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.
(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.
(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.