Take Three 60s Songs … by David Bowie

Overlooking – if that’s possible – Space Oddity (my favourite song of his from the 60s and very probably from any other decade) here are simply three more David Bowie favourites from the 60s, starting with the earliest.

I Can’t Help Thinking About Me

Written by David Bowie
Performed by David Bowie with The Lower Third
Produced by Tony Hatch
Pye A-side, January 1966

Embed from Getty Images

A boy, on the run from his home town can’t see that his wretchedness stems as much from his relentless self-spiralling thoughts as it does the narrowness of his surroundings.

Almost from the very start, David Bowie was dealing in an outsider’s sense of claustrophobia.  He later described this piece as a ‘‘beautiful piece of solipsism”.  I Can’t Help Thinking About Me may be more straightforwardly autobiographical than we would later come to expect of him but the emotion is near universal.  Countless suburban teenagers hearing this on pirate radio would ecstatically endorse the sentiment.

Inner charge

The song gains much of its power because of its inevitability – the boy has started something he doesn’t know how to finish or return from.   He’s unleashed an inner charge which is catapulting him out of his home town, it’s beyond choice now, it’s become so much bigger than he is.  Characters from his life swim into view and then out again like fragments already disappearing into the past.  But he can’t think about them.  Only about me.

I like the slightly subdued verse giving way to the despairing howl of the pre-chorus and then the compulsive, repetitive refrain.

There’s a Kinks-like feel and Graham ‘Death’ Rivens’s busy bass contributes greatly to the restless pace.  It’s curious listening to this knowing that, along with production duties and piano, Tony Hatch also adds backing vocals.

In 2015’s Lazarus, Bowie asks ‘Ain’t that just like me?’ as if he’s looking back at this younger self.

The London Boys

Written and performed by David Bowie
Produced by Mike Vernon
Deram UK B-side [France A-side], December 1966

Following on from I Can’t Help Thinking About Me, the boy has reached the ‘bright lights, Soho, Wardour Street’, where disillusionment and triumphalism seem mingled into one.  A realisation of, not just a new life but a new identity arises; the song ends with swollen pride though still tinged with uncertainty.

Mark Almond covered The London Boys but tries too hard to inject drama.  For Bowie, the drama is already there.  I love the way he David Bowie bylinesings ‘Someone cares about you’ – where the drop away – a very learned, theatrical one – exposes uncertainty, vulnerability.

Think of how a band such as the Small Faces might have done a song on a similar theme with all the unfettered passion of the ‘real thing’.  Bowie plays a part even when he is as apparently intimate as here but it’s still touching.

The accompaniment is all the better for being sparse – woodwind, tremulous organ; peeling brass London ‘bells’ towards the close allows a brief few moments of assurance.

Unfolding drama

The London Boys reaches a climax in a similar manner to When I Live My Dream.  It feels as if a whole new drama is about to unfold after that closing chord.

Remade for the Toy album, it’s inevitably moving to hear the 50-something Bowie meeting his former self, but the arrangement is disappointing mainstream rock lumbered with a heavy, steady drum.  If only we had heard more of the closing moments’ muted trumpet, woodwind and organ.

There Is a Happy Land

Written and performed by David Bowie
Produced by Mike Vernon
Album David Bowie Deram, June 1967

Embed from Getty Images

Themes of children and childhood run throughout several tracks on Bowie’s debut album but this is the strongest.  Although incredibly evocative, the song avoids sentiment because behind its carefree, nostalgic tableau there is always the child’s stare, instructing us, ‘Mr Grown Up’,  to ‘Go away sir’.  Such a secret, esoteric world was still effortlessly accessible to a just-out-of-his teens David Bowie.

There Is a Happy Land sets about its evocations with joyful ease, showing children as a different race, entirely set apart from adults and their concerns.  The roll-call of (all boys’) names and playful activities – Charlie Brown’s kite, Tommy lighting a fire, Tiny Tim and his prayers and hymns  – is four parts Ken Loach to one part Enid Blyton.  Despite the vividness of these images, taken collectively they remain deeply mysterious, like esoteric rites.

Esoteric rites

The mode of address shifts.  Sometimes the voice is definitely that of a child, sometimes that of a kind of universal story teller and sometimes not quite one or the other.  The only slightly clunky moment is the shoe-horned rhyme ‘…burned the field away’/ ‘…put the blame on me and Ray’.

The arrangement, especially that languid thirty-nine second introduction, is David Bowie’s best.  There is almost a cool sophistication about it which is surprisingly not at all incongruous.  I love those deliberately blurred dissonances, the open sevenths sounded on two trumpets.   The ending seems to descend entirely into a child’s world with jangling, clanging sounds and a scat-nonsense vocal.

When I’m Five is a kind of up-close follow-up.  Ostensibly cute through and through, it takes bravery to risk being so childlike but astuteness to be able to pull off the trick in a song.

David Bowie: 8th January 1947 – 10th January 2016.

More Take Three Songs

Take Three Songs… on Blackpool
Take Three Songs… by Cilla Black
Take Three Songs… or early 60s instrumentals
Take Three Songs… Lynsey de Paul – No Honestly!
Take Three Songs… on Suburbia