Thursday, October 9, 2008

Classic Debut LP's: DAVID BOWIE

DAVID BOWIE- David Bowie LP U.K. Deram DM 1007 1967

David Bowie’s mid 60’s career was less than enigmatic. By the onset of 1966 he had racked up three singles (with at least three different backing bands) on three different labels encompassing at least three genres. The later two of the three singles were under the guidance of Shel Talmy , best known for his work with The Who, The Kinks etc. Three more resounding (but brilliant) flops ensued under the producing hand of Tony Hatch on the Pye label left him as a man without a contract. Enter Kenneth Pitt , manager of, at one time or another, Manfred Mann and more recently the one hit wonder Christian St. Peters and hardworking Glaswegian act The Beatstalkers (later to cover three unissued Bowie compositions). Pitt signed on as a manager for the boy from Bromley and set about arranging the recording of demos of him and his then backing band The Buzz featuring Derek “Chow” Boyes(keyboards), Derek “Dek” Fearnly (bass), John “Ego” Eager (drums) and Billy Gray (lead guitar) at the legendary R.G. Jones studio in Morden, Surrey in October 18, 1966. This would be Bowie’s second visit to the studio (famed for their rare acetate label pressings of seven inches that bring heavy money in collector’s circles). With his previous band The Lower Third he had cut a legendary acetate “That’s A Promise”/”Silly Boy Blue” there in October, 1965 . Work with The Buzz at the studio produced three recordings (none of which have seen the light of day in their R.G. Jones demo form) “The London Boys” (previously demoed and rejected by Pye as a fourth single for that label), “Please Mr. Gravedigger” and “Rubber Band”. Eventual success came from Pitt’s footwork just six days after the session when Decca staff producer Mike Vernon heard the demo. Bowie and the band were offered a deal on the brand new Decca offshoot Deram. Despite the popular misnomer that Deram was a progressive label, in 1966 it was run by the same stuffy collective of types that had, years earlier, rejected The Beatles. Regardless Deram was keen to be “cutting edge” and were busy tapping into new artists (among their signings was a Birmingham “super-group” called The Move ) and work ensued on the first David Bowie long player on November 14th. On December, 2nd they released the single “Rubber Band”/”The London Boys” (Deram DM107) alongside 45’s by new hopefuls Cat Stevens and Beverley . But sadly the 7 inch garnered little commercial success. Reviewers were puzzled by Bowie’s sudden shift from mod/Swinging London pop to Vaudevillian shtick and the public agreed. As an aside, copies of this 45 (with an upside down matrix number) now change hands anywhere from $250.00 on up. Nonplussed by this setback the band continued work on the LP with Mike Vernon producing. At some point during this guitarist Billy Gray departed, leaving the back band as a three piece. Bowie himself was quite adept at guitar and it would be his acoustic playing that would be heard on Deram album sessions. The Buzz’s last official gig with Bowie took place on December 2, 1966 but the trio would continue to work throughout the LP’s recording which commenced on February 22, 1967.

The untitled David Bowie LP was released on June 1, 1967 in the UK as Deram DML 1007. It is worthy to note through no coincidence, that “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” was released on the same day. Though “David Bowie” failed to chart and it remains to this day one of Bowie’s least favorite LP’s it is (to quote one of former producer Tony Hatch’s compositions) “a sign of the times”. The summer of 1967 was known to many as “The Summer Of Love”, but in David Bowie’s world (then his parents semi-detached at #4 Plainstow Grove in the London suburb ofBromley,) flowers and hippies were far from the mix of Ray Davies like social observations and a picture of an England where village greens, henpecked relatives and child murders sat at ease with in crowd night spots, Eastern religion (Bowie’s Buddhism flirtation was just beginning) and high priced fashion models.

Side One opens with “Uncle Arthur” a paean to an unasserted momma’s boy with medieval sounding strings and woodwinds. The number itself would not have sounded at all out of place on The Kinks “Something Else” or “…Are The Village Green Preservation Society”. “Sell Me A Coat” benefits from strings, horns and Bowie’s acoustic guitar (a harbinger perhaps to his next musical direction as a corkscrewed haired solo performer). A re-recording of his Deram 45 rpm debut “Rubber Band” follows. It is slightly fuller than the single version than the original, a tale of love and loss in wartime to the tune of a brass band. The upbeat “Love You Till Tuesday” is the first version of a tune which would shortly become Bowie’s third Deram (DM 135) little over a month after the LP’s release (and was panned by none other than Syd Barrett in Melody Makers “Blind Date” column as “a joke song”). In “There Is A Happy Land” childhood recollections are rummaged through in a wistful tune that sees Bowie return to some “scat” vocalese (previously explored on the Pye single “Good Morning Girl”). What I wouldn’t have given to be privy to scene in the bedroom on Plainstow Grove (where most of Bowie’s pre-“Space Oddity” demos were born) to hear a voice croak to an acoustic guitar for the first time: “Charlie Brown’s got half a crown he’s gonna buy a kite..”. “We Are Hungry Men” provides an apocalyptic view of 1967. Starting off with a mock news announcer’s report, the number’s tongue and cheek paranoia about over population speaks of abortion and cannibalism (the American branch of Deram got squeamish and left this off the Deram DES 18003 US pressing). This was no doubt quite shocking for 1967, aided in short by a Hitler impersonation during the break, and sits fairly well if one considers the inane humor then bandied about by the legendary Bonzo Dog Band ! Alongside his brilliant Mod/Swinging London observation “The London Boys”, “When I Live My Dream” is the closet Bowie ever came to becoming a full on crooner. It’s lushly and lavishly orchestrated, illustrating perfectly Deram’s willingness to go whole hog in the studio for promising new hopefuls with nary a hit to their credit. It is of sad coincidence possibly that the man responsible for convincing Mike Vernon to sign Bowie (one intrepid gent named Hugh Mendl ) left Deram shortly before David’s recording contract expired!!

Side Two starts with the almost Dickensian “Little Bombardier” which provides a character worthy of any Ray Davies (or pop-sike ) number. The protagonist is “little” Frankie Mair, a shell shocked R.A.F. veteran who finds peace and solace in harmlessly befriending local children who is, unjustly, suspected of pedophilia and run out of town. Bowie’s real life flirtation with Buddhism provides the back drop for “Silly Boy Blue” (lyrically changed from The Lower Third version cut as a demo in October 1965, which concerns growing old). The song itself is beautiful and melodic but somehow the crooning about Tibet and all things Buddhist comes off a bit stiff from a performer who, as previously indicated, was still living at home with mom and dad in suburban semi-isolation. Nonetheless it is perhaps, a kernel of Bowie’s earliest attempts at lyrically visualizing what he was eager to know. Its sweeping vocal ending is strangely akin to material by the American pop group The Buckinghams , intentional? You decide. It was later recorded a year later by Billy Fury in a bombastic arrangement. “Come And Buy My Toys” is sparse, just Bowie and his acoustic guitar and Fearnley’s bass, reminiscent both lyrically and musically to early Fairport Convention (POSTSCRIPT: it's actually not David Bowie on acoustic guitar but John Renbourn from Pentangle!) . Simplistic at best, it works well against the rest, aide in no small part by Bowie’s nifty Davy Graham style acoustic guitar plucking. His searing cynicism and contempt for “Swingin’ London” is illustrated in the catchy “Join My Gang”. “This clubs called The Web it’s this month’s pick, next month we shall find a club where prices ain’t so stiff” he trills while Boyes, Fearnley and Eager pump out strains of “Gimme Some Lovin’”. Predicting acid causalities, alcoholic singers and (dare I say it) chameleon like performers amidst bar room piano and sitars the number is Bowie at his most socially observant. “She’s Got Medals”, easily one of the albums strongest tracks, concerns a female war hero who disguised herself as a man to serve her country, survived and now drinks with the boys down the local among an almost “Hey Joe” style chord progression chugged along by woodwinds and Boye’s pumping knees up piano. The contemporary people watching continues with “Maid Of Bond Street”, a sneering swipe at the would be starlet “who’s cares are scraps on the cutting room floor” to a sophisticated jazzy backing with a little accordion to give it a French “Left Bank” feel. Strangely, this too is missing from the US pressing. The albums conclusion, “Please Mr. Gravedigger” is a spoken word piece. Devoid of any music the numbers only accompaniment are rain, thunder and digging sound effects. Positively Bowie’s earliest example of both the macabre and black humor, it starts out in what seems to be a first person narrative of an all hearing/all seeing gravedigger. By the “songs” end it is revealed to be the soliloquy of a regretful child murderer who in turn kills the gravedigger who overhears his tormented graveside confession.

Front cover of the US mono LP pressing

Back cover of the U.S. LP pressing

Though the LP will be forever remembered by critics and Bowie himself with both aversion and dreadful Anthony Newley comparisons, it did not stand a chance commercially. Certainly not because “Sgt. Pepper” was released the same day, but no doubt because, for whatever reason, the world was not yet ready for David Bowie. Within a year he would be dutifully released from his Deram contract after numerous other brilliant attempts (that would go unissued until fame and stardom in the early 70’s brought them forth from the Deram vaults) and left free to be scooped up by Mercury Records and drop into the hit parade in the Summer of 1969 with a number about a wayward spaceman named Major Tom.

**This piece originally appeared on on April 27, 2007 **

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