Monday, 28 May 2018

David Bowie - Space Oddity (aka David Bowie) (1969)

The papers want to know whose shirts you wear....

  

Released on 14 November 1969

Recorded at Trident Studios, London

Running time 56:09

David Bowie released this album in the wake of the unexpected number one hit Space Oddity, with its space travel narrative that perfectly dovetailed with the moon landings that summer. The album didn't achieve any comparative lift-off, however, as the single was totally unique and Bowie's often dense, rambling excursions into folk, vague psychedelia and nostalgic hippiness just didn't catch on with the mainstream music-buying public. Despite the kudos of having a number one single, Bowie's journey to possible stardom was beset by pitfalls. This was another in (at the time) a seemingly long list of them. It was almost as if he was fighting within himself as to what he wanted to become. Was he staying back in 1966-67 or was he futuristically looking to 1972-73? The album fully reflects that schizophrenia and artistic turmoil. 

Many people bought this, however, as I did, in 1973, upon its re-packaging (with the Ziggy-like hair cover) in the slipstream of the success of Hunky Dory, Ziggy Stardust and Aladdin Sane. To be honest, many of us teenagers didn't quite know what to make of it. 

Originally released in 1969, though, it was more than just a vehicle for the chart-topping, now legendary, and totally unique title track as it was an album that had much more to it than that, it showed a lot of unrealised potential, albeit surrounded by some patchiness. 

TRACK LISTING

1. Space Oddity

2. Unwashed And Somewhat Slightly Dazed
3. Letter To Hermione
4. Cygnet Committee
5. Janine
6. An Occasional Dream
7. The Wild Eyed Boy From Freecloud
8. God Knows I'm Good
9. Memory Of A Free Festival                                  

Space Oddity was a track that now needs no introduction. as mentioned earlier, it tapped into the whole moon landing thing and was a huge success. It was also notable for the first major recorded use of the stylophone - a gimmicky musical instrument that provided the slightly electronic, morse-code sound in the backing. It is simply massively atmospheric, haunting and actually heartbreakingly sad if you think of old Major Tom floating around for eternity up in space.

The excellent clip below is from 1973 featuring Mick Ronson (guitar), Trevor Bolder (bass) and Aynsley Dunbar (drums).


Even though the album is to a certain extent a patchy one, there is some surprisingly good other stuff on it, particularly on this impressive new remastering. Just check out the psychedelic-influenced rock of Unwashed And Somewhat Slightly Dazed. I have found I now listen to this through new ears, so to speak. I always thought that the searing guitar solo was Mick Ronson's first contribution but it was in fact played by Tim Renwick. The bluesy harmonica throughout the track was played by Benny Marshall

The way the song starts with its gentle "spy, spy pretty girl" line sung over a floaty acoustic guitar backing makes you think that it is another dreamy song like those Bowie recorded in 1967-68, but within a few minutes a huge clunking, bluesy rock rhythm had kicked in, making it Bowie's heaviest song to date. It has thoroughly bizarre lyrics though - "I'm a phallus in pigtails...". Hmmm. The lyrics also mention a "credit card" - unusual for 1969. As I said, it is also pretty much Bowie's first true rock track. It is a good one. 

Incidentally, the brief Don't Sit Down improvised vocal fun at the very end is sometimes credited as being a track in its own right, which is probably a bit pointless. 

Letter To Hermione was a genuine love song from Bowie to one of his first loves, one Hermione Farthingale , whom he eventually split up with due to his self-confessed promiscuity. It is a gentle, tender, very loving acoustic number that sees the composer/singer laying his soul bare. "I'm not quite sure what you're supposed to say.." sees a singer in emotional confusion. He mentions Hermione's new lover, slightly jealously, but eventually settles for the sensitive compromise of "I'll just write some love to you..." he plaintively declares over a deliciously played acoustic guitar backing. In all his career, you never get Bowie being so sincere and disarming. It is a very beautiful song.


The lengthy, weird narrative that seems to signal the end of "hippydom" of Cygnet Committee sounds completely revitalised on remasters such as the 2009 one (the 2015 messes up the introductory bass line). It is a remarkable track - acoustic yet aggressive in its multifarious lyrical mysteries. It never lets up in its insistent verbal attack and its backing is solid and resounding as opposed to airy and "hippy". It is a true early Bowie classic and a little-mentioned one. I feel it would have fitted in well on The Man Who Sold The World, but it certainly raises the quality here. At nine minutes long, it never gets tiring. It is up there with The Bewlay Brothers and Quicksand as one of Bowie's most haunting, mysterious and perplexing songs.

Also sounding great are the winsome, folky strains of  Janine. Check out that crystal clear, razor-sharp acoustic guitar. What exactly is/was a "Polish wanderer", I wonder? This song harks back to some of Bowie's 1967-68 material, in many ways.

An Occasional Dream also fits the acoustic late sixties folkiness of parts of the album. It is similar to Letter To Hermione in that is a peaceful, Cat Stevens-ish acoustic number that finds Bowie singing of "a Swedish room of hessian and wood". It is appealingly melodic with a nice gently rhythmic backing to Bowie's soft, airy voice. Tony Visconti contributes a fetching flute solo. It is another quiet but very appealing song, one I have always liked.

The Wild Eyed Boy From Freecloud was an extremely strange, folk tale of the imprisoned wild eyed boy, rotting away in jail. It is melodramatic and overwrought. There was an operatic grandeur about it - packed to the brim with instrumentation - brass, cello, flute and harp are all in there. Producer and musician Tony Visconti loved it, considering it one of his finest achievements and indeed many fans love it too. While I have always loved the narrative tale and story of it, I have also found it just a little overdone.

Even stranger was God Knows I'm Good, once again a folky, acoustic song concerning a sad old lady who steals a tin of stewing steak from a grocery store. It is just not the sort of song you would expect from David Bowie - he didn't do many "real life", "kitchen sink drama" type songs after all. For that reason it sits very incongruously amongst his post-1968 output. It doesn't really fit on this album either.

Finally, there is the magnificently trippy Memory Of A Free Festival where "Peter talked with tall Venusians..". Far out, man. "Bliss" all around. This song has Bowie telling of a festival he helped organise, or probably singing of how he fantasised it would have been, (but of course never was, apparently he spent most of it arguing about things that irked him). There is a mix of idealised memories and sci-fi-inspired fantasy.

It is packed full of an atmosphere that the actual festival probably lacked and ends with the repeated chant of "the sun machine is coming down and we're gonna have a party". It is all cornily "hippy" but I can't help but love it. Was Bowie possibly being a bit tongue in cheek and cynically dismissive about the hippy counter culture as he saw it about to be replaced by other ones? Was it all a bit of a send-up? Maybe, for there is a disguised cynicism lying beneath the lyrics - "we claimed the very source of joy ran through - it didn't but it seemed that way...". The reference to the Venusians was a "spacey" one that pointed to the future, though. So, while it was a reflective song of possibly false nostalgia, it also carried a look to the future. Even then, and I know it is a dreadful cliché, Bowie always seemed to be one step ahead.

There is an extended "remix" of the song on the 30th Anniversary edition that adds a strange echoey sound to Bowie's vocal on the introductory verses giving it an ethereal sound, and the other instrumentation is considerably "oomphed" and enhanced. The fade out chorus is far more powerful and the voices more distinct and vibrant. It is an enjoyable mix, but I probably prefer the sparser, more home-produced charm of the original, which sort of mirrored the same qualities that the festival had. There is also the "single mix" of the song, which considerably "rocks it up" with powerful, chunky riffs , loads more guitar, solid drums, new keyboard sounds and a general level of punch not heard on the original. The song is divided in to two halves, Part 1 and Part 2, the latter being just the choral fade out. It is enhanced with some excellent electric guitar, though. Who is that on guitar? Yes, it's Mick Ronson, making his first appearance with Bowie. There is a fair case for these two rock versions being the best incarnations of the song.

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Below refers to a track from the sessions that didn't make it on to the album:-

Conversation Peace 

This was a rejected song from the 1969 Space Oddity sessions. It is a pleasant, melodic, wistful number with Bowie's voice sounding very much like it did on some of the plaintive 1966-68 recordings. It contains some beguiling lyrics - "I live above a grocer's store owned by an Austrian". It is largely acoustically driven with a fetching rhythmic beat to it. The drums were apparently played by a session drummer whose identity has been long forgotten. It was not Space Oddity drummer John Cambridge, but a jazz musician, which may help to account for the unusually rhythmic groove.

It underwent a remix in 2019 which has given it far more bass oomph and a general warmth of ambience that makes it a more attractive number. "My essays lying scattered on the floor..." sings Bowie. Was he recalling some past student days?

The song was also re-recorded for the discarded Toy sessions in 2000 and is much slower in pace, with none of the breezy joie de vivre of the original and a considerably more sonorous Bowie vocal.

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By the way, I prefer the “Ziggy hair” cover that was used when it was re-released in 1973 and I bought it, however. That was the cover I grew up with. The cover that has been re-used on later editions are shown below. These were the album's original images, however, it has to be noted. 

  

C+



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