David Bowie circa 1966 was an artist in search of an identity. He had flirted with theatre, the mod movement, and even mime. When signed by Decca’s Deram arm, he had already released six unsuccessful singles on three different labels and fronted a number of quickly-vanishing bands. The Decca contract came shortly after his recordings for Pye, which had been shepherded by British hitmaker Tony Hatch of “Downtown” and “Call Me” fame. The Deram album, simply titled David Bowie, was all but forgotten once international superstardom beckoned for Bowie. His Decca period became most notorious for the single “The Laughing Gnome,” a Chipmunks-style, pun-littered novelty single that met a rather ig-gnome-inious fate. So it was a great surprise that Universal bestowed the Deluxe Edition treatment on David Bowie in 2010 (UMC/Deram 531 792-5 UK pressing), and even greater surprise that the album is more than worthy of re-evaluation.
No expense appears to have been spared on this lavish two-disc package, which will be hitting US stores on Tuesday, April 6 including Amazon. The album’s fourteen songs are heard in both mono and stereo versions, and have been appended with no fewer than twenty-five related tracks, including singles, alternate mixes and a previously-unreleased BBC Radio session. A twenty-four page full-color booklet is filled with complete discographical information, an essay and Deram chronology. Peter Mew and Tris Penna (the team also behind EMI’s recent deluxe reissue of Space Oddity on Virgin DBSOCD 40) have remastered the tracks “to ensure they sounded as good, if not better, than when they were first released,” according to Penna’s sleevenote. It’s no exaggeration to say that they fully succeeded. Read on…
The Deluxe Edition makes the strongest case yet that Bowie’s talent was fully in place by the time of these 1966/1967 sessions, but sorely in need of a consistent direction. There are many beautiful melodies married to quirky lyrics telling offbeat, quintessentially “English” stories. Producer Mike Vernon enlisted top British arrangers Arthur Greenslade, Ivor Raymonde and Dek Fearley, as well as Bowie himself, to supply “musical arrangements,” and these theatrical orchestrations are consistently inventive and atmospheric. Underneath the brassy sound, they hint at a darkness that Bowie would later embrace. The liner notes assert that he was London’s first “vaudevillian mod,” and this album proves that splendidly. Songs such as the twee “Rubber Band,” earnest “When I Live My Dream” and infectious “London Bye-Bye Ta-Ta” are far-removed from rock, but not too far from the acclaimed musical vignettes written by contemporaries such as Paul McCartney and Ray Davies. The tuneful if workmanlike “Love You Till Tuesday” could have been a hit single, yet sounds detached and “plastic” years before Bowie’s adventures on Young Americans. Bowie himself would later revisit songs heard here such as “Let Me Sleep Beside You” in more stark arrangements, finally owning up to the innate quality of the songs.
Much has been made of Bowie’s fixation with British star and musical theatre personality Anthony Newley. While Newley’s exaggerated Cockney delivery is obviously influential on some of the tracks here, it’s clear when taken as a whole that David Bowie reflects the man himself much more than Newley. The chameleonic tendencies that would serve him well in later years are already on full display. Even the much-maligned “Laughing Gnome” reveals a certain charm when heard in context here. Universal’s Deluxe Edition handily supplants the 1997 single disc compilation of this material (The Deram Anthology – Deram 42284 4784-2) even if it drops the Decca-era version of “Space Oddity” from the lineup. But perhaps that’s for the best, too. That familiar hit, even in its embryonic state, would inevitably overpower these earlier works that deserve a second look; indeed, this Deluxe Edition makes the best possible case for this “lost era” of Bowie history.