Reissues: Memory of a Free Festival

February 5, 2016

On a day in which I appear to be snowed in, why not revive a memory of summer? This is a hybrid reissue—the main entry is that of the book (which Repeater excerpted back when the book was released), while the “bonus tracks” are mostly appended from the original blog post.

Originally published on December 11, 2009: “Memory of a Free Festival.”

Memory of a Free Festival.
Memory of a Free Festival (extended version).
Memory of a Free Festival (Part 1).
Memory of a Free Festival (Part 2).
Memory of a Free Festival (BBC, 1970).
Memory of a Free Festival (“Mike Garson Band,” live, 1974).

Free festivals are practical demonstrations of what society could be like all the time: miniature utopias of joy and communal awareness rising for a few days from a grey morass of mundane, inhibited, paranoid and repressive everyday existence…The most lively [young people] escape geographically and physically to the ‘Never Never Land’ of a free festival where they become citizens, indeed rulers, in a new reality.

Anonymous leaflet ca. 1980, quoted in George McKay’s Senseless Acts of Beauty: Cultures of Resistance Since the Sixties.

Is this the way they say the future’s meant to feel?
Or just twenty thousand people standing in a field?

Pulp, “Sorted For E’s and Wizz.”

The free festival was an open-air concert and fair, held on the Croydon Road Recreational Ground in Beckenham on 16 August 1969 (across an ocean, the Woodstock Festival was underway). Bowie performed, his set allegedly including a reggae version of “Space Oddity,” as did groups like the Strawbs. There were puppet shows, Tibetan goods vendors and coconut shies; his new girlfriend Angela Barnett cooked hamburgers in a wheelbarrow. The festival was peaceful and a success, with some 3,000 attending. Beckenham’s mayor and chief of police complimented Bowie for pulling it off.

The song he recorded three weeks later, sequenced to close Space Oddity as his last word on the Sixties, depicted a golden afternoon in which he wandered through a blissful crowd of flower children, exchanging kisses and greeting passing Venusians. In reality Bowie, who’d buried his father only five days before, had swung between near-catatonia and a foul temper, calling his partners “materialistic arseholes” for profiting off hamburgers and concert posters, complaining about the PA system and skipping the after-party. Mary Finnigan, Bowie’s once-lover and collaborator in the Beckenham Arts Lab, later called Bowie a hypocrite for writing a peace-and-love song for a festival at which he’d been so abrasive.

A contrary set of feelings, a man trying to reconstitute a bad day as the hope it ought to have been, gave “Memory of a Free Festival” depth and even bite, with Bowie making some deprecating asides about the holy tribe: “We claimed the very source of joy ran through/it didn’t, but it seemed that way.” The warmth, the easy unity, of the Free Festival is already in the past. If the hippies are the “children of the summer’s end,” they should ready for winter.

Like the Arts Labs, the free concert was a child of the late Sixties. In summer 1968, the promoter Blackhill Enterprises began putting on monthly free rock shows in Hyde Park with the likes of Pink Floyd and the Move. The Rolling Stones hired Blackhill to run their own free Hyde Park concert the following summer (described by Richard Neville as “free, courtesy of Blackhill, of Granada’s groovy camera team, Marshall’s great amplification system and triple-priced Lyon’s ice cream.”) The Beckenham festival was a homespun version of this and it actually was free, unlike Woodstock, which had been forcibly converted into a free show. The happy chaos of Woodstock, soon followed by the 1969 Isle of Wight concert and the violent chaos of the Stones’ free show in Altamont that December, made the free festival yet another fault line between straight and hippie worlds. Parliament soon passed an act banning gatherings of over 5,000 at the Isle of Wight.

“Memory of a Free Festival” opens with Bowie playing a Rosedale electric chord organ that he’d found at Woolworths. As with the Stylophone, he gave a toy instrument dignity. The sole accompaniment of the song’s four verses, the organ was his voice’s rickety, ecclesiastic complement, making him sound like a wandering sermonizer.

Composing on the organ, even a toy like the Rosedale, liberated Bowie from the guitar’s melodic consistency; it foreshadowed the freedom he’d find when writing on the piano a year later. After politely announcing the piece’s title, he started by playing variations on E minor while nudging up the bassline stepwise from C to F. Settling into a loose 3/4 time, he sang the first two verses over a descending, nebulous chord sequence, shifting from B minor to B-flat (“felt the Lon/don sky,” “source of/joy”) while anchored on a D bass. The third verse gained momentum, Bowie singing more hurriedly while mainly keeping on an E note (pushing up slightly on “ecstasy”), slackening at the end of each phrase. A shift to D major (“scanned the skies”) marked the peak of the festival: the aliens arrive, the joints get passed around, the revelers “walk back to the [Croydon] road, unchained.”

What followed was a free-time interlude of organ swirls, snippets of chatter, laughs and guitar fills while John Cambridge kept loose order with his ride cymbal. A memory so far, the festival shifts to the present, a party as much ominous as joyful. The sequence’s real purpose was more practical: it had to glue the “Free Festival” verses to a three-chord (D-C-G) “sun machine” refrain possibly once intended for another song. Having considered using the “Hey Jude” refrain for “Janine,” Bowie now made the long coda of “Free Festival” in its image: loops of ragged communal chanting, with Bowie in Paul McCartney’s soul cheerleader role.

In early 1970, Mercury’s American wing asked Bowie to re- record “Memory of a Free Festival” as a single, requesting a faster tempo and to get to the refrain sooner. The compromise was to cut the track in half, devoting the B-side entirely to the sun machine. This new “Free Festival” found Bowie outshone by his backing band, who tromped in singly during the intro. Even with the Sixties fresh in the grave, there’s a feeling of getting down to business. Guitar, bass and drums kick in before the first verse starts, the Moog rolls over the humble Rosedale organ like a Panzer tank, the psychedelic interlude gets deep-sixed, the chanted backing vocals of the refrains could be from a football terrace. Mick Ronson, Tony Visconti’s free-flowing bass and Ralph Mace’s Moog used the long fadeout as a preview of coming attractions. “Memory of a Free Festival Pt. 1 and 2” was the sound of The Man Who Sold the World, hard glam rock, and a bit too hard and glam for summer 1970, as the single sold dismally.

The Beatles ended the Sixties by breaking up, the last record they made showing them walk single-file off stage. The Stones ended with blood and fire and the sense they’d survive it all (and they would). The Who had a messiah pulled down by his followers, the Kinks emigrated to Australia, Dylan and Van Morrison and a host of others went to ground in the country. Bowie closed a decade in which he’d been a footnote by throwing a party, singing a jaded memory of the summer’s end: the fun-fair of the Sixties was just prelude, his work’s troubled childhood. His “Memory of a Free Festival,” a last gathering of the tribes, had a sad, faded grandeur. Forty-five years on, it can still touch a medieval chord in the soul.

Recorded: 8-9 September 1969, Trident. Bowie: lead vocal, Rosedale electric chord organ; Mick Wayne: lead guitar; Tim Renwick: rhythm guitar; John Lodge: bass; John Cambridge: drums, tambourine; unknown musician(s): baritone saxophone; Visconti, Bob Harris, Sue Harris, Tony Woollcott, Marc Bolan, “Girl”: backing vocals. Produced, arranged: Visconti; engineered: Sheffield, Scott or Toft; (remake, as “Memory of a Free Festival Pt. 1 & Pt. 2”) 21, 23 March, 3, 14-15 April 1970, Trident and Advision Studios, London. Bowie: lead vocal, 12-string acoustic guitar, Rosedale organ; Ronson: lead guitar, backing vocal; Ralph Mace: Moog; Visconti: bass, backing vocal; Cambridge: drums; unknown musicians: strings (arr. Visconti). Produced: Visconti.

First release: 14 November 1969, Space Oddity; (single) 26 June 1970 (Mercury 6052 026). Broadcast: 5 February 1970, The Sunday Show; ca. June 1970, Six-O-One: Newsday; 15 August 1970, Eddy Ready Go! Live: 1969-1971, 1973-1974.

Children of the Sun Machine

E-Zee Possee, The Sun Machine.
Dario G, Sunmachine.
The Polyphonic Spree, Memory of a Free Festival (live, 2004).

The “sun machine” chant, having evanesced at the end of the ’60s, returned a generation later. “Memory of a Free Festival (Part 2),” a trance-inducing earworm, was a natural ancestor of a rave chant, and in 1990 E-Zee Possee had a minor hit with “The Sun Machine,” in which the “sun machine” chant was sung over house piano.

Then there was the UK dance trio Dario G’s 1998 “Sunmachine.” As Dario G’s Paul Spencer said, “We had this idea to sample bits of Bowie’s ‘Memory Of A Free Festival’ over an ambient track of ‘Sunchyme.’ But we quickly discovered that the sample was so brilliant that it needed a brand new track–with some rock elements. There was only one problem: the sample we were using had all of Bowie’s instrumentation in it, which was too noisy for our purpose. So, we sent a demo of the song to Bowie and he liked our idea so much that he sent us the song’s original tape, which allowed us to sample only his vocals. He couldn’t have been a better chap!” As an added bonus, Bowie producer, Tony Visconti, played all the flute parts on the track.” (Thanks to Daniel Simon for this link.)

I’m not sure we’re done with the sun machine yet—expect Animal Collective to use it at some point. [NOTE: this was 2009.]

Top to bottom: The Stones bury the Sixties at Altamont, December 1969; “Memory of a Free Festival Pt. 1” single; bathers in the Serpentine, Hyde Park, 1969.


Ashes to Ashes

September 13, 2011

People Are Turning to Gold (fragment of studio demo).
Ashes to Ashes.
Ashes to Ashes (video, single edit).
Ashes to Ashes (The Tonight Show, 1980 (5:00 in)).
Ashes to Ashes (live, 1983).
Ashes to Ashes (live, 1990).
Ashes to Ashes (broadcast, 1999).
Ashes to Ashes (broadcast, 2000).
Ashes to Ashes (TOTP2, 2002).
Ashes to Ashes (A&E Live By Request (thanks George!), 2002).
Ashes to Ashes (live, 2004).

Scary Monsters for me has always been some kind of purge. It was me eradicating the feelings within myself that I was uncomfortable with…You have to accommodate your pasts within your persona. You have to understand why you went through them. That’s the major thing. You cannot just ignore them or put them out of your mind or pretend they didn’t happen or just say “Oh I was different then.”

David Bowie, Musician, July 1990.

Two nuns, a priest, a pretty girl in a party dress and a sad clown walk abreast in a funeral procession. The sexton drives a bulldozer a few paces behind them. It’s only a procession; there’s no burial, for there’s no body (but there will be a grave). The clergy slap the ground as they walk, as if consecrating the beach. The clown clasps his hands in prayer, half-smiling. The clown’s mother arrives late, nags at him as he dutifully walks with her along the strand. For a hymn, the mourners chant a children’s bogeyman song. My mother said, I never should/Play with the gypsies in the wood.

It’s the dream of a man in a padded room. He was once someone else: a black-and-white memory comes, framed like a ’50s coffee commercial, of him sitting at breakfast in his spacesuit, ready for his commute. She packed my bags last night, pre-flight. Protein pills, helmet on. Then the memory catches fire: the kitchen explodes, the mourners from the beach appear in periphery, singing to him. Maybe he’s still in space, floating alone in the deep. Or he came home after all but was never allowed to return, instead kept stowed away in a basement. All of these the papery visions of an aging junkie, dreams nested within dreams like matryoshka dolls.

Somewhere in Ground Control, in a room entered only by custodians and lost interns, an ancient Telex machine rumbles to life. A single line: I’M HAPPY HOPE YOU’RE HAPPY TOO. A pause, as if the machine draws a breath. Then: I’VE LOVED ALL I’VE NEEDED LOVE SORDID DETAILS FOLLOWING. But nothing else follows.

On 6 February 1969, on a Greenwich soundstage, David Bowie dressed up as an astronaut. He was making a promotional film for a song that no one had heard, one he had recorded only a few days before. The grips and cameramen chuckled when they saw his costume (the film was a self-funded vanity project, a last attempt by his manager to revive a stalled career). But when they heard “Space Oddity” in playback, the stagehands began to hum the lines, as if they were recalling a schoolyard chant. As Bowie walked off the set, a crew member saluted him and called him Major Tom. Bowie was delighted: he had finally become someone else.

“Space Oddity” is the beginning of David Bowie as “Ashes to Ashes” is his end. “Oddity” opens the tale, expanding outward, with infinite space as its backdrop; “Ashes” closes it, collapsing on itself, compressing itself, sounding at times like a store’s worth of music boxes were opened together at once. “Oddity” took a stock character, Bowie’s idea of the all-American GI, and set him against the sublime, letting him fall into the deep and leaving room for us to follow him. “Ashes” brings him home, now deranged and offering only shards of riddles, jonesing for utopia. “Ashes” is the song that eats itself, Major Tom’s death song.

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.

Bowie, NME, September 1980.

Bowie revised “Space Oddity” in late 1979. With a small band that he and Tony Visconti cobbled together, Bowie stripped “Oddity” down, reducing it to the folk song it had always been beneath its trappings. “Space Oddity” was recorded as a theater piece, following Bowie’s cryptic narrative rather than any typical song structure, with its various parts (the eerie Stylophone, the parade-ground snare drum, the soaring Mellotron) characters in a revue. Now Bowie clarified “Oddity” down to the vocal melody, a harshly-strummed 12-string guitar, a basic bass-drums rhythm section. Instead of a countdown, silence. Instead of the measured back-and-forth of Major Tom and Ground Control’s interplay, a pained solitary vocal.

The remake (played on Kenny Everett’s New Year’s show and issued as a B-side soon afterward) led Bowie to consider a sequel to “Space Oddity.” He was in a retrospective mood already, reusing Astronettes numbers and old demos for the tracks he was working up for Scary Monsters, and the timing seemed right: the start of a new decade, one that would be the obverse of the Sixties. Still, when Bowie began working on a song called “People Are Turning to Gold,” he only had a melody line, no lyrics. The idea to use the track to revive Major Tom came months later, during overdubs.

I was thinking of how I was going to place Major Tom in this 10 years on, [with] what would be the complete dissolution of the great dream that was being propounded when they shot him into space. The great technology [was] capable of putting him up there, but when he did get up there, he wasn’t quite sure why he’d been put there…We come to him 10 years later and find the whole thing has soured, because there was no reason for putting him up there…[So] the most disastrous thing I could think of is that he finds solace in some kind of heroin-type drug, actually cosmic space feeding him: an addiction. He wants to return to the womb from whence he came.

David Bowie, promo disc for Scary Monsters, 1980.

“Ashes to Ashes” seems composted from old records, stitched together out of discarded rhythm tracks and random overdubs. Deep in its bones is a song Bowie had loved since childhood, Frank Loesser’s “Inchworm,” as sung by Danny Kaye.”Inchworm’s” semitonal moves between F and Eb are echoed in “Ashes,” which moves from F to Eb at the end of its verses, with Bowie also inspired by the way Kaye’s lead vocal rises and falls against a equally wavering choral counter-melody. (The vocal line of “Ashes” is also a reverse image of “Life on Mars,” whose legendary octave leaps in its chorus are countered by, in “Ashes,” verses filled with octave drops.)

But its most direct ancestor was a sequel song, too: Buddy Holly’s “Peggy Sue Got Married.” Rock & roll began as an overnight fad, its forefathers quick to exploit whatever sold. So hit songs bred follow-ups. “Johnny B. Goode” led to “Bye Bye Johnny,” “The Twist” begat “Let’s Twist Again,” “Louie Louie” was followed by “Louie Louie Go Home” (covered by an 18-year-old Bowie). Still, “Peggy Sue Got Married” isn’t quite that blunt—there’s a sad self-consciousness in it that you also find in “Ashes,” the sense of a song chewing up another song.*

Like “Ashes,” “Peggy Sue Got Married” opens with Holly asking if you recall his older hit (Bowie sighs “it’s such an EARLY song”), but then he equivocates—he’s heard something, he may be wrong, who knows, he’s just the messenger.I just heard a rumor from a friend,” Holly sings, teasingly (“I heard a rumor from Ground Control,” Bowie answers, 20 years later), then strings you along with little three-note loops: “I don’t say…that it’s true… and culminates with the roller-coaster rise-and-fall of “I’ll just leave that up to you.” And Holly’s trademark vocal fills, his oohs and moans, are mirrored by Bowie’s interjections in “Ashes”: “oh no—don’t say it’s true” or “oh no, not again!” and especially the “who-oh-oh-oh” after “out of the blue.” It’s the sound of Holly’s ghost.

Rock & roll sequels have nowhere to go but home: they’re not fun, they expire in respectability. Johnny B. Goode goes to Hollywood to make a decade’s worth of bad movies. Louie Louie goes back to his wife and child. Wild, irresistible Peggy Sue gets married, moves into a prefab house and has kids. Bowie’s playing with this conceit in “Ashes to Ashes”—what else is there for Major Tom but a fall from grace, Dan Dare becoming a tired old junkie? I ain’t got no money and I ain’t got no hair, he laments, like a kid’s parody of a blues song.

[“Ashes”] is also a nursery rhyme. It’s very much a 1980s nursery rhyme, and I think 1980s nursery rhymes will have a lot to do with 1880s-1890s nursery rhymes, which were all rather horrid, with little boys with their ears being cut off and things like that. I think we’re getting round to that again, the idea of the Sesame Street “nice” nursery rhymes being possibly outdated—unfortunately.

Major Tom was also a boy’s adventure hero, one abducted from Eagle comics and cast into the void (remember how much of “Space Oddity” uses child’s words instead of “official” ones). “Ashes” sends him back into a storybook, only now tainted, diseased, embittered. The song’s two refrains—the chorus and the outro—are twisted children’s rhymes, chants for “the awful Eighties,” as Bowie called the decade before it hardly had started. Creepy, suggestive of some old horror bricked up in rhymes, Bowie’s lines echo the chants in Russell Hoban’s Riddley Walker, the latter written in the broken language of a post-nuclear-holocaust Kent reduced to a second Stone Age.

For “Ashes,” Bowie wrote one of his finest, most extravagant and taxing melodies, one that seems to work against the song at times (Bowie’s often landing against the beat, or singing “through” bars). But through force of will, Bowie keeps the song whole: it’s as though the conductor of an opera is also the lead tenor.

The first verse starts with Bowie in flight, swooping from a high A-flat down to an A-flat deeper in his range. He sings a trio of sudden collapses (“do-you-re-mem-ber-a-guy” is all high notes, the quick fall comes on “that’s-been; same for “in-such-an-ear-ly (high) sooong” (low), etc.). Then comes a line with a much shorter range, almost conversational (“oh no, don’t say it’s true“). The high, falling lines are fanciful, the retorts are flat and short. “They got a message from the action man” stays almost entirely on one note, like a newscaster breaking into the song.

(Again, this is pure Buddy Holly. As Theodore Gracyk wrote in Rhythm and Noise: “Holly’s dips and swoops embroider the beat and thus bind rhythm and melody together, dissolving the typical division between vocal and rhythm section…[Holly] exploits the peculiarities of his own voice.”)

Then comes Major Tom’s message, which begins as two quick jolts upward (“I’m HAPPY,” “hope you’re HAPPY“) and then, again, falls back to earth (“too-ooo-oo“). The message (and the verse) end by repeating now-established vocal patterns: one line is a near-octave fall (“I’ve loved all I’ve needed love“), the other is narrow and low (“sordid details following“). The second verse (starting with “time and again“) repeats the formula, though the falls are less severe—“stay clean tonight” is only an Ab to C drop, for example.

By contrast, the two bridges are a series of arcs, with Bowie’s vocal leading the backing band as if in a choral round. Typically Bowie will start low, rise to a high note and descend in the same breath: so on “the shrieking of nothing” line, he starts on F, goes up to a D natural and falls down to B-flat. He also creates the sense of a quickening pace via a run of triplets (“Jap-girls-in” “syn-the-sis” “and-I-“). Along with Dennis Davis’ intricate drum patterns and various Visconti tweaks and flanging, the sensation is that the song is slowly falling out of time, although it stays straight 4/4 throughout.

In the bridges a set of zombified voices mutter curses beneath Bowie. While in the first bridge the voices are so submerged in the mix that they’re audible only as a menacing rumble, in the second the “zombie” voices are mixed higher, delay-echoing the lead vocal with utterly no emotion. It culminates in the eerie/hilarious way that the zombie voice flatly repeats Bowie’s “who-oh-oh,”: it’s a rock & roll vocal fill reduced to flat, lifeless syllables, music drained of its blood.

And in his eight-bar nursery rhyme refrain, Bowie again sings a series of falls: the last line, all half notes, is a descending sequence (Eb-Db-C) that ends, appropriately, on Low. The song expires with its cycling four-bar chant, a move from Eb minor to Ab minor, each line again finished off in a three-note descent (“ma-ma said,” “get things done,” “not mess with” “ma-jor Tom“). Major Tom, returned to the cruel world of children, is consumed by them.

So Major Tom thought he was starring in an Arthur C Clarke story and found himself in a Philip K Dick one by mistake, and the result is oddly magnificent. Why is Bowie doing this? To kill off the 1970s, like everyone else was trying to. And by that he meant his 70s, because Bowie’s pop was always strongest when it was just him in his hall of mirrors.

Tom Ewing, Popular: “Ashes to Ashes.”

“Space Oddity” was horizontal, carefully assembled in stages. Though its lyric’s questions were left unanswered, the structure of the song, its staggered arrangements (written on a piece of paper by producer Gus Dudgeon as a series of squiggly lines and streaks of colors), made “Oddity” a one-way flight, continually moving forward. By contrast, “Ashes” is vertical, organic, a deliberate mess. There’s a density to the mix; it’s like a black hole absorbing whatever sounds approach—the percussion mixed in the left channel (often a shaker, but a stick hit off-beat appears briefly in the verses), Carlos Alomar’s ska guitar, George Murray’s popped bass, a synthesizer choir, a synthesized guitar solo, Davis’ intricate hi-hat work, the muttered backing vocals, and the little noises that you only hear once or twice (a sprinkle of piano notes, Bowie’s groans during an instrumental break, a few piercing guitar chords).

And unlike “Space Oddity,” which Dudgeon had planned like an invasion by sea, “Ashes to Ashes” came together in pieces, Bowie and Visconti relying (as usual, by this point) on a series of happy accidents.

Roy Bittan’s opening Wurlitzer pipe organ line (there’s a trace of the piano opening of “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” in it) is actually a grand piano fed through one of Visconti’s new toys, the Eventide Instant Flanger. Bowie had requested an actual stereo Wurlitzer, but after it arrived, Visconti found that only one side of the organ worked “and even then not very well.” So he ran Bittan’s piano through the Flanger until he “got a decent moving stereo image to emulate a Wurlitzer.” But of course Visconti couldn’t stop toying with the Flanger, winding up with the shaking, wobbly sound you hear in the final mix.

Chuck Hammer’s guitar synthesizer treatments (which he called “guitarchitecture”) were also a random element, as Hammer had essentially showed up at the Power Station to give Bowie and Visconti an exhibition of his technique and tools (which included a synthesizer that gave Hammer an “infinite” sustain on his guitar). He wound up as “Ashes”‘ last mourner, ushering out the song (Andy Clark’s synthesizer, which serves as a high chorus in the bridges, appears as well) by dueting with himself, a performance that Visconti recorded in the stairwell of the Power Station (& it winds up sounding like a Theremin).

The foundation, as always, was the old gang of Alomar, Murray and Davis, their time now almost at an end (they’ll go out dancing, though, in the last Scary Monsters song). If “Ashes” is a funeral, they are its second line: Alomar plays a cryptic reggae, his guitar rasping out breaths,while Murray pops his bass throughout, as though bent on making such an ungainly song swing (and he pulls it off). Davis had to cope with one of the hardest challenges of his time with Bowie, forced to play what Bowie later called “an old ska beat.” It’s like a guitarist having to play lead and rhythm lines at once**—Davis has to master the intricate off-kilter beat while also keeping time while using his hi-hat to link together the bridges and verses. Bowie said that Davis struggled throughout the session until Bowie played out the pattern for him on a chair and cardboard box. Davis went home, practiced all night and finally got the track down the next day.

I’ve never done good things,
I’ve never done bad things,
I never did anything out of the blue…

“Ashes to Ashes” was a smash, Bowie’s second UK #1 (the first, of course, was “Space Oddity”). It was a surprise return to commercial form, as many (including RCA) had written off Bowie as a hitmaker. (The single’s brisk sales were helped by a gimmick: the initial run of 45s included a set of collector stamps.) Bowie’s masterpiece of a promo film, directed by David Mallet, dispatched the past (Bowie wore a Pierrot costume designed by his old collaborator/lover Natasha Korniloff (see “The Mime Songs“) with emissaries of the future (four Blitz kids recruited as mourners). The video created the language of MTV as it disposed of Bowie’s past selves, auctioning them off in a series of images.

Bowie’s timing was acute. Ziggy Stardust had helped end the Sixties by parodying the decade’s excesses, its grand claims and public spectacles, but Bowie, while moving from face to face throughout the late Seventies, had remained, in his gnomic way, a believer, a child of the summer’s end. Now he could taste winter. “Ashes to Ashes” seems like a public abdication; it’s a man summoning his powers once more to twist a world into his own, flickering image—for the last time. It’s the end, but the moment has been prepared for, as Tom Baker, another colorful Sixties remnant, would say as his last words on Doctor Who, a few months after “Ashes to Ashes” hit #1.

In our survey, Bowie has many more years to run, and there are many more songs to come—the commercial triumph, the fall into weariness and slack, the desperate, at-times amazing effort to reconnect with his muse and his audience in his fading years. Bowie may still release more songs. But “Ashes to Ashes” is his last song. It’s the final chapter that came midway through the book. Bowie sings himself offstage with a children’s rhyme; eternally falling, eternally young.

Recorded February 1980, Power Station, NYC; Good Earth Studios, April 1980. Released as a single c/w “Move On” in August 1980 (RCA BOW 6, #1 UK). Performed on the Tonight Show on 5 September 1980 with Bowie’s band-that-never-was, assembled for a possible 1981 tour: including Alomar, G.E. Smith and Steve Goulding (the Tonight Show was the band’s only public performance, though they’re in the concert filmed for Christiane F as well as in the “Fashion” video). Played live throughout Bowie’s subsequent career, though rarely that well.

Sequels and adaptations: Major Tom returns once more in the Bowie story in the Pet Shop Boys’ remix of “Hallo Spaceboy,” which we’ll get to next year. However, there’s a notable piece of Apocrypha: Peter Schilling’s “Major Tom (Coming Home)” (1983), which is the 2010 to Bowie’s 2001. Though “Ashes to Ashes” seems uncoverable (it’s like “The Ballad of John and Yoko” in its sense of being tailored for its writer alone), several have tried: Tears for Fears, the Sneaker Pimps, Warpaint, the Commodore 64, the Shins.

* Holly only recorded “Peggy Sue Got Married” as a demo, as he was killed before he took it into the studio. With glommed-on lead guitar, bass and drums, it was a minor hit in the early 1960s.

** An insight by my drummer girlfriend, who likes the Tears for Fears version as much, if not more, than the DB version.

Top: David Bowie, Self Portrait (ca. 1980); “railroadweasel”, “Self Portrait–DMK 1980”; Robert Mapplethorpe, “Self Portrait,” 1980; Suzanne Poli, “Self Portrait,” 1980; Jonas Mekas, Self Portrait, 1980; Andy Warhol, Self Portrait in Drag, 1980.


Memory of a Free Festival

December 11, 2009

Memory of a Free Festival (LP).
Memory of a Free Festival (Part 1).
Memory of a Free Festival (Part 2).

Free festivals are practical demonstrations of what society could be like all the time: miniature utopias of joy and communal awareness rising for a few days from a grey morass of mundane, inhibited, paranoid and repressive everyday existence…The most lively [young people] escape geographically and physically to the ‘Never Never Land’ of a free festival where they become citizens, indeed rulers, in a new reality.

Anonymous leaflet ca. 1980, quoted in George McKay’s Senseless Acts of Beauty: Cultures of Resistance Since the Sixties.

Is this the way they say the future’s meant to feel?
Or just twenty thousand people standing in a field?

Pulp, “Sorted For E’s and Whizz.”

“Memory of a Free Festival” is a false memory, experience refurbished by regret. The festival in question was an open-air concert and fair held at the Croydon Road Recreational Ground in Beckenham on 16 August 1969 (the same weekend the Woodstock Festival was happening) that featured performances by Bowie—including a reggae version of “Space Oddity,” thankfully not recorded—and other groups like The Strawbs, all introduced by John Peel, puppet shows (of course), Tibetan goods (natch) and coconut shies. Bowie’s new girlfriend Angela Barnett cooked hamburgers in a wheelbarrow. The festival was peaceful and a relative success, with some 3,000 attendees (Bowie was complimented by Bromley’s mayor and chief of police, who also showed up).

The song David Bowie wrote about the festival soon afterward, which became the last song of the Space Oddity LP and was possibly the last song he recorded in the ’60s, depicts a blissful afternoon in which Bowie’s narrator wanders through a happy crowd of flower children, exchanging kisses, greeting Venusians. It ends with a communal worship of the setting sun and hopes for pleasures in the night ahead.

This wasn’t quite the case in reality. The festival was held five days after Bowie had buried his father, and he was in a foul mood, calling his partners “materialistic arseholes” for making money on hamburgers and T-shirts, complaining about the lousy PA system and eventually storming off in a black cloud at the end of the night. Mary Finnegan, Bowie’s once-lover and collaborator in the Beckenham Arts Lab, later called Bowie a hypocrite for writing a peace-and-love anthem about a festival at which he had been such a bore.

But “Memory of a Free Festival” is a requiem more than it is a celebration, the first clue being in the title—the naivete, the warmth, the easy unity that the song commemorates are already receding into the past. Bowie calls the hippies “children of the summer’s end,” suggesting they will soon have to return home for the impending winter. And Bowie’s narrator has a touch of wit in his descriptions, with lines like “We claimed the very source of joy ran through/it didn’t, but it seemed that way” or “Satori must be something like the same.”

Free “spontaneous” festivals first appeared in the UK in the summer of 1969, with free concerts given in Hyde Park by Humble Pie and, more famously, the Rolling Stones; the template for the model became Woodstock, though of course Woodstock, like the 1970 Isle of Wight concert, was a for-profit event forcibly converted into a free one by the assembled mob. It’s arguable that the Arts Lab festival was the first intentionally free festival held in Britain, one that served as a vanguard for later editions like the Phun City festival in July 1970 and the Windsor Free Festivals of the early ’70s, which eventually were shut down by the police.

The insistence on a concert being free was both idealistic (music is meant to be free, it gets corrupted by the capitalists, etc.: the same sort of thing a pro-Napster person was writing on a message board in 2001) and hipper-than-thou purist (how very bourgeois to make money on hamburgers and ticket sales). Cynics would claim the free festival’s natural endpoint is the disastrous Altamont concert, with Hell’s Angels murdering concertgoers, though the dream of a spontaneous gathering of the tribes, something medieval in our souls, has kept the dream alive in the forty years since.

“Memory of a Free Festival”‘s original recording starts with Bowie playing the Rosedale electric chord organ (a sort-of electric harmonium that only has about twelve playable chords), which serves as the main accompaniment for the song’s four verses, offering a humble ecclesiastical complement to Bowie’s wavering vocal. A interlude of organ swirls, snippets of chatter and laughter and guitar grunts follows (this chord chart aptly terms it “WEIRD BIT”), leading to a four-bar refrain (D-G-C-D, repeat ad infinitum) that carries the song to its end: The sun machine is coming down and we’re gonna have a party!. Yes, it was 1969.

Bowie loved “Hey Jude” (having included the “na na na” refrain in his demo of “Janine”) and this is his obvious attempt to imitate McCartney’s structure—extend a three-minute song into an epic via five minutes or more of ragged communal chanting over three repeated chords (according to Pegg, some of the backing singers included future Sony VP Tony Woollcott and Radio 1 DJ “Whispering” Bob Harris).

In the spring of 1970, Bowie’s American label Mercury asked him to re-record “Memory of a Free Festival” as a single. Mercury thought it had potential to be a hit, instructing Tony Visconti to pick up the tempo and move the “sun machine” refrain to about two minutes into the track. The compromise was to break the track into two parts, with the single’s B-side being simply the “sun machine” bit. It’s a stronger record, with Mick Ronson quickly establishing himself as lead guitarist and a sumptuous Visconti string arrangement, though the fragile naivete of the original has been swallowed by grandeur and spectacle. Here come the Seventies.

The original was recorded ca. September 1969, on Space Oddity; the remake single was recorded on 3, 14-15 April 1970 and released as Mercury 6052 026 (it was a colossal flop, as Pegg found that it sold a mere 240 copies in the US in its first month of release).

Children of the Sun Machine

E-Zee Possee, The Sun Machine.
Dario G, Sunmachine.
The Polyphonic Spree, Memory of a Free Festival (Sun Machine).

The “sun machine” chant, having evanesced at the end of the ’60s, returned a generation later. “Memory of a Free Festival (Part 2),” a trance-inducing repetition of a meaningless earworm, was a natural ancestor of a rave chant, and in 1990 E-Zee Possee had a minor hit with “The Sun Machine,” in which the “sun machine” chant was sung over house piano. Dario G’s 1998 “Sunmachine” is something of an officially-approved sequel to “Free Festival,” with Visconti playing flute and Bowie graciously sending Dario G the master tape so they could isolate his vocal for the new recording. I’m not sure we’re done with the sun machine yet—expect Animal Collective to use it at some point.

From the top: The Stones bury the Sixties at Altamont, December 1969; “Memory of a Free Festival Pt. 1” single; bathers in the Serpentine, Hyde Park, 1969.


Unwashed and Somewhat Slightly Dazed

December 9, 2009

Unwashed and Somewhat Slightly Dazed.
Unwashed and Somewhat Slightly Dazed (BBC, 1970).

In late July 1969, while David Bowie was performing at the Maltese Song Festival, his father, Haywood “John” Jones, took ill. He died soon after Bowie returned to Britain. Jones had been a source of great stability—financial and emotional—for Bowie in the ’60s, and his death, coming at around the same time Bowie was breaking with his longtime manager Ken Pitt as well as ditching many of his old friends, left Bowie angry and withdrawn. Bowie later told George Tremlett that “Unwashed and Somewhat Slightly Dazed” was his attempt to capture the surreal feeling of the weeks after his father’s death.

“Unwashed,” however, seems more about class anxiety and Dylan-worship than anything else. Bowie told an interviewer in late ’69 that an inspiration for the title had come from the “funny stares” he got on the street, and critics like Nicholas Pegg suggest the song also seems to be revisiting the Hermione Farthingale breakup (Farthingale was of a higher class than Bowie and allegedly didn’t approve of his pop music leanings, and the song is in part a dig at a girl with a “red parquet floor” and a Braque painting on her wall).

The song is a slow reduction, moving from complexity and nuance down to hard basics, and seems, symbolically if not intentionally, to be Bowie throwing over folk music for hard rock. It opens with 12-string acoustic, alternating between Asus2 and D9 chords; Bowie’s dreamy vocal and the occasional sweep of electric guitar suggests it will be another delicate rambling folk song in the vein of “Letter to Hermione.” Then a 20-bar verse destabilizes the song until at last Bowie hits ground with a Bo Diddley beat and riffing guitars and harmonica (the latter played by Benny Marshall, lead singer of the Hull-based Rats, which would be the source of most of the Spiders From Mars).

A frustrated Bowie once said during the Space Oddity sessions that “It’s gotta rock!” and he finally got his wish here. The rest of “Unwashed” is centered on the primal chord progression C-F-C (and occasionally F-Bb-F, which is the spine of Dylan’s “Fourth Time Around”), with Bowie sneering that “I’ve got eyes in my backside” and “my head’s full of murders!” and so on. After a last yelp Bowie lets his players jam for two minutes, the harmonica backing the riffs while Tim Renwick and Keith Christmas solo on electric guitar, and even a horn section stumbles in towards the fadeout. By far the liveliest track on an otherwise somber and leaden record.

Recorded ca. September 1969; on Space Oddity.

Top: multi-generational summit, London, 1969 (Romano Cagnoni).


Cygnet Committee

December 8, 2009

Lover To the Dawn.
Cygnet Committee.
Cygnet Committee (BBC, 1970).

People, especially young people, more and more find themselves in the iron grip of authoritarian institutions. Reaction against the pigs or teachers in the schools, welfare pigs or the army, is generalizable and extends beyond the particular repressive institution to the society and the State as a whole. The legitimacy of the State is called into question for the first time in at least 30 years, and the anti-authoritarianism which characterizes the youth rebellion turns into rejection of the State, a refusal to be socialized into American society. Kids used to try to beat the system from inside the army or from inside the schools; now they desert from the army and burn down the schools.

First manifesto of what would become Weatherman, published in New Left Notes, 18 June 1969.

This country is crying out for a leader. God knows what it is looking for, but if it’s not careful it’s going to end up with a Hitler.

David Bowie, interview with Music Now!, 20 December 1969.

And we can force you to be free
And we can force you to believe

“Cygnet Committee.”

“Cygnet Committee” begins as David Bowie’s break-up letter to the Arts Lab, a communal arts venture he had co-founded that was run out of the back room of a Beckenham pub, and over its near-ten-minute span the song becomes a bile-filled, self-righteous attack aimed at the counterculture itself.

So something whose roots are in petty, specific gripes (Bowie had hoped the Arts Lab (which featured everything from tie-dying lessons to free-form jazz performances) would be a free-flowing exchange of ideas, and found it was mainly a bunch of grubby, needy kids trying to latch onto the slightly-more-famous types like Bowie—“I opened doors that would have blocked their way…I ravaged my finance just for those”) blossoms into a jeremiad against the New Left, cult figures, false hippie capitalists, deluded kids and their various empty slogans (including “kick out the jams” and “love is all we need”): it’s an unrelenting damning of a movement that Bowie was barely part of.

Two centuries before, England had avoided the revolutions that overtook America and France, and by 1969-1971 it seemed like the pattern was repeating—where French students had rioted in Paris and nearly caused DeGaulle’s government to collapse, and radical American students were bombing the Capitol and the Pentagon, the UK had remained relatively quiet (“London was the vacuum of late 1960s rebellion,” Peter Doggett). So “Cygnet Committee”‘s sustained burst of rage and elaborate paranoia seems unearned. After all, what did the guy who wrote “Laughing Gnome” or “Space Oddity” really have to say about the Revolution?

Bowie wasn’t the only one to sense a blackness at the heart of the counterculture—Pete Townshend had just written a rock opera about false messiahs, pop cultism and the rise of mob philosophy (or just listen to the way Merry Clayton’s voice cracks when she sings “Rape! Murder!” in “Gimme Shelter”). For Bowie, “Cygnet Committee” is the portal through which he would descend into his ’70s obsessions—supermen, glam violence, glam fascism, cults of personalities and various dystopias—and some of those figures appear in shadowy form here, slitting throats, killing children, betraying friends. Although Bowie ends the song with a plea for love and freedom, you’re left mainly with the phrase “I want to live,” the simplest, humblest request that a human being can make.

The song seems like a patchwork of three or four different pieces sewn together (it has at least one recognizable ancestor: the second/fifth verses and the start of the third/sixth are reused from a Bowie composition called “Lover to the Dawn” which he had demoed with John Hutchinson earlier in 1969). Two fairly concise four-line verses (sung over acoustic guitar, a fluid bassline and legato electric guitar) are followed by a 13-line, 48-bar rambling monster of a verse, which begins with a basic 4/4 rock accompaniment and then slackens into looser, almost free-form lines. The pattern repeats and this time the rambling verse (call it the radical faction) now conquers the song, extending for over five minutes until the fadeout. There is a coherence to it all, as the three verses are in step-up pattern (they begin in D, Eb and F, respectively, with the “rant” section of the third verse, for lack of a better word, starting in A Minor). The final exhortation (“I want to believe!”) is delivered over twining guitar and keyboard lines.

“Cygnet Committee” can be wearying to listen all the way through (at least I find), as the players either won’t or can’t rock when the song cries out for it—if you’re quoting the MC5, you ought to be laying down some heavy fire. Bowie’s vocal, in which he seems to be bleeding and purging himself so as to be ready for the years to come, carries much of the track.

Several writers have called this Bowie’s “first masterpiece,” which seems an overreach, though Bowie certainly was clawing here after something grander and more resonant than most of his earlier works. For an artist often accused of being cold and calculating, it’s a messy, wildly human performance.

Recorded ca. August-September 1969, on Space Oddity.

Top: Bernardine Dohrn, La Pasionaria of the Weather Underground, Chicago, September 1969.


God Knows I’m Good

December 3, 2009

God Knows I’m Good.

Oscar Wilde’s quip that “all bad poetry springs from genuine feeling” (often misremembered as “all bad poetry is sincere”) applies to rock songs as well. A case in point: Keith Christmas, one of the guitarists on the Space Oddity LP, recalls Bowie weeping uncontrollably while listening to a playback of “God Knows I’m Good.”

A poor old woman in a modern supermarket (the kind that has “cash machines” that are both “spitting” and “shrieking”—surprised they aren’t “vomiting” as well) shoplifts a can of stew. As she goes to the door, a security officer nabs her. She cries out “God Knows I’m Good!” (repeat 50 times) and falls to the floor. To hammer the point home, we also get some snide asides about all the “honest people” who smugly walk past her unknowing, and of course the backdrop of our tale is the Horror of Modern Consumer Society—soulless machines, roaring money, that sort of thing.

It’s all cheap, adolescent sentiment, with the lyric focused on a pathetic paper figure intended to generate sympathy—Bowie even made the old creature deaf to make her more woeful. Where “Conversation Piece” (a vastly superior track this thing might’ve knocked off the LP, as the two songs have some similarities) has richness and restraint in its character study, “God Knows I’m Good” just makes empty, loud demands and soon wears down its listeners’ patience. The chorus is appalling, and the 20 bars or so of guitar busking at the end complete the illusion that a three-minute track has lasted as long as an entire LP.

Recorded ca. August-September 1969; on Space Oddity.

Top: William Doherty, “Belfast Children,” 1969.


Don’t Sit Down

December 1, 2009

Don’t Sit Down.

“Don’t Sit Down” is a squib, a 40-second lazy jam with a Bowie guide vocal that soon cracks up. Its presence on Space Oddity is part of the deliberate informality of late ’60s LPs, from Jimi Hendrix coughing at the start of “Rainy Day, Dream Away” to Dylan murmuring “Is [the tape] rolling, Bob?” on Nashville Skyline to the king of them all, the Beatles’ White Album, which is riddled with mutters, coughs, false starts, control room chat, outtakes (the fiddle scrapings at the end of “Don’t Pass Me By,” etc.) and tiny shards of discarded tracks. Something that would get an engineer or producer reprimanded in 1963 was now proof that a band was keeping it real.

RCA deleted “Don’t Sit Down” when it reissued the Space Oddity LP in 1972 and the track finally was restored on the Rykodisc 1990 CD release. No one had missed it.


Wild Eyed Boy From Freecloud

November 30, 2009

Wild Eyed Boy From Freecloud (B-side).
Wild Eyed Boy From Freecloud (LP).
Wild Eyed Boy From Freecloud (live, 1973).

“Wild Eyed Boy From Freecloud” is another of Bowie’s Tibetan songs, completing a cycle that began in fact (“Silly Boy Blue”), evolved into half-myth (“Karma Man”) and now ends as a fable, fit for a bedtime story or a puppet show. The ancestor of “Freecloud” is Bowie’s mime piece Yet San and the Eagle, the story of a Tibetan boy living under Chinese Communist oppression, and “Freecloud” seems as if it was meant to accompany the movements of actors, with the lyric sometimes doubling as stage directions (the hangman “folds the rope into its bag” or “so the village dreadful yawns”).

But the wild boy of Freecloud isn’t just a Tibetan monk under an assumed name—he’s also uncorrupted youth in nature, whose very existence offends the worldlings who live meanly in the village below him. Bowie described his storyline in an October 1969 interview with Disc & Music Echo: the boy “lives on a mountain and has developed a beautiful way of life…I suppose in a way he’s rather a prophet figure. The villagers disapprove of the things he has to say and they decide to hang him.” The boy resigns himself to death, only to watch in horror as the mountain takes revenge for him. “So in fact everything the boy says is taken the wrong way—both by those who fear him and those who love him.”

Feral children and noble savages cropped up everywhere in the late ‘60s and ‘70s, from Kaspar Hauser in Herzog’s Jeder Für Sich und Gott Gegen Alle, to Truffaut’s L’enfant Sauvage, to the reclamation of Henry David Thoreau as ur-hippie and draft-dodger (e.g., The Night Thoreau Spent In Jail). The wild boys, hippie Christ figures and other “naturals” served as court jesters for the modern age, or as walking rebukes to a conformist, plastic culture. Society usually converts or kills these types, though as the Wild Boy in Bowie’s song eventually leaves the town in rubble, you can’t really blame society.

“Freecloud” marries Bowie’s theatrical sensibilities with his recent folk leanings—Anthony Newley and Jacques Brel sit alongside Fairport Convention in the gallery. The result is an odd combination of staginess (“as the night…begins for ONE!” the narrator intones, hangman exits stage left) and naturalism, the lyric ranging from the carefully-observed details of the opening verses to the Streisand-esque self-acclamation in the bridge (the “REALLLY YOU and REALLY MEEEE” bit). The whole piece is a catalog of influences: the stage setting of a night before a hanging is out of the Child Ballads, the sense of divine retribution levied on a damned town hails from Brecht/Weill’s “Pirate Jenny” and the loftiness of the lyric describing the mountain (“where the eagle dare not fly” and so on) has a bit of Tolkien in it. (“Freecloud” was Tolkien-head Marc Bolan’s favorite Bowie song).

The Battle of Freecloud

“Freecloud” opens with Bowie playing variations on the D chord—D to Dmaj7 to D7 to D6—basically just supplementing a D chord on his 12-string acoustic guitar with additional notes. The pattern repeats throughout the song: it opens the verses and circles three times through them, the relative similarity of the chords creating a feeling of stasis (they occur even while the boy is singing that he’s really free, suggesting he’s just as trapped as the rest of us). The guitar intro also has the song’s other major motif: a sudden push to C, which Bowie later uses to dramatically end the verses and begin the refrain.

The song’s built like an inverted pyramid, opening with two long descriptive verses, each 11 lines long with no rhymes and no real meter; the pattern is finally broken when Bowie goes into the bridge, which, rhyme-strewn and full of long-held notes, comes as a relief to the ear. The song spirals downward faster and faster, first with something of a refrain (handclaps, the title finally sung), then a turbulent pair of verses that contain the destruction of the village within them. It ends with a quiet 10-bar coda, the boy picking his way free from the rubble while the guitar pattern of the intro reappears, suggesting the cycle will begin again, here or elsewhere.

“Freecloud” was first recorded on 20 June 1969 as the b-side of the “Space Oddity” single and a revised version for the LP was cut roughly a month later. Consider the two versions a struggle between Bowie’s two main producers of the ’60s—Gus Dudgeon, who helmed the spare guitar-and-bass initial recording, and Tony Visconti, who seemed hell-bent on trumping Dudgeon for the LP remake.

Visconti called the Dudgeon recording a “throwaway” (it had been recorded in about twenty minutes) while hearing “a Wagnerian orchestra in my head” for his remake, and the LP version of “Freecloud” is an elaborate one-upmanship to Dudgeon’s “Space Oddity” production: Dudgeon has eight tracks on “Space Oddity”? Visconti has 16 for the new “Freecloud”! Dudgeon uses a dozen or so string and wind players? Visconti gets Philips to fund a 50-piece orchestra, including harp and tympani!

But the orchestral arrangement has an overbearing presence—it begins at top volume and goes upward, so that the chaos of the later verses lacks the dramatic force it should have. It’s a crowded party in which each guest tries to dominate the conversation: nearly every line Bowie sings is accompanied by some swoop of strings, brass blast, harp plucks, or tympani crashes. It may be the old punk purist in me, but I find the original B-side recording—a duet between Bowie’s 12-string acoustic guitar and Paul Buckmaster on Arco bass (not cello, as many references have it)—has a cold severity and power that eludes the Visconti production. Because a fable only really needs a voice.

The Ronson-led 1973 live performance linked above, in which “Freecloud” segues into “All the Young Dudes” as if it was always meant to do, is a marvel.

Top: “Vietnamese civilians, countryside,” taken by Lt. Commander Charles H. Roszel, 1969.


Conversation Piece

November 23, 2009

69paris

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.


Janine

November 19, 2009

Janine (demo).
Janine.
Janine (BBC, 1969).

George Tremlett, a freelance British music journalist, interviewed Bowie in late 1969 and wrote that while Bowie was effusive about most of the tracks on his recently-released LP, he avoided mentioning one song entirely—“Janine”—leading Tremlett to speculate that Bowie considered the song a dud and had regretted putting it on the album.

That doesn’t seem to be the case, as Bowie actually mooted “Janine” as a follow-up single to “Space Oddity” and played it during some 1970 BBC sessions, but true enough, “Janine” has been mainly forgotten in the forty years since. Which is a shame, as it’s one of the few fun songs on a rather serious, dour album. Tony Visconti liked it best of all the Space Oddity tracks, and you can hear why—it’s much like the type of hippie glam that Marc Bolan had begun writing (the first key Bolan single, “King of the Rumbling Spires,” had come out in the summer of ’69).

As opposed to the winsome, unattainable “Hermione” figure of Bowie’s recent songs, “Janine” sounds like a much better time. “You’re fey, Janine, a trooper to the last,” Bowie sings, with some admiration. “Take your glasses off and don’t act so sincere.” Of course, this being Bowie, the center of the love song winds up being its singer, who’s more concerned with protecting his true self than sharing it.

“Janine” is a rocker hidden within a folk song (the acoustic demo has some energy, and even goes into the “Hey Jude” chorus at one point, but it’s hobbled by its staid rhythm) and the studio cut, which attempts to liberate it, winds up being a bit of a hash. The beat’s weak and diffuse and the track is crying out for a simple, solid riff to keep it together. It’s a shame that Bowie didn’t turn Mick Ronson loose on this song a couple years later, as it finally could’ve become the swaggering beast it had potential to be.

Inspirational verse: “If you took an axe to me/you’d kill another man not me at all.” Or even better, “Like a Polish wanderer I travel ever onwards to your land.”

Demo recorded ca. mid-April 1969 with John Hutchinson (Bowie’s introduction claims that the song’s about the girlfriend of George Underwood “who does very nice album covers”); studio version cut ca. July-September 1969 for Space Oddity.

Top: Diana Rigg, doomed newlywed, in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service.