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.”

 


Ashes to Ashes: Book Thoughts

February 12, 2019

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Hello, everyone. Ashes to Ashes comes out today (edit: not until the 19th in the UK, it seems? Sorry UK). You can buy it in your local bookshop (a good option!), you can buy it online, and you can get it as an e-book. See here for many ways to get it.

So this is my general thank you to everyone who visited this blog over the past ten (!) years, to those who have said something kind about it, and to those who’ve left an insightful comment. As you’ll see in the book’s introduction, I believe that the blog flourished in the early 2010s for a few reasons, the quality of its readership being a primary one. In a couple weeks I’ll talk about what I’m thinking of working on next.

If you can make it to an event in the next month (see here—but in brief summary, New York on 21 and 25 February, London on 14 March, and (details to come) Manchester on 16 March), please say hello. It will be nice to meet anyone whom I’ve only known as a name on a comment thread.

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On the Notes

I’m putting up the book notes section in the next few days and will collect these in PDF form if that’s more convenient for readers. It’s to my great regret that these couldn’t appear in Ashes, but they would have added another hundred? pages to an already-oversized book (if you’ve ordered it in the mail, when the package shows up you’ll think it’s a pair of shoes) and jacked up the retail price, etc. But as dense and esoteric as these notes may be, they’re a vital piece of the book.

For one thing, I tried, as much as possible, to credit by name the journalists who interviewed Bowie and/or reviewed his concerts. I was blessed to write about a musician whose working life coincided with a far healthier environment for newspapers, music websites, and magazines. As late as the Reality tour, nearly every Bowie concert in North America and Europe was covered by a writer for a local or national newspaper, creating an invaluable pile of contemporary details. Someone in the 2030s writing about, say, Janelle Monáe may not have that to draw upon. The idea that YouTube clips, tweets and Tumblr entries documenting her Dirty Computer tour will be around in 20 years is…optimistic.

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On the Book

Some thoughts on how the book turned out:

Chapter One: New People (1976-1977)

Title comes from a Dziga Vertov subtitle that’s stuck with me over the years: that mix of optimism and doom. It’s the “character opening” chapter, so there are some quick intros for post-Station DB, Iggy Pop and Brian Eno. Some entries were greatly reworked; others hold fairly close to their original blog entries. Among the key pieces are “Sound and Vision” and “Warszawa.” As I’ve said before, the latter’s in great debt to Agata Pyzik, who gave—at last!—a Polish perspective for a song written about a Polish city.

Chapter Two: Berliners (1977)

The rocket-propulsed chapter—the upper of the period, with some Berlin stage-setting. “Heroes” got some substantial alterations; “V-2 Schneider” is far better than the blog, I think.

Chapter Three: Someone Else’s Horizon (1977-1979)

Mr. Toad provided the title. But a bear of a chapter to write, as it covers a sprawling period from the Marc Bolan and Bing Crosby duets through the 1978 tour to post-Lodger. It’s interesting to see how much Lodger‘s reputation has improved in the span between when I first wrote about it (2011) to today.

Chapter Four: A Society of One (1980-1982)

Title nods to a line from “Teenage Wildlife” (“I feel like a group of one”) but, perhaps less obviously, it’s from a 1997 article on Zora Neale Hurston. I nearly called it Except the Intellectuals, from a Renata Adler quote. I’d assumed the Scary Monsters chapter would be centered on “Ashes to Ashes,” which is a substantial bit for sure, but it turned out that “Teenage Wildlife” became its hub—even more central to the themes of ‘lateness’, modernity and anti-modernity, anger, etc. that permeate DB songs of this period (“Under Pressure” is part of this). With hope, the Baal songs work as an epilogue.

Chapter Five: The Strike Price (1983-1985)

A financial title: if you’d bought shares in David Bowie in 1971 or thereabouts, 1983-1984 would have been your ideal time to cash out—you would have made a mint. World-popular Bowie, and its echoes. “Criminal World,” as blog readers know, had to bear the weight of an exploration of when a gay-identified pop star says he’s not gay anymore in 1983, aiming to be sympathetic to all sides—DB’s frustration with being defined by a homophobic media; fans who felt betrayed by his comments. Labyrinth gets a solid share of time and the chapter ends on some lighter notes.

Chapter Six: The Man on the Spider (1986-1987)

My goal was to be not overly cruel about Bowie’s oft-bashed works: I made a pretty quick dash through what I consider the lesser half of the Never Let Me Down songs. The key pieces are “Glass Spider” and “Zeroes,” which aim to get at where Bowie was in 1987 and why, for some, his spells didn’t work this time.

Chapter Seven: The Battle of the Wilderness (1988-1992)

A US Civil War reference—one of those grisly battles where men were stuck in the woods shooting at each other, then doing it again a week later. I’m indebted, as in a few subsequent chapters, to Reeves Gabrels, who broke down when songs were written and recorded for the Tin Machine albums. Again, my aim was not to bash a still-oft-bashed DB era but to show its serious strengths as well, to see what Bowie said he wanted to accomplish during his time in the ranks. That said, there are still a few jokes about the Machine, sorry guys.

Chapter Eight: Family Albums (1992-1993)

A short but hard chapter to complete. I bet when the next box set comes out and a fresh round of retrospectives get done on Black Tie White Noise, some murkiness about this album will dissipate. At the moment it’s bit of a mess—some players weren’t credited, the thing came together over almost a year of sprawling sessions and Bowie’s insightful comments on the album were few. By contrast the Buddha of Suburbia pieces were a dream—did ’em all in a week or two, if I recall. “Untitled No. 1” remains a favorite in part because the original blog post was when Bowie came back in 2013—reading the old comments is like watching kids wake up on Christmas morning. A good memory.

Chapter Nine: In the Realms of the Unreal (1994-1995)

Title’s from Henry Darger, as you’ll see. It meant lots of earth-moving—endless revisions, additions, cuts (“The Motel” was pared down hard, as I never thought that entry worked well)—but I think you’ll find this is one of the more thorough and, with hope, coherent narratives of how Bowie and Eno’s last collaboration began, what Leon was and what happened to it, in which order the songs came together (thanks again to Reeves—learning that the composition of “Thru These Architects’ Eyes” and “Voyeur of Utter Destruction” preceded the Leon improvisations shed light on why those, for me, had never seemed to fit ‘properly’ into the Outside frame). Spoiler: the killer of Baby Grace isn’t revealed.

Chapter Ten: The Bottle Imp (1995-1997)

Title’s from Robert Louis Stevenson (“there is one thing the imp cannot do—he cannot prolong life”). Writing the Earthling blog entries during 2013 was a slog: I was desperately trying to finish the Rebel Rebel manuscript and very burned out. In revisions, I cut entries down and focused some of this chapter on gear—Mark Plati’s samplers, Gabrels’ Parker and Roland VG, Zach Alford’s drum loops. And I wound up loving Earthling more, with its flash and scrapper’s sensibility—its sparkling conversation between six players—DB, Gabrels, Plati, Garson, Dorsey and Alford (in a way, this wouldn’t happen again until Blackstar). Book-ended by pieces on some of DB’s best tours. A subplot is that this is the last time DB truly irritated people, from Nine Inch Nails fans to a good chunk of the British press.

Chapter Eleven: Tomorrow Isn’t Promised (1998-2000)

Title sounds like a Bond movie but according to DB, Abbie Hoffman told him this (there’s a play for someone to write.) Another monster to draft and organize, as it meant working through Bowie’s late Nineties detritus (BowieNet and Omikron and Bowie Bonds and BowieBanc, etc.), ‘hours…’ and Toy. With hope, it wound up on the side of coherence, spending a good amount of time on the long and winding creation of ‘hours…,’ an album that was made twice. Spiritual center is “Uncle Floyd,” an entry that upon revision, I realized was as much about my own losses as anyone’s. Not the only time, either: I put Nabokov’s Pale Fire in the bibliography as a joke on myself.

Chapter Twelve: Forward Into Remove (2001-2002)

The title’s from a favorite poem in Jana Prikryl’s The After Party. The Heathen chapter is an ashen, po-faced, somber one, to honor one of Bowie’s more ashen, po-faced, somber albums. “Cactus” and the entry on the Legendary Stardust Cowboy hopefully provide some bright asides. I struggled with whether to keep my own part in the “America” entry (as on the blog), nearly deleting it at times, but everyone I showed the MS to said that it should stay, so it did. Still not sure.

Chapter Thirteen: Inauthentic Reality (2003-2007)

Another woolly beast to wrangle. Reality is a tough one—it’s got a lot of songs and it’s all over the place at times (in retrospect, much like the album that followed it). Plus you’ve got to tackle all the bits and bobs of Bowie’s “semi-retirement” years. The “Bring Me the Disco King” entry is fairly intact (at the correct advice of a copy-editor, I wound up ditching the Neil Gaiman/Michael Moorcock parody section, as it didn’t fit with the other ‘alternate life’ bits). No doubt some unaware readers will say “what the hell?” at this point—Ashes gets progressively weirder as it goes on. Ending with the Scarlett Johansson songs, which I thought at first would come off as random, ended up okay, as they wrapped up the New York theme of the chapter.

Chapter Fourteen: Agent Jeffries Reports In (2011-2013)

Organizing the Next Day songs in more coherent form (thanks to Nicholas Pegg getting its recording dates for his latest edition) helped forge a decent storyline of the making of another long album, one full of struggle but also goofiness. “Heat,” by far the most laborious blog entry ever, writing-wise, is improved by edits, I believe. Curious how TND will hold up in the 2020s, as the “wow he’s back!” elated mood fades from collective memory—I’ve seen some bashing of it of late (for more, come to the event in Manchester).

Chapter Fifteen: Noewhemoe (2014-2016)

And: the chapter you haven’t seen before (well, half of it). The title’s from Finnegans Wake, countered by a line from a Broadcast song, as you’ll see. At the least, having Maria Schneider guide you through the writing and recording of “Sue” should be of interest. I tried to give each musician stage time—“I Can’t Give Everything Away” is as much about Jason Lindner and Ben Monder as it is DB. I decided well over a year ago that the book would end with “Blackstar,” whose structure is meant to parallel “Station to Station” in Rebel (& I had the last line set far earlier, though wound up tweaking it in the last edits). Whether it all works is, of course, up to each of you.


1965 Demos Revisited

January 28, 2019

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That’s Where My Heart Is.
I Want My Baby Back.
Bars of the County Jail.
How Can I Forget You (fragment).
It’s True, My Love (fragment).
I Live In Dreams (fragment).

With the surfacing of three 1965 Bowie demos that no one (barring, presumably, some Bowie friends and his archivist) knew about before, his development as a songwriter has a touch more light shed upon it.

Only three of his mid-1965 solo demos have been released, on the Rhino CD collection Early On, and apparently only then because Bowie’s once-producer Shel Talmy had them. Given that these “new” demos—“How Can I Forget You,” “It’s True, My Love” and “I Live in Dreams”—are similar in tone and construction to Early On‘s “That’s Where My Heart Is” and “I Want My Baby Back,” this suggests these hail from the same period.

(“Bars of the County Jail,” Bowie’s jaunty singalong Western, whose lyric he took from an English composition written during his days at Bromley Tech, was an outlier, although it’s an ancestor, thematically, of “Wild Eyed Boy From Freecloud” and “I Have Not Been to Oxford Town“).

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In 1965, Talmy was looking to corner the market on young British rock & roll songwriters. With Pete Townshend and Ray Davies in his stable, he set aside occasional studio time for Bowie, whom he considered a viable, if rough prospect. Bowie’s demo sessions, hailing from around the time he left the Manish Boys and joined the Lower Third, produced nothing of remote commercial appeal, something that Talmy realized at the time (“it was weird music”). (It’s unknown if these newly-unearthed demos were cut in a studio or (more likely) at Bowie’s home or at his then-manager’s London flat.)

The mid-1965 demos document an ambitious young man, with two flop “hard” R&B singles under his belt, shifting into a softer, more pop-oriented sound. It’s the start of the trail that will lead to “Sell Me a Coat” and “When I Live My Dream,” and ultimately to Hunky Dory.

Of the “new” demos (which have been heard in 30-second fragments offered by the auction house), “How Can I Forget You” has Bowie working up a lower-pitched crooning voice in the opening verse. It’s similar in that regard to “That’s Where My Heart Is,” where a fledgling Bowie baritone is heard at about fifty seconds in.

“That’s Where My Heart Is” uses the blueprint of Gene Pitney singles like “I’m Gonna Be Strong” and “Yesterday’s Hero,” whose near-conversational verses built to manically-sung choruses. Bowie pegged his verse melody to rigid down-strums on his guitar, gave a touch of Petula Clark to his looser-phrased pre-chorus, and then shot for the heights in his refrains. The lyric is hokum and its bridge sounds like the work of an even greener songwriter, suggesting that was an older piece Bowie wedged into the song.

“I Live in Dreams,” at least from the opening verse in the fragment, could be the font of some of Bowie’s Sixties lyrical preoccupations—a yen to escape mundane suburban reality (sometimes even through astral projection—see “Did You Ever Have a Dream?“) and the isolation of the self. He’s yearning to find a soulmate on his narrow wavelength but resisting the idea of “falling in love.” “You own my heart but not my mind/ Whatever I do, I shall be free!” Bowie sings, a line that could have been in “Cygnet Committee.”

The least of the demos are “It’s True, My Love,” which from available evidence aims to be a poor man’s Herman’s Hermits song, and Early On‘s “I Want My Baby Back.” Both demos find Bowie attempting vocal harmonies beyond the roughneck call-and-responses of his first singles. “I Want My Baby Back” is double-tracked throughout, with an additional Bowie lead for the refrains; “It’s True, My Love” has what’s possibly an octave-higher Bowie on the refrain, first answering the lead, then harmonizing on the last line.

“I Want My Baby Back” needed a catchier guitar riff and a lyrical rewrite (its verses marry clichés with lines like “I tried to phone her but the cable was broke by a storm”) to go anywhere, and didn’t. While it’s hard to give a verdict on  “It’s True, My Love,” given its fragmented form, it’s unlikely that it greatly transformed in its latter minutes.

By the end of 1965, Bowie had moved further across the board as a songwriter, as he’d written his Mod version of “Silly Boy Blue” and “Can’t Help Thinking About Me” by that point. But it’s enjoyable to get a peek at him while still in the early stages of becoming himself. The sudden appearance of these “new” demos suggest a number of unknown lost Bowie songs from the Sixties, more of which may surface in the near future.

Recorded: ca. spring-summer 1965, IBC Studios? Bowie home studios? Bowie: lead vocal, acoustic guitar. First release (That’s Where, Baby Back, Bars): 30 July 1991, Early On (1964-1966) (Rhino R2 70526).

REQUISITE PROMO BIT:  Far more on Bowie’ Sixties is found in Rebel Rebel. Also, hey Ashes to Ashes is publishing in less than a month! Various New York readings and radio things are happening from 20 to 25 February. It looks very likely there will be an event in London on 14 March 2019, and hopefully a Manchester event soon before or afterward. More information soon, with hope.


The Past Grows Larger

January 8, 2019

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As you’ll see in Ashes to Ashes, I made a joke that I expected the Bowie estate to release “Blaze” or another Blackstar outtake on his birthday, thus rendering the book incomplete before it published. This, surprisingly, did not happen (still a few hours left, though). But there is “new” Bowie music today nonetheless.

This Parlophone set of demos, perversely to be issued only on 7-inch vinyl singles for the time being, could have been titled DB ’68, as it seems to be mostly material written and demoed that year (or at the dawn of 1969, with “Space Oddity”). The “new” songs are:

Angel, Angel, Grubby Face. Demoed for Bowie’s never-made second Deram album, it was described by Nicholas Pegg as Bowie still being under the influence of British writers Keith Waterhouse and Alan Sillitoe, from whom he’d taken plotlines and titles for his first album (“Uncle Arthur,” “There Is a Happy Land,” “Little Bombardier”).

Mother Grey seems to be along the same lines, another piece of DB’s “surreal naturalism” period, lyrically. Demoed around late 1967/early 1968, and likely another “2nd Deram LP” contender.

Goodbye 3d (Threepenny) Joe. A title circulating for years, and I wondered in Rebel Rebel if it was the midway point between the transformation of “London Bye Ta Ta” (which has a new demo version in this set) into “Threepenny Pierrot” for the Looking Glass Murders in 1970. It seems possibly not, but we’ll see soon enough!

Love All Around. The scoop! Not even the title had been mentioned in Bowie histories, lists of bootlegs, etc., until now, I believe.

In addition, an upcoming auction lists three more unknown DB demos from 1965—“How Can i Forget You,” “I Live In Dreams” (“which includes a false start and some discussion around the key of the song”) and “It’s My True Love.”

The Parlophone set seems in part to be a copyright dump (hence the notice that the songs appeared for likely six hours on “streaming services” in December) and thus suggests in the years to come, we might get official releases of the heap of unreleased Bowie demos from that period—“Right on Mother,” “Rupert the Riley,” etc.

So as the Strokes once said, the end has no end. Here’s to Bowie’s birthday, and hope all of you are well.

Requisite hype coda: bookNYC tour dates.

 

 


NYC Tour, Feb 2019

January 7, 2019

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Hello, happy new year. A quick promotional note, as some dates are finally cemented.

In mid-February there will be a multi-venue book launch in the New York City area for, surprise, Ashes to Ashes.

This will kick off with an appearance on Evan “Funk Davies’ show on WFMU, in sunny Jersey City, from 9 PM to midnight on Wednesday 20 February 2019. I’ll try to get him to play an excerpt of “Leon”; he’s going to ask me about Absolute Beginners, a movie that mystified him a bit.

Thursday 21 February 2019, at 7 PM: a conversation with Billy Hough at McNally Jackson, 52 Prince Street, NYC. Hough is a downtown cabaret star (Scream Along with Billy), film actor (RampartTime Out of Mind), and ex-punk rocker (the GarageDogs). He works at McNally Jackson where he curates the How Not To … conversation series. McNally Jackson was Bowie’s local book store and is a great place.

and last, and certainly not least,

Monday 25 February 2019, again at 7 PM, at Rough Trade NYC, We once did a karaoke duet of “TVC 15.” Now Rob Sheffield and I will talk about Bowie! Rob is the author of On Bowie, Dreaming the Beatles, Love is a Mix Tape, Turn Around Bright Eyes, and Talking to Girls About Duran Duran.

If you’re in the area, I hope you can make it to something. I believe both events are free to the public, but if you want me to sign a book, you’ve got to get it there—that’s usually the deal.

Hopefully some UK information soon to come.


(Could It Really Be?) the Last Xmas

December 21, 2018

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

This blog turns 10 years old next year. Those of you who have followed it for a while know that one of its (unintentional) traditions is a Christmas post in which I, the fool who runs the “Bowie song by song” site, say something like “well, it looks like X is going to be the last year for the blog. We’re almost done.”

And then something happens in the following year—new Bowie music, another slowdown in production, etc.—so that I appear at year’s end to say pretty much the same thing.

This time it’s really and truly over. Well, in a way. All the Bowie songs (as of today) have been written about: in the book, if not on here. No doubt some new song will appear soon—possibly on his birthday! (You don’t have to make that joke, really!) But whatever the situation, this doesn’t mean the blog will shut down, nor that I won’t put up new posts on occasion, especially when something new happens in Bowieland (I’m assuming there’ll be a Tin Machine and/or a “Black Tie-to-whenever” box set in the new year.)

But we are moving into a more “posthumous” period in this blog, sad to say. It feels fitting—the end of a decade, a move ahead into something new.

So, a few things:

Ashes to Ashes will be out in mid February and can be pre-ordered in all sorts of ways (see link).

There will be some fun promotional events for it early next year. Things will kick off with two New York City dates—McNally Jackson in Soho, on Thursday 21 February 2019; and Rough Trade in Brooklyn, on Monday 25 February 2019. With hope, there will be some UK events relatively soon after that in March, and other appearances in the US throughout the year.

During 2019, I’m going to start working my way towards another project (or two), in a new blog or site. If this interests you, I’ll likely have some more details in a month or so. It’ll be quite a long road, full of detours—a shocker, I know.

I’d like to say thanks again to all of you. To commenters old and new, and to anyone who bought a book or has had something kind to say about them. Happy Xmas, happy New Year, Happy “we’re still here, and doing okay.” Here’s to the future. Take care.


Glastonbury 2000

November 30, 2018

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On stage in summer 2000, Bowie broke his Sound + Vision tour pact and flung open the catalog. His first gig at the Roseland in New York, a near three-hour set on 16 June 2000, began with “Wild Is the Wind” and went on through “Life on Mars?” “Golden Years,” “Absolute Beginners,” “Rebel Rebel,” and “Changes,” most of which he’d hadn’t played in a decade. In Britain he sang “Starman” on television for the first time since the Heath ministry (you expected him to appear in Ziggy Stardust makeup by this point). Two days later, he headlined Glastonbury.

He’d last played it in 1971, when it was Glastonbury Fayre, one of the free festivals then cropping up around Britain (its pyramid-shaped stage was built on a ley line). In 2000, Glastonbury was now £87 tickets and 100,000-strong crowds. Wearing a glam bishop’s vestments, his hair at Hunky Dory length, Bowie made the rest of the bill look second-rate. For an encore he did “Ziggy Stardust,” “Heroes,” “Let’s Dance,” and a stonking “I’m Afraid of Americans.” The UK press genuflected: “a masterclass of superstardom” (the Mirror), “an object lesson in How to Be a Rock Star” (the Times), “a level beyond and above anyone else at this festival” (NME). All was forgiven. In the prophecy year 2000, he rode in on the past.

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After a decade of (relative) experimentation, Bowie at last gave his audiences what they wanted, or at least what his critics had said they wanted: the hits, performed with vigor, command, and humor. For much of the Nineties, roughly post-Tin Machine, he’d been an object of mockery and pity, even a source of irritation, for some in the UK press. “For God’s sake, man…play the old stuff and stop trying so hard,” as per an Observer review of a 1997 Bowie “drum ‘n’ bass” set.

“As of 1990, I got through the rest of the 20th century without having to do a big hits show. Yes, yes, I know I did four or five hits on the later shows but I held out pretty well I thought…[but] big, well known songs will litter the field at Glastonbury this year,” as Bowie told Time Out.

The band was developing into what would be his last touring group, with the rhythm section of Gail Ann Dorsey and Sterling Campbell, Earl Slick on guitar, and Mike Garson. Eventually departing were Mark Plati (guitar, bass, keyboards) and a vocal section—Emm Gryner and Holly Palmer. This was the band that, a few weeks afterward in New York, cut much of Bowie’s as-yet-released Toy.

He’d gotten laryngitis during his Roseland shows, having had to cancel one performance, and he was still hoarse at Glastonbury. And he was worried about how he’d be received. “I remember how nervous he was at Glastonbury,” Hanif Kureishi told Dylan Jones. “His voice was failing, he had to do a gig the next day at the BBC, and he was really worried…As soon as it was finished, he rushed offstage, grabbed Duncan, and then got in the car and went straight to bed. He hated it….I’d never seen so many people in my life as I did that night in Glastonbury. It was incredible to me that someone could be so nervous and yet still have the balls to go out there and make it all work.”

It was one of the crowning moments of his performing life. He’d been adamant that the BBC could only show the first songs of the set and an encore song or two, which seemed perverse to the viewers at home—why cut away from the great comeback? But as BBC producer Mark Cooper wrote recently, “I think Bowie knew exactly what he was doing on the night of 25 June 2000. He wasn’t about to give away his peak performance or his catalogue for nothing. He hoarded that night so that one day it could be shown in all its glory as his legacy, the culmination of his golden years and surely his greatest concert since he buried Ziggy Stardust at Hammersmith in July 1973. It’s a time capsule of his life.”

If you’ve never heard the concert before, I’m curious as to what you think of it.

(Over 700 pages more of stuff like this in Ashes to Ashes, coming soon to your favorite bookstore.)

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Setlist above from “Georgi,” a Bowie fan on the now-shuttered (?) Teenage Wildlife website, who paid a hard price for it. “Had great time at Glasto but I’m afraid my fandom had a bad consequence. My two front teeth were knocked almost completely out by being pushed against the bar at the front line. I was at the very front!!! Woohoo! Anyway, ended up getting dragged to the med. centre behind stage and pleaded with the security guards to put me back at the centre front where I’d been since 9am. They eventually agreed and after a fantastic show one gave me the set list.”


“Ashes to Ashes”: A Book

November 2, 2018

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Announcing, officially at long last, the release of Ashes to Ashes: The Songs of David Bowie, 1976-2016. It will be published by Repeater Books in February 2019, and is available for pre-order now on Amazon (US & UK & Canada). In the US, you can also use Indiebound. In Canada, it’s also up on Indigo. I’ll add more links to more retailers in the next month or so.

The book is 710 pages long. It has no pictures. It does have 15 chapters (see below), along with an appendix of “lost” Bowie songs from the period (you may find a scoop or two in here), a partial discography, and—always a huge selling point—a bibliography. Given the length of the book, the notes section had to be an online supplement, which I’ll set up on this site over the next few months. I’ll also probably make the notes a PDF if that’s easier for anyone.

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It starts with “Sister Midnight.” It ends with “Blackstar.” Every single song entry was revised—some far more radically than others. Some entries are now longer, some were edited down. With hope, they’re more accurate (in some cases, they certainly are, as people who made the recordings corrected me). The original entries will always remain on the blog, so don’t worry if you’ve got a favorite bit that didn’t make the cut for the book.

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The five “unreleased” blog entries from Blackstar and No Plan (the title tracks of both releases, plus “Killing a Little Time,” “Dollar Days,” and “I Can’t Give Everything Away”) appear in the book (I’m not sure when/if they’ll be up here—not until the book publishes, in any rate).

It’s all to be found here—Bowie and Iggy Pop; Bowie and Eno; Bowie and Donny McCaslin; Bowie and Jagger. Labyrinth and Baal. Leon and 1. Outside. Tin Machine and Glass Spider. Marc Bolan, Freddie Mercury, Scott Walker, Tina Turner, Al B. Sure!, Ray Davies, John Cale, Scarlett Johansson, Arcade Fire, and Angelo Badalamenti.

I do hope you enjoy it. This is the end of something that I started in July 2009, and I think it turned out okay.