Conversation Piece

November 23, 2009

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Conversation Piece (1969 demo).
Conversation Piece.
Conversation Piece (Toy remake, 2000).


[The poor man] feels himself out of the sight of others, groping in the dark. Mankind take no notice of him. He rambles and wanders unheeded. In the midst of a crowd, at church, in the market, at a play, at an execution, or coronation: he is in as much obscurity as he would be in a garret or cellar. He is not disapproved, censured or reproached; he is only not seen.

John Adams, Discourses on Davila.

I get lonesome right in the middle of a crowd.

Elvis Presley.

There have been few songs written about academics, whether tenured or failed. All that comes to mind are REM’s “Sad Professor” and this one, and “Conversation Piece” may not be about an academic at all. An independent scholar, let’s say—a shabby young man with an old man’s habits, who lives above an Austrian grocer: his rug is scattered with the pages of unpublished essays, and he spends his time wandering the streets begrudging life. He may throw himself off a bridge at song’s end.

“Conversation Piece” was Bowie’s most recent composition when he made a demo tape in April 1969 (John Hutchinson calls it “a new one” and Bowie has to prompt him with the opening guitar chords (“G-D-G”).) It’s unlike most of the songs written in this period, which are either love ballads or self-mythical explorations, as it hearkens back to the oddball character sketches of the first Bowie LP, like “Little Bombardier” or “She’s Got Medals.” (That said, some, like Bowie’s manager Ken Pitt, have said the song is fairly autobiographical, a sketch of the frustrated composer and failed pop singer Bowie of 1968.)

Most of all, it captures well the curse of urban anonymity—its title is a cruel joke, the “conversation” only going on in the singer’s head. Once during a hard spell while living in NYC I spent a weekend almost entirely out of doors, going from shop to cafe to library, and realized at some point during it that I had talked to absolutely no one, except maybe to mutter thanks to a ticket-taker or cashier. The sense of moving among a great mass of people and feeling utterly invisible and isolated from them is almost addicting at first, and then it can just sink your soul.

It’s a fairly simple song—three meandering verses, three tight eight-bar choruses (half lyric, half wordless). For the final verse, Bowie uses a standard trick and changes key, bumping all the chords up one step (so while the third line of the verse—for example, “he often calls me down to eat“—has been C/G, it’s now D/A (“and they walk in twos and threes or more“), and so forth). To further the sense that the singer is breaking down, the last verse extends into a faster-paced section with shorter sung phrases until collapsing into the final chorus.

The studio take, recorded during the Space Oddity sessions ca. July-September 1969, was eventually released as the B-side to “The Prettiest Star” in March 1970. It’s unclear why “Conversation Piece” was left off the Space Oddity LP, as it’s stronger than most of the other cuts, and if LP time was an issue, they could’ve shaved at least three minutes off “Memory of a Free Festival” and no one would’ve wept. Over the years, it’s become many people’s favorite Bowie obscurity (Stuart Murdoch seems to have lived in this song at some point).

Bowie revived “Conversation Piece” in 2000 for his scotched LP Toy, and eventually released it on a bonus disc for his 2002 Heathen album. He sings it in a lower register and without much emotion. The flailing scholar of the original recording at least had energy in his desperation; here, all is resigned, empty despair.

Top: Pascal Grob, “Paris, 1969.”

That’s it until after the holiday. Happy Thanksgiving. For non-U.S. readers, happy Thursday.


The “Bowie & Hutch” Covers

November 20, 2009

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Love Song (Lesley Duncan).
Love Song (Bowie & Hutch, 1969).
Love Song (Elton John with Lesley Duncan, 1970).
Life Is a Circus (Roger Bunn).
Life Is a Circus (Bowie & Hutch, 1969).

After he and Hermione Farthingale broke up, Bowie reduced Feathers, their former folk trio with John Hutchinson, to a duo, writing songs with two-part harmonies. He and Hutch became a Simon-and-Garfunkel double act: Hutch singing low and playing the straight man; Bowie offering a new character—a chatty, fey persona able to crack up the audience between numbers.

Among Feathers’ concert repertoire at the time (February-April 1969) were Bowie compositions like “When I’m Five,” “Space Oddity,” “Sell Me a Coat” and “Ching-a-Ling,” along with a number of covers, including Jacques Brel’s “Amsterdam” and “Au Suivant,”* Leonard Cohen’s “Lady Midnight” (likely a Hutch suggestion, as he was up on Canadian folk) and even Victor Young’s standard “A Hundred Years From Today.

When Hutchinson and Bowie made their demo tape (which eventually sold Bowie to Philips/Mercury) in April, they mainly concentrated on newer Bowie compositions like “Janine” that would later wind up on Space Oddity. There were a few covers done for the session, however, suggesting that Bowie was considering them for possible inclusion (Bowie would soon make it a habit of having at least one cover per LP). They were:

“Love Song” was written by Lesley Duncan and later covered by Elton John on his 1970 Tumbleweed Connection. Duncan had a similar trajectory to Bowie—she cut a string of failed singles throughout the ’60s until finally breaking through at decade’s end (when John covered “Love Song”). Hutchinson has the lead vocal.

And “Life Is a Circus” was by the obscure folk group Djinn (so obscure that they’re often listed in Bowie references as an “American folk group,” though they were Brits, led by the late Roger Bunn, a sort of ‘fifth business’ character in early ’70s London).

Having a wife and child to support, Hutchinson soon realized he couldn’t survive playing the occasional meagerly-attended folk gig. So he left Bowie and went to work as a draughtsman. It wouldn’t be the end of Bowie’s association with Hutch, one of the more sympathetic figures in Bowie’s life, however, as he would later return at the end of the Spiders from Mars era.

Both are available on bootlegs like The Beckenham Oddity.

* Both covered by Scott Walker, the latter as “Next.”

Top: Gilbert and George perform Singing Sculpture, Cable Street, London, 1969 (Tate).


Space Oddity

November 11, 2009

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Space Oddity (first version).
Space Oddity (Bowie and Hutchinson demo).
Space Oddity (single).
Space Oddity (first live TV performance, 1970).
Space Oddity (“1980 Floor Show” rehearsal, 1973).
Space Oddity (live, 1974).
Space Oddity (1979 remake).
Space Oddity (live, 1983).
Space Oddity (live, 1990).
Space Oddity (live, 2002).

“Space Oddity” is an officially sanctioned beginning: Bowie’s first single for Philips/Mercury; his first Top 10 hit (and, years later, his first UK #1); lead-off and title track of the subsequent LP; lead-off track of every greatest hits compilation from ChangesOneBowie on; lead-off track on his Sound and Vision career retrospective. When Bowie dies, the TV tributes will lead off with it.

So it’s “classic” Bowie, its now-iconic status won slowly and circuitously, but then “Space Oddity” has always seemed slightly out of time (its biggest chart placings, both in the US and the UK, came years after its first release). It began as a novelty song with a sell-by date (the first moon landing in July 1969), something like a grandiose, more dignified “Laughing Gnome,” and Tony Visconti, for one, refused to have anything to do with it, considering the song a cynical sell-out. Which it was. “Space Oddity” is close company to early Bee Gees hits like “New York Mining Disaster 1941” and Zager and Evans’ dire “In the Year 2525”: it’s a gimmicky folk song dressed up in extravagant clothes.

“Space Oddity” has come to define Bowie, perhaps because it’s as protean as its creator has tried to be. It’s a breakup song, an existential lullaby, consumer tie-in, product test, an alternate space program history, calculated career move, and a symbolic end to the counterculture dream—the “psychedelic astronaut” drifting off impotently into space (Camille Paglia suggested the last); it’s a kid’s song, drug song, death song, and it marks the birth of the first successful Bowie mythic character, one whose motives and fate are still unknown to us.

The major

2001

Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey opened in London in May 1968 and played for months. As in many cities, its most frequent repeat viewers were the young and the altered. Visconti, in his autobiography, recounts a typical 2001 viewing—while high from drinking cannabis tea, Visconti had to talk down the tripping couple behind him who were terrified by the film’s “Star Gate” sequence. Bowie saw the film (stoned “off my gourd” he recalled) several times that summer and was especially struck by the final images of a “child” floating in space over the Earth.

So when at the end of 1968 Bowie’s manager asked him to write a new song for his Love You Till Tuesday promo film, Bowie had a scenario in mind. While 2001 was a primary influence, Bowie, an SF fan (e.g., “We Are Hungry Men“), may have raided other sources. One candidate is Ray Bradbury’s The Illustrated Man story collection, which includes “The Rocket Man” (later used by Bernie Taupin), where an astronaut’s life is as dull and isolating as a traveling salesman’s; “Kaleidoscope,” where astronauts burn up in space, their dying embers seen as a shooting star on Earth; and, most of all, “No Particular Night or Morning,” where an astronaut in deep space doubts whether the Earth or even the stars are real and kills himself by going out the airlock:

Clemens blinked through the immense glass port, where there was a blur of stars and distant blackness. “He’s out there now?”

“Yes. A million miles behind us. We’d never find him. First time I knew he was outside the ship was when his helmet-radio came on on our control-room beam. I heard him talking to himself…Something like “no more space ship now. Never was any. No people. No people in all the universe. Never were any. No planets. No stars…Only space. Only space. Only the gap.”

 

01frank

And of course there was the ongoing Apollo moonshot program, which many hippies and New Left types detested for embodying the absurdities of “plastic America”: a made-for-TV waste of resources undertaken at a time of war, repression and political chaos. Bowie wrote “Space Oddity” around the time of Apollo 8 near Christmas 1968, the first manned rocket to the moon, which made two TV broadcasts during the flight (on Christmas Eve, the three astronauts read from the Book of Genesis, a performance immediately followed by a rocket-eye view of the Earth hanging cold and alone in space).

The disaster that befalls Major Tom (is it a disaster at all?) also reflects the general, if unspoken, fear at the time that the Apollo missions could go terribly wrong, with gruesome death or exile shown on live global television. Richard Nixon had on his desk a memorial speech in case the Apollo 11 astronauts were stranded on the moon (its author, William Safire, had suggested that a clergyman should “adopt the same procedure as a burial at sea”).

The musician

spaceodd

When Bowie began writing the song, working with his then-partner John Hutchinson (who likely came up with a few of the chord sequences), he was at low ebb. His prospects as a pop singer had faded and his intense relationship with Hermione Farthingale was ending. (During 1968 Bowie also had “a flirtation with smack,” he admitted years later, and some have argued the icy majesty of “Space Oddity” suggests it’s really a heroin song, the “liftoff” section marking when the needle hits the vein.)

So it’s not surprising that Bowie created a character who’s been sent into orbit by Establishment figures, who monitor him, give him orders and want him to do his share of media promotion. The line “Now it’s time to leave the capsule—if you dare” suggests Major Tom could even be a contestant on a television show. Bowie made the first recording of the song the day after his final break with Farthingale, which has led biographers to speculate that Bowie’s state of mind at the time reflected Major Tom’s blissful sense of isolation, a desire to free himself entirely from human entanglements and just drift off into the void.

Yet while alienation is key to the song, it’s not a bleak or despairing track at all, as it has childlike qualities: the lyric at the start sounds like a game played by two boys on walkie-talkies; it has simple wordplay based on common sounds (the way “Can you hear me Major Tom? Can you hear” segues directly into “here am I floating round my tin can“) and as David Buckley notes, Bowie often uses a child’s word to replace an “official” one: so “spaceship” instead of “rocket,” “countdown” instead of “ignition sequence,” and even the name “Major Tom” seems that of a ’50s action hero rather than of a legitimate astronaut.

The composition

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I’m always trying to find that special thing in pop music. For me, it started with Space Oddity by David Bowie—it has that semi-tone shift which fascinated me. I played it endlessly to my mum and it made me feel this yearning. It’s a kind of sweetness, and it can turn up in the strangest places.

Roddy Frame, 2002.

“Space Oddity” was the most intricate song Bowie had yet written, and you could consider it a neatly controlled collision of two forces—the often-simple lyric, with its memorable, childlike lines (“the stars look very different today“); and the density and complexity of the song’s structure.

In the span of five minutes, there’s an intro, two verses, two bridges, two four-bar acoustic guitar breaks, a “liftoff” sequence with guitar and strings, a 12-bar electric guitar solo, a third extended verse that’s partially a refrain (the “Can you hear me Major Tom?” bit) and a long outro which also contains a second guitar solo. There are something like 15 different chords used and the lyric at times seems synchronized to the changes (in the bridge, when Major Tom is floating alone in space “far above the world,” the first chords are Fmaj7 and Em7, the two chords that the ominous intro had moved between). Despite this complexity, the song has atmosphere and space; constantly in motion, it has a stillness at its center.

It was intended to be a duet: the opening verse was originally sung by Hutchinson (as you can hear in the demo), who had a lower range, while Bowie harmonized an octave higher. Hutchinson as “ground control” again opened the second verse until the big reveal: Major Tom speaks at last, with Bowie finally appearing in his most resonant tone. Hutchinson recalled that he and Bowie loved Bookends, and here Hutchinson keeps to the ground as “Simon” while Bowie wafts in as “Garfunkel.” Bowie’s skill as a singer had developed enough, however, that he could play all the roles when he recorded the song as a solo vocal a few months later.

The song is a series of neatly-designed stages, as though it was a rocket itself—the way the “countdown” verse (a descending number marking the start of each bar) is met by the eight-bar liftoff (something of a neatly-tailored version of the orchestral upward sweep in the Beatles “A Day in the Life”); the bridge that begins weightlessly and then slowly falls to earth in its last four bars; or the way Bowie’s sharp acoustic break (C-F-G-A-A, strumming hard on the last two chords) serves as stage-clearing, first to set up the dreamy electric guitar solo, then to prepare for the long outro.

The recordings

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“Space Oddity”‘s first recording, cut for the Love You Till Tuesday promo on 2 February 1969, sounds like a tentative full-band rehearsal. While it shows that most of the song structure was in place at an early stage, the rhythm’s not right, much of it sounds thin and reedy, and a few sections are just lousy (the flute squawk solo was thankfully replaced by electric guitar). By the time Bowie and Hutchinson re-recorded the song as a demo (as part of Bowie’s successful audition for Philips/Mercury) in March-April 1969, Bowie had introduced the Stylophone, which would become one of the track’s defining sounds.

The Stylophone, whose manufacturer had sent a promotional copy to Bowie’s manager, was a primitive portable synthesizer that had two settings, “normal” and “vibrato.” You played it by touching a stylus to a tiny keyboard, which closed a circuit and emitted a tone. Bowie toyed with it for a bit and figured out how to create a basic droning progression that would become the backbone of the song’s early verses. (It naturally gave the song some SF cred to have an “alien” computer noise in much of the mix.)

The Stylophone was just one facet of Gus Dudgeon’s production for the Philips/Mercury single (Visconti had turned Bowie down, saying he’d produce the LP but not the cheesy single), a session that Dudgeon plotted like a military operation, mapping the song’s progress out on paper—Dudgeon couldn’t write music, so he used colors (cellos were brown, for instance) and squiggly lines to indicate where various instruments came in. Paul Buckmaster had to translate it into charts for the players.

This past summer Bowie re-released “Space Oddity” as a digital EP, including, wonderfully, the original eight-track Dudgeon recording now broken into its separate tracks, revealing some of the production’s tricks—for example:

The signal: Bowie’s Stylophone and Mick Wayne’s electric guitar share the same track. In the opening, the two instruments seem an extension of each other, the drone of the Stylophone pricked, every two bars, by a plucked note on the guitar. It sounds like an interstellar radio transmission. The Stylophone is the defining instrument of the song: it plays only three tones in the opening verse, the highest setting held and “waggled” as the verse gives way to the liftoff sequence; it plays a repeated two-note pattern that sounds like a police siren whenever Bowie extends a line (for example, on “made the GRADE” or “most peculiar WAY”); it underpins the guitar solo with a single held note. And in the outro sequence, while the guitar spirals out a string of notes the Stylophone frantically taps away as if making an SOS call.

Strings, old and new: Much as the song is a balancing act between its lyric and its knotty chord structure, the recording contrasts traditional orchestral instrumentation (eight violins, two violas, two celli, two double basses and two flutes) and the synthesizer future. The synths serve as the primary colors (while the Stylophone appears in the first verse and extends through most of the song, the richer-sounding mellotron (played by Rick Wakeman) is held back until the bridge, then replaces the Stylophone for much of the third verse). The orchestral instruments are used more as sound effects (the note-by-note string buildup during the liftoff sequence, the darting flute and moaning celli and basses in the bridges) and backdrops.

The bottom: One revelation is the isolated track of Herbie Flowers’ bass and Terry Cox’s drums. This was Flowers’ first-ever session (he’d go on to craft the trademark bassline of “Walk on the Wild Side” and played on Bowie’s Diamond Dogs), and he’s a marvel—buried under the layers of “Space Oddity” is a bassline that goes from a stark single-note repetition to a jazzy fluid movement in the later verses to a full-on bass solo during the song’s outro. Cox’s drumming isn’t very funky—he was the drummer for Pentangle, after all—but it serves the material well, from the parade-ground snare warmups at the beginning, to the bolero pattern Cox develops in the first verse, to coming down hard on the third beat in the later verses.

The single

so

The Philips “Space Oddity,” recorded on 20 June 1969, debuted over the PA system at the Rolling Stones’ free Hyde Park concert on 5 July, which had become an impromptu funeral service for Brian Jones. The BBC did play “Space Oddity” during the moon launch (though they mainly used “Also Sprach Zarathustra,” which had become the official soundtrack of outer space thanks to 2001). It’s impossible to verify when or how often “Space Oddity” was played during the coverage, however, as the BBC later erased its recordings of the moon landing (along with scads of Patrick Troughton and William Hartnell Doctor Whos, performances by every British band of the ’60s, early appearances by pre-Python Michael Palin and John Cleese, etc., etc.).

“Space Oddity” didn’t chart upon release, however, and initially seemed yet another Bowie flop. Then (possibly due to Bowie’s manager Ken Pitt, who offered some payola) the single rebounded in the fall and finally hit the UK Top 10, reaching #5 in November 1969. Mercury had released the single in the U.S. to utter indifference, but when Bowie finally broke in America in 1972, his then-label RCA (which had purchased most of Bowie’s Mercury material) re-released “Space Oddity,” forcing an exhausted Bowie to make a Mick Rock promo film while in full Ziggy garb. This reissue hit #15 in the US in 1973.

And in 1975, a slack year for pop music, RCA boosted its back catalog in the UK with its “Maximillion” series, repackaging singles by Elvis and reissuing “Space Oddity” backed with “Changes” and “Velvet Goldmine.” Whether it was due to a lack of chart competition, or whether the record had gone from being the voice of an ominous future to the sad, reassuring sound of a lost past, “Space Oddity” at last hit #1 in the UK.

Epilogue

Space Oddity (Langley Schools Music Project version, 1976).

The record’s one real insight: “Planet Earth is blue and there’s nothing I can do”—the idea that near-space exploration is not a frontier but instead the limit of human endeavour, revealing nothing so much as impotence.

Tom Ewing, Popular entry on “Space Oddity”.

Once during the mission I was asked by ground control what I could see. “What do I see?” I replied. “Half a world to the left, half a world to the right, I can see it all. The Earth is so small.”

Vitali Sevastyanov, USSR cosmonaut, Soyuz 9, Soyuz 18.

When I originally wrote about Major Tom, I was a very pragmatic and self-opinionated lad that thought he knew all about the great American dream and where it started and where it should stop. Here we had the great blast of American technological know-how shoving this guy up into space, but once he gets there he’s not quite sure why he’s there. And that’s where I left him.

David Bowie, interview with NME, 1980.

Bowie cut a new version of “Space Oddity” in late 1979, which he debuted on Kenny Everett’s New Years Eve Show; in it, he sheared the song down to its skin—just Bowie’s harrowed voice, acoustic guitar, basic accompaniment and, in place of the liftoff sequence, 12 seconds of silence. He performed the song with an intensity it had never had before, and soon afterward, he decided to exhume Major Tom and see what had become of him (but that’s a tale for later).

“Space Oddity” is forty years old, and listening to it now it seems prematurely but accurately mournful. Few at the time of its birth, not even its creator, could have imagined that after the moonshots, the American space program would decline into irrelevance, waste and pointlessness; that the year 2001 would not be marked by lunar bases and a Jupiter mission, but the barbaric destruction of NYC skyscrapers and fresh, endless war; that in 2009 mankind would have gone no further into space than it had when “Space Oddity” first charted.

Major Tom’s fate is a resignation of sorts to the cosmos—Bowie had intended it to be the technocratic American mind coming face to face with the unknown and blanking out—but the song wound up being a harbinger of our cultural resignation, predicting that we would eventually lose our nerve, give up on the dream, and sink back into the depths of the old world. Perhaps we aren’t built for transcendence, and the sky sadly is the limit. Or as the song goes, “planet Earth is blue, and there’s nothing I can do.”

Photos (top to bottom): Neil Armstrong, en route to the moon, July 1969; Dave Bowman (Keir Dullea) meets fate, and the last spacewalk of Frank Poole (Gary Lockwood) in 2001: A Space Odyssey, 1968; the original Philips single, BF 1801; Bowie’s 1969 self-titled LP, later renamed after its hit single; a spacesuit-clad Bowie demonstrates the Stylophone to the world; Dutch single, 1969.


Ching-a-Ling

November 4, 2009

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Ching-a-Ling.
Ching-a-Ling (edited version, promo film).
Ching-a-Ling (demo, 1969).

He had avoided it as long as possible, but by the summer of 1968 David Bowie had become a hippie. He grew his hair down to his shoulders, sat around his manager’s house naked, cooked macrobiotic meals, joined a communal arts lab and, saddest of all, formed a folk music trio.

This was Turquoise, soon to be rechristened Feathers. Turquoise was founded by Bowie, his first serious girlfriend Hermione Farthingale, ballet dancer and amateur singer, and London folkie (and former guitarist for The Misunderstood) Tony Hill, who soon was replaced by John “Hutch” Hutchinson, former lead guitarist of Bowie’s old band The Buzz. Hutchinson had recently returned to the UK from Canada, his head full of the new Canadian folk music (Gordon Lightfoot, Joni Mitchell, Leonard Cohen), and he found that Bowie now “was into softer things…he didn’t need a band to pump it out anymore.”

Following in the path of grubby hippie groups before them and the countless numbers after them, Feathers played a meager circuit of university halls and folk clubs. It was a bit of passive rebellion on Bowie’s part—his manager Ken Pitt, desperate to get Bowie some paying gigs, had pushed him to develop a cabaret act, which went nowhere, and landed him a brief spot in a Lyons Maid “Luv” ice cream commercial (directed by Ridley Scott!). Bowie later described Turquoise/Feathers as being in part just a device to spend more time with his girlfriend, but the group also reflected Bowie’s belief that since he wasn’t getting paid anyhow, why not form a “non-commercial” band that performed just for the joy of it?

So Feathers played sets consisting of recited poetry, a few recent Bowie compositions (like “When I’m Five”) and some Jacques Brel covers, interspersed with mime routines. “Ghastly,” the mime Lindsay Kemp recalls in Marc Spitz’s new Bowie biography. The band’s enforced democratic vibe (everyone sang, everyone played guitar) resulted in, as it typically does, a determined sense of mediocrity.

The only Feathers record was “Ching-a-ling,” which Tony Visconti recorded on the sly—booking a session at Trident Studios without managerial approval and hoping the track would get picked up by a label. The b-side was meant to be Tony Hill’s “Back to Where You’ve Never Been,” but as Hill was suddenly replaced by Hutchinson, that idea naturally fell through. “Ching-a-Ling” is not bad and not memorable: it simply floats along like a soap bubble. It may be the most depressing thing that Bowie recorded in the entire decade.

Recorded on 24 October 1968 (Bowie’s sung verse is cut on most versions of the track; it’s no loss); on Deram Anthology (the full version finally appeared on the David Bowie reissue). Bowie and Hutchinson recorded a demo version in mid-April 1969.

Top: (l to r) Hermione Farthingale, David Bowie (cropped hair due to his role as an extra in The Virgin Soldiers), Tony Visconti, John Hutchinson. Ca. October 1968.