Before the birth of Ziggy

The release of two rare David Bowie films offers a revealing insight into the singer's pre-Stardust career, says Tim Cumming
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The Independent Culture

Odd conjunctions occur at the birth of a legend: glimpses of what is to come, false trails, undigested sources and skewed influences embedded in the artist's core like junk DNA. Such is the case with David Bowie, whose career before 1969's "Space Oddity" ranged from the south London Mod scene to avant-garde theatre via the West End spirit of Anthony Newley. The period between 1967 and his first hit single remains the most obscure chapter of the Bowie story.

Odd conjunctions occur at the birth of a legend: glimpses of what is to come, false trails, undigested sources and skewed influences embedded in the artist's core like junk DNA. Such is the case with David Bowie, whose career before 1969's "Space Oddity" ranged from the south London Mod scene to avant-garde theatre via the West End spirit of Anthony Newley. The period between 1967 and his first hit single remains the most obscure chapter of the Bowie story.

The release on DVD of two long-unavailable television films from the period sheds a new light on those years, revealing a startlingly different Bowie at a crucial transitional point. The man who would change the face of Seventies pop was still learning to put on his make-up, but learning fast.

Bowie had begun 1969 as far from his pop ambitions as he'd been throughout the Sixties in a succession of bands, the King Bees, Manish Boys, the Nazz, the Buzz, and as the leader of Davey Jones (his real name) & The Lower Third. In January, he appear-ed in a Lyons Maid advert for an ice cream. More significant-ly, he co-founded the Beckenham Arts Lab at the Three Tunns pub, playing host to Steve Harley and future Spider from Mars Mick Ronson, as well as a motley selection of poets, artists and performers.

The projectcrucially gave Bowiespace to experiment. He worked on "Space Oddity" there, and by November, with the single's unexpected success, hadprogressed to concerts at the Purcell Room, with the NME carrying news of a TV special "devoted to him singing everything from folk to rock'n'roll and ballads".

But Love You Till Tuesday, a 40-minute showcase produced by Bowie's then-manager Kenneth Pitt, was never broadcast. It is a poor-quality staple of the bootleg circuit among the Bowie faithful. Its accompanied on DVD by an equally obscure gem, The Looking Glass Murders, a musical pantomime Bowie created with Lindsay Kemp after joining Kemp's Underground Mime Troupe in 1967. "It's so naive, I cringe," Kemp says today. "But back then it was buried, it was considered too risqué."

Kemp recalls meeting the young Bowie. "'When I Live My Dream' was the song that first attracted me to David. I had heard his first album, and that gave me the idea of doing the play. When we met, we immediately got together creating a show between us. It began as a little piece called Pierrot in Turquoise," he remembers, "a commedia dell'arte kind of thing, about the backstage antics of a theatre troupe." It opened at the Oxford Playhouse in 1967. "David Bowie has composed some haunting songs," a critic noted, "which he sings in a superb, dreamlike voice." Bowie has cited Kemp as a key influ-ence, but Kemp will say little on the matter. "I taught him to dance. That's my influence. And I taught him about style."

Bowie proved a willing pupil; they not only worked together, but were reputed to be lovers, until Kemp discovered Bowie was sleeping with a female dancer. "We led the most degenerate bohemian life," Bowie recalled in the early 1980s. "So French - Existentialism, reading Genet and listening to R&B." He toured with Kemp for a year before leaving to form his own troupe, Feathers. It was short-lived, but what Bowie had learnt would help to fashion his future stage personae.

The Looking Glass Murders was filmed at Edinburgh's Gateway Theatre in January 1970. "I was living in Scotland," says Kemp. "David came up, and we spent two days working on it." Bowie's performance is haunting. "David was beautiful," says Kemp. "He playeda balladeer, and kept the story together with his songs." The spare musical backing of organ, guitar and voice is in pleasurably stark contrast to the Sixties-style bombast of Love You Till Tuesday.

Most of Tuesday's songs were from his 1967 debut, a collection of nightmarish show tunes that Bowie performs here like a mutant Anthony Newley dressed as Jason King. There are highlights, such as "Sell Me a Coat", and with the rockier "Let Me Sleep Beside You" you catch sight of the emerging legend. Bearing a stage-prop white guitar, Bowie suddenly becomes recognisable, as he delicately apes the guitar-wielding theatrics of Hendrix to a distinctly glam-like groove.

But the moment when past and future combine to stunning effect is with the opening chords of a stripped-down version of "Space Oddity". As Bowie mimes a brilliantly simple enactment of Major Tom's ascent, you glimpse the sound and look of the new de-cade. The Sixties are over,and everything is about to change.

'Love You Till Tuesday'/'The Looking Glass Murders' DVD is out on Universal

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