Transition | Transmission 7: dressing in thoughts from the sky

For those that recall my original rules in putting together this ‘Bowie deep cuts for beginners’ playlist, my concept had been to build something that’d count back from 2016 back to Bowie’s first album, before a 1960s pivot and a return back up the chronology to his final album. Now, after half a dozen entries, we’re steering into the curve. 

18. Queen Bitch (1971)
 Queen Bitch‘ is a concentrated burst of pop-rock elegance. Just as earlier entries saw Bowie taking on parts of The Rolling Stones’ and Marc Bolan’s sound, here we have Bowie channeling the Velvet Underground. Bursting onto the scene with a catchy, jagged riff, ‘Queen Bitch’ lands its delivery and knows not to over-stay its welcome. It’s one of our earlier pairings of Mick Ronson with Bowie: Ronson was Bowie’s key collaborator from ’70-’73, and his bold guitar work is synonymous with the sound of Bowie’s glam rock highs with The Spiders From Mars. ‘Queen Bitch’ effectively pairs and contrasts their styles; the acoustic guitar that opens the song is Bowie’s, with the electric riff that then mimics and rolls over it is Ronson’s. 

Far better writers than I have written on this song, and I lack the vocabulary to say why it’s so good, so I’ll just ask you to listen to it and enjoy. It’s not overblown or overdone – just a great, catchy, uncluttered number that shows a youthful songwriter learning his craft. 

For a while I had my follow-up to ‘Queen Bitch’ in this playlist as ‘The Prettiest Star’, a one-off single released in 1970 with a pre-T Rex Marc Bolan in guitar. But, having a non-album track wouldn’t sit well with the rules I’ve set up for transition | transmission. Which means we’re onto…

19. Sell Me A Coat (1967)
 And here, twenty songs in, is where we begin. Bowie’s first album is a time capsule of the late 1960s, seemingly disconnected and adrift from the singer and musician we have come to know. He’s only twenty years old here, young and inexperienced, pre-‘Space Oddity’ and without a hit to his name. It’s still unmistakably him – although the hair and glasses he wears in his videoclips may give you pause when choosing him from the lineup – but the lyricism and attention to craft that we’ve come to expect has yet to fully manifest. Sell Me A Coat‘ demonstrates the pop sensibilities seen in ‘Queen Bitch’ and plenty of other tracks we’ve discussed, but in a less sophisticated form. There’s a gulf between the music-hall queerness of Hunky Dory Bowie and the post-mod, folk-tinged yearnings of David Bowie Bowie. This is a Bowie who can sing of love and heartbreak – ‘Sell Me A Coat’ gives us “a winter’s day, a bitter snowflake on my face / My summer girl takes little backward steps away” – but there’s a feeling that Bowie doesn’t quite know himself yet. This might be the benefit of hindsight – we’ve had decades of later work to feast on, after all – but there is a sense of incompleteness here, at the beginning. 

20. Letter to Hermione (1969)
  Every artist needs some tragedy to hone their craft. ‘Sell Me A Coat’ showed a Bowie who hadn’t found that yet. ‘Letter to Hermione‘ is post-tragedy: a messy breakup (aren’t they all?) with his first true love, the delightfully named Hermione Farthingale, seems to be just the push he needed. ‘Letter’ is far more personal than anything we’ve heard before or since. Unlike what I’ve done previously, I want to give the full lyrics for this one to give you a picture for where Bowie was at;

The hand that wrote this letter sweeps the pillow clean
So rest your head and read a treasured dream
I care for no one else but you; I tear my soul to cease the pain
I think maybe you feel the same.
What can we do? I’m not quite sure what we’re supposed to do.
So I’ve been writing just for you.

They say your life is going very well. They say you sparkle like a different girl.
But something tells me that you hide.
When all the world is warm and tired, you cry a little in the dark;
Well, so do I.

I’m not quite sure what you’re supposed to say,
But I can see it’s not okay.

He makes you laugh, he brings you out in style.
He treats you well and makes you up real fine.
And when he’s strong, he’s strong for you.
And when you kiss it’s something new.
But did you ever call my name just by mistake?

I’m not quite sure what I’m supposed to do,
So I’ll just write some love to you.

This is not Bowie the sophisticate, not Bowie the glam seducer. This is a man in his early twenties, using his art to capture his heartbreak, and his heartbreak to drive his art forward. We’ll never see Bowie sharing his thoughts so clearly or rawly. ‘Lazarus’ is a song by someone who’s dying; ‘Letter’ is a song by someone who feels like he already has.

21. After All (1970)
  The Man Who Sold The World, first released in 1970, does not play well with other albums. It’s relative oddness is clear from the outset: an opener like ‘The Width of a Circle’, as much as I love its proto-Spinal Tap excess, seems un-Bowie like and out of step with what we’ve come to expect. The Man Who Sold The World certainly seems more collaborative than many of Bowie’s later works – certainly the influence of Visconti, Mick Ronson and others is strongly felt. But, it’s an album ultimately unsure of itself: Bowie’s had a hit with ‘Space Oddity’ in the spaces between entries, but has failed to capitalise on its success. His collaborators have changed, he’s reading more Crowley and toying with Buddhism, he’s just married and (even if he didn’t know it yet), he’s got a family on the way.

You can sense some similarities between ‘After All’ and Bowie’s earlier works, although the songwriting still lacks some sophistication and the pieces aren’t quite fitting together well. The major players – Visconti, Ronson –  have arrived, but they haven’t found the right balance in their working relationship with Bowie. 

‘After All’ is a subdued affair, to the point where it is almost whispered rather than sung. I’ve chosen it as I think it’s ennui carries on well from the naïve, undirected sadness of ‘Sell Me A Coat’ and the more personalised heartbreak of ‘Letter to Hermione’. This is the sound of a man who’s turned inward and away from others, making quiet observations on the inanity of humankind. People are, according to the song’s narrator, are small creatures, “taller children” to be tripped “gently” as “they don’t like to fall”. Singing with “impertinence”, our narrator suggests that we “hold on to nothing” to avoid being let down. This quiet nihilism is something we’ll touch on again shortly, but is in many ways as much of a dead-end in Bowie’s progression as an artist as his folk-tinged early years. 

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