Baby Loves That Way

August 10, 2009


Baby Loves That Way.
Baby Loves That Way (Toy, 2000).

“Baby Loves That Way” sounds like a Herman’s Hermits number as sung by a willing cuckold and masochist (“baby likes to go outside/so I let her/wants to fool with other guys/so I let her”), and as such it’s one of Bowie’s best early records.

The singer’s desperate rationalizations (she’ll still settle down with him one day, and he’s happy as long as she comes back at night) are undermined by a needling guitar line (by Denis Taylor) that erupts into a barbed little solo. The track is built around wave after wave of droning backing vocals singing the title line: Bowie had wanted it to sound like a group of chanting monks.

Released 20 August 1965, wasted as a B-side to the inferior “You’ve Got a Habit of Leaving” (Early On).

In 2000, Bowie re-recorded the song during the Toy album sessions, and put it out as a b-side to “Everyone Says ‘Hi'” in 2002. The new version is slower and statelier, with Bowie offering an ember of a vocal; where the singer of the original has retained some sort of delusive hope, the latter version’s is just beaten and broken. “Baby loves that way,” he murmurs, because he simply can’t imagine it otherwise.

You’ve Got a Habit of Leaving

August 7, 2009


You’ve Got a Habit of Leaving.
You’ve Got a Habit of Leaving (Toy, 2000).

The anxiety of influence: Bowie first met Pete Townshend when Bowie’s new band, The Lower Third, opened for The Who in Bournemouth on 4 March 1965. Townshend stopped in during the Third’s soundcheck and heard the band bash through a few new songs like “You’ve Got a Habit of Leaving” which sounded a bit familiar to him.

Afterward, Townshend came up to Bowie. One can only imagine with what glorious condescension Townshend delivered his opening line:”You’re trying to write like me!”

While Bowie and Townshend had started recording at the same time and even shared producers, there was a substantial artistic gap between the two, as there was with Bowie and many of his contemporaries. Some of it was simply a matter of age: a year or two’s difference determined rank as much as your accent once did. So in 1965 Lennon, at 25, and Dylan at 24 were the vanguards;  McCartney was 23; Jagger 22; Ray Davies 21; Townshend and Clapton were 20. Bowie was 18 and absolutely felt it.

It’s telling that when Bowie and Lennon both put out tribute “oldies” albums in the mid-’70s, Lennon’s LP was of songs he had loved as a kid, like “Be Bop a Lula,” while Bowie’s was of songs by his peers, like “I Can’t Explain” and “Anyway Anyhow Anywhere.” (Some of Bowie’s bottled resentment seeps out in later songs like “Changes” and “All the Young Dudes.”)

It’s a long way of saying that for his third single, Bowie is so completely in thrall to The Who that “You’ve Got a Habit of Leaving” is something of a pantomime Who performance. It’s hobbled in part because of its lame lyric and vocal, but mainly because the path from the chorus to the rave-up has a deep pitfall: the dire section that starts “sometimes I cry,” in which you can feel the energy dissipate despite the drummer flailing away.

The rave-up is welcome when it finally arrives but soon seems to hit the wall and then suddenly cuts off, as if the neighbors were complaining. The Lower Third tries to get noisy again towards the fadeout but just slinks off in defeat.

Released on 20 August 1965 as Davy Jones (Bowie’s first solo billing—the Lower Third weren’t happy), Parlophone 5315 (Early On).

(Bowie re-recorded “You’ve Got a Habit of Leaving” 35 years later for a failed LP Toy, and eventually released it as a b-side to “Slow Burn” in 2002. The new version is longer, far more elaborately produced, far more professionally played and it still sounds like a Who knock-off, only a knock-off of The Who ca. 1999. That said, Bowie sings it well and it does finally rock out at the end.)

Take My Tip

August 5, 2009


Take My Tip.

Bowie’s first original composition to be recorded, “Take My Tip” begins with faint promise: after a bass intro, Bowie starts singing in a mod-jazz style (the influence this time seems to be Georgie Fame). The word-choked lyric has the singer warning a friend to avoid some local femme fatale, but Bowie just comes off as a bit of a weedy creep. A sense of waywardness increases: guitars turn up (including Jimmy Page on rhythm) to muddy things; a sax doubles Bowie’s vocal for a few bars. All at once, without warning, something resembling a chorus is wedged in. The whole process is repeated once more for cruelty.

Recorded 8 February 1965; B-side, “I Pity the Fool.” (Early On).

I Pity The Fool

August 3, 2009


I Pity the Fool (Bobby “Blue” Bland, 1961).
I Pity the Fool (the Manish Boys, single, 1965).
I Pity the Fool (alternate take, released 1991).

Only a few times in Bowie’s life has he seemed directly inspired by black popular music: the “Young Americans” era, arguably the Nile Rodgers-produced “Let’s Dance” period, and the mid-’60s. “I Pity the Fool” is Bowie covering Bobby “Blue” Bland, and it’s about as close to straight-up soul as DB would ever attempt.

Bland’s “I Pity the Fool,” which topped the US R&B charts in 1961, is lyrically a feint. The verse, which Bland sings with a slow, dismissive coolness, suggests that the singer has moved on, that he just has pity for whoever his two-timing woman ropes in next. Then the bridge (there’s not really a chorus: the song’s main hook, the descending “I pity the fool” phrase, starts the verse) reveals that the singer isn’t out of the mess yet—he’s still entwined with her, there’s no way out, and it’s killing him. Bland, backed by a righteous horn section, just howls the lines, infusing them with self-hatred and disgust: “LOOK at the PEOPLE!!…They just STANDIN’ there, watching you make a FOOL of ME!

It’s asking a great deal for an 18-year-old kid to match this, and Bowie can’t. Wisely, though, he reduces the emotional spectrum to a teenager’s primary colors—arrogance and indignation at being shamed in public. He’s at his best in the bridge, when he can snarl and howl as petulantly as he can.

It helps that Bowie’s got a better band this time ’round (the Manish Boys, who he joined just after cutting “Liza Jane”) and a savvier producer, the American expat Shel Talmy, who recorded the Who doing “Anyway Anyhow Anywhere” and “I Can’t Explain” around the same time as this cut. One of Talmy’s favorite session pros, Jimmy Page, is on lead guitar, though Page isn’t doing much more than tracing the lines of Bland’s regular guitarist, Wayne Bennett. Woolf Byrne and Paul Rodriguez are the horns, a pale reflection of the killer six-person brass unit that sharpens Bland’s single.

Released 5 March 1965 as The Manish Boys, Parlophone 5250 (alt. take issued without notice on Early On).

Louie, Louie Go Home

August 1, 2009


Louie Louie Go Home (Paul Revere and the Raiders, 1963).
Louie Louie Go Home (Bowie and the King Bees, 1964).

Any aspiring British rock band tried to nab the latest American record and cut its version first, and somehow a grubby bunch of amateurs like Davie Jones and the King Bees got a brand-new track by Paul Revere and the Raiders and beat all rivals to the studio. They could do this mainly because Paul Revere and the Raiders, in spring 1964, might as well have been a fictional band in the UK–they were a regional American band with no UK chart hits. So who knows how Bowie & Co. came across this song: perhaps their producer Leslie Conn, who had ties to Dick James (the Beatles’ song publisher) had suggested it.

“Louie Go Home” was the Raiders’ sequel to “Louie Louie.” The Raiders had battled with the Kingsmen throughout 1963 as to whose cover of “Louie, Louie” would chart higher, until Mitch Miller at Columbia killed promotion on the Raiders’ single after the Kingsmen finally started charting nationally. The Raiders’ “Louie Go Home” is a murky New Orleans R&B stew-the track is built on the piano, the left-hand riff doubled by saxophone and bass, all overlaid by a churning, clanking layer of percussion.

The Raiders were a stage band, so “Louie Go Home” is a series of shticks to rev up an audience–a breakdown, a call-and-response vocal, some “little bit softer now, little bit louder now” audience bait. Bowie and the King Bees dutifully try to imitate it all, but the result is thin gruel: lacking a piano, the King Bees have to weigh the riff entirely on the bass while the guitars hit on the off-beat; the drummer does his best to kill the groove, thwacking away as if determined to frustrate prospective dancers.

If “Liza Jane” took the Stones as a cue, it’s b-side is more Beatles–the vocal harmonies in the bridge are close to those in the Beatles’ version of “Money” (at 1:10, it sounds as if they’re about to sing “that’s…what I want”) while Bowie seems to be imitating John Lennon singing “Twist and Shout.”

Originally penciled in as the A-side but wisely switched, as it lacks the punch of “Liza Jane.” Earnest, clumsy, not too terrible.

B-side of “Liza Jane” (Early On).

Liza Jane

July 29, 2009

Liza Jane.
Liza Jane (Toy, 2000).
Liza Jane (live, 2004).

So it all begins here.

David Bowie, in New Jersey in June 2004, sang the first verse and chorus of his debut single “Liza Jane” to honor its fortieth anniversary and prefaced it by calling the song “absolutely dreadful” and “excruciating,” which isn’t a bad description of the sludgy blues fragment he offered that night.

The original single, though, is pretty hot, especially given it’s the work of “five white boys from Kent singing about wayward women and freight trains,” led by a 17-year-old kid who bit his lip on stage whenever anyone cheered, and whose first gig had been a wedding anniversary at which the band played two songs and bombed (Christopher Sandford).

Bowie and some of his critics/biographers often retcon his life so that the ’60s are seen now as one long prologue, to the point where Bowie seems to just wink into being as the decade ended, as though sensing his time had come at last. This obscures the fact that Bowie was a working journeyman professional musician for much of the ’60s: “Liza Jane,” released in June 1964, predates “You Really Got Me” and “It’s All Over Now” and is contemporaneous with “A Hard Day’s Night” and “House of the Rising Sun.”

“Liza Jane” is doubly derivative (aping the Stones aping American electric blues) but it’s no matter: the bassline is thick and supple enough to balance out the stiff beat, a sax riff and guitar fills plug up the gaps, there’s your standard garage band 12-bar guitar solo (by Roger Bluck) and Bowie (still called Davie Jones here) varies from a yelp to a growl. The song mainly exists so everyone can sing “Ohhhhh-Little-LI-za!!” as salaciously as possible. Cheap (the disc seems to have been mastered loud enough to reach the border of distortion), thumping teenage music–there’ve been greater debuts, but there’ve been far more worse.

“Liza Jane” and its b-side were cut over seven hours in a West Hampstead studio, and it was “composed” by Leslie Conn, the producer, though it’s basically the band’s variation on the American standard “Lil’ Liza Jane” (Conn later called the standard a “Negro spiritual” though “Lil’ Liza Jane” is a pure pop mongrel, its ancestors a jumble ranging from Stephen Foster (whose “Camptown Ladies” has a similar melody) to the mysterious Countess Ada de Lachau, an impoverished aristocrat credited as the song’s composer on the 1916 sheet music). As much a country song as it was a blues, it’s likely some recent R&B versions were the band’s primary inspirations, like Huey Piano Smith’s “Little Liza Jane” (1956).

Released on 5 June 1964 as Davie Jones and the King Bees, Vocalion Pop 9221 (on Early On).