David Bowie

David Bowie

Deram Records, 1967


REVIEW BY: Roland Fratzl


I could have sworn this album said "David Bowie" on the front, not “Gilbert & Sullivan.” What a bizarre recording – Bowie's self-titled 1967 debut album sounds nothing like his early 60s music or like anything he has ever recorded since. Not even in the least bit. It almost seems as though he was jaded by the lack of success of his early to mid 60s garage rock singles and thusly underwent a radical stylistic change to...CLASSICAL POP.

I don't know about you, but I can't think of the last time "classical pop" set the charts on fire, especially the exceedingly quirky brand that Bowie employed here.

Various sources on the net say that Bowie imitated some dude named Anthony Newley with this album, but since I've never heard of the guy I'm going to assume that he was some elitist upper class English wannabe aristocrat who had a habit of singing every syllable perfectly pronounced in a snot drenched, hoity-toity, "educated" accent along to bouncy melodies provided by such rocking instruments like pianos, fiddles, oboes, clarinets, harpsichords, and tubas (!) the way Bowie does throughout this entire album.

Don’t expect rock music because you won’t find it at all. There are hardly even any guitars -- except maybe the odd, barely audible acoustic strum buried occasionally in the mix at Loch Ness type depths. That's an obvious exaggeration, but the acoustic guitars are definitely not prominently featured at any point -- they're used for subtle rhythmic effect, nothing more.

Like I said before, this album sounds like a continuation of the light-hearted Victorian operettas composed by the legendary Gilbert & Sullivan in the 1800s, with Bowie using a strange, uppity talk-singing effect throughout; he pulls this off perfectly as if he were performing on the stage of a theatre, especially on tracks like the light military march of "Rubber Band," in which Bowie sings about typical English everyday things in 1910 like having tea time and eating scones with trumpet and tuba solos in the background. No, you didn't just imagine that description. my_heart_sings_the_harmony_web_ad_alt_250

There is also a wonderfully odd, paranoid, pro-abortion (and even pro-sterilization song), "We Are Hungry Men," which even has a middle section of some German barking orders in an evil Nazi style, foreshadowing themes that Bowie would revisit much later on.

Another highlight is "Little Bombardier," a brisk accordion waltz complete with a sentimental violin solo that wouldn't be out of place in a Johann Strauss composition, and if all that isn’t weird enough for you, check out "Please Mr. Gravedigger," which has Bowie theatrically talk-singing, sounding like he's got a head cold with nothing but the sound of thunder and rain in the background!

Even though he was only 20, Bowie’s vocals sound like a middle-aged, housewife baiting crooner who's seen the bottom of too many pints in his day. It couldn't possibly get much more uptight and old fashioned sounding. Don't blame me if you suddenly get an urge to wear a chastity belt while listening to this.

Everything is so ridiculously awash with old style British culture that I'm surprised he didn't just call the album "Beer Battered Fish" or something. Every stereotype is included here. Most of these songs could have provided the perfect theme song for any typical 60s Britcom or Peter Sellers and Terry Thomas movie. Or better yet, something like the Mary Poppins soundtrack -- these songs would fit seamlessly intermixed with those if not for the lack of full orchestra.

But as much as it might sound like I'm speaking negatively of the album, I actually love it to bits and seriously consider it to be a hell of a lot more interesting and fun to listen to than a ton of Bowie's critically acclaimed, “serious” 70s work. I adore operetta. I adore Gilbert & Sullivan. I adore 60s pop culture and music, including all that British stuff like those shows and movies I mentioned. There's such a sweetness and innocence that permeates all of that pop culture, which allows me to escape into a nostalgic, childlike world of awe and wonder that I desperately need now and then to give me psychological sanctuary from the overwhelming shit of reality. Surely that provides a noble service, or does nobody understand it the way I do?

The music contained on David Bowie will brighten anyone's day -- that's just how addictively happy it sounds. It may be a non-rock album by a famous rock artist, but that's precisely what I like so much about it. You'll be hard pressed to find an album like this by any other major artist, that's for sure. It also helps that the musicians are top notch and the production is about as good as it possibly could have been at the time -- everything sounds astoundingly crisp.

The album David Bowie may have been a commercial failure at the time and become relegated to being nothing more than an obscure footnote unknown to all but the most hardcore Bowie fans (and even among them it seems to be almost totally ignored), but that is a truly cruel fate for all the wonderful music it contains. Approach it with an open mind and you’ll be witness to some surprisingly sophisticated songcraft.

Rating: A-

User Rating: D+


© 2008 Roland Fratzl and The Daily Vault. All rights reserved. Review or any portion may not be reproduced without written permission. Cover art is the intellectual property of Deram Records, and is used for informational purposes only.