The new David Bowie box set is entitled Conversation Piece – and it’s an apt one, as this set is certain to inspire conversations punctuated with cheers. Quite simply, this slipcased, hardcover-book style collection featuring five CDs of material recorded by the late superstar in 1968-1969 is one of the year’s best boxes: an exquisite, museum-quality release that exceeds all expectations.
Necessity may indeed be the mother of invention, as the set ostensibly exists because of the desire to keep Bowie’s works from that year under copyright. Parlophone released much of the contents of the box in four individual vinyl sets earlier this year: Spying Through a Keyhole (Demos and Unreleased Songs), Clareville Grove Demos, The Mercury Demos, and Space Oddity: 50th Anniversary Edition. Presented together in full context with additional material including original and new mixes of the David Bowie/Space Oddity album, these become much more than the sum of their parts.
The first of Conversation Piece‘s five discs comprises Spying Through a Keyhole and Clareville Grove Demos plus bonuses, including five previously unissued tracks. Three of these newly unearthed demos, with Bowie singing and adeptly playing all instruments, open the set. At this point in his career, Bowie was a preciously talented songwriter and performer with one album and numerous singles under his belt who still hadn’t found his true voice. The demos of “Aprils Tooth of Gold” and “The Reverend Raymond Brown (Attends the Garden Fete on Thatchwick Green)” were both intended to feature on a proposed second album for Deram Records. (The first, 1967’s David Bowie, is an underrated collection of enjoyably theatrical pop-psych that only hints at what was to come.) Both songs reveal the influence of Ray Davies and The Kinks with their very British sense of whimsy, referring to “trips to seaside towns for tea cups in the rain” and introducing offbeat characters like Mrs. McGoony and the titular Rev. Raymond Brown. One literary influence on Bowie was George Orwell; the song called “Animal Farm” was likely written before Ray Davies wrote his own song of that title for The Kinks Are The Village Green Preservation Society. The tune was never fully developed, but Bowie was already experimenting with various tempos and feels within one short song.
The remaining home demos first presented on Spying Through a Keyhole 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 the best of his later work. As does “Aprils Tooth of Gold,” “Mother Grey” shows Bowie learning the art of arrangement. He multi-tracked his voice and accompanied himself on not just guitar but harmonica. (Most of the demos are 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.) “Love All Around” is more straightforward: a well-crafted romantic pop song with some wonderful imagery (“Does he know you stole a halo/Or is it cigarette haze?”). More off the beaten path 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.
Other cuts in this “chapter” of Conversation Piece 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, and 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.
The most famous of Bowie’s early compositions, “Space Oddity” is heard in four different demos on this disc (one of which is previously unreleased). All but the initial fragment (running about 2:35) feature his then-musical partner John “Hutch” Hutchinson (one-third of Feathers with Bowie and Hermione Farthingale). This solo demo is significant as it may be the first time Bowie committed his topical masterwork to tape. It also features alternative lyrics, though the melody, arrangement, and feel of the eventual classic are all intact. For the recordings with Hutch, Bowie sang the role of Major Tom while Hutch took Ground Control, adding a layer of theatricality to the song. Version 2, premiering on CD here, is the full take of the recording first aired to Bowie fans on BBC Radio 1’s The David Bowie Story in 1976. The refined Version 3 is the last known demo before Bowie and Hutch first recorded it professionally; the specter of The Bee Gees’ “New York Mining Disaster 1941” is impossible to miss in their tight harmonies.
Conversation Piece continues with five more of The Clareville Grove Demos performed with Hutchinson. These are occasionally haunting, often beautiful, and altogether varied, with touches of folk and country styles. “Lover to the Dawn” would morph into “Cygnet Committee,” and the refrain of “Ching-a-Ling” (first recorded by Bowie with the pre-Feathers group Turquoise) found its way into “Saviour Machine.” These demos serve to prove how Bowie rarely let a good idea – whether in lyric, melody, or arrangement – languish entirely. Ironically, Bowie and Hutch’s most affecting duet is the one that Bowie didn’t write. Roger Bunn’s “Life is a Circus” features delicately intertwined vocals that evoke Simon & Garfunkel at their loveliest.
The first disc is rounded out by another three demos making their debuts including the title track. The finely wrought portrait of a shy, withdrawn young man, “Conversation Piece” recurred throughout his career, almost making the cut for the David Bowie/Space Oddity LP, then being released as the B-side of “The Prettiest Star.” A stereo mix first appeared on the 40th anniversary edition of that album in 2009. Now, Conversation Piece has a voice-and-guitar demo of its namesake, bringing a layer of intimacy to the ruminative composition. “Jerusalem” is an exercise in Dylan-esque free association and impressionistic wordplay (“Both his eyes were made by Disney and the sex of his boardroom chair/Is determined by the comics that he read the night before” or “So, if you’ve got a dime to spare be bold and gay as you can be/And race him to the poster stuck on Eden’s phallic tee”) set to a rambling, repetitive melody and delivered in a drawl redolent of Hibbing’s favorite son. Bowie never developed the song further. “Hole in the Ground” is performed with George Underwood, for whom Bowie wrote it in the capacity of producer.
The second disc of Conversation Piece neatly replicates the ten-song sequence of the vinyl box The Mercury Demos again featuring John Hutchinson. “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 Bowie as this disc 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. A number of songs heard earlier on Conversation Piece are reprised here in unique versions as Bowie and Hutch continued to develop them, including “Space Oddity,” “An Occasional Dream,” “Conversation Piece,” “Ching-a-Ling,” “When I’m Five,” and “Life Is a Circus.”
Bowie’s disarming introductions to Bob Reno have been retained for every song, and his youthful enthusiasm is more than evident. Putting his best foot forward in an attempt to win a contract from the executive, Bowie performed “Space Oddity” first, but it was far from the only quality song he was peddling. Part of the fun of The Mercury Demos disc 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”). Bowie never lost the ability to draw on influences, genres, and styles, and incorporate them into his own work. “Janine” is 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.
The tender “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 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 onstage with Feathers, Bowie would morph into character as a four-year old.
In addition to Roger Bunn’s “Life Is a Circus,” Bowie and Hutch recorded one of the first (if not the very first) cover of Lesley Duncan’s 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 subsequently 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.
With the first two CDs focused on demo recordings from the pre-fame Bowie, Disc 3 primarily explores material meant for public consumption – early radio recordings and singles – plus some alternate tracks. This disc also looks back to Bowie’s time at Decca/Deram with the March 12, 1968 recordings of “In the Heat of the Morning” and “London Bye, Ta-Ta,” produced and arranged by Tony Visconti in orchestral fashion, and Feathers’ October/November ’68 take of “Ching-a-Ling.”
Visconti’s orchestra of 14 players backed Bowie and his rhythm section (including bassist Herbie Flowers, drummer Barry Morgan, guitarist John McLaughlin, and keyboardist Alan Hawkshaw) on the first radio session here, a 5-song set for the BBC’s Top Gear recorded and aired in May 1968. There’s immediacy as well as polish on these tracks such as a swinging “In the Heat of the Morning,” charming “When I’m Five,” and beautifully ethereal “Silly Boy Blue.” The Dave Lee Travis Show session of October 1969 has an altogether different feel, with Bowie supported by the five-piece band Junior’s Eyes. The famous Bowie adaptability is in evidence from the get-go with “Let Me Sleep Beside You.” Gone is the psychedelic music hall sound, the nods to Anthony Newley and Ray Davies, and the quirky peculiarity. “Let Me Sleep Beside You” is a straight-ahead rock-and-roll come-on. (Rejected as a single, the studio recording ended up on The World of David Bowie.) “Janine” gets a makeover, too, with the stripped-down, country-rock licks accompanying its more aggressive, preening vocal.
Other studio material on this disc includes an alternate take of the first studio-recorded version of “Space Oddity” (with Hutch) on February 2, 1969 at Morgan Studios in London. It’s the song’s sixth out of eleven appearances on Conversation Piece. (The Morgan master take was heard in the Love You Till Tuesday promotional film and on its accompanying soundtrack album, belatedly issued in 1984. Curiously, it’s not part of this set.) In June, Bowie – sans Hutch – cut the now-famous version of “Space Oddity” with producer Gus Dudgeon and arranger Paul Buckmaster. Its original U.K. single edit and B-side (“Wild Eyed Boy from Freecloud”) are here alongside the finished recordings of “Janine” and “Conversation Piece” produced by Visconti. The former boasts a tougher, more urgent rock sound, while the latter is still lovely if less intimate than in its demo recordings.
Having explored the road to Bowie’s Philips (U.K)/Mercury (U.S.) debut album, the final two discs of Conversation Piece present that seminal, self-titled record in two distinct mixes, both bolstered by bonus tracks. If his talents weren’t yet in full blossom and “Space Oddity” wasn’t fully indicative of what was to come, David Bowie arguably presented the first major signs of the singular style that the man would soon reveal to the world.
Disc 4 has the 1969 stereo mix and Disc 5 premieres the new 2019 mix by Tony Visconti (who produced the LP other than for “Space Oddity” itself). Whenever a classic album is newly remixed, the same question typically arises: “Why?” Answers vary, but in this case, Visconti felt that he could improve on his work from fifty years ago. He writes, “As a mixing engineer, I still had a lot to learn…to have the opportunity to fix those errors 50 years later was just wonderful.” With this stellar new look at the album colloquially referred to as Space Oddity, he has remained true to its character while emphasizing new details once buried. The producer has also made some cosmetic changes. “Don’t Sit Down,” a part of the nearly seven-minute “Unwashed and Somewhat Slightly Dazed,” has been dropped, but the outtake “Conversation Piece” has been reinstated between “Wild Eyed Boy from Freecloud” and “God Knows I’m Good.”
The guitars on “Space Oddity” immediately are clearer and crisper than on the original version, the drums are more aggressive, and the soundstage is far more balanced than the basic left/right separation used in 1969. The distant quality that has long permeated “Janine” has been replaced by a startling, up-front clarity, both instrumentally and vocally. Each song has been treated with reverence, mixed according to the specific demands of each set of music and lyrics. There’s increased urgency on “Unwashed and Somewhat Slightly Dazed,” sensitivity on “Letter to Hermione,” and gentility on “An Occasional Dream.” The grand orchestration of “Wild Eyed Boy from Freecloud” (by Visconti, contrasting Paul Buckmaster’s string-centric arrangement of the single version) particularly benefits here. Visconti points out in his notes that three songs were recorded live with Bowie playing guitar while singing, complicating any substantial remixing for those tracks (including “God Knows I’m Good”), but the mixes here are very much of a piece.
Among the bonuses are the full-length and edited versions of “Ragazzo Solo, Ragazza Sola,” the Italian version of “Space Oddity” with new lyrics by the single-named Mogol that have nothing to do with outer space or Major Tom. Early mixes of “Letter to Hermione,” “Janine,” and “An Occasional Dream” have also been unearthed for this set.
How did David Bowie get from “The Laughing Gnome” to “Space Oddity” and beyond? Conversation Piece, produced by Nigel Reeve and Aisha Cohen and designed by Scott Minshall, traces that journey in captivating detail. The lavish 125-page hardcover book is an essential part of the experience. It could be a companion to the catalogue for the recent David Bowie Is exhibition, so rich is it with images of rare memorabilia: acetates, tape boxes, picture sleeves, advertisements, correspondence, newspaper clippings, handwritten setlists, diary entries, press releases, memos, and more. It’s equally impossible to divert your eyes from the striking shots of the photogenic young Bowie. The text is copious, too, with notes on The Home Demos by Mark Adams and Tris Penna and on The Mercury Demos by Adams; commentary by photographer Vernon Dewhurst and artist/friend George Underwood; a full essay on David Bowie/Space Oddity by Kevin Cann in memory of Kenneth Pitt; and Tony Visconti’s essay on the remix. The discs themselves are housed in individual sleeves slotted in the book. Mastering is primarily by Ray Staff. Expectedly, the sound quality varies on the home demos, but all of the audio has been restored and is eminently listenable. The remainder of the sound is consistent with that of the previous Parlophone Bowie releases.
So wholly successful is Conversation Piece that one can’t help but wish that the future will bring similar collections, even if that would mean extending the hiatus of the long-running multiple-album series of boxes. In essence, this is a de facto large-scale reissue of David Bowie/Space Oddity; it’s not hard to imagine a release of this magnitude for the periods surrounding The Man Who Sold the World, The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars, and so on. Conversation Piece is a stunning set in every respect. God knows it’s good!
Conversation Piece is available now at the links below!
Conversation Piece box set: Amazon U.S. / Amazon U.K. / Amazon Canada
Space Oddity 2019 Mix CD: Amazon U.S. / Amazon U.K. / Amazon Canada
Space Oddity 2019 Mix LP: Amazon U.S. / Amazon U.K. / Amazon Canada