1970 Rare Bowie ‘Blues’ Track

“At the start of 1969, [David Bowie] wrote ‘Space Oddity,’ a song that punctured the global mission for the Apollo moon mission,” Peter Doggett observed in his Introduction to 2011’s The Man Who Sold the World:  David Bowie and the 1970s — an analysis of Bowie’s songwriting, chronologically speaking, throughout his ’70s commercial peak.

Note use of ‘Future Shock‘ typeface in RCA’s 45 re-launch in US – 1973

David Bowie - Future Shock 45-aBowie may have cast a cloud over the US space program, but there’s no denying how “Space Oddity” – and the song’s inspiration, Kubrick’s 2001 – tapped into the world’s fascination with the then new reality of space travel.  I remember purchasing RCA’s American ‘re-boot’ of Bowie’s 1969 self-titled album (on cassette, actually – and retitled for his US breakout hit) at Cincinnati’s old Swallens on Red Bank Road in 1974/75 (i.e., the period between my Beatles and Who obsessions).

Midcentury Modern – mildly charming in retrospect perhaps but not at the time

Swallen's - midcentury modern

Mercury, who signed Bowie for a one-album deal, would release “Space Oddity” in 1969, only to have the song peak at #124.  In 1973, RCA would reissue the A-side and hit commercial paydirt in the US:  #15.

As it turns out, there’s more to the story:  Bowie had actually recorded two versions of ‘Space Oddity’ in 1969 – the original version being not only shorter but a much different arrangement altogether (not really a secret: 14,000,000+ views on YouTube).

Rare 1972 RCA promo EP

David Bowie - rare 72 promo-aHowever, since Zero to 180 serves to shed light on less-examined aspects of popular music history, it first considered pulling together a bullet point list of ‘early Bowie trivia’ as a tribute to David Bowie, who (along with Red Simpson) just left us  [#1 Jeopardy question:  Answer:  Title of the rarest of Bowie’s three Mercury A-sides for US release.  Question:  What is “All the Mad Men“? – as confirms 45Cat’s BeatleJohn] .

But then I chickened out and decided to feature one early Bowie rarity that seems to have escaped the world’s attention, relatively speaking.  There are but a handful of YouTube clips for “Lightning Frightening” — Bowie’s 1970 bottleneck-blues-meets-glitter-rock composition that went unissued until pressed into service as a bonus track on Rykodisc’s 1991 CD reissue of The Man Who Sold the World — and this clip “only” has 22,479 views:

“Lightning Frightening”     David Bowie     1970

Wait!  Zero to 180 almost forgot about its piece from November, 2014 that points out Bowie’s innovative use of both (1) the kalimba and (2) stylophone (thanks, Deborah!) in the aforementioned breakout hit, “Space Oddity.”

Check out Bowie’s appearance in this rare 1971 RCA advert

David Bowie in 1971 RCA ad

Early David Bowie:  The Silver Spring Connection

In the outpouring of grief over David Bowie’s passing, the world has suddenly become aware of Silver Spring, Maryland’s place of distinction as the location where Bowie spent his first ever evening in the US.  According to his American host, Michael Oberman, there was a cultural exchange that led to a breakthrough in the conceptualization of Bowie’s next big persona:  Ziggy Stardust:

“Fast forward to January of 1971:  My brother, Ron, was Director of Publicity for Mercury Records (Bowie’s American label at the time).  David was already a star in Great Britain and Europe…but he hadn’t really broken big in the U.S.  Ron decided to bring David to America to do a promotional tour and meet the press, DJ’s and others who could help David’s career in the U.S.

David flew from London to Dulles airport in Virginia.  He was held in customs for a few hours just because of the way he dressed (shame on you customs people!).  My parents and I picked David up at Dulles and brought him back to my parent’s home on Admiralty Drive in Silver Spring.  This was David’s first day ever in the U.S.  He was delighted to spend it with an American family.  David and I already had a connection from a brief 1969 phone conversation for my column.

We spent a couple of hours chatting in my parent’s living room.  A lot of the discussion was about the theater and stage acting.  After some refreshments, we all went to Emerson’s Restaurant in Silver Spring (not Hofberg’s Deli as some publications have reported).  The hostess at the restaurant seated us in a booth and proceeded to close the curtains on our booth.  We all had a good laugh over that.

After dinner, we took my parents back home.  David, my brother and I went back to my house in Takoma Park.  Besides writing for the Star, I also managed a band called Claude Jones and had co-managed a band called Sky Cobb.  When we got to my house, the members of Sky Cobb were in my living room…passing a bong around. The band didn’t even try to communicate with David…something that some of them regret to this day.  David had never seen a bong before…and, no, he did not partake of the substance in the bong.

Late that night, David went to his hotel in DC and left the next day.  An interesting fact for all Bowie fans:  David went to Mercury Records headquarters on East Wacker Drive in Chicago.  Mercury had signed an oddball artist from Texas named The Legendary Stardust Cowboy.  My brother played David a song by that artist.  The song was a minor hit called ‘Paralyzed.’  David was intrigued.  My brother arranged for David to fly to Texas to meet the Legendary Stardust Cowboy.  David was blown away and adopted “Stardust” for his new persona, Ziggy Stardust.  Rock-and-roll history was made.”

David Bowie – Silver Spring, md – 1971

David Bowie in Silver Spring Michael Oberman‘s riveting photograph c/o Facebook

 

The Legendary Stardust Cowboy – it bears mentioning – rates but a single footnote in Doggett’s 1970s Bowie study.

“Kalimba Story”: Thumb Piano Pop

My first encounter with a kalimba, the African instrument (also known as a “thumb piano” or, more properly, mbira) was when I read the album credits for Space Oddity in my youth and learned that David Bowie played a kalimba on the title track, Bowie’s first American breakout hit (a.k.a., “Major Tom”).  You can hear the kalimba’s shimmering effect in the intro and into the first verse (Bowie, no doubt, getting a strong vibrato effect by rapidly moving his finger on/off the instrument’s sound hole).

Hmm, I wondered – has any popular musical artist ever decided to write a song that celebrates or honors the kalimba itself?  As it turns out, yes:  Earth Wind & Fire’s “Kalimba Story” from 1974’s Open Our Eyes, the group’s fifth album – and third for Columbia, since switching from Warner Brothers:

How refreshing to see the kalimba makes its first appearance a mere 2 seconds into the song and then proceeds to kick out the jams a little further ways in.  Interesting to see this song released as the A-side of a 45 (#6 R&B, #55 Pop), the second of three singles from that album.

Seven years later, Earth Wind & Fire would issue “Kalimba Tree” on 1981 album, Raise! – an interesting melange of deep analog synthesizer, soprano sax, and vocal chants with gentle mbira embellishments.

A piece about the mbira wouldn’t be complete if I failed to mention the work of Zimbabwe’s Thomas Mapfumo, whose music not only embraced the instrument from the outset but also featured electric guitar lines that beautifully emulate a master mbira musician.

Rolf Harris Introduces the Stylophone to the Masses

Right after I posted this piece, I was reviewing the musician credits for the Space Oddity album and was struck by the fact that, in addition to the kalimba, David Bowie also played a stylophone during the recording sessions.  A few years ago I was introduced to this monophonic electronic keyboard – that one plays with a metal stylus – when I was graciously given one by close friends.  I had assumed all this time that the stylophone was a relatively recent invention, but seeing the instrument credited on a 1969 recording, of course, set me to wondering:  when did the stylophone enter the realm of popular music?

As it turns out, Rolf Harris – the Australian entertainer probably best known for his hits, “Tie Me Kangaroo Down, Sport” and the Aboriginal-inspired, “Sun Arise” (produced by George Martin and probably the first time most Americans heard a didgeridoo) – is likely responsible for unveiling the stylophone to European audiences for the first time, as this documentary clip reveals:

Rolf Harris demonstrates the electronic instrument using a song from “the hit parade” – John Hartford’s “Gentle on My Mind,” first covered by Glen Campbell in 1967 – on a program that may have originally been broadcast on BBC in September, 1968.

This film clip, thankfully, answers the question – on which song did Bowie use the stylophone?  Answer:  the album’s title track (at around the 2:37 mark) during the instrumental bridge immediately following Bowie’s strummed acoustic guitar riff.

Oh! Peter Noone, You Pretty Thing

When we last checked in with Peter Noone, he and his Hermits were gettin’ down at the natural history museum.  Three years later, interestingly enough, Noone would release the first version of David Bowie’s “Oh! You Pretty Things,” a song that would be included on Bowie’s 1971 album, Hunky Dory.  Bowie himself would play piano on Noone’s version, which begins straight away with the chorus:

Peter Doggett, in The Man Who Sold the World:  David Bowie and the 1970s, gives us the back story —

“Bowie had spent years attempting to craft hit singles for other performers, his failure a cause of much frustration for his loyal publishers.  As part of Tony Defries’ “new broom” approach to his client’s career, Bowie signed a five-year publishing deal with Chrysalis Music in October 1970, thereby removing his new songs from David Platz’s Essex Music and assigning them to a newly-formed Chrysalis affiliate, Titanic Music.  Under the contract, Bowie was given an advance of five thousand pounds (20 percent of which went straight to his managers), a very substantial sum for the time.  He was now freed from the necessity to scrape a living on the road and was able to concentrate on his songwriting.

‘All of a sudden, all these great songs started appearing,’ recalled Chrysalis executive, Bob Grace.  ‘We used to do all his demos at the Radio Luxembourg studios in London, which was cheap, and that suited us, because David was writing so much stuff.’  ‘Oh! You Pretty Things’ was one of the first songs Bowie completed under the new deal, and Grace took the demo tape to the Midem music business gathering, where he gave it to producer, Mickie Most.  Within a matter of weeks, Bowie had finally achieved his aim of writing a hit for another artist, with a song that was vividly personal.”

Singular or Plural?  Only the publisher knows for sure

Peter Noone 45aPeter Noone 45b

Bowie’s own version of the song would not enjoy single release, even though he would film a mimed performance of the song in 1972 at BBC studios for its musical television series, The Old Grey Whistle Test – a video clip that was not broadcast until ten years later, bafflingly enough.  Perhaps this video was kept in the can due to the spectacularly outlandish mutton chops of bassist, Trevor Bolder (on much better display in Bowie’s Top of the Pops performance of “Starman“) — we may never truly know why.

Trevor Bolder - Yegads