Review: David Bowie, Spying Through A Keyhole
This new boxset of vinyl singles includes two early versions of Space Oddity to mark the 50th anniversary of Bowie’s debut hit. John Earls sifts through the historical document
As thorough as David Bowie’s reissue campaign is, what it hadn’t explored was unreleased songs. You can own every conceivable alternative edit and a wealth of live recordings, but the songs Bowie didn’t deem good enough at the time? Still not released, even on the ongoing boxsets’ Re:Call series of rarities albums.
Suddenly, that seems to be changing. Kickstarting a year of intriguing reissues around the 50th anniversary of the David Bowie album comes a 7″ boxset of four singles, comprised of demos Bowie made in 1968. You’ll know Space Oddity, while In The Heat Of The Morning is a staple of Deram-era compilations and London Bye, Ta-Ta is on the Sound + Vision compilation. This leaves four other songs, much discussed by bootleggers but never made official. Until now…
Listened to together, these nine recordings are an exciting document of David Bowie becoming, well, David Bowie. The folky hippy of Love You Til Tuesday is still here, most explicitly in the compilation’s weakest song Goodbye 3d Joe, a negligible strum about a travelling showman. Bowie was still trying to work up London Bye, Ta-Ta in 1970, when he made the Sound + Vision version featuring Marc Bolan on guitar. But there’s a reason Bowie shied away from explicitly political songs. The demo here can be filed as “Artist in progress”.
That description certainly applies to Mother Grey, a disconcerting bluesy stomp where Bowie sounds variously like Amen Corner, early Jagger, John Lee Hooker, all three of Crosby, Stills And Nash and most obviously Ray Davies. It’s fascinating, and hints at how naturally chameleonic Bowie always was.
Davies yearnings are also present in Angel, Angel, Grubby Face, a sweet love song presumably inspired by Bowie’s then-girlfriend Hermione Farthingale. Its tale of the pains of having to leave your lover to start the daily commute is both the compilation’s most personal song and the tune which would work best if Bowie had abandoned performing to become a songwriter. A second demo tightens up the lyrics and features plaintive fingerpicked guitar by… no-one is quite sure. Let’s assume it’s Hutch Hutchinson.
Hutch is definitely there in the second Space Oddity demo. The first version here is the earliest known recording. You, too, will be tense as you realise Space Oddity could have emerged as a simple thrash, with the charging riff the most familiar aspect. Some of the lyrics are hilariously gauche. The second demo makes Space Oddity’s dialogue between Ground Control and Major Tom explicit, with Hutch as Ground Control. The Stylophone is in full effect already.
The find of the boxset is Love All Around, where Bowie’s voice is familiar and the whirlwind guitar isn’t too far from glam rock.
As with Bowie’s album boxsets, Spying Through A Keyhole is nicely packaged. The handsome cover, photographed at Tony Visconti’s flat in the summer of 1968, is also included as a print, and there are the usual informative sleevenotes. The 7″s are packaged in plain brown acetate-style sleeves, with song titles in Bowie’s handwriting and “Bowiedisc” replacing the usual “EMIdisc” demo label credit. It’s good, but all secondary to the main event: previously unreleased Bowie songs. Where it leads should be monumental.