David Bowie’s Space Oddity saga finally gets its unabridged homage in gorgeous new box set
When David Bowie had his first hit with “Space Oddity” is 1969, it had been a long time coming. He’d been releasing records since 1964, with nary a whiff of chart action.
Finally getting his first Top 10 single in the UK, along with an accompanying Top 30 album, helped to turn the tide in his favor. Major success was still a few years away (not solidified until 1972 with the release of The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars), but from this point on, there was no looking back.
Conversation Piece digs into this era in greater depth than ever before. Three CDs chart the build up to “Space Oddity” and the David Bowie album via home demos and radio sessions. The remaining two CDs feature the album in its 1969 stereo mix and a new 2019 mix (confusingly, Bowie’s 1967 debut album was also entitled David Bowie; the 1969 David Bowie album was later renamed Space Oddity after its hit single, though the US release stuck it with the more unwieldy title Man of Words/Man of Music).
Some of this material was already previously released in 2019. Nine of the home demos appeared on the Spying Through a Keyhole box, which presented the songs on four 7-inch records; The ‘Mercury’ Demos was an album’s worth of demos recorded for consideration by that record label. Pity the ardent Bowie fans who snapped up those releases when they were first issued, and now have to wrestle with whether or not to buy another box with the same material. Some might accuse the label of cynically double dipping the consumer.
But Conversation Piece does at least provide some previously unreleased material as well, beginning with the first three numbers in the set, demos likely recorded in early 1968 (the exact date unable to be pinned down): “April’s Tooth of Gold,” “The Reverend Raymond Brown (Attends the Garden Fete on Thatchwick Green),” and “When I’m Five.” Even the song titles reveal the influence of the Kinks and Syd Barrett on Bowie’s early work, and the music is just as whimsical as they suggest. This is Bowie wearing his influences on his sleeve, still seeking out a musical direction that will bear his own unique stamp.
Of course, “Space Oddity” would be that song, and this set gives you nine different versions of it. The most interesting are the four on the first disc, which reveal the song in the different stages of coming together. There’s an incomplete solo home demo that has Bowie sounding particularly plaintive. Three further demos cast the number as a duet, with John “Hutch” Hutchinson, Bowie’s band mate in his short-lived group Feathers. The lyrics aren’t finalized yet, but it’s the “duet” element that really makes the song different, giving it a more upbeat, folk-pop feeling, far from the final version’s more ethereal tone.
“This is a very bad tape recorder and microphone, but we’re going to do what we can with the material that we do now,” Bowie says apologetically at the beginning of The ‘Mercury’ Demos, hopefully adding that some of the numbers have “been considered as single material.” Hence, it’s understandable that “Space Oddity” would be placed up front. More intriguingly, the last song from the session is “Life is a Circus,” a Feathers number with fine harmonies that was never professionally recorded in any of Bowie’s future incarnations. There are early, stripped-down versions of songs later recorded for David Bowie (“Janine” and “I’m Not Quite,” which metamorphosed into “Letter to Hermione”), and a cover of Lesley Duncan’s “Love Song,” that Elton John was destined to have more success with. Had things turned out differently, Bowie and Hutch could’ve easily become another Simon and Garfunkel.
VIDEO: David Bowie “Space Oddity” (2019 Mix)
A radio session from May 1968, with Bowie backed by the Tony Visconti Orchestra, is bright and breezy. But in a subsequent session from October 1969, right before the release of David Bowie, he sounds invigorated and determined, finally staking his claim as a rock musician, a song like “Let Me Sleep Beside You” decidedly raw in comparison to such earlier foppery as “London Bye, Ta-Ta.”
The 2019 remix of David Bowie was done by the album’s original producer, Tony Visconti (though interestingly, Visconti had chosen not to produce “Space Oddity” back in 1969; he hadn’t liked the song, so Gus Dudgeon was brought in to produce it). In the set’s liner notes, he writes that he was glad to have another crack at mixing the album, finally able to have the time to unearth what he calls the “hidden gems of musicianship … a guitar twiddle here, a trombone blast there, Marc Bolan’s voice in a group choir, more detail in the big orchestral song ‘Wild Eye Boy From Freecloud.’” He’s given the record a strikingly different sound, much more robust, with all kinds of instruments and sounds being brought forward in the mix. There’s a much better balance too, in stark contrast to the original mix, which used the old-school stereo mode of vocals on the right channel, drums on the left. And “Conversation Piece,” cut from the original album for being yet another long number, has been restored to what Visconti says is its rightful place. Those for whom the original album is sacrosanct may find the new mix too “busy.” But the new mix (which is also available separately) takes what was always something of a lightweight recording and given it a welcome measure of heft.
The CDs are packaged in a beautiful white book — the white slipcase adds to the feeling that this is as much a piece of art as a box set — that’s as essential a part of this release as the music. There’s insightful commentary on the songs and a wealth of rare photos and reproductions of contemporaneous articles (though a better copy edit would’ve caught the errors; “it’s” instead of “its,” and an amusing reference to an “illusive hit” instead of “elusive”). Conversation Piece depicts David Bowie as he was finally finding his musical footing, ready for all the ch-ch-ch-changes that lay ahead.
VIDEO: David Bowie Conversation Piece unboxing video