Let’s come straight to it: yes, “The Laughing Gnome” is about a man meeting a gnome, with sped-up gnome voices (à la Alvin and the Chipmunks) by Bowie (as the Laughing Gnome) and engineer Gus Dudgeon (as Fred). For the chorus, Bowie and the gnome(s) duet. There are gnome puns, many of them.
It recently came to light that in 1995 Boris Yeltsin was found on a Washington DC street in his underwear, dead drunk, trying to hail a cab because he wanted a pizza. Many consider “The Laughing Gnome” to be something of an equivalent for Bowie. “Undoubtedly the most embarrassing example of Bowie juvenalia,” wrote Charles Shaar Murray. “Downright stupid, though perversely endearing” scowled David Buckley. “WORST SONG EVER LOL, know SERIOUSLY WORST,” wrote Techtester45 on Youtube.
Stuff and nonsense, I say. Instead,
Why “The Laughing Gnome” is brilliant
1. It rocks. The beat’s the strongest Bowie’s had to date. Drums, piano, bass, guitar locked in, with a thick bottom end. Rhythm guitar hitting against the beat. Drum fills that kick into the chorus. You could dance to it, and you should.
2. The puns. Come on, they’re not bad. Some are even inspired. My favorite collection:
“Haven’t you got an ‘ome to go to?”
‘No, we’re gnomads!’
“Didn’t they need you to get your haircut at school, you look like a Rolling Gnome!”
‘No, not at the London School of EcoGnomics!
It’s a quadruple gnome pun score! Eighteen points, plus a bonus one for making an LSE joke about the Rolling Stones.
3. Credible dark interpretations. Momus, a commenter on this ILM Bowie thread, offered the intriguing theory that “Laughing Gnome” may be about a man losing his mind, a schizophrenic’s conversation with himself. The storyline fits. The man’s walking down the street, hears a strange voice, sees a vision. Then he starts having visions at home. He tries to rally, puts the gnome “on a train to Eastbourne.” No luck. The visions return and multiply: there are two gnomes now! Finally, descent into utter madness. The man’s at home, believing his gnomes have made him wealthy and famous, but is actually curled in a ball on the floor. If you come close you can hear him whisper “HA HA HA…hee hee hee…”
4. Gnomic synchronicity. Pink Floyd recorded Syd Barrett’s “The Gnome” a mere two months after Bowie cut his “Gnome.” Barrett’s gnome is named Grimble Gromble and is more of a stay-at-home than Bowie’s. Both gnomes like their booze, though. They’re color-coordinated, too: Grimble wears a “scarlet tunic [and] a blue green hood” while the Laughing Gnome sports “scarlet and grey.” Barrett offers something of a general benediction honoring the other meaning of the word gnome, that is, “a brief reflection or maxim; a wise pithy saying” (Webster’s Unabridged 20th C):
Look at the sky, look at the river,
Isn’t it good?
5. The Gnome saved Bowie from a life of cabaret. “Bowie included the song in his ill-fated cabaret audition, with the assistance of a glove-puppet gnome.” (Nicholas Pegg; my emphasis.)
6. A bassoon is a lead instrument. And as Buckley notes, it’s playing a riff that, mutated, would crop again and again in Bowie tracks, like “Speed of Life” and “Scary Monsters (and Super Creeps).”
7. It’s a testament to a lost friendship. Gus Dudgeon, architect of “Gnome,” became close to Bowie over the course of making Bowie’s first LP, as while the producer Mike Vernon was bewildered by the end of the sessions (he basically gave up and let Bowie do “Please Mr. Gravedigger” on his own), Dudgeon had become Bowie’s eager collaborator and straight man. He recalled Bowie walking into his flat at Christmas and shaking a branch of Dudgeon’s tree in greeting. (“All the bloody pine needles came off.”)
For “Laughing Gnome” Bowie and Dudgeon spent days coming up with puns and experimenting with tape speeds. They even were proud of the single until the world told them it was a mistake. “For a brief period I enjoyed it, but then when the record came out and everyone said how awful it was I realized it was pretty terrible,” he recalled in 1993. (From The Bowie Companion.)
Dudgeon and Bowie eventually had a falling out, in part because Dudgeon believed Bowie owed him money for “Space Oddity.” But when Dudgeon was killed in a car crash in 2002, Bowie sent flowers to his funeral with the note “Farewell to the Laughing Gnome.” Because Bowie, deep down, knows that the track’s one of the best things he’s ever done.
Recorded on 26 January 1967 and released as Deram DM 123; on Deram Anthology. It flopped upon first release, but reached #6 in the UK when Deram reissued it at the height of Ziggydom in 1973. And the Gnome will rise again, one day.