Uncle Arthur

August 31, 2009


Uncle Arthur.

David Bowie’s first LP, released on the same June morning as Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, is an anthology of comic strips: cross-dressing soldiers, zombies from a soon-to-come dystopia, lost children, ready-made hipsters, maiden uncles, shabby bombardiers. It didn’t sell, and Bowie, seemingly embarrassed by it, has tried to write the record out of his history (selections from it never turn up on career anthologies, though that may be in part due to rights issues).

It’s comparable to the first LP by Bowie’s Deram labelmate Cat Stevens, which was recorded around the same time, shared some of the same musicians and had a similar taste for eclecticism. That said, Stevens led off his album with his #2 hit “Matthew and Son” while Bowie chose his clapalong hornpipe “Uncle Arthur.”

“Uncle Arthur,” also one of the first tracks recorded for the LP, is a character sketch much in the Ray Davies line (down to the mother resenting her child’s ill-advised relationship, a Davies staple), though it’s more surreal and detached from humanity. The Batman-loving title character is both a sad portrait of a middle-aged eccentric unable to accept happiness when he stumbles into it, and also a boy’s imagining of an adult, one who flees from any extended contact with girls. It’s telling that the character is known only as Uncle Arthur, furthering the sense the lyric’s from a child’s perspective, with the muddles of adult life resolved by a child’s logic (Uncle Arthur left Sally because he didn’t like her cooking, or so mum says).

“Uncle Arthur”‘s one of Bowie’s better tunes to date—the chorus seems crafted for a pub sing-a-long. Some nice touches in the arrangement, too: after the second verse, when Arthur finds love, the opening wind melody returns, now as a duet. And at song’s end the chorus, which has only been three lines until now, is finally resolved with a fourth line: “follows mother,” which is Arthur’s final fate. Storytime’s over.

Recorded 14 November 1966, released in June 1967 on DML 1007 David Bowie. The LP was produced by Mike Vernon and engineered by Gus Dudgeon.