The Gospel According to Tony Day

September 30, 2009

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The Gospel According to Tony Day.

I wish Bowie had made “Over the Wall We Go” the b-side to “Laughing Gnome” and doubled down on novelty, but I suppose “The Gospel According to Tony Day” is odd enough to fit.

It’s a draggy 10-bar (or 8-bar plus 2) blues in which a bass and guitar share quarters with an oboe and bassoon, and it has the sort of dunder-headed lyric that you hope was inspired by drugs but probably wasn’t. There’s an inertia to it—everyone trudging back and forth between two chords, thudding bass countered by wagging oboe—and the whole thing smacks of a botched attempt at hipness (especially by the wind players).

Inspirational moment: “Your mind—BLOW IT.” Followed by a bassoon solo.

Recorded 26 January 1967, b-side of Deram DM 123. Covered (pretty reverently, with a flute subbing for the oboe) by Edwyn Collins in 2003.


The Laughing Gnome

September 28, 2009

Bowiegnome

The Laughing Gnome!

Let’s come straight to it: yes, “The Laughing Gnome” is about a man meeting a gnome, with sped-up gnome voices (à la Alvin and the Chipmunks) by Bowie (as the Laughing Gnome) and engineer Gus Dudgeon (as Fred). For the chorus, Bowie and the gnome(s) duet. There are gnome puns, many of them.

It recently came to light that in 1995 Boris Yeltsin was found on a Washington DC street in his underwear, dead drunk, trying to hail a cab because he wanted a pizza. Many consider “The Laughing Gnome” to be something of an equivalent for Bowie. “Undoubtedly the most embarrassing example of Bowie juvenalia,” wrote Charles Shaar Murray. “Downright stupid, though perversely endearing” scowled David Buckley. “WORST SONG EVER LOL, know SERIOUSLY WORST,” wrote Techtester45 on Youtube.

Stuff and nonsense, I say. Instead,

Why “The Laughing Gnome” is brilliant

1. It rocks. The beat’s the strongest Bowie’s had to date. Drums, piano, bass, guitar locked in, with a thick bottom end. Rhythm guitar hitting against the beat. Drum fills that kick into the chorus. You could dance to it, and you should.

2. The puns. Come on, they’re not bad. Some are even inspired. My favorite collection:

“Haven’t you got an ‘ome to go to?”
‘No, we’re gnomads!’
“Didn’t they need you to get your haircut at school, you look like a Rolling Gnome!”
‘No, not at the London School of EcoGnomics!

It’s a quadruple gnome pun score! Eighteen points, plus a bonus one for making an LSE joke about the Rolling Stones.

3. Credible dark interpretations. Momus, a commenter on this ILM Bowie thread, offered the intriguing theory that “Laughing Gnome” may be about a man losing his mind, a schizophrenic’s conversation with himself. The storyline fits. The man’s walking down the street, hears a strange voice, sees a vision. Then he starts having visions at home. He tries to rally, puts the gnome “on a train to Eastbourne.” No luck. The visions return and multiply: there are two gnomes now! Finally, descent into utter madness. The man’s at home, believing his gnomes have made him wealthy and famous, but is actually curled in a ball on the floor. If you come close you can hear him whisper “HA HA HA…hee hee hee…”

4. Gnomic synchronicity. Pink Floyd recorded Syd Barrett’s “The Gnome” a mere two months after Bowie cut his “Gnome.” Barrett’s gnome is named Grimble Gromble and is more of a stay-at-home than Bowie’s. Both gnomes like their booze, though. They’re color-coordinated, too: Grimble wears a “scarlet tunic [and] a blue green hood” while the Laughing Gnome sports “scarlet and grey.” Barrett offers something of a general benediction honoring the other meaning of the word gnome, that is, “a brief reflection or maxim; a wise pithy saying” (Webster’s Unabridged 20th C):

Look at the sky, look at the river,
Isn’t it good?

5. The Gnome saved Bowie from a life of cabaret. “Bowie included the song in his ill-fated cabaret audition, with the assistance of a glove-puppet gnome.” (Nicholas Pegg; my emphasis.)

6. A bassoon is a lead instrument. And as Buckley notes, it’s playing a riff that, mutated, would crop again and again in Bowie tracks, like “Speed of Life” and “Scary Monsters (and Super Creeps).”

7. It’s a testament to a lost friendship. Gus Dudgeon, architect of “Gnome,” became close to Bowie over the course of making Bowie’s first LP, as while the producer Mike Vernon was bewildered by the end of the sessions (he basically gave up and let Bowie do “Please Mr. Gravedigger” on his own), Dudgeon had become Bowie’s eager collaborator and straight man. He recalled Bowie walking into his flat at Christmas and shaking a branch of Dudgeon’s tree in greeting. (“All the bloody pine needles came off.”)

For “Laughing Gnome” Bowie and Dudgeon spent days coming up with puns and experimenting with tape speeds. They even were proud of the single until the world told them it was a mistake. “For a brief period I enjoyed it, but then when the record came out and everyone said how awful it was I realized it was pretty terrible,” he recalled in 1993. (From The Bowie Companion.)

Dudgeon and Bowie eventually had a falling out, in part because Dudgeon believed Bowie owed him money for “Space Oddity.” But when Dudgeon was killed in a car crash in 2002, Bowie sent flowers to his funeral with the note “Farewell to the Laughing Gnome.” Because Bowie, deep down, knows that the track’s one of the best things he’s ever done.

Recorded on 26 January 1967 and released as Deram DM 123; on Deram Anthology. It flopped upon first release, but reached #6 in the UK when Deram reissued it at the height of Ziggydom in 1973. And the Gnome will rise again, one day.


I’m Waiting For the Man

September 24, 2009

66vu

I’m Waiting For the Man.

In early December 1966, Bowie’s manager Ken Pitt took Andy Warhol to lunch. Pitt was in New York on a junket and was interested in Warhol’s “house” group, the Velvet Underground, having designs on being their UK promoter. Warhol stared, made gnomic statements, let Pitt pay for lunch and agreed to let Pitt promote the VU at his own expense (nothing ever came of it). So Warhol gave Pitt an acetate of The Velvet Underground and Nico. When Pitt returned to London a few weeks later, he in turn gave the disc to Bowie, who immediately fell in love.

In particular with side 1, track 2: “I’m Waiting for the Man.” So far in his career, it’s been hard to find any passionate influences in Bowie’s music, in the way of a performer being in awe of a predecessor and so needing to find means to honor and overcome them (viz.: Dylan with Woody Guthrie, Keith Richards with Chuck Berry, Clapton with Robert Johnson, etc.). But now, all at once, Bowie had found Lou Reed.

Bowie’s first reaction upon discovering the VU was to proselytize: he later claimed that the day after he first heard Velvet Underground and Nico he began to cover its songs and so was the first person to perform “Waiting For the Man” live in the UK, months before the VU record even came out in America. (“Now that’s the essence of Mod,” Bowie boasted.)

He also decided to record a cover of “Waiting For the Man” while finishing up his debut LP. The result is an exercise in cross-Atlantic sonic dilution: Reed and Sterling Morrison’s dirty wall of guitars are replaced in part by a wheezing harmonica and a saxophone mainly repeating two riffs. Worse is the demotion of the piano to mere chirpy accompaniment: in the VU track, John Cale’s spike-driving percussive playing is the sinew and the heart of the piece, the agitated pulserate underneath the singer’s cold reportage. And the studio drummer’s no Mo Tucker. It’s a pretty atrocious combination and the track was wisely scrapped.

Bowie’s vocal is fascinating mainly in that it’s a shameless attempt (and a fairly decent one, it should be said) to imitate Reed’s deadpan New York singing—though there’s some Dylan mixed in there as well.

Bowie latched on to “Waiting for the Man” because, he said later, it felt real, it felt like a dispatch from the street—one that made Bowie’s own attempts at realism, like “London Boys,” seem like the work of a child. But of course Reed himself was pure middle class, a college graduate who had recorded doo-wop as a teenager and who only a year before was writing cheap pop exploitation songs for a knock-off label. Something like “Waiting for the Man” had as much to do with reading Hubert Selby novels as it did with actual street life, a fact that Bowie would have appreciated had he known it at the time.

Future editions

Bowie would play “Waiting for the Man” for decades. For the BBC alone he cut it four times, including a hard rock 1970 take with Hype (his first glam band) and two 1972 takes with the Spiders From Mars, in which Mick Ronson’s guitar dominates, so glam shine and swagger supplant the sordid jitter of the original track: it becomes a celebration of The Man, with the junkie left a bystander in his own story. But sometimes when Bowie played the song during his 1972 tour (one version from Santa Monica, in August ’72, was released as a single decades later), he slowed it down and sang it wearily, suggesting the country blues that the song originally was.

His obsessive covering of “Waiting For the Man” (the oddest version is likely the 1976 louche funk edition), year after year, suggests, uncharitably, that Bowie secretly wanted people to think of it as his song, and certainly some who first heard the song during the 1972 Ziggy tour assumed as much.

It’s more fair to say that “Waiting for the Man” was a song Bowie felt he ought to have written, that he needed to write in order to progress, and so he spent years trying to shake loose its secrets. It became the imported cornerstone of his canon.

The initial studio take was recorded in late December 1966—possibly Jan.-Feb. 1967; on bootlegs like The Forgotten Songs of David Robert Jones.


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.


Come and Buy My Toys

September 21, 2009

pt1

Come and Buy My Toys.

Minimalist by the standards of David Bowie, “Come and Buy My Toys” is just Bowie and a 12-string guitar. “Toys” is in the same vein as “There is a Happy Land” but lacks the latter’s sense of mystery and ominousness, in part because the cod-medieval imagery Bowie’s stuffed the lyric with (“you’ve watched your father plow the fields with a ram’s horn” and so on).

It passes its brief span pleasantly enough, though. “Come and Buy My Toys” best serves as an advertisement for the whole record—Bowie as a purveyor of assorted sweets, sours, tapestry tales, jewels and baubles.

Recorded on 12 December 1966; on David Bowie. The guitar line that runs through the verses reminds me a bit of the one in Madonna’s “Don’t Tell Me”: they have close to the same chord sequence: D/Am/C/G for Madonna, D/Am/C/G6 for Bowie).

Top: Patrick Troughton, the new star of Doctor Who, in “The Power of the Daleks,” November 1966.


Silly Boy Blue

September 19, 2009

tibt

Silly Boy Blue (1965 demo).
Silly Boy Blue.
Silly Boy Blue (Riot Squad demo, 1967).
Silly Boy Blue (BBC Top Gear, 1967).
Silly Boy Blue (Billy Fury, 1968).
Silly Boy Blue (Toy, 2000).
Silly Boy Blue (live, Tibet House Benefit, 2001).

I want to go to Tibet. It’s a fascinating place, y’know. I’d like to take a holiday and have a look inside the monasteries. The Tibetan monks, Lamas, bury themselves inside mountains for weeks, and only eat every three days. They’re ridiculous—and it’s said they live for centuries…As far as I’m concerned the whole idea of Western life—that’s the life we live now—is wrong. These are hard convictions to put into songs, though.

David Bowie, interview with Melody Maker, 24 February 1966.

I stumbled into the Buddhist Society in London when I was about seventeen. Sitting in front of me at the desk was a Tibetan lama, and he looked up and he said “Are you looking for me”? He had a bad grasp of English and in fact was saying “Who are you looking for?” But I needed him to say “You’re looking for me.”

David Bowie, 2001.

“Silly Boy Blue” is gorgeous and stately; it proceeds slowly past us like a monarch. A British teenager’s attempt to depict Tibetan culture in a pop song seems like it can’t help but be ridiculous, but Bowie, humbled by the grandeur of a culture that’s fired his imagination, writes a sweet pop hymn with a taste of majesty. It’s his first great song.

Most of all, it’s got a joy of a melody—one so memorable that you could sing lines like “yak butter statues that melt in the sun” over it, as Bowie does, and still come off all right. (That said, there are yak butter statues all over Tibet—as surreal imagery goes, it’s pretty literal in this case.)

Bowie’s interest in Tibetan Buddhism wasn’t a sudden trendy affectation—he had begun exploring the religion when he was in his mid-teens, first inspired by reading Heinrich Harrer’s 1952 book Seven Years in Tibet, and he eventually met and befriended the Tibetan lama Chimi Youngdong Rimpoche, who was exiled in London. Bowie even fantasized about becoming a Buddhist monk—cropping his hair and dyeing it black, wearing saffron robes and even changing his skin color (he’d have to settle for becoming Ziggy). Buddhism was an early influence in his songs: he had meant for the backing chorus of his single “Baby Loves That Way” to sound like chanting monks.

“Silly Boy Blue” is structured as four verses, divided in pairs by a bridge. As if emulating a long climb up a mountain, the song changes key on the third (wordless) verse. The first recorded version of the song, recorded in late ’65 with the Lower Third, had a basic Beatles knock-off rhythm that seemed ill-suited for the song’s aspirations, so here Bowie’s used a classic Hal Blaine “on the four” beat for dynamic effect—it’s a variant of Phil Spector tracks like “Be My Baby” and “Zip-a-Dee Doo-Dah.”

It’s telling that Bowie’s lyric, while full of Tibetan Buddhist imagery (the references to chelas and overselves, etc.), still sympathizes with the young monk who can’t pay attention, who’s a bit at odds with his culture. Even in the midst of worship, Bowie has an eye for the heretics.

Recorded on 8 December 1966; on David Bowie. The Lower Third demo (whose lyric is completely different) has never been released but is found on bootlegs like The Forgotten Songs of David Robert Jones. Bowie recorded “Silly Boy Blue” twice in BBC sessions, most notably in a 1968 performance featuring an elaborate Tony Visconti arrangement complete with gongs and chimes (on Bowie at the Beeb). It was covered by Billy Fury in the same year.

Bowie’s 1997 “Seven Years in Tibet” is a thematic sequel of sorts, while Bowie revived “Silly Boy Blue” for his failed Toy LP around 2000 and performed it at the Tibet House Benefit at Carnegie Hall in February 2001, where it sounded as if he had discovered a lost folk song and sung it back to life. Nicholas Pegg notes that Right Said Fred’s 1991 hit “Don’t Talk Just Kiss” nicks some of the verse melody.

Top photo: ca. 1966-1967, burning of Buddhist classics outside the Jokhang Temple, Lhasa, Tibet, during the Cultural Revolution.


Maid of Bond Street

September 17, 2009

66twig

Maid of Bond Street.

A word-jammed jumpy little thing, “Maid of Bond Street” at first listen seems another acid portrait of Bowie’s hip contemporaries, but the lyric’s more of a fractured self-portrait: Bowie dividing his persona into the lonely glamorous girl made of lipstick and film outtakes and the envious provincial boy shut out of her world who “wants to be a star himself.”

It’s a chore to listen to, though; thankfully it’s short. Bowie spills out his lines as if in a breath endurance contest, the galumphing waltz rhythm seems at cross-purposes with the melody. As the track ends, Bowie finally gives up a chorus as if in recompense: a pure Anthony Newley-style stage belter that ruins whatever subtleties had survived to that point.

Recorded 8 December 1966; on David Bowie (cut from the American version, apparently for being too British).

Top: Twiggy on moped, 1966.


Little Bombardier

September 16, 2009

London1966

Little Bombardier.
Little Bombardier (Top Gear, 1967).

[Bowie] went to Decca around the time I was doing “The Wizard.” He was into bombardiers then. Don’t you remember “The Little Bombardier”? He was very cockney then. I used to go round to his place in Bromley and he always played Anthony Newley records.

Marc Bolan, interview with Melody Maker, 12 March 1977.

Why was Bowie into bombardiers, anyway? Maybe the uniforms. Or maybe it was just a random obsession, the result of rummaging around in the past’s cupboard and grabbing a few shiny pieces. Perhaps it was just the delight in how the phrase sounded when sung—the way “lit-tle” is made by two tiny darts of the tongue against the roof of the mouth, while the “BOMB” in “bombardier,” hurled from the back of the throat, can be drawn out for grand effect.

The lyric: shabby old veteran lives sad and alone, then is rejuvenated when he spies two children. He buys them candy and presents, they love him. Shabby old veteran, suspected of being a pedophile, is then run out of town. Strings, piano, curtains. Bowie deliberately keeps the key detail vague—was the bombardier really a pedophile or the victim of mob injustice? His vocal, equally sympathetic and cold, discloses nothing.

“Little Bombardier” is a waltz, one of two Bowie recorded in the same session. In 1966, using 3/4 waltz time was still an unusual choice for rock musicians, and here it’s an ironic commentary on the lyric: the character can’t cope in the modern world, so naturally his song is a throwback to Edwardian dance halls. The lushness of the arrangement—the sweep of strings, the trombone that drives the dance and also delivers a somber solo—seems to mock the coarseness of its title subject.

Recorded on 8 December 1966; on David Bowie. The BBC liked it enough to request that Bowie perform it during his first broadcast on Top Gear in late 1967.

Top photo: London, 1966 (photographer “Ralph46”).


Sell Me a Coat

September 15, 2009

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Sell Me a Coat.
Sell Me a Coat (remake, 1969).

Well before Bowie’s first album was released, his manager Ken Pitt sent acetates to American musicians, hoping that Bowie, like Bob Dylan or Laura Nyro, could first get a name as a songwriter. Pitt sent “She’s Got Medals” and “Silly Boy Blue” to the Jefferson Airplane and Big Brother and the Holding Co. (both rejected both) and, in a sign he considered Bowie to fit into the “folk” niche, Pitt singled out Judy Collins, Joan Baez and Peter, Paul and Mary, to whom he sent everything from “When I Live My Dream” to “There is a Happy Land” (sadly, not “We Are Hungry Men”—a Peter, Paul and Mary version of that track would’ve been one for the ages).

No one wanted anything to do with Bowie’s admittedly odd songs. It’s surprising that they all rejected “Sell Me a Coat,” though, as it’s one of Bowie’s catchiest early compositions, with its nursery-rhyme chorus. Someone could’ve made a hit, a minor one at least, with these materials.

“Sell Me a Coat” is Bowie coloring within the lines—it was almost certainly written and produced to be a possible single. The verses’ melody is in a lower range, with Bowie singing phrases slowly and somberly; the chorus has a brisker tempo, is in a higher key and is made of short, punchy phrases (like the consonant “little patch pockets”). Overlaid onto all this are Bowie’s alternating images of winter and despair (the verses—his girlfriend has dumped him) and warmth and renewal (the chorus—he’s looking for a new one).

It’s almost too perfect, and so winds up feeling a little fake and cloying. Still, those qualities didn’t hurt a great many Top 10 hits. “Sell Me a Coat” is a girl dressed up for the ball who wound up with no dance partners.

Recorded 8 December 1966. A revised version (heard in the promo clip above) was made for Bowie’s promotional film “Love You Till Tuesday” in 1969, with new backing vocals from Bowie’s then-partners Hermione Farthingale (you don’t get names like that anymore) and John “Hutch” Hutchinson—the new version’s a mess, mainly because, due to odd mixing, the backing vox often drown out Bowie’s lead); on David Bowie.


We Are Hungry Men

September 13, 2009

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We Are Hungry Men.

On the oddly-sequenced LP David Bowie, sandwiched between the hushed, eerie “There is a Happy Land” and the saccharine “When I Live My Dream” is Bowie’s abrasive science-fiction radio play “We Are Hungry Men,” which opens with a frantic “BBC announcer” bewildered by cities apparently overpopulating by the hour, offers a comic-book Nazi rant interlude and reaches its insane peak with Bowie chanting like a Dalek, over shrieking horns:

I’ve prepared a document legalizing mass abortion!
We will turn a blind eye to infanticide!

“We Are Hungry Men” may be one of the more embarrassing things Bowie has ever recorded but it’s also a spectacular car wreck of a track, whose chorus is, perversely, one of the album’s catchiest. As with “She’s Got Medals,” it’s Bowie’s first crack at a theme that will preoccupy him for much of the following decade—here, messianic fascist political figures and the dystopias in which they come to power (“Cygnet Committee,” “The Supermen,” much of Diamond Dogs).

The lyric’s specific enough (people arrested for breathing too much air, etc.) that Bowie must have been reading some contemporary science fiction. So here’s a brief generalization on postwar SF, which you can feel free to skip.

Where much of US postwar science fiction is visionary, po-faced, curious about drugs, ultra-masculine and often rife with can-do positivism (Alas, Babylon offers nuclear war as a means of restoring America’s pioneer spirit), UK SF is far more pessimistic, full of ruin and doomed societies.

The UK of the ’50s and early ’60s produced John Christopher’s The Death of Grass (grains disappear, civilization ends) and John Wyndham’s Day of the Triffids (plague, then plants kill almost everyone) and The Midwich Cuckoos (your children are evil—they will kill you). Most of all, there were the great postwar British dystopians JG Ballard (Jonathan Lethem: “Ballard in a grain of sand — the visual poetry of ruin…the convergence of the technological and the natural worlds into a stage where human life flits as a violent, temporary shadow“) and Brian Aldiss. Aldiss, by 1965, had written novels about humanity being reduced to a bestial state and hunted by insects (Hothouse), human civilization as a generations-long sham (Starship) and the grim spectacle of a world with no children, only the aged (Greybeard).

So in “We Are Hungry Men” Bowie is working in an already well-tilled field. He’s also flashing on a hip topic of concern in the mid-’60s: global overpopulation. This would come to mainstream attention with Paul Ehrlich’s The Population Bomb in 1968, but the concept was already in wide circulation before then. Images of humans packed like sardines in cities, living ten to a room in teeming high rises, are all over the late ’60s: the Star Trek episode “The Mark of Gideon” and John Brunner’s novel Stand on Zanzibar, both from 1968, being just two examples.

But the key inspiration for Bowie’s lyric may have been Harry Harrison’s Make Room! Make Room!, serialized in the August to October 1966 issues of the British SF magazine Impulse. Make Room! (set in 1999, in a New York City overrun by 35 million people) is better known as its movie adaptation, Soylent Green. “Soylent Green is people!” is a better catch phrase than “we are hungry men!,” though.

Recorded 24 November 1966; released on David Bowie.