Can you hear me, Major Tom? In the late 1960s, David Bowie was an artist deeply hoping to be heard. A handful of singles and an album on Deram Records had failed to rocket him to the stars. But Bowie continued writing, recording, and shopping his songs around in hopes of the elusive next deal that would take him to the next level. As such, Bowie left a great many demo recordings behind. Due to current EU copyright laws, right holders have been required to release previously unissued material; otherwise, it would end up in the public domain upon its eventual release. Many labels have worked around this by quietly issuing these lost tracks on digital and/or streaming services (sometimes only for a brief period of time), but Bowie’s current home of Parlophone has instead largely focused on a series of physical releases.
Spying Through a Keyhole (Demos and Unreleased Songs) is the first in a series of releases (three as of this writing) collecting early Bowie demos on vinyl – in this case, four seven-inch, 45 RPM singles with nine tracks total. These 1968 demos were briefly released on streaming services in December 2018 to satisfy copyright demands, but stand to gain a wider audience with this new collection.
Despite the primitive home recording, not to mention the occasional distortion resulting from Bowie furiously playing his guitar, the songs on Spying Through a Keyhole are among the most enjoyable of the artist’s vault finds of late. They show an artist flush with talent, enthusiasm, and pivotally, possibilities. These were recorded, of course, during his hungry years, and it’s clear that he had something to prove. They overflow with melody and witty turns of phrase, plus a dash (if just a dash) of the unexpected – a quality which would inform his best work in the decades to come.
Four of the seven unique songs here have never been previously released by Bowie in any format. “Mother Grey” is the most “produced” demo here, with the artist multi-tracking his voice and accompanying himself with not just guitar but harmonica. (Most are just voice-and-guitar.) There’s a Beatles-esque flavor to its vocals, plus a touch of the blues in its growling harp embellishments. The sympathetic slice-of-life character study already shows a craftsman hoping to expand pop’s lyrical boundaries.
One can’t help but wonder if the sideshow tale “Goodbye Threepenny Joe” was inspired by Kurt Weill and Bertolt Brecht’s Threepenny Opera, which like the song also features a character named Lucy. As Weill and Brecht frequently did before him, Bowie married an upbeat melody to a downbeat lyric, and that catchy tune (with a Latin tinge) is just one of the felicitous melodies here that deserved an expansive arrangement but was sadly never revisited. (This is a wholly different song than “Threepenny Pierrot,” a song performed by Bowie on television in 1970.) The box set’s title has been drawn from the lyric of “Love All Around,” a charming, well-crafted romantic pop song from the young singer-songwriter. More offbeat is “Angel, Angel, Grubby Face.” It’s heard in two distinct versions, each with a unique verse, but its catchy melody will no doubt lodge itself in the listener’s head. The second version boasts a hushed, significantly more restrained vocal, with a finger-picked guitar that might not be Bowie; it stands in stark contrast to his guitar style on the other demos.
The three remaining songs will be familiar to Bowie aficionados (and in one case, to the general public as well). “In the Heat of the Morning” was rejected for single release by Deram; that version was initially released on the 1970 Decca compilation album The World of David Bowie (recently reissued for Record Store Day U.K.). The dramatic song inspired a full-throated delivery from Bowie in the style he would later make recognizable. One of his most mature early works, it was re-recorded decades later for the still-unreleased Toy album. “London Bye, Ta-Ta” was frequently performed by Bowie during this period, including on two studio versions produced by Tony Visconti (1968 and 1970) and twice on the BBC. This solo demo has some lyrical differences to the later recordings.
Finally, “Space Oddity” is also heard in two different demos. The first, a solo demo, only exists in fragment form (running 2:35), but it’s significant as it may be the first time Bowie committed his early masterwork to tape. It also features alternative lyrics, though the melody, arrangement, and feel of the eventual classic are all intact. The second version here is a duet with Bowie’s onetime musical partner John “Hutch” Hutchinson. Bowie sang the role of Major Tom while Hutch took Ground Control, adding a layer of theatricality to the song.
The four 45 RPM singles in Spying Through a Keyhole have been mastered by Ray Staff at AIR Studios (after tape transfers from Sean Brennan at Battery Studios) and all pressed on high quality, quiet vinyl. The disc labels are in the style of EMIDISC acetates, with the song titles presented in Bowie’s own handwriting. Each disc has two layers of protection – a cardboard outer sleeve and paper-and-plastic inner sleeve. The handsome box contains a glossy postcard-size photo of Bowie and a four-page insert with Mark Adams’ track-by-track liner notes providing background on each composition. The photo adorning the set was taken by Ray Stevenson in Tony Visconti’s home in summer 1968, close to the time these demos would have been recorded. (The liner notes inform us that exact dates cannot be pinpointed for these recordings.)
Spying Through a Keyhole (Demos and Unreleased Songs) is a high-quality package that shouldn’t disappoint. One must applaud Parlophone for offering this material on physical media, although one hopes that a CD package for this collection as well as the next two volumes is in the offing. The singles format doesn’t make for the most cohesive or accessible listening experience, and the material deserves a wider airing at a CD price point. Those factors notwithstanding, the box set sheds welcome light on a period of immense creativity for David Bowie in which he was still finding his way to test the limits of pop music conventions. This is Major Tom on the ground, ready for takeoff.