David Bowie collectors with a taste for vinyl have had much for which to be grateful this year. Parlophone and Rhino recently unveiled the third in a series of vinyl box sets this year, The Mercury Demos. (The just-released fourth such box commemorated the fiftieth anniversary of “Space Oddity.”) An LP rather than a collection of singles, The Mercury Demos officially premieres ten early, one-take recordings from the future superstar, recorded on a Revox reel-to-reel tape machine in Bowie’s flat in spring 1969, with accompaniment from his friend and collaborator John “Hutch” Hutchinson on guitar and vocals. It’s most lavish and perhaps most rewarding of the box sets to date.
“Hello Bob [Reno, A&R head at Mercury Records], Calvin [Mark Lee, A&R scout] told us that you probably wanted a tape of the numbers that we do now. This is a very bad tape recorded and microphone, but we’re going to do what we can with the material that we now do…” Those words are heard as spoken by the 21-year old singer-songwriter as this set commences. The exact date of the recordings (sometime early in 1969) cannot be confirmed. Nor can the locale; Bowie refers to being in Beckenham at one point, but today Hutch recalls only recording with Bowie in his Clareville Grove bedroom.
Bowie’s charming introductions to Reno have been retained for every song, and his youthful enthusiasm is more than evident throughout. Putting his best foot forward in an attempt to win a contract from the executive, Bowie performed “Space Oddity” first. The recording here has been identified as one of the song’s final demos (two previous demos, also with Hutchinson, appear on the Spying Through a Keyhole and Clareville Grove Demos sets) made prior to the June 1969 single recording. [Note that the Love You Till Tuesday soundtrack version had been cut on February 2]. Bowie, unsurprisingly, dominates even in the duo arrangement which showcases a tight vocal blend.
Part of the fun of The Mercury Demos is tracing the evolution of now-familiar songs which Bowie recut for later albums. “Janine,” sung in the first person from the POV of a man who doesn’t know himself well enough to let a woman in, is presented here in an acoustic version with a “Hey Jude”-quoting interlude (substituting the titular “Janine” for “Hey Jude”). It’s quite removed from the subsequent electric version on Bowie’s 1969 self-titled Philips/Mercury album. The haunting memory of “An Occasional Dream” followed “Janine” on the Philips LP, and so it does here, as well.
“Letter to Hermione,” referring to Bowie’s onetime flame Hermione Farthingale, was also later included on David Bowie a.k.a. Space Oddity a.k.a. Man of Words, Man of Music. The touching and gentle version here, titled “I’m Not Quite,” finds the artist wearing his raw emotions on his sleeve, with Farthingale’s departure still clearly weighing on him.
A different version of “Lover to the Dawn” was heard on The Clareville Grove Demos. It ends Side One and opens Side Two of the vinyl here as Bowie notes that “I think actually we’re running out of tape…Look Bob, we’re going to turn the tape over, so there’s no more on this side.” This song aimed at a former lover (a “bitter” and “crazy girl”) would eventually morph into “Cygnet Committee” on the ’69 platter. Hutch sings lead with Bowie on close harmony, and it’s clearly one of the works-in-progress here as opposed to a fully-formed composition. In the latter category is “Conversation Piece,” later cut as the B-side of the Mercury 45 “The Prettiest Star.” With Bowie writing in sad, “confessional” mode about a shy, withdrawn young man, it’s one of the most finely-wrought portraits here.
“Ching-a-Ling,” another track included in a different recording on Clareville Grove, had been cut in October 1968 by the trio Turquoise featuring Bowie, Hermione Farthingale, and Tony Hill (who became Feathers when Hutchinson replaced Hill). Bowie and Hutchinson continued to perform the song as a duo following Farthingale’s departure. There’s a pronounced folk-country sound to the picking here. The haunting little tune (with its almost sinister refrain) would be adapted with more precision into “Saviour Machine” on The Man Who Sold the World.
A true oddity (of the non-space variety) is “When I’m Five.” Bowie jokes that the amiable tune could be sold to “Barbra Streisand, Danny Kaye, or somebody. Somebody hip, man.” (La Streisand would go on to record Bowie’s “Life on Mars.”) When performing it with Feathers, Bowie would morph into character as a four-year old.
Two covers were recorded. “Life Is a Circus,” another part of the Feathers repertoire, was written by Roger Bunn (and first heard on Clareville Grove Demos). Bowie and Hutchinson have been compared in later years to Simon & Garfunkel, but this is the most overt track to reflect that possible influence. It features Hutch on solo guitar with both men sharing the vocals. The second cover is one of the finest tracks on the LP: one of the first (if not the very first) cover of Lesley Duncan’s beautiful folk-pop ode “Love Song.” It boasts a fine Hutch lead with strong harmonies from Bowie, and hews very closely to Duncan’s own recording and arrangement. A favorite of singers over the years, “Love Song” was recorded by artists such as Elton John, Dionne Warwick, and Neil Diamond.
In the closing dialogue on The Mercury Demos, Bowie expresses his wish to become a recording artist and emphasizes his flexibility as to the sound of the potential record. Knowing what we do now, his earnest words can’t help but be affecting.
The packaging of this set, housed within a cloth-lined slipcase replicating the original tape box, is top-notch. An interior box with a flip-top lid contains the LP in a jacket with protective inner sleeve, and an envelope with photographs of Bowie and Hutchinson and typewritten-style liner notes on three stapled, double-sided sheets. The original tape was transferred by Sean Brennan at Sony’s Battery Studios and mastered by Ray Staff and compilation co-producer Nigel Reeve at Air Mastering for surprisingly good sound. Indeed, these primitive mono home recordings sound as clean and clear as possible.
As previously mentioned here with respect to the first box set in this series, Spying Through a Keyhole, one must applaud Parlophone for offering this material on physical media. Still, one hopes that a more affordable CD package which could reach a larger audience is in the offing. The set is not only historically significant but vividly enjoyable. It’s poignant while listening to The Mercury Demos to remember that Bowie would shed John Hutchinson before taking off to international stardom, and this snapshot of a young, hungry, and hopeful artist and his supportive partner deserves a wider airing.