It’s fifty years ago today that Sgt Pepper told the band to play. But it wasn’t the only LP to be released on June 1st, 1967. Almost completely unnoticed—and overshadowed by the Beatles’ monumentally significant pinnacle of 60s pop—the young and (almost) unknown David Bowie also gave us his eponymous first album. Had he not gone on to become… well, David Bowie, it would almost certainly have remained—imperfect as it plainly is (or “terrible”, as Rolling Stone less politely put it)—an obscure, discarded, cult relic.
Some of it is terrible. The excruciatingly twee baroque pop of Love You ’till Tuesday certainly is, though if we’re honest no worse than some of the questionable Paisley Pop that Bowie’s contemporaries were coming up with (Tomorrow, Kippington Lodge and The Idle Race spring to mind): these were strange times. Other tracks don’t really work, either. The attempts at sub-Kinks contemporary satire in Join The Gang certainly haven’t aged well. And the whimsical songs—Maid of Bond Street and Sell Me a Coat—are hardly fully polished, rough-edged and flawed, though Bowie did go on to build on and then perfect their whimsy, briefly, with Letter To Hermione.
And that’s the point: although it’s hard to buy the “‘She’s Got Medals‘ is his first foray into gender-bending” thing, it is, like so many other songs in this collection, an early sketch for the masterpieces to come. Most striking is We Are The Hungry Men, an obvious precursor to Diamond Dogs, Saviour Machine and the rest, with its tale of a messiah offering salvation to a futuristic dystopia prowled by desperate flesh-eaters (see also Trump, D.)
And there’s more shrouded brilliance in there. Coincident with Syd Barrett’s psychedelic, fairy-tale dabblings, Bowie adds in some of the darkness of Grimms’ Kinder- und Hausmärchen, adding new twists to the European-flavoured macabre. In this vein, Uncle Arthur and Please Mr Gravedigger become rough prototypes for later songs like After All and All The Madmen, while Rubber Band demonstrates another clear European influence: the songs of Jacques Brel, popularised initially in the English-speaking world by Rod McKuen’s early ’60s translations. Bowie continually revisited European themes throughout his career, as we know, covering several Brel songs himself (Amsterdam and My Death), and, later, Brecht/Weill (Baal’s Hymn and Alabama Song).
When David Bowie was released, nobody (including Bowie) had heard the “groundbreaking” Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. Yet both albums were pushing the same boundaries. And while George Martin managed to tame the Beatles’ weirdness just enough, Bowie was allowed to exhibit unbridled experimentation. The problem for him wasn’t this experimentation: it was the unbridledness. His quality filter wasn’t yet fully functional and we’d have to wait another couple of years for the first ‘real’ Bowie album. This was, though, in hindsight, a hugely significant base camp for the thrilling expeditions to come.