David Bowie Retrospective Series – Part 1: Wishful Beginnings

In preparation for The Next Day, David Bowie’s first album of newly-recorded material in ten years, I’ll be taking a retrospective look at each of the singer’s official studio albums ranging from 1967 to the upcoming release date of March 12, 2013.

Early On (1964-1966)

As we begin our retrospective look at the albums of David Bowie, Early On (1964-1966) may seem like an odd choice for inclusion, and indeed it is. In actuality, the Early On record was not released until 1991, some twenty odd years into Bowie’s career as a singer and songwriter. Not to mention, it isn’t an actual studio album but rather a compilation of singles and previously unreleased demo recordings dating back years before the singer’s debut album. So why look at it at all?

I begin with this compilation for the simple fact that it is where Bowie’s venture into the public eye as a rock musician begins. It isn’t an “official” album to be sure, and it can’t be thought of or reviewed as such, but for context, it is worth a look to see how such an extensive career began.

Just as the title suggests, the songs presented here are culled from the years of 1964 to 1966, and for some of this period of time, David Robert Jones was yet to have adopted the now renowned title of David Bowie. More than that, he had yet to choose the path of solo musician as well, and this collection includes work from his time working with short-lived bands such as The King Bees, The Lower Third, and The Manish Boys.

As I said, this compilation can’t be judged as an official David Bowie album, but as a collection of early singles and demos, it’s a serviceable release. It certainly isn’t a groundbreaking collection of songs, and it can be argued that Bowie still seems to be searching for some kind of identity in his songwriting. Even so, there’s some fun to be had here.

Songs like “Liza Jane”, “Baby Loves That Way” and “Can’t Help Thinking About Me” offer some straightforward 60s rock in a style that is comparable to the Kinks or the Who, and it is pulled off rather well. Although this disc has its fair share of forgettable songs (“Good Morning Girl,” “Do Anything You Say,” “Take My Tip”), there are instances of brilliance in songs like “I’ll Follow You”, “That’s Where My Heart Is” and “Bars of the County Jail.” It’s in these cuts that Bowie’s sense for melody and storytelling begins to take the forefront.

With all that being said, if you’re a newcomer to David Bowie’s music, Early On wouldn’t be a recommendable record to start off with. It isn’t a great record by any means, but for Bowie fans or anyone who is simply a fan of fun 60s-era rock and roll, these songs are worth a listen or two.

Rating: 2.5 out of 5
Highlights: “Bars of the County Jail,” “That’s Where My Heart Is,” “I’ll Follow You,” “Can’t Help Thinking About Me”

David Bowie

As I said in my review of Early On, David Bowie’s single releases in the years of 1964 to 66 were not anything remarkable, but they did have a certain charm. By contrast, his first proper album as a solo artist is just plain confusing.

Whereas Bowie’s earlier singles lacked a unique identity, David Bowie (released in June 1967) at least seems to have gained some ground on that front. The problem is that the album’s stylistic fusion of psychedelic rock, folk, music hall, and pop music is more perplexing than it is effective, and many of the ideas presented lyrically are, more often than not, somewhat half baked.

The album certainly covers a wide array of topics within the 14 songs presented here. The material ranges from simple pop songs (“Love You Till Tuesday,” “Sell Me a Coat, ”“Rubber Band,” “When I Live My Dream”), to observations of childhood and the trials awaiting young people  (“There is a Happy Land,” “Join the Gang”) to anecdotes of war, murder, cannibalism, and …um… infanticide (“Please, Mr. Gravedigger,” “We are Hungry Men”). Perhaps some of these subjects could have been interesting fodder for lyrics, but unfortunately, the potency of these ideas often becomes negligible in the confused manner in which the songs are presented.

Even though this isn’t a great debut effort from David Bowie, there are some good things about it to point out. While songs like “Love You Till Tuesday” and “Rubber Band” come off as cheesy attempts to breech the singles market, others like “Sell Me a Coat,” “When I Live My Dream,” and “Silly Boy Blue” do stand out from the rest as simply memorable pop tracks.

It’s also worth mentioning that even though most of the themes here become diluted within their accompanying songs, they do point towards things that would become recurring ideas in later (and arguably more effective) Bowie compositions. Such themes include depictions of androgyny (“She’s Got Medals”), the divide between children and their elders (“There is a Happy Land”) and character studies of messianic figures (“We are Hungry Men”).

When all things are considered, David Bowie is an album that should only be sought out by die hard Bowie fans. Even though there are a few good pop tunes and the beginnings of some interesting ideas, the overall execution is ultimately unimpressive.

David Bowie biographer David Buckley has been quoted from his 1999 book Strange Fascination – David Bowie as describing this release as “the vinyl equivalent of the madwoman in the attic.” He’s not too far off.

Rating: 2 out of 5
Highlights: “Sell Me a Coat,” “When I Live My Dream,” “Silly Boy Blue”
Which edition to buy: If you’re going to invest money in this album, I’d recommend either the recently reissued 2 disc remaster of the album or the 1997 Deram Anthology. Both of these include the full album as well as the non-album singles released around this period of time. This is both a good thing (“The London Boys,” “Let Me Sleep Beside You”) and a bad thing (“The Laughing Gnome”).

~ Stephen