Revisiting my extensive music collection, one artist at a time
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.
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”).
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.
“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.