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

db

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

hh

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.


There Is a Happy Land

September 10, 2009

99t/20/huty/13485/12

There Is a Happy Land.

Children have the strangest adventures without being troubled by them. For instance, they may remember to mention, a week after the event, that when they were in the wood they had met their dead father and had a game with him.

J.M. Barrie, Peter and Wendy.

You’ve had your chance, and now the doors are closed, sir.

“There is a Happy Land.”

Once when I was around 24, I was sitting in a Manhattan subway car across from a kid who seemed irritated by his nattering mother. I gave him a raised eyebrow and a smile of sympathy and he stared at me coldly for a moment, as if I was absurd and possibly evil. I realized I was just a grown-up making a weird face at him. We were no longer allies. I had crossed the border and there was no going back; I wearily consigned myself to adulthood.

“There Is a Happy Land,” for me the best song on David Bowie, is Bowie’s attempt to convey the common mind of childhood. He wasn’t alone: psychedelia was in part a means of burrowing back into childhood, whose mindset was seen as being akin to LSD-inspired visions. Think of Syd Barrett’s early songs like “See Emily Play,” recorded a few months after this track.

Bowie’s “When I’m Five” and “There Is a Happy Land” are two of the better depictions in pop music of how a child regards the world, and as such they can be unnerving. In “Happy Land” there’s the sense of childhood being a separate order, with its ranks and guilds, its legends and factions all unknown to adults. The song is set in a field near dusk, the hour just before dinner, when the empire of children is at its height.

“There Is a Happy Land” is ironically named—childhood is rarely purely happy, but is rather tumultuous, epic, hilarious, terrifying and so surreal that the best attempts of artists only come halfway close to capturing it (maybe Jean Vigo or Lewis Carroll came the closest). The lyric has classic fictional children like Tiny Tim playing alongside Bowie’s own creations (perhaps even his memories of Bromley neighborhood kids), much like how kids often blend their lives with stories, as well as how they constantly appraise their world, assigning values and colors to their playmates: Jenny whose sister died, Billy with the limp. A child’s reasoning can be both straight and capricious: I recall being convinced that my dog Jip could talk, but chose not to, for mysterious reasons of his own.

The track has one of the LP’s more ambitious arrangements, opening with a 16-bar instrumental section, with an initial solo by what sounds like a celesta but could be a treated piano, a second by a distant-sounding French horn (again, my guess—could be a trumpet) that ends a bit discordantly. Pieces of the solos recur as motifs, along with several other themes (e.g., a tiny waterfall of piano notes on the penultimate bar of each bridge), which cycle through the rest of the song. Bowie sings much of the lyric in long, slow phrases, though the asides to adults are sung curtly, often in four-note phrases seemingly tacked on to the ends of verses. The two bridge sections are in constant harmonic churn, sometimes with a new chord for nearly every beat (the line “Tiny Tim sings prayers and hymns/he’s so small we don’t notice him,” for example, dips and rises like a seesaw, going (acc. to this chord chart) F/Em/Am/C/Am/C/F/Em over four bars).

The title is possibly derived from “There Is a Happy Land (Far, Far Away),” the 19th Century Scottish hymn, which begins “There is a happy land, far, far away/where saints in glory stand, bright, bright as day.” Which fits well, for childhood is something of a storm-cloudy heaven.

Recorded on 24 November 1966; on David Bowie.

Top photo: Terry Fincher, “12 October 1966: Children playing outside 10 Rillington Place, London, the home of the mass murderer John Christie.”


Join The Gang

September 4, 2009

quant66a

Join The Gang.

Have You Helped to Keep London Swinging Today?

Poster in London shop windows, 1966.

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

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

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

Recorded 24 November 1966, on David Bowie.

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


She’s Got Medals

September 2, 2009

medals

She’s Got Medals.

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

George Melly, Revolt Into Style, 1969.

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

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

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

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

Recorded 14 November 1966; released on David Bowie.

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