Hole In the Ground

February 17, 2014

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Hole In the Ground.

“Can’t repeat the past?” he cried incredulously. “Why of course you can!” He looked around him wildly, as if the past were lurking here in the shadow of his house…

F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby.

Be like the sun
Never gone
Sleep long and fast
Let the past be the past

Broadcast, “Long Was the Year.”

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Aaargh, that Tony Newley stuff, how cringey. No, I haven’t much to say about that in its favor.

Bowie, Musician, 1990.

For a long time, Bowie’s Sixties had begun in 1969: he hadn’t existed prior to “Space Oddity.” Whatever came before that record was mere juvenilia. His Decca, Parlophone and Pye singles, his Deram album, “The Laughing Gnome,” the King Bees and Manish Boys and the Buzz and the Riot Squad, five years of candled ambition: all of it was buried, its obscurity encouraged.

It was also hard to find some of these records—they crept in and out of print, the tracks shuffled through decades’ worth of shabby collections. Bowie didn’t own the rights to the songs, and seemed indisposed to licensing them, so “The London Boys” was never on any career retrospective despite the song being a foundational work—“Rock ‘n’ Roll Suicide” and Diamond Dogs, among a fleet of others, are inconceivable without it.

A few things aligned at last. His pre-Philips material was thoroughly compiled on two CD reissues: Rhino’s 1991 Early On and 1997’s Deram Anthology (Bowie was involved in producing the latter, which unfortunately meant two outtakes from David Bowie—“Bunny Thing” and “Pussy Cat”—were cut from the track list). And the Sixties affectations of high Britpop—Blur’s “Country House” wasn’t that far removed from “Join the Gang“— gave the oldest Bowie records a context: they had somehow become hip. It’s surprising one of Bowie’s Pye singles didn’t wind up on the Rushmore soundtrack. “Some of my recent albums have been picked up by the ’90s generation, but they don’t know the early stuff,” Bowie told GQ in 2000. “I think it’s a surprise when they hear them…and think ‘did he write that?‘”

It could’ve been a preemptive strike, covering himself before someone like Oasis did. Bowie, taping a VH1 Storytellers in August 1999, resurrected his first major composition, “Can’t Help Thinking About Me,” playing it for the first time since the Marquee Club days of 1966. While he introduced the song by ridiculing its lyric, it cooked on stage, thanks to Sterling Campbell’s drumming—it felt fresher than the ‘hours’ songs he was debuting. (Playing it allowed Mark Plati “to work out a lot of Who fantasies on stage, thank you very much.”) And in a few live dates later that year, Bowie revived “I Dig Everything.” (Mike Garson said they played “Karma Man” and “Conversation Piece” in rehearsals.)

So Bowie’s first web journal entry of the new century noted that he would re-record songs he’d released between 1964-1969, “not so much a Pin Ups II as an Up Date I.” As typical with Bowie, the idea quickly ballooned in scope. As with “What’s Really Happening?” the recording sessions for Up Date I would be broadcast via webcam. And he wouldn’t only remake his old singles, he’d revive songs which hadn’t even made the cut back then. He would draw from his legion of ghost songs, those that fans knew only as their titles: Ernie Johnson, “Black Hole Kids,” “It’s Gonna Rain Again” and, see below, “Hole In the Ground.”

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“I know what happens when I play the classics,” he sneers a little impatiently. “So why would I want to do it again? Other than for financial remuneration, which I frankly don’t need.”

Bowie, Q interview, 1997.

In February 2000, Bowie and Iman told the press that she was pregnant. He would be a father again at 53. He also said he would play the Glastonbury Festival for the first time since 1971 (when he’d also been a new father). Soon afterward he hired Earl Slick, who hadn’t played with him since the Serious Moonlight tour, as his new lead guitarist: a sharp swerve from the now-confirmed-departed Reeves Gabrels.

As Iman was due in August, Bowie planned a burst of activity for June and early July: a handful of NYC live shows that would double as rehearsals for the Glastonbury gig and for what he was now calling “the Sixties album,” which he planned to cut immediately upon his return to New York. “I hate to waste the energy of a show-honed band,” he told Time Out. “I’ve pulled together a selection of songs from a somewhat unusual reservoir and booked time in a studio. I still get really elated by the spontaneous event and cannot wait to sit in a claustrophobic space with seven other energetic people and sing till my tits drop off.” Plati would go to work mixing Bowie’s 1968-1972 BBC sessions (yet another reclamation: Bowie at the Beeb would be issued in September) and then would pivot to mixing “the Sixties album” in the fall.

During rehearsals, Bowie worked his band (the Hours touring unit plus Slick) through his abandoned catalog, reviving all but two of his 1964-1966 singles (“I Pity the Fool” was superfluous, “Do Anything You Say” perhaps too dire a composition to salvage) and the cream of the Deram years (sadly, not the Gnome). He didn’t want the band to be reverent; he wanted them to crack their way into the songs, pull them out of their shells. “We weren’t out to duplicate the original tracks at all,” Plati said.

As a prelude, Bowie fully gave himself over to his past, with setlists meant to make old Bowie fans weep. The first Roseland gig, a three-hour extravagance that blew out Bowie’s voice, opened with the four-shot of “Wild Is the Wind,” “Life on Mars?” “Golden Years” and “Changes,” most of which he’d hadn’t played in a decade. He unearthed rarely-played classics (“Absolute Beginners,” not performed since 1987) and debuted “This Is Not America” on stage; at the June 19 gig, he played “London Boys” for the first time in nearly 35 years. It also gave Gail Ann Dorsey a rare chance to play clarinet.

He flew to the UK, where he sang “Starman” on television for the first time since the Heath ministry (why not? it was getting to the point where you expected him to appear in Ziggy Stardust makeup); two days later, he headlined Glastonbury.

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I haven’t been here for 30 years and I’m having a fucking great time!

Bowie, quoted by the NME at Glastonbury.

In the year of its birth, 1971, Glastonbury was among the free festivals starting to crop up around Britain. Fitting for a show held in the shadow of Glastonbury Tor, its pyramid-shaped stage was constructed on a ley-line. It was free admission for the 12,000 or so hippies who’d made their way out to Somerset. Bowie played a set at dawn: just him, his 12-string acoustic and a piano. For the wakening crowd, he offered, for the first time, the breadth of Hunky Dory, from “Quicksand” to “Kooks.”

Glastonbury was in retrospect one of Bowie’s most critical live performances: the sunny reception he got was the best experience he’d had in years. He’d stopped solo live performance after his acoustic/mime shows had bombed in 1969. In the summer of 1971, Bowie was still unsure whether he wanted to be a performer at all. Given the songs he was now racking up, he thought he could be primarily a songwriter, like his friend Lesley Duncan. But that morning in Glastonbury confirmed him as a stageman: Ziggy Stardust would play his first show half a year later.

In 2000, Glastonbury was charging £87 tickets and drawing crowds of 100,000. Its recent headliners had included Blur, Oasis, Primal Scream, Pulp and Prodigy. Bowie came back as some lost king regnant of British music, wearing what looked like an eccentric bishop’s vestments, his hair in flowing golden locks; he gently proceeded to make everyone else on the bill (his co-headliners were Travis and the Chemical Brothers) look second-rate. He led off with “Wild Is the Wind,” exorcised “Station to Station” with Slick in tow: for an encore he did “Ziggy Stardust,” “‘Heroes’,” “Let’s Dance” and a stonking “I’m Afraid of Americans.” The papers went mad: “a masterclass of superstardom” (the Mirror), “an object lesson in How to Be a Rock Star”(the Times); “a level beyond and above everyone else at this festival” (NME).

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BBC executive producer Mark Cooper, who was recording the festival, was frustrated that Bowie’s management let him only broadcast six songs from the set (presumably because they were considering releasing the Glastonbury show as a live CD). “It was painful” to cut away from Bowie, he told Paul Trynka. “An artist can be reborn with a performance like that, get another 10 years in their career…I think [denying the full broadcast] was a mistake. Because this was the moment.”

But what was the moment? Was there something sad in all of this ecstatic reclamation, this genial reconquest, with Bowie even wearing his hair at Hunky Dory length? You could regard it as some traveling grand self-entombment. In the year 2000, which he’d feared and talked up and prophesied for much of his life, Bowie wound up playing the nostalgist. A stunningly capable one, sure, but still, he was someone who’d greeted the new millennium by playing songs from 1966 again.

That said, he was in line with one mood of the time. The hooks of the old century were still barbed in the new one: it was as if the culture still couldn’t shake the Sixties’ idea of the future, a future that, of course, hadn’t come true, but one which still seemed more of a “real” future than the one we were now living in. There were still ghosts everywhere. Take the through-line of “Sixties” droning organ across a swath of 2000 records: Broadcast’s “Come On Let’s Go,” Yo La Tengo’s “Let’s Save Tony Orlando’s House,” Blonde Redhead’s “This Is Not,” Ladytron’s “Another Breakfast with You,” Clinic’s “Distortions,” Radiohead’s “Morning Bell.” (If you wanted the sound of a new future, you had to listen to Aaliyah or OutKast.)

So what did Bowie intend with his own “Sixties record”? He’d let in the past again: what was he going to do with it?

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The album soon got the working title of Toy (likely from “Baby Loves That Way” and/or “London Boys”). Its basic tracks were cut in about nine days in early July 2000 at Sear Sound, whose 2,500-square-foot studio boasted two isolation booths: one set aside for vocals, the other housing Mike Garson’s collection of keyboards, including a Fender Rhodes (which he hadn’t played since Young Americans) and a Hammond B3 organ. Earl Slick soon had a sense of déjà vu. A walk around the place made him realize that he was in the old Hit Factory, where he’d cut Double Fantasy with John Lennon twenty years earlier. “It really freaked him out,” Plati recalled.

True to his plans, Bowie had flown in his band days after the Glastonbury concert and essentially had them plug in and rip through the songs. (He’d ditched the webcast idea.) In roughly a week they cut 13 tracks, complete with full Bowie vocals. The engineer Pete Keppler recalled Bowie “belting his brains out while the band was just roaring away behind him,” while Plati hadn’t seen Bowie so excited since the first Earthling sessions (another album cut right after a tour to feed off a band’s energy). Bowie was economical beyond his usual habits: he’d cut a first-take lead vocal, then overdub himself on the second take, then add further harmonies for every further take (Plati: “his final vocal would be finished by the time the band had gotten it right!”). Bowie and Plati even managed to hustle in Tony Visconti to score a 14-piece string section for a few tracks.

What Bowie had at the end of the Sear Sound sessions almost certainly included these 11 revivals—a link to the Toy track, if extant, is found in the original entry (* = not circulating, but reportedly recorded):

“Liza Jane”
“You’ve Got a Habit of Leaving”
“Baby Loves That Way”
“Can’t Help Thinking About Me”*
“I Dig Everything”
“The London Boys”
“Silly Boy Blue”
“Let Me Sleep Beside You”
“Karma Man”*
“In the Heat of the Morning”
“Conversation Piece”

There was also a track known as “Secret 1” (allegedly Dorsey’s favorite) which Nicholas Pegg rightly (IMO) surmises was likely the revived “Shadow Man.” My guess for the other completed track is another ghost song.

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‘Hole in the Ground’ was written by David, Herbie Flowers on bass, Tim Renwick on guitar and Terry Cox on drums. Also David was playing guitar on it. What year was it?…1971, I think. Apart from David, I think I have the only copy in existence.

George Underwood, May 2006 interview with The Voyeur.

It was fitting that George Underwood got caught up in Bowie’s Sixties revival, if indirectly. Underwood was one of Bowie’s oldest friends: he’d played with him in the King Bees; his girlfriend had inspired Bowie’s “Janine”; he’d accompanied Bowie on his first US tour (where he may have kicked off “Jean Genie” by playing Yardbirds songs on the bus). Most of all, Underwood was partially responsible for Bowie’s look (starting, of course, by hitting Bowie in the eye as a teenager and so leaving Bowie’s pupil permanently dilated): he drew the back cover of Space Oddity and designed the covers of albums from Hunky Dory to Low.

Underwood is the control in an experiment in which Bowie’s the radical element: his life can seem an alternate edition of Bowie’s. Considered as handsome, charismatic and talented as his bandmate in the King Bees, Underwood also cut an unsuccessful single or two in the mid-Sixties. But by the end of the decade, he’d become the artist that Bowie would occasionally play at being, founding the Main Artery Studio in 1971. And sometime in the Seventies, Underwood bailed out of the professional music game for good (one story is that a bad acid trip led to a nervous breakdown).

Bowie wrote “Hole in the Ground” for Underwood around 1970. It was his part of his bid to help Underwood make it as a singer—he also wrote “Song for Bob Dylan” and “We Should Be on By Now” (the ur-“Time”) for him—but it was also a feint to benefit his own career. In 1971, Bowie couldn’t release songs under his own name for a time due to his manager’s label/publisher negotiations, so he put out his new compositions under aliases (see the Arnold Corns) or used his friends as masks (see Mickey King’s “Rupert the Riley” or Dana Gillespie’s “Andy Warhol”).

As the original “Hole in the Ground” has never leaked, it’s impossible to know how much of it was altered for the Toy remake. Mike Garson described the Toy version as a jam that the band developed in the studio. If I had to guess, I’d say little fundamentally was changed. The lyric’s in line with Bowie’s lesser works of 1970-1971 (its title may homage Bernard Cribbins): it’s a depressive love ballad with some apocalyptic portents (the hole in the ground mirrors of the “crack in the sky” in “Oh! You Pretty Things”). Some of its vocal phrasing, and the acoustic guitar strum patterns in the verse, call back to “Janine,” and the song shares with “Janine” a slacking-off in lieu of an ending, with its chorus repeated long enough to double as a coda.

Its revival was performed well—Garson’s keyboards gave fresh backdrops to the verses and refrains, and Campbell and Dorsey (who homages Herbie Flowers’ bassline on “Walk on the Wild Side”* and gets in a nice sloping bass fill or two) shone in particular—but its reappearance mainly argued that Bowie had been right in deep-sixing “Hole In the Ground” back in 1970. Time hadn’t improved the song, only made it somewhat novel.

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So Bowie had the basics for a new record, one that would capstone a year he’d dedicated to his youth. After taking some time off to be a father, all he’d have to do is a cut few overdubs, mix the tracks and send Toy on its way. Then onto something new with Visconti. Toy would take its seat in the canon, and the past would be the past again… [to be continued]

* Of course the intriguing question is whether Flowers had originally come up with that bassline for “Hole in the Ground” and later recycled it for Lou Reed.

Sources: For this, and the upcoming run of entries, Dan LeRoy’s The Greatest Music Never Sold, which devotes a chapter to Toy, was invaluable. Also, Teenage Wildlife and Bowie Wonderworld, as each was founded in the late Nineties, serve as “real time” documentation of Bowie during this time: interviews, setlists, BowieNet comments, journal entries and chats, etc. Having spent some frustrating months trying to verify details from the shakily-remembered and legend-prone Diamond Dogs era, it’s a blessing to have such an amount of concrete information available.

Top to bottom: Bowie’s life in pictures, 2000.