David Bowie - An absolute beginner

After David Bowie's first album flopped he ran a folk night in Beckenham, studied mime and, fortunately, wrote Space Oddity, the hit that saved his career. Now his unloved debut is being re-released. Will Hodgkinson reports

It is hard to believe now, but there was a time when David Bowie wasn't quite sure how one went about becoming a pansexual glam rock superstar. In 1968, four years into an unsuccessful musical career, he recorded "In The Heat Of The Morning", a sinister love song with an urgent melody that his then manager, Ken Pitt, considered the perfect vehicle with which to project this unknown singer to stardom. Bowie's label, Deram, rejected the song, as they had his previous offering, "Let Me Sleep Beside You". It was the final nail in the coffin for what had not been a fruitful relationship between label and singer.

The reissue of the 1967 album David Bowie gives us a picture of one of our most creative pop stars scrabbling about in the trough of showbusiness, in search of an identity. Having released a handful of unsuccessful R&B singles as Davy Jones and the Lower Third, Bowie was trying pretty much everything on his debut album, perhaps with the notion that something must stick. There is Pink Floyd-style eccentricity ("Uncle Arthur"), matinee-idol crooning ("When I Live My Dream") and groovy London pop ("Love You Till Tuesday"). There is even an attempt to introduce buddhist philosophy to the 60s teen scene, with "Silly Boy Blue". None of it worked, but it all fed into the making of a unique star.

Bowie was a fan of the British vaudeville actor-singer Anthony Newley and the "space mysticism" (his words) of Pink Floyd's Syd Barrett. He was living in a converted ambulance, virtually penniless, touring the country and performing in small clubs. Pitt came across him on 17 April 1966, when he was playing London's Marquee Club.

"David oozed charisma and was in total command of himself," says Pitt. "I was particularly struck by the artistry with which he used his body, as if it were an accompanying instrument." Pitt was also impressed by Bowie's choice of material. Alongside the usual R&B covers was a rendition of "You'll Never Walk Alone". "It was daring and delightful. From then on my ambitions were his ambitions and I hoped that one day I would be able to concentrate on him as my only client."

Pitt noted Bowie's interests in pop, mime, music hall and storytelling, and saw in him the possibility of an all-new, all-singing, all-dancing, multi-operational pop artist. He took him to the theatre for the first time — to see Joe Orton's Loot, among other productions — and encouraged an interest in literature, citing Bowie's enthusiasm for André Gide's If It Die and Albert Camus' The Outsider. He played him the first record by the Velvet Underground, brought back from a trip to New York.

"I placed the VU on the turntable," Pitt says. "As he so often did when aroused or excited he threw one leg up, tucked it under the chair and sat on it. Particularly delighted with one track, he smiled at me and said, 'I'm going to pinch that'."

Pitt's first attempt to make Bowie a star involved taking a demo to Hugh Mendl of Deram, a progressive pop subsidiary set up by the Decca label in order to revive its dowdy image. Decca's in-house producer, Mike Vernon, was given the job of taking Bowie's strange songs and turning them into something the young, record-buying public might be interested in.

"I had never heard of him," Vernon says. "My first reaction was: he's a young Anthony Newley. There was a dramatic, show-tune influence in the songs and a storytelling approach that was unique at the time. He was hip, even if he wasn't famous, and I realised that producing this record would broaden my horizons. The whole album, from going into the studio to mastering, took a week."

Its creator has done his best to distance himself from it, but David Bowie has an eerie charm, filled as it is with slightly seamy tales of parochial life that could have been lifted from one of the Joe Orton plays Bowie had seen with Pitt. On "There Is A Happy Land" he sings of how "sissy Stephen plays with girls"; on "Uncle Arthur" he recites the tale of a 31-year-old man who runs home to his mollycoddling mother after his girlfriend proves to be a terrible cook. And on "Love You Till Tuesday" he appears to be taking on the guise of a frivolous stalker, creepily referring to himself as "little me" and hiding in apple trees until getting bored of the girl he is shadowing.

Vernon says: "I remember thinking, 'This is a really quirky record – who on earth will buy it? But when we did 'Love You Till Tuesday' I could see that Bowie was special. I thought, 'If we can come up with a song which has that certain something, this guy might just go somewhere.'"

The song that Deram decided had that certain something was "The Laughing Gnome". Perhaps it is time to re-evaluate this much-mocked novelty single. Backed by a rhythm pinched from the Velvet Underground's "I'm Waiting For The Man", this tale of meeting a little man who looks like a "rolling gnome" and packing him off on a train to Eastbourne, only to come back home and find him living in the chimney, has the kind of perverse wit that has run through Bowie's career.

"'The Laughing Gnome' took almost as long as the entire debut album to record because we had to do all the speeded-up vocals, which was quite difficult in those days," Vernon says, referring to the gnome's chipmunk-like parts, that were provided by Bowie himself. "It became a top-10 hit a few years later, by which time Bowie was famous. It was a terrible embarrassment to him, but to all concerned it was only ever intended as a funny children's record."

Bowie has never talked about his debut in public. Now, David Bowie is being reissued on the same day as the release of a live album from his Reality world tour of 2004. The collision suggests a wish to bury this portrait of his former self. But as Vernon says, "David can't really disown it because that's the way he was at the time".

In April 1968, Pitt told Bowie that he needed to write a new song if he was ever going to make it. Bowie had recently seen 2001: A Space Odyssey and, inspired by Stanley Kubrick's success in capturing a sense of existential intergalactic loneliness, he came up with "Space Oddity". Pitt gave a demo of the song to Deram, but the label had gone cold on its would-be star. Bowie retreated to suburban Beckenham to run a Sunday night folk club in The Three Tuns pub and study mime under Lindsay Kemp. Pitt concentrated on making a promotional film, LoveYou Till Tuesday, which included "Space Oddity".

Pitt says: "When one morning a cameraman said to David, 'Well, if it isn't Major Tom,' I suspected that we had finally found that long-hoped- for hit."

David Bowie is released on 25 January on Deram/Universal. David Bowie: A Reality Tour is released on Sony Music

Arts and Entertainment
Legendary charm: Clive Owen and Keira Knightley in 2004’s ‘King Arthur’
FilmGuy Ritchie is the latest filmmaker to tackle the legend
Arts and Entertainment
Corporate affair: The sitcom has become a satire of corporate culture in general

TV review

Broadcasting House was preparing for a visit from Prince Charles spoiler alert
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
tvReview: There are some impressive performances by Claire Skinner and Lorraine Ashbourne in Inside No. 9, Nana's Party spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
Glastonbury's pyramid stage

Glastonbury Michael Eavis reveals final headline act 'most likely' British pair

Arts and Entertainment
Ewan McGregor looks set to play Lumiere in the Beauty and the Beast live action remake

Film Ewan McGregor joins star-studded Beauty and the Beast cast as Lumiere

Arts and Entertainment
Charlie feels the lack of food on The Island with Bear Grylls


The Island with Bear Grylls under fire after male contestants kill and eat rare crocodile
Arts and Entertainment
Aaron Taylor-Johnson as Quicksilver and Elizabeth Olsen as Scarlet Witch, in a scene from Avengers: Age Of Ultron
filmReview: A great cast with truly spectacular special effects - but is Ultron a worthy adversaries for our superheroes? spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
Robin Ince performing in 2006
Arts and Entertainment
Beth (played by Jo Joyner) in BBC1's Ordinary Lies
tvReview: There’s bound to be a second series, but it needs to be braver spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
Paul Hollywood and Mary Berry, the presenters of The Great Comic Relief Bake Off 2015

Arts and Entertainment
A still from Harold Ramis' original Groundhog Day film, released in 1993

Arts and Entertainment
Christopher Eccleston (centre) plays an ex-policeman in this cliché-riddled thriller

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Lena Headey looks very serious as Cersei Lannister in Game of Thrones

TV This TV review contains spoilers
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Wiz Khalifa performs on stage during day one of the Wireless Festival at Perry Park in Birmingham

Arts and Entertainment
Festival-goers soak up the atmosphere at Glastonbury


Arts and Entertainment
Star Wars creator George Lucas


Arts and Entertainment


Arts and Entertainment
A shot from the forthcoming Fast and Furious 7


Arts and Entertainment
The new-look Top of the Pops could see Fearne Cotton returns as a host alongside Dermot O'Leary


Arts and Entertainment
The leader of the Church of Scientology David Miscavige


Arts and Entertainment
No half measures: ‘The Secret Life of the Pub’

Grace Dent on TV The Secret Life of the Pub is sexist, ageist and a breath of fresh air

  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Not even the 'putrid throat' could stop the Ross Poldark swoon-fest'

    Not even the 'putrid throat' could stop the Ross Poldark swoon-fest'

    How a costume drama became a Sunday night staple
    Miliband promises no stamp duty for first-time buyers as he pushes Tories on housing

    Miliband promises no stamp duty for first-time buyers

    Labour leader pushes Tories on housing
    Aviation history is littered with grand failures - from the the Bristol Brabazon to Concorde - but what went wrong with the SuperJumbo?

    Aviation history is littered with grand failures

    But what went wrong with the SuperJumbo?
    Fear of Putin, Islamists and immigration is giving rise to a new generation of Soviet-style 'iron curtains' right across Europe

    Fortress Europe?

    Fear of Putin, Islamists and immigration is giving rise to a new generation of 'iron curtains'
    Never mind what you're wearing, it's what you're reclining on

    Never mind what you're wearing

    It's what you're reclining on that matters
    General Election 2015: Chuka Umunna on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband

    Chuka Umunna: A virus of racism runs through Ukip

    The shadow business secretary on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband
    Yemen crisis: This exotic war will soon become Europe's problem

    Yemen's exotic war will soon affect Europe

    Terrorism and boatloads of desperate migrants will be the outcome of the Saudi air campaign, says Patrick Cockburn
    Marginal Streets project aims to document voters in the run-up to the General Election

    Marginal Streets project documents voters

    Independent photographers Joseph Fox and Orlando Gili are uploading two portraits of constituents to their website for each day of the campaign
    Game of Thrones: Visit the real-life kingdom of Westeros to see where violent history ends and telly tourism begins

    The real-life kingdom of Westeros

    Is there something a little uncomfortable about Game of Thrones shooting in Northern Ireland?
    How to survive a social-media mauling, by the tough women of Twitter

    How to survive a Twitter mauling

    Mary Beard, Caroline Criado-Perez, Louise Mensch, Bunny La Roche and Courtney Barrasford reveal how to trounce the trolls
    Gallipoli centenary: At dawn, the young remember the young who perished in one of the First World War's bloodiest battles

    At dawn, the young remember the young

    A century ago, soldiers of the Empire – many no more than boys – spilt on to Gallipoli’s beaches. On this 100th Anzac Day, there are personal, poetic tributes to their sacrifice
    Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves

    Follow the money as never before

    Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves, reports Rupert Cornwell
    Samuel West interview: The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents

    Samuel West interview

    The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents
    General Election 2015: Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

    Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

    Fashion editor, Alexander Fury, on what the leaders' appearances tell us about them
    Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

    Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

    The architect of the HeForShe movement and head of UN Women on the world's failure to combat domestic violence