KamerTunesBlog

Revisiting my extensive music collection, one artist at a time

DAVID BOWIE Part 2 – The Early Long-Hair Years

Two years before David Bowie hit the pop charts and made a name for himself with 1969’s “Space Oddity” (to be discussed below), he released his first album, David Bowie (1967), to very little fanfare. Until I borrowed a copy from a friend recently, I was only familiar with half the songs from this album via an LP I purchased sometime in the early ‘90s called Starting Point (1977), which was released in the U.S. to capitalize on Bowie’s immense popularity at that time. During the few times I listened to this album, it sounded like a very young Bowie (he was 19 or 20 when the songs were recorded) trying out all kinds of pop songs with sessions musicians, aiming for that elusive “hit single,” and I assumed they were written by professional songwriters. Upon further inspection, I was pleasantly surprised to discover that Bowie himself wrote all the songs, so even though many of them sound like much of the silly fluff that was gracing the charts at the time, I could clearly hear a major talent in its embryonic stage.

Of the songs that appeared on both of these albums, several stood out from the rest. “Love You Till Tuesday” is one of the catchiest tunes, with a nice driving beat and melody enhanced by string swells and a horn section, while Bowie does his best Peter Noone (of Herman’s Hermits) impression. “Come Buy My Toys” is a strong contender for my favorite song here, especially because of the excellent fingerpicked guitar playing. “When I Live My Dream” is a very pretty ballad with sweet strings and some of his most emotive singing, and wouldn’t have been out of place on a late-60s Bee Gees record. “Join The Gang” features an instrumental quote from The Spencer Davis Group’s “Gimme Some Lovin’,” but owes more to the Rolling Stones (and specifically Brian Jones’ contributions to that band). It’s got some crazy sound effects at the end which would’ve killed its chances at chart success. The strangest song, which isn’t really a song at all, is “Please Mr. Gravedigger.” It’s more of a spoken word a capella performance accompanied by a tolling bell and storm sounds (pre-dating Black Sabbath’s debut by more than two years), with some dark & ominous lyrics. This one really grew on me after multiple listens, and became a new favorite, but was rightly placed at the end of the album.

[David Bowie – “Love You Till Tuesday”]

The Starting Point LP might be a better forum for these quirky songs than his self-titled debut, since the latter includes more minor songs and the extended track listing (14 songs) dilutes the impact of the stronger songs. There are a couple of exceptions, though. “Karma Man” captures the sound of Swinging London with hints of The Kinks, as well as Petula Clark’s “Downtown.” “Sell Me A Coat” has a melancholy feel, and his voice sounds older than his age. “There Is A Happy Land” could’ve been a minor hit had it been recorded by a better-known singer. The remainder didn’t make much of an impression (they’re not bad, but they’re nothing special either), and the less said about “The Laughing Gnome” the better, unless you’re a big fan of The Chipmunks. I don’t think I’ll be revisiting these early recordings very often, but I was pleased to discover some noteworthy songs. They may not fit in with the remainder of his catalog, but they shouldn’t be completely overlooked.

The David Bowie that most fans know and love arrived, albeit with baby steps, on Space Oddity (1969), especially the title track. Talk about fortuitous timing: the single was released about a week before the Apollo 11 moon landing, so its outer space themes (influenced by the previous year’s Stanley Kubrick film, 2001: A Space Odyssey) really captured the zeitgeist of the times. There were no other hits on the album (in fact, it would be his only hit for a couple of years), so prevailing wisdom says that it isn’t as good as his more popular albums. However, the more I’ve listened to it over the last couple of weeks, the more confident I am that it’s every bit as good as his later releases, even if it’s not quite as cohesive as his most popular work. Going back to the song “Space Oddity,” it might have been overexposed a bit, but it’s still a powerful tune with a great arrangement and some melancholy lyrics & melodies. I also love Rick Wakeman’s mellotron playing, as well as Bowie’s subtle shadow vocal harmony. Listen for it, especially on headphones.

Many reviewers compare “Unwashed And Somewhat Slightly Dazed” to Bob Dylan, most likely because of the harmonica. To my ears, this song owes more to the twisted folk stylings of Roy Harper, especially in his vocal delivery. Harper only had 2-3 albums out at this time, so I’m not sure how much of an influence he was, but I wouldn’t be surprised if Bowie was a fan. I really enjoyed this song, which is based on Bowie’s voice and 12-string acoustic, embellished by drums, percussion, bass & guitar, and over its 6 minutes builds to a crescendo that even includes horns (although I didn’t see any listed in the credits). “God Knows I’m Good” is another excellent Roy Harper-esque acoustic tune, about an elderly woman shoplifting, and how she rationalizes her behavior (“God knows I’m good; God may look the other way today”). “Cygnet Committee” is an extended piece, at more than 9 minutes, and is apparently his attack on the hippie culture & how people blindly follow leaders and heroes. From the middle section to the end, the power really builds and his voice is very strong. This is definitely one of the album’s highlights.

Photo from “Space Oddity” CD

He also presents a couple of pretty love songs. “Letter To Hermione” is a tender ode to a woman who’s in a higher social class and with another man, yet he still believes he has a chance with her. “An Occasional Dream” recalls a brief but passionate affair from years ago that now seems like a dream to him. The fine acoustic guitar playing and flute accompaniment remind me of early Cat Stevens, during his Mona Bone Jakon period. My favorite song on the album is undoubtedly “Memory Of A Free Festival,” which is way ahead of its time. I hear it pointing the way to more modern bands like Spiritualized, The Flaming Lips, Grandaddy, The Beta Band and many others. The first three minutes are a paean to outdoor music festivals, with just Bowie’s vocals and what sounds like a pump organ. 25 years later, Bowie acolyte Edwyn Collins began his breakthrough album, Gorgeous George, with a song that bemoaned the “truly detestable summer festival,” which now seems like the bitter flipside to Bowie’s song. The remainder of the song is a repetitive, almost mantra-like extended outro where he repeats the phrase, “The Sun Machine is coming down and we’re gonna have a party.” It’s a hypnotic way to end an album that I liked a whole lot more than I expected to.

His next album, The Man Who Sold The World (1970), introduced the world to two musicians who would be integral to his big breakthrough with the Ziggy Stardust character a couple of years later: guitarist Mick Ronson and drummer Mick “Woody” Woodmansey. I can hear elements of that Ziggy sound on the epic album opener “The Width Of A Circle,” which is the hardest rocking song he had done to this point. Bowie’s vocals are stronger than ever, and Ronson rips off some killer guitar solos that range from melodic to chugging to stinging. You can already tell the Bowie/Ronson partnership was a match made in heaven. “Black Country Rock” was an immediate favorite, with its driving shuffle beat and sleazy guitar riffs. Lyrically there’s not much to it, but it’s a catchy hard rock song that’s every bit as heavy as Led Zeppelin or Deep Purple. Speaking of Deep Purple, “Saviour Machine” features a Richie Blackmore-esque guitar solo from Ronson. This is one of the highlights of the album, with interesting, thought-provoking lyrics that could be construed as anti-religion, but it’s as much a science fiction tale (the “saviour machine” provides for people, gets bored and decides to create a war, or a plague, or “I may kill you all”).

Photo collage from “The Man Who Sold The World” CD

I fell in love with the creepy sounding “After All,” with its haunting “Oh by jingo” backing vocals. It’s hard to penetrate the lyrics here (“Man is an obstacle, sad as a clown”; “Live your rebirth and do what you will”) as Bowie was influenced by philosophers like Nietzsche, but the music drew me in, especially the Spanish-sounding guitar pattern and cool synth textures. “Running Gun Blues” begins as an homage to Pink Floyd’s Syd Barrett, then turns into a Stones-y rocker with serious lyrics about a soldier back from a war zone who still has bloodlust (“They haven’t taken my rifle…I’ll plug a few civilians”). “All The Madmen” is a midtempo rocker with some interesting lyrics about mental illness. Hard to tell who the “madmen” are, but Bowie believes they’re “all the same as me.”

The album ends with two absolutely killer songs. Many people got to know “The Man Who Sold The World” when Nirvana covered it for their MTV Unplugged performance, introducing a generation of “grunge” and “alternative” music fans to Bowie’s music. It’s a perfect little song with an instantly memorable guitar melody. Once again, I don’t know exactly what (or who) he’s singing about, but it doesn’t really matter when the melody & vocal performance are so strong. The album closes with “The Supermen.” The tribal drums and phased vocal effects make it sound like robotic monsters are arriving to destroy the world. Roger Waters would use Bowie’s vocal affectation for songs like “The Trial” (from the Pink Floyd album The Wall). This album rocks more than either of his previous albums and although it doesn’t have the eclecticism of its predecessor, I would rank these two as equals.

The full lineup of The Spiders From Mars, now including bassist Trevor Bolder, appears for the first time (without that band name yet) on Hunky Dory (1971), and they help deliver arguably Bowie’s strongest collection of songs to date. One of his most timeless songs is “Changes” (it’s probably the first Bowie song I ever heard), shifting from a crooning vocal style to the modern pop vocal on “ch-ch-ch-ch-changes.” The chorus is one of his best, singing about the changes we go through during adolescence (a companion to Alice Cooper’s “I’m Eighteen”), but also about the changes happening in his music. “Oh! You Pretty Things,” is a great pre-glam song that has elements of Cat Stevens and John Lennon (during The Beatles’ White Album era), as well as a proto-Steely Dan feel (until the chorus). “Eight Line Poem” is just that: an abstract eight-line poem set to a cool phased effect on the piano, and Ronson sounding like Eric Clapton on his early solo albums. “Life On Mars?” is another tune that ranks among his very best. I love the way the vocals build in each verse, and Rick Wakeman provides some beautiful piano playing that really elevates this song. There’s more than a hint of melancholy in this tune, and it could be a spiritual cousin to “Space Oddity.”

[David Bowie – “Kooks”]

“Kooks” owes a debt to The Kinks’ Ray Davies at his most wistful. It’s a playful lullaby to his newborn son, wondering how the child will react to being raised by “a couple of kooks hung up on romancing.” The Ray Davies influence (this time, his more cynical side) appears again on “Quicksand,” with a great would-be chorus of “Don’t believe in yourself, don’t deceive with belief, knowledge comes with death’s release.” The music isn’t as dark as those lyrics, especially the fantastic sparse acoustic guitar, but there’s definitely some turbulence in this song. “Fill Your Heart,” the first non-original to appear on a Bowie album, is a bouncy, Paul McCartney-esque song about love and emotional freedom (“Gentleness clears the soul, love clears the mind and makes it free”). This segues into “Andy Warhol,” which begins with nearly a minute of synthetic bleeps and studio chatter before kicking in with an aggressive acoustic guitar groove. The lyrics are abstract and a little silly, but so was Warhol. The last minute is quite hypnotic with a repetitive guitar pattern and steady groove.

Photo from “Hunky Dory” CD

“Song For Bob Dylan” is an homage to Mr. Dylan, yet also laments his shift from topical to more personal songs. As soon as the song began, I was reminded of Lynyrd Skynyrd’s “Tuesday’s Gone,” and the piano later in the song recalled that band’s “Freebird.” Since their recording career didn’t begin for another couple of years, I wonder if they were influenced by Bowie’s music, a connection I wouldn’t have previously considered. “Queen Bitch” is apparently Bowie’s tribute to The Velvet Underground, yet to me it’s clearly an homage to the glam rock of Marc Bolan and T. Rex, who were all the rage in England at the time. It’s silly (in a good way) and has a killer guitar riff. The album closes with the cool, moody ballad, “The Bewlay Brothers.” It’s got a memorable hook in the lines “Oh, we were gone” and “We were so turned on,” as well as cool synth/mellotron flourishes and lots of great acoustic guitar. The Syd Barrett influence creeps in again in the final verse, mixing childlike whimsy and psychedelic weirdness. This album wasn’t a huge hit when it was first released, but I’m sure it was clear to anyone who was paying attention that Bowie would break through sooner than later, and his rise to the top was just around the corner.

Other than his debut, I always enjoyed the other albums I discussed here, but only a handful of songs ever truly stuck with me. That’s no longer the case. I’m most impressed by the sheer diversity on display, especially since he was only in his early 20s when he wrote & recorded these songs. Previously I assumed he was doing anything he could to get in the pop charts, but considering how quirky (and lengthy) many of these songs are, he was obviously more concerned with creating a body of work that would stand apart from everyone else. While I look forward to spending time with the next batch of albums, which are considered by many fans and critics to be his most essential, I wonder if anything will surprise me as much as this first batch. Stay tuned.

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15 comments on “DAVID BOWIE Part 2 – The Early Long-Hair Years

  1. Pingback: KamerTunesBlog Year In Review 2011 | KamerTunesBlog

  2. Heavy Metal Overload
    May 13, 2013

    Really enjoyed reading this, Rich! I’m totally unfamiliar with Bowie pre-Space Oddity. (Upon hearing “Love You Till Tuesday” I think this is unlikely to change!) I thought his albums got gradually better at this point. I never got much out of Space Oddity (the album) at all apart from the title-track. But I enjoyed the song you chose here so maybe that might be worth revisiting. The organ sound reminded me of Ivor Cutler!

    It’s fun being reminded of the album tracks on these. I had forgotten great songs like Andy Warhol, Queen Bitch and The Supermen but at the same time I’m remembering songs like Kooks which just never appealed to me that much. I wonder if it’s Bowie’s voice that’s the stumbling block for me? It seems to me he always sounds quite detached or distant and I generally enjoy more …er… visceral vocalists! Maybe it’s all a bit too arch for me?

    Anyway, this is a great post and I’m looking forward to the rest.

    Like

    • Your point about his voice (“detached &/or distant”) is understandable, and I probably felt that way for a long time. I’m not sure I have the same emotional connection to his music that I get from the artists who have inspired me through my life, and that could be the main reason, but on a song-for-song basis I found his discography to be every bit as good as most of my favorite artists.

      I’m really glad you’re enjoying this series, and I appreciate you sharing your thoughts on Bowie’s music. I love hearing other perspectives, and yours is certainly different than mine.

      Like

      • Heavy Metal Overload
        May 13, 2013

        When I mention that aspect of his voice, I don’t mean it as a criticism either. I can see how, while it might put me off, it could be something that really appeals to other listeners.

        Getting your perspective is really useful for me too. It really helps me look at his output in a different light.

        Like

      • Thanks, HMO. I’m glad we can keep the mutual admiration society going. I just hope I don’t end up inspiring you to purchase any Bowie albums and blow your monthly music budget. I couldn’t live with the guilt.

        Like

      • Heavy Metal Overload
        May 13, 2013

        Haha it might happen! In that event I will be sure to give you the full credit/blame in my buying round-up!

        Like

      • I can handle the blame, I guess. I suppose there are worse budget-busting artists than David Bowie, as long as you carefully choose which album(s) to buy.

        Like

  3. rainyislandgirl
    May 20, 2013

    Hi Rich, I just started reading you unique blog today and am really enjoying it. I’ll definitely dive into your other categories once I’ve finished your writings on Bowie. Regarding the 1967 album, I also “can clearly hear a major talent in its embryonic stage” and I have great affection for its quaintness. Lately, however, I’ve been pondering the producer’s influence on Bowie’s body of work and I can’t help wondering if this album wouldn’t have greatly benefited from a different production style. Mike Vernon’s experience was predominantly blues which generally means less production is best; keep it as raw as possible. Unfortunately, this style doesn’t work so well for pop music so I can’t help but feel a lot of the album is too raw. I think Bowie met Tony Visconti only a few months after the album’s release and so I fanaticize about what this album would have sounded like if Tony had been its producer.
    Here’s an example of what I mean.
    This is Tony Visconti’s re-crafted version of “Let Me Sleep Beside You” as performed by Bowie on BBC’s The Dave Lee Travis Show October 20th, 1969.

    Any thoughts? 🙂

    Like

    • Hi there, RainyIslandGirl. It’s nice to hear from you, and thanks for sharing that YouTube link with the alternate/later version of “Let Me Sleep Beside You.” It’s been more than 1-1/2 years since I revisited this portion of his catalog, so I needed to reacquaint myself with the original version of the song (it wasn’t one of the highlights for me at the time). There’s no doubt that the version you posted is superior to the one on the LP, and you’re probably right about Visconti’s contribution. I don’t have the credits in front of me, but I’m wondering if the musicians involved also made a difference. Wasn’t Bowie playing with an early version of The Spiders From Mars by the time he recorded that BBC version?

      Since I finished revisiting Bowie’s catalog over a year ago (it’s my favorite of all the artists I’ve covered here), I bought the deluxe edition of his self-titled debut album and really came to love those early recordings for what they are: an artist finding his way, still sounding like others who inspired him while showcasing his unique voice at the same time. It’s not my favorite part of his discography, but it’s also not the lightweight, throwaway fluff I always thought it was.

      Thanks for pointing out that Mike Vernon produced Bowie’s debut. I’m not sure I noticed that before, but as a fan of his production work with Fleetwood Mac and John Mayall, it’s interesting to think that maybe he wasn’t the right man for the job when he worked with Bowie. Then again, Bowie’s songwriting & arrangements were still developing, so maybe he needed someone with Vernon’s experience even if his expertise was in blues and not pop.

      I look forward to hearing your thoughts on other eras of Bowie’s career. Thanks again for stopping by.

      Cheers!
      Rich

      Like

      • rainyislandgirl
        May 20, 2013

        Cheers back at you Rich, thanks for your thoughtful response to my posting. I totally agree with you that the musicians make a difference and I would argue that Bowie’s penchant for surrounding himself with highly talented musicians is one of his greatest strengths. However, in the case of this particular BBC recording, none of the Spiders from Mars were present. While I’m pretty sure it’s Visconti playing base on this track, I’m unsure exactly who the other musicians were. Ronson only began playing with Bowie 4 months after this recording, Woodmansey joined them a few months after that and as you wrote Bolder wouldn’t join until 1971.
        As to Mike Vernon’s contribution’s to this album, his expertise was never in question, it is a great sounding album, and I suspect Bowie learned a lot from working with him, I just feel that Visconti brought a different kind of energy to Bowie’s music is all. 🙂

        Like

      • Thanks for confirming that the Spiders did not, in fact, play on that alternate version. I stand corrected. I never claim (or aim) to be an expert, and I love learning new tidbits about the artists I like, so well done. Visconti and Bowie definitely seem to have a symbiotic relationship. I’m glad Bowie continued working with other producers while periodically returning to Visconti, thus making those albums extra special. I’ll have to look through his catalog again to find the names of his other producers. I’m wondering which non-Visconti albums ended up being my favorites.

        Like

  4. rainyislandgirl
    May 22, 2013

    LOL, I never claim to be an expert either and I also “love learning new tidbits about the artists I like”, which is how I came to read your blog. 🙂 If I had to give my Bowie knowledge a label I’d say I’m a novice striving for full expert Bowie-file status. I f I come across as factually ridged it’s because I’m trying to overcompensate for being very shy. However, I’ve felt inspired by the sharing with us readers your personal journey into the Bowie-verse, so I’m gonna be brave, and briefly share my story as well.
    Two years ago I found my life frustratingly disrupted when a chronic back pain problem left me virtually unable to walk or even sit upright. While also having history severe depression, nearly 8 months of staring at my living room ceiling with only physiotherapy and psychologist appointments to fill my days, left me in a very dark place. What I needed was an intellectual distraction, something completely separate from my current reality to focus on. Music had often filled this role for me in the past, but this time I just hadn’t found which road to journey down.
    Up to this point, to me Bowie was Space Oddity, Changes, Let’s Dance and Modern Love, the only songs of his that got decent airplay on 80’s Canadian FM radio. He had barely registered in my musical reality. It was one desperate late night TV channel change-a-thon that ended up bringing him to into my consciousness. That night I stumbled across David and Trent Reznor’s “I’m Afraid of Americans” music video; I was stunned and fascinated. The NIN-esque music was instantly recognizable but this goateed, spiky haired Bowie singing to it really confused me. What on earth was I hearing? How could this be Mr Modern Love? and how had David Bowie gotten involved with Reznor? I hadn’t been this excited in a long time so I decided it was time to dig deeper into Bowie’s musical omnibus. I wasn’t long before I was obsessively diving into every album of his I could get my hands on. I know this is going to sound like an exaggeration, but Bowie’s music genuinely helped save my sanity over the past few years. Without Ziggy, Halloween Jack and the Thin White Duke keeping me company while learning to walk again, and ‘a Heathen Lodger’ inspiring me keep at the tough psychological work that is allowing me to re-emerge from depression, I honestly can’t say if I’d be as healthy as I am now. I will always be sincerely grateful to him for that. At this point I can proudly say that I have listened to nearly everything he’s ever recorded and, despite being so late to the party, I could count myself among his millions of fans while joyfully digesting The Next Day. 🙂
    Well, that’s my story in a nutshell , I hope I haven’t taken up too much space in your comments section. Meet you in the Golden Years.
    -Kimberly

    Like

    • Thanks for sharing your back story, Kimberly. Sorry you’ve had to deal with so much negativity but I’m glad that Bowie’s music was able to help pull you out of it. The power of music really is amazing. It’s gotten me through some difficult times in my life and I never take it for granted. Although we delved into Bowie’s catalog for completely different reasons in recent years, the common thread is that we’ve joined a loyal army of followers, and we both discovered one of the deepest catalogs in the history of popular music (I don’t think I’m overstating it).

      I’ve only had the time to listen to The Next Day three times so I’m just starting to digest it, but it’s a very strong album. When the first single came out, I listened to it once and then decided I needed to hear it in the context of the album so I only played it that one time. I’m glad I waited, because it has much more impact that way as opposed to being a stand-alone song. I’ve always preferred albums to singles, so this wouldn’t be a surprise to anyone who knows me. One of these days I’ll play it along with Heathen and Reality to see how it stacks up with those two latter-day triumphs.

      Best wishes…
      Rich

      Like

  5. Tangled Up In Music
    April 15, 2017

    The Man Who Sold the World (the album) is really a personal favorite. His heaviest album, with The Width of a Circle as the definite highlight. I love She Shook Me Cold too, even though you didn’t mention it. On Hunky Dory, I love the Kooks-Quicksand sequence. A lot of people hate Kooks…I’ll never really understand why. And I still remember seeing the Life on Mars video for the first time…it had such an impression on me.

    Like

    • Hi Ovidiu. It’s been a few years since I revisited these albums, so I don’t recall “She Shook Me Cold” right now, but at the time I played each of these albums multiple times and discussed the songs that made the biggest impact. I love “Kooks/Quicksand” but I can see why some people might think “Kooks” is a little lightweight. They’re wrong, of course. 😛 Not sure I’ve seen the “Life In Mars” video. Will have to seek that out.

      Liked by 1 person

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