Brief Thoughts on Three Deram Outtakes

e634f6adfc6b3fa66dd10b7e8a6b91aa.jpg

Bunny Thing, Your Funny Smile, Pussy Cat (excerpts).

These long-documented but unheard (well, by most of us) outtakes from Bowie’s first album are the most intriguing finds so far in this springtime of “new” Bowie tracks from the Sixties. Who knows what’s driving the onrush of this stuff—the tapes being sold at auction; the costly vinyl box sets offered on a near-monthly basis. Some of it’s likely copyright-spurred, some of it’s possibly tied to the recent death of Bowie’s manager in the Sixties, Kenneth Pitt, who had an archive of early Bowie material.

The latest “demo” tape, which will presumably be sold to a wealthy collector next week, is labeled as “rejected 1967 demos.” Unless I’m mistaken, these aren’t demos at all, but complete studio outtakes from Bowie’s Deram album sessions. The auction site’s link thus has tantalizing 30-second excerpts of three songs recorded for David Bowie but left in the vaults for over fifty years (the fourth so-called demo appears to be just a different mix of the 1967 B-side “Did You Ever Have a Dream“).

The rumor was that Decca had long wanted to release these tracks, first on the 1997 Deram Anthology and on 2010’s 2-CD deluxe edition of David Bowie, but that DB had vetoed them. They may well never be released. Still, instead of rumor, we now have fragments.

Bunny Thing

(Bowie.) Recorded: 12 December 1966, Decca Studios, London. Bowie: lead vocal; John Renbourn: acoustic guitar. Produced: Mike Vernon; engineered: Gus Dudgeon.

Taped on the same day as “Come and Buy My Toys,” the equally acoustic “Bunny Thing” suggests a session fully devoted to Bowie working with the folk guitarist John Renbourn. Renbourn, who was living on an old boat on the Thames in this period, co-founded Pentangle soon afterward.

As per a mid-December 1966 acetate of a provisional David Bowie sequencing, “Bunny Thing” was slated as the closer of Side One. It is…not difficult to see why this track later got the chop. A “spoken word” performance over Renbourn’s guitar, it’s a satirical piece about drug trafficking in “a village of little bunnies.” Heard in the excerpt is its opening stage-setting verse. Reportedly, the full piece delves more into its main character, an elderly, dying bunny customs inspector called Br’er Hans Hitler, who speaks in DB’s attempt at a German accent. Br’er Hitler (“he was a drag, dad…he lost his bag of groove”) contends with some young bunny delinquents smuggling in carrot juice and bunny drugs; Renbourn takes a solo; it’s done in under three minutes.

“Drug songs” were a minor Bowie interest of this period. See “Silver Tree Top School For Boys,” where masters and students smoke joints on their school’s cricket ground, or his love of Biff Rose’s “Buzz the Fuzz,” in which a Sunset Strip rookie cop tangles with “Alice Dee.” In all these cases, Bowie keyed in on a younger generation of dopers tangling with adult authority figures. “Bunny Thing” also suggests a homage to/parody of the Beat poets, and as such it fit into the bits of poetry Bowie would do on stage until 1970 (as per Kevin Cann, Bowie performed “Bunny Thing” at the Roundhouse that year).

As “Bunny Thing” sounds like a piece of true Bowie weirdness, it’s a shame that it may well never be heard in full. In 1991, Bowie’s friend and collaborator Derek “Dek” Fearnley called “Bunny Thing” one of his favorite tracks on the album, saying “I was really disappointed it didn’t make the LP.” Still, you can understand Bowie’s desire to keep his “Nazi bunny customs inspector’s deathbed reminiscence” piece locked away.

Your Funny Smile

(Bowie.) Recorded: ca. 14 November-mid December 1966, Decca Studios. Bowie: lead vocal; Renbourn? Big Jim Sullivan? guitar; Derek Boyes: piano; Derek “Dek” Fearnley: bass; John Eager: drums; uncredited musicians: strings. Produced: Vernon; engineered: Dudgeon.

The reason for this track’s deletion is less obvious. Originally sequenced to follow “Sell Me a Coat” on David Bowie‘s first side, “Your Funny Smile,” at least from its fragment, is a pleasant-sounding and very “Deram 1966” pop track. You’d assume Decca would have favored it over the likes of “We Are Hungry Men,” but perhaps Bowie won that particular battle.

The excerpt is of its refrain, possibly moving into a bridge, and the string arrangement’s in line with other work done by Dek Fearnley for the album. From what we hear of it, “Your Funny Smile” sounds like a midway point between Bowie’s 1966 singles for Pye and some tracks cut for David Bowie (see in particular “Maid of Bond Street“). Perhaps by the album’s last sequencing in spring 1967, it seemed too out of date.

Pussy Cat

(Bowie?). Recorded: ca. 8 March 1967, Decca Studios. Bowie: lead vocal; Renbourn? Sullivan? guitar; Boyes: piano?; Fearnley: bass?; Eager: drums?; uncredited musicians: tuba, other brass. Produced: Vernon; engineered: Dudgeon.

As per Bowie archivist Kevin Cann, “Pussy Cat” was likely recorded on a notable date—the last session for “The Laughing Gnome!

Until now, it’s been assumed that this was Bowie covering a 1964 single by Jess Conrad, or, alternatively, a 1966 track by Chubby Checker. However, as the excerpt shows, that’s not the case—Bowie’s “Pussy Cat” appears to have nothing to do with these songs. The other Conrad recording of a song called “Pussy Cat” is on the B-side of a 1970 single, “Crystal Ball Dream,” and I’ve not heard it. But unless Bowie was a time traveler (always possible), the timing doesn’t really work out for that one.

[A clarifying addition!: as commenter Rufus Oculus notes below, “Pussy Cat” uses the melody of Marie Laforêt’s 1966 “Manchester et Liverpool.”  So “Pussy Cat” appears to have been one of Bowie’s translation jobs (see “Pancho” or “Even A Fool Learns to Love“) or him using Andre Popp’s melody for a prospective song of his own.]

So it’s Bowie playing on a nursery rhyme to scold a two-timing girlfriend (“don’t tell me no fairy tale/ for I’ve been following your trail”). If there’s any likely influence, it’s Bacharach/David’s “What’s New Pussycat?,” whose Tom Jones recording was an inescapable hit in 1965. Bowie’s “Pussy Cat” has an under-construction Mockney accent and a guitar-brass arrangement. Cann has described the full recording as sounding like a demo and that Bowie’s “vocal deteriorates as he seems to tire of the song.” It’s unlikely that it was a serious contender for David Bowie, as March 1967 was late in the game for that, particularly for a song of such modest potential as this.

New Career, New Towns

I’ve noted this on the Twitter but haven’t made a full announcement yet. But: I’ve started a new writing project, called 64 Quartets. This is, as its title suggests, about 64 musical quartets. The first entry is on Booker T. and the MG’s, the next one will be about another group of four people, and so on. This is where much of my time and energy will be going over the next year or so. I hope you enjoy it.

I’ve also set up a Patreon for it and for other writing projects, such as this site. For a very modest monthly sum, you’ll get previews of new posts (so for instance, patrons got this post yesterday), and sometimes I’ll write exclusive essays—one fairly soon, I believe. Any support would be greatly appreciated. Thank you.

 

10 Responses to Brief Thoughts on Three Deram Outtakes

  1. MlleFeuille says:

    Thank you for all the detail on these recordings. I’m not usually crazy about early Bowie, but it’s interesting to hear about his experiments as he was developing his voice. BTW, love Booker T.

  2. The delivery of Bunny Thing (at least from the excerpt) sounds so much like a Deram era Glass Spider. Thematically, I think the album is better off without it, but how I wish I could hear the whole thing! I can understand why Bowie would block it from being released though.

    Your Funny Smile sounds safe enough, to the point that it might have sounded out of place on an otherwise bizarre album. That said, the clip reminds me of the studio recordings Bowie would do with Visconti the following year. I think it’s the string arrangement.

    Pleasantly surprised to find Pussy Cat isn’t the Jess Conrad song. Always thought it was a strange choice of cover for the period. It’s a shame that Bowie apparently doesn’t fully commit himself to the recording because it definitely starts off strong. Maybe it was just a little too Newley. I assume it was recorded with intention of being the Gnome b-side, which would be keeping with the nursery rhyme/60s modern fairytale theme.

  3. Trevoirio says:

    ‘Nazi bunny customs inspector’s deathbed reminiscence.’ Absolutely brilliant.
    Cannot wait until we hear a snippet ‘Where’s the loo?’…

    Again thank you. I’m halfway through Ashes to Ashes, devouring every page. I need to see Baal again.

    • Rufus Oculus says:

      I thought Pussy Cat was one of Bowie’s translation jobs. An English lyric to an existing in this case French pop song Manchester Et Liverpool.

  4. William says:

    Thank you for this wonderful blog. I can’t just drop in, I always end up staying for hours. My favourite Bowie site by an astronomical distance. I’m truly sorry that I was late in finding it, and that I missed the event at the Burgess Foundation. Oh well. Another mid sixties Bowie ‘drug’ song – further grist for the following musing: he’s another ex-mod who is an odd fit and ill at ease with the psychedelic culture, the switch from diet pills and cigarettes to acid and pot. He must have done LSD, but like Bolan doesn’t seem to have any enthusiasm or even outright disdain or fear of the drug. Both too much in love with their Egos? Recall also the ‘bloody potheads’ comment after the ’76 bust, which rings true. That comment and the mocking, young fogey perspective of songs like ‘Join Our Gang’ suggest to me a duality in Bowie’s personality. I think he had a very conservative streak, a counterpoint to his capacity for radical self-reinvention, which gives his work an interesting edge. Purely and simply my own speculation – I conclude that the bridge in Big Brother – ‘You know you think you’re awful square/but you made everyone and you’ve been everywhere’ – is Bowie stepping out of the song for a moment, David Jones talking to himself, outside of this total immersion in character that has been so fruitful but has taken such a toll from the early to mid seventies. There’s always a conflict in Bowie, at his best, always a ‘yes, but …’ that galvanises his work and makes it truly riveting. I have this theory too that Bowie was going through ideas so fast at his peak, that the following album begins three quarters of the way through the previous (Queen Bitch being the harbinger of Ziggy, for e.g. Aladdin Sane climaxes with Time). Enough of my prattle – many thanks once again for your inspiring blog. Seriously one of the best things on the Web (Glass Spider predicted it)!

  5. Phil says:

    [Slightly off-topic but comments on the relevant entry are closed]

    Just been listening to David Bowie (and following along in Rebel Rebel). “Come and buy my toys” is a strange, strange song. Yes, most of the lyrics are a smash-and-grab raid on (a) a nursery rhyme and (b) the very old folk song variously known as “Scarborough Fair” and “The Cambric Shirt” (among other names), but (as ever) it’s what he does with the material that counts.

    The singer is offering toys – edible toys; sweets, really – to a boy who doesn’t want them, and crucially doesn’t want to play. Instead, the kid has apparently been shadowing his father throughout the agricultural cycle. It’s only when the grain’s been delivered to the mill that he’s even got time to hang around the market place, where the other kids are playing – and even then he’d rather buy parsley than gingerbread. Listen to the melancholic fall of the middle eight: many other songs about childhood would use that section to say (in effect) “have fun playing now, because soon you’ll grow up”, this song says “you’ll grow up eventually, but for now I’m afraid you’ve got to go and play”. What makes it all the odder – although I don’t know if Bowie knew about this – is that all those weird agricultural images (ploughing the field with a ram’s horn etc) are sexual metaphors; that kid really is growing up too fast.

    As with “There is a happy land”, this isn’t childhood seen from the inside *or* the outside, but a memory of childhood seen from the inside by an outsider (who perhaps wishes he could have been more inside the experience at the time – but that door is closed now, Mr Grownup…).

    • Phil says:

      PS “She’s got medals” also has an English folk pedigree – there are several traditional songs in which a woman cross-dresses and joins the army or goes to sea, ending the song back in her original gender identity.

      If we picture Bowie as bouncing off “Female drummer”, “William Taylor” et al in the same way that he bounced off “Scarborough Fair” for “…Toys”, there are a lot of similarities but some interesting changes. Usually our heroine joins up (and drags up) to follow her true love, not because she’s already being treated as one of the boys – and she goes back to being a woman because she’s been found out, not because she’s deserted (ahead of getting killed). What’s particularly interesting about the song, and really does look forward to mature Bowie, is that Mary/Tom ends the song as ‘Eileen’ – unlike the folk sources, the feminine identity she’s adopted at the end isn’t a return to her ‘true’ self but another costume, femme instead of butch.

    • Phil says:

      PPS One final side-note on David Bowie. “Uncle Arthur” supposedly has its roots in bassist/arranger Dek Fearnley’s domestic arrangements (living in as “Uncle Derek” to his brother’s kids), and in particular to the 19-year-old DB’s shocked fascination at the discovery that Fearnley was 29 years old. Being considerably older than 29 myself, when I read this I initially felt a bit put out on Fearnley’s behalf – but then I remembered that by the time DB was 29 he’d made Station to Station…! I’m now imagining the astral presence of DB-plus-10-years looking at uncle Dek and thinking, what have you been doing?

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: