|Essentials of the Era
|“Sell Me a Coat” – David Bowie
‘Let Me Sleep Beside You (mono)” – David Bowie (Deluxe)
“Silly Boy Blue” – The Lost BBC Tapes (bootleg)
“In The Heat of the Morning” – Bowie at the Beeb
This is the second in a series of posts following a listen of David Bowie from beginning to end. Last time, I listened to Bowie’s earliest work, including material from before he christened himself “Bowie.”
After his brief but unremarkable sprint on Pye Records, Bowie signed with Deram Records. That’s not a typo of “dream” as I had assumed for years, they were really called “Deram.” The company was a subsidiary of Decca, who Bowie had auditioned for in previous incarnations.
He issued two singles with Deram prior to releasing his first full-length effort, then added some trailing work before being dropped and signed to Mercury to release another self-titled LP, later renamed to Space Oddity.
As a note, I’m using both Wikipedia and the book The Complete David Bowie to guide my chronological listening.
“Rubber Band” b/w “London Boys”
This was one of the first handful of records released on Deram, a close follow-up to Cat Stevens performing “I Love My Dog”/”Portobello Road” (bet you don’t know those two, either). They can be found on the second disc of David Bowie (Deluxe Edition).
Along with the “Bowie” name and the new record contract, there are a few other signs of future Bowie-ness on this A-Side. The voice is there, the low baritone straight off of “Rock’n’Roll Suicide.” Also, while this is still technically a sappy love song, the shift of focus from the girl to a related group that Bowie directly addresses telegraphs a future style to which he’d return frequently.
In 1910 I was so handsome and so strong
My moustache was stiffly waxed and one foot long
And I loved a girl while you played teatime tunes
Dear Rubber band, you’re playing my tunes out of tune, oh
Rubber band, Won’t you play a haunting theme again to me
While I eat my scones and drink my cup of tea
Granted, this is all accompanied by “oom-pah” brass band accompaniment, maybe connected with Bowie’s frequent covering of “Chim-Chim Cher-ee” from Mary Poppins? Who knows. Yet, focusing on the steely, controlled vocal you can easily imagine this as a much later Bowie cut. Maybe less brass, minor key… can you feel it?
B-Side “London Boys” masquerades as male retread of Petula Clark’s 1965 hit “Downtown,” and yet…
You take the pills too much
You don’t give a damn about that jobs you’ve got
So long as you’re with the London boys
A London boy, oh a London boy
Your flashy clothes are your pride and joy
…there is the subtle genius of this song. It sounds like it could be about a girl being seduced by London Boys, but it’s actually about becoming one of the boys. And, let’s be honest here: the seduction angle is still there. Was Bowie beginning to find ways to thread themes of his bisexuality into his work even at this early point?
“The Laughing Gnome” b/w “The Gospel According to Tony Day”
There’s something to be said for having the low-point of your fifty-year career during your third year in the business. This song is the worst. The literal worst. There is no worse song in Bowie’s entire catalog and, trust me, I know I’m going to be listening to some clunkers here and there.
I’ll try to type this with a straight face: This is a song is a novelty single about David Bowie befriending a mischievous gnome.
I was walking down the high street
When I heard footsteps behind me
And there was a little old man (Hello)
In scarlet and grey, shuffling away (laughter)
The parentheticals are lyrics delivered by the gnome. The little scamp loves making puns.
“Here, where do you come from? ”
(Gnome-man’s land, ha-hehehe!)
Here, what’s that clicking noise?
(That’s fred, he’s a “metrognome,” ha-ha!)
Then, Bowie gets into the game:
“Didn’t they teach you to get your hair cut at school? You look like a rolling gnome.”
(No, not at the London School of Ecognomics!)
David Bowie’s career is even more amazing considering this was his first ignominious (HEY-OH!) flirtation with wider attention. In Bowie’s scant defense, I’ll at least point out that The Chipmunks predated this by a decade as a novelty record. Actually, that’s not a very good defense, is it? At least he avoided rhyming “telly” with “belly.” At best, this single places his songwriting focus firmly in the mode of the fantastical for the first time.
B-Side “The Gospel According to Tony Day” is also weird, but in a different way. It’s essentially just a rhyming game, or perhaps a drinking song. Bowie sings the name of someone repeatedly, and then delivers a punchline:
The Gospel According to Tony Day (x3)
If I find a girl he’ll take her away
The weird part is that the song is not merry in the least. It sounds a bit slinking and sinister with a low, booming sax and stings of electric guitar. I expected the subject matter to be darker and was surprised to read the rather plain lyrics. Perhaps that is because Bowie has come into his full, mature voice here – you would instantly recognize him as the singer of any song from Ziggy Stardust. Combined with the ominous music, you expect something more dire.
I feel like both of these songs, taken with the prior single, act as points of triangulation towards Hunky Dory – but, I’ll get to that in a few more posts! They are both included on the second disc of David Bowie (Deluxe Edition), despite not appearing on the album.
David Bowie, released June 1, 1967
David Bowie’s three years of hard work and seemingly constant failure paid off in the release of his first LP of original songs on Deram. Unfortunately, it was another failure and lead him to be dropped from the label the following year.
This album cannot really be compared to any other LP in Bowie’s career. It was easy-going British chamber-folk that has more in common with The Monkees than with The Beatles. Even if you’re tempted to compare it to “The Benefit of Mr. Kite,” consider that Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Heart’s Club Band was released on the same day as this record!
That makes for a useful tent-stake for comparison – Bowie released this frippery on the same day The Beatles released one of the most significant works in the history of popular music. The entire record is insubstantial – snapshots of the big city life flowing around a shiftless narrator. Yet, the nascent young Duke already has his sights fixated on the underbelly of these magical moments. The record is filled with disappointed go-go girls and their heartbroken small-town loves (“Maid of Bond Street”), children who’ve set fields afire (“There Is a Happy Land”) sad and incapable adults on the dole (“Uncle Arthur,” who “still reads comics … follows Batman”), and the occasional child-murderer (the less said about “Please Mr. Gravedigger,” the better).
This sort of baroque pop needs something more ornate in its arrangement to become fixed in your brain, but all these arrangements feel too thin by half. “Love You Till Tuesday” is a grand example. After a charming xylophone and horn riff opens song like a segment of Laugh-In, the band all-but disappears, leaving a scampering vocal from Bowie to fend for itself. It could be a catchy little go-go song – there’s really nothing wrong with it (aside from the image of Bowie grinning wide and fake as he delivers the inane lyrics), but there’s nothing to it to get your skirts and bellbottoms snagged on.
You begin to get the feeling that all of the attention and budget went into the first four bars of every song, and after that Bowie was left to his own devices. “Sell Me a Coat” comes closest to being anthemic of the entire LP with it’s easy-to-chant chorus, yet it is unmemorable. The same is true for “When I Live My Dream,” which would achieve Disney-ballad payload if it was more substantial. Bowie manages to work himself into a sobbing froth on a new arrangement of “Rubber Band” (even getting off a trademark “oh yeah!” in the background), but the sad trudge of the brass band does him no service.
“Silly Boy Blue,” one of the most overtly weird and forward-looking of the songs, is similarly sparse. Is it a torch song for the Dalai Lama?
You wish and wish, and wish again
You’ve tried so hard to fly
You’ll never leave your body now
You’ve got to wait to die
La la la la la la la la la la
Silly boy blue, silly boy blue
Child of the Tibet, you’re a gift from the sun
Reincarnation of one better man
The homeward road is long
You’ve left your prayers and song
Silly boy blue, silly boy blue
In hindsight, can we attribute a pied-piper’s intent to Bowie? It could be that he is drawing the children close now to expand their mind later. There are a few examples, the clearest being “Join The Gang,” which paints a manic picture of a bunch of drugged up hipsters crashing to party to party on sheer inertia. Despite warning us, “You won’t feel so good now that you’ve joined the gang,” it all sounds quite mad and gay.
Then, there is is the frightening “We Are Hungry Men,” with Bowie’s narration taking on the role of a despotic cannibal ruler whose support of suffrage and reproductive rights are only meant to tighten his iron fist control of society. You can imagine this as an early output of a fascination with dystopia, before Bowie realized the appeal was in writing from the role of the revolutionary rather than the ruler. (Unless, of course, we’re talking about the fashion police.)
You can follow the same thread to “Little Bombadier,” a doting man (perhaps the same as “Uncle Arthur”) whose spoiling of children is seen as sinister by those despotic iron fisters and Mr. Grown-ups out to ruin everyone’s fun. It’s a terrible song, but there’s a clear through-line from here to “Starman” – you can easily insert his, “Let the children use it, let the children use it, all the children boogie” refrain.
If there is one song on this effort that most telegraphs the Bowie to come, it is surely “She’s Got Medals.” It’s the only song on the disc to approximate the madcap energy of Jagger, though Bowie has scant resources to achieve it with his neutered band. More significantly, it’s a prototype of “Queen Bitch” that begins Bowie’s exploration of gender dysphoria:
Her mother called her Mary, she changed her name to Tommy, she’s a one, oh
She went and joined the army, passed the medical, don’t ask me how it’s done
They sent her to the front line
Fighting for her country’s name
She’s got medals
She got very tired of picking up girls
Cleaning her gun and shaving her curls
She got very tired of picking up girls
Cleaning her gun and shaving her curls
Then the enemy dropped a bomb
Survivors there were none
Despite some hints of weightier themes, there is not much to say for the treacly folk of David Bowie’s debut. Luckily, it was adept enough to earn him some notice – he managed to garner some appearances on the BBC. More on that below.
“Love You ‘Til Tuesday” b/w “Did You Ever Have a Dream”
The single version of “Love You ‘Til Tuesday” is considerably more dressed-up than the album-cut, adorned with strings in place of its twinkling xylophone and with a barrelhouse piano tucked deep in the mix. On the whole, the song comes off as more romantic than manic, though it doesn’t take away from the awkwardness of Bowie crooning “Don’t be afraid it’s only me, hoping for a little romance” and then giggling madly.
Prepare yourselves – I have video evidence:
B-Side “Did You Ever Have a Dream” is pure adolescent fantasy – literally! The lyrics are about dreaming about traveling the world as a polygot superman even while you’re rooted in one place. It’s childish, even compared to the rest of the LP.
Other Deram Material
Bowie cut a single version of his Disney-worthy “When I Live My Dream.” The more plaintive album version has a vocal more suited to a cartoon prince, but the broken chord piano of the single version is more in line with other hits of the era.
“Let Me Sleep Beside You” is the first essential recording of Bowie’s career. It’s a stunner – it’s hard to believe any record company would decline to release it (reportedly, the “sleep” bit was considered risqué!). The song sounds entirely rock’n’roll and contemporary, which can be attributed to it being the first collaboration between Bowie and his longtime producer Tony Visconti. A more complex rhythm section and oo-ing harmonies underscore the descending melody of the title, which is followed by a groovy wah-infused guitar riff.
Yet, even as an acoustic demo the song would stand out for the mature, nuanced lyrics:
Baby, baby, brush the dust of youth from your shoulder
Because the years of fretting days are right behind you now
Don’t return to fields of green where rainbow secrets were told
Place your ragged doll with all the toys and things and deeds
I will show you a game where the winner never wins
Let your hair hang down, wear the dress your mother wore
Let me sleep beside you
Bowie welcomes his lover to bed as a peer with the intimation is he’s telling her to grow up, but threaded through the lyrics we see it’s him who is feeling suddenly mature and worthy of a lover’s touch.
“Karma Man” was recorded in the same session, but it doesn’t have the same pedigree. It pays lip service to the public fascination with eastern mysticism, but Bowie was getting these influences second-hand and the best lyric he can muster is, “He’s clogged and clothed in saffron robes.”
“London By Ta-Ta” was another intended single penned toward the end of Bowie’s doomed Deram contract. This song gets everything right that’s wrong on his album. It’s got the urban obsession and the hippy swing, but it’s also ornate. It even has a little bluesy flourish beneath the “I loved her” refrain that will feel instantly familiar to glam-era fans.
Yet, my true favorite of this period is the “In The Heat of the Morning.” Again, adding a budding sexuality and a bluesier bass to these compositions makes a world of difference. Bowie’s pained delivery of the chorus above quivering strings is the essence of desire:
No man loved like I love you
Wouldn’t you like to love me too
In the heat of the morning
In the shadow I’ll clip your wings
And I’ll tell you I love you
In the heat of the morning
(I’ve always thought that lyric was “In the shadow of the doorway,” which is so much better.)
We’ll leave aside any comments on “When I’m Five,” as the title says all you need to know. No, wait, I have to add something: “When I’ve five I’ll jump in puddles, laugh in church, and marry my mum.” It’s roughly at the level of the LP material and not the more mature work that follows. “Ching-A-Ling” is sung by a rotating line-up of vocalists, intended for a potential Bowie-starring Mamas-and-the-Papas style vocal group. Thank goodness that fell through! The same gang added overpowering vocals to a recut of “Sell Me a Coat” – it was better without them.
As a note, I prefer the mono mixes of all of these songs when available, as they have a more gestalt period sound.
Live Material in the Deram Era
Bowie performed his first BCC session on December 18, 1967, which was broadcast a week later on Christmas eve. It was mostly composed of debut album tracks, including a go at “Love You Till Tuesday” with the studio orchestra consistent with the single version. “When I Love My Dream” is still more like the dull LP cut than the aborted single mix, but the live version of “Silly Boy Blue” gets across the gray skies mood of the song much better than the studio cut. This session also carries a sedate early version of “In The Heat of the Morning” with different lyrics. It’s a fascinating artifact, but not worthy compared to the later version.
On the whole, the session is much more compelling than the album. Per The Complete David Bowie, he was coerced to perform “Little Bombadier” by the host. Apparently, his self-preservation instincts were still developing. You can find this lost session, and other songs omitted from the Beeb box set, on this Lost Tapes bootleg (the sound quality is on par with the official release).
Bowie returned on May 13, 1968 for a set of his post-LP songs. This session leads off his fantastic Bowie at the Beeb box set with a simmering version of “In The Heat of the Morning.” I prefer this one slightly to the studio cut for the faster tempo, piercing organ, and Bowie’s more mature vocal. There’s also a charming version of “London By Ta Ta” marked by a double-tracked and chorused vocal on the refrains, an energetic run at “Karma Man,” and another fantastically yearning “Silly Boy Blue” with cello doubling the vocal. (The official BBC collection wisely leaves off “When I’m Five.”)
There are live versions of “Penny Lane” and “A Little Bit Me, A Little Bit You” in this era sometimes attributed to Bowie, but I don’t know that I believe it (neither does The Complete David Bowie). The vocal is a bit too uncharacteristic, even if you picture Bowie trying to deliver a clean, work-for-hire performance.
As Bowie retreated from the nonsense of “The Laughing Gnome” with a string of remarkable and mature intended singles, little did he know his major breakthrough would be on another sort of novelty song! That’s right, next time I’ll be listening to the one and only “Space Oddity”!