So it all begins here.
David Bowie, in New Jersey in June 2004, sang the first verse and chorus of his debut single “Liza Jane” to honor its fortieth anniversary and prefaced it by calling the song “absolutely dreadful” and “excruciating,” which isn’t a bad description of the sludgy blues fragment he offered that night.
The original single, though, is pretty hot, especially given it’s the work of “five white boys from Kent singing about wayward women and freight trains,” led by a 17-year-old kid who bit his lip on stage whenever anyone cheered, and whose first gig had been a wedding anniversary at which the band played two songs and bombed (Christopher Sandford).
Bowie and some of his critics/biographers often retcon his life so that the ’60s are seen now as one long prologue, to the point where Bowie seems to just wink into being as the decade ended, as though sensing his time had come at last. This obscures the fact that Bowie was a working journeyman professional musician for much of the ’60s: “Liza Jane,” released in June 1964, predates “You Really Got Me” and “It’s All Over Now” and is contemporaneous with “A Hard Day’s Night” and “House of the Rising Sun.”
“Liza Jane” is doubly derivative (aping the Stones aping American electric blues) but it’s no matter: the bassline is thick and supple enough to balance out the stiff beat, a sax riff and guitar fills plug up the gaps, there’s your standard garage band 12-bar guitar solo (by Roger Bluck) and Bowie (still called Davie Jones here) varies from a yelp to a growl. The song mainly exists so everyone can sing “Ohhhhh-Little-LI-za!!” as salaciously as possible. Cheap (the disc seems to have been mastered loud enough to reach the border of distortion), thumping teenage music–there’ve been greater debuts, but there’ve been far more worse.
“Liza Jane” and its b-side were cut over seven hours in a West Hampstead studio, and it was “composed” by Leslie Conn, the producer, though it’s basically the band’s variation on the American standard “Lil’ Liza Jane” (Conn later called the standard a “Negro spiritual” though “Lil’ Liza Jane” is a pure pop mongrel, its ancestors a jumble ranging from Stephen Foster (whose “Camptown Ladies” has a similar melody) to the mysterious Countess Ada de Lachau, an impoverished aristocrat credited as the song’s composer on the 1916 sheet music). As much a country song as it was a blues, it’s likely some recent R&B versions were the band’s primary inspirations, like Huey Piano Smith’s “Little Liza Jane” (1956).
Released on 5 June 1964 as Davie Jones and the King Bees, Vocalion Pop 9221 (on Early On).