Monday, 30 August 2010

Gnome Thoughts from a Foreign Country (The Vintage David Bowie)

 Now here's a real oddity (no pun intended). This 1983 songbook, recently obtained for work purposes, has several previously unpublished early Bowie songs, from his self-titled first album (1967) on Decca's hip offshoot label Deram, plus a few from his second album, also known as David Bowie, otherwise Space Oddity or Man of Words, Man of Music (1969). There are a few copies of the book on the net at the time of writing. The cover of the songbook, like many of the vinyl repackagings of the 1967 material, is deliberately misleading, but who cares if you already know what you're getting?

More unfortunate, in my view, is that the songbook is split between the two albums, possibly for fear that a book's worth of novelty songs would be too unpalatable. Space Oddity apart, the earlier songs are perhaps more interesting - although not necessarily for Bowie fans. Many have a distinct music hall influence, reflecting the pop of the time - the Kinks and Barrett-era Pink Floyd - and apparently it was released on the same day as Sergeant Pepper (which rather reminds me of Dave Clark - although in fairness it may have have been Clark channelled by Mark Shipper in his spoof biog - declaring that his group's rivalry with the Beatles could only be beneficial for both sides). 

But Bowie's vocals go back earlier, aping Anthony Newley's singing style.
In fact, the young Bowie reproduces just about every vocal mannerism of Newley, apparently much taken with this early example of a British singer not trying to sound American. Before his theatrical fame, Newley had been a pop star in the late 50s, early 60s, singing such numbers as Pop Goes the Weasel and Strawberry Fair in a distinctive East End accent.

Easier to listen to Newley's voice than to describe it, but I think you can get why it might have appealed to Bowie. Whatever the authenticity of the accent, there seems something heightened and stylised about it too: Newley seems to be delighting, as it were, in his artifice, his awareness of giving a performance. And whether it's down to the accent or Newley himself, there is (as with Sam Cooke in rather different circumstances) an absolute clarity - a relishing, even, of individual words and phrases.

A selfconscious performer, in other words. Which is fine when the material allows for it. But I've always found his delivery of his 1960 hit Why? ("I'll never let you go - Why? Because I love you", etc) slightly unsettling. The song, originally a hit for Frankie Avalon in the States the year before, is the tritest of ballads and it's clear that Newley, for all his careful enunciation of the lyric, and the camouflage of the backing, can't really get behind it. It sounds (to me, anyway) like he's distanced from it, ever so gently sending it up.

Which may be entirely unfair. But it does remind me that Bowie's much later song Be My Wife was generally assumed to be ironic. Which is both true and not true, as is suggested in Hugo Wicken's account of the Low album:
 [The lyric's] "dumb simplicity is something of a tease.""Please be mine, share my life, stay with me, be my wife..." Could this be anything but irony? The fact is that Bowie's marriage at this stage was in the final stages of disintegration [...] And yet ... the song isn't exactly ironic either. At least part of the "sincerity" is sincere, and the passivity of its plea - asking for something but offering nothing - is of a piece with the rest of the album's lyrics. The song ends poignantly with the first line of a verse that is never completed. "It was genuinely anguished, I think," Bowie once said of the song, before adding: "It could have been anybody, though." That ambivalence strikes pretty much at the heart of not only the song and the first side of Low, but almost everything else Bowie did in the seventies. He'd always located himself in that interesting space where even the singer doesn't quite know what to make of his material. Is Bowie's Young Americans a straightforward celebration of Philly soul, or a tricksy postmodern appropriation of it? Surely a bit of both.

(Wicken's book is part of a generally readable pocketsized series about key albums published by Continuum; I recommend Andy Miller's study of the Kinks' Village Green Preservation Society.)

But to return to the sixties: the title song apart, there are two others numbers in the songbook from the 1969 Space Oddity album. Wild Eyed Boy From Freecloud remained in his live repertoire and was sung at the famous final Ziggy Stardust gig in Hammersmith. You could say it links to the Deram material, being a story in song, although of larger, mythical proportions and rather more disturbing than little tales of overgrown children (Uncle Arthur) and alienated soldiers (Little Bombardier), which populate that first album, although there is certainly a comic touch in Wild Eyed Boy ... which could have come out of that earlier period:
The hangman plays the mandolin before he goes to sleep
Memory of a Free Festival, the final 1969 song, is, on the album version (there was also a single), a big Hey Jude-style production number complete with a chorus which goes on forever. It was about a gig in Beckenham, I believe, actually rather less sweetness and light than its portrayal here, Bowie apparently at one point calling the others involved "materialistic ars*holes" for making money out of the event. (Read a much more detailed account in Bowie blog Pushing Ahead of the Dame, here.)

I used to love the Space Oddity album, which I first discovered in Spain in the early seventies before it was rereleased in the UK; I even wrote an impassioned letter to Sounds to defend it after an adverse review in Sounds by Steve Peacock of the Ziggy-era reissue, roundly declaring I would "recommend it to anyone with an interest in music."

Not sure I would feel quite the same today. Maybe because once Ziggy Stardust came out, Bowie became the property of my immediate elder brother (who was mightily peeved years later when it was I, not he, who got a chance to meet him). But it may also be because I played the album to death at the time.

I do suspect, however, that the earlier songs would lend themselves more easily to being sung by others - maybe because they are less personal, or maybe because they are more "crafted" in the limited, Tin Pan Alley sense of the term, whereas the later numbers need to stay safely cushioned in their settings by Tony Visconti. Possibly.

There has been a recent deluxe CD edition of the Deram David Bowie album, with mono/stereo versions of the recording plus related songs and BBC sessions.

 If you're on a budget, however, the earlier Deram Anthology has all the essentials (not the Beeb sessions) and will probably be available for a lot less. You can even hear a demo version of Space Oddity on which Bowie sounds like the Bee Gees circa New York Mining Disaster (chameleon-like even then, y'see).

And, as the world knows (and has long striven to forget), The Laughing Gnome, a particularly ripe example of early Bowie at play, replete with bad puns, was reissued in the first flush of Bowiemania in the early seventies and actually was a fairly big hit - to Bowie's embarassment, I fancy. The one detail I remember from the time was a review which pointed out its resemblance to The Tennessee Waltz - albeit a souped-up. electrified version of the country classic.

But overall, these really are well-crafted little vignettes which are worth exploring. Even Marc Bolan said in a Melody Maker interview at the timeof Gnomemania that he liked 'em (can't remember whether he added that "This laughing gnome - bopping elf rivalry can only be beneficial to both sides").

The only pity, as mentioned earlier, is that this book contains a mere selection of the earlier songs: others such as She's Got Medals, an early example of gender swapping ("Her mother called her Mary, but she changed her name to Tommy - she's a one!"), Maid of Bond Street ("her dreams are scraps on the cutting room floor") and the darkly comic Please Mr Gravedigger, virtually a chanted monologue with sound effects, are not, alas, present, but worth checking out.
Songs in the book from the David Bowie album etc (1967):
Love you till Tuesday
Little Bombardier
Sell me a coat
Come and buy my toys
Uncle Arthur
Join the gang
Did you ever have a dream
The gospel according to Tony Day
When I live my dream
The laughing gnome
Songs from the Space Oddity album (1969):
Space oddity
The wild eyed boy from freecloud
Memory of a free festival
A few more thoughts on some of the songs:

Come and Buy My Toys has great charm - provided you don't analyse the lyrics too much. Because as soon as you think "Scarborough Fair" or ponder the efficacy of furrowing a field with a bramble thorn, then you get into difficulties. But against that you have a taut arrangement (I don't know who produced, arranged or engineered the Decca recordings but in general they sound great on vinyl and CD), the crack in the voice on "till you be a man."

A reviewer once said of The Gospel According to Tony Day - a natural B side if there ever was one - that it sounded like it was knocked off in five minutes in the recording studio. I can't disagree. Odd that it was chosen here instead of a song like She's Got Medals.

The singing on Little Bombardier deserves particular praise. It's a theatrical performance within several sets of inverted commas, but that seems entirely right if we're thinking music hall. Consider the delivery of "Friendless, lonely days" or the song's fruitily delivered climax as the wrongly accused soldier slinks off:
Packed his bags, his heart in pain,
Wiped a tear and caught a train,
Not to be seen in the town agai-ai- an,
The little bombardier.
Wonder how Bowie feels about it now? He has said that at the time he didn't know whether he was Elvis Presley or Max Miller - and I suppose Presley eventually won out. I have read that he vetoed the use of studio chatter and outtakes in the Deram Anthology - possibly the only veto open to him.

But I think I've also read that he actively helped in the compiling of Decca's The World of David Bowie - though I imagine he wouldn't have been pleased at the later cash-in covers which adorned that album. Or, perhaps, the fact that it was a budget album which must have sold in large quantities. But given the range of his later achievements then any reissue can't be any sort of threat to his status.

Two further thoughts. I'm pretty sure I read that Bowie sent a copy of his first album to Anthony Newley - and did not receive a reply. Which seemed pretty fair to me: the vocal stylings weren't so much a tribute as an impersonation. But recently, in Spencer Leigh's book about pre-Beatles pop, Halfway to Paradise, which has some contributions from Bowie's first manager, Ken Pitt, I read that Pitt had been involved with Newley's management. So what exactly is the story there? Who thought what of what?

To close, please to repair to youtube for The Strange World of Gurney Slade, a Newley TV show which apparently had a big influence on the young Bowie; Part One here. It was last seen, as far as I know, on TV Heaven, a series presented by Frank Muir, in 1992, the idea being this was where television programmes go "if they've been good." I also commend unto you Jazz Boat (1960), a film I saw on TV decades ago and fondly remembered. Seeing it again, it is dated but has great charm. Not on youtube, alas.

 Oh, but I can't end without mentioning the one song from that time which Bowie seems still, in the words of a former line manager, to "reckon": London Boys. Not difficult to work out why: it seems more directly drawn from personal experience, rather than a quirky short story sort of job, and there is genuine excitement in his vocal performance on the original recording which builds to a sort of restrained frenzy. Yet - and it is my blog, after all - I can't resist  mentioning a pointless and rather surreal mondegreen which may be peculiar to these ears:
You've bought some coffee, butter and bread
You can't make a thing, cause the meat is dead.
I suppose my logic was the narrator has a sudden disgusted realisation that what he's about to put into his the carcase of an animal, thereby triggering an awareness of man's essential cruelty which led to this situation: a moment, in fact, of weltschmerz, to use a word of which the later Bowie was not altogether unfond (as here). So - tempting. But obviously not. Although if he ever reads this and wishes to employ it, I should be only too honoured.

Likewise Mr Leitch: a Donovan mondegreen which I have long cherished has just popped into my head too - from Barabajagal. Not an endorsement one would have automatically expected from that quarter, but perhaps more plausible than the Bowie one:
Love is hot,
Truth is Motown ...

 But to close - no, no, really, this time - here's a youtube London Boys with more or less appropriate visuals from Quadrophenia - although when I hear it, I see a younger version of Bowie in something like the Heroes video, alone in his anguish. And again, all credit to whoever arranged this: the organ is a wonderful accompaniment and the voice is never overwhelmed by the other instruments. Would it be so wrong to call it soulful?

Part Two: Newley and Alan Klein
Guide to Gnome Thoughts series

1 comment:

  1. Absolutely brilliant writing about a Bowie period of which the hatred by seemingly the majority of the planet is something that's disturbed me for a lifetime!
    And... the meat is dead!! :)