[Bowie] went to Decca around the time I was doing “The Wizard.” He was into bombardiers then. Don’t you remember “The Little Bombardier”? He was very cockney then. I used to go round to his place in Bromley and he always played Anthony Newley records.
Marc Bolan, interview with Melody Maker, 12 March 1977.
Why was Bowie into bombardiers, anyway? Maybe the uniforms. Or maybe it was just a random obsession, the result of rummaging around in the past’s cupboard and grabbing a few shiny pieces. Perhaps it was just the delight in how the phrase sounded when sung—the way “lit-tle” is made by two tiny darts of the tongue against the roof of the mouth, while the “BOMB” in “bombardier,” hurled from the back of the throat, can be drawn out for grand effect.
The lyric: shabby old veteran lives sad and alone, then is rejuvenated when he spies two children. He buys them candy and presents, they love him. Shabby old veteran, suspected of being a pedophile, is then run out of town. Strings, piano, curtains. Bowie deliberately keeps the key detail vague—was the bombardier really a pedophile or the victim of mob injustice? His vocal, equally sympathetic and cold, discloses nothing.
“Little Bombardier” is a waltz, one of two Bowie recorded in the same session. In 1966, using 3/4 waltz time was still an unusual choice for rock musicians, and here it’s an ironic commentary on the lyric: the character can’t cope in the modern world, so naturally his song is a throwback to Edwardian dance halls. The lushness of the arrangement—the sweep of strings, the trombone that drives the dance and also delivers a somber solo—seems to mock the coarseness of its title subject.
Recorded on 8 December 1966; on David Bowie. The BBC liked it enough to request that Bowie perform it during his first broadcast on Top Gear in late 1967.
Top photo: London, 1966 (photographer “Ralph46”).