Review: David Bowie, Clareville Grove Demos/The ‘Mercury’ Demos
1969 was a pivotal year in David Bowie’s development as an artist, as these the new Clareville Grove and The ‘Mercury’ Demos boxsets illustrate…
After the 4×7″ boxset Spying Through A Keyhole in April finally offered up official releases for unreleased David Bowie songs, these two new releases are further evidence of the extent of Bowie’s prolific workrate in 1969.
As well as being the year Space Oddity gave Bowie his first hit, 1969 also saw him realise the type of singer he should be. Having avidly sought fame before he was properly ready, once the mists had cleared Bowie was dashing off songs every 10 minutes.
The ‘Mercury’ Demos, recorded at Bowie’s flat in spring 1969, have long circulated on bootlegs. Far more obscure are the Clareville Grove Demos. Recorded at home in one take, these were made in January, a few months before the Mercury recordings. Five of the six songs would later be re-recorded on The ‘Mercury’ Demos, with Let Me Sleep Beside You the exception.
Later re-recorded as one of the vintage songs Bowie revisited on the unreleased Toy, Let Me Sleep Beside You finally emerged on the Nothing Has Changed compilation in 2014. The set was made with guitarist Hutch Hutchinson shortly after the break-up of their trio Feathers, which was completed by Bowie’s girlfriend Hermione Farthingale.
The Clareville Grove Demos recordings circulated to Mercury Records A&R Calvin Mark Lee, resulting in The ‘Mercury’ Demos. The 10 songs, including a primitive Letter To Hermione and Space Oddity, are interspersed with Bowie and Hutch directly addressing Lee and his boss Bob Reno. “We occasionally get this one right,” admits Hutch before a spirited An Occasional Dream, while Bowie apologises for the piano noise drifting in from music teacher Mrs Fahrenheit’s flat upstairs. Before Lover To The Dawn (retitled Cygnet Committee), which opens side two, Bowie greets Reno with a cheeky “Hello, it’s us again!”
Bowie and Hutch discuss what else they should play, as Side Two of The ‘Mercury’ Demos begins to flag: there are sweet but inessential folky covers of Lesley Duncan’s Love Song (also covered by Elton John) and Djinn’s Life Is A Circus, with the twee When I’m Five the weakest original song of all Bowie’s 1969 recordings. However, Side One is excellent. Written about a friend of sleeve designer George Underwood, the spiky Janine has teeth and is a foretelling of glam. The hectic Conversation Piece is similarly pugilistic.
Clareville Grove follows Spying Through A Keyhole’s neat packaging, its three 7″s housed in plain brown sleeves with grey acetate-style “BowieDisc” labels. There are also Mark Adams’ concise notes in a gatefold sleeve and a mini photo-print. The ‘Mercury’ Demos LP is also boxed, with two photo contact sheets joining the print and Adams’ sleevenotes.
Rounding off the 1969-related Bowie vinyl, these two sets showcase how important Hutch was to Bowie, and it’s excellent his name is now to the fore for collectors. It all adds up to a fascinating insight into one of the most pivotal years of Bowie’s entire career.