London Bye Ta-Ta

October 29, 2009

68ep

London Bye Ta-Ta.

In Victoria Station Bowie overheard a West Indian family calling “London bye ta-ta!” to relatives boarding a train out of town. And the song Bowie wrote with that title is, in part, about immigrant London: a city that, by the end of the ’60s, had a rising population of West Indians, various Africans, Pakistanis, Indians and other nationalities. Many of the newcomers had been members of the British Commonwealth or of its former colonies—the result was a new complexion for the UK (the BBC: in 1945, Britain’s non-white residents were in the low thousands, by 1970 they were approximately 1.4 million). Reaction was swift: Enoch Powell‘s notoriety (or infamy) began a month after Bowie first recorded “London Bye Ta-Ta,” one of several songs of the period to touch on immigration (not only was The Beatles’ “Get Back” originally a satire on Powell, the “get back to where you once belonged” addressed to Pakistanis, but “Ob-la-di, Ob-la-da”‘s title was coined by the Nigerian conga player Jimmy Scott, a friend of McCartney’s.)

One of Bowie’s prettiest ’60s songs, “London Bye Ta-Ta” is also the latest variation on Bowie’s provincials-come-to London theme, in the line of “Can’t Help Thinking About Me,” and “The London Boys.” What’s fine here is a broadening of perspective—two young bohemians meet and flirt, but the singer also realizes they’re part of a greater exodus, mere ripples in a sea of population change. Everyone flooding into town is looking for some form of renewal: a new name, a new face, a better job. “The poet in the clothes shop sold me curry for a pound,” the singer recalls in passing. London has become, seemingly overnight, a strange young town.

It’s a rewrite of “Threepenny Pierrot,” though Bowie greatly improves the song in revision. “Threepenny” is just a catchy chorus and a tinkly little verse; “London Bye Ta-Ta” keeps the chorus but the verse is now in three stages—first just four descending notes (“gi-gi-gi-gi,” “red light green light”) countered by four rising ones (“take me away,” “make up your mind”) punctuated by a clang, then four bars of developing melody (with a third chord, G, finally introduced—it’s only been D and C up to now). It leads to the verse’s final and loveliest four-bar section, in which a neat guitar riff anchors an upward sweep of Tony Visconti’s strings arrangement and, even higher, Bowie’s vocal.

“London Bye Ta-Ta,” as much as it captures the beauty and sweep of a city in the flush of reinventing itself, winds up a tragedy. The two kids don’t make it:

She loves to love all beauty,
And she says the norm is funny
But she whimpers in the morning
When she finds she has no money

“I loved her! I loved her!” the singer pleads with us. But he’s out the door all the same.

Recorded on 12 March 1968 (it was proposed as the B-side to the rejected “In the Heat of the Morning” single); also cut a day later for the BBC (the version linked to above, which is on Bowie at the Beeb). Bowie still thought it had potential and considered it as a follow-up single to “Space Oddity,” cutting a revised version (with Marc Bolan on guitar) between 8-15 January 1970. But it was ultimately scrapped, and the Bolan version wasn’t released until the 1989 Sound and Vision compilation.

Top: London, May Day 1968.


Maid of Bond Street

September 17, 2009

66twig

Maid of Bond Street.

A word-jammed jumpy little thing, “Maid of Bond Street” at first listen seems another acid portrait of Bowie’s hip contemporaries, but the lyric’s more of a fractured self-portrait: Bowie dividing his persona into the lonely glamorous girl made of lipstick and film outtakes and the envious provincial boy shut out of her world who “wants to be a star himself.”

It’s a chore to listen to, though; thankfully it’s short. Bowie spills out his lines as if in a breath endurance contest, the galumphing waltz rhythm seems at cross-purposes with the melody. As the track ends, Bowie finally gives up a chorus as if in recompense: a pure Anthony Newley-style stage belter that ruins whatever subtleties had survived to that point.

Recorded 8 December 1966; on David Bowie (cut from the American version, apparently for being too British).

Top: Twiggy on moped, 1966.


The London Boys

August 28, 2009

boys

The London Boys.
The London Boys (Toy, 2000).
The London Boys (live, 2000).

I knew a girl like that. She ran our first fan club. She died of junk.

Ray Davies, to Jon Savage.

You’ve got what you wanted but you’re on your own.

“The London Boys.”

Pop records of the late ’60s are littered with runaways—teenagers leaving home, heading into the city for kicks and getting spent up. The Kinks have a host of them: “Little Miss Queen of Darkness,” damned to flirt and dance all night in a discotheque; Polly Garter, the provincial who slinks back home after being debauched, and the nameless girl in “Big Black Smoke” who winds up sleeping in cafes and whose “every penny…was spent on purple hearts and cigarettes.” There’s Miss Lonely in “Like a Rolling Stone” or the child sneaking away at daybreak in “She’s Leaving Home.” True to form, the Stones offer the most lurid scenario.

In Bowie’s “The London Boys,” a 17-year-old kid’s come to the city (the same exile from “Can’t Help Thinking About Me” perhaps) and is trying to work his way into the scene, which means pills, living rough and likely worse. (James Perone reads the lyric as being about a teenage girl getting caught up with the Mods, but it seems to fit better as a boy (gay or straight)’s song—but hey, this is far from the last sexually ambiguous Bowie lyric)).  As the song builds, the kid becomes part of the pack, dressing sharp and pilled up: his dissolute triumph leaving him more alone than he was before.

It’s a crepuscular track, built around organ and bass, colored by winds and horns (the same pit orchestra from “Rubber Band,” here turned into specters). Bowie sings the first verses in a croaky, bleary voice, then turns to cabaret as the song ends (as if the London Boys are freezing on stage in a tableaux, the curtain about to fall). It may seem a thematic misstep, though you get the sense that Bowie’s view of reality at the time was something of a dark cabaret.

Bowie wrote “The London Boys” in 1965, first recording it late that year with The Lower Third for Pye (who rejected the track—it’s what Tony Hatch was referring to when he said Bowie wrote too much about dustbins). Bowie recorded it again for the audition that secured his Deram contract.

Recorded 18 October 1966 and released on 2 December 1966 as the b-side of “Rubber Band”; on Deram Anthology. Bowie’s US label, Decca, rejected the track because of the drug references, replacing it with Bowie’s childhood fantasy “There Is a Happy Land.”


I Dig Everything

August 22, 2009

dig

I Dig Everything.
I Dig Everything (live, 1999).
I Dig Everything (Toy, 2000).

“I Dig Everything”‘s opening Hammond organ riff is pure Austin Powers soundtrack, but as the track goes on its charm deepens. A kid fresh arrived in town, mostly likely high, is running around London delighting in everything he sees—the commonplace becomes the mystical, not just through whatever stimulants he’s using, but via the creative arrogance of youth. This is my world, my city, he sings, and those who don’t see the beauties in its slums and on its sidewalks are either blind or old (or cops).

If “Can’t Help Thinking About Me” is a provincial leaving for London, “I Dig Everything” finds the kid having arrived, living in a squalid apartment, having (boho-style) more friends than food, sitting and smoking and laughing at the squares running off to work; he’s besotted at the bounty of city life. There’s an edge buried in the song—the singer’s unemployed and poor, and reality’s going to knock him on his ass sooner or later—but within the track’s confines he’s always going to be young, and each day will drop off fresh promises like a newspaper delivery truck.

It’s very much of a track of its time: the UK’s sun-filled glory of a summer in 1966, the last time England [edited] won the World Cup, the summer of Revolver and Aftermath, of the Emma Peel Avengers and “Sunny Afternoon” and “Daydream.”

The groovy cod-Latin rhythm (washboard and bongos!) is the most notable sign that Tony Hatch is using session players in place of The Buzz, and this is easily the best-sounding Bowie record so far in his career. Sadly, the single was yet another flop for Bowie, whose time with Pye ended soon afterward.

Recorded 5 July 1966 and released on 19 August 1966 as Pye 17157; on Pye 1966 Singles. Bowie revived it in 1999, occasionally performing it live.


Can’t Help Thinking About Me

August 13, 2009

pyecant

Can’t Help Thinking About Me.
Can’t Help Thinking About Me (live, 1999).
Can’t Help Thinking About Me (VH1 Storytellers, 1999).
Can’t Help Thinking About Me (The Mark and Lard Show, 1999).

The first of three singles Bowie would cut in 1966 for Pye (the most cut-rate of all the UK labels, and the home of The Kinks), “Can’t Help Thinking About Me” is also the first in a series of Bowie songs about a provincial kid moving to Mod London and the perils and pleasures that he finds there.

The lyric is mainly vague backstory—the singer has to leave home; he’s blackened the family name (pregnant girl?) in some way; he’s on the train platform, blowing off his girlfriend, and both saddened and close to ecstatic about the prospect of exile.

Bowie’s vocal refines the blunt title phrase, though the sentiments are the same; it’s all florid narcissism and the self-dramatics of adolescence. The singer bids farewell to his old football field as if he was the last Moor leaving the Alhambra; he moans that he wishes he was a child again in the desperate manner of someone just sacked from childhood.

Some biographers have suggested the song is Bowie’s kiss-off to his old band, the Lower Third (their break-up, as recounted by Christopher Sandford, was a sad affair in a Bromley club—each member having to unplug their instrument and hand it over to Bowie’s manager, while Bowie sat there “impassively”). But the lyric seems more a character sketch than anything else.

“Can’t Help Thinking About Me”, like all of Bowie’s singles to date, was a flop, maybe because the verses are melodically stronger than the chorus, which is a bit flat. Still, there are some nice touches to this record—the swirling brushstrokes of guitar that open the track, or the way Graham Rivens’s bass becomes a racing pulse rate as the song builds.

Released 14 January 1966 as David Bowie with the Lower Third, Pye 17020 (The 1966 Pye Singles). It was his first-ever U.S. single (flopped, natch), the last single Bowie made with the Lower Third and the first produced by Tony Hatch, who had delivered Petula Clark’s massive hit “Downtown” a year earlier and who later said of Bowie, “his material was good although I thought he wrote too much about London dustbins.”