The London Boys

August 28, 2009


The London Boys.
The London Boys (Toy, 2000).
The London Boys (live, 2000).

I knew a girl like that. She ran our first fan club. She died of junk.

Ray Davies, to Jon Savage.

You’ve got what you wanted but you’re on your own.

“The London Boys.”

Pop records of the late ’60s are littered with runaways—teenagers leaving home, heading into the city for kicks and getting spent up. The Kinks have a host of them: “Little Miss Queen of Darkness,” damned to flirt and dance all night in a discotheque; Polly Garter, the provincial who slinks back home after being debauched, and the nameless girl in “Big Black Smoke” who winds up sleeping in cafes and whose “every penny…was spent on purple hearts and cigarettes.” There’s Miss Lonely in “Like a Rolling Stone” or the child sneaking away at daybreak in “She’s Leaving Home.” True to form, the Stones offer the most lurid scenario.

In Bowie’s “The London Boys,” a 17-year-old kid’s come to the city (the same exile from “Can’t Help Thinking About Me” perhaps) and is trying to work his way into the scene, which means pills, living rough and likely worse. (James Perone reads the lyric as being about a teenage girl getting caught up with the Mods, but it seems to fit better as a boy (gay or straight)’s song—but hey, this is far from the last sexually ambiguous Bowie lyric)).  As the song builds, the kid becomes part of the pack, dressing sharp and pilled up: his dissolute triumph leaving him more alone than he was before.

It’s a crepuscular track, built around organ and bass, colored by winds and horns (the same pit orchestra from “Rubber Band,” here turned into specters). Bowie sings the first verses in a croaky, bleary voice, then turns to cabaret as the song ends (as if the London Boys are freezing on stage in a tableaux, the curtain about to fall). It may seem a thematic misstep, though you get the sense that Bowie’s view of reality at the time was something of a dark cabaret.

Bowie wrote “The London Boys” in 1965, first recording it late that year with The Lower Third for Pye (who rejected the track—it’s what Tony Hatch was referring to when he said Bowie wrote too much about dustbins). Bowie recorded it again for the audition that secured his Deram contract.

Recorded 18 October 1966 and released on 2 December 1966 as the b-side of “Rubber Band”; on Deram Anthology. Bowie’s US label, Decca, rejected the track because of the drug references, replacing it with Bowie’s childhood fantasy “There Is a Happy Land.”

I Dig Everything

August 22, 2009


I Dig Everything.
I Dig Everything (live, 1999).
I Dig Everything (Toy, 2000).

“I Dig Everything”‘s opening Hammond organ riff is pure Austin Powers soundtrack, but as the track goes on its charm deepens. A kid fresh arrived in town, mostly likely high, is running around London delighting in everything he sees—the commonplace becomes the mystical, not just through whatever stimulants he’s using, but via the creative arrogance of youth. This is my world, my city, he sings, and those who don’t see the beauties in its slums and on its sidewalks are either blind or old (or cops).

If “Can’t Help Thinking About Me” is a provincial leaving for London, “I Dig Everything” finds the kid having arrived, living in a squalid apartment, having (boho-style) more friends than food, sitting and smoking and laughing at the squares running off to work; he’s besotted at the bounty of city life. There’s an edge buried in the song—the singer’s unemployed and poor, and reality’s going to knock him on his ass sooner or later—but within the track’s confines he’s always going to be young, and each day will drop off fresh promises like a newspaper delivery truck.

It’s very much of a track of its time: the UK’s sun-filled glory of a summer in 1966, the last time England [edited] won the World Cup, the summer of Revolver and Aftermath, of the Emma Peel Avengers and “Sunny Afternoon” and “Daydream.”

The groovy cod-Latin rhythm (washboard and bongos!) is the most notable sign that Tony Hatch is using session players in place of The Buzz, and this is easily the best-sounding Bowie record so far in his career. Sadly, the single was yet another flop for Bowie, whose time with Pye ended soon afterward.

Recorded 5 July 1966 and released on 19 August 1966 as Pye 17157; on Pye 1966 Singles. Bowie revived it in 1999, occasionally performing it live.

Baby Loves That Way

August 10, 2009


Baby Loves That Way.
Baby Loves That Way (Toy, 2000).

“Baby Loves That Way” sounds like a Herman’s Hermits number as sung by a willing cuckold and masochist (“baby likes to go outside/so I let her/wants to fool with other guys/so I let her”), and as such it’s one of Bowie’s best early records.

The singer’s desperate rationalizations (she’ll still settle down with him one day, and he’s happy as long as she comes back at night) are undermined by a needling guitar line (by Denis Taylor) that erupts into a barbed little solo. The track is built around wave after wave of droning backing vocals singing the title line: Bowie had wanted it to sound like a group of chanting monks.

Released 20 August 1965, wasted as a B-side to the inferior “You’ve Got a Habit of Leaving” (Early On).

In 2000, Bowie re-recorded the song during the Toy album sessions, and put it out as a b-side to “Everyone Says ‘Hi'” in 2002. The new version is slower and statelier, with Bowie offering an ember of a vocal; where the singer of the original has retained some sort of delusive hope, the latter version’s is just beaten and broken. “Baby loves that way,” he murmurs, because he simply can’t imagine it otherwise.

You’ve Got a Habit of Leaving

August 7, 2009


You’ve Got a Habit of Leaving.
You’ve Got a Habit of Leaving (Toy, 2000).

The anxiety of influence: Bowie first met Pete Townshend when Bowie’s new band, The Lower Third, opened for The Who in Bournemouth on 4 March 1965. Townshend stopped in during the Third’s soundcheck and heard the band bash through a few new songs like “You’ve Got a Habit of Leaving” which sounded a bit familiar to him.

Afterward, Townshend came up to Bowie. One can only imagine with what glorious condescension Townshend delivered his opening line:”You’re trying to write like me!”

While Bowie and Townshend had started recording at the same time and even shared producers, there was a substantial artistic gap between the two, as there was with Bowie and many of his contemporaries. Some of it was simply a matter of age: a year or two’s difference determined rank as much as your accent once did. So in 1965 Lennon, at 25, and Dylan at 24 were the vanguards;  McCartney was 23; Jagger 22; Ray Davies 21; Townshend and Clapton were 20. Bowie was 18 and absolutely felt it.

It’s telling that when Bowie and Lennon both put out tribute “oldies” albums in the mid-’70s, Lennon’s LP was of songs he had loved as a kid, like “Be Bop a Lula,” while Bowie’s was of songs by his peers, like “I Can’t Explain” and “Anyway Anyhow Anywhere.” (Some of Bowie’s bottled resentment seeps out in later songs like “Changes” and “All the Young Dudes.”)

It’s a long way of saying that for his third single, Bowie is so completely in thrall to The Who that “You’ve Got a Habit of Leaving” is something of a pantomime Who performance. It’s hobbled in part because of its lame lyric and vocal, but mainly because the path from the chorus to the rave-up has a deep pitfall: the dire section that starts “sometimes I cry,” in which you can feel the energy dissipate despite the drummer flailing away.

The rave-up is welcome when it finally arrives but soon seems to hit the wall and then suddenly cuts off, as if the neighbors were complaining. The Lower Third tries to get noisy again towards the fadeout but just slinks off in defeat.

Released on 20 August 1965 as Davy Jones (Bowie’s first solo billing—the Lower Third weren’t happy), Parlophone 5315 (Early On).

(Bowie re-recorded “You’ve Got a Habit of Leaving” 35 years later for a failed LP Toy, and eventually released it as a b-side to “Slow Burn” in 2002. The new version is longer, far more elaborately produced, far more professionally played and it still sounds like a Who knock-off, only a knock-off of The Who ca. 1999. That said, Bowie sings it well and it does finally rock out at the end.)

Liza Jane

July 29, 2009

Liza Jane.
Liza Jane (Toy, 2000).
Liza Jane (live, 2004).

So it all begins here.

David Bowie, in New Jersey in June 2004, sang the first verse and chorus of his debut single “Liza Jane” to honor its fortieth anniversary and prefaced it by calling the song “absolutely dreadful” and “excruciating,” which isn’t a bad description of the sludgy blues fragment he offered that night.

The original single, though, is pretty hot, especially given it’s the work of “five white boys from Kent singing about wayward women and freight trains,” led by a 17-year-old kid who bit his lip on stage whenever anyone cheered, and whose first gig had been a wedding anniversary at which the band played two songs and bombed (Christopher Sandford).

Bowie and some of his critics/biographers often retcon his life so that the ’60s are seen now as one long prologue, to the point where Bowie seems to just wink into being as the decade ended, as though sensing his time had come at last. This obscures the fact that Bowie was a working journeyman professional musician for much of the ’60s: “Liza Jane,” released in June 1964, predates “You Really Got Me” and “It’s All Over Now” and is contemporaneous with “A Hard Day’s Night” and “House of the Rising Sun.”

“Liza Jane” is doubly derivative (aping the Stones aping American electric blues) but it’s no matter: the bassline is thick and supple enough to balance out the stiff beat, a sax riff and guitar fills plug up the gaps, there’s your standard garage band 12-bar guitar solo (by Roger Bluck) and Bowie (still called Davie Jones here) varies from a yelp to a growl. The song mainly exists so everyone can sing “Ohhhhh-Little-LI-za!!” as salaciously as possible. Cheap (the disc seems to have been mastered loud enough to reach the border of distortion), thumping teenage music–there’ve been greater debuts, but there’ve been far more worse.

“Liza Jane” and its b-side were cut over seven hours in a West Hampstead studio, and it was “composed” by Leslie Conn, the producer, though it’s basically the band’s variation on the American standard “Lil’ Liza Jane” (Conn later called the standard a “Negro spiritual” though “Lil’ Liza Jane” is a pure pop mongrel, its ancestors a jumble ranging from Stephen Foster (whose “Camptown Ladies” has a similar melody) to the mysterious Countess Ada de Lachau, an impoverished aristocrat credited as the song’s composer on the 1916 sheet music). As much a country song as it was a blues, it’s likely some recent R&B versions were the band’s primary inspirations, like Huey Piano Smith’s “Little Liza Jane” (1956).

Released on 5 June 1964 as Davie Jones and the King Bees, Vocalion Pop 9221 (on Early On).