Please Mr. Gravedigger

September 23, 2009


Please Mr. Gravedigger.

What I remember is Bowie standing there wearing a pair of cans with his collar turned up as if he was in the rain, hunched over, shuffling about in a box of gravel. And you thought Brian Wilson had lost it!

Gus Dudgeon, on the recording of “Please Mr. Gravedigger.”

“Please Mr. Gravedigger,” the last song on the David Bowie LP and the last recorded in the main sessions, is a graveyard soliloquy by a child murderer, accompanied by a series of sound effects—thunderclaps, raindrops, tolling bells, shovel scrapes, footsteps, cawks.

And sneezes. Bowie gets pretty Method with his character here, so that once he sneezes he has to sing the rest of the track in a snotted-up voice. After another juicy sneeze, Bowie sounds as though he’s shoved cotton into his nostrils.

Like “We Are Hungry Men,” “Please Mr. Gravedigger” is something of a radio play, complete with bizarre voices and sound effects. For the latter, Bowie was able to plunder Decca’s fantastic library of noises (much like the Beatles did with EMI’s vaults): the harvest of decades of radio productions, novelty LPs and horror/SF movie soundtracks.

The tone is the puzzle here—how seriously are we meant to take this thing? It’s overly gruesome and darkly comic, with its stuffy-nosed murderer (its title, and the skeleton of a tune that Bowie offers, seem to be playing off the UK pop oldie “Oh Mr. Porter“), but there’s also a horrible desolation to it, its lyric filled with images like a once-serene graveyard left shattered by a bomb—crooked death layered upon death—and a gravedigger with a strand of a dead girl’s hair in his coat pocket.

The storyline’s out of an EC horror comic like The Haunt of Fear: a man who has murdered a 10-year girl stands in a bomb-blasted Lambeth cemetery, watching an old man dig graves; the killer decides that he’ll need to murder the gravedigger (either for discovering his crime, or for taking a locket of his victim’s hair); as the track ends, he’s begun digging the gravedigger’s own grave.

It’s as if the characters and sounds of the rest of the LP—the children in “There Is a Happy Land” and “Come and Buy My Toys,” the eccentric loners in “Little Bombardier” and “Uncle Arthur,” the shadow play of “Hungry Men”—were all drawn together here and packed under the same dark earth.

Recorded 13 December 1966; on David Bowie. Bowie demoed “Gravedigger” in the same session in which he recorded “Rubber Band” and “The London Boys,” but it’s never been available, even on bootleg (apparently, it’s only Bowie and an organ, no sound effects). He also performed it on the German TV program 4-3-2-1 Musik Für Junge Leute in February 1968, but sadly the footage, which must’ve been wonderfully freakish, hasn’t survived.

Top: Gray Morrow, cover of Creepy No. 13, Feb. 1967.


Links: Chapters 1-3

March 24, 2015

Chapter 1: The Junior Visualizer (1964-1966)

bowie '65

“Liza Jane” (Toy)
“Louie Louie Go Home”
“I Pity The Fool”
“Take My Tip”
“That’s Where My Heart Is”
“I Want My Baby Back”
Bars of the County Jail”
“You’ve Got a Habit of Leaving”
“Baby Loves That Way”
“I’ll Follow You”
“Glad I’ve Got Nobody”
“Baby, That’s a Promise”
“Can’t Help Thinking About Me”
“And I Say to Myself”
“Do Anything You Say”
“Good Morning Girl”
“I Dig Everything”
“I’m Not Losing Sleep”

More: Britain on Film (Look at Life): “Fashion,” London on Film: “Suburbs,” “Why I Hate the Sixties” (2004); Richard Hoggart, The Uses of Literacy (conclusion); Devin McKinney on Colin MacInnes; Nick Bentley, “Translating English: Youth, Race and Nation in Colin MacInnes’s City of Spades and Absolute Beginners;” Bowie: Tonight interview, November 1964; The Beatles Anthology: 1963, 1964, 1965; “British Mods and Rockers” (BBC); scenes from Billy Liar;  Georgie Fame, “Yeh Yeh“; Glenn Gould, “The Search for Petula Clark“(1967); Bowie, radio interview, Marquee Club, 1966; Pye Studios.

Chapter 2: Gnome Man’s Land (1966-1968)


“Rubber Band” (album remake)
“The London Boys”
“Over the Wall We Go”
“Uncle Arthur”
“She’s Got Medals”
“Join the Gang”
“Did You Ever Have a Dream”
“There Is a Happy Land”
“We Are Hungry Men”
“Sell Me a Coat
” (remake)
“Little Bombardier”
“Maid of Bond Street”
“Silly Boy Blue”
“Come and Buy My Toys”
“Please Mr. Gravedigger”
The Laughing Gnome
The Gospel According To Tony Day
When I Live My Dream
Love You Till Tuesday
(single remake)


“Waiting For the Man”: (1967) (1970) (1972) (1976)
Little Toy Soldier
Everything Is You
“Silver Tree Top School For Boys”:
(Slender Plenty) (Beatstalkers)
April’s Tooth of Gold
“Let Me Sleep Beside You”
“Karma Man”
(BBC, 1968)
“C’est La Vie”

“Even a Fool Learns to Love”
“In the Heat of the Morning” (Toy)
“London Bye Ta-Ta”
(1970 remake)
“When I’m Five” (BBC, 1968
) (demo, 1969)
“Social Kind of Girl”
“The Mask”

More: The Strange World of Gurney Slade (1960: Ep. 1, opening sequence); Anthony Newley, live, 1964; Alan Klein, “I Wanna Be a Beatnik“, 1964; Alan Sillitoe, The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Runner (esp. “Uncle Ernest,” “The Decline and Fall of Frankie Buller” and “The Disgrace of Jim Scarfedale”); There Is a Happy Land (1974 adaptation); Heinrich Harrer, “My Life in Forbidden Lhasa” (1955); Ophiel, The Art and Practice of Astral Projection (1961);  David Guy, “Christmas Humphreys”; The Prisoner, excerpt from “Fall Out” (1967); “Forgotten Heroes: Big Jim Sullivan“; The Mothers of Invention, Freak Out (1966); The Fugs, “Dirty Old Man,”(1966); Ken Nordine, “Word Jazz” (1957); The Image (Armstrong, 1967, excerpts).

Chapter 3: The Free States’ Refrain (1969)


“Space Oddity” (demo) (original version) (1979 remake)
“Love Song”
“Life Is a Circus”
“Letter to Hermione”
“An Occasional Dream”
“Conversation Piece”
“Wild Eyed Boy From Freecloud” (B-side)
(LP remake)
“Don’t Sit Down”

“God Knows I’m Good”
“Unwashed and Somewhat Slightly Dazed”
“Cygnet Committee”
” (“Lover to the Dawn”, demo version)
“Memory of a Free Festival”
” (1970 remake)

More:  2001: A Space Odyssey (“Stargate” sequence); The Bee Gees, “New York Mining Disaster 1941“; Apollo 11, pre-flight conference, July 1969;  International Times (1969 archive); Scott Walker, live in Japan, 1970; Jean Itard, Victor de l’Aveyron (French) (English); Prof. John Merryman, France: May 1968; MC5, “Kick Out the Jams” live, Detroit, 1969; Rolling Stones, Hyde Park free concert, July 1969; George McKay, “The Free Festivals and Fairs of Albion” (in Senseless Acts of Beauty); Beckenham Free Festival, 1969.

Wishful Beginnings

February 25, 2013


Wishful Beginnings.

One of the few Outside songs that Bowie never performed live, “Wishful Beginnings” was also dropped from the album on a few occasions: a late Nineties CD reissue and a vinyl edition. Unlike “Too Dizzy,” whose deletion was an act of self-criticism, the 5:09 “Beginnings” seems likely to have been cut for space reasons. Still, as it’s one of Bowie’s creepiest songs, hinting at the ritual murder of a young girl, it’s also possible that he had qualms about it (that said, it’s been restored to the most recent editions of the record).

Its lyric was allegedly the perspective of an “Artist/Minotaur” figure that Bowie made occasional gestures at explaining. It’s Bowie playing with one of his favorite interview subjects of the period: ritual sacrifice and murder as an art project. Tracing a line from Thomas De Quincey’s “On Murder Considered as One of the Fine Arts” and Andre Breton’s Second Surrealist Manifesto (“The simplest Surrealist act consists of dashing down the street, pistol in hand, and firing blindly, as fast as you can pull the trigger, into the crowd. Anyone who, at least once in his life, has not dreamed of thus putting an end to the petty system of debasement and cretinization in effect has a well-defined place in that crowd, with his belly at barrel level“) to the scarring and blood-drips of Ron Athey, Marc Quinn (whose Self was a cast of his head filled with eight pints of his blood) and Kiki Smith‘s anatomical art, Bowie said all of it was of a piece, a tradition of modern paganism whose impetus goes “back to the Romans and their drinking the blood and eating the meat of the bull to enable us to go forward into the new era…a kind of appeasement to the gods to allow us to go into the next millennium.”

So the Minotaur figure, which Bowie had depicted in a few paintings for a 1994 theme exhibit in London (“Minotaur Myths and Legends”), was part of this movement, representing a piece of the artist that needed blood and appeasement before it had the strength to create again. A few lines hint that Bowie’s performing the blood ritual on himself (“I’m no longer your golden boy…flames burn my body“), and one reading of “Beginnings” is that it’s Bowie’s fear he was endangering his hard-won, carefully-constructed family man persona by indulging in base, violent fantasies for the sake of making better records.

As a track, “Beginnings” was one of Bowie’s most radical soundscapes, a sprechstimme vocal over a set of loops: a constant 4/4 drum, a two-note “chime,” and a thudding kick drum sample hitting on every other downbeat, bringing with it a satanic cackle and a rattling tambourine loop. At first, the only harmonic material is a synthesizer chord in sync with the kick drum sample, and Bowie’s voice hangs suspended for bars without any sense of grounding: it furthers the feeling that the singer has gone untethered, venturing into madness and estrangement from humanity. (It’s mainly a single-tracked vocal, with occasional echoes mixed right.)

As “Beginnings” goes on, the patterns loosen—the synthesizer plays an occasional melodic fragment, and begins sounding ahead of the downbeat, while the tambourine loop slightly lengthens and shortens. By the midpoint of the track, where Bowie is at his gentlest (“we FLEW on the wings…we will NEVER go DOWN”) and a keyboard offers a trio of tiny melodies, “Beginnings” feels like it could blossom into something human. Instead, the song freezes again. The kick drum sample and synthesizer chords vanish, leaving only a doleful Bowie and his percussion loops. The project has failed. We had such wishful beginnings, but we lived unbearable lives…I’m sorry little girl. And out comes the knife.

Scott Walker is an obvious presence here: “Beginnings” is one of the Outside tracks where Bowie was seemingly attempting to do a pre-cover of Walker’s Tilt, released during the last round of mixing. There are traces of Bowie’s past as well, like Lou Reed’s “Make Up” (cf. Reed’s “you’re a slick little girl” with Bowie’s “you’re a sorry little girl“). Where Reed had warmly detailed the stylish, precise makeup ritual of a transvestite, Bowie dehumanizes the ritual, making the girl simply a body, stripped of humanity, a piece of meat being prepared for the blade. And its key ancestor was Bowie’s own “Please Mr. Gravedigger,” with which “Beginnings” shares a structure (a spoken-sung melody that’s barely connected to any harmonic base) and a lurid, exploitative flavor.

Recorded ca. March-November 1994, Mountain Studios, Montreux, with possible overdubs at Brondesbury Villas Studios, London, and the Hit Factory, NYC, January-February 1995. Deleted from 1. Outside Version 2 (replaced by the Pet Shop Boys’ remix of “Hallo Spaceboy”), but restored to the 2003 and 2004 reissues (Europe and US, respectively).

Top: Andreas Freund, “New York,” 1995.

Little Toy Soldier

October 7, 2009


Little Toy Soldier.

“Little Toy Soldier” features a little girl Sadie, a toy soldier and lots of whipping. Amazingly, it was never released.

It’s an obvious rip on the Velvet Underground’s “Venus In Furs,” to the point where Bowie pilfers whole lines from the earlier song. There’s a grubby adolescent sensibility to it: the lyric seems like it’s by a boy who stole a copy of Justine out of the library. It also marks the fittingly perverse, gruesome end to Bowie’s novelty song series.

Gus Dudgeon, Bowie’s dedicated noisemaker by this point, festoons the verses with cackles, whipcracks and creaking springs. That’s just the warm up. Halfway through, after the soldier (a bit too wound up, it seems) kills Sadie in a fit of passion, the track descends into a maelstrom: Indian war whoops, explosions, shattering glass, coughing, motorway noise, and, just as in “Please Mr. Gravedigger,” a loudly blown nose.

Of interest (besides the S&M and noises) for being a document of the battle for Bowie’s soul—Bowie delivers the verses in his Anthony Newley-inspired voice, the choruses in his Lou Reed imitation.

Recorded on 5 April 1967 with the Riot Squad, a London band that Bowie took over for a few months in ’67, playing about 20 shows and cutting a few demos with them. They were Rod Davies (g), Croke Prebble (b), Bob Evans (sax, flute), George Butcher (keys) and Derek Roll (d); “Toy Soldier” is found on bootlegs (where it’s sometimes called “Sadie”) like Pierrot in Turquoise.

Top: Action Man in the field.

The Laughing Gnome

September 28, 2009


The Laughing Gnome!

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

It recently came to light that in 1995 Boris Yeltsin was found on a Washington DC street in his underwear, dead drunk, trying to hail a cab because he wanted a pizza. Many consider “The Laughing Gnome” to be something of an equivalent for Bowie. “Undoubtedly the most embarrassing example of Bowie juvenalia,” wrote Charles Shaar Murray. “Downright stupid, though perversely endearing” scowled David Buckley. “WORST SONG EVER LOL, know SERIOUSLY WORST,” wrote Techtester45 on Youtube.

Stuff and nonsense, I say. Instead,

Why “The Laughing Gnome” is brilliant

1. It rocks. The beat’s the strongest Bowie’s had to date. Drums, piano, bass, guitar locked in, with a thick bottom end. Rhythm guitar hitting against the beat. Drum fills that kick into the chorus. You could dance to it, and you should.

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

“Haven’t you got an ‘ome to go to?”
‘No, we’re gnomads!’
“Didn’t they need you to get your haircut 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 one for making an LSE joke about the Rolling Stones.

3. Credible dark interpretations. Momus, a commenter on this ILM Bowie thread, 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 utter 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. Pink Floyd recorded Syd Barrett’s “The Gnome” a mere two months after Bowie cut his “Gnome.” 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 something of a general benediction honoring the other meaning of the word gnome, that is, “a brief reflection or maxim; a wise pithy saying” (Webster’s Unabridged 20th C):

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. And as Buckley notes, it’s playing a riff that, mutated, would crop again and again in Bowie tracks, like “Speed of Life” and “Scary Monsters (and Super Creeps).”

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, as while the producer Mike Vernon was bewildered by the end of the sessions (he basically gave up and let Bowie do “Please Mr. Gravedigger” on his own), Dudgeon had become Bowie’s eager collaborator and straight man. 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 days coming up with puns and experimenting with tape speeds. They 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,” he recalled in 1993. (From The Bowie Companion.)

Dudgeon and Bowie eventually had a falling out, in part because Dudgeon believed Bowie owed him money for “Space Oddity.” 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, knows that the track’s one of the best things he’s ever done.

Recorded on 26 January 1967 and released as Deram DM 123; on Deram Anthology. It flopped upon first release, but reached #6 in the UK when Deram reissued it at the height of Ziggydom in 1973. And the Gnome will rise again, one day.

Over the Wall We Go

September 27, 2009


Over the Wall We Go.

All coppers are nanas!

Here begins Bowie’s brief silly season, whose greatest fruit is our next entry (get ready!). “Over the Wall We Go” is part novelty Christmas song, part topical commentary (there were seemingly endless numbers of prison breakouts in the mid-’60s UK, including the Communist spy George Blake in October 1966) and yet another Bowie pseudo-radio play like “We Are Hungry Men” and “Please Mr. Gravedigger.”

Bowie seems to be auditioning for voice work opportunities here—there’s some Cockney, some dead-on Bernard Bresslaw, even some Lennon-esque Scouse (as well as what sounds like a parody of Pete Townshend’s singing voice, but I’m likely off).

It’s unclear as to when this track was recorded—possibly as early as mid-1966, but most likely during the David Bowie LP sessions in December, where, if so, it was apparently judged to be too much even for a record filled with assorted lunacies like “Gravedigger.” Ken Pitt gave the demo to Robert Stigwood in January 1967, who in turn offered to his new client Oscar Beuselinck. The Oscar single, released in early ’67, got some play on pirate radio stations.

Recorded ca. December 1966; still unreleased, found on bootlegs like The Forgotten Songs of David Robert Jones.