If you've been watching those expensive, lavish vinyl box sets of Bowie demos from 1969 come out over the past few months, there's good news. Instead of having to shell out for the four different deluxe packages of 45's and LP's, you can get all those cuts on this five-CD box set. I guess that's a bit of bad news too, if you already shelled out the big bucks on the vinyl versions, only to find out months later there would be a more affordable way to get them.
If you're a Bowie fan, you'll find it hard not to want this. These are the demos and early versions of the songs that made up Bowie's first proper rock album from 1969, known at different times as David Bowie, Man Of Words/Man of Music, or Space Oddity. For the box, there's also the original album proper, plus a brand-new remix of the album from original producer Tony Visconti. It also features a whole batch of songs that didn't make the album, and different productions and mixes of several others. It's as much as they could find of all the work Bowie did leading up to this important record.
As he began to shop his latest songs and sound around, must have felt he had a winner in his back pocket. There are a bunch of different takes of "Space Oddity" here as worked away on it, each time getting a couple of better ideas. Eventually he stumbled on the idea of using the Stylophone to get that weird noise as the rocket takes off, and it's obvious he has his hit. It wasn't overnight, Bowie had been recording since 1964, with little success, and he was still trying out a bunch of styles. He was working in partnership with guitarist John Hutchinson, who appears on several of the demos here, singing as well.
Even at their most basic, and in some cases, simplistic, hearing the demos now offers quite a surprise. Mostly it seems shocking that Bowie wasn't being swarmed by labels. These were really strong songs for someone in their early 20's, certainly different from the bulk of music around London then. They were folkie for sure, art school-fueled, and a good part weird. Songs such as "Angel Angel Grubby Face" are good examples of Bowie trying to be different. That's a good one, but "When I'm Five" was too much of a conceptual thing, song from the viewpoint of a four-your-old wanting to be just a bit older. The "Ching-a-Ling" song is much more successful as a playful number, and it's a shame that one fell by the wayside leading up to the final album.
The Space Oddity album (as everyone now calls it) wasn't very successful, and always seemed a little unwieldy and muddled. There are songs that you have to live with for awhile, including "Wild Eyed Boy From Freecloud" and "Memory Of A Free Festival" that grow on you. Better yet is the new Visconti mix for 2019. I'm not a huge purist, and I think in this case his doctoring of the tapes is very much an improvement. It's an exciting new mix for "Space Oddity," with drums loud up front and everything swirling a bit more. "Unwashed And Somewhat Slightly Dazed" has more frantic harmonica playing, almost manic, and more guitar too. It really rocks, and that's never been a common observation about this album. Bowie's vocal in "Letter To Hermione" is now much more present, and therefore more emotional and effective.