The Unofficial Bowie: A Conversation Piece

For several years now, Chris O’Leary’s Pushing Ahead of the Dame blog has been one of the Greatest Things On The Internet, with O’Leary guiding readers through the endless twists and turns of David Bowie’s fascinating career, song by song. Last month, Zero Books published Rebel Rebel, the first volume of this gargantuan project, covering 1964-1976, and featuring revised/expanded/improved entries. Needless to say it’s an essential addition to your bookshelf.

As a teaser, we asked O’Leary to round up some of the best and most interesting Bowie oddities yet to be officially released. Here’s what he came up with. . .

The “unreleased” David Bowie is a thin field, comparatively speaking. For one thing, there are no circulating recordings (audio or visual) of Bowie performing in the 1960s, barring a clip of him lip-syncing “Space Oddity” on a German TV show in 1969. The rest of his ‘60s television appearances were wiped or possibly misfiled (there’s a long-standing rumor that various Dutch and German TV appearances exist and will resurface one day). Although he and his bands regularly played venues like the Marquee Club in London, there are no tapes of these performances, at least circulating. And there are only a relative handful of demos, alternate mixes and outtakes from Bowie’s various albums.

Why? Well, part of it’s because Bowie was a commercial nonentity for much of the '60s, so if you were an enterprising bootlegger with a reel of tape, you’d probably record the Stones or the Small Faces or Pink Floyd, not the opening act, “Davy Jones and the Lower Third.” And Bowie’s kept a firm grip on his recordings, especially those cut after 1976. He owns most of his masters and session tapes (allegedly), so there’s been nothing remotely equivalent to the “Unsurpassed Masters” series of Beatles studio outtakes or the ever-expanding Dylan outtake archive.

This situation shows no sign of changing. While in the 1990s, Bowie let Ryko include some outtakes on their CD issues of his back catalog (a list here), he’s shown little interest of late in repackaging his old records with “new” demos and alternate takes.

That said, there are still a lot of things to look for:

The Bowie/Hutchinson tape: Recorded in spring 1969, this demo tape was cut by Bowie and his then-partner John Hutchinson, who were looking for a deal with the likes of Atlantic and Philips/Mercury, the latter of whom signed Bowie as a solo artist. A few songs from the tape have been issued as CD extras–demos of “Space Oddity” and “An Occasional Dream”–but most of the tape’s still unreleased. Notable for “Lover to the Dawn,” the ancestor of Bowie’s “Cygnet Committee,” a wonderfully fragile-sounding demo of “Letter to Hermione” and covers of Lesley Duncan’s “Love Song” and Roger Bunn’s “Life Is a Circus.” Originally issued as the 1980s bootleg The Beckenham Oddity, a heap of subsequent versions exist.

The Complete BBC Sessions: Bowie at the Beeb did a fine job of compiling the most essential of Bowie’s recordings for the BBC, cut between 1967-1972, but a number of songs from these sessions remain unreleased.

Bowie: Songwriter: This is the largest trove of unofficial Bowie out there–the songs he recorded, mainly at his publisher’s office ca. 1967-1972, that his manager and publisher distributed as prospective covers. These range from songs for Bowie’s proposed 1968 album on Deram (which he never recorded) like “April’s Tooth of Gold,” “Silver Treetop School For Boys” and “Social Kind of Girl,” to demos of songs like “Changes”.

There are some wonderful oddities intended for other singers, like the “cabaret” vamp “Miss Peculiar” (rejected by Tom Jones), “Right on Mother” (recorded, with little success, by Peter Noone) and my favorite, “Rupert the Riley,” an ode to Bowie’s vintage cars and sung by Mickey King, a minor figure in the Bowie circle at the time.

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