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.


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.