David Bowie released his debut LP on the same day that ‘Sergeant Pepper’ came out. Only one of the LP’s was a success. Bowie was 20 years old in 1967 and desperate to be a star. His songs told a story, they were cheerful, catchy, quirky, cute – they had elaborate orchestrated arrangements, part music hall, part toytown, all tubas and teeth and showbiz. He has admitted to being fairly confused at this stage of his career – “I didn’t know if I was Max Miller or Elvis Presley” – but he was actually fairly focused in his blatant appropriation of Anthony Newley’s style, down to the exaggerated vocal mannerisms and all round entertainer shtick - a shtick his critics still like to beat him with 40 years after the event.
But 'David Bowie' is not that bad, it’s just not hip or cool in any way whatsoever and although it does little to persuade you that Bowie is a major talent at this stage there are some good songs on here and enough ideas to make you think that maybe he has something, he just needs to decide where he’s going to take it and stop being so bleeding chirpy.
Take ‘We Are Hungry Men’: dig beneath the silly arrangement and daft voices and you’ll find a song about a dystopic future society where infanticide and cannibalism are used to relieve over population; J.G Ballard themes set to music by The New Vaudeville Band. If it had been written three years later and given a different setting it would have sat nicely on ‘The Man Who Sold The World’ alongside the other big, weird rock songs about evil messiahs and societal breakdown.
‘Join The Gang’ is a raver with a frenetic pace and a crazy sitar that simultaneously encapsulates and lampoons the swinging scene. With its clever lyrics and well-drawn stereotypes, it sounds like the depressed narrator from ‘The London Boys’ is now firmly established as part of the in-crowd, but has realised that it’s a fairly hollow achievement.
Finally, ‘The Gospel According To Tony Day’ a contemporary b-side that still sounds like Anthony Newley , but the lesser-known, lugubrious, mordant Newley of ‘The Strange World of Gurney Slade’ (Bowie’s favourite TV show), and is all the better for not trying too hard to be likeable.