Tuesday, November 14, 2023

David Bowie 43: Conversation Piece

If the previous few years had been any indication, the time was ripe for the next massive chronological Bowie box set. Instead, to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the “Space Oddity” single and subsequent album, the Bowie estate began releasing a series of vinyl-only sets of mostly unheard acoustic demo versions of songs, not all of which were familiar. Spying Through A Keyhole and Clareville Grove Demos were each issued as box sets of 7-inch 45rpm singles where they could easily have filled out a single LP, while The ‘Mercury’ Demos did just that.
The music spans 1968 through 1969, when Bowie was trying to finalize songs that would go on his second album, following the less-than-astounding reception for his first. The Keyhole songs are intriguing as they appear to be completely solo, sometimes overdubbing himself on guitar and percussion, with an arrival for an early version of “Space Oddity” with then-musical partner John Hutchinson. At this point he was still finding his way, aping different styles, from the nursery pop of “Mother Grey” to the more theatrical “Goodbye Threepenny Joe”. “Love All Around” is more successful, and there are two versions of “Angel Angel Grubby Face” to compare.
The Clareville Grove and Mercury material are all “Bowie & Hutch” folk duo recordings, the latter set specifically intended for the A&R man at that label. In addition to the familiar “Space Oddity” demo, highlights include two versions of “Lover To The Dawn”, which would turn into “Cygnet Committee”, Lesley Duncan’s “Love Song”, a year before Elton John released his version, and two versions of the very Simon & Garfunkel-inspired “Life Is A Circus” written by one Roger Bunn. “Janine” sports a cringey cop from “Hey Jude”, thankfully dropped by the time the album would be recorded.
Being culled from various sources and taping sessions, there was much repetition, particularly in “Space Oddity” itself. The repetition only amped up when the sets were eventually issued on CD, as part of the Conversation Piece box. This set basically served as a prequel to the Five Years box, and tried to cram in everything from the period leading up to what we now know as the Space Oddity album, with only a few overlaps.
To start, Spying Through A Keyhole and Clareville Grove Demos were fleshed out with eight further unreleased performances to fill a single disc. “April’s Tooth Of Gold” is wordy but Kinky, as is “Reverend Raymond Brown” which rocks but is just too busy. The overtly Dylanesque “Jerusalem” and especially “Hole In The Ground”, which wouldn’t see an official recording until the next century, are nice surprises. And we can be glad he never pursued more “kids” songs like “When I’m Five”, which appears three times throughout the box. (Meanwhile, The ‘Mercury’ Demos got its own disc, running only 42 minutes.)
A third disc mixed two complete BBC sessions, which had previously been spread across previous deluxe editions and whatnot, with various odd singles and studio outtakes, including the rejected single that backed “In The Heat Of The Morning” with “London Bye, Ta-Ta”. A fourth disc included a new remaster of the original 1969 mix of the second David Bowie album, a.k.a. Space Oddity, and some alternate mixes. A fifth disc sported Tony Visconti’s updated 2019 mix of the same album, which was also released separately; here it added the new mix of the single version of “Wild Eyed Boy From Freecloud”, plus the apparently necessary upgrade of “Ragazzo Solo, Ragazza Sola”—a.k.a. “Space Oddity” with different lyrics in Italian.
It’s been suggested that the reasoning for this release is more along the lines of any “copyright extension” practices than any merit beyond historical. It’s more of a prequel than anything else, and deserves its own entry rather than being crammed into the context of the Space Oddity album. So we did.

David Bowie Conversation Piece (2019)—3

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