‘They’ll never be another, lady…’
Typically, in my usual arse about face fashion, I came to discover the first David Bowie album simply entitled ‘David Bowie’ by picking up a VHS of a film called ‘Love You Till Tuesday’ sometime in the late 80s/early 90s. The film was originally made in 1969 and contains footage of Bowie performing songs like ‘Sell Me a Coat’ ‘When I’m Five’ an early version of ‘Space Oddity’ and a personal favourite of mine ‘Ching A Ling’ among a few others.
In general, it is a fascinating glimpse into the whimsical period of the then 22-year-old Bowie’s musical life and I genuinely enjoyed many of the tunes. One or two of them seemed familiar I’m guessing through radio play, but I didn’t pick up the actual album that many of the tunes were from, until a few years after.
When I finally got to hear the whole 37 minutes of it, I was genuinely puzzled and amazed by it, in equal measure. I also tried to hang on the fact that Bowie was only 20 when he recorded it, which even now seems staggering to me. From minute one, there are distinct signs of the very fertile and imaginative mind which was about to be unleashed on an unsuspecting public in just a few short years.
So without further ado, lets crack on with having a closer look. Released on the Deram label in June 1967, in both Mono and Stereo, and just a few days after the world got to hear Sgt. Peppers Lonely Hearts Club Band’ by The Beatles
for the first time.
All the tracks were written by Bowie and the influences on the young David are plain to hear from Anthony Newley (just listen to the vocal phrasing) to Syd Barrett to George Formby to Ray Davies and all the cultural stops in between. As Bowie said of the album looking back at it years later ‘I didn’t know if I was Max Miller or Elvis Presley.’
Produced by Mike Vernon and arranged by Bowie himself, you can only wonder what the musicians in the studio, including top session guitarist Big Jim Sullivan thought of it all. The orchestration duties were shared with old friend Dek Fearnley, after he and Bowe learned all about it from a book in a fortnight. As you do.
‘Uncle Arthur’ – Handclaps provide the entry point to this tale of Arthur who we find shutting the family shop for the day and returning home to mum. Arthur, a slow developer, had actually left home when he reached 32, and married Sally. Only, despite being lovely and all that, he discovered that Sally couldn’t cook and Arthur liked his grub. So there was nothing else for it. He left her and returned to mother for his tea and a regular supply of pocket money.
‘Sell Me A Coat’ – Picture a Wintery scene. Snow all around and David is feeling the cold. He’s also in the process of losing his ‘Summer girl’ and decides he needs a coat ‘with buttons of silver, in red or gold, with little patch pockets’ which will take her place. Ever the Mod, clothing was never far from the forefront of his mind…
‘Rubber Band’ – A brass band, standing on an ornate Victorian bandstand kick off this tune. Despite playing his ‘tune out of tune’ they instantly remind our hero of himself in his pomp in 1910, when he had a foot long moustache and a love he thought would be waiting for him, when he returned from the ’14-18′ war. Instead she took up with the leader of the band he was now listening to… Ouch.
‘Love You Till Tuesday’ – ‘Little Me’ is sitting outside the window of his new love, who he met on Sunday. He declares his undying love in a very Newley style vocal and promises to love her till Tuesday, or he might be able to stretch it to Wednesday. I also always think fair play to Bowie for rhyming ‘branch and ‘romance’ in this, even though doing it, he makes himself laugh on the recording.
‘Happy Land’ – A tale of a place where only children live and you sir, ‘Mr Grown Up,’ are not allowed, with its doors permanently closed to the likes of you. Tales of buying a kite, riding a bike, climbing trees, and setting fire to fields, all before 5pm, follow. I guess this is a warning for us to stay a child as long as you can. The grown up world can be a harsh, so don’t be in a rush to let it in, too soon. Deep.
‘We Are Hungry Men’ -Achtung! Ahctung!! This is just your every day tale of cannibalism, as the World with an ever-increasing population, runs out of food. The ‘messiah’ is looking for you to buy him a drink and then he’ll eat you. Odd is the only word for it.
‘When I Live My Dream’ – This brings early Scott Walker to mind, to my ears, with its tale of love and boy meets girl. It also shows Bowie knows his way around writing a more conventional song, as this is markedly different to most of which has gone before. Towards the end, Bowie’s voice grows stronger and he forcefully sings ‘Tell them, I will live my dream, tell them, they can laugh at me.’
I guess the clues were there all along….
‘Little Bombardier’ – You the listener, are swept up by a rousing waltz as the tale of little Frankie Mear is revealed. Back from the war, he loses his way and becomes a drinker and a drifter. He hangs around the local ABC cinema and befriends two young children. You, the listener, are left to guess Frankie’s intentions, and you are in no doubt they are deeply suspect. He is questioned by the police and told ‘we’ve had blokes like you in the station before.’ Once released, Frankie packs his bags and leaves. Never to return. Blimey.
‘Silly Boy Blue’ – Bowie’s love song to Tibetan Buddhism. He had read the book ‘Seven Years in Tibet’ as a teenager and it is said he considered becoming a Buddhist Monk as a result. This song is full of the imagery of Tibet, the mountains of Lhasa and yak butter, but is also the tale of a young trainee monk, whose own belief is wavering. ‘You’ve left your prayers and song, silly boy blue, silly boy blue…’
‘Come and Buy My Toys’ – Lovely guitar work from John Renbourn, later of Pentangle, leads the way into the tale of a toymaker beckoning people too buy his wares. There appears to be no dark centre to this song, just a celebration of being a child before the adult world arrives.
‘Join The Gang’ – All about the Swinging London set, that Bowie tried to gain entry to for a few years, with his ‘beery grin,’ but never quite making it. He later realised that it was all ‘smoke and mirrors’ anyway. The music on this track is curious to say the least. A funky drummer kicks it all off, before being joined by a manic sitar player, before making way for a bit Chas and Dave style piano. It then breaks in ‘Gimme Some Lovin’ by the Spencer David Group, before descending into some farting noises and what sounds like someone eating a big of crisps. I kid you not.
‘She’s Got Medals’ – The tale of cross dresser ‘Mary’ who becomes ‘Tommy’ to join the army. There ‘she’ loved the ladies and a good game of darts. After picking up medals on the front line, she deserted and become ‘Eileen’ who then settled down in London. Way ahead, the fella, way ahead.
‘Maid of Bond Street’ – Wannabe model/film star is situated in the middle of hip London, dreaming of the big time. Only her boyfriend has ambitions higher than hers. In truth, they both glow brightly, and then fade quickly. Destined just to be one of the ‘norms’ their dream never really becoming a reality.
And then last, but by no means least….
‘Please Mr Gravedigger’ -Atchoo! For whom the bells toll. This is more radio drama, than song, complete with sound effects of rain and thunder and Bowie performing like never before. Set in a Lambeth cemetery, we find a gravedigger who has taken a locket from a dead girl just before her coffin goes into a freshly dug grave. Only the narrator of the song is stood quietly observing him, and he was the one who murdered the child. He has now decided to kill the gravedigger too, to keep him quiet. Keeping up? Good.
The song ends with the murderer digging a grave for ‘Mr G.D.’ and it’s ‘flipping hard graft’. Surrealist genius in just 2 minutes, 39 seconds.
Listening back now, it is very much a mixed bag of an album, with so much going on. Whatever you think of it, the ambition of a mere 20 year old cannot be faulted. Sadly, it didn’t trouble the charts and only made number 125. Bowie was dropped by Deram in April 1968, and then became a mime artist not long after. As we know, he simply wasn’t one to stand still.
Of the singles released by Bowie around this time ‘Rubber Band’ had the far superior ‘London Boys’ as a B-side. A tale of the mod scene of the day, it simply signalled Bowie would be back with more.
Bowie later said of the album – ‘Aargh, that Anthony Newley stuff, how cringe-y. No, I haven’t much to say about that in its favour. … Musically, it’s quite bizarre. I don’t know where I was at.’
So there you have it, even the great man himself, struggled to make sense of it all. But, as we all know, he was and will always remain a total and utter one off, and God bless him for it
The Mumper of SE5
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