A previously unreleased batch of demos from the late 1960s reveals David Bowie groping toward the sound, vision and alter egos he would later assume, and then mine, during his days as a superstar. Rock scholar Richie Unterberger deconstructs these early songs and talks with John Hutchinson, who played on these demos, about the “real” and “sincere” person behind the Bowie character.
“In those days he was just himself, David Jones and David Bowie were the same person. Whereas when Ziggy happened, it got a lot more complicated, and he was singing as somebody else.” – John Hutchinson
“Ground control to Major Tom”…the words are familiar, but the voice isn’t. Even when David Bowie’s voice takes over after the countdown, this demo of “Space Oddity” doesn’t sound quite right. Major Tom’s far above the “moon,” not the “world.” An alarmed Ground Control finds “you’re off your course, direction’s wrong” instead of a dead circuit and something wrong. Tom thinks his spaceship knows what he must do, and that his “life on Earth is nearly through.” A couple cries from a child in the background add to the eeriness. After guitar chords ascend to infinity, a lone Stylophone beeps as the song sputters to an end, as if all that’s left of Major Tom is the space age equivalent of Morse Code.
“I have not heard this version of ‘Space Oddity’ since we recorded it fifty-odd years ago, when it was played back on the day we did it,” says John Hutchinson, that unfamiliar voice on the first verse. Hutchinson also plays second guitar and harmonizes with Bowie on this newly unearthed rendition, part of a nine-track batch of previously unreleased late-‘60s Bowie demos that’s just come out on Parlophone, Spying Through a Keyhole.
“Amazing to hear it now,” “Hutch,” as he’s known, continues. “The child in the background would have been my son Christian. He was two years old and maybe we played it a bit faster because he was complaining. I would say this version was probably not the first version that we recorded, but who can be sure so many years after.”
Issued on a set of four seven-inch vinyl singles, the nine “new” tracks fill in some of what might be called the “gap year” in Bowie’s career—or even two gap years, those being the time between the release of his first and second albums. In fact, he didn’t release anything in 1968, though he’d continued to do some recording, radio sessions, and quite a bit of writing between the appearance of his debut LP on June 1, 1967 and the release of the “Space Oddity” single on July 11, 1969. As hard as it is to believe now, for much of that time Bowie didn’t even have a record deal, and the industry wouldn’t have been surprised if he’d simply disappeared from the music business.
By the time he reappeared, he almost might have been a different artist altogether. The 1967 David Bowie album was anomalous in the context of both the psychedelic era and Bowie’s own career. On his first half-dozen 1964-66 singles, Bowie had tried various shades of British mod rock; on David Bowie, he’d suddenly morphed into Anthony Newley Jr., delivering overtly theatrical tales of a maid on Bond Street, a land where only children play, a rubber band man, a silly boy blue, and the like. Issued at the same time as Sgt. Pepper, the musical settings owed nothing to rock, and almost everything to East End show tunes. Bowie was only twenty, but he sometimes sounded nearly sixty, and could hardly have been more out of step with his generation.
“Space Oddity,” on the other hand, was not just rock, but rock of an utterly futuristic sort, both in its moon-landing-gone-wrong lyric and its exotic science fiction-like production. Nothing else on his second album (also, confusingly, titled David Bowie when it came out in late 1969) was as distinctive, but almost all of it was decidedly rock. And much of it was both strong and far more in line with what he’d become in the 1970s, whether the wistful balladry of “An Occasional Dream” or the ambiguously barbed romance of “Janine.” What had happened in the meantime?
Spying Through a Keyhole isn’t so much the answer as another piece of the puzzle. To backtrack a bit, Bowie had been writing all the while, and sporadically taping material both in and out of the studio. Quite a number of other recordings spanning mid-1967 to mid-1969 have made the official and unofficial rounds, going back to a ragged sax-and-harmonica-driven cover of the Velvet Underground’s “I’m Waiting for the Man” with the Riot Squad April ’67. That same session produced “Little Toy Soldier,” an obvious takeoff on the Velvets’ “Venus in Furs.”
Sometime in early 1968, Bowie taped one of his most mysterious projects of all—which is saying something, in a career dotted with such projects, such as his legendary was-it-ever-really-recorded unused soundtrack to The Man Who Fell to Earth. He was working on a rock opera titled “Ernie Johnson”—well in advance of the release of the Who’s Tommy—described in Peter Doggett’s The Man Who Sold the World: David Bowie and the 1970s as follows:
“The scenario—one hesitates to call it a narrative—runs like this. For reasons unexplained, Ernie Johnson is staging a suicide party in his Bayswater flat (this West London location signifying a certain level of poverty in 1968). We meet one of the first arrivals, Tiny Tim; more guests turn up, fire questions at their host, and demand to know where they can spend a penny; Ernie remembers the women he’s loved over the previous year; then he’s mysteriously transported to a park, where he has a conversation with a tramp while pretending to be a TV interviewer; time passes; he wakes up in the morning, ready for the day of his suicide; and finally he visits a Carnaby Street boutique to buy a suitable tie for the occasion, being casually insulted by the oh-so-trendy staff in the process. And there the sequence ends, leaving this drama about a suicide party without a suicide or even much of a party.”
It sounds like a joke rumor that got out of hand, but Bowie did indeed record fourteen tracks for the project, which came up for auction at Christie’s in 1996. More than fifty years after its conception, however, it has yet to get into even unofficial circulation. Doggett, one of the few people to have heard the unreleased demo of the opera, details the songs in considerable length in his book. Given his appraisal of the results, however, we shouldn’t get our hopes up too high for some kind of lost masterwork:
“The Ernie Johnson suite—35 minutes of comic songs and dialogue, interleaved with moments of extreme poignancy—demonstrated the extent of Bowie’s ambitions during his career hiatus of 1968. It also highlighted the difficulties he found in translating his most extravagant concepts into a format appropriate for a mass audience. It was one of the most intriguing and at the same time frustrating projects that he ever conceived, full of imagination but totally lacking in coherence and structure.”
More crucially, Bowie began working with arranger/producer Tony Visconti in September 1967, edging ever so slightly back to rock on “Let Me Sleep Beside You,” which wouldn’t get excavated for release until after David’s first hit.
“Let Me Sleep Beside You”
The shift became more pronounced on a couple March 1968 outtakes (likewise not released until considerably later), “In the Heat of the Morning” and “London Bye Ta-Ta.” Demo versions of both—featuring only Bowie’s voice and acoustic guitar, and “In the Heat of the Morning”’s case a rather cheap and not-quite-perfectly-tuned one—are on Spying Through a Keyhole.
“In the Heat of the Morning” is clearly the superior of the pair, with unexpected and fairly arresting melodic twists and turns, and an intense vocal. It’s as though he’s suddenly singing about himself, not some oddballs prit-pratting on Swinging London’s edges, with a personal passion wholly missing from most of what he’d cut in late 1966 and early 1967 for the Deram label. “In the Heat of the Morning”:
“This is typical of David’s songs in those days,” remarks Hutchinson, who’d played with Bowie’s mod band the Buzz in 1966, and reteamed with him for about half a year in late 1968 (in both the trio Feathers, also including David’s then-girlfriend Hermione Farthingale, and then in a duo after that relationship ended). “Oblique chord changes that only he would use. He did a couple of those kind of songs with the Buzz and the band would have to pay attention. No dozing off as you might playing some blues.”
The less impressive “London Bye-Ta-Ta” betrays, as much of Bowie’s late-‘60s work would, a considerable folk influence in this early iteration, with a ringing opening riff that would sound at home on a Byrds record had it been amplified. There’s a bit of lingering dainty theatricalism, but it’s more forceful in both approach and vocal delivery than his Deram work. He thought enough of the tune to record it as a possible B-side in March 1968 (as heard on the expanded 2010 reissue of his debut LP), and then remade it in a far more rocked-up version (issued on the 2009 expanded CD of his secondalbum) in January 1970.
“London Bye Ta-Ta,” “Space Oddity,” and “In the Heat of the Morning” are the only songs from Spying Through a Keyhole Hutchinson heard when he played with Bowie. It’s likely that virtually no one’s heard the others (all solo performances featuring just Bowie’s voice and acoustic backup), as none of them have previously circulated on either official releases or bootlegs. To be frank, none of them stand out nearly as much as “London Bye Ta-Ta” or “In the Heat of the Morning,” let alone “Space Oddity.” But they do demonstrate Bowie was continuing to write and grope toward a more expressive, individual style, even as the very possibility of a future in music seemed in doubt.
“Mother Grey” ia a bit of a throwback to his mod days in the amateurish blast of harmonica that kicks that track off and punctuates the verses, yet also a glimpse into his glam future in its lilting, playful delivery and glides into helium-high multi-tracked vocals. It’s done no favors by the slight, and slightly indistinct, lyrics about a son leaving home (and seemingly taken, like much if not all of the other material, from a worn disc or acetate rather than a tape source). Perhaps it also bears a slight autobiographical slant, Bowie not quite being successful enough at this point to have established a permanent home-away-from-home.
“Goodbye 3d (Threepenny) Joe” wasn’t quite wholly unheard before Spying Through a Keyhole, as Bowie performed it in the Scottish TV production of Pierrot in Turquoise in early 1970. In its rather precious observational character sketch, it’s in some respects not too far removed from his Deram sides. Musically it’s a different story, however, executed in a forceful folky singer-songwriter mode instead of an interlude in a stage musical. Too, he’s getting a stronger sense of stressing emphatic choruses, and if these are hardly as memorable as those anchoring “Changes” or “Starman,” well, those would come soon enough.
A lyric from “Love Is Around” (an entirely different song from the Troggs’ hit “Love Is All Around,” in case you’re curious), “I see a pop tune spying through a keyhole from the other room,” gave this collection of demos its title. There are more off-balance chord changes here, and rather off-kilter lyrics, the one about the keyhole being the most striking. Alas, it doesn’t add up to all that memorable a song, but at least he’s broken pretty much entirely free from the trappings of his sub-Anthony Newley era.
There are two versions of the rather unappetizingly titled “Angel Angel Grubby Face,” which echoes the Deram era somewhat more strongly than the other compositions in its slightly sing-songy sections, cutesy romantic chorus, and passing references to streets and transport. The second version’s in a considerably lower vocal register and boasts considerably more deft guitar work, as though Bowie’s gotten a dose of the kind of somber folk music getting played in British clubs by virtuosos like John Renbourn (who did actually play on a few Bowie cuts in 1966 and 1967). If you want to read yet more into this somewhat throwaway effort, the contrasting versions might reflect his evolution, if tortuous, from glib all-around entertainer to an artist with more serious aspirations.
Concluding this enigmatic set of demos is a different, incomplete version of “Space Oddity,” this one performed by Bowie on his own, without Hutchinson. Missing the countdown intro verse, this has yet different lyrics than either the hit single or the one with Hutch. “Can I please get back inside now if I may?” Major Tom pleads, although he is now far above the “world” instead of the moon. Bowie goes a bit overboard with the constant chord changes, furiously roaming between keys in the brief instrumental break.
“I never heard this solo ‘Space Oddity’ demo before,” says Hutchinson. “I know the lyrics are different, I would guess that David recorded this after I had left London [in spring 1969]. There’s something about the feel and inflections – so I can hear him covering for my missing harmony voice, and in the chord inversions and guitar playing too.”
There are yet other early versions of “Space Oddity” on other archival releases, including another demo with both Bowie and Hutchinson (on the expanded 2009 CD of David’s second album) that sounds fairly similar to the one here. They also recorded a track for the short Bowie film Love You Till Tuesday on February 2, 1969 that sports a full rock arrangement, yet is far more lighthearted and less effective than the spookier production heard on the hit 45. Clearly it went through a lot of refinement from when it was first conceived. “He did more work and changes on that song because there was record label interest,” offers Hutchinson, “and he decided to go solo with it because I had gone home to Yorkshire.”
Not much specific info is available about the origin, purpose, and dates or locations of the Spying Through a Keyhole material. The press release merely states they’re “from the era during which ’Space Oddity” was first conceived.” However, a long-bootlegged ten-song demo from early 1969—whose origin is uncertain, though Kevin McCann dates it as having been done on March 8, 1969 in his book David Bowie: Any Day Now: The London Years: 1947-1974—is so much better than Spying from a Keyhole that it seems likely to have been taped significantly later than the tracks on the new Parlophone release. Performed by Bowie and Hutchinson with acoustic guitars (and Stylophone, on “Space Oddity”), the early-’69 demos sound, as hard as it might be to fathom, something like a British Simon & Garfunkel.
The songs, of course, are quite different from those of Paul Simon, and include acoustic versions of highlights from his 1969 and 1970 releases like “Space Oddity,” “Conversation Piece,” “Janine,” “Letter to Hermione,” and “An Occasional Dream,” the last of which is one of the greatest unreleased Bowie performances (and most overlooked Bowie songs, period) of all. The lyrics are penetrating, rather than merely clever; the melodies are haunting, and take their share of surprising turns; and the singing both committed and free of affectation.
“An Occasional Dream”:
The rest of the material (including a couple numbers not written by Bowie) doesn’t stand out as much. But even some of that has considerable charm, like the cover of Lesley Duncan’s “Love Song” (later done by Elton John on Tumbleweed Connection) and the haunting “Lover to the Dawn,” which would evolve into (as heard on Bowie’s second LP) “Cygnet Committee.”
A rare recording of David Bowie performing “Lover to the Dawn” live in February 1969.
The best half virtually announces the arrival of a major singer-songwriter. While the rather bare acoustic folk arrangements aren’t so different from Spying from a Keyhole’s songs, the best compositions are so much more developed, melodic, lyrically intriguing, and downright memorable that it seems to mark a definite step beyond to the next phase of his evolution. If it indeed wholly or largely precedes this early-’69 material, Spying from a Keyhole seems more like a bridge between the first pair of albums. The songs (“Space Oddity” excepted) are on the slight side and sometimes rather forgettable, though we can hear him edging toward something far more satisfying than his oft-cloying Deram recordings.
What was the purpose of these Spying from a Keyhole demos, apart from the likely obvious one of trying to get a record label’s attention? Maybe he and then-manager Ken Pitt were, at the same time, trying to get other artists to record these compositions. Bowie had managed to get some songs he never released covered by other acts, like the undistinguished “Silver Tree Top School for Boys,” which found its way onto flop singles by both the Beatstalkers and the Slender Plenty in 1967. If so, no one bit, and their ultimate purpose might have been to give Bowie an opportunity to keep working on ideas and keep his songwriting muse alive in absence of a record deal.
This might not, incidentally, be the last such relics to surface from this era. “Parlophone have me on a dozen tracks with David, and I know they will all be released very soon, on boxed set vinyl initially,” says Hutchinson. “Possibly three separate box sets I think. ‘Love Song,’ ‘An Occasional Dream,’ ‘Ching Ling Song’ [aka ‘Ching-a-Ling’], and the songs from the old bootlegs have all been remastered, I think. Some possibly remixed though I have not heard them yet.”
One hopes these might include, at long last, the entire ten-song early-’69 demo—recorded, according to Hutchinson, at Bowie’s then-flat at Clareville Grove in London. Yes, it’s been bootlegged, but in wobbly low fidelity that could presumably be much improved by accessing a better copy. Besides documenting that brief period in which Bowie and Hutchinson worked as a duo, it’s even more important for capturing what might have been the true personal Bowie—or at least as personal a Bowie as he could summon given his chameleonic nature. Sincerity is not a quality we usually associate with him, but if there was any time where he meant what he sang, instead of writing as a character (or writing about other characters), this might have been it.
I asked Hutchinson if he’d agree with that assessment when I interviewed him about his memoir Bowie & Hutch in 2014. “Yes, I would say, in those days he was just himself,” Hutch responded. “David Jones [Bowie’s birth name] and David Bowie were the same person. Whereas when Ziggy happened, it got a lot more complicated, and he was singing as somebody else. He was third person or removed, or whatever it is. He’d written songs for this alter ego or other person to sing. He could sing whatever he wanted them to, he could write whatever he wanted them to say, and maybe it wasn’t sincerity from him. But I don’t think he had a lot of that going anyway. I think it was all performance.”
“When you say you ‘don’t think he had a lot of that going,’ are you referring to the singer-songwriter approach?” I asked.
“Yeah, I don’t think he had very much of that going at all. He was playing a part, and writing his stories, as the character that he’d created. So I’m agreeing with you, I suppose, that he was much more honest during those ‘Space Oddity’ days, if you like, the acoustic days. I think he was totally honest then, and it’s just that the way that he wrote and performed changed when he realized he could invent a persona. You know, David Bowie was just a stage name. But Ziggy Stardust was a character.”