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Week 42 | Oh! You Pretty Things: The Songs of David Bowie (2006)

This is a compilation of covers that only a true fan can love.  Or even like.  Or maybe even make it past the 6th song.  Most albums featuring other artists covering Bowie songs include those artists singing Bowie’s greatest hits.  Not so much this one.  For the most part, this collection features (mostly obscure) songs Bowie either wrote for other artists but didn’t record himself, or recordings by other artists of obscure, early Bowie songs.  The extensive liner notes tell the story of each song, which suggest that someone involved with this project worked on it with love, but the end result is tough to slog through.

The album opens with a fusillade of bad pre-Space Oddity songs.  The first two are among the very worst things Bowie has ever been associated with— two (supposedly humorous) novelty songs— “Over the Wall We Go,” about a prison break, and the infamous “Laughing Gnome.”  Bowie’s version of these songs are bad enough, but at least we get Bowie’s voice singing them (although he does sing backup on some of these songs).  The opening experience of this album is two unknown artists (Oscar on the first and Ronnie Hilton on the second) singing Bowie’s worst songs.  What follows isn’t much better— the Beatsalkers (who?) singing “Silver Tree Top School for Boys,” which I don’t think Bowie ever recorded himself, the marginally better “Everything is You,” then “When I’m Five” (why would Bowie write a song about a four-year old aspiring to be five?) as well as Billy Fury (who?) singing “Silly Boy Blue.”  

There’s a reason these songs open the album— the album is arrange in chronological order by when the songs were recorded.  Amazingly, all of these cover songs were recorded before 1970.  This is not a case of aspiring artists trying to capitalize on a star’s back catalogue.  Bowie was not yet a star.  The other aspiring artists saw merit in Bowie’s songs at the time.  According to the liner notes, Bowie’s manager at the time, Kenneth Pitt, solicited cover versions of Bowie songs in an attempt to showcase Bowie’s talents as a songwriter.  Yet the results sound (to me) like juvenile attempts at trying to imitate the other Davy Jones, which is to say the Monkeys.  The attempts at humor, especially on the first two songs, fall painfully flat.  “Gnome” holds such a distinctly low place in Bowie-lore that fans attempted to stuff the ballot boxes with the song when Bowie announced his playlist for the 1990 Sound and Vision tour would be determined by fan voting (the campaign was called, “Just Say Gnome”) to make some kind of point (Bowie didn’t add it to the playlist).  

Survivors of the first six songs get something of a payoff with the seventh— Peter Noone’s version of “Oh You Pretty Thing” (yes, his version uses the singular “Thing”).  Peter Noone had been the lead singer of Herman’s Hermits, and his version of this song was a genuine if minor hit.  And its not bad.  It sounds even better in contrast to the earlier songs on the album.  This version was released prior to “Hunky Dory,”  the Bowie album on which Bowie’s version  of the song appears.  Bowie’s version is edgier and really so much better that Noone’s version is pretty much forgotten, but it isn’t bad and counts as one of the rewards of the album.

There are other covers of songs Bowie (also) made famous, most notably Mott the Hoople’s version of “All the Young Dudes,” Dana Gillepsie’s cover of “Andy Warhol,” (also included is Gillepsie’s Bowie-penned song, “Backed a Loser”) , Simon Turner’s “The Prettiest Star,” Lulu’s covers of “The Man Who Sold the World” and “Watch that Man,” Donovan’s “Rock and Roll with Me” and John Cougar Mellancamp’s “The Man Who Sold the World.”  All of these songs are more typical for a cover album.  And I’m guessing the reason Bowie also recorded these songs as opposed to most of the others on this album is because they are good and the others aren’t so much.  

There are a few exceptions.  The album includes three selections from Mick Ronson’s solo album, “Slaughter on 10th Avenue,” including “Music is Lethal,” “Hey Ma Get Pa,” and “Growing Up and I’m Fine.”  Bowie wrote these songs at the tail end of his glam period, for use by Ronson, his fellow Spider from Mars.  They sound like Bowie songs from the period.  Neither the songs nor the performance of them are bad.  “Growing Up and I’m Fine” is probably the song Bowie wrote but never recorded that I most wish he had.  Similarly, Lou Reed’s “Wagon Wheel” from the Bowie-produced album, “Transformer,” makes an appearance (there are persistent but unconfirmed rumors that Bowie wrote or co-wrote this song, which is listed on the album as being by Bowie).  Another decent song, though it sounds less Bowie-like than the three Robson songs.

On the other end of the spectrum are two songs from Ava Cherry’s “People from Bad Homes,” including the title song as well as “I am A Laser.”  To begin with, Ava Cherry is not a very good singer.  Sadly, we get to hear her four times on this album (the other two being “I Am Divine” and “Things to Do,” by the Astronettes, the band for which she was lead singer).    Three of these songs seem less like Bowie cast-offs than early drafts.  “I Am Divine” is an early version of Bowie’s “Somebody Up there Likes Me.” “People from Bad Homes” is a phrase Bowie would later incorporate into one of my favorite songs, “Fashion.”  “I am a Laser” uses the music that would later reappear with different lyrics as “Scream Like a Baby.”  But in this case the lyrics are so bad as to make me think Bowie wrote the music and needed to fill in temporary words until he worked it out, much as Paul McCartney used “scrambled eggs” as a placeholder between the time he wrote the music and figured out the lyrics for “Yesterday” (sing it to yourself— it works, “Scrambled eggs, all my troubles seemed so far away…”) 

The lyrics for “I Am A Laser” are so bad as to be worth looking up.  I thought about reproducing them here, but they are easy enough to find.  Here’s a sample: “I’m going to turn my beam on; if only for an hour; you know I switch the heat on; when you feel my golden shower.”

There’s not much to say after that.

I hadn’t listened to this album for years, but put it on again in anticipation of writing this commentary.  Back on the shelf it will go.  As a collection it works more as a musical encyclopedia — although even here it falls short— the chronology ends in 1974 but could have continued for many more years.  The absence of any Iggy Pop Bowie cover is conspicuous.  I could imagine pulling a few songs from this album for my IPod playlist, but it falls short as a unified work

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