There Is a Happy Land

September 10, 2009


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 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.”

Join The Gang

September 4, 2009


Join The Gang.

Have You Helped to Keep London Swinging Today?

Poster in London shop windows, 1966.

“Join the Gang” is Bowie’s little dig at the London hip set, a tribute to a clique of bright young things—a top model, a sitar player who’s thinking seriously about Buddhism and a West End proto-version of Jim Morrison, raving drunk on stage to a paid audience. Bowie sings in a brisk, arch manner but there’s a slight acrid taste of envy to it. After all, Bowie had had his nose against the glass for years, watching the banquet go on without him. “It’s all a big illusion, but at least you’re in,” he sings. “At least you’re in.”

The music’s an assortment of mid-’60s pop cliches: there’s the funky drummer intro (anyone sampled this? ripe for the picking if not), the manic sitar that bleeds through the opening verse, a honky-tonk piano line and even a dig at the soul-inspired pop Bowie had just deserted—as Bowie touts a club called The Web (“this month’s pick“), the band parodies the opening riff of the Spencer Davis Group’s “Gimme Some Lovin’.”

High-strung from the start, the track ends in a nervous breakdown. Gus Dudgeon, asked by David Buckley to listen to “Join the Gang” again after 25 years, reveled in the noise-fest he had recorded: “There’s a hoover, there’s farts and there’s munching. I think the farts sound pretty genuine to me. One of them’s even got a delay on it.”

Recorded 24 November 1966, on David Bowie.

Top: Mary Quant’s 1966 collection for J.C. Penney.

She’s Got Medals

September 2, 2009


She’s Got Medals.

Following the success of The Beatles, States Worship [in the UK] has been replaced by a cool, if deep, chauvinism, but as it is impossible to think of England as having no past, this is dealt with by treating history as a vast boutique full of military uniforms, grannie shoes and spectacles…by wrenching these objects out of their historical context they are rendered harmless.

George Melly, Revolt Into Style, 1969.

She’s Got Medals” is a dirty joke, a shaggy dog story as recounted by old friends over an evening in a pub. A local woman disguises herself as a man to join the army during the war (“passed the medical/don’t ask me how it’s done“) until, tired of “picking up girls…and shaving her curls,” she deserts under fire and returns to her original sex. Like “Uncle Arthur,” the song suggests that behind every normal neighborhood figure (here a respectable older woman) lies eccentricity, lunacy or lurid scandal; it’s sung by Bowie in a wry stage-Cockney voice.

Bowie and his friend/collaborator Derek “Dek” Fearnley frame the song in a bizarre setting, from the twisted fanfare for winds that opens the track to the bridge, when Bowie delivers his lines over church organ followed by a surge of winds and thumping drums. It gets so over the top that Bowie winds up stepping on his own joke. (Bowie and Fearnley, neither of whom could read music, bought a book on music theory and instrumentation, Freda Dinn’s The Observer’s Book of Music, and basically used the Deram studio and its session men as their entry-level workshop.)

The odd arrangement seems meant to distract you from noticing that the song’s a bit undercooked: the verses trundle along to a slowly descending piano line, and often two bars’ worth of Fearnley’s bass pad out the verses. The chorus is simply a repeat of the end bars of the verse, only slowed down and sung by a drunken pub choir.

Bowie has never revived this song: pity, as it could’ve worked if, say, Mick Ronson had rearranged it as a guitar-heavy glam track. Still, it’s the first draft of later Bowie gender-bender staples like “Queen Bitch.”

Recorded 14 November 1966; released on David Bowie.

Photo: Jerry Schatzberg, The Rolling Stones in uniform, “Have You Seen Your Mother, Baby, Standing in the Shadow?” single, September 1966.

Uncle Arthur

August 31, 2009


Uncle Arthur.

David Bowie’s first LP, released on the same June morning as Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, is an anthology of comic strips: cross-dressing soldiers, zombies from a soon-to-come dystopia, lost children, ready-made hipsters, maiden uncles, shabby bombardiers. It didn’t sell, and Bowie, seemingly embarrassed by it, has tried to write the record out of his history (selections from it never turn up on career anthologies, though that may be in part due to rights issues).

It’s comparable to the first LP by Bowie’s Deram labelmate Cat Stevens, which was recorded around the same time, shared some of the same musicians and had a similar taste for eclecticism. That said, Stevens led off his album with his #2 hit “Matthew and Son” while Bowie chose his clapalong hornpipe “Uncle Arthur.”

“Uncle Arthur,” also one of the first tracks recorded for the LP, is a character sketch much in the Ray Davies line (down to the mother resenting her child’s ill-advised relationship, a Davies staple), though it’s more surreal and detached from humanity. The Batman-loving title character is both a sad portrait of a middle-aged eccentric unable to accept happiness when he stumbles into it, and also a boy’s imagining of an adult, one who flees from any extended contact with girls. It’s telling that the character is known only as Uncle Arthur, furthering the sense the lyric’s from a child’s perspective, with the muddles of adult life resolved by a child’s logic (Uncle Arthur left Sally because he didn’t like her cooking, or so mum says).

“Uncle Arthur”‘s one of Bowie’s better tunes to date—the chorus seems crafted for a pub sing-a-long. Some nice touches in the arrangement, too: after the second verse, when Arthur finds love, the opening wind melody returns, now as a duet. And at song’s end the chorus, which has only been three lines until now, is finally resolved with a fourth line: “follows mother,” which is Arthur’s final fate. Storytime’s over.

Recorded 14 November 1966, released in June 1967 on DML 1007 David Bowie. The LP was produced by Mike Vernon and engineered by Gus Dudgeon.