Note: the following post includes several links to some of my earlier posts. Rather than me writing “click to link” after every link, I’ve simply bolded links. So when you see a song, album or term bolded— link to my previous comments about it. Got it? OK, here’s my post…
I don’t know what’s more incredible: that I have never written an entire post dedicated to Bowie’s debut album or that David Bowie, even at age 20, was capable of making something so utterly terrible as this. I don’t remember the last time I listened to it through, but I did so again in order to write this post and… it was painful. Though the voice is recognizably Bowie’s, the songs are evidence that no, I wouldn’t be happy to hear him read the phone book aloud. Actually, though, that would be a more pleasant experience than sitting through this.
Let’s get this out of the way first— the album is titled, David Bowie. It was a flop. Bowie distanced himself from it so quickly that he also named his second album, two years later, David Bowie. That second album has since been renamed Space Oddity, after its most famous song. David Bowie was not included in the late 80s- early 90s CD reissues of Bowie’s catalogue by Rykodisc, so for those of us who began collecting Bowie CDs (these were the first widely available CDs of Bowie’s back catalogue), David Bowie remained obscure. As it should be.
Bowie himself attempted to breathe life into some of the songs from this album for the next couple of years. Versions of some are included in Bowie’s Love You Til Tuesday video project from 1969. But Bowie abandoned all hope for anything from the album by 1970, never to look back until his 2000 Toy project, which features covers of his earliest works. That album, too, is pretty bad and wasn’t officially released until after Bowie’s death.
Bowie would develop a keen sense of song order on albums beginning with Space Oddity. He shows no such awareness on David Bowie. The song order seems random, and his choice of “Uncle Arthur” to open is especially confusing. I think of “Uncle Arthur” as one of Bowie’s very worst songs. If, by some chance, you disagree, I’d defy you to come up with a plausible explanation as to why Bowie would want to introduce himself to the world with this song. It’s about a loser in his 30s who attempts to leave his mother’s house to get married, only to retreat back to be comforted by comic books and his mother’s cooking.
Similarly, Bowie closes the album with, “Please Mr. Gravedigger,” which is about a child-killer who decides to murder the gravedigger who buried his last victim. The song comes complete with Bowie making sneezing sounds, which actually sound more bizarre than the words on the page look. What was this guy thinking?
Musically, the songs mostly are short stories. The electric guitar is noticeably absent from most of them, but medieval-sounding instruments and oompah-brass instruments are conspicuously present. The melodies are forgettable and the lyrics are distinctly inane.
Is there anything redeemable about David Bowie? I’m going to say, on its own, no, there is not. But as a historical curiosity it has some value in telegraphing some of Bowie’s future themes. In addition to the first and last songs, “Little Bombardier” is about an outcast who has difficulty fitting into society. Such characters would come to populate Bowie songs throughout his career. One difference between these unlovable characters from David Bowie, and say, Sam from, “Scream Like a Baby,” or even Major Tom or the Starman who “would like to come to meet us but thinks he’d blow our minds,” is that Uncle Arthur, the narrator of “Gravedigger” and the “Little Bombardier” are unsympathetic. Bowie would occasionally create similarly pathetic characters, including some on the album, 1. Outside, such as the Poor Soul from “A Small Plot of Land.” But for the most part Bowie would use outcast characters to connect with his audience, which was populated by many fans who themselves felt alienated. Few of them would find common cause though, with the child killer from “Gravedigger.”
Children, the abuse and dashed dreams of theirs are another odd theme of David Bowie. That loser from “Little Bombardier?” I think we’re supposed to pick up the the hint that he’s a pedophile, or at least he’s accused of being a pedophile. “There is a Happy Land” and “When I Live My Dream” are about childhood fantasies (as is, “When I’m Five,” another terrible early Bowie song which, thankfully is not on this album). Adding to the theme, “Come Buy My Toys” is another one that has something to do with childhood. Thankfully, Bowie would soon drop this theme. I’m hard pressed to think of a post-60s song of his about childhood. I don’t know, maybe “Kooks?” Anyway, there aren’t as many in the next 50 years as there is on this one album. (By the way, “When I Live My Dream,” while not even rising to the level of being a good song, is by process of elimination the best one on this album).
The pointlessness of the songs hits a low with, “Sell Me A Coat,” which has a refrain in which the protagonist basically sings about needing a coat because he’s cold. Don’t really see a deeper meaning here.
If you look closely enough, you’ll find other hints at what’s to come. “She’s Got Medals” is about a cross-dresser. “We Are Hungry Men” paints a post-apocalyptic vision, evocative of Hunger City from “Diamond Dogs”. “Silly Boy Blue” fades out to music vaguely similar to part of “All the Young Dudes” Almost every one of these songs rolls out a character, which would become one of Bowie’s signature devices. But while some of Bowie’s future themes make an appearance on David Bowie, none of these songs otherwise sounds like a David Bowie song.
Yep, David Bowie is pretty bad. I won’t be listening to it again for a while. I guess it does have one other value, which is as a reality check. I find much to like in some of the albums many fans like least— Never Let Me Down, Tonight, Tin Machine II— but not this. I guess that shows that my affection for those other albums is genuine. Occasionally you might come across a list that ranks David Bowie above some of those albums. I think the idea there is that Bowie’s later albums came with higher expectations and were, as in the ironically named, Never Let Me Down, a letdown. Since there were no expectations about David Bowie in 1967, it couldn’t have been a disappointment. But I suspect few creators of such lists actually listened to David Bowie in 1967 and just as few actually find pleasure in listening to it today. I’d be shocked if very many people would willingly choose David Bowie over any of his other poorly-rated later albums.
The other thing you might come across is commentary that pretends to find hidden value in this album. These reviews tend to take the songs far too seriously. They should not be taken seriously. They are bad songs written by a 20-year old future genius. Emphasis on “future.”
So that’s what I think of Bowie’s debut album. You might want to find it and make your own judgement. Do what you will, but consider yourself warned.