There Is a Happy Land

September 10, 2009

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There Is a Happy Land.

Children have the strangest adventures without being troubled by them. For instance, they may remember to mention, a week after the event, that when they were in the wood they had met their dead father and had a game with him.

J.M. Barrie, Peter and Wendy.

You’ve had your chance, and now the doors are closed, sir.

“There is a Happy Land.”

Once when I was around 24, I was sitting in a Manhattan subway car across from a kid who seemed irritated by his nattering mother. I gave him a raised eyebrow and a smile of sympathy and he stared at me coldly for a moment, as if I was absurd and possibly evil. I realized I was just a grown-up making a weird face at him. We were no longer allies. I had crossed the border and there was no going back; I wearily consigned myself to adulthood.

“There Is a Happy Land,” for me the best song on David Bowie, is Bowie’s attempt to convey the common mind of childhood. He wasn’t alone: psychedelia was in part a means of burrowing back into childhood, whose mindset was seen as being akin to LSD-inspired visions. Think of Syd Barrett’s early songs like “See Emily Play,” recorded a few months after this track.

Bowie’s “When I’m Five” and “There Is a Happy Land” are two of the better depictions in pop music of how a child regards the world, and as such they can be unnerving. In “Happy Land” there’s the sense of childhood being a separate order, with its ranks and guilds, its legends and factions all unknown to adults. The song is set in a field near dusk, the hour just before dinner, when the empire of children is at its height.

“There Is a Happy Land” is ironically named—childhood is rarely purely happy, but is rather tumultuous, epic, hilarious, terrifying and so surreal that the best attempts of artists only come halfway close to capturing it (maybe Jean Vigo or Lewis Carroll came the closest). The lyric has classic fictional children like Tiny Tim playing alongside Bowie’s own creations (perhaps even his memories of Bromley neighborhood kids), much like how kids often blend their lives with stories, as well as how they constantly appraise their world, assigning values and colors to their playmates: Jenny whose sister died, Billy with the limp. A child’s reasoning can be both straight and capricious: I recall being convinced that my dog Jip could talk, but chose not to, for mysterious reasons of his own.

The track has one of the LP’s more ambitious arrangements, opening with a 16-bar instrumental section, with an initial solo by what sounds like a celesta but could be a treated piano, a second by a distant-sounding French horn (again, my guess—could be a trumpet) that ends a bit discordantly. Pieces of the solos recur as motifs, along with several other themes (e.g., a tiny waterfall of piano notes on the penultimate bar of each bridge), which cycle through the rest of the song. Bowie sings much of the lyric in long, slow phrases, though the asides to adults are sung curtly, often in four-note phrases seemingly tacked on to the ends of verses. The two bridge sections are in constant harmonic churn, sometimes with a new chord for nearly every beat (the line “Tiny Tim sings prayers and hymns/he’s so small we don’t notice him,” for example, dips and rises like a seesaw, going (acc. to this chord chart) F/Em/Am/C/Am/C/F/Em over four bars).

The title is possibly derived from “There Is a Happy Land (Far, Far Away),” the 19th Century Scottish hymn, which begins “There is a happy land, far, far away/where saints in glory stand, bright, bright as day.” Which fits well, for childhood is something of a storm-cloudy heaven.

Recorded on 24 November 1966; on David Bowie.

Top photo: Terry Fincher, “12 October 1966: Children playing outside 10 Rillington Place, London, the home of the mass murderer John Christie.”


Space Oddity At Half-Century

July 11, 2019

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Space Oddity (earliest demos, ca. December 1968-January 1969).
Space Oddity (“Clareville Grove” demo, ca. late January 1969).
Space Oddity (Love You Till Tuesday, full-band version, February 1969).
Space Oddity (“Mercury demo”).
Space Oddity (single).
Space Oddity (Hits à Gogo, 1969).
Ragazzo Solo, Ragazza Sola.
Space Oddity (Ivor Novello Awards, 1970).
Space Oddity (live, 1971).
Space Oddity (live, 1972).
Space Oddity (BBC, 1972).
Space Oddity (live, Hammersmith Odeon, 1973).
Space Oddity (“1980 Floor Show,” 1973).
Space Oddity (live, 1974).
Space Oddity (1979 remake).
Space Oddity (live, 1983).
Space Oddity (live, 1990).
Space Oddity (50th Birthday concert, 1997).
Space Oddity (Tibet House Benefit Concert, February 2002, w/ the Scorchio and Kronos Quartets, Adam Yauch & Philip Glass.)
Space Oddity (last live performance, 5 July 2002).
Space Oddity (a last snippet, March 2004.)

It was the beginning: Bowie’s first single for Philips/Mercury, his first British Top 5 hit, his first American Top 20 hit and, some years later, his first British #1. “Space Oddity” led off the album it titled; it leads off Bowie compilations and retrospectives. When he died, some television tributes led off with it; that night, they sang it in the streets.

An odd beginning, though. Its status as the first “classic” Bowie song came circuitously. Though it was a novelty single with a sell-by date (the July 1969 moon landing), “Space Oddity” didn’t chart until months after the moonshot and its highest chartings came in the mid-Seventies. Some in the Bowie camp thought it was a mistake at the time—his friend Tony Visconti refused to produce the single, considering it cheap, a publicity stunt (“it’s not a David Bowie record, it’s ‘Ernie the Milkman’,” he later said). Visconti wasn’t wrong. In hock to the great Bee Gees’ death bubblegum hits “New York Mining Disaster 1941” and “I’ve Gotta Get a Message to You” (Major Tom to Ground Control: in the event of something happening to me; Ground Control to Major Tom: for once in your life you’re alone), “Space Oddity” is a gimmicky folk song clad in extravagant garb.

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In December 1968, Bowie’s manager Kenneth Pitt funded the production of Love You Till Tuesday, a collection of promotional videos. He hoped to revive Bowie’s moribund career, with LYTT serving as a visual resume for film and stage producers, and possibly to be sold to a television network (it wasn’t released until 1984). While there were films shot for David Bowie tracks, Deram outtakes, a mime piece, and a Feathers song, LYTT lacked anything fresh, so Pitt asked Bowie to come up with “another strong song.”

It’s unknown when Bowie first got the idea for a “spaceman” song, but an almost certain starting point was May 1968, when Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey opened in London. The film played there for months, mostly to the young and the altered. In a typical 2001 screening, Visconti, high from drinking cannabis tea, had to talk down a tripping couple terrified by the “Stargate” sequence, as he wrote in his autobiography. Bowie saw 2001 (allegedly “out of my gourd…very stoned”) several times and was taken by Kubrick and Geoffrey Unsworth’s shots: a star-child looming above the Earth; the dead astronaut Frank Poole floating off into space; a man in space talking to his daughter on Earth via video-phone.

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Like 2001, much of postwar SF had offered that humanity’s ventures into space would drive it mad or transfigure it in some way. In Gordon Walter’s “No Guarantee,” an astronaut violently hallucinates while talking to Ground Control. An astronaut in Terry Pratchett’s “The Night Dweller” realizes “we were in a void with nothing below us…it was cold and empty and hostile.”

And in Ray Bradbury’s “No Particular Night or Morning,” an astronaut hurls himself into the void:

Clemens blinked through the immense glass port, where there was a blur of stars and distant blackness. “He’s out there now?”

“Yes. A million miles behind us. We’d never find him. First time I knew he was outside the ship was when his helmet-radio came on on our control-room beam. I heard him talking to himself…Something like “no more space ship now. Never was any. No people. No people in all the universe. Never were any. No planets. No stars…Only space. Only space. Only the gap.”

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Jane Conrad, Barbara Cernan & Leslie Bean celebrate their husbands’ moonlaunch on Apollo 12; 16 November 1969 (Lee Balterman)

Against this stood the American astronauts: ex-athletes and Air Force pilots with pretty, television-ready wives and scads of healthy-looking children. They all seemed to live on the same suburban street. “NASA was vending space,” wrote Norman Mailer, who interviewed the Apollo 11 crew before the moonshot. Neil Armstrong, the first man on the moon, was “a salesman with a clear mild modest soft sell.” But there was something strange in the Apollo astronauts too, something that lay beyond the jokes about astronaut food and golf and the hundreds of tedious tasks they’d perform, as if they were celestial mechanics. For Mailer, an astronaut like Armstrong had “something close to schizophrenia in his lack of reaction to the dangers about him.”

The astronauts had an easy familiarity with death; they were salesmen over an abyss. Major Tom’s disaster (is it a disaster at all?) voiced the collective dread that the moon landing could go horribly wrong, with death or lunar exile (an extended death) shown on live TV. “A song-farce,” Bowie called “Space Oddity” not long after the moonshot. He’d written it as an “antidote to space-fever.” That “the publicity image of a spaceman at work is of an automaton rather than a human being and my Major Tom is nothing but a human being.”

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It’s fitting that Bowie made “Space Oddity” demos while he had a serviceman’s haircut (due to a bit part in The Virgin Soldiers in late 1968)

The man on earth, playing his 12-string acoustic in his room at 22 Clareville Grove in South Kensington, working up a song. After four years in pop music, David Bowie had no record contract and was reduced to a relative handful of folk and mime gigs. In 1968, he’d tried his hand at film parts and musical theater (he unsuccessfully auditioned for Hair), did a cabaret audition, some modeling. Though among his more lucrative jobs of the period was for a TV spot for Luv Ice Cream, his manager kept telling him that work would turn up. So Major Tom is sent into orbit by Establishment figures who monitor him and need him to do his share of media promotion. The song ends with Major Tom ignoring his cues and walking off stage.

Bowie also was writing as the first serious relationship of his life crumbled. He cut the first studio take of “Space Oddity” during his final break with Hermione Farthingale. There was a numbness in the song, a longing to sever ties and drift into the void. As Bowie said of it in summer 1969, “at the end of the song Major Tom is completely emotionless and expresses no view at all about where he’s at…he’s fragmenting.”

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Among the first substantive interviews of Bowie’s professional life, by Mary Finnigan for the International Times (15-21 August 1969).

All of this was swirling in “Space Oddity”—a technocrat American astronaut cracking up, a failed pop singer out in space writing a letter to his lost girlfriend—but there were pantomime qualities in the song as well. The hand-wringing “she KNOWS!” cried by Ground Control when Major Tom tells his wife he loves her; the stage-Italian pronunciation of “most-a pe-cuil-ee-ah way.”

As with “When I’m Five” or “There Is a Happy Land,” it was fundamentally a child’s song, one they could perform via walkie-talkies. Using simple rhymes (“can you hear” jump-cuts to “here am I floating…”), Bowie favored the kid’s word over the bureaucrat’s: it’s “spaceship” instead of “rocket,” “countdown” instead of “ignition sequence.” “Major Tom” was an action hero’s name, another Dan Dare. The Apollo 11 astronauts called their capsule “the cathedral.” But it was a tin can here: you could see the wires it hung from.

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Ground Control fears the worst (Love You Till Tuesday; Thomson, 1969)

In John Hutchinson’s memoir, he recalled first hearing “the bare bones” of “Space Oddity” a week or two before the Love You Till Tuesday filming. This would place its earliest extant demos (as heard on the Spying Through a Keyhole box) around the tail end of 1968 through mid-January 1969. Farthingale said she first heard “Space Oddity” in November 1968 (Bowie also once said that he wrote the lyrics in that month) and there’s an intriguing Feathers setlist from the period with an unknown piece called “Here Am I,” suggesting that its bridge may have been written first.

(There have been dubious co-authorship claims—LYTT’s director Malcolm Thomson once said some of “Space Oddity” was communally written over a few nights when he and his assistant Susie Mercer visited Clareville Grove—“we all produced lines. It was very much a spontaneous thing among a group of people”—and Marc Bolan told Spencer Leigh that he’d written “part” of the song (declining to say which part) and had suggested that Bowie sing it like Robin Gibb.)

What could be the first recording that Bowie ever made of “Space Oddity” is a fragmentary solo demo in which the bridge is all but completed, while the verse melody and the Ground Control/Major Tom dialogue structure are close to being set. The way that Bowie sings the verses reminds me a bit of John Lennon’s verse phrasings on the then-just-released “Bungalow Bill” (“he went out tiger hunting with his el-e-phant and gun”). There are some clunky early lines (“I think my life on earth is nearly through”), and a clearer depiction of what happens to Major Tom—his spaceship goes “off course, directions wrong”— but it’s striking how much of the song is already in place.

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Some “Space Oddity” chords, from Acoustic Guitar, February 2007.

Its chord sequence was the fruit of a year’s dabbling in folk music, with Hutchinson translating some of Bowie’s ideas into proper chord shapes (he was essential to tacking down the bridge, as Hutch contributed the opening Fmaj7 and the quick run of ninth chords (wrongly omitted in the above chord chart: see below).

Bowie had fingered through progressions on his 12-string, following internal voices of his guitar—playing chord changes that sounded right to his ear and that he achieved with easy movements, like converting a F major barre chord (“and I’m”) into F minor (“floating in a”) by lifting a finger. Later compositions like “Quicksand” would share this tactile sense of movement.

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Parallel movements of electric guitar and Stylophone (“Sty.”) in the opening verse

So the chord pairings of the intro (a slow dance of Fmaj7/E and E minor) and the first verse’s alternating C majors and E minors, present a division to be exploited. On the single recording, the guitarist Mick Wayne sounds two harmonics (E and B) while Bowie’s Stylophone drones two whole notes a half-step apart (C and B). Before the first verse starts, Major Tom is already high in space, Ground Control far below him.

The song was full of these resonances, its harmonic language telling half of the story. Take the E7 chord that appears in the second verse (“really made the grade”) to question the prospective key of C major. It was as dramatic a move harmonically as the vocal leap on the post-liftoff  “this is Ground Control to Major Tom” was melodically. Shifting to E7 instead of the expected E minor brightened the song, expanded it outward. Or take the bridge’s “planet earth is blue” section (B-flat major 9/ A minor add9/ G major add9/ F), a folk-style descending progression whose opening chord (Bbmaj9) was a far distance from C major, a move ratifying Major Tom’s choice (or doom) to stay out in space.

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The “liftoff” bars

He’d never written anything on such a scale before. In a touch over five minutes, there was a faded-in intro, a 12-bar solo verse, a “liftoff” sequence, a duet verse, a bridge, a two-bar acoustic guitar break, a six-bar guitar solo, a third verse, another run of bridge, break, and solo, and a “Day in the Life”-style outro to the fade.

In 2002, Bowie said he’d been “keen on…writing in such a way that it would lead me into leading some kind of rock musical…[that’s] probably what I really wanted to do in the late Sixties. I think I wanted to write a new kind of musical, and that’s how I saw my future at the time.” He storyboarded the song, each section setting up the next. The spoken “countdown” backing vocal built suspense in the latter half of the opening verse, leading to a D major chord (“God’s love be with yoooou”) aching to be resolved by the “liftoff” sequence. The acoustic guitar breaks (C-F-G-A-A, Bowie slamming out the last two chords) worked as stage-clearing (they may well have come from the Fifth Dimension’s “Carpet Man”).

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At present, the only surviving video of DB’s 1969 TV appearances to promote “Space Oddity”: the Swiss Hits à Gogo, 3 November 1969 (the dry ice was a leftover from its Halloween show)

I’m always trying to find that special thing in pop music. For me, it started with Space Oddity by David Bowie—it has that semi-tone shift which fascinated me. I played it endlessly to my mum and it made me feel this yearning. It’s a kind of sweetness, and it can turn up in the strangest places.

Roddy Frame, 2002.

“It was a song always intended to be sung by a duo,” Hutchinson wrote of “Space Oddity,” whose initial vocal arrangement evoked another, more successful folk pair—Hutch as Ground Control Simon, Bowie as Major Tom Garfunkel. Hutchinson was the song’s primary voice until midway through the second verse, when Major Tom transmits back at last: Bowie soaring over a seventh for his opening phrase (because it’s a seventh interval rather than an octave, Bowie’s phrase has a yearning, striving quality; it’s a goal not quite reached.)

Hutchinson, having left working with Bowie in the spring, would be a ghost in the single recording, his absence heightening its sense of loss and dislocation. Bowie now sang the opening verse in imitation of his former partner, harmonizing with himself in octaves. (In live performances in 1972-1973, Mick Ronson took over harmonies.)

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A studio recording of “Space Oddity” was cut for Love You Till Tuesday on 2 February 1969, a few days before its tonally bizarre promo film was shot: a half-panto, half-borderline softcore short. Marred by leaden drumming and a wheezing Bowie ocarina solo, the LYTT “Space Oddity” oddly downplayed the Stylophone, which Bowie had started playing around Christmas 1968 and had been key to the song’s development—the Stylophone is central in all but the earliest demo.

A small portable synthesizer with two settings, “normal” and “vibrato,” the Stylophone was played by touching a stylus to its tiny metallic keyboard. Bowie worked out a progression on it for the opening verse, a two-note sequence that he later shifted up an octave (on “papers want to know,” the Stylophone moves between A-flat and G). Heard isolated in the mix, the Stylophone is a futurist police siren. In the single’s outro, while Wayne sends guitar notes into the exosphere, Bowie frantically taps at his little keyboard as if making one last SOS.

Making the Stylophone prominent in the “Space Oddity” mix gave the single a futuristic hook and added to its hokey charm. Although recorded at a top studio at a substantial budget (£493.18), the single had a winning sense of amateurishness. Orchestral instruments would play only secondary roles: the strings’ massed entrance in the liftoff sequence; the spacewalk of darting flute and moaning celli in the bridges; the bow scrapings in the outro, a homage to György Ligeti’s “Atmosphères,” used in 2001. Meanwhile, the two synthesizers, doughty little Stylophone and brooding Mellotron (the latter played by Rick Wakeman and held in reserve until the first bridge), bore much of the song’s dramatic weight. They were its vocal chorus, its other string section.

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A Dudgeon memo right before the “Space Oddity” session, via Kevin Cann’s Any Day Now

Gus Dudgeon, who produced the single, mapped out its recording like a battle plan (much of it was cut on 20 June 1969, but there was an overdub session a few days later). Unable to write music, Dudgeon used colors and squiggly lines to mark where he wanted various instruments to come in, with Paul Buckmaster helpfully translating his scrawls into charts.

With only eight tracks at hand at Trident Studio, Dudgeon had to be economical, which led to such inspired moves as recording Wayne’s Gibson ES-335 on the same track as the Stylophone, furthering the sense that the two instruments were astronaut and home base. Struggling to keep his borrowed Gibson in tune, Wayne cut a take with a flat low E string, “the warped note swamped with reverb,” but Dudgeon liked the sound and told him not to retune. Wayne used any trick he could muster, picking between his guitar’s bridge and tailpiece, using a chrome-plated cigarette lighter as a bottleneck slide for the takeoff sequence, giving a distorted pressure-drop tag to his first solo (he sounded like a bass synthesizer), moving off his fingerboard for the outro. His two solos, for which Bowie asked him to play like Wes Montgomery (“which meant to play octaves”), were a pair of sweeping orbits, the last escaping Earth’s pull.

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Flowers and Cox’s lines in some of the last bars of “Space Oddity”

Herbie Flowers and Terry Cox were the track’s secret movers. Drumming for Pentangle at the time, Cox served the song well—a man with a funkier bent would have struggled with what was basically a pop tone poem. Opening with parade-ground snare, Cox soon develops a pattern to drive the track: for each bar, two sets of kick drum/closed hi-hat eighth notes he punctuates with a pounded snare and crash cymbal. (He subtly shifts to ride cymbal 16ths and high toms for bridges and solos.) In Flowers’ bassline, a tolling root-note fixation in the opening verse warms to a dancing movement in the second, with a descending two-octave “spacewalk” to kick off the bridges.

Asked to ad lib in the outro, the two did a jazz duet, Flowers playing a roaming, chromatic line that peaked on a high A, Cox hissing his ride cymbal and retorting on his toms. (Cox recalled the session as being “loose,” with Bowie and Dudgeon letting players improvise many of their parts.)

Liftoff

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DB performing “Space Oddity” on the Irish “Like Now!,” 13 December 1969 (video likely wiped)

Major Tom isn’t hearing anything. Is he dead, David?

Probably, that’s left unanswered. But it is clear that he really enjoys being on the moon.

Bowie, to the Dutch newspaper Het Parool, 30 August 1969

The world, or at least a small corner of London, first heard “Space Oddity” on 5 July 1969 when it played over the PA system during the Rolling Stones’ Hyde Park concert. While the BBC reportedly played “Space Oddity” at some point during its moon landing coverage two weeks later (it far more favored “Also Sprach Zarathustra,” the official soundtrack of space thanks to 2001), the single barely charted upon release and sales quickly tapered off despite Pitt paying a chart-rigger £140 to get the single into Record Retailer.

Here, it seemed, was the maddening last chapter of David Bowie’s career. The song that his label, manager, and friends thought was finally the one, the song he said he felt forced into recording, his big sell-out record, had suffered yet another chart death, performing little better than “Liza Jane.” Then he caught a break.

With a dearth of new releases in September, Philips’ new marketing director set his entire staff to flogging the single. “Space Oddity” rebounded, peaking at #5 in November. (It was the success Bowie might have had in 1967 if Deram had gone in on “Love You Till Tuesday.”) It helped that many “serious” rock acts were abandoning the singles charts, leaving room for “Continental” crooners, sex chansons, cartoons, the occasional reggae masterpiece and a few weird one-offs. “Space Oddity” sounded like nothing else, but it sounded like 1969.

And it kept being called back for encores. It was an American hit in 1973 and two years later RCA reissued it in Britain as a maxi-single. It hit #1 at last.

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He remade it at the end of the Seventies, recording a new version for a New Year’s Eve telecast, Will Kenny Everett Make It To 1980? (he did). Bowie sheared the song to acoustic guitar, piano, bass and drums. The great influence was John Lennon’s Plastic Ono Band, particularly “Mother.” Instead of a liftoff sequence, there were now 12 seconds of silence; instead of a spiraling-outward coda, a faded-out snare figure.

“[David] Mallet wanted me to do something for his show and he wanted ‘Space Oddity.’ I agreed as long as I could do it again without all its trappings and do it strictly with three instruments,” Bowie later said. “Having played it with just an acoustic guitar onstage early on, I was always surprised at how powerful it was just as a song, without all the strings and synthesizers.”

“Space Oddity” had ended unresolved, the door of the capsule left open. Bowie’s reduction of the song closed it off: space was empty. Soon afterward, Bowie decided to look up Major Tom to see what had become of him.

1969-1979-2009-2019-202?

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Space Oddity (Langley Schools Music Project, 1976).
Space Oddity (memorial crowd in Brixton, 11 January 2016).
Space Oddity (Chris Hadfield, 2013).
Space Oddity (Kristen Wiig, 2013).
Space Oddity (Flaming Lips, 2016).
Space Oddity (Seu Jorge, 2016).
Space Oddity (Gail Ann Dorsey, 2017).

The record’s one real insight: “Planet Earth is blue and there’s nothing I can do”—the idea that near-space exploration is not a frontier but instead the limit of human endeavour, revealing nothing so much as impotence.

Tom Ewing.

Once during the mission I was asked by ground control what I could see. “What do I see?” I replied. “Half a world to the left, half a world to the right, I can see it all. The Earth is so small.”

Vitali Sevastyanov, cosmonaut, Soyuz 9, Soyuz 18.

When I originally wrote about Major Tom, I was a very pragmatic and self-opinionated lad that thought he knew all about the great American dream and where it started and where it should stop. Here we had the great blast of American technological know-how shoving this guy up into space, but once he gets there he’s not quite sure why he’s there. And that’s where I left him.

Bowie, 1980.

Knowing each night…I get that much closer to never singing ‘Ground Control to Major Tom’ again. That gives me some reason for doing it, selfishly.

Bowie, on the “Sound + Vision” tour, 1990.

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“Space Oddity” is a half-century old today. Of course, we’re commemorating a non-event. Few people at the time—perhaps only David Bowie, his friends and manager—were aware of a new single that hit British record shops on Friday, the 11th of July 1969.

In the early Seventies, “Space Oddity” had its uses for him. It fit in his Ziggy Stardust scheme: a late 1972 Mick Rock promo video is Bowie as a bone-tired Ziggy, singing about his fellow lost cosmonaut. (“I really hadn’t much clue why we were doing this, as I had moved on in my mind from the song,” Bowie wrote in 2002.) Its after-hours cabaret 1974 tour version is a man in a phone booth dialing himself. But it was also a silly song that got him a freak hit, and he was wary of being shackled to it. Performing “Space Oddity” on the Ivor Novello Awards in 1970, he already looks a bit chagrined by it. A decade later, he did “Space Oddity” as fan service, with businesslike 1983 tour performances. There was more vigor in his 1990 tour, where “Space Oddity” was the usual set opener. It was the end of the line for the song, he said, so he’d give it a lengthy public burial.

He’d play it three more times. A farewell solo piece at his 1997 birthday concert, where he promised fans he’d keep surprising them. A gorgeous arrangement for Tibet House in February 2002, with a string octet and Adam Yauch on bass (someone else whose death still feels like a break in the world). And a last one-off performance later that summer in Denmark, a gift to his touring band.

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“Space Oddity” was born mournful, and became ever more so over the years. Bowie had linked the Apollo astronauts (who thought they’d be the opening act of a new age of space exploration and turned out to be one-hit-wonders) to the doomed astronauts of science fiction to the lost boys of the imploding counterculture, and had wrapped them up in a playground hymn.

The American space program soon became a series of loops, going nowhere (I wonder sometimes if I am of the last “space” generation, and I was just an infant during the last moon landings). The year 2001 would be remembered not for Jupiter missions but by fanatics destroying New York skyscrapers. In 2013, when we had gone no further into space than when “Space Oddity” first charted, a version sung by the Canadian astronaut Chris Hadfield, filmed onboard the International Space Station, went viral. It was a video of a man singing in a tin can that many had forgotten was out in space; Hadfield was a project manager with a glorious view from his office windows.

Bowie once said Major Tom was the technocratic American mind coming face to face with the void and blanking out. His song was a moonshot-year prophecy: that humanity would sink back into the world, that we aren’t built for transcendence, that the sky really is the limit. Or as Hadfield sang from space: “planet Earth is blue and there’s nothing left to do.”

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I wrote the first version of this essay in the late autumn of 2009, with an economy in pieces and a restlessness, a potential in the air. I did a revision for Rebel Rebel in the summer of 2014, a time that now feels stuck between stations. Here’s another revision, written in a world that would have appeared surreal even to that half-decade-gone summer. “Space Oddity” shifts with the weather: it can be eerie, “dated,” tragic, yearning, young, time-blighted. It’s a lost future for the present, a past for the future to discard or preserve. Where will it land in ten years’ time? And as its composer said, where are we now?

End Credits

Space Oddity.

Written by David Bowie (Essex Music International/ Onward Music Ltd).

Recorded: (1st “Keyhole” demo) ca. December 1968–mid-January 1969, 22 Clareville Grove, South Kensington, London. Bowie: lead vocal, 12-string acoustic guitar; (2nd “Keyhole” demo, “Clareville Grove” demo) ca. mid-to-late January 1969, 22 Clareville Grove. Bowie: also Stylophone; John Hutchinson: lead and harmony vocals, acoustic guitar; (1st studio take) 2 February 1969, Morgan Studios, 169 High Road, Willesden. Bowie: lead and harmony vocals, 12-string acoustic guitar, ocarina, Stylophone; Hutchinson: acoustic guitar, lead and harmony vocals; Colin Wood: Hammond organ, Mellotron, flute; Dave Clague: bass; Tat Meager: drums. Produced: Jonathan Weston; (“Mercury” demo) ca. early-to-mid March 1969, 22 Clareville Grove. Bowie: lead and harmony vocal, Stylophone; Hutchinson: lead and harmony vocal, acoustic guitar; (single) 20 + ca. 23 June 1969, Trident Studios, 17 St. Anne’s Court, London. Bowie: lead and harmony vocal, Stylophone, 12-string acoustic guitar, handclaps; Mick Wayne: lead guitar; Rick Wakeman: Mellotron; Herbie Flowers: bass; Terry Cox: drums; unknown musicians: piano, organ, 2 flutes, 8 violins, 2 violas, 2 celli, 2 arco basses. Produced: Gus Dudgeon; engineered: Barry Sheffield; arranged: Bowie, Paul Buckmaster; (Italian version, “Ragazzo Solo, Ragazza Sola”) 20 December 1969, Morgan Studios. Bowie: lead vocal (Mogol, trans.); (Visconti/DB remake) ca. early September 1979, Good Earth Studios, 59 Dean Street, Soho, London. Bowie: lead vocal, 12-string acoustic guitar; Hans Zimmer: piano; Zaine Griff: bass; Andy Duncan: drums. Produced: Bowie, Tony Visconti.

First release: (single) 11 July 1969 (Philips BF 1801, UK #5); (“Ragazzo Solo”) ca. February 1970 (Philips 704 208 BW); (Visconti/DB remake) 15 February 1980 (RCA BOW 5, UK#23); (“1st studio”) 13 May 1984, Love You Till Tuesday; (“Mercury demo”) 19 September 1989, Sound + Vision; (“Clareville Grove” demo) 12 October 2009, Space Oddity (reissue, DBSOCD 40); (“Keyhole” demos) 5 April 2019, Spying Through a Keyhole.

Broadcast: (recording dates) 25 August 1969, Doebiedoe; 2 October 1969, Top of the Pops; 29 October 1969, Musik Für Junge Leute; 3 November 1969, Hits à Gogo; 5 December 1969, Like Now!; 10 May 1970, The Ivor Novello Awards; 22 May 1972, Johnnie Walker Lunchtime Show; 20 October 1973, The 1980 Floor Show; 18 September 1979, Kenny Everett’s Video Show. Live: 1969-1974, 1983, 1990, 1997, 2002.

Among the many sources for this multi-revised beast over the past decade: Kevin Cann’s Any Day Now, Kenneth Pitt’s The Pitt Report, David Buckley’s Strange Fascination, Paul Trynka’s Starman, The David Bowie Story (radio documentary), the Gilmans’ Alias David Bowie, Nicholas Pegg’s The Complete David Bowie, Roger Griffin’s Golden Years, and, most of all, the complete band score David Bowie: Space Oddity—Off the Record. Also a number of contemporary articles, especially Mary Finnigan’s International Times interview (15-21 August 1969), Jojanneke Claassen’s “David Bowie’s Great Love Is His Arts Lab” (Het Parool, 30 August 1969) and Penny Valentine’s “David Bowie Says Most Things the Long Way Round!” (Disc & Music Echo, 25 October 1969). Larry Hardesty figured out the mechanics of this song for me during book revisions. Around the time of the original entry in 2009, Tom Ewing made mention of the blog, which got it some substantial attention and, ultimately, led to a book contract. So thanks again to Tom, whom I’ve had the great pleasure to meet in the years since.


Angel Angel Grubby Face

May 28, 2019

pathe

Angel Angel Grubby Face (earlier demo, 1968).
Angel Angel Grubby Face (later demo, presumably 1968).

Around February 1968, Bowie and his then-manager, Ken Pitt, “were still working on the assumption that all our problems at Decca would be solved and that David would continue to have his recordings released on the Deram label,” Pitt wrote in his memoir. Though his debut David Bowie had been a flop, Bowie was encouraged by Decca’s Hugh Mendl to start planning a second album, to be produced by Tony Visconti and cut in spring 1968. So Pitt and Bowie “sat down one night and compiled a list of possible titles…songs already recorded and rejected as singles…a number of old songs and some new ones that he had been writing at the flat.”

The latter included songs whose demos Pitt was sending out at the time, some of which were recorded by the Beatstalkers and the Slender Plenty (“Everything Is You,” “Silver Tree Top School For Boys,” “When I’m Five,” “C’est La Vie“). Bowie split with Deram once their rejection of the “In the Heat of the Morning” single made it clear they’d written him off as a dud, and when he got his next record deal a year later, he had the likes of “Space Oddity” and “Letter to Hermione” to offer. Looking back on Bowie’s never-made 1968 album, Pitt mused that “I suppose that David has forgotten that he ever wrote some of those songs, but they live on in my box files where I keep his original manuscripts, typewritten by himself or written in his own hand.”

With the Spying Through a Keyhole set, we finally hear a few of these ghost songs in demo form:* “Angel Angel Grubby Face” even appears twice. Mark Adams’ liner notes argue for its second, presumably-later-recorded demo as having a guitarist other than Bowie, as it’s a finger-picked style he rarely used: DB was a born strummer. If it’s not Bowie playing, possible candidates are John Hutchinson (which could place the second demo as late as winter 1969) or Tony Hill, Bowie’s mayfly partner in the folk trio Turquoise in summer 1968.** [The more I’ve listened to it, the more I disagree with Adams—this sounds like Bowie, if playing more ambitiously than usual.]

davidbowie-occasional-dreaming2

Lyrically, “Angel Angel” falls in with David Bowie tracks like “Maid of Bond Street” and “There Is a Happy Land,” here contrasting hustling time-bound city life with a pastoral escape-land—a dozing bumblebee, “naked sky,” and an oak tree with generous shade, where lovers from Factory Street meet on stolen Sundays. There’s a briskness to Bowie’s “city” lines, which the alternate demo shows he shuffled around to try different phrasings: buses and smoke, disorder and vouchers (or buses and vouchers, smoke and disorder). Call it a sequel to his 1966 single “I Dig Everything” (which Bowie was reviving for a potential cabaret set at the time), with a “briefcase prince” shackled to the nine-to-five city world he’d once laughed at from his bedsit window.

Some of its melodies are also in “London Bye Ta-Ta,” which Bowie cut as a prospective B-side in March 1968—compare the “Angel” verse’s four-beat phrases (“Sun-day oak-tree,” “Mon-day mor-ning”) to “red-light green-light” in the latter, or the “Angel” refrain (“your briefcase prince is by your side”) to the bridge of “Ta-Ta” (“the poet in the clothes shop…”). As the two songs were contemporaneous, being pressed onto a two-sided acetate around this time, it suggests that Bowie was looking to see where some melodic ideas fit better, and “Ta Ta” apparently won. (The later demo sounds as if done in part to tweak the “Ta Ta” melody, especially in the refrain.)

Bowie sings the later demo quietly and somberly, aligned with the more intricate, bass-heavy guitar line. His refrain lyric now begins “‘Tom, Tom,’ she whispers low/ ‘don’t forget my name’,” a revision that darkens his song. What was once “citizens of town” slipping off to the country to be lovers could now be a seduction by a cad who’ll soon get on the train and leave the girl behind—the “she wants to feel older” line becomes more troubling. If he remembers her at all, it will be by the mocking nickname that he gave her under the oak tree.

Recorded: (early demo) ca. December 1967-early spring 1968. Possible locations (London): Kenneth Pitt’s apartment, 39 Manchester Street; Essex Music, 68 Oxford Street. David Bowie: lead and backing vocal, acoustic guitar; (later demo) summer?-winter? 1968. Along w/ previously-mentioned locations, 22 Clareville Grove. Acoustic guitar: Bowie? Hutchinson? Hill? First release: 5 April 2019, Spying Through a Keyhole.

Just FYI: Patreon contributors got this post some days ago, and also got an essay on Lodger at 40, so they’re having a truly wonderful month, I’ve been told.

* Of Pitt’s track list, only “Tiny Tim” and “The Reverend Raymond Brown (Attends the Garden Fete on Thatchwick Green)” remain unreleased or un-bootlegged. Perhaps their turn will come in the next expensive box set of 7″ singles this year!

** As Bowie found Hill via a personal ad DB had in the International Times of 14-27 June 1968, this would place the 2nd “Angel Face” demo (if it is Hill) between then and ca. October ’68, when Hill left Turquoise.

Top: London street scene, summer 1967, from “Swinging Britain,” a British Pathé newsreel.


The Past Grows Larger

January 8, 2019

stak_front_cover_1080sq

As you’ll see in Ashes to Ashes, I made a joke that I expected the Bowie estate to release “Blaze” or another Blackstar outtake on his birthday, thus rendering the book incomplete before it published. This, surprisingly, did not happen (still a few hours left, though). But there is “new” Bowie music today nonetheless.

This Parlophone set of demos, perversely to be issued only on 7-inch vinyl singles for the time being, could have been titled DB ’68, as it seems to be mostly material written and demoed that year (or at the dawn of 1969, with “Space Oddity”). The “new” songs are:

Angel, Angel, Grubby Face. Demoed for Bowie’s never-made second Deram album, it was described by Nicholas Pegg as Bowie still being under the influence of British writers Keith Waterhouse and Alan Sillitoe, from whom he’d taken plotlines and titles for his first album (“Uncle Arthur,” “There Is a Happy Land,” “Little Bombardier”).

Mother Grey seems to be along the same lines, another piece of DB’s “surreal naturalism” period, lyrically. Demoed around late 1967/early 1968, and likely another “2nd Deram LP” contender.

Goodbye 3d (Threepenny) Joe. A title circulating for years, and I wondered in Rebel Rebel if it was the midway point between the transformation of “London Bye Ta Ta” (which has a new demo version in this set) into “Threepenny Pierrot” for the Looking Glass Murders in 1970. It seems possibly not, but we’ll see soon enough!

Love All Around. The scoop! Not even the title had been mentioned in Bowie histories, lists of bootlegs, etc., until now, I believe.

In addition, an upcoming auction lists three more unknown DB demos from 1965—“How Can i Forget You,” “I Live In Dreams” (“which includes a false start and some discussion around the key of the song”) and “It’s My True Love.”

The Parlophone set seems in part to be a copyright dump (hence the notice that the songs appeared for likely six hours on “streaming services” in December) and thus suggests in the years to come, we might get official releases of the heap of unreleased Bowie demos from that period—“Right on Mother,” “Rupert the Riley,” etc.

So as the Strokes once said, the end has no end. Here’s to Bowie’s birthday, and hope all of you are well.

Requisite hype coda: bookNYC tour dates.

 

 


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”
(Toy)
“Baby Loves That Way”
(Toy)
“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”
(Toy)
“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)

db1

“Rubber Band” (album remake)
“The London Boys”
(Toy)
“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”
(Toy)
“Come and Buy My Toys”
“Please Mr. Gravedigger”
The Laughing Gnome
The Gospel According To Tony Day
When I Live My Dream
(remake)
Love You Till Tuesday
(single remake)

David-Bowie-1967

“Waiting For the Man”: (1967) (1970) (1972) (1976)
Little Toy Soldier
Pancho
Everything Is You
“Silver Tree Top School For Boys”:
(Slender Plenty) (Beatstalkers)
April’s Tooth of Gold
“Let Me Sleep Beside You”
(Toy)
“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”
“Ching-a-Ling”
“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)

db69

“Space Oddity” (demo) (original version) (1979 remake)
“Love Song”
“Life Is a Circus”
“Letter to Hermione”
(demo)
“An Occasional Dream”
(demo)
“Janine”
“Conversation Piece”
(Toy)
“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.


All The Young Dudes

May 20, 2010

All The Young Dudes (Mott the Hoople, with Bowie guide vocal).
All The Young Dudes (Mott the Hoople).
All The Young Dudes (Bowie).
Wide-Eyed Boy From Freecloud/ All The Young Dudes (Bowie, live, 1973).
All The Young Dudes (Bowie, live, 1974).
All The Young Dudes (Mott and Bowie, 1992).
All the Young Dudes (Bowie, live, 1996).
All the Young Dudes (Bowie and Billy Corgan, live, 1997).
All the Young Dudes (Bowie, live, 2004).

If you make a revolution, make it for fun,
don’t make it in ghastly seriousness,
don’t do it in deadly earnest,
do it for fun.

D.H. Lawrence, “A Sane Revolution.”

Why did David Bowie give away his best song? Mott the Hoople didn’t know. The band, watching Bowie demo “All the Young Dudes” on guitar in his manager’s Regent Street office, were baffled by his generosity. Asked if they wanted the song, “we broke our necks to say yes,” Mott’s drummer Dale Griffin later said. One reason was simply timing: in early 1972, Bowie still considered himself as much a songwriter as a performer and wanted to place a song with an established act like Mott. He had pitched them “Suffragette City,” but the band had passed on it, telling him they were breaking up. And so Bowie wrote “All the Young Dudes” partly to rescue one of his favorite bands.

“All The Young Dudes” was born larger than its creator. It’s not just that Bowie’s own version of the song, cut later in 1972, is a wan reflection of the Mott record (the only time Bowie came close to the power of the Mott single was onstage at the last Ziggy Stardust concert). “Dudes” is a band’s song, its power derived in part from its performers’ own mythology and history; take the way, as the song winds down, Ian Hunter riffs against the chorus that his bandmates repeat. The chorus gives the come-on, Hunter closes the sale, picking out faces in the crowd, pointing at them, baiting them, drawing them in.

Pop music is as tribal as it can be universal, and “All the Young Dudes” is one of the great tribal songs: it draws a line in the dirt and says, “this is where we stand,” or “this is far as we go.” On its surface, it’s an attempt to make a secessionist movement of the younger Baby Boom kids, severing them from their hippie older brothers and sisters. Bowie had hinted at this strategy with the line “look out you rock & rollers—pretty soon, you’re gonna get older” in “Changes,” but here he puts it right out:

My brother’s back at home with his Beatles and his Stones
We never got it off on that revolution stuff
What a drag
Too many snags

The cold contempt in Hunter’s voice as he sings the last two lines brings it home. The house has burned down, so let’s just play in the ashes. It’s telling that the hippie brother is sitting around at home, considering himself a revolutionary but lost in his fantasies, while the Young Dudes are out on the streets and starring in their own dramas. Their revolution, if they even want one, is the one D.H. Lawrence proposed in “A Sane Revolution” (“it would be fun to upset the apple-cart/and see which way the apples would go a-rolling”), a poem that Mott the Hoople would quote on their last great record.

The ancestors to “All the Young Dudes” are Bowie’s songs about children, “There Is a Happy Land” or “When I’m Five” or “After All.” As in those songs, “All the Young Dudes” ranks and marks its characters, watching them play out their tiny lives onstage (with some fine writing, like the detail about the kid scarring his face by ripping off stickers); again, there’s a sense of ominousness and loss, whether in the way the chorus, opening in triumph, soon descends into minor chords, or how the lyric opens with a kid rapping about how he’s going to kill himself when he gets old (25 years old).

The “news” the kids are carrying, Bowie later said, is the secret knowledge that the world is ending soon: the Young Dudes are the final generation, or at least believe they are. The world’s last children, they spend their days in happy revolt against the world, a life full of petty crimes, costumes and solidarity.

“All the Young Dudes” sounded like a smash from the start (“we knew we were singing a hit,” Hunter later said), and it’s constructed similarly to “Changes,” with a compelling melody set against a fairly complex chord structure. The song’s full of little touches: take the way the opening guitar riff becomes a series of triplets leading into the verse, or how while the verse and the chorus begin the same (moving from C to A minor to E minor to G), each then takes a different path, the verse moving to a D minor bridge (“television man is crazy,” etc.) while the chorus suddenly shifts to 3/4 time after “carry the news.”

The Mott single, produced by Bowie and Mick Ronson, was recorded on 14 May 1972 and released in July. It hit #3 in the UK and was collected on the LP of the same name, again produced by Bowie and Ronson and recorded in June-July ’72. (The Mott track with Bowie’s guide vocal is on the reissue of All the Young Dudes.) Bowie’s version, cut during the early Aladdin Sane sessions at the end of ’72, was an oft-bootlegged outtake until the 1990s, when it was collected on a greatest-hits disc—Bowie’s only “official” version until then was a 1974 concert recording on David Live.

Top: Schoolboys smoking, Hyde Park, 17 May 1972. (Another Nickel in the Machine).


After All

January 13, 2010

After All.

A curse on childhood, lifted on the flipside.

Greil Marcus, on The Beatles’ “Strawberry Fields Forever”/”Penny Lane” single.

“After All” offers a similar curse, except Bowie gives no subsequent reprieves: his vision of childhood, now extended into cold adolescence, offers no escape except the void and the grave.

The Man Who Sold the World is a record of extravagance and braggadocio—Bowie wrestles with a devil in “Width of a Circle,” while other tracks are filled with extremities: supermen, serial killers, sex maniacs, master computers. “After All,” by contrast, is quiet (Bowie sings much of it in a near-whisper), withdrawn, a requiem for the defeated. Its verses are built around minor chords—E minor to A minor, wearily rising to F under the “by jingo” refrain—and its rhythm is a somber 3/4 time, which extends into a decrepit fairground whirl during the 16-bar solo.

“After All” seems like an unwanted sequel to the early psychedelic records, the sunshine lullabies of 1966 and 1967, as well as Bowie’s own childhood ballads, “There Is a Happy Land” and “When I’m Five.” In those songs, there was wonder and delight amidst the shadows, but in “After All” there’s little but shadow. Bowie watches from his window as the hippies pass by, those who can’t or refuse to grow up, those who march together in protests without rationale or results, who “paint [their] faces and dress in thoughts from the skies, from paradise,” those who are nothing but taller children, children denied a feasible adulthood.

The curse eventually turns in on itself, as Bowie’s narrator in the final chorus and verse (there are three of each), admits that he holds no answers, that he’s wasted his listeners’ time, that even the music he’s crafted is just built of “impermanent chords” (as he sings the words, the chords naturally shift, either to E7 or E/G#). A prophet who disparages his own predictions, Bowie finally offers a grim perversion of the Buddhism that once had sustained him. “Live ’till your rebirth and do what you will,” he says, taking the latter words from Aleister Crowley. It’s as close to consolation as it comes.

“After All” has echoes of Bowie’s ’60s recordings—the varispeed choir of grotesques moaning “Oh by jingo” is a dark reflection of “Laughing Gnome,” while the Stylophone of “Space Oddity” returns at the end of each chorus, appearing with a flourish and then declining in three-note patterns. The track’s built around Bowie’s acoustic guitar and Tony Visconti’s bass, with Mick Ronson serving mainly as background color. Visconti said that he and Ronson took Bowie’s basic tracks (the acoustic-centered verses and the “oh by jingo” refrain) and overdubbed them repeatedly during the mixing stage, though the result doesn’t feel overdone in the slightest—the track sounds rather like parts of it have been erased.

Recorded 18 April-22 May 1970, the last song on side A of The Man Who Sold The World. Covered by Tori Amos in 2001.

Top: Boyd Lewis, “Girls encounter the hippie vans in Piedmont Park [Atlanta],” 1970.


End of Chapter One (1964-1968)

November 6, 2009

68maxmin

This seems a good place to pause and take a breath. Next in line is the first Big Bowie Song (oh, you know which one it is), so I’ll need some time to get the entry together.

For four years, David Bowie had been trying to become a pop star. He made nine singles, one LP, and went through six bands, three managers and four labels. By the end of 1968 he was in a folk trio scrounging for gigs, didn’t have a record contract and had a girlfriend who wanted him to get into something more respectable. The Bowie story easily could have ended right then…

For what it’s worth, here’s my Top 10 from this period. What’s yours?

Silly Boy Blue.
The Laughing Gnome.
The London Boys.
There Is a Happy Land.
London Bye Ta-Ta.
Baby Loves That Way.
Karma Man.
I Dig Everything.
Can’t Help Thinking About Me.
Liza Jane.

Top: changing of the guard, London, 1968.


When I’m Five

November 2, 2009

68kidsn

When I’m Five (demo, 1968).
When I’m Five (BBC Top Gear 1968 recording; promo film).
When I’m Five (1969 demo).

Als das Kind Kind war,
erwachte es einmal in einem fremden Bett
und jetzt immer wieder,
erschienen ihm viele Menschen schön
und jetzt nur noch im Glücksfall.

(When the child was a child,
it awoke once in a strange bed,
and now does so again and again,
many people seemed beautiful,
and now only a few do, by chance.)

Peter Handke, “Lied vom Kindsein.”

Thereafter all his dreams and plays were inspired by the magic words, “When I’m five an’ can see.” The sentence served as a mental spring-board to jump his imagination off into a world of wonder where he could see “dest—dest as good as big folks.”

Margaret Prescott Montague, “What Mr. Grey Said.”

“When I’m Five” is a sung by a child who wants to be a child. Or to be more precise, a true child, a child of five or seven, one who seemingly has the business of childhood sorted out. Age is the most salient of childhood’s hierarchies; age truly matters, each year has its own weight and presence, in a way it never quite does again. To a four-year-old, a seven-year-old (the first climacteric year, the year of permanent teeth) is an aspiration, a 10-year-old is a high master, while those over 13 belong to the Great Otherwhere, a sullen land full of dark, awful mystery.

Bowie’s “When I’m Five” is a thematic sequel to “There Is a Happy Land” (not just thematic—Bowie reuses “Happy Land”‘s bridge). Where the latter was sung by an all-seeing narrator who occasionally took the voice of the children he observed, “When I’m Five” is entirely first-person. It’s both endearing and embarrassing—Bowie sings in a pinched, awkward voice (matched visually by his mime-like performance in the promo film Love You Till Tuesday) and performs without a trace of self-consciousness. It feels quite personal for a Bowie lyric, which up until now have rarely been autobiographical: there’s a reference to “my Grandfather Jones,” as well as a crying father and a mother who keeps secrets tucked away in a drawer.

While “When I’m Five” is embedded deep in the mind of childhood, there’s also a flavor of departure in it—the child wants to grow up, if at first just to be a greater child, but escape and adulthood are his final aims. The adult world, with all its worries, pettiness and wonders (spitting tobacco, marching in army parades, marriage), has come flooding in. After a period in which British pop music had been besotted with childhood, a change appears to be coming, darkness and strife on the horizon.

Bowie cut a demo of the song in early 1968, while the only proper recording he made of it was at a BBC session on 13 May 1968—the BBC version was the soundtrack to the “When I’m Five” sequence in Love You Till Tuesday. The Beatstalkers were convinced to cover the song, and released their bewildered version on their last single, c/w, appropriately, “Little Boy” (CBS 3936). It marked the end, both of the band’s connection to Bowie’s music and of the band itself.


Please Mr. Gravedigger

September 23, 2009

creepy

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.