David Bowie 1967-1973

Back in May I started a lockdown project which indirectly led to me starting this blog – I decided to go through David Bowie’s back catalogue, one album at a time, and focus on a lesser known song (i.e. non-single) from each album. I’d been meaning to find somewhere to collate them, and this seems as good a place as any. So here’s the first of (I expect) four posts reproducing the original reviews, beginning with a non-album single preceding Bowie’s first album.

New project – I aim to post a David Bowie song every day, one song per album in order of release. But I’m going to start with a non-album single from 1967, released shortly before his first album. “The Laughing Gnome” is the first David Bowie song I ever heard, in a school music class around the age of 8. I was delighted to discover that somebody created a claymation video for it in 2014. Still one of my all-time favourite Bowie songs.

David Bowie’s first album, David Bowie (1967), is unfairly neglected to the extent that many people aren’t aware of its existence. It was even omitted from the box set reissues of his complete albums which started coming out after his death. “Come and Buy My Toys” isn’t the most representative track on the album, but I selected it because of the guest appearance on guitar of John Renbourn, who would go on to co-found the brilliant folk supergroup Pentangle (1968-73). Laid back hippie-ish folk driven by effortlessly intricate guitar, without the more elaborate production elsewhere on the album.

On to David Bowie’s second album, David Bowie (1969), later renamed Space Oddity. In contrast to his previous album, this one is so well known that it’s recently been reissued in a 5-disc box set of its own! I’ve resisted the obvious urge to select “Space Oddity” and have gone instead for “Cygnet Committee”, an epic 9 1/2 minute song which starts quietly and keeps building through its length until it brings side 1 to a conclusion with a mixture of triumphal climax and desperate cry for life. Mick Wayne’s guitar is a strong presence, and the overall mix is made more layered by Rick Wakeman’s contributions on organ and harpsichord.

Bowie’s third album, The Man Who Sold the World (1970), is the closest he’s come to a 70s hard rock album. It would fit quite comfortably alongside the first couple of albums by Led Zeppelin or Black Sabbath. I think it’s also my favourite of his 70s albums before the Berlin period. I’ve ultimately decided to pick “All the Madmen” (which I first heard in a cover version by Alien Sex Fiend from the Goth Oddity tribute album). This song is the most eclectic on the album, incorporating a few different musical styles, and jumping around in a way which doesn’t really pay attention to how you’d normally construct a song. The use of recorder is also unexpected. And it’s one of many Bowie songs dealing with the subject of madness in some way.

Bowie album #4 – Hunky Dory (1971). Bowie’s ode to Andy Warhol is much tighter than the last couple of songs I’ve picked, propelled along by Mick Ronson’s catchy flamenco guitar riff for most of its 4 minutes. But while it’s about the normal length for a pop song, it’s not quite conventional in its construction. The opening includes some electronic noodling which isn’t really related to the rest of the piece. By the time you reach the end, the song has started to fall apart with the dual acoustic guitars at odds with each other and the percussion in a way that reminds me of some of the sounds Goblin would make later in the 1970s. The song is also bookended by studio chatter in a way which draws attention to the song’s constructed nature, which seems appropriate for a tribute (an oddly melancholy tribute) to Andy Warhol. It might sound like some of these comments are criticising the song, but they’re all aspects of why it sticks with me more than I expect it to.

On to Bowie’s fifth and possibly best known album, The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars (1972). I had trouble choosing among songs on the previous two albums, but this time it was always going to be “Moonage Daydream”. I suspect this one stands out for me because I can easily imagine it appearing on The Man Who Sold the World. It also reflects Bowie’s ongoing interest in both science fiction (usually dystopian) and the occult. And even in among Mick Ronson’s dominant guitar playing, there’s still the oddity of Bowie playing the pennywhistle.

Six albums in already! The standout track on Aladdin Sane (1973) is the title song, the first occasion on which Mike Garson gets to let loose on piano while Bowie plays saxophone. Those two in combination have provided some of my favourite moments in Bowie’s body of work, and it’s great to hear them go wild on their first album together, while Trevor Bolder’s bass provides the solid foundation for their flights of fancy.

Bowie’s 7th album Pin Ups (1973) is a covers album. I’m generally interested in cover songs, but while this album serves as a consolidation of some of his influences while working out where to go next, it really is a mixed bag. At least half of the songs are pale imitations of the original versions – the reason I skipped a day is that I needed to find time to compare all of them to assess them fairly. “Sorrow” is the clear standout – there’s a reason it was the only single, and Bowie really makes that one his own. But since I’d rather select non-singles for the purpose of this journey, I’ve gone with his cover of Pink Floyd’s “See Emily Play”. While I still prefer the original, in this version Bowie has clearly tried to produce a faithful version which still includes some personal touches in the spirit of the original (becoming more apparent in the back half of the song). And this is about the last touch of the hippie era we see in Bowie’s work for quite some time.

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