The Laughing Gnome


The Laughing Gnome!

Let’s come straight to it: yes, “The Laughing Gnome” is about a man meeting a gnome, with sped-up gnome voices (à la Alvin and the Chipmunks) by Bowie (as the Laughing Gnome) and engineer Gus Dudgeon (as Fred). For the chorus, Bowie and the gnome(s) duet. There are gnome puns, many of them.

It recently came to light that in 1995 Boris Yeltsin was found on a Washington DC street in his underwear, dead drunk, trying to hail a cab because he wanted a pizza. Many consider “The Laughing Gnome” to be something of an equivalent for Bowie. “Undoubtedly the most embarrassing example of Bowie juvenalia,” wrote Charles Shaar Murray. “Downright stupid, though perversely endearing” scowled David Buckley. “WORST SONG EVER LOL, know SERIOUSLY WORST,” wrote Techtester45 on Youtube.

Stuff and nonsense, I say. Instead,

Why “The Laughing Gnome” is brilliant

1. It rocks. The beat’s the strongest Bowie’s had to date. Drums, piano, bass, guitar locked in, with a thick bottom end. Rhythm guitar hitting against the beat. Drum fills that kick into the chorus. You could dance to it, and you should.

2. The puns. Come on, they’re not bad. Some are even inspired. My favorite collection:

“Haven’t you got an ‘ome to go to?”
‘No, we’re gnomads!’
“Didn’t they need you to get your haircut at school, you look like a Rolling Gnome!”
‘No, not at the London School of EcoGnomics!

It’s a quadruple gnome pun score! Eighteen points, plus a bonus one for making an LSE joke about the Rolling Stones.

3. Credible dark interpretations. Momus, a commenter on this ILM Bowie thread, offered the intriguing theory that “Laughing Gnome” may be about a man losing his mind, a schizophrenic’s conversation with himself. The storyline fits. The man’s walking down the street, hears a strange voice, sees a vision. Then he starts having visions at home. He tries to rally, puts the gnome “on a train to Eastbourne.” No luck. The visions return and multiply: there are two gnomes now! Finally, descent into utter madness. The man’s at home, believing his gnomes have made him wealthy and famous, but is actually curled in a ball on the floor. If you come close you can hear him whisper “HA HA HA…hee hee hee…”

4. Gnomic synchronicity. Pink Floyd recorded Syd Barrett’s “The Gnome” a mere two months after Bowie cut his “Gnome.” Barrett’s gnome is named Grimble Gromble and is more of a stay-at-home than Bowie’s. Both gnomes like their booze, though. They’re color-coordinated, too: Grimble wears a “scarlet tunic [and] a blue green hood” while the Laughing Gnome sports “scarlet and grey.” Barrett offers something of a general benediction honoring the other meaning of the word gnome, that is, “a brief reflection or maxim; a wise pithy saying” (Webster’s Unabridged 20th C):

Look at the sky, look at the river,
Isn’t it good?

5. The Gnome saved Bowie from a life of cabaret. “Bowie included the song in his ill-fated cabaret audition, with the assistance of a glove-puppet gnome.” (Nicholas Pegg; my emphasis.)

6. A bassoon is a lead instrument. And as Buckley notes, it’s playing a riff that, mutated, would crop again and again in Bowie tracks, like “Speed of Life” and “Scary Monsters (and Super Creeps).”

7. It’s a testament to a lost friendship. Gus Dudgeon, architect of “Gnome,” became close to Bowie over the course of making Bowie’s first LP, as while the producer Mike Vernon was bewildered by the end of the sessions (he basically gave up and let Bowie do “Please Mr. Gravedigger” on his own), Dudgeon had become Bowie’s eager collaborator and straight man. He recalled Bowie walking into his flat at Christmas and shaking a branch of Dudgeon’s tree in greeting. (“All the bloody pine needles came off.”)

For “Laughing Gnome” Bowie and Dudgeon spent days coming up with puns and experimenting with tape speeds. They even were proud of the single until the world told them it was a mistake. “For a brief period I enjoyed it, but then when the record came out and everyone said how awful it was I realized it was pretty terrible,” he recalled in 1993. (From The Bowie Companion.)

Dudgeon and Bowie eventually had a falling out, in part because Dudgeon believed Bowie owed him money for “Space Oddity.” But when Dudgeon was killed in a car crash in 2002, Bowie sent flowers to his funeral with the note “Farewell to the Laughing Gnome.” Because Bowie, deep down, knows that the track’s one of the best things he’s ever done.

Recorded on 26 January 1967 and released as Deram DM 123; on Deram Anthology. It flopped upon first release, but reached #6 in the UK when Deram reissued it at the height of Ziggydom in 1973. And the Gnome will rise again, one day.

25 Responses to The Laughing Gnome

  1. spanghew says:

    Thank you for directing me to Momus’ theory of “The Laughing Gnome”: that is, clearly, *the* Momus (Nick Currie, very Bowie-influenced recording artist, essayist, etc.) posting there.

    Also, I think the bassoon reminds me of L. Nimoy’s “Bilbo Baggins” song. (In case anyone wants to truly hate me, now you have a reason.)

  2. Polprav says:

    Hello from Russia!
    Can I quote a post in your blog with the link to you?

  3. Argantonio says:

    Wow… schizophrenia and the gnome.
    When I was a teenager, we used to play it loud in our car, while driving the city center of Seville.
    We really rocked, guys.
    I mean LOUD.

    Ronni Hilton did a “superb” cover of the song…


  4. Brian says:

    Awesome, I knew Bowie was listening to Pink Floyd’s Gnome song before making this! There is also the song “The Laughing Policeman” by Charles Penrose, a bizarre 1920’s music hall song that features a bizarre laugh like the one in this song.

  5. Stanislaw says:

    Thanks for this excellent piece, and for this whole blog, it’s really fun and interesting to read!

  6. Yes, it does rock. It also sounds a bit like a souped-up Tennessee Waltz, as a review of the 1973 rerelease, probably in NME, said. Also pleasing is that Bowie doesn’t lose it until late in the performance: it’s deadpan at the beginning – even ominous, as though this strange creature will bring disaster, for all the high-pitched cackling. Wonder if there’s an alternate take where the story takes a different turn?

    There is a history of laughing records, and I’ve often wondered whether Charles Penrose, who did a series of them including Laughter and the Old Bassoon, made some sort of diabolical pact, a la Robert Johnson, so that he was never able to laugh again in real life. Horrible to think of Bowie having to attempt to reproduce that studio performance each night in cabaret.

  7. Antonio J. says:

    I love the gnome!
    I’ll read this entry when I have time…
    Having said this, I just checked if you included a mention to the next song, released in 1962…

    The resemblances and paralellisms are not a coincidence: the puns, the rythm, the intonation… but not the song.

    What a find!

  8. Might I add a shameless plug for my own blog? I’ve been writing a series of posts entitled Gnome Thoughts speculating about Bowie’s early influences. These include the obvious (Newley and Ray Davies) but recent entries have centred around the largely forgotten figure of Alan Klein, also managed by Ken Pitt, whose 1964 solo album has been cited by Damon Albarn as an influence on Bowie; Klein himself is certain it affected Bowie’s “style, musical direction and general approach.”

  9. […] that’s not obscure or weird enough, see also The Laughing Gnome and I Before E Except After C. And Black Smoke Rising From The Calumet. You didn’t even know […]

  10. Anonymous says:

    Is it just me but did Iggy nick the intro from Laughing Gnome for his Consolation Prizes riff?

  11. Rufus Oculus says:

    The NME tried to force Bowie to sing TLG on his Sound and Vision tour but the telephone vote idea for fans to call for their favourite songs for DB to perform was abandoned. Shame.

  12. I think The Laughing Gnome has a bit more significance when you take into account Bowie’s retrospective comments. This may be the first song Bowie ever disowned due to popular dislike.

    A fascinating thing about Bowie if you track his interviews over the years (as Lord knows I have) is that, despite his reputation as a groundbreaker and an iconoclast, only the the first trait is really accurate. For as much as Bowie has stood against the tides for “art,” (as in the several times he has falsely “retired” songs and his oft-stated commitment to making music he likes) he is also clearly very sensitive to the opinions of others, enough so that he has a tendency to downplay stuff later on that he seemed sincerely keen on at one time or another.

    You can see this for his whole eighties output, for example, which is certainly not as horrible as its current reputation would suggest and which was, at least for a while, well reviewed and enthusiastically embraced by Bowie. When he says later that he couldn’t stand what he was doing it is more than a little disingenuous. And you see this with album after album- when was the last time he spoke of Black Tie White Noise? Or Buddha of Suburbia? Or Earthling? Did he not follow up 1.Outside because he was bored, or because it wasn’t a commercial success? Maybe a little of both? Yet each time he made one of these albums he spoke about how excited he was by them. You don’t do something like Glass Spider if you’re sleepwalking as much as Bowie claims to have been.

    Bowie is an artistic genius and a chameleon, but I think it’s a myth that he is unbowed by popular sentiment.

    Not that the Gnome is a masterpiece, of course, and Bowie seems to have lightened up about it (Little Wonder is actually a sort of homage) but, gee whiz, if he could have erased it totally he would have.

    • twinkle-twinkle says:

      I agree to an extend, but I think you have to look at where Bowie was on each separate occasion.

      I think with ‘Glass Spider’, (tour), he was trying to invoke the groundbreaking ‘Diamond Dogs’ tour, to compete with Prince and Michael Jackson, but it mis-fired, probably because it was forced.

      He did ‘Big Brother’ on that tour and used the same choreographer, Tony Basil. I think it was his 40th year midlife crisis/record company pressure album and tour.

      ‘BTWN’ was a regrouping – albeit a group of one – post-Tin Machine. It was a compromise between the hit want-er and artist in Bowie. If he had been able to just enjoy making a truly ‘likeable’ record it could have been a 5 star album, but he seems to have constantly stopped Nile Rogers from helping to make it one.

      But you can see Bowie’s dilemma. Too many people still waiting for ‘Hunky Dory II’. If he goes too ‘likeable’ he’s ‘sold out’ to the mainstream, if he goes bravely artsy, he’s selfish and willful. Everyone has their ‘idea’ of what Bowie should be, despite us being in the 6th decade of constant change from him.

      ‘Buddha’ was a side project for a TV programme. It shows clearly Bowie’s continued reawakening which started with Tin Machine. Of course he was excited to feel interested and interesting again, and I’m sure he genuinely felt enthused, as did we at the time on hearing the records. It’s all good work.

      You can tell he’s into what he is doing in all post-’88 albums, even if they doesn’t always work. Just because he doesn’t talk a lot about this work doesn’t mean he’s ashamed; he does mention ‘Glass Spider’ because he knows how and why he failed.

      With ‘1 Outside’ he leapt straight in, recklessly. ‘Earthling’ was his ‘Zooropa’, a post-script album to the main event, but still full of interesting stuff.

      All these albums have difficult tracks and put paid to the lie that after ‘Lets Dance’ he just became a money-making business. If that was all he was interested in he’d have had ‘The Spiders’ reunited back in the 80’s. ‘Ziggy’ would have been made into a movie. At any one time Bowie only uses just enough ’70’s glamour to direct attention to new work.

      I always get worried when db clearly makes an album to ‘tour’. That’s how he spoke of ‘Never Let Me Down’. ‘Lets Dance’ was certainly made for touring, and so was ‘Reality’ I think. I love ‘Reality’, but I always wondered if the excellent covers went on to ‘Heathen’, so he could save some tracks for the ‘Reality’ album/tour.

      But I truly believe he loved touring ‘Outside’, ‘hours’, ‘Earthling’, ‘Heathen’ and ‘Reality’. You can hear on the ‘Reality Tour’ CD that ‘Motel’, ‘Hallo Spaceboy’, ‘Sunday’, ‘Afraid’, ‘Disco King’ et al, get move vocal ‘umph’ than something like ‘Changes’ and others. I think that tells you where his pleasure lay, and mine also.

      But then, I loved Tin Machine, so ‘F*** You’, lol!! (I am of course referencing the infamous T-shirts jokily, not attacking any reader here).

  13. […] their ilk were kept at a safe distance from the fact that their hero Ziggy Stardust once put out this flaming turd (A word of warning: If you’re a Bowie fan, make sure you have about a month to spare before […]

  14. DeNada says:

    Just ask David Bowie’s son David in Berlin.

  15. Jason says:

    David’s thing for Jagger went back farther than I thought.

  16. BenJ says:

    I like this song. I didn’t quite vote for it in the poll – it’s in good company there – but it deserves better than to be disowned. David’s laughter at the end sounds like simple corpsing to me, but that’s kind of a point in its favor.

  17. Romartus says:

    Alas…The Laughing Gnome is no more. Also, what happened to the video made by someone (the BBC?) when the song was re-released in 1973 to Bowie’s acute embarrassment??

  18. Philip Reeve says:

    […] Helium-voiced 1967 comedy song The Laughing Gnome is usually talked of as a huge embarrassment to Bowie, but actually it’s fine for what it is – a children’s novelty song by a young hopeful who was trying everything to get famous. When my son was little he thought it was hilarious, and made me play it to all his friends, who also thought it was hilarious. Watching four-year-olds roll about going, ‘Ain’t you got GNOMES to go to?’, I understood that TLG succeeds on its own terms and for its own target audience every bit as well as Rebel Rebel or Always Crashing In The Same Car. (Chris O’Leary, whose song-by-song blog Pushing Ahead Of The Dame is probably the best Bowie-thing on the internet, played an absolute blinder when he got to the Laughing Gnome.) […]

  19. Romy Jones says:

    It sorts out the men from the boys. Or… I dunno… the feminists from the intersectional ones. It’s the strangest thing but whenever I’ve run into someone who truly hates it, I absolutely fucking hate them too. Weird.

  20. Anonymous says:

    I listened to TLG quite a lot the past few weeks and it always makes me smile. So did Chris’ blog entry, which is one of my favorites here. (cough) re-issue (cough)

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