Even a Fool Learns to Love

October 25, 2009


Even A Fool Learns to Love.

Someone must have enjoyed or at least tolerated Bowie’s lyrics for “Pancho,” as Bowie was offered further translation work at the start of 1968. This time it was for Claude François’ “Comme D’Habitude,” written by François, Gilles Thibault and Jacques Revaux.

“Comme D’Habitude” in the original French (here’s a multi-language translation guide) has the singer stoically noting that something has died—his lover, he’s realized, responds to his actions out of habit, “as usual,” and he goes on to admit that he too has been living without inspiration: it’s a post-mortem for a failed relationship, in which even the various infidelities, despairs and fights have a weary, bloodless feel to them. (François allegedly liked it because the song encapsulated his recent breakup with France Gall.)

By contrast, Bowie’s translation, “Even a Fool Learns to Love,” is purple, self-pitying and, worse, full of sad clowns—it’s basically another version of “When I Live My Dream” combined with some Pierrot-isms. It’s pretty dreadful stuff, and unsurprisingly Bowie’s lyric got shot down (Geoffrey Heath, who worked at Essex Music, later said that the powers that be “wanted a star to record the song, not this yobbo from Bromley”).

Soon afterward, Paul Anka heard “Comme D’Habitude” on French television and wrote a new set of lyrics for it, again completely at odds with the original song. Anka titled it “My Way.” You know the rest.

Bowie’s demo (which weirdly consisted of Bowie singing over François’ original recording) was recorded in January-February 1968. Bowie seemed to regret not getting the song—he performed it as part of his failed cabaret auditions later in 1968, and as Nicholas Pegg has noted, Bowie’s “Life on Mars” is something of a rewrite.

Top: Rudy Meisel, “Piccadilly Circus, 1968.”

1967 Demos

October 12, 2009


Everything Is You.
Social Girl.

These two lesser Bowie compositions were demoed around the same time as “Silver Treetop School For Boys.” “Everything Is You” was eventually recorded (again by the Beatstalkers) while the wan “Social Girl” would forever lack an interpreter.

The lumberjack love ode “Everything Is You” is wonderful in its odd way, with a dorky opening guitar riff that’s mirrored by the wordless chorus, a galumphing shanty rhythm (the demo sounds like it’s been cut one afternoon in a pub) and a lyric that reads as if it had been directly translated from Finnish: “A little piece of leather ’round my head/to stop the sweat from dimming up my eyes/I feel your grace in all the trees/your strength is in the axe I wield.”

“Social Girl” isn’t as sweet. It’s a nasty little barb, a bit of neighborhood gossip and slander disguised as a sub-Beach Boys song. The demo’s lousy-sounding and is sung and played with utter indifference—you get the sense Bowie knew this one wasn’t going anywhere.

Both were recorded ca. April-May 1967 and believed lost until the acetates surfaced a few years ago; the recordings now occasionally pop up on the Internet. The Beatstalkers’ version of “Everything Is You” (which is a holy mess) was cut as the B-side to 1968’s “Rain Coloured Roses.”

Top: David Malcomson, “London Tourists,” 1967.

Silver Treetop School For Boys

October 8, 2009


Silver Treetop School for Boys (The Slender Plenty).
Silver Treetop School for Boys (The Beatstalkers).

The great lost Bowie song of the 1960s, “Silver Treetop School For Boys” is nostalgia tempered by psychedelia. A boy notes the boundaries and the landmarks of his school days. All falls within the standard range, to the point of being generic memory—rolling the cricket pitch, headmasters barking commands—until the bridge, when the singer is called out to see “a thousand boys and masters” sitting upon the cricket ground together and sharing joints. It’s an edenic image of cross-generational harmony that’s tinged with the ominous (the English master who thinks he’s a purple mouse, the head “who’s usually sad…swinging from a tree”).

“Silver Treetop” (especially in its interpretation by the mysterious band The Slender Plenty) is a study in relentlessness, its lyric tightly welded to its melody. The first three verses are set back-to-back-to-back with just a measure’s worth of “yeah yeah”s separating them; the dense lyric (there’s a syllable seemingly for every piano note played) is countered by a descending guitar riff that hits at the start of each bar (and “SIL-VER-TREE-TOP-SCHOOL-FOR-BOYS” is a basically a guitar riff transposed to words). The bridge, with its longer phrasing and its leap to falsetto, breaks the pattern, followed by an empty verse of “la la” singing (the Beatstalkers do a guitar solo) and ends with its masters-and-boys communal tripping.

In the months while he was waiting for Deram to release his debut record, Bowie recorded a few demos, hoping to place songs with up-and-coming bands. He was allegedly inspired to write “Silver Treetop” after reading in the newspaper about a pot-smoking scandal at Lancing College (Bowie’s own formal education had ended in 1963 when he left Bromley Tech to be a pop idol, or so he told his housemaster).

Ken Pitt sent Bowie and the Riot Squad’s demo of “Silver Treetop” to producer Steve Rowland in May 1967. A few months later, two UK bands cut it–Glasgow’s The Beatstalkers (who shared Pitt as a manager and who were known for their riot-inducing live act and their tartan trousers) and The Slender Plenty, of whom almost nothing is known. Listen and compare (for me, the Slender Plenty’s version crushes the Beatstalkers’). Various writers have claimed that Bowie is singing backup on both, either or neither.

Bowie’s demo was recorded ca. April-May 1967; the Beatstalkers’ version was issued as CBS 3105 c/w “Sugar Chocolate Machine” in December ’67; and the Slender Plenty’s was released in September ’67 as Polydor 56189 c/w “I’ve Lost a Friend And Found A Lover.” Neither of the singles charted.

P.S.  I don’t know how the song’s title should be written. References like Pegg’s guide list it as “Silver Treetop,” where the labels of both the Slender Plenty and the Beatstalkers singles have it as “Silver Tree Top.” I go with the former simply because “treetop” looks better when written.

Top: Gateshead Grammar School for Boys, badminton team, February 1967.

The 1965 Demos

August 6, 2009


That’s Where My Heart Is.
I Want My Baby Back.
Bars of the County Jail.

Shel Talmy, looking to become a player in the primitive UK rock & roll industry, recognized Bowie as a potentially strong, if odd talent (“I honestly didn’t think that what he was writing at the time had a snowball’s chance in hell of making it, but I thought, he’s so original and brash, let’s take a flier,” Talmy said years later). So Talmy booked a studio session for Bowie to demo some new compositions on guitar, straight to monoaural tape. Three demos, which Talmy had stowed away for decades, resurfaced in 1991 on the Early On compilation (much to Bowie’s chagrin, allegedly):

  • “That’s Where My Heart Is”: a wisp of a song—its lyric a thin string of cliches, its melody unmemorable—whose demo is fascinating as it offers a preview of future Bowie voices. The moody baritone, the stage-Cockney snarl, the elegant wastrel croon—all appear in turns, briefly caught in the light and fading away again.
  • “I Want My Baby Back”: a watery mix of various Brian Wilson songs, like “Your Summer Dream” and most notably “Don’t Worry Baby” .  Chorus possibly inspired by the ridiculous Jimmy Cross novelty song.
  • “Bars of the County Jail”: a Western in the off-kilter vein of the contemporary Doctor Who serial “The Gunfighters.” It rambles along pleasantly until it’s clear Bowie hasn’t any idea where to go with it. Inspirational verse: “I was to marry a very rich girl/I loved her as only I can.

Recorded ca. May-July 1965, unreleased (Early On).