Monday, November 17, 2008

AlbumsOneBowie: David Bowie (1967)

Being a fan of all periods of David Bowie should be a real problem, you'd be forgiven for thinking.

After all, the man is better known than any other artist in music for constant re-invention. The word 'chameleon' is defined in the OED as, in part, 'pertaining to David Bowie'.*

This problem is particularly apparent when listening to Bowie's first studio album, the eponymous 'David Bowie'.**

It really is a struggle to come up with another artist who made such a massive sea-change in direction - in Bowie's case from whimsical, English music hall to sex-obsessed Glam Rock - in so short a period of time. Consequently, Bowie's brief early years do contain whole albums which seem hard to place in a logical, consistent and organic timeline.

David Buckley described this record as "the vinyl equivalent of the madwoman in the attic" and while that probably suggests a greater degree of sound and fury than is merited, Gus Dudgeon's claim that it was the 'weirdest thing Deram had ever put out" seems closer to the mark.

It certainly stands out even in the Summer of Love, eschewing the sort of hippy love and peace concerns suggested by the faintly psychedelic cover font in favour of a succession of mini-stories, flavoured by vaudeville and music hall rather than drugs and free love (the drug and, well, gang obsessed 'Join the Gang' is the odd track out in this respect).

Because of this, any search for musical fellow travellers for David Bowie leads only to individual songs rather than actual sustained work: bits and pieces of the Beatles output (most obviously John Lennon's 'Being for the Benefit of Mr Kite'), occasional Kinks' tracks and obscure British psych acts like The Blossom Toes.

The Beatles more whimsical moments are, in fact, the closest popular match for these early Bowie tracks. Utilising brass and strings, recording tracks with odd timings ('Maid of Bond Street' is in waltz time, for example), and injecting humour via the spoken word and 'funny' voices ('Please Mr Gravedigger' in particular) are all elements which have a mirror in Yellow Submarine/Pepper-era Beatles.

That the Beatles' tracks generally work far better is a sign that Bowie was as yet an emerging artist, still finding his musical feet and searching for a voice of his own, but there are things to admire in this first, uneven recording.

Most obviously, it is possible to trace certain of the themes which Bowie embraced right up until the early 80s in this very early and atypical work. 'She's Got Medals' deals with cross-dressing and trans-gender issues, 'Uncle Arthur', 'Maid of Bond Street' and 'Little Bombardier' address unusual, possibly illicitly sexual, relationships and 'We Are Hungry Men' concerns itself with a dictator/Big Brother/messiah figure attempting to save a future dystopian society.

Of the two other primary thematic threads on the album, however, one is quickly discarded by Bowie after this album and never shows up explicitly in the future, whilst the other remains a staple only briefly and very rarely appears in later recordings.

The soon to be discarded theme of the effect of recent wars is evident in 'We are the Hungry Men' ('Achtung, achtung, these are your orders') and 'Little Bombardier' ('War made him a soldier...Peace left him a loser'), and even a throw-away like 'Rubber Band' (with its petulant and painful spoken 'I hope you break your baton' final line) slips a reference to the First World War into its music hall pastiche. War remains a potential lyrical source for future Bowie, but never quite so specifically.

The themes of innocence and the positive elements of childishness, however, are very pronounced on David Bowie and are also the areas in which Bowie moves furthest away from the straight music hall and in the direction of the Syd Barrett/Gong style nursery rhymes which made up another strand of very British psychedelia.

'When I Live my Dream', 'There is a Happy Land' and 'Silly Boy Blue' set the template for a fair portion of Bowie's songs before he embraces 'rock' with The Man Who Sold the World. Swooping strings and overblown and fantastic lyrics (reincarnation, slaying dragons and a 'special place in the rhubarb fields' all on one album!) combine with fears that the real world is threatening our innocence, and push this specific strand of Bowie into the realms of the quainter fringes of the hippy counter-culture.

Fortunately, Bowie redeems himself by his ability to engender real emotional impact from what seem at surface level to be trite place-holder tracks. Later on, the theme of childhood threatened would lead to the subtly despairing 'When I'm Five', while straight-forward romanticism would reach it's peak in the beautiful 'In the Heat of the Morning' (though it's possible to see echoes of this approach as late as the 'Absolute Beginners' single in 1986).

In the end, there are enough areas of overlap between this album and later Bowie works to appeal to the die-hard fan. Putting those people to one side, however, and this is one Bowie record which is, at best, a curio and an example of an era rather than of an artist coming into his own.

That Bowie had discarded all music hall elements by the time he recorded his next album, Space Oddity shows that he too recognised that this approach was not one on which to build a career.

Side one

  1. "Uncle Arthur" – 2:07
  2. "Sell Me a Coat" – 2:58
  3. "Rubber Band" – 2:17
  4. "Love You Till Tuesday" – 3:09
  5. "There Is a Happy Land" – 3:11
  6. "We Are Hungry Men" – 2:58
  7. "When I Live My Dream" – 3:22

Side two

  1. "Little Bombardier" – 3:24
  2. "Silly Boy Blue" – 4:36
  3. "Come and Buy My Toys" – 2:07
  4. "Join the Gang" – 2:17
  5. "She's Got Medals" – 2:23
  6. "Maid of Bond Street" – 1:43
  7. "Please Mr. Gravedigger" – 2:35
* Not really, but it bloody should be
** I'll be ignoring those early RnB singles with the Lower Third, Manish Boys etc that are forever being repackaged and re-released on cd, and so should you.

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