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The most influential record of the 60's?
on 25 January 2010
When Ziggy Stardust rode high in the charts, Bowie's old record company, Decca, reminded everyone that Bowie had been with them first and started the first of countless reissues of this album and its associated outtakes. The Laughing Gnome even made it to number 6 in the charts when rereleased in 1973, to Bowie's embarrassment, and this decidely uncool material became Bowie's equivalent of naked baby pictures being shown to countless prospective girlfriends. As a consequence of Bowie's subsequent fame, Decca continued to either dupe or delight (depending on your opinion) the more curious fan with these songs of Edwardian whimsy and nursery rhyme simplicity. There cannot be any Bowie fan alive who has not heard at least some of this material and as a result it is arguable that these songs have made their way into as many budding popstar's formative playlists as the Velvet Underground's Banana Album. However, there is a strong case for looking a little more carefully at this material: how could the man who changed British music forever make this cringe-inducing nonsense? And why were these albums not thrown away on a first hearing but cherished as a guilty pleasure by all who bought them?
For a start, the production values of this album are actually very high with most songs benefitting from orchestral arrangements. There are more than a few beautiful melodies and hooks that get inside your head. Also, what Bowie was doing in 1967 was not a million miles from the cutting edge. It was released on the same day as Sergeant Pepper which was another album of Edwardian foppishness which was a significant trend of mid-60's London. There are also, perversely, many dark themes which Bowie would exlore more lucratively in future years: the dystopian futures of Diamond Dogs and the Man Who Sold the World are evident in We Are Hungry Men; essays on isolation and loneliness are found in The London Boys and the Gospel According to Tony Day; Lesbianism and Child Murder are incredibly the subject matter of She's Got Medals and Please Mr Gravedigger (which would have sat comfortably on Nick Cave's Murder Ballads album). Even the Laughing Gnome has gay references. Most of all though, what is remarkable about this album is that Bowie is hardly celebrating swinging London but instead offering on numerous tracks a powerful critique of the shallowness of friendships, the superficiality of the various 'scenes' and the hollow comfort of drugs. All of this is in stark contrast to the jolly melodies which accompany the subversive lyrics.
There is a sense in which Bowie is being pulled in a variety of inconsistent directions though. There are straight love ballads (When I Live my Dream), comedy songs (Rubber Band), hippy/folk numbers (Come and Buy My Toys, Karma Man) and genuinely serious efforts at rock/pop singles (In the Heat of the Morning, Let Me Sleep Beside You). What nobody knew was that in time he would work his way through all of these genres to much greater acclaim than he received in 1967. Moreover, he would even go so far as to revisit many of these songs towards the end of his career and finally embrace them as a legitimate part of his mature body of work. Sadly the 'Toy' album which was planned to perform this function in 2001 was aborted but this is of little consequence when the best recordings of this material was already in the can in 1967.