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.

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.”

Rubber Band

August 25, 2009


Rubber Band (single).
Rubber Band (album remake, promo film).

Bowie’s first left turn. Suddenly gone are the soul inflections and the fuzzy guitars. Sam Cooke is deposed by Anthony Newley. The setting moves from the basement club to the provincial theater, and instead of youth and longing we get…withered memories of the Great War?

“Rubber Band” is Bowie’s first recording for Deram, a newly-founded subsidiary of Decca Records that was charged with making “artier,” for lack of a better word, pop. “A Whiter Shade of Pale,” The Moody Blues’ Days of Future Passed and Bowie’s first LP are emblematic of the Deram style—“high concept” songs and LPs; dynamic sound engineering (or at least attempts at it); chamber arrangements, even full orchestras, instead of guitar-bass-drums; theatrics over blues roots.

By autumn 1966, Bowie was being managed by Ken Pitt, a cultured upper-class show business veteran who had a taste for the avant garde (though he later claimed he hated cabaret, he’s often taken the blame for Bowie’s taste for mime and cabaret in the late ’60s). Pitt served as a Henry Higgins figure for Bowie, taking him to West End gallery openings, first exposing him to Andy Warhol, the Velvets and Bob Dylan, housing Bowie in his Marylebone flat.

“Rubber Band,” which helped Bowie land his Deram contract when he recorded it for the label in a tryout session, is the first sign of his sudden shift in aesthetics. It opens in the orchestral pit, with a four-bar intro led by trumpet, oboe and tuba. The song’s quintet of verses trot along at a parade-march pace; the chorus is brief, simple and mainly serves as a breather between verses. There are attempts at musical color: after the third verse, a trumpet soars over groaning tuba (elation!), while after the final verse the tuba gets the last word (deflation!), slowing to a stop after the singer bewails his lost love.

It’s also an early sign of Bowie’s ability to be attuned, almost immediately, to changes in pop. The rise of British psychedelia brought with it a reclamation of childhood, young people dressing in their grandparents’ clothes, all neo-Edwardian brass bands and ’20s crooner pastiches. Around the same time Bowie cut “Rubber Band,’ the New Vaudeville Band released their #1 hit “Winchester Cathedral,” the Beatles were starting what would be the Sgt. Pepper sessions (“When I’m 64” being one of the first songs recorded) and even the Stones in Los Angeles were cutting lysergic vaudeville numbers like “Something Happened to Me Yesterday” and the kazoo-happy “Cool, Calm, Collected.”

All that said, “Rubber Band”‘s is a muddle at best and mostly an annoyance—is there anything sadder than a failed novelty song? Bowie’s set up a tidy song structure, a miniature garden with each verse of equal length and the horn solos neatly spaced apart. But there’s a disconnect between the song’s apparent intention to be a bit of camp nonsense and Bowie’s vocal, which slowly builds to the histrionic; he’s rarely in on the joke, and when he is, he just seems smug. As the PR release for the single put it, “it’s pathos set to tubas.”

The initial version of “Rubber Band,” released as a single, is better than the remake on the first Bowie LP—it’s at a faster tempo, Bowie sings more in his lower register, while the LP is almost all upper-octaves and thus far more irritating, and I’ll take the strange disconnected bit of a woman wailing during the single fadeout over Bowie sniffing “I hope you break your baton!” at the end of the LP cut.

Recorded 18 October 1966 and released in December as Deram DM 107 (the remake was cut on 25 February 1967); on the Deram Anthology.

I’m Not Losing Sleep

August 24, 2009


I’m Not Losing Sleep. (starts 2:40 in)

Tony Hatch’s time producing Bowie, having resulted in nothing but flops, is about to end, so this is something of his Pickett’s Charge. In desperation he tries to turn Bowie into Petula Clark (the “too bad!” backing vocal line basically nicks the chorus of “Downtown”). The result’s a thematic mess, class-struggle braggadocio from a “street” dandy (“though I dress in RAGS, I’m richer!/though I eat from TINS I’m wealthier!/though I live in SLUMS I’m purer than YOU my friend!!“). It’s working man’s defiance punctuated by flute trills.

But it’s pretty great too. Turns out Bowie thrives in this sort of tinted spotlight—so far he’s not been able to match his peers or his influences, whether in soul or rock & roll (Bowie even sings “I can get my satisfaction” here in a waspish way), but he’s developed a talent for camp and pointed extravagance (stage performances of the time ended with Bowie doing “You’ll Never Walk Alone”, wearing “skin-tight trousers and a sweater, flinging out his arms like a vision of Garland herself” (Christopher Sandford)).

So while the “street” the singer’s on may be no more than stage scrim, the artifice suits him better—he’s cutting, self-righteous, something of a mod Katherine Hepburn in drag. The simulacrum is brighter than any shopworn realism; all tomorrow’s disguises, from Ziggy Stardust to the Thin White Duke, are first visible here.

Recorded 5 July 1966 and released on 19 August 1966 as the b-side to “I Dig Everything”; on Pye Singles.

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.

Good Morning Girl

August 20, 2009


Good Morning Girl.

An odd one-off, the swing-pop “Good Morning Girl” (Bowie scats!) has more vitality than its flip-side, if it’s as much a stylistic dead-end. It’s something of a rough mix of the young Van Morrison (in Them), Georgie Fame and the Dave Clark Five’s “I Need Love.” A curio, but a fun one at least: Bowie never sounded quite this ebullient again.

Recorded 7 March 1966 and released as Pye 17079 on 1 April 1966 (Pye Singles).

Do Anything You Say

August 18, 2009


Do Anything You Say.

Anatomy of a dud single: a patchwork lyric of place-filler phrases; a monotonous one-line chorus that wears on the nerves because it’s repeated so damn much; a would-be soul groove that, after a mildly inspiring start, seems to just skip in place; and some woeful backing vocals (I mean, you’re cutting a rock & roll single, guys—give it some zing: you sound like a bunch of conscripts). Pronounced dead on arrival the moment it was released.

“Do Anything You Say” is one of Bowie’s last soul-influenced compositions and one of his most inconsequential releases—it’s notable only for marking the full stop to a style Bowie never mastered and finally abandoned. (Pye was one of the major Northern Soul labels, so perhaps the label wanted Bowie to try his hand at something more uptempo and dance-oriented.)

The backing band is Bowie’s latest collection—The Buzz, consisting of John Hutchinson (lead guitarist, who would become one of Bowie’s closest collaborators in the late ’60s), Derek Fearnley (b), John Eager (d) and Derek Bayes (organ). They sound pretty much interchangeable with the ill-fated Lower Third and a frustrated Tony Hatch would replace them with session players for Bowie’s next single.

Recorded 7 March 1966 and released as Pye 17079 on 1 April 1966 (Pye Singles).

And I Say To Myself

August 17, 2009


And I Say to Myself.

A Sam Cooke tribute of sorts (both in Bowie’s vocal and in the chord structure, which Nicholas Pegg marks as that of Cooke’s “Wonderful World”), “And I Say To Myself” goes about its business in an interesting but ultimately aimless way. Bowie’s vocal is certainly ambitious enough (the introduction, built of chromatic harmonic changes, finds Bowie deliberately unsettling the listener—just when you think he’s leading into the chorus, he leaps elsewhere, until about 40 seconds in). The overall song, however, seems more a collection of striking moments than a unified piece, and it winds up sounding like exactly what it is: inspired apprentice work.

Released 14 January 1966, B-side of “Can’t Help Thinking About Me”; 1966 Pye Singles.

Can’t Help Thinking About Me

August 13, 2009


Can’t Help Thinking About Me.
Can’t Help Thinking About Me (live, 1999).
Can’t Help Thinking About Me (VH1 Storytellers, 1999).
Can’t Help Thinking About Me (The Mark and Lard Show, 1999).

The first of three singles Bowie would cut in 1966 for Pye (the most cut-rate of all the UK labels, and the home of The Kinks), “Can’t Help Thinking About Me” is also the first in a series of Bowie songs about a provincial kid moving to Mod London and the perils and pleasures that he finds there.

The lyric is mainly vague backstory—the singer has to leave home; he’s blackened the family name (pregnant girl?) in some way; he’s on the train platform, blowing off his girlfriend, and both saddened and close to ecstatic about the prospect of exile.

Bowie’s vocal refines the blunt title phrase, though the sentiments are the same; it’s all florid narcissism and the self-dramatics of adolescence. The singer bids farewell to his old football field as if he was the last Moor leaving the Alhambra; he moans that he wishes he was a child again in the desperate manner of someone just sacked from childhood.

Some biographers have suggested the song is Bowie’s kiss-off to his old band, the Lower Third (their break-up, as recounted by Christopher Sandford, was a sad affair in a Bromley club—each member having to unplug their instrument and hand it over to Bowie’s manager, while Bowie sat there “impassively”). But the lyric seems more a character sketch than anything else.

“Can’t Help Thinking About Me”, like all of Bowie’s singles to date, was a flop, maybe because the verses are melodically stronger than the chorus, which is a bit flat. Still, there are some nice touches to this record—the swirling brushstrokes of guitar that open the track, or the way Graham Rivens’s bass becomes a racing pulse rate as the song builds.

Released 14 January 1966 as David Bowie with the Lower Third, Pye 17020 (The 1966 Pye Singles). It was his first-ever U.S. single (flopped, natch), the last single Bowie made with the Lower Third and the first produced by Tony Hatch, who had delivered Petula Clark’s massive hit “Downtown” a year earlier and who later said of Bowie, “his material was good although I thought he wrote too much about London dustbins.”