David Bowie's very first album, released in June 1967 was a bizarre collection of strangeness and whimsy. Chris O'Leary joins me to discuss how this made it one of the most overlooked and underrated albums in the Bowie canon.
Following on from our conversation about Bowie’s final album, this episode of albumtoalbum whizzes us back 53 years to his first, the eponymous debut, released in Britain on June 1 1967. Of course, any other artist in the world might be nervous about releasing an album - a debut album! - on the same day as The Beatles dropped their long-awaited follow up to Revolver, but that's showbusiness baby. Still, one can only imagine the sense of panic felt in the Decca boardrooms, when puce-faced executives heard just exactly what their newest star would be releasing in competition with the Beatles' masterpiece.
And history proves that for record buyers hotfooting it to their local disc emporioum, pounds shillings and pence burning a hole in their kaftans, Sgt Pepper beat Uncle Arthur and company hands down, in face of stiff competition from other new releases, which included The Parable of Arable Land by the Red Krayola, the debut album by The Bee Gees and Mr Spock’s Music from Outer Space. Hardly surprising, but still disappointing, when the album barely grazed the charts, reaching 125 in the UK and something even less impressive in the US.
’Aarrghh, that Anthony Newley stuff, how cringey,' recalled a Tin Machine era Bowie in 1990. 'No, I haven’t much to say about that in its favour. Lyrically I guess it was striving to be something, the short story teller. Musically it’s quite bizarre. I don’t know where I was at. It seemed to have its roots all over the place, in rock and vaudeville and music hall and I don’t know what. I didn’t know if I was Max Miller or Elvis Presley’
Max Miller and or Elvis Presley don’t really come to mind when listening to it now. Instead he was consciously creating songs that would span his palette of interests at the time, solid songs that turned out to stand him in good stead for the next year or so as his interests veered towards theatre, mime, Buddhism and the emerging singer-songwriter genre.
Here, he flits magpie-like, alighting on this style or that, immersing himself in the art of crafting songs. He’s moved away from the rough RnB of his first few years and is experimenting with characters and scenarios that owe something to the general mood of acid-tinged weirdness of the times. But as we can see, these mini capsules of narratives and characters were like Bowie opening up his playbox for the first time, and donning the first of many many costumes to come. From the slightly Syd Barret esque Uncle Arthur to the chilling spoken word murder ballad of Please Mr Gravedigger, these songs aspire to pretty broad palette, veering between enchanting, entertaining, unsettling and ephemeral. This album is 60s London at its height, Britpsych and sci fi pop jostling with folky sensibilities, Anthony Newley-infused story songs with a Weimar-era Berlin side eye.
So in order to look at it further, I’m glad to welcome on board the man behind the best Bowie blog ever, Chris O Leary, whose essays on each song and album in his blog Pushing Ahead Of The Dame have become to Bowie what Ian McDonald’s Revolution In The Head was to the Beatles - intelligent, enjoyably opinonated, well researched beautiful slices of prose that manage to conjure fresh perspectives and insights into Bowie’s work. Chris’s blog has been revised and edited into two brilliant volums, Rebel Rebel and Ashes to Ashes and if you haven’t yet read them or the blog, I strongly recommend you do either immediately after listening to this podcast.
As ever, please do share and recommend this podcast where you can and follow the lovely O'Leary on Twitter if you don't already at @bowiesongs