Wednesday, 18 December 2019

David Bowie - The First Steps (1967-1970)



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This is where it all began for David Bowie, initially with a seemingly endless supply of frankly bizarre, often child-like songs that did their best to hide his latent genius. A couple of perplexing years were followed by two excellent albums, however, which are now recognised as the truly beguiling pieces of work they were. Here we go, then - the great David Bowie, from the beginning.

The albums covered here are:-

David Bowie (1967)
Space Oddity (1969)
Space Oddity 2019 Tony Visconti Remix
and The Man Who Sold The World (1970)

Scroll down to read them chronologically.

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DAVID BOWIE (1967)

  

Firstly, this is just a matter of personal taste. As the owner of everything David Bowie has released in various formats, obviously, I felt the "completist" need to own this amalgamation of David Bowie's first album and several other previously released and unreleased songs from his "pre-fame", pre Space Oddity era., mainly 1966-1969.

Firstly, I have to say that the sound is absolutely FANTASTIC. excellent remastering throughout. Clear, sharp and certainly bassy enough to keep a bass addict like me happy.



Secondly. The songs. Therein lies the problem. I simply cannot get into these odd, slightly childish, whimsical "lovable Cockney" ditties. I just find them silly and irritating. Love You Till Tuesday is passable, I suppose, but not much else. The "ironic" hit The Laughing Gnome is included of course, and I have to admit to a weakness for the singles's "B" Side, The Gospel According To Tony Day

Let Me Sleep Beside You and In The Heat Of Morning and the trippy Karma Man are acceptable and give a slight hint as to the glories that lay ahead, but not too much. By the way, check out the utterly bizarre We Are Hungry Men, a Beatles-esque song detailing Bowie's very tongue in cheek theories on how to solve the problem of global over-populaton. It is definitely one of his all-time weirdest songs. 

Listening to this material, it is almost incomprehensible to wonder upon just how David Bowie became, well, David Bowie.

I make no apologies for this early batch of Bowie material not being my thing, read on and the reviews became for more of a labour of love, as my love for him starts with the next album. 

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SPACE ODDITY (1969)

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 

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. 

  
                                
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.

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.

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.

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. 

  

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SPACE ODDITY: THE TONY VISCONTI 2019 REMIX 

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. Conversation Piece
9. God Knows I'm Good
10. Memory Of A Free Festival  

Like the latest Bob Ludwig remaster on The Rolling Stones’ Let It Bleed, this new Tony Visconti “remix’ of David Bowie’s 1969 album leaves one listening over and over, desperately trying to find some obvious differences from the previous release of the same album. The thing is, the new remasters/remixes are trying to put a new coat of paint on something that is already more than shiny enough. The previous Let It Bleed was more than acceptable and the 2009 and 2015 remasters of Space Oddity are too (in fact, I am sure the 2015 one is indeed the 2009 one - it all gets so confusing with remasters coming out every few years).

I am a big fan of Visconti, however, and I really loved his work on Low, “Heroes" and Lodger, and also on several T. Rex albums. Here his enhancements are not quite so clear. They are there, though. Like on Let It Bleed, it is the case that the bass is a bit more warm, fuller and “rubbery”, the riffs a little bit chunkier and the acoustic guitars sharper. There is just something of an overall more punch and “oomph”. Maybe. Actually, yes there is but it is not incredibly discernible, but to the familiar ear it will be apparent, I am sure. It is to me, with each listen.

  
   
Space Oddity has a few vocal echoes on the initial "lift off" bit and a few percussion sounds floating around here and there (far above the world). Some spacey sound effects appear as well. The track also does not "fade in" as the original did and develops a big bass thump on the chorus parts. Some more echoes come in on the "can you hear me Major Tom" bit too. Oddly, though, the new remix neither fades in nor fades out, yet both this and the 2015 remaster last 5:20.

I feel that Visconti has possibly tried to make the album sound more of a closer relative to the comparatively heavy The Man Who Sold The World, which he produced, than it was before, particularly on the two lengthier, heavier, proggier tracks of Unwashed And Somewhat Slightly Dazed and the monumental Cygnet Committee. Listen to the power of the guitar/drums on the former and the lovely bass on the latter. Both songs now sound wonderfully massive. Cygnet Committee is just such a superb track anyway. The hiss behind the introductory bass has gone on the new remix as well.

The “Don’t Sit Down” interlude is not on the new remix, by the way. The bass on Letter To Hermione is rumblingly beautiful and the new mix is not quite so sonorously echoey.

The acoustic guitars on the winsome Janine and the underrated An Occasional Dream are crystal clear and Janine has a gorgeous bass now. Check out that orchestration on The Wild Eyed Boy From Freecloud too.



The beguiling, appealing Conversation Piece has now been added to the album, between The Wild Eyed Boy From Freecloud and God Knows I’m Good, making the album an even better one. Its 2019 remix, once again, has more bass warmth to it. Memory Of A Free Festival had an “alternative mix” that appeared on the 40th Anniversary release in 2009. This remixed version is not that one and does not differ as radically from the original.

This album is no longer a quirky “early” album, it is finally being recognised for the solid piece of varied, burgeoning creativity that it was. This contemporary tinkering with it has been positive as far as I am concerned. I have known this album since 1972 and, nearly fifty years later I find I am still discovering new charms hidden within it. This remix allows me to do that even more. I’m happy with that.



The picture is from the "Free Festival" in Beckenham in 1969. Angie Bowie is, I believe, in the white blouse and red trousers. Bowie played in the bandstand behind. Then the sun machine came down...



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THE MAN WHO SOLD THE WORLD (1970)

1. The Width Of A Circle
2. All The Madmen
3. Black Country Rock
4. After All
5. Running Gun Blues
6. Saviour Machine
7. She Shook Me Cold
8. The Man Who Sold The World
9. The Supermen    

Perhaps even more overlooked than its predecessor, Space Oddity, this was by far Bowie's "heaviest" album. Led Zeppelin and Free were strutting all around in 1970-71 so I guess Bowie felt the need to go heavy too. Pity that his reedy voice couldn’t really match the heavy backing in the way that Robert Plant’s or Paul Rodgers’ could, though. Nevertheless, this is still a little-mentioned gem. Musically it is excellent, Tony Visconti's production similarly so. Mick Ronson and Mick Woodmansey from the future Spiders From Mars are in place now, with Visconti on bass. This was, to all intents and purposes, despite the album's lack of hit singles, the start of Bowie's classic seventies period that would lead to super-stardom in a matter of years.
                                        
The album's music is a pretty relentless attack of blues rock mixed with a bit of slightly psychedelic folk rock. Mick Ronson's guitar leads the way with some excellent riffing and yes, Bowie's voice is affected and the lyrics often bizarre, psychological and futuristic but there is still a lot of appeal to the album's unsettling feeling. Apparently, according to Tony Visconti -

"the songs were written by all four of us. We'd jam in a basement, and Bowie would just say whether he liked them or not." 

The impression was that Bowie would swan around, tired actor-like, coming and going and occasionally putting some idiosyncratic lyrics to the music. Bowie himself has disputed this, getting annoyed at the suggestion that he didn't write all the songs in their entirety, musically and lyrically. That said, however, he also said that the Young Americans album was created in a fashion similar to the one Visconti described, albeit with a probably more committed Bowie. Either way, I guess it doesn't really matter, because the finished product is actually highly cohesive and credible.

  

On to the music itself. The new 2015 remastering is top notch. It has a great bass sound on the wonderful, drawn-out intro to the truly magnificent, eight minute The Width Of A Circle . This one of Bowie's first true drawn-out beguiling classics. The drums and Tony Visconti’s impressive bass are to the fore on this track. It builds up slowly with some enticing bass and crystal clear acoustic guitar before some seriously heavy drums kick in, followed by Mick Ronson's marvellously cutting guitar, which is all over the track. It is definitely Bowie's heaviest number thus far.

Lyrically, it is the usual encyclopaedia of references, pronouncements and images, including mystic philosopher Kahlil Gibran and Bowie telling us that "God's young man too". It is a veritable cornucopia of all sorts of stuff and multiple changes of musical pace and ambience. 

A memory of it, for me, as a young Bowie fan in the seventies, was seeing the documentary Cracked Actor, I think, advertised with a clip from Hammersmith in 1973 of Bowie singing the line "my knees were shaking, my cheeks aflame.." from this song.



Insanity is a theme that runs right through the heart of this album and it is central to the sad, haunting All The Madmen, initially backed by flute and acoustic guitar but breaking out with some solid drums, heavy rock guitar and that big, rumbling Visconti bass again. Bowie has said that it was written directly about, and for, his half-brother Terry.

It was another heavy track that clearly showed Bowie's new direction. It also has an impressive synthesiser riff (Mick Ronson plays both lead guitar and synthesiser). There is something of The Beatles' late sixties work in the chants and noises in the final fade out. 

  

Black Country RockAnother heavy backing is to be found on this T. Rex-ish rock number. Bowie intentionally wanted to sound like Bolan. At the time he felt himself the inferior of his friend and wanted to musically emulate him. Visconti contributes a rubbery bass line, especially near the end.

On After All the subject of mental health is visited again, even more so, in this quirky, asylum-inspired acoustic number, with its oddball, haunting "oh by jingo" chanted refrain. The Space Oddity stylophone makes a re-appearance. There is a very Beatles-esque pipe organ (moog synthesiser?) part in the middle. It is a genuinely disturbing song in many ways, full of atmosphere, though, and seems to be another example of Bowie's post-hippy disillusion. Running Gun Blues has Bowie starting in a plaintive voice similar to that he used in the 1966-67 period until it launches into a chugging piece of solid, heavy rock. Ronson's strong guitar lines and some muscular drums kick it firmly along.



Saviour Machine "fades in" and is another heavily-backed rock song but with some of the feel of the Space Oddity material about it, together with a vague hint of Big Brother from Diamond Dogs, particularly in the saxophone (?) break in the middle. Ronson's guitar solo is very early seventies in its style. Again, it is full of excellent guitar, bass and drums. Bowie's voice, despite its high pitch, is also getting stronger and stronger and able to cope with this heavier rock sound. 

She Shook Me Cold was definitely album's heaviest track. It is influenced by Jeff Beck and Jimi Hendrix, while there are hints of Led Zeppelin in there, in more than just the title. Apparently Bowie recorded it as a concession to Ronson and drummer Mick Woodmansey, who were into this sort of heavy jamming thing. The guitar and drum interplay at the end is excellent and by far the heaviest passage of any Bowie track. 

The Man Who Sold The World was a change in pace and style from the rest of the album, being a catchy melodic rock number with a hoarse-sounding, echoey vocal from Bowie, some infectious "cheese-grater" percussion, stunning bass lines and an addictive refrain. What was it all about? There are many theories. My late mother, who was a Bowie fan in her late forties at the time, insisted it was about Jesus Christ. I have not seen that interpretation anywhere, but I kind of like my Mum's take on it, and could see what she meant - "you must have died alone, a long long time ago...". Hmm. Maybe.

The Supermen* is a mysterious, brooding, atmospheric track to end the album on. Bowie would return to acoustic, folky rock for the next album, Hunky Dory, and we would never hear him play material like this again.

There was also a re-recorded version of The Supermen that was laid down in 1971:-

*The Supermen. This is a re-recording, from 1971, of the final track on 1970's The Man Who Sold The World album. It doesn't have the big, rolling, tympani-style drums of the original nor the sonorous backing vocals. Neither is Bowie's vocal anywhere near so mannered or theatrically high-pitched. This alternate version is pretty Ziggy in many ways, featuring gentle acoustic verses and a far more melodic, tender vocal from Bowie before a big Mick Ronson guitar interjection leads into a robust, solid, riffy chorus. It is very Spiders in its instrumentation and indeed, this is the version Bowie would subsequently play live. Which do I prefer? Both have good points, but if I had to make a choice at gun-point, it would always be this rocky alternate version.

Incidentally, I much prefer the black and white “high kick” cover that we had in the UK when this was re-released in 1972 to the “man in a dress” one now used. That was the one I grew up with, like the 1973 cover of Space Oddity. Yes I know the picture is from the Ziggy era, but for me the album is always that black cover with the circle of vinyl wear showing through. That is how I remember is when I retrospectively got into it in the summer of 1973. The US cartoon-ish cover artwork featured opposite is, quite frankly, bizarre. Apparently, Bowie had used this image before, in his Beckenham Arts Lab days. The black and white cover seems to suit the album's ambience much better, I feel.

  

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