Hole In the Ground

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Hole In the Ground.

“Can’t repeat the past?” he cried incredulously. “Why of course you can!” He looked around him wildly, as if the past were lurking here in the shadow of his house…

F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby.

Be like the sun
Never gone
Sleep long and fast
Let the past be the past

Broadcast, “Long Was the Year.”

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Aaargh, that Tony Newley stuff, how cringey. No, I haven’t much to say about that in its favor.

Bowie, Musician, 1990.

For a long time, Bowie’s Sixties had begun in 1969: he hadn’t existed prior to “Space Oddity.” Whatever came before that record was mere juvenilia. His Decca, Parlophone and Pye singles, his Deram album, “The Laughing Gnome,” the King Bees and Manish Boys and the Buzz and the Riot Squad, five years of candled ambition: all of it was buried, its obscurity encouraged.

It was also hard to find some of these records—they crept in and out of print, the tracks shuffled through decades’ worth of shabby collections. Bowie didn’t own the rights to the songs, and seemed indisposed to licensing them, so “The London Boys” was never on any career retrospective despite the song being a foundational work—“Rock ‘n’ Roll Suicide” and Diamond Dogs, among a fleet of others, are inconceivable without it.

A few things aligned at last. His pre-Philips material was thoroughly compiled on two CD reissues: Rhino’s 1991 Early On and 1997’s Deram Anthology (Bowie was involved in producing the latter, which unfortunately meant two outtakes from David Bowie—“Bunny Thing” and “Pussy Cat”—were cut from the track list). And the Sixties affectations of high Britpop—Blur’s “Country House” wasn’t that far removed from “Join the Gang“— gave the oldest Bowie records a context: they had somehow become hip. It’s surprising one of Bowie’s Pye singles didn’t wind up on the Rushmore soundtrack. “Some of my recent albums have been picked up by the ’90s generation, but they don’t know the early stuff,” Bowie told GQ in 2000. “I think it’s a surprise when they hear them…and think ‘did he write that?‘”

It could’ve been a preemptive strike, covering himself before someone like Oasis did. Bowie, taping a VH1 Storytellers in August 1999, resurrected his first major composition, “Can’t Help Thinking About Me,” playing it for the first time since the Marquee Club days of 1966. While he introduced the song by ridiculing its lyric, it cooked on stage, thanks to Sterling Campbell’s drumming—it felt fresher than the ‘hours’ songs he was debuting. (Playing it allowed Mark Plati “to work out a lot of Who fantasies on stage, thank you very much.”) And in a few live dates later that year, Bowie revived “I Dig Everything.” (Mike Garson said they played “Karma Man” and “Conversation Piece” in rehearsals.)

So Bowie’s first web journal entry of the new century noted that he would re-record songs he’d released between 1964-1969, “not so much a Pin Ups II as an Up Date I.” As typical with Bowie, the idea quickly ballooned in scope. As with “What’s Really Happening?” the recording sessions for Up Date I would be broadcast via webcam. And he wouldn’t only remake his old singles, he’d revive songs which hadn’t even made the cut back then. He would draw from his legion of ghost songs, those that fans knew only as their titles: Ernie Johnson, “Black Hole Kids,” “It’s Gonna Rain Again” and, see below, “Hole In the Ground.”

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“I know what happens when I play the classics,” he sneers a little impatiently. “So why would I want to do it again? Other than for financial remuneration, which I frankly don’t need.”

Bowie, Q interview, 1997.

In February 2000, Bowie and Iman told the press that she was pregnant. He would be a father again at 53. He also said he would play the Glastonbury Festival for the first time since 1971 (when he’d also been a new father). Soon afterward he hired Earl Slick, who hadn’t played with him since the Serious Moonlight tour, as his new lead guitarist: a sharp swerve from the now-confirmed-departed Reeves Gabrels.

As Iman was due in August, Bowie planned a burst of activity for June and early July: a handful of NYC live shows that would double as rehearsals for the Glastonbury gig and for what he was now calling “the Sixties album,” which he planned to cut immediately upon his return to New York. “I hate to waste the energy of a show-honed band,” he told Time Out. “I’ve pulled together a selection of songs from a somewhat unusual reservoir and booked time in a studio. I still get really elated by the spontaneous event and cannot wait to sit in a claustrophobic space with seven other energetic people and sing till my tits drop off.” Plati would go to work mixing Bowie’s 1968-1972 BBC sessions (yet another reclamation: Bowie at the Beeb would be issued in September) and then would pivot to mixing “the Sixties album” in the fall.

During rehearsals, Bowie worked his band (the Hours touring unit plus Slick) through his abandoned catalog, reviving all but two of his 1964-1966 singles (“I Pity the Fool” was superfluous, “Do Anything You Say” perhaps too dire a composition to salvage) and the cream of the Deram years (sadly, not the Gnome). He didn’t want the band to be reverent; he wanted them to crack their way into the songs, pull them out of their shells. “We weren’t out to duplicate the original tracks at all,” Plati said.

As a prelude, Bowie fully gave himself over to his past, with setlists meant to make old Bowie fans weep. The first Roseland gig, a three-hour extravagance that blew out Bowie’s voice, opened with the four-shot of “Wild Is the Wind,” “Life on Mars?” “Golden Years” and “Changes,” most of which he’d hadn’t played in a decade. He unearthed rarely-played classics (“Absolute Beginners,” not performed since 1987) and debuted “This Is Not America” on stage; at the June 19 gig, he played “London Boys” for the first time in nearly 35 years. It also gave Gail Ann Dorsey a rare chance to play clarinet.

He flew to the UK, where he sang “Starman” on television for the first time since the Heath ministry (why not? it was getting to the point where you expected him to appear in Ziggy Stardust makeup); two days later, he headlined Glastonbury.

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I haven’t been here for 30 years and I’m having a fucking great time!

Bowie, quoted by the NME at Glastonbury.

In the year of its birth, 1971, Glastonbury was among the free festivals starting to crop up around Britain. Fitting for a show held in the shadow of Glastonbury Tor, its pyramid-shaped stage was constructed on a ley-line. It was free admission for the 12,000 or so hippies who’d made their way out to Somerset. Bowie played a set at dawn: just him, his 12-string acoustic and a piano. For the wakening crowd, he offered, for the first time, the breadth of Hunky Dory, from “Quicksand” to “Kooks.”

Glastonbury was in retrospect one of Bowie’s most critical live performances: the sunny reception he got was the best experience he’d had in years. He’d stopped solo live performance after his acoustic/mime shows had bombed in 1969. In the summer of 1971, Bowie was still unsure whether he wanted to be a performer at all. Given the songs he was now racking up, he thought he could be primarily a songwriter, like his friend Lesley Duncan. But that morning in Glastonbury confirmed him as a stageman: Ziggy Stardust would play his first show half a year later.

In 2000, Glastonbury was charging £87 tickets and drawing crowds of 100,000. Its recent headliners had included Blur, Oasis, Primal Scream, Pulp and Prodigy. Bowie came back as some lost king regnant of British music, wearing what looked like an eccentric bishop’s vestments, his hair in flowing golden locks; he gently proceeded to make everyone else on the bill (his co-headliners were Travis and the Chemical Brothers) look second-rate. He led off with “Wild Is the Wind,” exorcised “Station to Station” with Slick in tow: for an encore he did “Ziggy Stardust,” “‘Heroes’,” “Let’s Dance” and a stonking “I’m Afraid of Americans.” The papers went mad: “a masterclass of superstardom” (the Mirror), “an object lesson in How to Be a Rock Star”(the Times); “a level beyond and above everyone else at this festival” (NME).

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BBC executive producer Mark Cooper, who was recording the festival, was frustrated that Bowie’s management let him only broadcast six songs from the set (presumably because they were considering releasing the Glastonbury show as a live CD). “It was painful” to cut away from Bowie, he told Paul Trynka. “An artist can be reborn with a performance like that, get another 10 years in their career…I think [denying the full broadcast] was a mistake. Because this was the moment.”

But what was the moment? Was there something sad in all of this ecstatic reclamation, this genial reconquest, with Bowie even wearing his hair at Hunky Dory length? You could regard it as some traveling grand self-entombment. In the year 2000, which he’d feared and talked up and prophesied for much of his life, Bowie wound up playing the nostalgist. A stunningly capable one, sure, but still, he was someone who’d greeted the new millennium by playing songs from 1966 again.

That said, he was in line with one mood of the time. The hooks of the old century were still barbed in the new one: it was as if the culture still couldn’t shake the Sixties’ idea of the future, a future that, of course, hadn’t come true, but one which still seemed more of a “real” future than the one we were now living in. There were still ghosts everywhere. Take the through-line of “Sixties” droning organ across a swath of 2000 records: Broadcast’s “Come On Let’s Go,” Yo La Tengo’s “Let’s Save Tony Orlando’s House,” Blonde Redhead’s “This Is Not,” Ladytron’s “Another Breakfast with You,” Clinic’s “Distortions,” Radiohead’s “Morning Bell.” (If you wanted the sound of a new future, you had to listen to Aaliyah or OutKast.)

So what did Bowie intend with his own “Sixties record”? He’d let in the past again: what was he going to do with it?

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The album soon got the working title of Toy (likely from “Baby Loves That Way” and/or “London Boys”). Its basic tracks were cut in about nine days in early July 2000 at Sear Sound, whose 2,500-square-foot studio boasted two isolation booths: one set aside for vocals, the other housing Mike Garson’s collection of keyboards, including a Fender Rhodes (which he hadn’t played since Young Americans) and a Hammond B3 organ. Earl Slick soon had a sense of déjà vu. A walk around the place made him realize that he was in the old Hit Factory, where he’d cut Double Fantasy with John Lennon twenty years earlier. “It really freaked him out,” Plati recalled.

True to his plans, Bowie had flown in his band days after the Glastonbury concert and essentially had them plug in and rip through the songs. (He’d ditched the webcast idea.) In roughly a week they cut 13 tracks, complete with full Bowie vocals. The engineer Pete Keppler recalled Bowie “belting his brains out while the band was just roaring away behind him,” while Plati hadn’t seen Bowie so excited since the first Earthling sessions (another album cut right after a tour to feed off a band’s energy). Bowie was economical beyond his usual habits: he’d cut a first-take lead vocal, then overdub himself on the second take, then add further harmonies for every further take (Plati: “his final vocal would be finished by the time the band had gotten it right!”). Bowie and Plati even managed to hustle in Tony Visconti to score a 14-piece string section for a few tracks.

What Bowie had at the end of the Sear Sound sessions almost certainly included these 11 revivals—a link to the Toy track, if extant, is found in the original entry (* = not circulating, but reportedly recorded):

“Liza Jane”
“You’ve Got a Habit of Leaving”
“Baby Loves That Way”
“Can’t Help Thinking About Me”*
“I Dig Everything”
“The London Boys”
“Silly Boy Blue”
“Let Me Sleep Beside You”
“Karma Man”*
“In the Heat of the Morning”
“Conversation Piece”

There was also a track known as “Secret 1” (allegedly Dorsey’s favorite) which Nicholas Pegg rightly (IMO) surmises was likely the revived “Shadow Man.” My guess for the other completed track is another ghost song.

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‘Hole in the Ground’ was written by David, Herbie Flowers on bass, Tim Renwick on guitar and Terry Cox on drums. Also David was playing guitar on it. What year was it?…1971, I think. Apart from David, I think I have the only copy in existence.

George Underwood, May 2006 interview with The Voyeur.

It was fitting that George Underwood got caught up in Bowie’s Sixties revival, if indirectly. Underwood was one of Bowie’s oldest friends: he’d played with him in the King Bees; his girlfriend had inspired Bowie’s “Janine”; he’d accompanied Bowie on his first US tour (where he may have kicked off “Jean Genie” by playing Yardbirds songs on the bus). Most of all, Underwood was partially responsible for Bowie’s look (starting, of course, by hitting Bowie in the eye as a teenager and so leaving Bowie’s pupil permanently dilated): he drew the back cover of Space Oddity and designed the covers of albums from Hunky Dory to Low.

Underwood is the control in an experiment in which Bowie’s the radical element: his life can seem an alternate edition of Bowie’s. Considered as handsome, charismatic and talented as his bandmate in the King Bees, Underwood also cut an unsuccessful single or two in the mid-Sixties. But by the end of the decade, he’d become the artist that Bowie would occasionally play at being, founding the Main Artery Studio in 1971. And sometime in the Seventies, Underwood bailed out of the professional music game for good (one story is that a bad acid trip led to a nervous breakdown).

Bowie wrote “Hole in the Ground” for Underwood around 1970. It was his part of his bid to help Underwood make it as a singer—he also wrote “Song for Bob Dylan” and “We Should Be on By Now” (the ur-“Time”) for him—but it was also a feint to benefit his own career. In 1971, Bowie couldn’t release songs under his own name for a time due to his manager’s label/publisher negotiations, so he put out his new compositions under aliases (see the Arnold Corns) or used his friends as masks (see Mickey King’s “Rupert the Riley” or Dana Gillespie’s “Andy Warhol”).

As the original “Hole in the Ground” has never leaked, it’s impossible to know how much of it was altered for the Toy remake. Mike Garson described the Toy version as a jam that the band developed in the studio. If I had to guess, I’d say little fundamentally was changed. The lyric’s in line with Bowie’s lesser works of 1970-1971 (its title may homage Bernard Cribbins): it’s a depressive love ballad with some apocalyptic portents (the hole in the ground mirrors of the “crack in the sky” in “Oh! You Pretty Things”). Some of its vocal phrasing, and the acoustic guitar strum patterns in the verse, call back to “Janine,” and the song shares with “Janine” a slacking-off in lieu of an ending, with its chorus repeated long enough to double as a coda.

Its revival was performed well—Garson’s keyboards gave fresh backdrops to the verses and refrains, and Campbell and Dorsey (who homages Herbie Flowers’ bassline on “Walk on the Wild Side”* and gets in a nice sloping bass fill or two) shone in particular—but its reappearance mainly argued that Bowie had been right in deep-sixing “Hole In the Ground” back in 1970. Time hadn’t improved the song, only made it somewhat novel.

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So Bowie had the basics for a new record, one that would capstone a year he’d dedicated to his youth. After taking some time off to be a father, all he’d have to do is a cut few overdubs, mix the tracks and send Toy on its way. Then onto something new with Visconti. Toy would take its seat in the canon, and the past would be the past again… [to be continued]

* Of course the intriguing question is whether Flowers had originally come up with that bassline for “Hole in the Ground” and later recycled it for Lou Reed.

Sources: For this, and the upcoming run of entries, Dan LeRoy’s The Greatest Music Never Sold, which devotes a chapter to Toy, was invaluable. Also, Teenage Wildlife and Bowie Wonderworld, as each was founded in the late Nineties, serve as “real time” documentation of Bowie during this time: interviews, setlists, BowieNet comments, journal entries and chats, etc. Having spent some frustrating months trying to verify details from the shakily-remembered and legend-prone Diamond Dogs era, it’s a blessing to have such an amount of concrete information available.

Top to bottom: Bowie’s life in pictures, 2000.

73 Responses to Hole In the Ground

  1. humanizingthevacuum says:

    The ’99 or early 2000 show included on the live at the Beeb package smokes, particularly “Stay.” Nice to hear “Let’s Dance” in its original 12-string acoustic version too — for a few seconds.

    • Mike says:

      The Beeb set was brilliant indeed!

    • Anonymous says:

      I do enjoy that Beeb set. The old radio shows and the then current live recordings are great. The Beeb recordings of a number if these songs are my favourite. I will confess to hearing some of the Toy stuff, but not that familiar with it.

    • CosmicJive says:

      The Glasto show with greatest hits setlist were probably the best thing for him to do at that time. After years of playing mainly new stuff and obscure old songs it was nice to hear (some of) the hits again.

      But… the way they were performed was I think a bit uninspired.
      For each tour up to the hours promotional tour the touring band would give their interpretation of the old songs in the vein of the feel and sound of the current album. That resulted in some fine reinterpretation of old songs like the Ziggy songs during the Stage tour, “All the madmen” and “Time” during Glass Spider, the reworked songs during the Outside and Earthling Tour, etc…

      But since the 2000 dates everybody apart from Mike Garson did almost note for note recreations of the album versions of the songs including the sounds. I understand that choice for the 2000 dates since there was no album to promote. But for the Heathen and Reality tours to still follow that format was a bit boring I think.

    • Maj says:

      I think I’ve completely worn out that CD. Love this show.

  2. Remco says:

    Nice one. By which I mean the blog entry of course, not the song itself. There’s some nice musical moments in there but it’s hardly a song at all. Some things should stay buried.

  3. Mike says:

    The song’s OK, not wholly realized for sure. But the band does sound “cracking”.

  4. Rags says:

    The BBC vwrsion of Stay is superb.

  5. RLM says:

    Great entry, really fascinated by this era of guilty pleasures. Broadcast a fabulous band to quote – a band who took a retro mindset and used it to create some of the most enduring music of their era (IMO). The notion of creating new sounds from the under-explored possibilities of the past has been responsible (or partly responsible) for so much good music in the last 10 years (ie the whole “hauntological” scene in the UK, Oneohtrix Point Never, Ariel Pink), and yet there remains for me a lingering unease about the music’s retromaniacial heart. As ever Bowie is there, or somewhere near there anyway, with the Toy concept.

    I remember seeing the TV broadcast of the BBC Radio Theatre set and having very mixed feelings – amazing setlist, but hadn’t the psychic baggage of the Sound+Vision tour taught me to self-flagellate for enjoying these songs? A great band, but is Earl Slick for Reeves Gabrels a fair trade, and what does it speak of Bowie’s intentions? This nervousness about “edginess” was a defining part of Bowie fandom for me – having lived through Tonight, one was always acutely aware that it could possibly happen again.

    (Digression – I have always enjoyed Slick’s trad rock presence but thought of him as a pretty stock character – l was quite moved to read this interview where he laments being asked to play “yet one more blues rock solo” – http://www.billboard.com/articles/news/67786/earl-slick-makes-zig-zag-return)

    Anyway I am greatly looking forward to the Heathen/Reality entires – and perhaps in the process better understanding my own mixed feelings about the past colonising the present, and the disappearing future. Thanks as ever for this beautiful project.

    • s.t. says:

      I mentioned earlier that Bowie was sort of treading in similar waters as Stephin Merritt around this time with his knowingly earnest embrace of the classic/cliche, yet Broadcast was a group that seemed to have taken the basic sound of early Magnetic Fields: whirring and sputtering synths with lovely ghostlike female vocals. The approach yielded some really rich material, and this of course was far edgier than what Bowie was doing with his creaky retro ghosts.

      I know what you mean about nervousness with regard to artistic trajectory. At the time of Hours and Heathen, I was worried that the weariness and whimsy of the era were symptoms of a more permanent decline. Now that we have The Next Day, though, I know that Bowie was not destined to devolve into a doddering Algeria Touchshriek—he’s embraced his inner Ramona again at last. So I can go back to these albums and enjoy them for what they are: excellent late period works that happen to flirt with softer, simpler sounds.

    • CosmicJive says:

      As a guitarist myself I was utterly dissapointed by the return of Earl Slick. Like you mention he’s a pretty stock character. I don’t understand why Bowie has kept him in the band for this long.

      Bowie always had a very good radar for finding interesting guitarists to color his music. Gabrels, Belew, Frip and Alomar are instantly recognisable on the songs they play on just like Garson’s playing is on piano.

      Slick however seems to sound like any guitarist in a pop/rock band who just seems to use one distortion effect the entire show.

      I do believe Bowie lost edginess from this moment on. The Glastonbury gig to me was the start of him embracing his ‘rock god status’ and starting to live up to the expections that come with this by making his show nostalgia trips.

  6. s.t. says:

    I like the Toy sessions; I can’t say I dislike any one song. But a good portion of it is merely pleasant, quite easy to forget or ignore. “Hole in the Ground” is a case in point.

    What does this song remind me of? I guess I’m picking up on notes of Solsbury Hill and Dancing Queen…but is there something more obvious I’m missing?

    As you say, we don’t know what its original incarnation sounded like, but if you take “Shadow Man” as a reference, it would likely be very similar to the re-recorded version, minus some arrangement flourishes.

    The remake of “Shadow Man,” though, is the stunner of Toy in my opinion. The song, originally a sub-par Neil Young knockoff, is reborn with gravity and grace. Also great is the Howlin Wolf/Tom Waits redo of Liza Jane, and the torpid, world weary treatment of the effervescent “Baby Loves That Way.”

    Mostly though, the album feels like a warm up for what he eventually realized on Heathen (of course including those original songs).

    • StevenE says:

      I love love love love love the Liza Jane remake. It’s filthy, sleazy and utterly, utterly wonderful. It’s a Bowie canon favourite for me – and I’m not even quite sure why. I can’t think of much else like it in his canon.

      And I agree on Shadow Man. There’s a few songs on Toy where Bowie’s given space to really push his vocal – and those are the ones I love.

      You really get a sense that Bowie and those around him had high hopes for Toy – which makes me feel kind of sad that it didn’t work out as they’d hoped. As it is, we got Heathen out of it – and I for one wouldn’t change that for anything.

      As a side note – like everyone seems to have *their* Doctor, the Heathen/Reality Bowie – seeded in the Toy sessions – is my Bowie.

      When it came to exploring Bowie for the first time as a young music (well, Kate Bush and Talking Heads) -fan I started with Let’s Dance and RAFOZiggy Stardust, and stopped there, (weirdly, years later I like the former a lot and hardly ever bother with the latter). For whatever reason neither connected.

      & then, about two and a half years ago my then-girlfriend needed a place to crash for a while due to a bereavement. I was living at home and her staying with my mother for any amount of time just didn’t work, so the two of us decamped to this crumbling old country mansion owned by at least one Bowie fanatic (middle-aged, gay). While knocking around I saw they had a copy of Reality, which I only knew as one of Bowie’s more recent, middling efforts. I put it on one night, loved it, and was just staggered by Disco King, which I played again and again and again. I genuinely couldn’t believe that this was the Bowie albums I’d heard so casually written off.

      I remember thinking at the time how sad it was that it was probably his last album, and we know how that turned out.

      As a side note to this – (yeah I’m rambling) the most infuriating thing about Bowie’s comeback was how almost every UK news profile seemed to dismiss – sometimes vehemently – Bowie’s last few albums. I really think most probably hadn’t heard them very recently.

    • Remco says:

      I keep hearing Springsteen’s ‘Human Touch’, the keyboard line is quite similar.

  7. howscandinavian says:

    Quite excited to read and learn more about the Toy era. I find it funny to hear such a well put band play a rather mediocre song.

  8. Sky-Possessing Spider says:

    Another ghost song (along with “Black Hole Kids” et.al) I’d love to hear one day is “One Paper Left”. It sounds like the lament of a roll-up smoker.

  9. Rufus Oculus says:

    Perhaps Nick Drake got in first with “Five Leaves Left”.

  10. stuartgardner says:

    As always, your research is astonishing. I often wonder whether it or the actual writing consumes more of your time, and I expect that you have a source or two whom or which you aren’t able to reveal yet, if ever.
    Is there a typo omitting the word “what” from the following?

    So did Bowie intend with his own “Sixties record”?

  11. Mike F says:

    David should have dug a very deep hole in the ground and thrown his copy and George Underwood’s copy of the original song in there. The song stinks.

    Having said that, the performances are fun and energetic. If he wanted to go in the studio without new material, David would have been much better off recording some forgotten gems by other artists, a Pin Ups 2, instead of revisiting this turkey.

  12. michael says:

    Give me Hole in the Ground over Shadow Man any day. The latter seems overwrought and boringly arranged to me. HitG might be undeveloped but there’s something about its nagging rhythm that works. And it wouldn’t be very Bowie just to offer the obvious choices…

  13. NiggyTardust says:

    >>he hired Earl Slick, who hadn’t played with him since the Serious Moonlight tour

    Didn’t Earl play with db at Live Aid in 1985?

    • Roman says:

      Earl didn’t play at Life Aid.

      But he did add a lead solo to Dancing in the Streets – (maybe only on the 12″). I don’t think Bowie was in the studio when he did that. Jagger brought the tapes to New York and brought Earl in AFAIK.

      • col1234 says:

        yes, Roman’s right. The Live Aid band was basically the “Absolute Beginners” band—Neil Conti, Kevin Armstrong, etc

  14. roobin101 says:

    This is my weekend’s listening sorted. I gave Hole in the Ground and Shadow Man a spin. The former could seriously do without the synth-pad, there is no excuse for using synth-pads – ever. The latter is lovely (I can imagine Elvis Costello making a good fist of Shadow Man). I do think Bowie’s songwriting ability is as much his talent as a bandleader as a solitary composer, specifically as someone who can put a specific combination of musicians in a room to encourage a specific effect – bringing a song like Shadow Man to life.

  15. Mr Tagomi says:

    I quite like Hole in the Ground. It’s just a sketch fleshed out really, but there’s nothing necessarily wrong with that, in my book.

    On Earl Slick, I like the sharpness of his guitar. I think it brought a punch back to John Lennon’s sound in 1980 (controversial opinion, I know), and I think gave Bowie’s sound a fresh impetus after Hours.

  16. ofer says:

    Well written as always, but i have to say even though chronologically they seem related, the nostalgic concerts and the toy project have two tottally different artistic concepts in my ears – and that’s why to me at least the analysis feels kind of lacking this time. Fundamentally, nostalgia is a shared emotion, the kind you feel during “remember when” conversations, and some-what because of that quality it’s always suspicious of being cynically commercially used. That’s also why these concerts feel a bit like bowie is surrendering to his own myth, finally willing to embrace that sort of fake, commercial nostalgia in his work. But “Toy” is a completely different beast: It’s bowie embracing his most obscure moment, the one moment most fans have almost no interest in. To me it sounds less like the classic form of nostalgia and almost more like a kind of personal attempt at reconciling with inner demons – almost an exorcism. That doesn’t mean i’m a big fan of the project – it’s actually surprising how many of the original takes are better, more loose then some of the stiffer versions in “Toy” – but i think it nakes the project valid for re-assessment as more then pure “nostalgia”.

    What is it, then, if not nostalgia? I’m not sure, but i’ll sure keep thinking about it.

  17. MC says:

    In the first place, as much as I enjoyed the emphasis on older deeper cuts and new material on the 90’s tour setlists, by 2000, it was still really exciting hearing DB do Ziggy Stardust again at Glastonbury. Enough time had elapsed after the 80’s nadir that it didn’t seem like a betrayal. Plus, he and the band sounded great at that show. I also appreciated the touch of glam in the wardrobe after the sweatpants of the Hours shows…

    I’ve been putting off giving the Toy tracks a thorough listen until we reached this point in the blog. What snippets I’ve heard haven’t been all that exciting, and on one listen, Hole In The Ground isn’t up to much either. Hearing about the project way back when, I always thought it sounded alright in theory. I find the song selection problematic, though. Most of the tracks chosen were either perfectly fine, in my opinion, and not crying out to be remade, (e.g. Silly Boy Blue, London Boys, Let Me Sleep Beside You, Conversation Piece and a few others), or they were so bad that I figured nothing much could be done with them (esp. You’ve Got A Habit Of Leaving). I felt he would have been better sticking with songs where there was room for improvement. Perhaps In The Heat Of The Morning and Karma Man fall into this category. The song I always felt could really benefit from a revision was We Are Hungry Men: imagine what a decent rock band could do with that chorus! Anyway, my task over the next little bit is to give these songs a good listen…

  18. s.t. says:

    I agree: either pick a song to improve, or a song that would be interesting from a different perspective. Shadow Man is a success of the first kind, and Liza Jane of the latter, but most of the picks sound better in their original form. Here some possibilities that I would have liked to have been included.

    Improvement:

    Ching a Ling
    How Lucky You Are
    Maid of Bond Street
    When I Live My Dream
    Karma Man
    Rupert the Riley

    New Perspective:

    Love You Til Tuesday
    C’est La Vie
    When I’m Five
    The Gospel According to Tony Day
    Tired of My Life
    The Laughing Gnome (face your demon, David!)

  19. Sky-Possessing Spider says:

    Really, what fresh perspective could Bowie possibly give The Laughing Gnome? No matter how you cut it, at the end of the day it’s always going to sound like Pinky and Perky (or Alvin and the Chipmunks for American readers.)

    • s.t. says:

      I think it’s begging for a spikier rock redo, obviously still as silly as ever, but with more of an edge. As for the gnome voice, there are plenty of ways to change it up, including his creepier vari-speeded vox (e.g. Bewlay Brothers or See Emily Play), or even Gail Ann Dorsey giving it a try!

  20. Diamond Duke says:

    I always thought that Sell Me A Coat would have been a wonderful choice for an update. He could even have used the vocal arrangements from the remixed Love You Till Tuesday version and had Dorsey sing the higher part…

    s.t.,
    I fully agree that When I Live My Dream would have been a good one to try and improve. And the way to do that would have been to have Mike Garson come in and add a big sweeping, romantic piano arrangement. Y’know, just to take it the whole nine yards!😉

  21. Sky-Possessing Spider says:

    I suppose you could make it sound a bit more sinister, like say, Waltz In Black by The Stranglers. But the overall silliness of the lyric, complete with bad puns and all would still prevent it from having any edge.

  22. Charlie says:

    I feel like I’m in a minority here when I say that I was disheartened when Bowie dropped the embargo on the ‘hits’. I always felt Bowie’s post-1989 catalogue and ‘relatively’ obscure tracks were strong enough to provide a fresh and great set-list.

    It was disappointing that he seemed to be resting on his laurels again. Then again, it only really applied to the Outside tour even the Earthling gigs had a few of the classics.

    At least the decision was his and he didn’t feel obliged to start playing them again, although I do wonder if the underwhelming response to ‘Hours…’ made him think he would have to something to renew his appeal.

    • CosmicJive says:

      I completely agree with you, although I must say it was fun to hear some of his greatest hits again for the 2000 dates. I was dissapointed that they remained in the set for both the Heathen and Reality tours.

      I went to both Heathen and Reality shows and both times the setlist and the way the songs were performed were almost identical.

      • RLM says:

        I’m getting ahead here (apologies) but when I saw the Reality tour I was really impressed by the setlist mix – the Heathen/Reality material was given a lot of weight and I felt it held up incredibly well against the older stuff.

        Even allowing for a little self-justifying spin, Bowie seemed to take a similar line – “Now, however, I can take anything from the past and put it alongside what I’m currently doing, and I feel, ‘Hey, this is a really good chronological show. It dips into every period and I feel that everything is as strong as the one that it’s played against.” (http://www.soundonsound.com/sos/oct03/articles/reality.htm)

        On a personal level, the Reality tour was my first opportunity to see Bowie live (I live in Australia), so I couldn’t say I strenuously objected to Life On Mars? and Heroes getting an airing.

  23. StevenE says:

    Just popped in to say Bowie’s Moss Brits speech has gone down amazingly.

    • roobin101 says:

      I thought the stuff about Scottish independence was very odd. I’m not sure what the motivation for weighing in was at all.

      • Momus says:

        Absolutely. I don’t want to choose between being a Bowie fan and being a pro-independence Scot, so I’m going to assume (since Bowie will certainly not be elaborating) that the “us” in “stay with us” refers to bisexual pantomime genies and extraterrestrial dukes. We Scots will always stay true to those things, in our fashion!

      • s.t. says:

        Maybe he threw it out there just in case…’cause he can never really tell when somebody wants something he wants too.

      • Sky-Possessing Spider says:

        We had a referendum here in Australia a few years back on whether we wanted to become a Republic. I voted against it, even though I despise the royal family with a passion, because, as an English person, I didn’t want the Aussies to turn their back on their roots.

    • Maj says:

      Honestly, I rarely take anything he says too seriously so I’m just laughing at the fact Bowie’s controversial again. Haha.

      And myself, I don’t know how I feel about it. Love love love Scotland but it’s been part of Britain my whole life (plus the flag will no longer be as spectacular as it is – I think that’s my biggest problem, really), so I’d want everything to stay the way it was, but since I live in the middle of Europe I’m staying away from the whole issue. Not my place. (Dave lives even further away so he prolly should do the same…but as I say, I didn’t take him too seriously here.)

      • col1234 says:

        in re: Bowie’s statement, I’ll just say that he’s approaching 70 years old and is an expatriate with perhaps rosy and not-quite-contemporary views of his old country. If my Cork-born grandfather had a chance to make a public statement at age 65, he may have said something about a unified Ireland that would’ve irritated countless scores of people.

        or he may’ve just been like, ‘hey there’s not enough outrage on the Internet this week—let’s have a go’

        Maj, if you don’t mind a personal and “speak as a representative of your own country” question, is there any regret about the split of Czechoslovakia? Or is the consensus that it was a good (or necessary) thing?

      • Mike F says:

        If Bowie’s political statements can be discounted because he is approaching 70 and his views are not-quite-contemporary, can we discount “The Next Day” on similar grounds?

      • col1234 says:

        I’m not “discounting” his views, I’m giving one possible context of them.

      • Mike F says:

        I would discount Bowie’s political views because he has always demonstrated a marginal grasp on politics with the Victoria Station salute being the most egregious example. However, I would not compare him to an out-of-touch grandpa since it sounds like ageism.

      • col1234 says:

        the Victoria Station salute he didn’t actually do? that one?

      • Mike F says:

        OK, let’s call it an ambiguous wave that may have been misinterpreted. Instead we can focus on some other Bowie quotes and activities around that time. How do you explain the following?:

        http://www.rollingstone.com/music/news/cover-story-excerpt-david-bowie-20120118

        ‘He became intrigued by Third Reich history and Nazi mythology. He had said years earlier in an interview, “I believe very strongly in fascism.” In 1974 he told Playboy, “Adolf Hitler was one of the first rock stars. Look at some of the films and see how he moved. I think he was quite as good as Jagger.” In Strange Fascination, Buckley reports that customs officers detained Bowie at the Russian-Polish border in April 1976, and seized a collection of Nazi memorabilia.’

      • col1234 says:

        did you ever read my “Station to Station” entry? it’s like 3000 wds & goes a touch into this subject

      • Mike F says:

        I just read it now. It’s a very good piece. However, it doesn’t change a thing. Station to Station is a great album and comments praising fascism or Hitler are dumb. There isn’t a paradox here. Bowie’s area of expertise is rock. Politics isn’t his field. When politicians venture into music, the results are similarly disastrous.

        Circling back to the original point, if you are going to critique his comments on Scotland, I suggest doing it on the basis of his dubious political track record, not his age.

      • MC says:

        In response to Mike F., I would agree with Chris that one’s age can be a useful way to contextualize one’s political views – the greater likelihood of seniors voting Republican in the US, for example.

        I also wouldn’t dignify DB’s coke-inspired ravings about Hitler in the mid-70’s by characterizing them as representative of a coherent political “viewpoint”. I confess I don’t see a link between them and DB’s current views on Scottish independence at all.

      • Mr Tagomi says:

        Reluctant though I am to stir this up again, I think it’s worth saying that asking Scotland to “stay with us” is not a fringe political stance. I hope Momus will agree when I say there are pro and con arguments with regard to Scottish independence.

        From a selfish point of view as an Irish person in Dublin, I am a little worried about the wider consequences of Scottish independence on the UK and Ireland, and particularly on Ireland, where it would almost certainly throw the cat among the pigeons in the North.

        Maybe this is part of DB’s thinking too. Fear of the wider consequences of independence.

        I do understand the emotional tug towards independence though. I’m certainly glad Ireland is independent now rather than part of the UK.

      • Maj says:

        Chris, there goes my essay.😉

        Historically you have to understand that the union of Czecholosvakia was only done out of necessity. Slovakia used to be part of Hungary, not autonomous, and it was only after the Austro-Hungarian Empire dissolved at the end of WW1, that the Slovaks could see any chance of being more or less independent. On their own Hungary would probably invade them, so an alliance with the Czechs was pretty much their best option. (Apparently most of the activities of Czechoslovakian intelligence was related to the Hungarian threat up until like 1937, they gravely underestimated Germany also bc. the Hungarians had kept them busy.) To put it harshly, the Czech lands (Bohemia, Moravia) were much more developed than Slovakia (and I guess Silezia, part of which belongs to CZ, and a larger part to Poland). So Czechs offered Slovaks protection, education etc, and I think in hindsight Slovaks are grateful for it…but later in the 90’s it was time to move on.

        Apart from our languages being similar and spending most of the 20th century together, as nations we don’t really have that much in common (I think the Slovaks have much closer to the Poles re: religion etc.). I think that on one hand Slovaks are happy they have their own country, on the other hand they do still have problems with the Hungarian minority etc etc. Then there are quite a lot of Slovaks that live and work here, some speaking their own language, some speaking Czech…don’t think it works that well the other way round…basically we’re still kind of viewed as the civilised country…(personally think that view is a wee bit outdated). But the Slovak language and culture still kind of lives with us here.

        As for us Czechs, I think we’re probably sadder about the split, “we lost” the Tatras and those jolly neighbours. Well, we still have those jolly neighbours but they put a stone wall between our gardens so we can’t see that well what’s going on on theirs. Since Prague was always the capital, it’s now a capital of a smaller country. But for someone living here (in Prg.) it doesn’t make that much difference (you’d have to ask someone living in east Moravia).

        I know that the older generation, like my parents, and their Slovak friends are very nostalgic about Czechoslovakia and the split but I don’t think there are any really strong feelings about it in general. Not any more, at least. And my generation, and younger, well it’s history for us. I was 6 when it happened, so separate Czech and Slovak republics has been the accepted reality for us.

        So, basically, the split had its pros and cones for both parties but all in all I think it worked out all right.

        Not sure if that answers your question, but there you go.

      • roobin101 says:

        Regards the actual politics (and I’ll be careful here) I’m, personally, English and Pro-Scottish Independence. It will mean everything, in the sense that it will pose a question as to the meaning of democracy in Britain, if there are 500+ English MPs but only twenty or so each from NI and Wales, but it would also not change much, in the sense that the constituent parts of the UK are highly integrated. If there’s any historical comparison it’s probably going to be like the secession of Norway from Sweden.

        But the Bowie thing was either him being playful (‘what’s the easiest way for me to flamebait popular consciousness’) or it’s very odd. No one but no one is going to be swayed by this, though a few might be annoyed.

  24. SoooTrypticon says:

    A great entry. I’ve been looking forward to this bit for some time, and you did not disappoint. Thank you!

    As far as the song goes, I think he must have revisited it while working on “Never Get Old.” There are quite a few similar bits.

    Also, something to note. The leaked version of “London Boys,” when compared to the two snippets that came officially from Bowienet, hint that perhaps the leaked album is still in a formative stage. The official “London Boys” clips are almost a completely different version of the song with strings by TV.

    It makes me wonder, is the leaked album mostly rough mixes… and demos?

    I suspect “Lisa Jane” is a work in progress. The repeated lyric is too simple- what happened to the rest of the song?

    So perhaps the “Hole In The Ground” that we know, is still not the final version we may some day get.

    • col1234 says:

      there’s a consensus that the leaked “Toy” is not the final mix (suggesting the leak didn’t come from DB, as some have speculated!)

      btw I have a theory who the leaker was, which i might hint at in a later entry

      • SoooTrypticon says:

        Good to know. Again I must thank you for this blog. Something to look forward to every week. I’ll be buying several copies of the published book for friends, (fingers crossed), as holiday gifts this year.

        What’s your opinion on how far these songs are from completion? I too have read the chapter in “Greatest Music Never Sold,” and have a few ideas as to why this album never got a proper release. The two versions of “London Boys” may be very telling in that case.

  25. postpunkmonk says:

    “Zig Zag” by Earl Slick is a very enjoyable album. My wife picked it up and I loved it at first spin. His tone is very sweet and the variety of singers [Bowie, Robert Smith, Martha Davis] makes it a varied and enjoyable program. You may buy it for the Bowie cut, but it’s his guitar that keeps me coming back to enjoy it. Oh yeah, Joe Elliott of Def Leppard also sings on a track, but I think he’s contractually required to guest on Bowie Guitarist solo albums.

    • Maj says:

      haven’t listened to that album for ages but yeah, it’s quite enjoyable. I bought it back then for Isn’t It Evening but I think I ended up having other favourites on it. I shall dig it out one of these days.

  26. Maj says:

    Finally got around to reading this & glad I did. Great entry, Chris!

    I personally have nothing against artists entering their classicist periods. I understand why some might have a problem with it in relation to Bowie but honestly I feel it’s only a natural development, and even though many of us consider dear David a homo superior, he still is just a very interesting, creative and talented guy, buts till only a human. It was bound to happen sooner or later and in his case it came with the new millenium.
    My personal journeys with certain artists started around the time when they entered the no-longer-chasing-charts/trying-to-predict-the-future stages of their lives and so I have quite good relationship with these later stages of their output. For instance McCartney, Elton, and indeed Bowie have all released consistent, good albums in the past 15 years or so (Macca naturally entered his classicist period sooner), of course people could argue with me on that, but I think the fact they still make listenable music at all should be applauded.

    Bowie looking back is indeed kind of a hilarious thing though. I’ve always been amused by the Toy project, and until the late 90’s entries on this blog I hadn’t even realised how much and how consistently Bowie kept looking to his dear youth at that point – it makes more sense to me now, but it’s still a wee bit funny. But hey, age happens to everyone. I see it in my 4 years-younger-than-Bowie parents. They used to be normal people talking about normal things, but they’ve gradually became reminiscing machines. And as I said, Bowie is just a guy, after all. He only does his reminiscing with a bit more creativity and tongue-in cheek.

    Blah blah…the song. The song is nice. I can never remember it though. I’ve listened to it quite a few times since acquiring Toy a few years ago and it just doesn’t stick in my memory. I don’t know what I can say about it. I do like the sound of this post-Gabrels band (Bowie’s live recordings from 2000 are among my favourites), so I guess that has a positive influence on the song for me. The band. And that’s about it. Cute. Nice.

    • s.t. says:

      …”reminiscing machines.” I like that. I find it happening quite a bit even in my thirties, so I can only imagine what I’ll be like in my sixties. Bowie had his moments of looking back even at my age, with Lodger (and arguably earlier with Hunky Dory).

      Another man accepting his age around this time was David Byrne. I see Look Into the Eyeball and Grown Backwards as somewhat akin to Bowie’s Heathen and Reality. Both sets seem resigned, yet graceful.

      • StevenE says:

        I love Look Into The Eyeball! Some of the performances of The Great Intoxication out there are incredible. I haven’t looked at it for years but I played this clip again and again when I was sitting alone in my room at 16: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=47WgnWIR9Mg

        I’ve only seen him once, on the Songs of DB/Brian Eno tour, the soul-pop reworkings of Bush of Ghosts tracks were stunning. I was neck high in exams when he was touring with St Vincent but I was gutted to miss that.

        I feel indebted to David Byrne on a really, intimately personal level 0 for Stop Making Sense alone. I can say with absolute conviction that I wouldn’t be who I am today without that album – I can’t say that about any other piece of music, or films or books for that matter. I grew up in a household that really had no interest in music – the only CDs I any of us owned were by a couple Christian rock bands, in addition to my brother’s two singles (It Wasn’t Me by Shaggy and Clint Eastwood by Gorillaz, if you’re interested).

        Worst of all, my mother had this orange cassette tape – our only tape – of covers of novelty hits (That’s Amore, The St Winifred’s School Choir) that was always played on long journeys in the car and had conditioned me – Clockwork Orange-style – into thinking all music was bad. I can’t even communicate the feelings I associate with that particular collection of songs.

        I was really into movies, and saw Stop Making Sense when the DVD was given away in with copies of the Observer. It’s captivating from the first track, and by Burning Down The House I was hooked. I had no idea – no idea at all – that music could ever be that good. I wouldn’t be sat reading this blog without it.

        – It’s weirdly appropriate that I’ve ended up using this thread to reminisce – twice – even if I am only going back about six and a half years. Apologies all…

      • s.t. says:

        Funny, sounds like my experience wasn’t too different from yours. I was born at the zenith of the Moral Majority in the US, and I grew up with only a handful of LPs that my parents had. The ones that weren’t Christian contemporary schmaltz were Mary Poppins, The Clancy Brothers and (of course) Bob Dylan’s “Saved.” Byrne and Bowie weren’t my firsts, but they were both extremely important as heroes and role models of a sort. Bowie taught me that subversion doesn’t have to be lunkheaded shock tactics, and Byrne helped me own my nerdier inclinations. I got to talk to David Byrne within the context of a book signing (The New Sins), and it was…awkward. But appropriately so.

      • Maj says:

        I love Grown Backwards but haven’t listened to it in ages. Oh man, now you’ve made me all nostalgic. Oh the irony!

        Being born in the 2nd half of the 80’s or early 90’s I think naturally results in having discovered many “living legend” artists at their classicist periods. I don’t know, but I just don’t view the work of at least half of these guys’ (and gals’) as no longer inventive and creative. Just, as you said, s. t., accepting their age. I think one’s approach to life and work naturally has to change with time and age.

        I could go on and on about this but I won’t.🙂

  27. Ramzi says:

    I get the whole frustration with the so called ‘classicist period’ when looking at Hours and Toy, but the albums after – especially Heathen and TND – are legitimately great albums in the Bowie cannon, and I don’t think they should be diminished by putting them under a ‘classicist period’.

  28. Bruised Passivity says:

    I’m really late to the party this time, I’ve been on the road the last couple weeks and despite having been able to read the recent posts, I’ve been engaging with unstable wifi connections so I couldn’t get out any comments in until now. The connection at this airport seems stable enough so I’m going to have ago at getting my thoughts in.

    Firstly, I’m very excited to be into Toy discussion because all I knew about this song collection was that it was an unfinished project that was never officially released and that much of it was Bowie revisiting his oldest material. You know, the obvious stuff. So knowing that Chris was going to be writing about this period had me anticipating some fascinating new incites into this rather shadowy (no pun intended) period and I’ve not been disappointed. (Gushing) I’m always so impressed by the level of preparation that goes into every entry on this blog but the intel you’ve managed to gather about the Toy project is fantastic.

    The fact that David came back around to his earliest works at this time isn’t surprising. With the arrival of the new millennium and his daughter it only makes sense that he’d find himself re-examining his roots. Plus, while on a semi hiatus from his musical career in order to be a family man, what better project to keep the band connected and his musical juices flowing. For me, I’m glad it was never a fully realised official album because it’s much more fun as a half finished experimental project. And, personally, the fact that it opened the door for Heathen’s creation makes it a particularly important project.

    As for Hole in the Ground, it was for me a forgettable piece until a couple days ago when, having re-listened to it for the blog, it got stuck in my head and has now been an ear worm for about 48 hours. I don’t know if that means I actually like it or if my brain was just needing a new dose of Bowie to chew on? LOL

    I apologise for the babbling, I think I’ve been writing on here in order to simply kill time until my flight boards.

    Cheers

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