Reissues: The Laughing Gnome

Bowiegnome

Fitting for April Fool’s Day, it’s the one of the most knocked-about and belittled songs in the Bowie canon. But I stand by what I wrote in 2009, and the book version has even more love for the song. Below is a mingle of the two versions:

The Laughing Gnome!

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

During a state visit to Washington, DC in 1994, Boris Yeltsin was found dead drunk late one night, standing on Pennsylvania Avenue wearing only his underwear, trying to hail a cab because he wanted to get a pizza. Many consider “The Laughing Gnome” to be something of an equivalent in Bowie’s life. “Undoubtedly the most embarrassing example of Bowie juvenilia,” wrote Charles Shaar Murray. “WORST SONG EVER LOL, know SERIOUSLY WORST,” wrote Techtester45 on YouTube.

At the apex of Bowie’s global fame in 1984, Mick Farren (who’d known Bowie in the Sixties) wrote that “whenever [Bowie] comes under discussion and the folks around the bar start to get rapturous, a still, small voice pipes up in the back of my mind to remind me: This is the man who recorded ‘The Laughing Gnome.’” When Bowie asked fans to vote for which songs he’d perform on his “greatest hits” tour of 1990, the NME launched a write-in campaign to humiliate him by making him sing “Laughing Gnome” on stage.

Stuff and nonsense, I say. After “Space Oddity,” it was Bowie’s best single of the Sixties.

Why “The Laughing Gnome” is brilliant

1. It rocks. It was Bowie’s best Mod soul single: its propulsive 4/4 slammed home by drums, bass, harpsichord and guitar all locked in, the guitar shifting from topping the bassline to biting down hard on each beat. (It was the first of many Bowie attempts to match the drone of the Velvet Underground’s “I’m Waiting for the Man.”) Even the gnome voices were basically drum fills. His melody, reminiscent of “The Tennessee Waltz,” was a rhythm guitar line in a vocal. Bowie started each verse with short upward moves (“I was walk-ing, down the high street”), took a long stride down an octave (“heard-foot-steps-be-hind-me”) echoed by a closing set of short, descending lines (“scarlet and grey, chuckling a-way”). The refrains were a four-part harmony: soaring oboe, playing whole or half notes; huffing bassoon happy to act the clown; Bowie’s lead vocal; the gnome chorus.

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

“Haven’t you got an ‘ome to go to?”
‘No, we’re gnomads!’
“Didn’t they need you to get your hair cut 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 for making an LSE joke about Mick Jagger.

3. Credible dark interpretations. Momus, in the early 2000s, 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 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. The son of a half-century’s worth of British novelty records, from Charles Penrose’s “laughing” discs in the Twenties to Anthony Newley’s “Pop Goes the Weasel” and “That Noise,” “Laughing Gnome” suited the frothy mood of its time, preceding Pink Floyd’s “The Gnome” by a few months. Syd 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 a general benediction, honoring the other meaning of the word gnome, that is, “a brief reflection or maxim; a wise pithy saying”:

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. The chromatic three-octave-descending oboe/bassoon riff would be a through-line in Bowie’s songs, heard in everything from “Fame,” “Speed of Life” and “Fall in Love With Me” to “Scream Like a Baby” and “Real Cool World.” And the varisped gnome voices returned as ghouls in “After All,” “The Bewlay Brothers” and Bowie’s cover of “See Emily Play,” among others.

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. 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 weeks coming up with puns and experimenting with tape speeds, cutting multiple versions of the track (the musician Mike Scott said he once slowed down the track enough to hear that Dudgeon’s doing most of the gnome voices). Bowie and Dudgeon 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,” Bowie recalled in 1993.

The single’s failure to chart and some critical pasting pushed Bowie towards a darker path: soon enough came Space Oddity and The Man Who Sold the World. This would become his regular maneuver. Whenever he did something too silly (say, Labyrinth or the Glass Spider Tour) he’d make amends by dressing as a “serious” artiste for a time. While the cracked, gleeful spirit of the “Gnome” went missing for much of the Seventies, Bowie kept quietly drawing from its stores.

Dudgeon and Bowie eventually had a falling out. 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, knew the track was one of the finest things he ever did.

Recorded 26 January, 7 & 10 February and 8 March 1967 and released on 14 April 1967 as Deram DM 123. It flopped upon first release, but reached #6 in the UK when Deram reissued it at the height of Ziggydom in 1973. The Gnome will rise again, one day.

See also: “Requiem For a Laughing Gnome.

38 Responses to Reissues: The Laughing Gnome

  1. ric says:

    Excellent stuff all round; I wonder if Lou ever heard it?

    • leonoutside says:

      I’m sure he did, and that he loved it. Lou gave us “The Kids” after all. Saw Ian McCulloch last Saturday (Cambridge, UK). He sang “The Dwarf Song”. And after, he said it was his reply to Bowie’s Laughing Gnome, only “better”. (Macca is in one of his positive friendly periods at present).

  2. Patrick says:

    I was 10 when this was released in the Uk. I do remember it being on Top of the Pops (?) with an early video version which if DB hadn’t co operated must has been specially edited with clips etc. Has that survived? I daren’t look.
    For me, not recalling Space Oddity at the time, though I didnt know it of course, this was my introduction to David Bowie.
    It’s a hint of the Children’s entertainer that he originally partly aspired to , and returned to later, with Peter and the Wolf, Labyrinth and SpongeBob SquarePants.

    • Brendan O'Lear says:

      Yes, as a fellow 10-year-old I have vague memories of the TOTP clip. But I’ve often wondered if I imagined it as it seems to have disappeared.

      Bowie’s capacity to captivate the child audience is an aspect of his early career that has been seriously overlooked. The early UK singles, Starman, Jean Genie & Laughing Gnome, fit perfectly into the worldview of an imaginative child. I can only really think of the Toy Story series that manages to capture the child’s perspective while addressing adult themes in a similarly successful way.

      The Laughing Gnome is brilliant in every way. The only reservation I’ve ever had is the rhyme of ‘telly’ with ‘tummy’. I’m sure he had ‘belly’ in mind at first and then deemed it a little too risqué.

      I wish his Requiem For a Gnome on the recorder had been equally successful.

      • G. M. Griffiths says:

        “Telly… tummy” is a clever pararhyme, much in the style of a favorite poet of Bowie’s, Wilfred Owen. Owen was the man who transformed pararhyme from an obscure poetic method to a key part of his personal mission to capture the discordant tragedy of war.

        See the rhyme schema for ‘Strange Meeting’: a clear inspiration for not just this song but also, as Peter Gillman elsewhere suggests, ‘The Man Who Sold The World’.

        The connection with Owen does not, however, stop there. The key moment in ‘The Laughing Gnome’, in the best Freudian manner, is an innocuous pun, the small fellow’s announcement that he has just come from ‘Gnome Man’s Land’. As Kathryn Johnson has commented, this seems to connect with Bowie’s chthonic fascination with subterranean men: dwarves; gnomes; the ancient dead. These creatures stand in their own light, out of the sun; in the liminal space between consciousness and unconsciousness, seeking enlightenment.

        Or a fag. On the train to Eastbourne.

    • Patrick says:

      I am referring to the 73 re-release not the original, but having thought about it, there’s a possibility a video was made at the time of it’s original release in 67? Is it in a vault somewhere?

    • Matthew says:

      I also remember a TOTP video from 1973 which, I think, featured a man and some gnome figures on a bed. I can’t find any trace of it online, although I did read it featured a Bowie look-a-alike in a TOTP produced short film as Bowie himself wouldn’t have wanted to promote it (or maybe unable to due to being on a different label). It would have been difficult for Pans People to dance to this although they did do some strange choreography at times.
      I’d like to see it again just to relive that bit of the past.

  3. Andy says:

    “Scarlet and grey, chuckling a-way…”
    Strikes me as a rather Barrett-ish vocal pattern, even down to a specific song, which if I wasn’t so lazy I’d sort out.

  4. stowe says:

    I remind myself of this song when I realise Bowie had a lot of work to do before he reached what he wanted. So in a way, it’s his most inspiring song..

  5. crayontocrayon says:

    If I had to describe Bowie in 3 words, ‘silly’ would be one of them. It really is such a huge part of why he is so great.

    • marta says:

      silly but never – ever – ridiculous. yes, that is why we admire him so much.

      • marta says:

        also, I read somewhere someone saying DB was very serious about his work but never took himself too seriously. After so many hours watching youtube, I couldn’t agree more.

        I guess that if the fans, and not the stupid NME, had indeed voted for the Gnome, he would have had included it on that tour (the only time I saw him; he only came twice to my country and the second time I was away…)

  6. Matthew says:

    Glad to see so much love for this track, it’s been fashionable to belittle it for so long that I like to see it elevated again.
    This may be the first Bowie song I heard as I remember loving it as a small child so can never disassociate the joy I got from it then when I hear it now.

  7. kevin allen says:

    Quite fitting that Michael Stipe currently resembles a Gnome.

  8. BenJ says:

    Nice hearing this one again. I really do think this was a pivotal song for Bowie, one that made Maj. Tom and Ziggy, among others, possible.

    The dark interpretation is interesting. Makes me wonder how people would have responded to this song if it were included on, say, Station to Station.

  9. comicalArchitect says:

    Anyone else wish this song had been revisited, perhaps on Toy? It screams “remakeable” to me.

  10. Galdo. says:

    The most gnomic song he did.

  11. princeasbo says:

    Confession: I was in a fraternity in the 1980s.

    Relevant Addendum: ‘The Laughing Gnome’ was played on a loop for a full seven days in the frat’s wing as part of our hazing week and I have a hostage/kidnapper/PTSD affection for it as a result.

  12. wytchcroft says:

    and what exactly is a joke?
    Barrett Gnomes maybe…

    and no mention of Little Wonder and the seven dwarves? i always hope that Laughing Gnome has its own drum and bass remix out there in the hinter-net somewhere.

    anyroad, it may not be as good as some of the stuff on the first Bowie album but i’ll take it over Nimoy and The Ballad of Bilbo Baggins any day.

  13. Peggy says:

    I was 14 in the late summer of 1972. I heard Hunky Dory and was instantly obsessed. Immediately bought all the existing Bowie albums — Space Oddity, The Man Who Sold the World, Ziggy Stardust.

    For those of you who weren’t there (or were there and don’t remember) it was a different time. The first widely available VCRs didn’t come along until the late 1970s and lord knows my family was not in a position to own cutting edge technology. The internet was no more than a 16-bit twinkle in Mr. Honeywell’s eye. In the mid-70s, Panasonic released the Take n Tape recorder and mine (a retina-burning yellow) was used to tape audio-only of Midnight Special (including the 1980 Floor Show), holding the tiny condenser mic right up against the tiny speaker of the television, necessitating a kneeling posture inches from the screen which I probably would have adopted in any case.

    The Laughing Gnome. Well, I’m getting around to him. In the bleak days between the birth of Ziggy and the much anticipated arrival of his slightly older brother Aladdin Sane, I was rabid for new material. The albums I had were already growing scratchy with playing and I knew by heart every word, every note, every “hey” and “mmm.”

    Then, miraculously, I found a funny-looking record called “Images 1966-1967.” It had a crazy cartoon cover and was a DOUBLE! It seems to be a bit rare now, not even included in most Bowie discographies. It had all the songs from the “David Bowie” disc and many Deram B-sides and singles. A total of 21 tracks of David Bowie singing new songs with new words, including The Laughing Gnome.

    I loved every minute of those two “big black CDs” (as my daughter used to call them) including The Laughing Gnome — although admittedly I may have cringed just a bit at the puns. My love wasn’t because of the song, the words, the beat or the chord progression, but because of my obsession. At just-turned-15 and with the limitations of the times (no free downloadable music, videos or news), I would have bought and adored a recording of Bowie reading his laundry list, or the phone book, or the course guide from the London School of Eco-gnome-ics.

    • Jaf says:

      I had the slightly later (’75) version of Images with the contemporary (for then) cover and the cartoons on the inside. I’ve still got it and still play it, TLG isn’t my favourite if I’m honest but some of the other songs on that record are belters; Uncle Arthur, London Boys, Silly Boy Blue, When I Live My Dream, Heat of the Morning…

  14. Claws-on says:

    If you really want to hear the darkness in “Laughing Gnome” then listen to the Scott Walker cover version

    (Ok, it’s a spoof but a very funny one)

  15. Funny coincidence, I got a cd a few days ago with this song on it.
    “David Bowie” Deluxe Edition 2 disc.
    Disc 1 has the original album in mono and the same 14 songs in stereo.
    Disc 2 has 25 songs, label says “includes the singles, unreleased stereo mixes, the ledgendary unreleased single ‘London Bye Ta-Ta’ and 5 tracks recorded in 1967 for John Peel’s Top Gear Show”.
    And of course ‘The Laughing Gnome’.

  16. Anonymous says:

    Easily DB’s finest “so bad it’s good” song – a goofy conceit executed with great verve and gusto. DB really commits to the terrible puns, and I completely agree with s.t.’s notion that it should have been part of Toy (though arguably Little Wonder is the “modern” version of the Gnome).

    • MC says:

      OK, you’d think I’d have this posting thing down by now. Blame the Gnome – MC here.

    • s.t. says:

      I actually didn’t voice that notion here–I replied to Comical Archtect’s comment concerning Toy–but I believe I did say something like that in the original Toy post. Even if he had stuck to the “depressed old man creaks and sighs the hits” approach that was typical of Toy, it could have been great.

  17. MikeB says:

    Off topic: I can’t wait to read your take on Girl Loves Me when it’s finally time.

  18. Dawn says:

    I always thought the gnome was a personification of the creative voices in Bowie’s head. Similar to the Momus theory above except I don’t think of the voices as schizophrenic, rather an obnoxious yet entertaining overactive imagination with a will of its own.

    Basically, the Laughing Gnome is Bowie’s Paranoid Android. Or should I say, those “unborn chicken voices” are Thom Yorke’s Laughing Gnome.

    Anyway, I like this song.

  19. prianikoff says:

    Bowie’s “Over the Wall we go” made ripples a year before “Gnome” was released and had a similar cockney, music-hall ethos. (Perhaps influenced by his hanging round with Steve Marriott and the “Small Faces”)

    The Acetate version’s here:-

    It was released by Paul Nicholas as “Oscar” in 1967, but Bowie played it during his “Showboat” at the Marquee club in ’66.

    I can distincty remember it being sung in the school playground with a more derogatory lyric. This would have been a year or so after Ronnie Biggs did a runner from Wandsworth prison.

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