In Victoria Station Bowie overheard a West Indian family calling “London bye ta-ta!” to relatives boarding a train out of town. And the song Bowie wrote with that title is, in part, about immigrant London: a city that, by the end of the ’60s, had a rising population of West Indians, various Africans, Pakistanis, Indians and other nationalities. Many of the newcomers had been members of the British Commonwealth or of its former colonies—the result was a new complexion for the UK (the BBC: in 1945, Britain’s non-white residents were in the low thousands, by 1970 they were approximately 1.4 million). Reaction was swift: Enoch Powell‘s notoriety (or infamy) began a month after Bowie first recorded “London Bye Ta-Ta,” one of several songs of the period to touch on immigration (not only was The Beatles’ “Get Back” originally a satire on Powell, the “get back to where you once belonged” addressed to Pakistanis, but “Ob-la-di, Ob-la-da”‘s title was coined by the Nigerian conga player Jimmy Scott, a friend of McCartney’s.)
One of Bowie’s prettiest ’60s songs, “London Bye Ta-Ta” is also the latest variation on Bowie’s provincials-come-to London theme, in the line of “Can’t Help Thinking About Me,” and “The London Boys.” What’s fine here is a broadening of perspective—two young bohemians meet and flirt, but the singer also realizes they’re part of a greater exodus, mere ripples in a sea of population change. Everyone flooding into town is looking for some form of renewal: a new name, a new face, a better job. “The poet in the clothes shop sold me curry for a pound,” the singer recalls in passing. London has become, seemingly overnight, a strange young town.
It’s a rewrite of “Threepenny Pierrot,” though Bowie greatly improves the song in revision. “Threepenny” is just a catchy chorus and a tinkly little verse; “London Bye Ta-Ta” keeps the chorus but the verse is now in three stages—first just four descending notes (“gi-gi-gi-gi,” “red light green light”) countered by four rising ones (“take me away,” “make up your mind”) punctuated by a clang, then four bars of developing melody (with a third chord, G, finally introduced—it’s only been D and C up to now). It leads to the verse’s final and loveliest four-bar section, in which a neat guitar riff anchors an upward sweep of Tony Visconti’s strings arrangement and, even higher, Bowie’s vocal.
“London Bye Ta-Ta,” as much as it captures the beauty and sweep of a city in the flush of reinventing itself, winds up a tragedy. The two kids don’t make it:
She loves to love all beauty,
And she says the norm is funny
But she whimpers in the morning
When she finds she has no money
“I loved her! I loved her!” the singer pleads with us. But he’s out the door all the same.
Recorded on 12 March 1968 (it was proposed as the B-side to the rejected “In the Heat of the Morning” single); also cut a day later for the BBC (the version linked to above, which is on Bowie at the Beeb). Bowie still thought it had potential and considered it as a follow-up single to “Space Oddity,” cutting a revised version (with Marc Bolan on guitar) between 8-15 January 1970. But it was ultimately scrapped, and the Bolan version wasn’t released until the 1989 Sound and Vision compilation.
Top: London, May Day 1968.