Reissues: Memory of a Free Festival

February 5, 2016

On a day in which I appear to be snowed in, why not revive a memory of summer? This is a hybrid reissue—the main entry is that of the book (which Repeater excerpted back when the book was released), while the “bonus tracks” are mostly appended from the original blog post.

Originally published on December 11, 2009: “Memory of a Free Festival.”

Memory of a Free Festival.
Memory of a Free Festival (extended version).
Memory of a Free Festival (Part 1).
Memory of a Free Festival (Part 2).
Memory of a Free Festival (BBC, 1970).
Memory of a Free Festival (“Mike Garson Band,” live, 1974).

Free festivals are practical demonstrations of what society could be like all the time: miniature utopias of joy and communal awareness rising for a few days from a grey morass of mundane, inhibited, paranoid and repressive everyday existence…The most lively [young people] escape geographically and physically to the ‘Never Never Land’ of a free festival where they become citizens, indeed rulers, in a new reality.

Anonymous leaflet ca. 1980, quoted in George McKay’s Senseless Acts of Beauty: Cultures of Resistance Since the Sixties.

Is this the way they say the future’s meant to feel?
Or just twenty thousand people standing in a field?

Pulp, “Sorted For E’s and Wizz.”

The free festival was an open-air concert and fair, held on the Croydon Road Recreational Ground in Beckenham on 16 August 1969 (across an ocean, the Woodstock Festival was underway). Bowie performed, his set allegedly including a reggae version of “Space Oddity,” as did groups like the Strawbs. There were puppet shows, Tibetan goods vendors and coconut shies; his new girlfriend Angela Barnett cooked hamburgers in a wheelbarrow. The festival was peaceful and a success, with some 3,000 attending. Beckenham’s mayor and chief of police complimented Bowie for pulling it off.

The song he recorded three weeks later, sequenced to close Space Oddity as his last word on the Sixties, depicted a golden afternoon in which he wandered through a blissful crowd of flower children, exchanging kisses and greeting passing Venusians. In reality Bowie, who’d buried his father only five days before, had swung between near-catatonia and a foul temper, calling his partners “materialistic arseholes” for profiting off hamburgers and concert posters, complaining about the PA system and skipping the after-party. Mary Finnigan, Bowie’s once-lover and collaborator in the Beckenham Arts Lab, later called Bowie a hypocrite for writing a peace-and-love song for a festival at which he’d been so abrasive.

A contrary set of feelings, a man trying to reconstitute a bad day as the hope it ought to have been, gave “Memory of a Free Festival” depth and even bite, with Bowie making some deprecating asides about the holy tribe: “We claimed the very source of joy ran through/it didn’t, but it seemed that way.” The warmth, the easy unity, of the Free Festival is already in the past. If the hippies are the “children of the summer’s end,” they should ready for winter.

Like the Arts Labs, the free concert was a child of the late Sixties. In summer 1968, the promoter Blackhill Enterprises began putting on monthly free rock shows in Hyde Park with the likes of Pink Floyd and the Move. The Rolling Stones hired Blackhill to run their own free Hyde Park concert the following summer (described by Richard Neville as “free, courtesy of Blackhill, of Granada’s groovy camera team, Marshall’s great amplification system and triple-priced Lyon’s ice cream.”) The Beckenham festival was a homespun version of this and it actually was free, unlike Woodstock, which had been forcibly converted into a free show. The happy chaos of Woodstock, soon followed by the 1969 Isle of Wight concert and the violent chaos of the Stones’ free show in Altamont that December, made the free festival yet another fault line between straight and hippie worlds. Parliament soon passed an act banning gatherings of over 5,000 at the Isle of Wight.

“Memory of a Free Festival” opens with Bowie playing a Rosedale electric chord organ that he’d found at Woolworths. As with the Stylophone, he gave a toy instrument dignity. The sole accompaniment of the song’s four verses, the organ was his voice’s rickety, ecclesiastic complement, making him sound like a wandering sermonizer.

Composing on the organ, even a toy like the Rosedale, liberated Bowie from the guitar’s melodic consistency; it foreshadowed the freedom he’d find when writing on the piano a year later. After politely announcing the piece’s title, he started by playing variations on E minor while nudging up the bassline stepwise from C to F. Settling into a loose 3/4 time, he sang the first two verses over a descending, nebulous chord sequence, shifting from B minor to B-flat (“felt the Lon/don sky,” “source of/joy”) while anchored on a D bass. The third verse gained momentum, Bowie singing more hurriedly while mainly keeping on an E note (pushing up slightly on “ecstasy”), slackening at the end of each phrase. A shift to D major (“scanned the skies”) marked the peak of the festival: the aliens arrive, the joints get passed around, the revelers “walk back to the [Croydon] road, unchained.”

What followed was a free-time interlude of organ swirls, snippets of chatter, laughs and guitar fills while John Cambridge kept loose order with his ride cymbal. A memory so far, the festival shifts to the present, a party as much ominous as joyful. The sequence’s real purpose was more practical: it had to glue the “Free Festival” verses to a three-chord (D-C-G) “sun machine” refrain possibly once intended for another song. Having considered using the “Hey Jude” refrain for “Janine,” Bowie now made the long coda of “Free Festival” in its image: loops of ragged communal chanting, with Bowie in Paul McCartney’s soul cheerleader role.

In early 1970, Mercury’s American wing asked Bowie to re- record “Memory of a Free Festival” as a single, requesting a faster tempo and to get to the refrain sooner. The compromise was to cut the track in half, devoting the B-side entirely to the sun machine. This new “Free Festival” found Bowie outshone by his backing band, who tromped in singly during the intro. Even with the Sixties fresh in the grave, there’s a feeling of getting down to business. Guitar, bass and drums kick in before the first verse starts, the Moog rolls over the humble Rosedale organ like a Panzer tank, the psychedelic interlude gets deep-sixed, the chanted backing vocals of the refrains could be from a football terrace. Mick Ronson, Tony Visconti’s free-flowing bass and Ralph Mace’s Moog used the long fadeout as a preview of coming attractions. “Memory of a Free Festival Pt. 1 and 2” was the sound of The Man Who Sold the World, hard glam rock, and a bit too hard and glam for summer 1970, as the single sold dismally.

The Beatles ended the Sixties by breaking up, the last record they made showing them walk single-file off stage. The Stones ended with blood and fire and the sense they’d survive it all (and they would). The Who had a messiah pulled down by his followers, the Kinks emigrated to Australia, Dylan and Van Morrison and a host of others went to ground in the country. Bowie closed a decade in which he’d been a footnote by throwing a party, singing a jaded memory of the summer’s end: the fun-fair of the Sixties was just prelude, his work’s troubled childhood. His “Memory of a Free Festival,” a last gathering of the tribes, had a sad, faded grandeur. Forty-five years on, it can still touch a medieval chord in the soul.

Recorded: 8-9 September 1969, Trident. Bowie: lead vocal, Rosedale electric chord organ; Mick Wayne: lead guitar; Tim Renwick: rhythm guitar; John Lodge: bass; John Cambridge: drums, tambourine; unknown musician(s): baritone saxophone; Visconti, Bob Harris, Sue Harris, Tony Woollcott, Marc Bolan, “Girl”: backing vocals. Produced, arranged: Visconti; engineered: Sheffield, Scott or Toft; (remake, as “Memory of a Free Festival Pt. 1 & Pt. 2”) 21, 23 March, 3, 14-15 April 1970, Trident and Advision Studios, London. Bowie: lead vocal, 12-string acoustic guitar, Rosedale organ; Ronson: lead guitar, backing vocal; Ralph Mace: Moog; Visconti: bass, backing vocal; Cambridge: drums; unknown musicians: strings (arr. Visconti). Produced: Visconti.

First release: 14 November 1969, Space Oddity; (single) 26 June 1970 (Mercury 6052 026). Broadcast: 5 February 1970, The Sunday Show; ca. June 1970, Six-O-One: Newsday; 15 August 1970, Eddy Ready Go! Live: 1969-1971, 1973-1974.

Children of the Sun Machine

E-Zee Possee, The Sun Machine.
Dario G, Sunmachine.
The Polyphonic Spree, Memory of a Free Festival (live, 2004).

The “sun machine” chant, having evanesced at the end of the ’60s, returned a generation later. “Memory of a Free Festival (Part 2),” a trance-inducing earworm, was a natural ancestor of a rave chant, and in 1990 E-Zee Possee had a minor hit with “The Sun Machine,” in which the “sun machine” chant was sung over house piano.

Then there was the UK dance trio Dario G’s 1998 “Sunmachine.” As Dario G’s Paul Spencer said, “We had this idea to sample bits of Bowie’s ‘Memory Of A Free Festival’ over an ambient track of ‘Sunchyme.’ But we quickly discovered that the sample was so brilliant that it needed a brand new track–with some rock elements. There was only one problem: the sample we were using had all of Bowie’s instrumentation in it, which was too noisy for our purpose. So, we sent a demo of the song to Bowie and he liked our idea so much that he sent us the song’s original tape, which allowed us to sample only his vocals. He couldn’t have been a better chap!” As an added bonus, Bowie producer, Tony Visconti, played all the flute parts on the track.” (Thanks to Daniel Simon for this link.)

I’m not sure we’re done with the sun machine yet—expect Animal Collective to use it at some point. [NOTE: this was 2009.]

Top to bottom: The Stones bury the Sixties at Altamont, December 1969; “Memory of a Free Festival Pt. 1” single; bathers in the Serpentine, Hyde Park, 1969.


Reissues: Conversation Piece

January 26, 2016

69paris

One of the few Sixties Bowie songs to make the reader top 100 song poll, “Conversation Piece” was one of DB’s “lost gems,” a B-side never compiled until the Ryko Space Oddity reissue in 1990. But is it finally starting to come into its own?

This entry isn’t that different from the book revision: in the latter, there’s more on the arrangement, the rather inept musical breakdown offered here is corrected, and more attention is paid to the remake, to which I give short shrift here. Likely the only piece of rock criticism to open with a quote from the 2nd president of the U.S.

Originally posted November 23, 2009: “Conversation Piece.”

Conversation Piece (1969 demo).
Conversation Piece.
Conversation Piece (Toy remake, 2000).


[The poor man] feels himself out of the sight of others, groping in the dark. Mankind take no notice of him. He rambles and wanders unheeded. In the midst of a crowd, at church, in the market, at a play, at an execution, or coronation: he is in as much obscurity as he would be in a garret or cellar. He is not disapproved, censured or reproached; he is only not seen.

John Adams, Discourses on Davila.

I get lonesome right in the middle of a crowd.

Elvis Presley.

There have been few songs written about academics, whether tenured or failed. All that comes to mind are REM’s “Sad Professor” and this one, and “Conversation Piece” may not be about an academic at all. An independent scholar, let’s say—a shabby young man with an old man’s habits, who lives above an Austrian grocer: his rug is scattered with the pages of unpublished essays, and he spends his time wandering the streets begrudging life. He may throw himself off a bridge at song’s end.

“Conversation Piece” was Bowie’s most recent composition when he made a demo tape in April 1969 (John Hutchinson calls it “a new one” and Bowie has to prompt him with the opening guitar chords (“G-D-G”).) It’s unlike most of the songs written in this period, which are either love ballads or self-mythical explorations, as it hearkens back to the oddball character sketches of the first Bowie LP, like “Little Bombardier” or “She’s Got Medals.” (That said, some, like Bowie’s manager Ken Pitt, have said the song is fairly autobiographical, a sketch of the frustrated composer and failed pop singer Bowie of 1968.)

Most of all, it captures well the curse of urban anonymity—its title is a cruel joke, the “conversation” only going on in the singer’s head. Once during a hard spell while living in NYC I spent a weekend almost entirely out of doors, going from shop to cafe to library, and realized at some point during it that I had talked to absolutely no one, except maybe to mutter thanks to a ticket-taker or cashier. The sense of moving among a great mass of people and feeling utterly invisible and isolated from them is almost addicting at first, and then it can just sink your soul.

It’s a fairly simple song—three meandering verses, three tight eight-bar choruses (half lyric, half wordless). For the final verse, Bowie uses a standard trick and changes key, bumping all the chords up one step (so while the third line of the verse—for example, “he often calls me down to eat“—has been C/G, it’s now D/A (“and they walk in twos and threes or more“), and so forth). To further the sense that the singer is breaking down, the last verse extends into a faster-paced section with shorter sung phrases until collapsing into the final chorus.

The studio take, recorded during the Space Oddity sessions ca. July-September 1969, was eventually released as the B-side to “The Prettiest Star” in March 1970. It’s unclear why “Conversation Piece” was left off the Space Oddity LP, as it’s stronger than most of the other cuts, and if LP time was an issue, they could’ve shaved at least three minutes off “Memory of a Free Festival” and no one would’ve wept. Over the years, it’s become many people’s favorite Bowie obscurity (Stuart Murdoch seems to have lived in this song at some point).

Bowie revived “Conversation Piece” in 2000 for his scotched LP Toy, and eventually released it on a bonus disc for his 2002 Heathen album. He sings it in a lower register and without much emotion. The flailing scholar of the original recording at least had energy in his desperation; here, all is resigned, empty despair.

Top: Pascal Grob, “Paris, 1969.”


Memory of a Free Festival

December 11, 2009

Memory of a Free Festival (LP).
Memory of a Free Festival (Part 1).
Memory of a Free Festival (Part 2).

Free festivals are practical demonstrations of what society could be like all the time: miniature utopias of joy and communal awareness rising for a few days from a grey morass of mundane, inhibited, paranoid and repressive everyday existence…The most lively [young people] escape geographically and physically to the ‘Never Never Land’ of a free festival where they become citizens, indeed rulers, in a new reality.

Anonymous leaflet ca. 1980, quoted in George McKay’s Senseless Acts of Beauty: Cultures of Resistance Since the Sixties.

Is this the way they say the future’s meant to feel?
Or just twenty thousand people standing in a field?

Pulp, “Sorted For E’s and Whizz.”

“Memory of a Free Festival” is a false memory, experience refurbished by regret. The festival in question was an open-air concert and fair held at the Croydon Road Recreational Ground in Beckenham on 16 August 1969 (the same weekend the Woodstock Festival was happening) that featured performances by Bowie—including a reggae version of “Space Oddity,” thankfully not recorded—and other groups like The Strawbs, all introduced by John Peel, puppet shows (of course), Tibetan goods (natch) and coconut shies. Bowie’s new girlfriend Angela Barnett cooked hamburgers in a wheelbarrow. The festival was peaceful and a relative success, with some 3,000 attendees (Bowie was complimented by Bromley’s mayor and chief of police, who also showed up).

The song David Bowie wrote about the festival soon afterward, which became the last song of the Space Oddity LP and was possibly the last song he recorded in the ’60s, depicts a blissful afternoon in which Bowie’s narrator wanders through a happy crowd of flower children, exchanging kisses, greeting Venusians. It ends with a communal worship of the setting sun and hopes for pleasures in the night ahead.

This wasn’t quite the case in reality. The festival was held five days after Bowie had buried his father, and he was in a foul mood, calling his partners “materialistic arseholes” for making money on hamburgers and T-shirts, complaining about the lousy PA system and eventually storming off in a black cloud at the end of the night. Mary Finnegan, Bowie’s once-lover and collaborator in the Beckenham Arts Lab, later called Bowie a hypocrite for writing a peace-and-love anthem about a festival at which he had been such a bore.

But “Memory of a Free Festival” is a requiem more than it is a celebration, the first clue being in the title—the naivete, the warmth, the easy unity that the song commemorates are already receding into the past. Bowie calls the hippies “children of the summer’s end,” suggesting they will soon have to return home for the impending winter. And Bowie’s narrator has a touch of wit in his descriptions, with lines like “We claimed the very source of joy ran through/it didn’t, but it seemed that way” or “Satori must be something like the same.”

Free “spontaneous” festivals first appeared in the UK in the summer of 1969, with free concerts given in Hyde Park by Humble Pie and, more famously, the Rolling Stones; the template for the model became Woodstock, though of course Woodstock, like the 1970 Isle of Wight concert, was a for-profit event forcibly converted into a free one by the assembled mob. It’s arguable that the Arts Lab festival was the first intentionally free festival held in Britain, one that served as a vanguard for later editions like the Phun City festival in July 1970 and the Windsor Free Festivals of the early ’70s, which eventually were shut down by the police.

The insistence on a concert being free was both idealistic (music is meant to be free, it gets corrupted by the capitalists, etc.: the same sort of thing a pro-Napster person was writing on a message board in 2001) and hipper-than-thou purist (how very bourgeois to make money on hamburgers and ticket sales). Cynics would claim the free festival’s natural endpoint is the disastrous Altamont concert, with Hell’s Angels murdering concertgoers, though the dream of a spontaneous gathering of the tribes, something medieval in our souls, has kept the dream alive in the forty years since.

“Memory of a Free Festival”‘s original recording starts with Bowie playing the Rosedale electric chord organ (a sort-of electric harmonium that only has about twelve playable chords), which serves as the main accompaniment for the song’s four verses, offering a humble ecclesiastical complement to Bowie’s wavering vocal. A interlude of organ swirls, snippets of chatter and laughter and guitar grunts follows (this chord chart aptly terms it “WEIRD BIT”), leading to a four-bar refrain (D-G-C-D, repeat ad infinitum) that carries the song to its end: The sun machine is coming down and we’re gonna have a party!. Yes, it was 1969.

Bowie loved “Hey Jude” (having included the “na na na” refrain in his demo of “Janine”) and this is his obvious attempt to imitate McCartney’s structure—extend a three-minute song into an epic via five minutes or more of ragged communal chanting over three repeated chords (according to Pegg, some of the backing singers included future Sony VP Tony Woollcott and Radio 1 DJ “Whispering” Bob Harris).

In the spring of 1970, Bowie’s American label Mercury asked him to re-record “Memory of a Free Festival” as a single. Mercury thought it had potential to be a hit, instructing Tony Visconti to pick up the tempo and move the “sun machine” refrain to about two minutes into the track. The compromise was to break the track into two parts, with the single’s B-side being simply the “sun machine” bit. It’s a stronger record, with Mick Ronson quickly establishing himself as lead guitarist and a sumptuous Visconti string arrangement, though the fragile naivete of the original has been swallowed by grandeur and spectacle. Here come the Seventies.

The original was recorded ca. September 1969, on Space Oddity; the remake single was recorded on 3, 14-15 April 1970 and released as Mercury 6052 026 (it was a colossal flop, as Pegg found that it sold a mere 240 copies in the US in its first month of release).

Children of the Sun Machine

E-Zee Possee, The Sun Machine.
Dario G, Sunmachine.
The Polyphonic Spree, Memory of a Free Festival (Sun Machine).

The “sun machine” chant, having evanesced at the end of the ’60s, returned a generation later. “Memory of a Free Festival (Part 2),” a trance-inducing repetition of a meaningless earworm, was a natural ancestor of a rave chant, and in 1990 E-Zee Possee had a minor hit with “The Sun Machine,” in which the “sun machine” chant was sung over house piano. Dario G’s 1998 “Sunmachine” is something of an officially-approved sequel to “Free Festival,” with Visconti playing flute and Bowie graciously sending Dario G the master tape so they could isolate his vocal for the new recording. I’m not sure we’re done with the sun machine yet—expect Animal Collective to use it at some point.

From the top: The Stones bury the Sixties at Altamont, December 1969; “Memory of a Free Festival Pt. 1” single; bathers in the Serpentine, Hyde Park, 1969.


Unwashed and Somewhat Slightly Dazed

December 9, 2009

Unwashed and Somewhat Slightly Dazed.
Unwashed and Somewhat Slightly Dazed (BBC, 1970).

In late July 1969, while David Bowie was performing at the Maltese Song Festival, his father, Haywood “John” Jones, took ill. He died soon after Bowie returned to Britain. Jones had been a source of great stability—financial and emotional—for Bowie in the ’60s, and his death, coming at around the same time Bowie was breaking with his longtime manager Ken Pitt as well as ditching many of his old friends, left Bowie angry and withdrawn. Bowie later told George Tremlett that “Unwashed and Somewhat Slightly Dazed” was his attempt to capture the surreal feeling of the weeks after his father’s death.

“Unwashed,” however, seems more about class anxiety and Dylan-worship than anything else. Bowie told an interviewer in late ’69 that an inspiration for the title had come from the “funny stares” he got on the street, and critics like Nicholas Pegg suggest the song also seems to be revisiting the Hermione Farthingale breakup (Farthingale was of a higher class than Bowie and allegedly didn’t approve of his pop music leanings, and the song is in part a dig at a girl with a “red parquet floor” and a Braque painting on her wall).

The song is a slow reduction, moving from complexity and nuance down to hard basics, and seems, symbolically if not intentionally, to be Bowie throwing over folk music for hard rock. It opens with 12-string acoustic, alternating between Asus2 and D9 chords; Bowie’s dreamy vocal and the occasional sweep of electric guitar suggests it will be another delicate rambling folk song in the vein of “Letter to Hermione.” Then a 20-bar verse destabilizes the song until at last Bowie hits ground with a Bo Diddley beat and riffing guitars and harmonica (the latter played by Benny Marshall, lead singer of the Hull-based Rats, which would be the source of most of the Spiders From Mars).

A frustrated Bowie once said during the Space Oddity sessions that “It’s gotta rock!” and he finally got his wish here. The rest of “Unwashed” is centered on the primal chord progression C-F-C (and occasionally F-Bb-F, which is the spine of Dylan’s “Fourth Time Around”), with Bowie sneering that “I’ve got eyes in my backside” and “my head’s full of murders!” and so on. After a last yelp Bowie lets his players jam for two minutes, the harmonica backing the riffs while Tim Renwick and Keith Christmas solo on electric guitar, and even a horn section stumbles in towards the fadeout. By far the liveliest track on an otherwise somber and leaden record.

Recorded ca. September 1969; on Space Oddity.

Top: multi-generational summit, London, 1969 (Romano Cagnoni).


Cygnet Committee

December 8, 2009

Lover To the Dawn.
Cygnet Committee.
Cygnet Committee (BBC, 1970).

People, especially young people, more and more find themselves in the iron grip of authoritarian institutions. Reaction against the pigs or teachers in the schools, welfare pigs or the army, is generalizable and extends beyond the particular repressive institution to the society and the State as a whole. The legitimacy of the State is called into question for the first time in at least 30 years, and the anti-authoritarianism which characterizes the youth rebellion turns into rejection of the State, a refusal to be socialized into American society. Kids used to try to beat the system from inside the army or from inside the schools; now they desert from the army and burn down the schools.

First manifesto of what would become Weatherman, published in New Left Notes, 18 June 1969.

This country is crying out for a leader. God knows what it is looking for, but if it’s not careful it’s going to end up with a Hitler.

David Bowie, interview with Music Now!, 20 December 1969.

And we can force you to be free
And we can force you to believe

“Cygnet Committee.”

“Cygnet Committee” begins as David Bowie’s break-up letter to the Arts Lab, a communal arts venture he had co-founded that was run out of the back room of a Beckenham pub, and over its near-ten-minute span the song becomes a bile-filled, self-righteous attack aimed at the counterculture itself.

So something whose roots are in petty, specific gripes (Bowie had hoped the Arts Lab (which featured everything from tie-dying lessons to free-form jazz performances) would be a free-flowing exchange of ideas, and found it was mainly a bunch of grubby, needy kids trying to latch onto the slightly-more-famous types like Bowie—“I opened doors that would have blocked their way…I ravaged my finance just for those”) blossoms into a jeremiad against the New Left, cult figures, false hippie capitalists, deluded kids and their various empty slogans (including “kick out the jams” and “love is all we need”): it’s an unrelenting damning of a movement that Bowie was barely part of.

Two centuries before, England had avoided the revolutions that overtook America and France, and by 1969-1971 it seemed like the pattern was repeating—where French students had rioted in Paris and nearly caused DeGaulle’s government to collapse, and radical American students were bombing the Capitol and the Pentagon, the UK had remained relatively quiet (“London was the vacuum of late 1960s rebellion,” Peter Doggett). So “Cygnet Committee”‘s sustained burst of rage and elaborate paranoia seems unearned. After all, what did the guy who wrote “Laughing Gnome” or “Space Oddity” really have to say about the Revolution?

Bowie wasn’t the only one to sense a blackness at the heart of the counterculture—Pete Townshend had just written a rock opera about false messiahs, pop cultism and the rise of mob philosophy (or just listen to the way Merry Clayton’s voice cracks when she sings “Rape! Murder!” in “Gimme Shelter”). For Bowie, “Cygnet Committee” is the portal through which he would descend into his ’70s obsessions—supermen, glam violence, glam fascism, cults of personalities and various dystopias—and some of those figures appear in shadowy form here, slitting throats, killing children, betraying friends. Although Bowie ends the song with a plea for love and freedom, you’re left mainly with the phrase “I want to live,” the simplest, humblest request that a human being can make.

The song seems like a patchwork of three or four different pieces sewn together (it has at least one recognizable ancestor: the second/fifth verses and the start of the third/sixth are reused from a Bowie composition called “Lover to the Dawn” which he had demoed with John Hutchinson earlier in 1969). Two fairly concise four-line verses (sung over acoustic guitar, a fluid bassline and legato electric guitar) are followed by a 13-line, 48-bar rambling monster of a verse, which begins with a basic 4/4 rock accompaniment and then slackens into looser, almost free-form lines. The pattern repeats and this time the rambling verse (call it the radical faction) now conquers the song, extending for over five minutes until the fadeout. There is a coherence to it all, as the three verses are in step-up pattern (they begin in D, Eb and F, respectively, with the “rant” section of the third verse, for lack of a better word, starting in A Minor). The final exhortation (“I want to believe!”) is delivered over twining guitar and keyboard lines.

“Cygnet Committee” can be wearying to listen all the way through (at least I find), as the players either won’t or can’t rock when the song cries out for it—if you’re quoting the MC5, you ought to be laying down some heavy fire. Bowie’s vocal, in which he seems to be bleeding and purging himself so as to be ready for the years to come, carries much of the track.

Several writers have called this Bowie’s “first masterpiece,” which seems an overreach, though Bowie certainly was clawing here after something grander and more resonant than most of his earlier works. For an artist often accused of being cold and calculating, it’s a messy, wildly human performance.

Recorded ca. August-September 1969, on Space Oddity.

Top: Bernardine Dohrn, La Pasionaria of the Weather Underground, Chicago, September 1969.


God Knows I’m Good

December 3, 2009

God Knows I’m Good.

Oscar Wilde’s quip that “all bad poetry springs from genuine feeling” (often misremembered as “all bad poetry is sincere”) applies to rock songs as well. A case in point: Keith Christmas, one of the guitarists on the Space Oddity LP, recalls Bowie weeping uncontrollably while listening to a playback of “God Knows I’m Good.”

A poor old woman in a modern supermarket (the kind that has “cash machines” that are both “spitting” and “shrieking”—surprised they aren’t “vomiting” as well) shoplifts a can of stew. As she goes to the door, a security officer nabs her. She cries out “God Knows I’m Good!” (repeat 50 times) and falls to the floor. To hammer the point home, we also get some snide asides about all the “honest people” who smugly walk past her unknowing, and of course the backdrop of our tale is the Horror of Modern Consumer Society—soulless machines, roaring money, that sort of thing.

It’s all cheap, adolescent sentiment, with the lyric focused on a pathetic paper figure intended to generate sympathy—Bowie even made the old creature deaf to make her more woeful. Where “Conversation Piece” (a vastly superior track this thing might’ve knocked off the LP, as the two songs have some similarities) has richness and restraint in its character study, “God Knows I’m Good” just makes empty, loud demands and soon wears down its listeners’ patience. The chorus is appalling, and the 20 bars or so of guitar busking at the end complete the illusion that a three-minute track has lasted as long as an entire LP.

Recorded ca. August-September 1969; on Space Oddity.

Top: William Doherty, “Belfast Children,” 1969.


Don’t Sit Down

December 1, 2009

Don’t Sit Down.

“Don’t Sit Down” is a squib, a 40-second lazy jam with a Bowie guide vocal that soon cracks up. Its presence on Space Oddity is part of the deliberate informality of late ’60s LPs, from Jimi Hendrix coughing at the start of “Rainy Day, Dream Away” to Dylan murmuring “Is [the tape] rolling, Bob?” on Nashville Skyline to the king of them all, the Beatles’ White Album, which is riddled with mutters, coughs, false starts, control room chat, outtakes (the fiddle scrapings at the end of “Don’t Pass Me By,” etc.) and tiny shards of discarded tracks. Something that would get an engineer or producer reprimanded in 1963 was now proof that a band was keeping it real.

RCA deleted “Don’t Sit Down” when it reissued the Space Oddity LP in 1972 and the track finally was restored on the Rykodisc 1990 CD release. No one had missed it.


Wild Eyed Boy From Freecloud

November 30, 2009

Wild Eyed Boy From Freecloud (B-side).
Wild Eyed Boy From Freecloud (LP).
Wild Eyed Boy From Freecloud (live, 1973).

“Wild Eyed Boy From Freecloud” is another of Bowie’s Tibetan songs, completing a cycle that began in fact (“Silly Boy Blue”), evolved into half-myth (“Karma Man”) and now ends as a fable, fit for a bedtime story or a puppet show. The ancestor of “Freecloud” is Bowie’s mime piece Yet San and the Eagle, the story of a Tibetan boy living under Chinese Communist oppression, and “Freecloud” seems as if it was meant to accompany the movements of actors, with the lyric sometimes doubling as stage directions (the hangman “folds the rope into its bag” or “so the village dreadful yawns”).

But the wild boy of Freecloud isn’t just a Tibetan monk under an assumed name—he’s also uncorrupted youth in nature, whose very existence offends the worldlings who live meanly in the village below him. Bowie described his storyline in an October 1969 interview with Disc & Music Echo: the boy “lives on a mountain and has developed a beautiful way of life…I suppose in a way he’s rather a prophet figure. The villagers disapprove of the things he has to say and they decide to hang him.” The boy resigns himself to death, only to watch in horror as the mountain takes revenge for him. “So in fact everything the boy says is taken the wrong way—both by those who fear him and those who love him.”

Feral children and noble savages cropped up everywhere in the late ‘60s and ‘70s, from Kaspar Hauser in Herzog’s Jeder Für Sich und Gott Gegen Alle, to Truffaut’s L’enfant Sauvage, to the reclamation of Henry David Thoreau as ur-hippie and draft-dodger (e.g., The Night Thoreau Spent In Jail). The wild boys, hippie Christ figures and other “naturals” served as court jesters for the modern age, or as walking rebukes to a conformist, plastic culture. Society usually converts or kills these types, though as the Wild Boy in Bowie’s song eventually leaves the town in rubble, you can’t really blame society.

“Freecloud” marries Bowie’s theatrical sensibilities with his recent folk leanings—Anthony Newley and Jacques Brel sit alongside Fairport Convention in the gallery. The result is an odd combination of staginess (“as the night…begins for ONE!” the narrator intones, hangman exits stage left) and naturalism, the lyric ranging from the carefully-observed details of the opening verses to the Streisand-esque self-acclamation in the bridge (the “REALLLY YOU and REALLY MEEEE” bit). The whole piece is a catalog of influences: the stage setting of a night before a hanging is out of the Child Ballads, the sense of divine retribution levied on a damned town hails from Brecht/Weill’s “Pirate Jenny” and the loftiness of the lyric describing the mountain (“where the eagle dare not fly” and so on) has a bit of Tolkien in it. (“Freecloud” was Tolkien-head Marc Bolan’s favorite Bowie song).

The Battle of Freecloud

“Freecloud” opens with Bowie playing variations on the D chord—D to Dmaj7 to D7 to D6—basically just supplementing a D chord on his 12-string acoustic guitar with additional notes. The pattern repeats throughout the song: it opens the verses and circles three times through them, the relative similarity of the chords creating a feeling of stasis (they occur even while the boy is singing that he’s really free, suggesting he’s just as trapped as the rest of us). The guitar intro also has the song’s other major motif: a sudden push to C, which Bowie later uses to dramatically end the verses and begin the refrain.

The song’s built like an inverted pyramid, opening with two long descriptive verses, each 11 lines long with no rhymes and no real meter; the pattern is finally broken when Bowie goes into the bridge, which, rhyme-strewn and full of long-held notes, comes as a relief to the ear. The song spirals downward faster and faster, first with something of a refrain (handclaps, the title finally sung), then a turbulent pair of verses that contain the destruction of the village within them. It ends with a quiet 10-bar coda, the boy picking his way free from the rubble while the guitar pattern of the intro reappears, suggesting the cycle will begin again, here or elsewhere.

“Freecloud” was first recorded on 20 June 1969 as the b-side of the “Space Oddity” single and a revised version for the LP was cut roughly a month later. Consider the two versions a struggle between Bowie’s two main producers of the ’60s—Gus Dudgeon, who helmed the spare guitar-and-bass initial recording, and Tony Visconti, who seemed hell-bent on trumping Dudgeon for the LP remake.

Visconti called the Dudgeon recording a “throwaway” (it had been recorded in about twenty minutes) while hearing “a Wagnerian orchestra in my head” for his remake, and the LP version of “Freecloud” is an elaborate one-upmanship to Dudgeon’s “Space Oddity” production: Dudgeon has eight tracks on “Space Oddity”? Visconti has 16 for the new “Freecloud”! Dudgeon uses a dozen or so string and wind players? Visconti gets Philips to fund a 50-piece orchestra, including harp and tympani!

But the orchestral arrangement has an overbearing presence—it begins at top volume and goes upward, so that the chaos of the later verses lacks the dramatic force it should have. It’s a crowded party in which each guest tries to dominate the conversation: nearly every line Bowie sings is accompanied by some swoop of strings, brass blast, harp plucks, or tympani crashes. It may be the old punk purist in me, but I find the original B-side recording—a duet between Bowie’s 12-string acoustic guitar and Paul Buckmaster on Arco bass (not cello, as many references have it)—has a cold severity and power that eludes the Visconti production. Because a fable only really needs a voice.

The Ronson-led 1973 live performance linked above, in which “Freecloud” segues into “All the Young Dudes” as if it was always meant to do, is a marvel.

Top: “Vietnamese civilians, countryside,” taken by Lt. Commander Charles H. Roszel, 1969.


Conversation Piece

November 23, 2009

69paris

Conversation Piece (1969 demo).
Conversation Piece.
Conversation Piece (Toy remake, 2000).


[The poor man] feels himself out of the sight of others, groping in the dark. Mankind take no notice of him. He rambles and wanders unheeded. In the midst of a crowd, at church, in the market, at a play, at an execution, or coronation: he is in as much obscurity as he would be in a garret or cellar. He is not disapproved, censured or reproached; he is only not seen.

John Adams, Discourses on Davila.

I get lonesome right in the middle of a crowd.

Elvis Presley.

There have been few songs written about academics, whether tenured or failed. All that comes to mind are REM’s “Sad Professor” and this one, and “Conversation Piece” may not be about an academic at all. An independent scholar, let’s say—a shabby young man with an old man’s habits, who lives above an Austrian grocer: his rug is scattered with the pages of unpublished essays, and he spends his time wandering the streets begrudging life. He may throw himself off a bridge at song’s end.

“Conversation Piece” was Bowie’s most recent composition when he made a demo tape in April 1969 (John Hutchinson calls it “a new one” and Bowie has to prompt him with the opening guitar chords (“G-D-G”).) It’s unlike most of the songs written in this period, which are either love ballads or self-mythical explorations, as it hearkens back to the oddball character sketches of the first Bowie LP, like “Little Bombardier” or “She’s Got Medals.” (That said, some, like Bowie’s manager Ken Pitt, have said the song is fairly autobiographical, a sketch of the frustrated composer and failed pop singer Bowie of 1968.)

Most of all, it captures well the curse of urban anonymity—its title is a cruel joke, the “conversation” only going on in the singer’s head. Once during a hard spell while living in NYC I spent a weekend almost entirely out of doors, going from shop to cafe to library, and realized at some point during it that I had talked to absolutely no one, except maybe to mutter thanks to a ticket-taker or cashier. The sense of moving among a great mass of people and feeling utterly invisible and isolated from them is almost addicting at first, and then it can just sink your soul.

It’s a fairly simple song—three meandering verses, three tight eight-bar choruses (half lyric, half wordless). For the final verse, Bowie uses a standard trick and changes key, bumping all the chords up one step (so while the third line of the verse—for example, “he often calls me down to eat“—has been C/G, it’s now D/A (“and they walk in twos and threes or more“), and so forth). To further the sense that the singer is breaking down, the last verse extends into a faster-paced section with shorter sung phrases until collapsing into the final chorus.

The studio take, recorded during the Space Oddity sessions ca. July-September 1969, was eventually released as the B-side to “The Prettiest Star” in March 1970. It’s unclear why “Conversation Piece” was left off the Space Oddity LP, as it’s stronger than most of the other cuts, and if LP time was an issue, they could’ve shaved at least three minutes off “Memory of a Free Festival” and no one would’ve wept. Over the years, it’s become many people’s favorite Bowie obscurity (Stuart Murdoch seems to have lived in this song at some point).

Bowie revived “Conversation Piece” in 2000 for his scotched LP Toy, and eventually released it on a bonus disc for his 2002 Heathen album. He sings it in a lower register and without much emotion. The flailing scholar of the original recording at least had energy in his desperation; here, all is resigned, empty despair.

Top: Pascal Grob, “Paris, 1969.”

That’s it until after the holiday. Happy Thanksgiving. For non-U.S. readers, happy Thursday.


The “Bowie & Hutch” Covers

November 20, 2009

69gilgeo

Love Song (Lesley Duncan).
Love Song (Bowie & Hutch, 1969).
Love Song (Elton John with Lesley Duncan, 1970).
Life Is a Circus (Roger Bunn).
Life Is a Circus (Bowie & Hutch, 1969).

After he and Hermione Farthingale broke up, Bowie reduced Feathers, their former folk trio with John Hutchinson, to a duo, writing songs with two-part harmonies. He and Hutch became a Simon-and-Garfunkel double act: Hutch singing low and playing the straight man; Bowie offering a new character—a chatty, fey persona able to crack up the audience between numbers.

Among Feathers’ concert repertoire at the time (February-April 1969) were Bowie compositions like “When I’m Five,” “Space Oddity,” “Sell Me a Coat” and “Ching-a-Ling,” along with a number of covers, including Jacques Brel’s “Amsterdam” and “Au Suivant,”* Leonard Cohen’s “Lady Midnight” (likely a Hutch suggestion, as he was up on Canadian folk) and even Victor Young’s standard “A Hundred Years From Today.

When Hutchinson and Bowie made their demo tape (which eventually sold Bowie to Philips/Mercury) in April, they mainly concentrated on newer Bowie compositions like “Janine” that would later wind up on Space Oddity. There were a few covers done for the session, however, suggesting that Bowie was considering them for possible inclusion (Bowie would soon make it a habit of having at least one cover per LP). They were:

“Love Song” was written by Lesley Duncan and later covered by Elton John on his 1970 Tumbleweed Connection. Duncan had a similar trajectory to Bowie—she cut a string of failed singles throughout the ’60s until finally breaking through at decade’s end (when John covered “Love Song”). Hutchinson has the lead vocal.

And “Life Is a Circus” was by the obscure folk group Djinn (so obscure that they’re often listed in Bowie references as an “American folk group,” though they were Brits, led by the late Roger Bunn, a sort of ‘fifth business’ character in early ’70s London).

Having a wife and child to support, Hutchinson soon realized he couldn’t survive playing the occasional meagerly-attended folk gig. So he left Bowie and went to work as a draughtsman. It wouldn’t be the end of Bowie’s association with Hutch, one of the more sympathetic figures in Bowie’s life, however, as he would later return at the end of the Spiders from Mars era.

Both are available on bootlegs like The Beckenham Oddity.

* Both covered by Scott Walker, the latter as “Next.”

Top: Gilbert and George perform Singing Sculpture, Cable Street, London, 1969 (Tate).


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