By Chris Welch for Melody Maker, March 12, 1977
David Bowie was a remarkable chanteur, even in his earliest days – the period critics now tend to ignore or deride. For a small coterie of Bowie fans in the early Sixties, his records were fresh, amusing and often moving, and in sharp contrast to the more brutal aspects of the evolving heavy-metal movement. His first album for Decca, “Rubber Band,” was a prized possession to be mulled over with a mixture of amusement and fascination.
David was already writing and performing songs that cut across the current conventions. Today some of them may sound twee, with rather heavy-handed orchestral backings, and child-like lyrics.
Setting aside the Bowie legend that now looms so large, one is impressed by his burgeoning skill as a writer, his insistence on experiment in an age when making rock albums was still regarded as very much a stringing together or hit singles, and, above all, his remarkable vocal style and range.
Much has been made of the influence of actor-turned-singer Anthony Newley on the young Bowie. But while it is true he employed some of his inflexions [sic], the curious flattening of odd words like “maid” (“m-a-i-d”) or “boys” (“b-o-i-w-z”), it must be remembered David was a South Londoner for whom such speech is part of the background noise of street, pub and club.
Many of his fans were impressed by the ability to hit really deep notes and hold them, the ease with which he soared into the stratosphere as he displayed such technical command over his voice when he played those marvelous concerts in London last year. And yet, there from the beginning, Bowie, lifestyle, image, mystique apart, was always a VOICE.
His early recordings for Decca were reissued as “The World of David Bowie,” back in 1970, and it is not surprising that David should have dropped out of the music scene in frustration in view of the general apathy that greeted his first efforts.
For one can hear he put a tremendous amount of effort into crafting songs and arrangements. The wry sense of humour, the jokes about “Uncle Arthur,” the man who marries late in life and returns to Mum for the home cooking, or the butch army girl who stars in the brilliant “She’s Got Metals,” went right over the heads of the mix-Sixties audience, or so it seemed.
But there was a growing band of fans who appreciated the doomy flavour and images of pieces like “There Is A Happy Land,” which had some of the prescience of disaster which later emerged in David’s more celebrated “1984” period.
But until David was to undergo the enormous excitement and pressures in the Seventies, he remained a child of the Sixties, crying in his beer, perhaps, on such items as “Sell Me A Coat” and indulging in songs like “Little Bombardier” that would have suited a children’s pantomime, as would the singularly charming “Come and Buy My Toys,” a million miles from Ziggy Stardust.
The child-like motifs cropped up many times: references to sweets and toys, complete with boyish sobs, and careful enunciation of ‘difficult’ words. But even at his most tearful, he’d throw away a line that remains hilariously funny, like the sudden drop in pitch for “or were they just a game” in “Little Bombardier.”
Despite the melancholia and concern for loneliness that occurs in such vignettes as “Sell Me A Coat”, “Silly Boy Blue”, or the remarkable “The London Boys”, there is a tremendous sense of the absurd.
“She’s Got Medals” is almost Lewis Carroll, especially in the diversionary trick which leads one to suppose the heroine has been wiped out in the third chorus by an “enemy bomb.”
“The London Boys” is pretty much a documentary of a 16-year old leaving home to explore the perils of life in Soho. “You try a little pill and feel decidedly ill,” sings David, his voice full of nervous anticipation. A sudden break-out in Judy Garland style roars forth like the chimes of Big Ben. It was a glimpse into his theatrical future.
“Space Oddity” marked his second coming, as far as his recording career was concerned, and was such an unexpected success it left him temporarily stunned, and, if he was unsure before, there seemed to be ever more problems created by becoming a maker of hit singles.
For two years after those early jolly experiments Bowie dropped out. The voice that returned on “Space Oddity,” recorded in 1968 for Philips and later re-issued on RCA, was pregnant with promise, filled with mystery, and indicated that the “Love You Till Tuesday” Bowie was finally relegated to the attic with all the toys.
“Space Oddity” retained, however, the characteristic Bowie device of contrasting somber, introverted mutterings with view-halloos from the mountain tops. “Sitting in a tin can,” he sang above the Mellotron, and you could almost feel him floating somewhat disconsolately in orbit.
There was something quaint about calling a billion dollars’ worth of space technology a “tin can”, especially at a time when the Americans were setting sights on the moon. During ’69, when David was involved in the Beckenham Arts Lab, he began recording with producer Tony Visconti, using musicians like Rick Wakeman, Keith Christmas, Paul Buckmaster and Herbie Flowers.
Pieces like “Unwashed And Somewhat Slightly Dazed” had Bowie reverting (even before “Pin Ups”) to the R&B influence of his youth, with much wailing harmonica and David’s yelling buried in the track, almost like Jagger on an Andrew Oldham production.
No sign here of the man with a bouquet of vocal subtleties, and, indeed, most of the track is taken up with a Bo Diddley-style jam of a decidedly stoned nature. David’s resonant and vibrant timbres are restored on “Letter to Hermione” but the giggling jests of “She’s Got Medals” are forgotten. On “Cygnet Committee” we hear a declamatory anger not heard before, and a Dylan influence which until then had been more obvious in the frizzed-out hair style he adopted briefly for solo touring purposes.
But as David gets into the “We want to live-er!” in the dramatic climax, the enunciation is pure Bowie, and a firm indication of the madness soon to overwhelm him and his audience.
Around this time David told me about his attitude to record making: “I hadn’t really wanted to make records for ages. But people went on at me, and I went back into the studios.
“I have been doing mime for a year-and-a-half. This is my comeback! That first album I did was in about 15 minutes for 5s. 6d. You could say it was rushed. I just got discouraged with pop by the lack of work.
“It was all Tamla Motown, and I didn’t stand much of a chance with my type of music. I got more interested in theatre and mime, and now I’m running the arts lab. I still don’t consider myself a performer. I’m a writer. I really wouldn’t like to make singing a full-time occupation.”
Strange, the twists of fate.
The writer, so clever at constructing songs like novels, found his fulfillment then in pieces like the beautiful “Wild Eyed Boy From Freecloud”, which, complete with strings and David’s acoustic guitar strumming gently but insistently, was strangely similar, in mood at least, to John Lennon of “Sgt. Pepper” vintage. This was originally coupled with “Space Oddity” on Philips, and was produced by Gus Dudgeon.
The following year came with the dawning of the Age of Bowie with the release of “The Man Who Sold The World on Mercury” (Re-issued on RCA LSP 4816). Great was the excitement among Bowie watcher. In April 1971 David met the MM clad in a white see-through blouse, a blue wrap, and spacious slacks, looking strangely serious, determined and just a little wide-eyed.
“I was in the depth of despair in those days,” he said of the “Space Oddity” period. “It was very weird. My father died and a week later I had a hit record. The juxtaposition was like a pantomime. A tragi-comedy.
“Since that time I’ve had a complete change of management and started writing again. I went to America to promote “The Man Who Sold The World”, and as I was going to Texas, I wore a dress. One guy pulled out a gun and called me a f*g. But I thought the dress was beautiful.”
“The Width of a Circle” came in violent contrast to all that had gone before, and the rest of the tracks on the album had the same threat of underground sexuality and threatening madness. The excitement of “Madmen”, with its violently contrasting musical textures, was largely generated by Visconti’s production, allied to the attacking guitar work of Mick Ronson and Ralph Mace’s intelligent use of synthesizer.
Visconti also used bass guitar with a presence and attack, immediately detectable on “Width”, unusual on British albums at the time. Once again, David showed his adaptability, almost Hendrix-like on “Black Country Rock,” while retaining his love for the under-the-blanket conversational tones on the bizarre “After All…”
When David went to RCA for “Hunky Dory” the acceptance of Bowie had turned into one of those fevered periods of hysteria that occur in rock with less regularity than one might imagine from scanning the front pages of the music press. Hysteria is a rare commodity.
The excitement when millions discovered Bowie during 1972-3 was matched by a very real blossoming of talent on the spare, dirge-like “Five Years” on “The Rise And Fall Of Ziggy Stardust And The Spiders From Mars.”
David’s first love, the saxophone, made a rather agonized return on the relatively uninteresting “Soul Love”, but even here was the rising hysteria in Bowie’s throat. As a maker of pop songs, this was a prolific period, and one of his most simple and yet compelling themes was “Starman”, which was almost Judy Garland meets Major Tom.
It’s one of my favourite Bowie melody lines, along with the despairing, chanting “Lady Stardust.” And for those who thought Bowie, the confessional diarist, couldn’t get it on with straight rock and roll came the incredibly driving “Hang On To Yourself”, as fast and raunchy as any beat fan could wish.
As David took to America, the influence of a society in advanced states of decadence had its effect during his “Aladdin Sane” period, which saw the production of “Drive In Saturday,” “Panic In Detroit,” “Cracked Actor” and some of his rocking-est works with “Jean Genie” and his tribute to the Stones, “Let’s Spend The Night Together.”
More tributes came when Bowie, surprisingly permitted himself a brief period of nostalgia in what seemed like a head-long rush towards 1984 and “Diamond Dogs”.
“Pin Ups” in 1973, produced by Bowie and Ken Scott, looked affectionately at the days of Bowie’s youth, when the great groups were touring the clubs: The Yardbirds, Them, Mojos, Who, Merseys, and Kinks.
It was the kind of music that David himself had never recorded. In 1966 he was too far ahead of them all. And today through “Station to Station” to “Low” or his live double album of ’74, David remains a challenging artist whose creative genius remains thoroughly provocative whichever direction he taeks, whether into the Philly sound for “Young Americans” or even harking back to Sixties soul and “Knock on Wood.”
He has been called a sponge, soaking up other people’s music and ideas; people point to his influences from Newley to Lou Reed. Yet through a ten-year career Bowie has been a writer of perception and passion, performer of hypnotic appeal, and a singer who has one of the few truly interpretative qualities in rock, allied to a technique that many of his so-called influences would doubtless envy.
Music~Hall Humorist by Marc Bolan
David is a great singer… He can sing anything, almost. I remember him when he was in the Lower Third and he used to go to gigs in an ambulance. I used to think he was very professional. He was playing saxophone then and singing. I suppose it was a blues band then, and he was produced by Shel Talmy. He did a record which I’m sure everybody has forgotten. It was Pop Art – yer actual feedback. I can’t remember what it was called.
After that, he went to Decca around the time I was doing “The Wizard.” He was into… Bombardiers then. Don’t you remember “The Little Bombardier”?
He was very Cockney then. I used to go round to his place in Bromley and he always played Anthony Newley records. I haven’t spoken to him about it, but I guess that was how he got into mime. Newley did mime in “Stop The World I Wanna Get Off.” The funny thing is that “The Laughing Gnome,” which was one of David’s biggest singles here, came from that early period.
It came at the height of his super-cool image. And that’s very “Strawberry Fair”… “The donkey’s eaten all the strawberries!” That was his biggest single, so ti just shows you it doesn’t pay to be cool, man!
Rock and roll suicide bit the dust and the laughing gnomes took over. We were all looking for something to get into then. I wanted to be Bob Dylan, but I think David was looking into that music-hall humour. It was the wrong time to do it, but all his songs were story songs, like “London Boys,” that had a flavour, a very thatrical flavour, with very square kinda backings.
But in those days there weren’t any groovy backings being laid down. I think if he played back those records now he’d smile at them, because he was an informed talent then. He was putting together the nucleus of what he was eventually going to be.
When he had “Space Oddity” he was on tour with me in Tyrannosaurus Rex. He had a mime act and used to open up the show. He didn’t sing at all, but had a tape going, and he’d act out a story about a Tibetan boy. It was quite good, actually, and we did the Festival Hall with Roy Harper as well.
I remember David playing me “Space Oddity” in his room and I loved it and said he needed a sound like the Bee Gees, who were very big then. The stylophone he used on that, I gave him. Tony Visconti turned me on to stylophones. The record was a sleeper for months before it became a hit, and I played on “Prettiest Star”, you know, which I thought was a great song, and it flopped completely.
But I never got the feeling form David that he was ambitious. I remember he’d buy antiques if he had a hit, when he should have saved the money. David got his drive to be successful once I’d done it with the T.Rex thing. At the beginning of the Seventies, it was the only way to go.