A sense of dislocation
David Bowie shared its title with his now-forgotten first album, and that might have been a mistake.
So might a sleeve that barely hinted at the topicality, or even the success, of its best-known song, and instead concentrated on the vaguely pop-art inflected folkie hippy that was Bowie’s latest public persona. There was an astronaut amid the tangle of hand-drawn doodling sprayed across the rear sleeve, but there was also a Pierrot, a weeping woman, a joint and a tangle of other imagery.
It was hard to know what to make of any of it, and that sense of dislocation was only amplified when the needle hit the wax. Once the opening “Space Oddity” was out of the way, the true nature of David Bowie’s muse was revealed to all.
Sessions for the album had stretched from mid July through to early October, back at Trident Studios with Tony Visconti in control once again. It was he who introduced Bowie to the band Junior’s Eyes, who would provide backing throughout much of the record, and he who later took responsibility for at least one of the album’s faults, the “sloppy… naïve[ty]” that dominates the sound.
“I really didn’t know too much about the quality control of sound and how to turbo-charge the sound of instruments for rock,” Visconti confessed.
And so David Bowie drifted folk-like through even its most dramatic lyrical and musical moments — the shambolic neo-rock of “Unwashed And Somewhat Slightly Dazed” bleeding into half a minute or so of Bowie mysteriously wailing “Don’t Sit Down” (an element that, inexplicably, was hacked from the 1972 reissue of the album); the spectral psychedelia of “Memory Of A Free Festival,” recalling a free festival Bowie staged via his involvement with the Beckenham Arts Lab; and, best of all, the counter-revolutionary rampage of “Cygnet Committee.” Because it was with “Cygnet Committee” that Bowie finally found his voice.
Elsewhere, of course, David Bowie clung ferociously to its maker’s folky leanings — the salutary tale of a shoplifting granny (“God Knows I’m Good”), the pseudo mythology of “The Wild Eyed Boy From Freecloud,” the lovelorn romance of “Janine,” “An Occasional Dream” and, most poignant of all, “Letter to Hermione” — the kids who picked up David Bowie on the strength of “Space Oddity” were expecting more songs of spacemen and other strange things. They were three years too early — they’d need to wait for Ziggy Stardust for that. Instead, they got the death of the hippy-dippy dream.
“Space Oddity” aside, David Bowie possessed very little in the way of commercial songs. “Janine” and “An Occasional Dream” are pure ’60s balladry, and “God Knows I’m Good” takes a well-meant but somewhat clumsy stab at social comment.
Two final tracks, however, can be said to pinpoint elements of Bowie’s own future. The folk epic “Wild Eyed Boy From Freecloud” (substantially reworked from the B-side of the hit) would remain in Bowie’s live set until as late as 1973, while a re-recorded version of the mantric “Memory Of A Free Festival” would become a single the following year and marked Bowie’s first studio collaboration with guitarist Mick Ronson. David Bowie itself, however, would prove another dead end in a career that was gradually piling up an awful lot of such things.
Material was, in fact, at a premium. Bowie brought no more songs in the studio than were needed to create the LP.
Reviews of the album were generally kind, nevertheless. While Bowie boasted, “This has been a very good writing period for me and I’m very pleased with the outcome,” Music Now! described an LP that was “deep, thoughtful, probing, exposing, gouging at your innards. This is more than a record, it is an experience. An expression of life as others see it.” Disc and Music Echo compared Bowie to “a latter-day Dylan” and so forth.
Fear and loathing
David Bowie (whose American title, incidentally, was the utterly cringe-inducing Man Of Words, Man Of Music) refused resolutely to sell, but undeterred, Bowie pressed on.
A handful of live shows, both in his own right and supporting Humble Pie, saw him appearing both solo and accompanied by Juniors Eyes, with the latter at least bringing a rocking edge to the album that was ably supplemented by a few old R&B standards. But it still didn’t sound like the hit, and that, it swiftly transpired, was what David Bowie’s audience was hungry for.
The curly-haired troubadour with an acoustic guitar had a horrible time of things. In the past, he gigged to people who had no idea who he was and accepted what he offered on face value. With a hit single under his belt, he found crowds that assumed they knew all they needed to, and as he drifted through salutary rumination after cautionary epic, not one of which sounded remotely like “Space Oddity,” audiences responded with brutal disdain.
Bowie’s headlining gigs were largely focused on a string of dates around Scotland.
“It was very hard,” Bowie admitted later. “It was 1969, and I went on in front of these gum-chewing skinheads. As soon as I appeared, looking a bit like Bob Dylan with this curly hair and denims, I was whistled and booed. At one point, I even had cigarettes thrown at me! Isn’t that awful?”
Shaken to the core after some awful live experiences, Bowie considered retiring. After so many years spent seeking stardom, he was now realizing that hanging onto it was the difficult bit, and nothing he had done since “Space Oddity” threatened to have even half of its impact. The “Love You Till Tuesday” movie had already been shelved, unsold and unseen; now the David Bowie album had followed it into the dumpster.
The record company was demanding a follow-up single but already insisting that nothing on the LP was even vaguely appropriate. There was talk, for a short time, of giving “Janine” a run out, and the New Musical Express ran a news item to that effect in November. The following year, out of desperation as much as conviction, Bowie would rerecord “Memory of a Free Festival” for 45.
Right now, however, it was agreed that Bowie should produce a brand-new song, custom-written for hitsville, and he was still wondering where it would come from. It would be another three years before a new David Bowie record bothered the British chart, when “Starman” climbed to #8.
The final straw, however, came when Bowie played the biggest gig of his life, at the super-prestigious Purcell Room in London, on Nov. 20. He played what all agreed was a phenomenal show, only to discover that no more than a handful of journalists had turned up for the show — despite the entire event being arranged, essentially, as a media showcase.
“As an artist, David Bowie happened that night,” Pitt later reflected. “Had the press been there, everything that happened to him in 1972 would have happened in November 1969.” Instead, Bowie returned home to his new apartment in Beckenham, devastated and furious. Just 23 years old, he was officially a one-hit wonder.
Of course, it didn’t quite work out that way. “Starman” was a hit in spring 1972, and this time, he had both an album, The Rise And Fall Of Ziggy Stardust And The Spiders From Mars, and a stage show to back up the 45’s promise.
More than that, a massive image overhaul ensured that Bowie would become the dominant force on the British music scene for much of the next five years and a major figure worldwide ever since.