’ bassline, a tolling root-note fixation in the opening verse warms to a dancing movement in the second, with a descending two-octave “spacewalk” to kick off the bridges.

Asked to ad lib in the outro, the two did a jazz duet, Flowers playing a roaming, chromatic line that peaked on a high A, Cox hissing his ride cymbal and retorting on his toms. (Cox recalled the session as being “loose,” with Bowie and Dudgeon letting players improvise many of their parts.)

Liftoff

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DB performing “Space Oddity” on the Irish “Like Now!,” 13 December 1969 (video likely wiped)

Major Tom isn’t hearing anything. Is he dead, David?

Probably, that’s left unanswered. But it is clear that he really enjoys being on the moon.

Bowie, to the Dutch newspaper Het Parool, 30 August 1969

The world, or at least a small corner of London, first heard “Space Oddity” on 5 July 1969 when it played over the PA system during the Rolling Stones’ Hyde Park concert. While the BBC reportedly played “Space Oddity” at some point during its moon landing coverage two weeks later (it far more favored “Also Sprach Zarathustra,” the official soundtrack of space thanks to 2001), the single barely charted upon release and sales quickly tapered off despite Pitt paying a chart-rigger £140 to get the single into Record Retailer.

Here, it seemed, was the maddening last chapter of David Bowie’s career. The song that his label, manager, and friends thought was finally the one, the song he said he felt forced into recording, his big sell-out record, had suffered yet another chart death, performing little better than “Liza Jane.” Then he caught a break.

With a dearth of new releases in September, Philips’ new marketing director set his entire staff to flogging the single. “Space Oddity” rebounded, peaking at #5 in November. (It was the success Bowie might have had in 1967 if Deram had gone in on “Love You Till Tuesday.”) It helped that many “serious” rock acts were abandoning the singles charts, leaving room for “Continental” crooners, sex chansons, cartoons, the occasional reggae masterpiece and a few weird one-offs. “Space Oddity” sounded like nothing else, but it sounded like 1969.

And it kept being called back for encores. It was an American hit in 1973 and two years later RCA reissued it in Britain as a maxi-single. It hit #1 at last.

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He remade it at the end of the Seventies, recording a new version for a New Year’s Eve telecast, Will Kenny Everett Make It To 1980? (he did). Bowie sheared the song to acoustic guitar, piano, bass and drums. The great influence was John Lennon’s Plastic Ono Band, particularly “Mother.” Instead of a liftoff sequence, there were now 12 seconds of silence; instead of a spiraling-outward coda, a faded-out snare figure.

“[David] Mallet wanted me to do something for his show and he wanted ‘Space Oddity.’ I agreed as long as I could do it again without all its trappings and do it strictly with three instruments,” Bowie later said. “Having played it with just an acoustic guitar onstage early on, I was always surprised at how powerful it was just as a song, without all the strings and synthesizers.”

“Space Oddity” had ended unresolved, the door of the capsule left open. Bowie’s reduction of the song closed it off: space was empty. Soon afterward, Bowie decided to look up Major Tom to see what had become of him.

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Space Oddity (Langley Schools Music Project, 1976).
Space Oddity (memorial crowd in Brixton, 11 January 2016).
Space Oddity (Chris Hadfield, 2013).
Space Oddity (Kristen Wiig, 2013).
Space Oddity (Flaming Lips, 2016).
Space Oddity (Seu Jorge, 2016).
Space Oddity (Gail Ann Dorsey, 2017).

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.

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, 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.

Bowie, 1980.

Knowing each night…I get that much closer to never singing ‘Ground Control to Major Tom’ again. That gives me some reason for doing it, selfishly.

Bowie, on the “Sound + Vision” tour, 1990.

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“Space Oddity” is a half-century old today. Of course, we’re commemorating a non-event. Few people at the time—perhaps only David Bowie, his friends and manager—were aware of a new single that hit British record shops on Friday, the 11th of July 1969.

In the early Seventies, “Space Oddity” had its uses for him. It fit in his Ziggy Stardust scheme: a late 1972 Mick Rock promo video is Bowie as a bone-tired Ziggy, singing about his fellow lost cosmonaut. (“I really hadn’t much clue why we were doing this, as I had moved on in my mind from the song,” Bowie wrote in 2002.) Its after-hours cabaret 1974 tour version is a man in a phone booth dialing himself. But it was also a silly song that got him a freak hit, and he was wary of being shackled to it. Performing “Space Oddity” on the Ivor Novello Awards in 1970, he already looks a bit chagrined by it. A decade later, he did “Space Oddity” as fan service, with businesslike 1983 tour performances. There was more vigor in his 1990 tour, where “Space Oddity” was the usual set opener. It was the end of the line for the song, he said, so he’d give it a lengthy public burial.

He’d play it three more times. A farewell solo piece at his 1997 birthday concert, where he promised fans he’d keep surprising them. A gorgeous arrangement for Tibet House in February 2002, with a string octet and Adam Yauch on bass (someone else whose death still feels like a break in the world). And a last one-off performance later that summer in Denmark, a gift to his touring band.

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“Space Oddity” was born mournful, and became ever more so over the years. Bowie had linked the Apollo astronauts (who thought they’d be the opening act of a new age of space exploration and turned out to be one-hit-wonders) to the doomed astronauts of science fiction to the lost boys of the imploding counterculture, and had wrapped them up in a playground hymn.

The American space program soon became a series of loops, going nowhere (I wonder sometimes if I am of the last “space” generation, and I was just an infant during the last moon landings). The year 2001 would be remembered not for Jupiter missions but by fanatics destroying New York skyscrapers. In 2013, when we had gone no further into space than when “Space Oddity” first charted, a version sung by the Canadian astronaut Chris Hadfield, filmed onboard the International Space Station, went viral. It was a video of a man singing in a tin can that many had forgotten was out in space; Hadfield was a project manager with a glorious view from his office windows.

Bowie once said Major Tom was the technocratic American mind coming face to face with the void and blanking out. His song was a moonshot-year prophecy: that humanity would sink back into the world, that we aren’t built for transcendence, that the sky really is the limit. Or as Hadfield sang from space: “planet Earth is blue and there’s nothing left to do.”

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I wrote the first version of this essay in the late autumn of 2009, with an economy in pieces and a restlessness, a potential in the air. I did a revision for Rebel Rebel in the summer of 2014, a time that now feels stuck between stations. Here’s another revision, written in a world that would have appeared surreal even to that half-decade-gone summer. “Space Oddity” shifts with the weather: it can be eerie, “dated,” tragic, yearning, young, time-blighted. It’s a lost future for the present, a past for the future to discard or preserve. Where will it land in ten years’ time? And as its composer said, where are we now?

End Credits

Space Oddity.

Written by David Bowie (Essex Music International/ Onward Music Ltd).

Recorded: (1st “Keyhole” demo) ca. December 1968–mid-January 1969, 22 Clareville Grove, South Kensington, London. Bowie: lead vocal, 12-string acoustic guitar; (2nd “Keyhole” demo, “Clareville Grove” demo) ca. mid-to-late January 1969, 22 Clareville Grove. Bowie: also Stylophone; John Hutchinson: lead and harmony vocals, acoustic guitar; (1st studio take) 2 February 1969, Morgan Studios, 169 High Road, Willesden. Bowie: lead and harmony vocals, 12-string acoustic guitar, ocarina, Stylophone; Hutchinson: acoustic guitar, lead and harmony vocals; Colin Wood: Hammond organ, Mellotron, flute; Dave Clague: bass; Tat Meager: drums. Produced: Jonathan Weston; (“Mercury” demo) ca. early-to-mid March 1969, 22 Clareville Grove. Bowie: lead and harmony vocal, Stylophone; Hutchinson: lead and harmony vocal, acoustic guitar; (single) 20 + ca. 23 June 1969, Trident Studios, 17 St. Anne’s Court, London. Bowie: lead and harmony vocal, Stylophone, 12-string acoustic guitar, handclaps; Mick Wayne: lead guitar; Rick Wakeman: Mellotron; Herbie Flowers: bass; Terry Cox: drums; unknown musicians: piano, organ, 2 flutes, 8 violins, 2 violas, 2 celli, 2 arco basses. Produced: Gus Dudgeon; engineered: Barry Sheffield; arranged: Bowie, Paul Buckmaster; (Italian version, “Ragazzo Solo, Ragazza Sola”) 20 December 1969, Morgan Studios. Bowie: lead vocal (Mogol, trans.); (Visconti/DB remake) ca. early September 1979, Good Earth Studios, 59 Dean Street, Soho, London. Bowie: lead vocal, 12-string acoustic guitar; Hans Zimmer: piano; Zaine Griff: bass; Andy Duncan: drums. Produced: Bowie, Tony Visconti.

First release: (single) 11 July 1969 (Philips BF 1801, UK #5); (“Ragazzo Solo”) ca. February 1970 (Philips 704 208 BW); (Visconti/DB remake) 15 February 1980 (RCA BOW 5, UK#23); (“1st studio”) 13 May 1984, Love You Till Tuesday; (“Mercury demo”) 19 September 1989, Sound + Vision; (“Clareville Grove” demo) 12 October 2009, Space Oddity (reissue, DBSOCD 40); (“Keyhole” demos) 5 April 2019, Spying Through a Keyhole.

Broadcast: (recording dates) 25 August 1969, Doebiedoe; 2 October 1969, Top of the Pops; 29 October 1969, Musik Für Junge Leute; 3 November 1969, Hits à Gogo; 5 December 1969, Like Now!; 10 May 1970, The Ivor Novello Awards; 22 May 1972, Johnnie Walker Lunchtime Show; 20 October 1973, The 1980 Floor Show; 18 September 1979, Kenny Everett’s Video Show. Live: 1969-1974, 1983, 1990, 1997, 2002.

Among the many sources for this multi-revised beast over the past decade: Kevin Cann’s Any Day Now, Kenneth Pitt’s The Pitt Report, David Buckley’s Strange Fascination, Paul Trynka’s Starman, The David Bowie Story (radio documentary), the Gilmans’ Alias David Bowie, Nicholas Pegg’s The Complete David Bowie, Roger Griffin’s Golden Years, and, most of all, the complete band score David Bowie: Space Oddity—Off the Record. Also a number of contemporary articles, especially Mary Finnigan’s International Times interview (15-21 August 1969), Jojanneke Claassen’s “David Bowie’s Great Love Is His Arts Lab” (Het Parool, 30 August 1969) and Penny Valentine’s “David Bowie Says Most Things the Long Way Round!” (Disc & Music Echo, 25 October 1969). Larry Hardesty figured out the mechanics of this song for me during book revisions. Around the time of the original entry in 2009, Tom Ewing made mention of the blog, which got it some substantial attention and, ultimately, led to a book contract. So thanks again to Tom, whom I’ve had the great pleasure to meet in the years since.


Angel Angel Grubby Face

May 28, 2019

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Angel Angel Grubby Face (earlier demo, 1968).
Angel Angel Grubby Face (later demo, presumably 1968).

Around February 1968, Bowie and his then-manager, Ken Pitt, “were still working on the assumption that all our problems at Decca would be solved and that David would continue to have his recordings released on the Deram label,” Pitt wrote in his memoir. Though his debut David Bowie had been a flop, Bowie was encouraged by Decca’s Hugh Mendl to start planning a second album, to be produced by Tony Visconti and cut in spring 1968. So Pitt and Bowie “sat down one night and compiled a list of possible titles…songs already recorded and rejected as singles…a number of old songs and some new ones that he had been writing at the flat.”

The latter included songs whose demos Pitt was sending out at the time, some of which were recorded by the Beatstalkers and the Slender Plenty (“Everything Is You,” “Silver Tree Top School For Boys,” “When I’m Five,” “C’est La Vie“). Bowie split with Deram once their rejection of the “In the Heat of the Morning” single made it clear they’d written him off as a dud, and when he got his next record deal a year later, he had the likes of “Space Oddity” and “Letter to Hermione” to offer. Looking back on Bowie’s never-made 1968 album, Pitt mused that “I suppose that David has forgotten that he ever wrote some of those songs, but they live on in my box files where I keep his original manuscripts, typewritten by himself or written in his own hand.”

With the Spying Through a Keyhole set, we finally hear a few of these ghost songs in demo form:* “Angel Angel Grubby Face” even appears twice. Mark Adams’ liner notes argue for its second, presumably-later-recorded demo as having a guitarist other than Bowie, as it’s a finger-picked style he rarely used: DB was a born strummer. If it’s not Bowie playing, possible candidates are John Hutchinson (which could place the second demo as late as winter 1969) or Tony Hill, Bowie’s mayfly partner in the folk trio Turquoise in summer 1968.** [The more I’ve listened to it, the more I disagree with Adams—this sounds like Bowie, if playing more ambitiously than usual.]

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Lyrically, “Angel Angel” falls in with David Bowie tracks like “Maid of Bond Street” and “There Is a Happy Land,” here contrasting hustling time-bound city life with a pastoral escape-land—a dozing bumblebee, “naked sky,” and an oak tree with generous shade, where lovers from Factory Street meet on stolen Sundays. There’s a briskness to Bowie’s “city” lines, which the alternate demo shows he shuffled around to try different phrasings: buses and smoke, disorder and vouchers (or buses and vouchers, smoke and disorder). Call it a sequel to his 1966 single “I Dig Everything” (which Bowie was reviving for a potential cabaret set at the time), with a “briefcase prince” shackled to the nine-to-five city world he’d once laughed at from his bedsit window.

Some of its melodies are also in “London Bye Ta-Ta,” which Bowie cut as a prospective B-side in March 1968—compare the “Angel” verse’s four-beat phrases (“Sun-day oak-tree,” “Mon-day mor-ning”) to “red-light green-light” in the latter, or the “Angel” refrain (“your briefcase prince is by your side”) to the bridge of “Ta-Ta” (“the poet in the clothes shop…”). As the two songs were contemporaneous, being pressed onto a two-sided acetate around this time, it suggests that Bowie was looking to see where some melodic ideas fit better, and “Ta Ta” apparently won. (The later demo sounds as if done in part to tweak the “Ta Ta” melody, especially in the refrain.)

Bowie sings the later demo quietly and somberly, aligned with the more intricate, bass-heavy guitar line. His refrain lyric now begins “‘Tom, Tom,’ she whispers low/ ‘don’t forget my name’,” a revision that darkens his song. What was once “citizens of town” slipping off to the country to be lovers could now be a seduction by a cad who’ll soon get on the train and leave the girl behind—the “she wants to feel older” line becomes more troubling. If he remembers her at all, it will be by the mocking nickname that he gave her under the oak tree.

Recorded: (early demo) ca. December 1967-early spring 1968. Possible locations (London): Kenneth Pitt’s apartment, 39 Manchester Street; Essex Music, 68 Oxford Street. David Bowie: lead and backing vocal, acoustic guitar; (later demo) summer?-winter? 1968. Along w/ previously-mentioned locations, 22 Clareville Grove. Acoustic guitar: Bowie? Hutchinson? Hill? First release: 5 April 2019, Spying Through a Keyhole.

Just FYI: Patreon contributors got this post some days ago, and also got an essay on Lodger at 40, so they’re having a truly wonderful month, I’ve been told.

* Of Pitt’s track list, only “Tiny Tim” and “The Reverend Raymond Brown (Attends the Garden Fete on Thatchwick Green)” remain unreleased or un-bootlegged. Perhaps their turn will come in the next expensive box set of 7″ singles this year!

** As Bowie found Hill via a personal ad DB had in the International Times of 14-27 June 1968, this would place the 2nd “Angel Face” demo (if it is Hill) between then and ca. October ’68, when Hill left Turquoise.

Top: London street scene, summer 1967, from “Swinging Britain,” a British Pathé newsreel.


Brief Thoughts on Three Deram Outtakes

May 14, 2019

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Bunny Thing, Your Funny Smile, Pussy Cat (excerpts).

These long-documented but unheard (well, by most of us) outtakes from Bowie’s first album are the most intriguing finds so far in this springtime of “new” Bowie tracks from the Sixties. Who knows what’s driving the onrush of this stuff—the tapes being sold at auction; the costly vinyl box sets offered on a near-monthly basis. Some of it’s likely copyright-spurred, some of it’s possibly tied to the recent death of Bowie’s manager in the Sixties, Kenneth Pitt, who had an archive of early Bowie material.

The latest “demo” tape, which will presumably be sold to a wealthy collector next week, is labeled as “rejected 1967 demos.” Unless I’m mistaken, these aren’t demos at all, but complete studio outtakes from Bowie’s Deram album sessions. The auction site’s link thus has tantalizing 30-second excerpts of three songs recorded for David Bowie but left in the vaults for over fifty years (the fourth so-called demo appears to be just a different mix of the 1967 B-side “Did You Ever Have a Dream“).

The rumor was that Decca had long wanted to release these tracks, first on the 1997 Deram Anthology and on 2010’s 2-CD deluxe edition of David Bowie, but that DB had vetoed them. They may well never be released. Still, instead of rumor, we now have fragments.

Bunny Thing

(Bowie.) Recorded: 12 December 1966, Decca Studios, London. Bowie: lead vocal; John Renbourn: acoustic guitar. Produced: Mike Vernon; engineered: Gus Dudgeon.

Taped on the same day as “Come and Buy My Toys,” the equally acoustic “Bunny Thing” suggests a session fully devoted to Bowie working with the folk guitarist John Renbourn. Renbourn, who was living on an old boat on the Thames in this period, co-founded Pentangle soon afterward.

As per a mid-December 1966 acetate of a provisional David Bowie sequencing, “Bunny Thing” was slated as the closer of Side One. It is…not difficult to see why this track later got the chop. A “spoken word” performance over Renbourn’s guitar, it’s a satirical piece about drug trafficking in “a village of little bunnies.” Heard in the excerpt is its opening stage-setting verse. Reportedly, the full piece delves more into its main character, an elderly, dying bunny customs inspector called Br’er Hans Hitler, who speaks in DB’s attempt at a German accent. Br’er Hitler (“he was a drag, dad…he lost his bag of groove”) contends with some young bunny delinquents smuggling in carrot juice and bunny drugs; Renbourn takes a solo; it’s done in under three minutes.

“Drug songs” were a minor Bowie interest of this period. See “Silver Tree Top School For Boys,” where masters and students smoke joints on their school’s cricket ground, or his love of Biff Rose’s “Buzz the Fuzz,” in which a Sunset Strip rookie cop tangles with “Alice Dee.” In all these cases, Bowie keyed in on a younger generation of dopers tangling with adult authority figures. “Bunny Thing” also suggests a homage to/parody of the Beat poets, and as such it fit into the bits of poetry Bowie would do on stage until 1970 (as per Kevin Cann, Bowie performed “Bunny Thing” at the Roundhouse that year).

As “Bunny Thing” sounds like a piece of true Bowie weirdness, it’s a shame that it may well never be heard in full. In 1991, Bowie’s friend and collaborator Derek “Dek” Fearnley called “Bunny Thing” one of his favorite tracks on the album, saying “I was really disappointed it didn’t make the LP.” Still, you can understand Bowie’s desire to keep his “Nazi bunny customs inspector’s deathbed reminiscence” piece locked away.

Your Funny Smile

(Bowie.) Recorded: ca. 14 November-mid December 1966, Decca Studios. Bowie: lead vocal; Renbourn? Big Jim Sullivan? guitar; Derek Boyes: piano; Derek “Dek” Fearnley: bass; John Eager: drums; uncredited musicians: strings. Produced: Vernon; engineered: Dudgeon.

The reason for this track’s deletion is less obvious. Originally sequenced to follow “Sell Me a Coat” on David Bowie‘s first side, “Your Funny Smile,” at least from its fragment, is a pleasant-sounding and very “Deram 1966” pop track. You’d assume Decca would have favored it over the likes of “We Are Hungry Men,” but perhaps Bowie won that particular battle.

The excerpt is of its refrain, possibly moving into a bridge, and the string arrangement’s in line with other work done by Dek Fearnley for the album. From what we hear of it, “Your Funny Smile” sounds like a midway point between Bowie’s 1966 singles for Pye and some tracks cut for David Bowie (see in particular “Maid of Bond Street“). Perhaps by the album’s last sequencing in spring 1967, it seemed too out of date.

Pussy Cat

(Bowie?). Recorded: ca. 8 March 1967, Decca Studios. Bowie: lead vocal; Renbourn? Sullivan? guitar; Boyes: piano?; Fearnley: bass?; Eager: drums?; uncredited musicians: tuba, other brass. Produced: Vernon; engineered: Dudgeon.

As per Bowie archivist Kevin Cann, “Pussy Cat” was likely recorded on a notable date—the last session for “The Laughing Gnome!

Until now, it’s been assumed that this was Bowie covering a 1964 single by Jess Conrad, or, alternatively, a 1966 track by Chubby Checker. However, as the excerpt shows, that’s not the case—Bowie’s “Pussy Cat” appears to have nothing to do with these songs. The other Conrad recording of a song called “Pussy Cat” is on the B-side of a 1970 single, “Crystal Ball Dream,” and I’ve not heard it. But unless Bowie was a time traveler (always possible), the timing doesn’t really work out for that one.

[A clarifying addition!: as commenter Rufus Oculus notes below, “Pussy Cat” uses the melody of Marie Laforêt’s 1966 “Manchester et Liverpool.”  So “Pussy Cat” appears to have been one of Bowie’s translation jobs (see “Pancho” or “Even A Fool Learns to Love“) or him using Andre Popp’s melody for a prospective song of his own.]

So it’s Bowie playing on a nursery rhyme to scold a two-timing girlfriend (“don’t tell me no fairy tale/ for I’ve been following your trail”). If there’s any likely influence, it’s Bacharach/David’s “What’s New Pussycat?,” whose Tom Jones recording was an inescapable hit in 1965. Bowie’s “Pussy Cat” has an under-construction Mockney accent and a guitar-brass arrangement. Cann has described the full recording as sounding like a demo and that Bowie’s “vocal deteriorates as he seems to tire of the song.” It’s unlikely that it was a serious contender for David Bowie, as March 1967 was late in the game for that, particularly for a song of such modest potential as this.

New Career, New Towns

I’ve noted this on the Twitter but haven’t made a full announcement yet. But: I’ve started a new writing project, called 64 Quartets. This is, as its title suggests, about 64 musical quartets. The first entry is on Booker T. and the MG’s, the next one will be about another group of four people, and so on. This is where much of my time and energy will be going over the next year or so. I hope you enjoy it.

I’ve also set up a Patreon for it and for other writing projects, such as this site. For a very modest monthly sum, you’ll get previews of new posts (so for instance, patrons got this post yesterday), and sometimes I’ll write exclusive essays—one fairly soon, I believe. Any support would be greatly appreciated. Thank you.

 


Mother Grey

April 9, 2019

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Mother Grey (demo).

What’s the point of an archive set of murky-sounding demos from fifty years ago? Spying Through a Keyhole, a box of four 7″ 45 RPM singles ($35.95 retail at Newbury Comics in Northampton, MA), seems meant to be faced-out on a shelf. “What’s that, then? David Bowie?” “Yes, nice, isn’t it? I should get around to listening to it one of these days…”

Format fetishism (soon to continue with the upcoming Clareville Grove Demos set) is inevitable at a time when vinyl packaging drives “physical media” buys. The justification here, as per Parlophone, is that having these demos on 7″ singles honors how they were sent to publishers and performers in the late Sixties (Why not go whole hog then?—put them on acetates that wear out after ten plays.) You, humble buyer, can imagine you’re an overworked staffer for Tom Jones’ management company.

For Keyhole, these are (mostly) songs which Bowie registered with the publisher Essex Music in the mid-to-late Sixties and over which his estate doesn’t have full control—Essex was reportedly why astronaut Chris Hadfield briefly had to pull his “Space Oddity” cover off YouTube. The specter of unissued Bowie songs entering EU public domain was one impetus for its release (the set notes that tracks were “previously available as an internet download only for a strictly limited period in December 2018,” a period so limited that I believe no one on the globe actually downloaded them).

Still, Keyhole offers something new. It clears, somewhat, a muddy picture—it documents Bowie’s steady improvement as a songwriter in 1968. This is considered his lost year, a year without a record deal, the year of Feathers and Hermione, of various failed advert, cabaret, and musical auditions. A holding-pattern year, one devoted to mime and Buddhism (“there were times when I felt I was the only person in the world who believed in his talent,” his then-manager Kenneth Pitt wrote about summer 1968.)*

As it turns out, Bowie was toiling away throughout 1968—even his apparent lassitude was for show. Keyhole is David Bowie as grubbing songwriter, blotting out lyrics, trying out hooks, recasting songs, sketching vocal arrangements. During his life, he wasn’t much interested in making these sort of drafting-room sketches public. Sure he’d rework and recycle lyrics, hooks, chord changes and voices throughout his career, but that was his purview. Make something fresh with it. Otherwise, let’s move on, as he’d sing. With Bowie gone, his past is his last undiscovered country. We’ll see soon enough how much of it will come to light.

Singing in the Silver Kitchen

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“Mother Grey,” registered with Essex in December 1967, is a storied “unreleased” Bowie song, as its title was known as early as 1973, when Essex sued Bowie for its copyright.** Released at last in 2019, it’s striking even in bleary demo form—for me, the highlight of the set.

Presumably a candidate (the timing fits) for Bowie’s never-made second album on Deram, slated to be cut in spring 1968, “Mother Grey” is Bowie keeping the thematic framework of his 1967 album—it’s another third-person lyric about a slightly-surreal domestic situation—while toying with structure. So while all 14 David Bowie songs have a (usually) instrumental intro, “Mother Grey” opens with its chorus! (something Bowie rarely did again until “Let’s Dance,” and then he’d credit Nile Rodgers for pushing him).

In two verses, Bowie moves against a bass figure (on guitar here) while varying phrasings to make a ladder of hooks. A five-beat line with a slight weight on the last syllable (“sil-ver kit-chen full of pots and pans“), followed by a goofy aside, often harmonized (“mee-eee oh-myy-ay-ay!”) that in turn trims the closing phrase to four beats (“that’s a way for Mother Grey”). He’s smoothing out and breaking up the lengthy, twisting verse phrasings of late 1967’s “Karma Man“—it’s tighter, hookier writing, with Bowie keeping to a short span of notes.

You assume the awkward “join” linking verse to chorus (esp. at 1:08, which sounds like a clunk-fingered tape edit) would have been improved had “Mother Grey” gotten a full-band recording. Instead you’re left to imagine the ghost arrangement—scored low strings for the refrains? Harmonica replaced by lead guitar? The outro seems to be readying itself for the sort of rambling jam heard on Space Oddity tracks.

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It’s a day-to-night portrait—Mother Grey makes beds, cleans the kitchen, cooks tea for her husband (he “tries to kiss but she ain’t in the mood”), scrubs floors, polishes a picture frame of her son, who’s moved out and left her alone in an empty house. She goes to sleep “so alone,” as harmonized Bowies sing in the closing refrain.

Some Ray Davies is in it—see Priscilla’s domestic drudgery in “Two Sisters” (and there’s a Kinks-esque little skip between opening refrain and first verse)—and the liner notes argue for “Mother’s Little Helper” as an influence. But there’s a vicious, joyful contempt in the Stones track, where getting old is a failure and domestic life is a hell of your own making. Take your pep pills for the tennis court, some Valiums to knock yourself out: if you never wake up, who’ll miss you? Jagger soon enough played the devil, but he sounds like an Old Testament-style scourge here, his voice tuned to a sharp, pitiless scale. He’s cursing all he sees, all this horrific prosperity.

There’s nothing like this in “Mother Grey,” who’s confined to her house, like a zoo animal that can’t survive in the wild; she’s trapped in cyclical existence and even seems vaguely aware of it at times—see Bowie’s line about her, for a moment, being suddenly on “the outside” and seeing the starry sky, which looks down on “her hands”; she’s nothing but labor, a hollow tool. His sympathies are with his character here, if coldly. Bowie’s perspective, from early in his work, was of someone trying to puzzle out why “normal” people behave as they do. Everyday life as seen at a remove, as if from the deck of a ship.

It’s most aligned with another 1968 Bowie song, “When I’m Five.” Mother Grey could be that kid’s mother: a towering yet pitiful figure whose life makes no sense (note the child’s-eye name for her, like the soon-to-come President Joe and Major Tom). Bowie’s strained relationship with his mother (who at times would call journalists to complain about him neglecting her) is an unavoidable aspect of the song, as is his long-developed theme of suburbia as a frozen landscape he was lucky to have escaped. It’s frustrating to hear it forever trapped in sketch form. Still, the greatest compliment you can give “Mother Grey” is to mourn the track that it never became.

Recorded: ca. December 1967?-early spring 1968. Possible locations (London): Kenneth Pitt’s apartment at 39 Manchester Street; Essex Music, 68 Oxford Street. David Bowie: lead and backing vocal, acoustic guitars, harmonica, percussion. First release: 5 April 2019, Spying Through a Keyhole.

[If you’d like, print this out and put it between the “London Bye Ta-Ta” and “When I’m Five” entries in Rebel Rebel.]

*In his memoir, Pitt (per usual) exactingly detailed Bowie’s total income for 1968: £905.19.10. Given that, inflation-adjusted, this is something like £16,000 at a much higher pound-to-dollar exchange rate, this is a not-horrible? income for someone who didn’t put out a record and barely performed that year.

**In May 1973, Essex entered a writ in the High Court of Justice in London, claiming that “Mother Grey,” “April’s Tooth of Gold,” and “Ching-a-Ling” should have been assigned to them as part of a 1967 agreement, and alleged Bowie had broken his contract with them when he signed with Chrysalis Music—this would be one of the many legal headaches of the MainMan era).

News, etc.

I want to say thanks again to everyone who came out to the readings and conversations in New York, London, and Manchester in the past months—it was a delight to meet all of you. I hope you’ve enjoyed Ashes to Ashes. If you haven’t gotten it, well, you still can.

I’ll put up more new entries here in a while (the rest of the ‘new’ ’68 demos and probably the last Blackstar songs at some point). And I’m fairly close to finishing the first piece of an “interim” project, a sort of ‘variety show’ thing, you could say. More soon.

Top: Britt-Marie Sohlström, “Mors dag (Mother’s Day), Sweden, 1968.”