“David Bowie” is David Bowie’s 2nd studio album, originally released on 14th November 1969.
In many ways, the David Bowie story almost starts here. Almost.
By 1969, David Bowie had already been in the musical industry for five, very long, long years. But despite releasing numerous singles both with a number a different bands (The King Bees, The Manish Boys, The Lower Third) and as a solo artist and also releasing his first album “David Bowie” in 1967, all these releases had been commercial flops. He would have had more hot dinners than the number of records Bowie had sold collectively by 1969.
1968 had been the worst year yet, with no official releases at all and with Bowie seriously wondering if a career in music was really for him. Perhaps he would make a more successful Buddhist monk?
His then manager Kenneth Pitt still had enough confidence in his boy to invest in the making of an extended music film/video (released many years later as “Love You Till Tuesday“) that would showcase the musical talents of Bowie and could be used to promote his struggling star to be. Featuring mainly material from his first album “David Bowie“, they decided it needed something new and modern to just spruce it all up a bit.
After watching and being inspired by Stanley Kubrick’s sci-fi masterpiece, “A Space Odyssey”, Bowie wrote a new song called “Space Oddity” about a doomed astronaut, Major Tom. The strength of this song along with other demos he recorded around this time was enough for Bowie to be offered a new recording contract with Mercury Records.
Bowie was back in business.
Recorded between June-September 1969, his first album with Mercury Records called somewhat unimaginatively “David Bowie” (as was his previous album) was a really interesting affair. Sounding nothing like his previous Mod, come English Musical Hall numbers, the new album was a bizarre collection of songs that included everything from quaint folk numbers, romantic ballads, hippy anthems, hard rockers to futurist sci-fi art pieces. This was both the strength and weakness of the overall album, in that it features so many different styles and influences, but lacks the focus and single artistic direction of many of Bowie’s very best albums.
Bowie clearly wasn’t too sure of his place or destiny within the musical world (a fault that can be attributed somewhat to his then manager Kenneth Pitt who thought any career in “rock music” would be limited), but Bowie at the time liked The Beatles, Simon and Garfunkel and Bob Dylan and so these influences feature heavily in the album.
Recorded by a number of top British session musicians such as Tim Renwick, Rick Wakeman, Terry Cox and Herbie Flowers (and the odd Bowie mate such as Benny Marshall), it was also the first album to be produced by Tony Visconti, his to be long-time collaborator.
The album opens with the iconic “Space Oddity“. This is one of THE Bowie classics and an incredibly important song that features on/off for the rest of Bowie’s entire career. It’s a song that’s worthy of a book on its own, beginning life as mentioned earlier as the centrepiece of the “Love You Till Tuesday” promotional film. Starting with slowly building acoustic guitars and slow military style drum beat, it tells the tale of the doomed flight to the moon by Major Tom, who mysteriously loses contact with Ground Control. The production here is just fantastic, with weird electronic swells and soundscapes thanks to Bowie’s toy Stylophone and Rick Wakeman’s Mellotron, creating a musical atmosphere that still sounds fresh and futurist to this day. The taking off and finale sequences are just amazing, as are Bowie’s vocals as both Major Tom/Ground Control. It’s THE perfect pop song.
Remarkably, Tony Visconti wanted nothing to do with the song, thinking it a piece of commercial/popularist crap that was taking advantage of all the current interest in the upcoming Apollo moon landings. So it was actually Gus Dudgeon who would later make his name producing many of the Elton John classic albums who was drafted in to produce just the “Space Oddity” track. Gus, thank you, you did a superb job, sounding vastly superior to all the others versions and demos that were previously recorded.
“Space Oddity” was initially released as single way before the album on 11 July 1969 and it looked for a while that it would continue the run of commercial flops with minimal initial sales. But then the BBC decided to adopted it as the music for their coverage of the moon landing (clearly not listening too carefully to the lyrics) and it starting its journey up the UK charts, peaking at an impressive No. 5. Bowie, finally at long long last, had his first hit (although it only initially made No. 124 in the US).
The story of “Space Oddity” however was far from over.
In 1970, Bowie won an Ivor Novello “Special Award For Originality” for “Space Oddity”, a notable achievement for the struggling Bowie.
After finally finding true fame and success with Ziggy Stardust, Bowie re-released “Space Oddity” in 1973 especially for the US market and recorded a new video at Trident Studios, directed by the legendary Mick Rock (Bowie’s “official” photographer during this period). “Space Oddity” finally became a US hit, reaching No. 15 on the charts. Watch the official Ziggy Stardust era video here.
In 1975, “Space Oddity” was re-released as a single yet again, this time backed with “Changes” and a superb previously unreleased track from the Ziggy Stardust sessions “Velvet Goldmine“. It reached No. 1 in the UK, giving Bowie his first ever UK No. 1 single and at the time, a record of being the longest period for a single to reached No. 1, some 6 years after it was initially released.
In 1980, a stripped down new version of “Space Oddity” was released as the B-Side of the single “Alabama Song“. Finally, Tony Visconti got to produce a version of “Space Oddity”, some 10 years after rejecting the project. A video of this version was made for the hilarious Kenny Everett Show. Watch it here.
The Major Tom character would feature in a number of subsequent recordings by Bowie, most notably the majestic “Space Oddity” follow-up “Ashes To Ashes” in 1980 (which coincidently would become Bowie’s 2nd No. 1 UK single) and the Pet Shop Boys remixed version of “Hallo Spaceboy” in 1995. Major Tom would also finally feature (it is popularly believed) as the skeletal astronaut remains in the “Blackstar” video from 2015. Say goodbye to Major Tom here.
Bowie would perform “Space Oddity” live throughout his career and would rightly always remain a crowd favourite.
Now onto the rest of the album…
“Unwashed And Somewhat Slightly Dazed” is an interesting affair. Said by Bowie at the time to be a reflection of his feelings following the death of his father, the song appears to be about a girl who is of a higher class and standing than Bowie and who’s stare reflects this difference in standing. Featuring for Bowie very upfront and some would say distasteful lyrics, “I’m a Phallus in pigtails, And there’s blood on my nose, And my tissue is rotting, Where the rats chew my bones” just isn’t going to help the protagonist get the girl. The music starts with basically an acoustic guitar, before a basic drum beat and electric guitar riff kicks in, followed by more guitars, harmonica and then the full Tony Visconti big production treatment takes over (with Visconti’s bass very high in the mix), then more horns, then the lot really. It ends up being a raunchy, over-the-top rock-based affair and quite unlike anything Bowie had done before (or since really). By far the “rockiest” track on the album.
“(Don’t Sit Down)” is a 40 second piece of studio foolery, with Bowie singing to a basic rock track “Yeah, yeah, baby, yeah” a few times, followed by “Don’t sit down” a few times before Bowie bursts out in hysteric laughter. This track was dropped from all the subsequent RCA re-issues of the album. Is it in my Top 100 list of great songs? No.
“Letter To Hermione” is the first to two tender love ballads on the album addressed to his ex-girlfriend Hermione Farthingale who had left him just before recording the album. It’s both incredibly beautiful and sad in equal measure and with lyrics such as “And when he’s strong, He’s strong for you, And when you kiss, It’s something new, But did you ever call my name. Just by mistake?“, you can’t but feel Bowie’s pain. This broken relationship had a huge impact on Bowie, later describing love as a “disease” and despite getting married the following year to Angie Barnett, one senses he didn’t find true love again for another 20+ years.
“Cygnet Committee” is the centrepiece on the album, a 10 minute epic on the consequences of blind faith in the new, post hippy world. Bowie plays the weary leader of a cult for which he no longer has the belief or inclination to continue and his angry and frustrating annoyance at those who won’t listen to his rejections. It’s the first time that Bowie sings from the position of “outsider” and for which the lyrics appear intentionally obtuse, ambiguous and open to (much) interpretation. It certainly won’t be the last time fans puzzle on precisely Bowie’s meaning within a lyric. Although it’s a great track, it’s not at the same level of much of his future work, especially musically, which is a little ploddy and pedestrian, when it really should have been epic and climatic. It is however a clear sign of some rather special things to come.
“Janine” is a fairly standard rock song, although a tad more up-lifting than some of the prior content. It does however contain the lyric “Janine, Janine, you’d like to crash my walls, But if you take an axe to me, You’ll kill another man, Not me at all” which hints at schizophrenia, a topic Bowie would return to again and again in the future.
“An Occasional Dream” returns us back to his woes with Hermione and is another beautiful love song that is more bitter than sweet. “In my madness, I see your face in mine, I keep a photograph, It burns my wall with time“. The 22 year old Bowie never sounded quite as vulnerable as he does at times on this album.
“Wild Eyed Boy From Freecloud” is one of the real gems off the album and along with “Space Oddity”, a real highlight and dare I say, early Bowie masterpiece. In reality a basic folky ballad (as evidenced by the “Space Oddity” B-side version, recorded earlier and featuring just acoustic guitar and Arco bass), the version on the album gets the full Visconti huge orchestra production treatment. Telling the story of a young, peaceful mystical boy awaiting execution by hanging from village folk who both fear and misunderstand him, he reluctantly gets rescued by the great mountain of Freecloud, who destroys the village before they can harm him. The imagery, the musical atmosphere, the emotion and vocal delivery is all pure vintage Bowie at his absolute best. This track is the only one other than Space Oddity that Bowie would perform live once he entered his Ziggy Stardust period, as a medley with “Oh You Pretty Things” and “All The Young Dudes“. A Bowie classic in every sense.
“God Knows I’m Good” is a quaint tale set to chirpy acoustic guitars of a little old lady praying she doesn’t get caught shop-lifting a tin of food, only to then pray for forgiveness once she gets caught. Bowie would often touch on religious themes in future work, this being another sign of things to come.
The album closes with the marvellous “Memory Of A Free Festival“, a truly beautiful, somewhat romanticised account of the free musical festival Bowie helped to organise in his home suburb of Beckenham, South London earlier that year. By all accounts Bowie was stressed as hell and had a miserable time, but this song tells how he had hoped the event would had gone. Starting slowly with a simple organ, Bowie’s wonderful vocals recounts how “The children of the summer’s end, Gathered in the dampened grass, We played Our songs and felt the London sky, Resting on our hands, It was God’s land. It was ragged and naive. It was Heaven.” With beautiful imagery, including meetings with passing Venusians (yes, I suspect there was a lot of bliss passed around that day), the song then breaks out into the second half chant “The Sun Machine is coming down, and we’re gonna have a party.” where the band breaks out and backing vocals spreads out the joy of the free festival. It’s another early Bowie treasure. A reworked version was broken into two parts and released as a single the following year, but as with Bowie’s output at the time and like the sun machine itself, sadly sank without a trace.
The original album cover featured a permed, “Dylan-esque” image of Bowie on a background designed by Victor Varasely. The brilliant artwork on the back cover was created by Bowie’s friend George Underwood and features different images and characters from the album.
In the US, the album was re-titled to the much better “Man of Words/Man of Music” while using the same photo of Bowie but on a plain blue background.
The album really is quite excellent that features many Bowie treasures and gave many glimpses of Bowie treasures to come. Sadly and to Bowie’s frustration, despite the relative success of the “Space Oddity” single, the album did poorly and failed to initially chart. Bowie had to wait a further three long, long years before he finally achieved long lasting success with the “Starman” single and “The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars” album.
It’s at this point, that this album was given a new lease on life. Bowie’s record label at the time, RCA, bought the rights to the album (and the follow-up “The Man Who Sold The World“) and repackaged and re-released them in December 1972, just as Bowie’s fame was really taking off. The album was renamed “Space Oddity“, given a new cover featuring a close-up of our hero in early Ziggy Stardust guise, had some ludicrous notes printed on the back cover and finally achieved the success it deserved, reaching No. 17 in the UK charts. This would be the cover and title used for the next 30 odd years and the one I and many others grew up knowing the album by.
There have been various re-releases and remasterings of the album over the years. The most notable being in 1990 as part of the truly excellent Ryko CD re-release series that included a number of bonus tracks; the single version of “Memory of a Free Festival” Part I and Part II and:
“Conversation Piece“, an absolute gem of a song originally released as the B-side of the single “The Prettiest Star“, the follow-up single to “Space Oddity”. It’s one of my favourite songs from this period, a brooding, quiet piece on the topic of loneliness and isolation. Bowie’s vocals are just exquisite here and you just want to give him a huge hug. Features Marc Bolan on guitar as an added bonus. A re-recorded version of this was done for the abandoned “Toys” project in the early 2000’s which was almost as good.
In 2009, a 40th Anniversary version of the album was released, that featured the original cover, plus a bonus disc that included a bunch of demos and live BBC recordings from this period, as well as “Conversation Piece” and the following notable tracks:
“The Prettiest Star” was the follow-up single to “Space Oddity” and sadly, returned Bowie back to the long line of commercial failures. Which is a real petty because it really is a beautiful love song, that featured his good friend and musical adversary Marc Bolan on lead guitar. This single was the only time I believe they played together until right up to the very end when Bowie appeared on the “Marc Bolan Show” a few short weeks before Bolan’s tragic death. A much more widely known version was recorded and included for the “Aladdin Sane” album, with Mick Ronson playing the Bolan guitar part almost note for note. Both are wonderful, it’s just this version is more special.
A version of “London Bye, Ta Ta” was recorded around this time and kinda takes you back to the weirdness of Bowie’s debut album when it was first written. Based on the difficulties of the black community living in London, it’s a song Bowie has recorded a number of times but never to satisfaction of it being officially released.
“Ragazzo Solo, Ragazza Sola” is an odd affair, the exact backing track to “Space Oddity” but with lyrics changed completely to that a love song and sang entirely in Italian. Strangely, it kinda works but Bowie would sing in a foreign tongue much more effectively on tracks such as “Heroes” and “Seven Years In Tibet” in the years to come. It was first generally available on the 1982 compilation album “Bowie Rare“, his last release with RCA.
At the time of writing, it’s the 50th anniversary of the initial release of the album. To celebrate, a number of exciting new releases are planned (initially in vinyl format) to capture the various demos that were recorded at the time. These are currently:
“Spying Through A Keyhole (Demos and Unreleased Songs) 7″ Singles Vinyl Box Set”
“David Bowie With John ‘Hutch’ Hutchinson Clareville Grove Demos 3X7″ Vinyl Singles Box Set”
“The Mercury Demos Vinyl”
I’ll update with more details on these once they’ve all been released.
A rather impressive remixed version of the album (remixed by Tony Visconti) was also released in 2019 as part of the 50th anniversary celebrations, that brings new life to many of these excellent tracks.
The 1969 “David Bowie” album would prove to be a false start for Bowie, with the “Space Oddity” single doing well, but the album itself yet another commercial failure. For 3 more years, it would appear that Bowie might perhaps be destined to be yet another “one-hit” wonder. That would all finally change in 1972 when an orange-haired, rock ‘n’ roll alien would invade the earth and our TV screens.
But that’s a story for another day.
Best Tracks: “Space Oddity”, “Wild Eyed Boy From Freecloud”, “Memory Of A Free Festival”