The release of the five-disc Conversation Piece hammers shut the year of “Sixties Bowie Redux.” The total, in terms of tracks unreleased until now: some 30 home demos, recorded between the autumns of 1967 and 1969.
At last in one place (expect to see more Spying Through a Keyhole and Clareville Grove sets, over-optimistically priced, in used record stores), these demos make a decent pile and give a sharper picture of Bowie’s work life in the late Sixties. How sharp, though? Is it really worth one’s time to sit through these rough drafts, these murky tapes of old songs, many of which didn’t make the cut for Bowie at the time? (You can hear his laugh: “ah yes, a real treasure trove you’ve got for 80 quid.”)
Well, of course I’m interested. And the devoted fan—I’ll define this as someone who’s voluntarily listened to a Tin Machine bootleg—may find some of it fascinating. The “average” fan, whoever they may be? I’m not sure what they’ll make of it, if they’ll even hear it.
The collected demos* do a couple of things. They further document how the late Sixties were a proving ground for Bowie as a songwriter—his frustrations about lacking a record contract strengthened him as a composer; his songs develop in craft and form. “Space Oddity,” included here in what appears to be every demo ever made of it, no longer sounds like a sudden leap forward but more the culmination of years spent sitting at a reel-to-reel in his manager’s flat or in various bedsits and rented rooms.**
We also have a smoother transition between “psychedelic Mod” suburban Bowie and hippie Arts Lab Bowie of 1969. The Conversation Piece “demo” disc sequence opens with the set’s earliest recordings, in terms of composition: “April’s Tooth of Gold,” “Mother Grey,” “In the Heat of the Morning” and “When I’m Five” (the former two were copyrighted in December 1967; the latter two had studio versions cut in March 1968).
“The Reverend Raymond Brown (Attends the Garden Fête on Thatchwick Green)” (hereafter referred to, for sanity’s sake, as “Rev. Brown”) almost certainly hails from the same compositional period—late 1967 through the first months of 1968. Its earliest appearance is as a title in Kenneth Pitt’s 1985 memoir, where it appears in a list of prospective songs to be recorded for Bowie’s second (and never-recorded) Deram album.
It makes sense: “Rev. Brown” isn’t far removed from Bowie’s Deram debut, in terms of subject matter (another jaundiced look at suburban England) and song structure—there’s still a lot of Ray Davies being processed, along with a newer influence, Syd Barrett, while the outro is all but Bowie saying on tape “and then it ends like a Who track.”
Its lyric is a film sketch. Quick shots of various supporting characters (a nameless milkman and magistrate; Mrs. MacGoony and Grouse and “naughty Fitzwilliam”) build to (in the four-bar refrains) the introduction of the title character: Rev. Raymond Brown, shown leading the band at a village fete, “noting down sin” with a pencil, and guiltily lusting after the “beauty of Thatchwick.” Bowie’s word-choked bridges have similar phrasings as those in “When I’m Five”—here done to imitate the chatter of a “women’s guild” who compare their hats and gossip about a local girl getting pregnant (Sally, perhaps the future/former wife of Uncle Arthur).
Clever but shallow, “Rev. Brown” is apparently among Bowie’s last attempts to do an “Angry Young Man”-type short story in music, as he had done repeatedly on his 1967 album. It feels compromised in tone, as if he was already writing with Peter Noone in mind to sing it—it’s far less weird than the likes of “She’s Got Medals” or “Little Bombardier” or “Please Mr. Gravedigger.” That said, all we have is a rough sketch—perhaps “Rev. Brown” could’ve been transformed in the studio, getting brass or woodwind accompaniment for the refrains.
What I do find a hoot is that the verse phrasings, especially at 1:20 (the introduction of the Beauty of Thatchwick, who seems written for Julie Christie or Jane Asher to play), appear again in Bowie’s work—I hear them in “Little Wonder,” thirty years later. As Earthling is one of Bowie’s “return to Britain” records, so Rev. Raymond Brown, “musical priest” and would-be dirty old man, gets dug up as an ancestor to Blur’s Tracy Jacks and Ernold Same. Whether for “Little Wonder” Bowie went back to his Sixties demos or recalled some traces of a long-abandoned song is something we’ll never know.
Recorded: ca. late autumn 1967-March 1968, (most likely) Kenneth Pitt’s apartment at 39 Manchester Street, London. David Bowie: lead and backing vocal, guitars, bass, percussion. First release: 15 November 2019, Conversation Piece.
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* Collected but far from complete. Still unreleased are “Social Kind of Girl” and “Everything Is You,” “Silver Tree Top School for Boys,” “C’est la Vie,” etc. “Tiny Tim” remains a title. The absence of the 1968 demo of Bowie’s rock opera Ernie Johnson is no surprise—it’s possible the estate no longer owns the tape (one copy was auctioned in the Nineties) and EJ is my guess as to one of the things DB never wanted to become public.
** Despite the track on Conversation Piece sounding like a third-generation cassette dub, “Rev. Brown” appears to have been made on a sophisticated, costly set-up for a struggling musician in 1967. The “Rev. Brown” demo—done to copyright the song, distribute it for potential cover versions and, possibly, as a blueprint for Tony Visconti (who was supposed to produce Bowie Deram 2)—has a complete bassline, tambourine and “drum” track, lead and harmony vocals and possibly two guitar tracks. It’s surprisingly intricate for the period. Maybe Kenneth Pitt got the set-up for a short-term period by a vendor, and Bowie no longer had regular access to it once he moved in with Hermione Farthingale. Later DB Sixties demos sound more like “hit ‘record’ and hope the mike picks it all up.”