Friday, 11 February 2011

David Bowie: Space Oddity (1969)

The one undeniable fact about early David Bowie is that he was an ambitious bugger. Nowadays he'd turn up on X Factor, and even back in 1969 he sometimes gave the impression of being willing to do anything to get in the spotlight. If the Next Big Thing back than had been Al Jolsen, you can be pretty sure this album would have been called 'Mammy' and featured a seated Bowie in blackface doing jazz hands to the camera!

As it is, the album perfectly encapsulates two elements of Bowie-dom.

First, having backed the wrong horse at the wrong time with his half-hearted stab at English whimsical psychedelia with his debut album, on this LP he strays into Tim Hardin style introspective singer songwriter territory, baring his soul for £1.49 a copy with an admirable cynicism. It's clear that the record company also bought into this sea change in direction. In the UK the album was originally called David Bowie, the same eponymous title as his debut album two years previously, indicating that the label saw this new album as a chance to relaunch a promising career and consign an embarrassing mis-start to the bin. In the US, the album title was Man of Words, Man of Music and featured a permed, hippy Bowie on the cover, in the style of Tim Buckey's Happysad and innumerable other albums by young men with issues. A relaunch on one side of the Atlantic (the side where people might actually have bought the first David Bowie LP) and a re-imagining as a wordy troubadour on the other (where hardly anyone had bought that first abortive album).

All of which ended up moot because after the success of 'Space Oddity' the single, it was re-issued by RCA as Space Oddity the album, complete with misleading - in every sense - Ziggy era Bowie image on the front and back. It's commonplace to claim that Bowie's great gift has always been to spot the coming thing and then get in there first, but at this point he's still reacting, still a follower, hitching his wagon to the latest fad and failing as yet to find a voice of his own.

Which isn't to say this is a poor album. Far from it. But were you to be playing that game of deciding which artist has had the longest run of consecutive truly great albums, you'd have to be a real optimist to claim this as the first of Bowie's (that wouldn't come for one - maybe even two - more albums). There's some lovely songs on it, and some really excellent lines, but it's all a little derivative, a tiny bit contrived.

Example: 'Letter to Hermione', dedicated to Hermione Fortheringay, Bowie's estwhile lover. Maybe he was sufficiently distraught at the break-up to pen this pretty if self-pitying ode but it does feel a lot like a folksinger checklist sort of song, like a late sixties Phil Collins tugging on the heart strings.

Example: 'God Knows I'm Good', which couldn't more obviously be an older song pushed onto the album to take up space if Bowie had done it in an Anthony Newley voice. The last in a longish line of Bowie songs which tell a story in a naive and one dimensional manner I thought this was so sad when I was thirteen and find it painful to listen to now, which pretty much sums the track up for me.

Examples: 'Memories of a Free Festival' and 'Wild Eyed Boy from Freecloud' - decent if cliched peace and love hymns, but cliched peace and love hymns nonetheless.

I don't want to give the impression I hate this record. Really far, far from it. I love it. I've listened to it literally hundreds and hundreds of times. 'Cygnet Committee' might even be the very first song on Bowie's path to the astonishing 'Bewlay Brothers' on Hunky Dory. But it's not a great album and no amount of dodgy marketing will ever make it into one.

It's an album of an artist looking for his own sound which, most importantly of all, marks the last time for over twenty years that Bowie tried to mimic the pack around him. As such it's probably the most important milestone in his career.

The Great Missing Track

Has to be 'Conversation Piece'. Recorded in 1969 (and re-recorded in better quality but inferior vocal for the Toy sessions), it's another one of those little vignettes Bowie has always done so well. I first heard it around 1983, when Stuart Dodds traded me a tape copy of a bootleg called 'BowieRarest' for a copy of an Ultravox album. I won there, I think.

Side one

  1. "Space Oddity" – 5:15
  2. "Unwashed and Somewhat Slightly Dazed" – 6:55
  3. "(Don't Sit Down)" * – 0:39
  4. "Letter to Hermione" – 2:28
  5. "Cygnet Committee" – 9:33

Side two

  1. "Janine" – 3:18
  2. "An Occasional Dream" – 2:51
  3. "Wild Eyed Boy From Freecloud" – 4:45
  4. "God Knows I'm Good" – 3:13
  5. "Memory of a Free Festival" – 7:05

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