Bowie’s first left turn. Suddenly gone are the soul inflections and the fuzzy guitars. Sam Cooke is deposed by Anthony Newley. The setting moves from the basement club to the provincial theater, and instead of youth and longing we get…withered memories of the Great War?
“Rubber Band” is Bowie’s first recording for Deram, a newly-founded subsidiary of Decca Records that was charged with making “artier,” for lack of a better word, pop. “A Whiter Shade of Pale,” The Moody Blues’ Days of Future Passed and Bowie’s first LP are emblematic of the Deram style—“high concept” songs and LPs; dynamic sound engineering (or at least attempts at it); chamber arrangements, even full orchestras, instead of guitar-bass-drums; theatrics over blues roots.
By autumn 1966, Bowie was being managed by Ken Pitt, a cultured upper-class show business veteran who had a taste for the avant garde (though he later claimed he hated cabaret, he’s often taken the blame for Bowie’s taste for mime and cabaret in the late ’60s). Pitt served as a Henry Higgins figure for Bowie, taking him to West End gallery openings, first exposing him to Andy Warhol, the Velvets and Bob Dylan, housing Bowie in his Marylebone flat.
“Rubber Band,” which helped Bowie land his Deram contract when he recorded it for the label in a tryout session, is the first sign of his sudden shift in aesthetics. It opens in the orchestral pit, with a four-bar intro led by trumpet, oboe and tuba. The song’s quintet of verses trot along at a parade-march pace; the chorus is brief, simple and mainly serves as a breather between verses. There are attempts at musical color: after the third verse, a trumpet soars over groaning tuba (elation!), while after the final verse the tuba gets the last word (deflation!), slowing to a stop after the singer bewails his lost love.
It’s also an early sign of Bowie’s ability to be attuned, almost immediately, to changes in pop. The rise of British psychedelia brought with it a reclamation of childhood, young people dressing in their grandparents’ clothes, all neo-Edwardian brass bands and ’20s crooner pastiches. Around the same time Bowie cut “Rubber Band,’ the New Vaudeville Band released their #1 hit “Winchester Cathedral,” the Beatles were starting what would be the Sgt. Pepper sessions (“When I’m 64” being one of the first songs recorded) and even the Stones in Los Angeles were cutting lysergic vaudeville numbers like “Something Happened to Me Yesterday” and the kazoo-happy “Cool, Calm, Collected.”
All that said, “Rubber Band”‘s is a muddle at best and mostly an annoyance—is there anything sadder than a failed novelty song? Bowie’s set up a tidy song structure, a miniature garden with each verse of equal length and the horn solos neatly spaced apart. But there’s a disconnect between the song’s apparent intention to be a bit of camp nonsense and Bowie’s vocal, which slowly builds to the histrionic; he’s rarely in on the joke, and when he is, he just seems smug. As the PR release for the single put it, “it’s pathos set to tubas.”
The initial version of “Rubber Band,” released as a single, is better than the remake on the first Bowie LP—it’s at a faster tempo, Bowie sings more in his lower register, while the LP is almost all upper-octaves and thus far more irritating, and I’ll take the strange disconnected bit of a woman wailing during the single fadeout over Bowie sniffing “I hope you break your baton!” at the end of the LP cut.
Recorded 18 October 1966 and released in December as Deram DM 107 (the remake was cut on 25 February 1967); on the Deram Anthology.