What’s the point of an archive set of murky-sounding demos from fifty years ago? Spying Through a Keyhole, a box of four 7″ 45 RPM singles ($35.95 retail at Newbury Comics in Northampton, MA), seems meant to be faced-out on a shelf. “What’s that, then? David Bowie?” “Yes, nice, isn’t it? I should get around to listening to it one of these days…”
Format fetishism (soon to continue with the upcoming Clareville Grove Demos set) is inevitable at a time when vinyl packaging drives “physical media” buys. The justification here, as per Parlophone, is that having these demos on 7″ singles honors how they were sent to publishers and performers in the late Sixties (Why not go whole hog then?—put them on acetates that wear out after ten plays.) You, humble buyer, can imagine you’re an overworked staffer for Tom Jones’ management company.
For Keyhole, these are (mostly) songs which Bowie registered with the publisher Essex Music in the mid-to-late Sixties and over which his estate doesn’t have full control—Essex was reportedly why astronaut Chris Hadfield briefly had to pull his “Space Oddity” cover off YouTube. The specter of unissued Bowie songs entering EU public domain was one impetus for its release (the set notes that tracks were “previously available as an internet download only for a strictly limited period in December 2018,” a period so limited that I believe no one on the globe actually downloaded them).
Still, Keyhole offers something new. It clears, somewhat, a muddy picture—it documents Bowie’s steady improvement as a songwriter in 1968. This is considered his lost year, a year without a record deal, the year of Feathers and Hermione, of various failed advert, cabaret, and musical auditions. A holding-pattern year, one devoted to mime and Buddhism (“there were times when I felt I was the only person in the world who believed in his talent,” his then-manager Kenneth Pitt wrote about summer 1968.)*
As it turns out, Bowie was toiling away throughout 1968—even his apparent lassitude was for show. Keyhole is David Bowie as grubbing songwriter, blotting out lyrics, trying out hooks, recasting songs, sketching vocal arrangements. During his life, he wasn’t much interested in making these sort of drafting-room sketches public. Sure he’d rework and recycle lyrics, hooks, chord changes and voices throughout his career, but that was his purview. Make something fresh with it. Otherwise, let’s move on, as he’d sing. With Bowie gone, his past is his last undiscovered country. We’ll see soon enough how much of it will come to light.
Singing in the Silver Kitchen
“Mother Grey,” registered with Essex in December 1967, is a storied “unreleased” Bowie song, as its title was known as early as 1973, when Essex sued Bowie for its copyright.** Released at last in 2019, it’s striking even in bleary demo form—for me, the highlight of the set.
Presumably a candidate (the timing fits) for Bowie’s never-made second album on Deram, slated to be cut in spring 1968, “Mother Grey” is Bowie keeping the thematic framework of his 1967 album—it’s another third-person lyric about a slightly-surreal domestic situation—while toying with structure. So while all 14 David Bowie songs have a (usually) instrumental intro, “Mother Grey” opens with its chorus! (something Bowie rarely did again until “Let’s Dance,” and then he’d credit Nile Rodgers for pushing him).
In two verses, Bowie moves against a bass figure (on guitar here) while varying phrasings to make a ladder of hooks. A five-beat line with a slight weight on the last syllable (“sil-ver kit-chen full of pots and pans“), followed by a goofy aside, often harmonized (“mee-eee oh-myy-ay-ay!”) that in turn trims the closing phrase to four beats (“that’s a way for Mother Grey”). He’s smoothing out and breaking up the lengthy, twisting verse phrasings of late 1967’s “Karma Man“—it’s tighter, hookier writing, with Bowie keeping to a short span of notes.
You assume the awkward “join” linking verse to chorus (esp. at 1:08, which sounds like a clunk-fingered tape edit) would have been improved had “Mother Grey” gotten a full-band recording. Instead you’re left to imagine the ghost arrangement—scored low strings for the refrains? Harmonica replaced by lead guitar? The outro seems to be readying itself for the sort of rambling jam heard on Space Oddity tracks.
It’s a day-to-night portrait—Mother Grey makes beds, cleans the kitchen, cooks tea for her husband (he “tries to kiss but she ain’t in the mood”), scrubs floors, polishes a picture frame of her son, who’s moved out and left her alone in an empty house. She goes to sleep “so alone,” as harmonized Bowies sing in the closing refrain.
Some Ray Davies is in it—see Priscilla’s domestic drudgery in “Two Sisters” (and there’s a Kinks-esque little skip between opening refrain and first verse)—and the liner notes argue for “Mother’s Little Helper” as an influence. But there’s a vicious, joyful contempt in the Stones track, where getting old is a failure and domestic life is a hell of your own making. Take your pep pills for the tennis court, some Valiums to knock yourself out: if you never wake up, who’ll miss you? Jagger soon enough played the devil, but he sounds like an Old Testament-style scourge here, his voice tuned to a sharp, pitiless scale. He’s cursing all he sees, all this horrific prosperity.
There’s nothing like this in “Mother Grey,” who’s confined to her house, like a zoo animal that can’t survive in the wild; she’s trapped in cyclical existence and even seems vaguely aware of it at times—see Bowie’s line about her, for a moment, being suddenly on “the outside” and seeing the starry sky, which looks down on “her hands”; she’s nothing but labor, a hollow tool. His sympathies are with his character here, if coldly. Bowie’s perspective, from early in his work, was of someone trying to puzzle out why “normal” people behave as they do. Everyday life as seen at a remove, as if from the deck of a ship.
It’s most aligned with another 1968 Bowie song, “When I’m Five.” Mother Grey could be that kid’s mother: a towering yet pitiful figure whose life makes no sense (note the child’s-eye name for her, like the soon-to-come President Joe and Major Tom). Bowie’s strained relationship with his mother (who at times would call journalists to complain about him neglecting her) is an unavoidable aspect of the song, as is his long-developed theme of suburbia as a frozen landscape he was lucky to have escaped. It’s frustrating to hear it forever trapped in sketch form. Still, the greatest compliment you can give “Mother Grey” is to mourn the track that it never became.
Recorded: ca. December 1967?-early spring 1968. Possible locations (London): Kenneth Pitt’s apartment at 39 Manchester Street; Essex Music, 68 Oxford Street. David Bowie: lead and backing vocal, acoustic guitars, harmonica, percussion. First release: 5 April 2019, Spying Through a Keyhole.
[If you’d like, print this out and put it between the “London Bye Ta-Ta” and “When I’m Five” entries in Rebel Rebel.]
*In his memoir, Pitt (per usual) exactingly detailed Bowie’s total income for 1968: £905.19.10. Given that, inflation-adjusted, this is something like £16,000 at a much higher pound-to-dollar exchange rate, this is a not-horrible? income for someone who didn’t put out a record and barely performed that year.
**In May 1973, Essex entered a writ in the High Court of Justice in London, claiming that “Mother Grey,” “April’s Tooth of Gold,” and “Ching-a-Ling” should have been assigned to them as part of a 1967 agreement, and alleged Bowie had broken his contract with them when he signed with Chrysalis Music—this would be one of the many legal headaches of the MainMan era).
I want to say thanks again to everyone who came out to the readings and conversations in New York, London, and Manchester in the past months—it was a delight to meet all of you. I hope you’ve enjoyed Ashes to Ashes. If you haven’t gotten it, well, you still can.
I’ll put up more new entries here in a while (the rest of the ‘new’ ’68 demos and probably the last Blackstar songs at some point). And I’m fairly close to finishing the first piece of an “interim” project, a sort of ‘variety show’ thing, you could say. More soon.
Top: Britt-Marie Sohlström, “Mors dag (Mother’s Day), Sweden, 1968.”