Sunday, 30 January 2011

David Bowie (1967)

I've already mentioned how I came to be introduced to the music of David Bowie. At my nana's old house, listening to Ziggy Stardust: The Motion Picture over and over again on a long, faux-walnut home entertainment centre from the 1940s, with sliding doors for hiding bottles of sherry and a massive radio with a huge bakalite tuning button - and a little record player with a forty year old stylus ripping new grooves in 'Moonage Daydream'.

From that moment I became a Bowie obsessive, to a far greater extent than I ever came to love one single author or one specific tv series. I adored the Flashman novels and Doctor Who as a kid (and still do), but only when I was reading or watching; Bowie on the other hand was always around.

After The Motion Picture I saved up whatever money came my way and bought the albums which seemed linked to it - Ziggy Stardust itself, The Man Who Sold the World and - on one glorious day upstairs in John Menzies in Princes Street - both Pin Ups and Hunky Dory. Has there ever been a greater run of albums? Now, a quarter of a century later, I can still remember the continual thrills of sheer pleasure I got from each of these first listens. Had Bowie ever recorded anything which wasn't immediately obviously a work of genius?

Well, yes and no.

For a start, the word 'chameleon' is probably defined in the OED as, in part, 'pertaining to David Bowie'. Liking one era of his recorded output is no guarantee of liking the next, as any number of early 80s hipsters no doubt discovered when they bought Low on the back of liking the singles from Let's Dance. Bowie jumps around genre, steals willy nilly from other artists, drops successful sounds in favour of non-commerical ones on a whim. He rarely stays still for long.

And evidently it's not somethign he grew in to, a fact which is immediately apparent when listening to his first studio album, the eponymous David Bowie.

It's impossible, I think, to come up with another artist who's made so many massive and yet successful changes in direction as Bowie did time and again, and it all started here. From this album's whimsical, English music hall to folky hippydom to sex-obsessed Glam Rock - in the space of a few years and a couple of albums. Consequently, Bowie's brief early years do contain chunks of music which seem hard to place in a logical, consistent and organic timeline.

David Buckley described this record as "the vinyl equivalent of the madwoman in the attic" and while that probably suggests a greater degree of sound and fury than is merited, Gus Dudgeon's claim that it was the 'weirdest thing Deram had ever put out" seems closer to the mark.

It certainly stands alone even in the Summer of Love, eschewing the sort of hippy sex and peace concerns suggested by the psychedelic cover font in favour of a succession of mini-stories, flavoured by vaudeville and music hall rather than drugs and free love (the drug and, well, gang obsessed 'Join the Gang' is the odd track out in this respect).

Maybe it's that which causes any search for musical fellow travellers for David Bowie to lead only to individual songs rather than entire lps: bits and pieces of the Beatles output (most obviously John Lennon's 'Being for the Benefit of Mr Kite'), occasional Kinks' tracks and obscure British psych acts like The Blossom Toes (I may, in fact, have made that last band up!).

Plus, of course, Anthony Newley, on whose vocal sound this entire album is based.

Leaving aside Newley (musically, a dead end even if the conscious model for Bowie at this point) the Beatles more whimsical moments are, in fact, the closest popular match for these early Bowie tracks. Utilising brass and strings, recording tracks with odd timings ('Maid of Bond Street' is in waltz time, for example), and injecting humour via the spoken word and funny voices ('Please Mr Gravedigger' in particular) are all elements which have a mirror in Yellow Submarine/Pepper-era Beatles.

That the Beatles' tracks generally work far better is a given - Bowie was definitely still an emerging artist, searching for a voice of his own, but there are things to admire in this first, uneven recording.

Most obviously, it's simple to trace certain of the themes which Bowie embraced right up until the early 80s in this very early and atypical work. 'She's Got Medals' deals with cross-dressing and trans-gender issues, 'Uncle Arthur', 'Maid of Bond Street' and 'Little Bombardier' address unusual, possibly illicitly sexual, relationships and 'We Are Hungry Men' concerns itself with a dictator/Big Brother/messiah figure attempting to save a future dystopian society.

Themes of innocence and childishness, however, are very pronounced on David Bowie and are also the areas in which Bowie moves furthest away from the straight music hall and in the direction of the Syd Barrett/Gong style nursery rhymes which made up another strand of very British psychedelia.

'When I Live my Dream', 'There is a Happy Land' and 'Silly Boy Blue' set the template for a fair portion of Bowie's songs prior to his helping invent heavy metal with The Man Who Sold the World. Swooping strings and overblown and fantastic lyrics (reincarnation, slaying dragons and a 'special place in the rhubarb fields' all on one album!) combine with fears that the real world is threatening our innocence, all of which congealed in my teenage head to convince me that there was something Bowie-ish in this odd little album.

It might not have been exactly what I was expecting, but that's part of the pleasure of listening to new Bowie albums. That Bowie had discarded all music hall elements by the time he recorded his next album, Space Oddity suggests that he recognised that, even so, this particular approach was not one on which to build a career...

The Great Missing Track

Every Bowie album has a great song which was inexplicably missed off it. In the case of this album, we can stretch things a little and wonder why 'When I'm Five' only made the Love You Til Tuesday soundtrack and not this album. It's a morbid, dark song of childhood illness which ends with the wonderful couplet

"I saw a photograph of Jesus/And I asked him if he'd make me five'.

Really, it deserved to be on this album.

Side one

  1. "Uncle Arthur" – 2:07
  2. "Sell Me a Coat" – 2:58
  3. "Rubber Band" – 2:17
  4. "Love You Till Tuesday" – 3:09
  5. "There Is a Happy Land" – 3:11
  6. "We Are Hungry Men" – 2:58
  7. "When I Live My Dream" – 3:22

Side two

  1. "Little Bombardier" – 3:24
  2. "Silly Boy Blue" – 4:36
  3. "Come and Buy My Toys" – 2:07
  4. "Join the Gang" – 2:17
  5. "She's Got Medals" – 2:23
  6. "Maid of Bond Street" – 1:43
  7. "Please Mr. Gravedigger" – 2:35

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