Life Before Ziggy – Remembering David Bowie’s Early Years

From R&B journeyman to Anthony Newley devotee to gnome handler; deserted spaceman and psychedelic trader of planets, it was a long road to stardom for the young David Bowie. Originally printed in our 2013 NME Originals special, Mark Beaumont here traces Bowie’s route to Zigdom through the prism of the NME archive…

Initially, Ziggy played plastic saxophone. An artificial alto sax he had convinced his parents to buy him on a hire purchase plan at the age of 14, convinced that when he grew up he was going to play in the backing band for Charles Mingus or John Coltrane. For much of his mid-teens, the man who would be Ziggy Stardust dreamed only of a Spiders From Jazz.

Ziggy was simply David Robert Jones back then, of course. A Brixton-born art, music and design student just beginning to try out all the people he could be. An Elvis, Fats Domino and Little Richard fan who “saw God” the first time he heard ‘Tutti Frutti’. And, according to his teachers and schoolfriends , a “mesmerising”, “vividly artistic” and “astonishing” dancer. He was also renowned around Bromley Technical High School as being somewhat ‘handy’ in a fight, a reputation that earned him a four-month hospital visit and a permanently dilated left pupil after a scrap with his schoolmate (and, once they patched thing up, future artwork designer) George Underwood over a girl.


He’d wound his way to the saxophone via initial instrumental dabblings with recorder, ukulele, piano and tea-chest bass, and had thrown himself into Bromley’s thriving skiffle jam scene as only someone who had no idea he’d one day turn into an extra-terrestrial art wizard could. But the saxophone, a real one by 1962, inspired in Jones a sense of spotlight-stealing showmanship and, golden blow-stick in hand, he set out to be a rock’n’roll star.

His first band – a rock’n’roll wedding band called The Konrads – suffered the same fate as The Beatles, short-sightedly turned down by Decca Records. But his next, The King Bees, managed to garner the singer a management contract and his debut single, ‘Liza Jane’ in 1964 under the name Davie Jones And The Kings Bees. “Shouting-type R&B ‘Louie Go Home’ and forceful shaker ‘Liza Jane’ by Davie Jones And The King Bees lack melody”, wrote NME’s Derek Johnson in Bowie’s first ever press mention, tucked away in the Quick Spin sidebar of NME’s weekly single reviews page, “but compensate with a terrific beat”.

For an ambitious young starbuck like Jones, a praise-worthy beat, no matter how terrific, would not be enough. Within a month, craving something more theatrical than their Willie Dixon and Howlin’ Wolf blues covers, he ditched The King Bees and sidled into The Manish Boys, who boasted more of a soul and folk vibe. “I used to dream of being Mick Jagger”, he later said, but instead turned out to be their Jing Jang Jong, buggering off after one unsuccessful single, ‘I Pity The Fool’, and thereby scuppering plans for the follow-up single, presumably to be called, ‘I Ain’t Getting On No Plane’. Now renamed Bowie after Jim Bowie – the Wild West inventor of the Bowie knife who died at the Alamo – to avoid confusion with Oliver! Broadway star and soon-to-be-Monkee Davy Jones, David ended up with Who-esque blues trio The Lower Third who gained him his second NME write-up. “David Bowie wrote the stormer ‘Can’t Help Thinking About Me’ (Pye) which he sings with his group The Lower Third,” scribed that scathing old gag-monkey Derek Johnson in January 1966, “absorbing melody, weakish tune…” Christ Johnson, did you not read the ‘Build Them Up Then Knock Them Down’ clause of your contract or something?

Several crucial feet away at the Melody Maker, meanwhile, Bowie was being taken rather more seriously. “Without doubt David Bowie has talent,” went one of Bowie’s earliest music press interviews in February 1966, discussing his work writing a musical score with Tony Hatch (composer of Petula Clarke’s ‘Downtown’ and the Crossroads theme) designing clothes for a Carnaby Street label and building towards a screen career.

“I want to act,” Bowie said. “I’d like to do character parts. I think it takes a lot to become somebody else… it takes some doing.” Yeah? Try being a Goblin king ruling over an underworld full of trumped-up sock puppets, mate. Although, with the interviewer noting that Bowie was a keen astrologer and into reincarnation, the more fantastical side of his psyche, was already emerging. “As far as I’m concerned, the whole idea of Western life – that’s the life we live now – is wrong,” he fretted. “I want to go to Tibet. It’s a fascinating place, y’know. I’d like to take a holiday and look inside the monasteries. The Tibetan monks, Lamas, bury themselves inside mountains for weeks and only eat every three days. They’re ridiculous, and it’s said they live for centuries.” Hmmm, eternal, superhuman, living in caverns… Nurse! The Muppets!


There was social realism afoot too. With The Lower Third’s second single, ‘Can’t Help Thinking About Me’ banned by several teen programmes for its depiction of teenage runaways, Bowie hinted at a follow-up tune called ‘Now You’ve Met The London Boys’ in which a young Bowie pictured himself as a Soho ace face. “[It] mentions pills and generally belittles the London nightlife scene”, Bowie explained. It would be The Lower Third that would be belittled next though, as Bowie scarpered under the pretence of leaving pop to become a mime artist and joined The Buzz, with whom he’d develop a camp, prosaic English aura, mimic the plummy, theatrical music hall-isms of Anthony Newley but with a psychedelic bent. It was camp. It was comic. It was also decidedly gnome-friendly.

By 1966, Derek Johnson had clearly had a strip ripped off and told to “get with the Bowie swing or hand in your gramophone crank, daddio”. “A Latin flavour and organ backing lend flavour to David Bowie’s ‘I Dig Everything’,” he wrote, “another disc that’s perfect for dancing.” But then, come April 1967, came the greatest critical challenge of Johnson’s career when he was faced with Bowie’s fourth solo single and credibility nadir, ‘The Laughing Gnome’. It featured Bowie swapping dreadful gnome-based puns with a sped-up, belching version of himself in the guise of the titular jovial munchkin – “I ought to report you to the Gnome Office” uttered, y’know, David Bowie. It told the disturbing, Lynchian tale of Bowie meeting “a little old man” in the street, taking him home for toadstools and trying to pack him off to Eastbourne only to wake up the next day to find the pesky little twat’s broken into his house with his brother Fred (a “metrognome”, for fuck’s sake) to sing Bowie a crap song and then live up his chimney writing comedy radio programmes. Surely Johnson would give this egregious piece of novelty Blobbywank what for. “A novelty number chock-full of appeal. This boy sounds remarkably like Tony Newley and he wrote this song himself. An amusing lyric with David Bowie interchanging lines with a chipmunk-like creature.” Clear your desk, Johnson, and go gnome.

Thankfully for the future of rock, ‘The Laughing Gnome’ flopped, saving Bowie from a career as the new Keith Harris. Yet Melody Maker was equally kind to Bowie’s eponymous debut album, released that June. “Sounding like a young, good-looking Anthony Newley with the writing ability of Cat Stevens, and better, it’s surprising the talented Mr Bowie hasn’t made a bigger impact on the pop scene,” they wrote. Looking back with impeccable 20/20 hindsight, we can be immensely relieved it didn’t. Peppered with vignettes about slain dragons and Dickensian toy-sellers, bandstands and bombardiers, ‘David Bowie’ was built on vaudevillian ankle-clicks, music hall cheese and wink-eyed Mary Poppins orchestral whimsy that could’ve soundtracked 1962 sitcoms about Alfie-type playboy window cleaners. It was an anachronism the instant it was released; ‘Sgt Pepper’s…’ came out the same day. In gauging the hue and direction of the times times, Bowie erroneously took his cues from ‘Yellow Submarine’ and ‘Eleanor Rigby’ rather than ‘Tomorrow Never Knows’ and ‘God Only Knows’ and created a retrospective pastiche of Britishness and its post-war picture postcard culture. It was a style that Wings and ‘Modern Life Is Rubbish’- era Blur would return to their advantage, but 1967 was the same year Half A Sixpence came out, so its kitsch cultural currency was zilch.

Yes, mercifully gnome-less (ay-ay, you cheeky little, etc), there’s a naive charm and surprising depth to ‘David Bowie’ today. It’s the sound of a determined 19-yeard-old artistic talent trying to find a niche in the opening hours of the psychedelic era, with only the vaguest of ideas of where the ‘60s might go next. And for all its whimsy, there’s real flesh, tragedy, frailty and weirdness to the characters he created – despots, adulterers, dope fiends and wannabe film stars. So while the folky vaudeville anti-hero ‘Uncle Arthur’ shut up his shop and cycled past gas-works as if trying to find his way off the set of Billy Liar, he was biking into a tangled relationship drama worthy of ‘Tracy Jacks’ – bringing his mistress home to meet his wife before absconding for a regretful fling and shame-faced return. The West End oompah tension of ‘Rubber Band’ was a portrait of a WWI vet who lost his girl while at war to the leader of the shonky brass band he watches every week in the park. When he painted an idyllic childhood world of Tiny Tims, Sissy Stevens and Charlie Browns buying kites and climbing trees on ‘There Is A Happy Land’, it was only to reflect mournfully on the fact that his own childhood has faded: “You’ve had your chance and now the doors are closed sir, Mr Grownup, go away sir”. Big issues were tackled: on ‘Silly Boy Blue’ he addressed a Tibetan child on the subjects of spirituality and reincarnation and between ‘Join The Gang’ and ‘She’s Got Medals’ he explored the generational dichotomy of the flower power age; in the former London is full of existential sitar players, acid models and whiskey-soaked drop-out singers roaming the free-love dope scene, in the latter it’s inhabited by post-war deserters full of bomb-shards and regret. ‘David Bowie’ certainly wasn’t all Hansel And Gretel meets Tommy Steele.

Indeed, there was real darkness. ‘We Are Hungry Men’ found Bowie taking on the persona of a messianic, futuristic fascist dictator declaring plans to control population growth and shrinking resources via enforced infertility, oxygen rationing, legalizing infanticide and cannibalism. The ‘Little Bombardier’ was a friendless alcoholic ex-soldier suspected of paedophilia. ‘Please Mr Gravedigger’, swathed in church bells and thunder and the sounds of spade on cemetery mud, was the murder ballad of an unsuspecting burial technician at the hands of a lurking psychopath.

And if Bowie’s knack for warped characterisation was already taking shape, so too was his charismatic allure. The video for the pastoral kiddie tune ‘Sell Me A Coat’ included one bit where Bowie gestured to the camera while cooing with sinister seduction about Jack Frost, a moment that wasn’t a million miles from his famous Top Of The Pops ‘Starman’ finger-wiggle.

‘David Bowie’, like all of Bowie’s records to date, failed to chart, and in its wake he looked to other means of artistic expression, and hard cash. He studied avant garde theatre, commedia dell’arte and mime with dancer Lindsay Kemp, with whom he worked alongside Marc Bolan, and followed his acting dream as far as a BBC play The Pistol Shot, an avant garde short The Image and adverts for Kit Kats and Lyons Maid ice cream, the last directed by Ridley Scott, Thought he didn’t release any music for two years, his manager tried to revive his singing career with a 1969 half-hour film called ‘Love You Till Tuesday’, a video compilation of songs from ‘David Bowie’.

But Bowie, inspired by a trip to see Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey and Simon & Garfunkel’s ‘Bookends’, turned up with a new song to add. A song about an astronaut.

The crew of Apollo II must have been hoping it wasn’t a premonition. The week they made the first ever moon landing in 1969 a spookily relevant single was released, a space disaster psych-folk ditty called ‘Space Oddity’, the story of an ill-fated space-walk and its hero Major Tom, stuck floating peculiarly around the planet when technology fails him. Reports say that ‘Space Oddity’ was the prime reason that NASA called off the mission and staged the whole thing in a Burbank film studio instead were unconfirmed as we went to press.

A song Bowie had been playing around the folk clubs given symphonic oomph by producer Gus Dudgeon and touches of cosmic buzz by Bowie on a stylophone given to him by Marc Bolan, the sci-fi disaster tune (and possible heroin metaphor) ‘Space Oddity’ was deemed too sensitive for radio play at the time of the landings, but hit Number Five a few months later. Finally, Bowie had a hit on his hands, and the press poured in. “It looked like a monster hit, and it was.” Bowie sounded truly delighted: “I really am amazed at the success of the record, even though I had confidence in it. I’ve been the male equivalent of the dumb blonde for a few years and I was beginning to despair of people accepting me for my music. It may be fine for a male model to be told he’s a great-looking guy, but that doesn’t help a singer very much, especially now the pretty-boy personality cult seems to be on its way out.”

His music, however, should be considered skin-deep. “I dearly want to be recognised as a writer, but I would ask [people] not to go too deeply into my songs. As likely as not, there’s nothing there but the words and music you hear at one listening.” His concern? Probably that if people were to scratch the surface they’d discover the supernatural rock alien beneath: “At the moment,” he said, “I’m more concerned with remaining a 22-year-old, or even going back a year to 21.”

Over in the Melody Maker, Bowie claimed: “I still don’t consider myself a performer. I’m a writer… I really wouldn’t like to make a singing a full-time occupation… I haven’t really wanted to make any records for ages, but people have been on at me to make records again, so I went to the studios. I’ve been doing mime for a year and a half – this is my comeback! I got more interested in theatre and mime. The first album I did in 15 minutes and 5s and 6d. You could say it was rushed.”
He enthused about the creation of Beckenham Arts Lab, a collective that had grown out of a successful Sunday night pub folk club he’d launched with a handful of like-minded poets and artists which had grown enough to include sculptures, light shows and a free festival in a local park. “I think it’s the best in the country. There isn’t one pseudo involved. All the people are real – like labourers and bank clerks… we’ve got a few greasers that come and a few skinheads who are just as enthusiastic. I think a lot of skinheads are better than hippies – the hippy cult is so obviously middle-class and snobbish. The hippies don’t know about people… they don’t know what it’s like to see three heavies go after their sister, and all the other things that happen in the skinheads’ environment.”

And the future? Warning: understatement of the century approaching. “I’m not sure I’ve even got a suitable song for another single. But it’s a bit early in life for all of my ideas to have dried up isn’t it, so I suppose I’ll come up with something.”

What Bowie came up with was his second ‘David Bowie’ album, released that November and renamed ‘Space Oddity’ in 1972. It wouldn’t live up to expectations chart-wise since the rest of the album didn’t live up to the focus and fun of the lead single – it was largely a folk/prog rock mish-mash of bleak cartoon character studies a la ‘David Bowie’ and meandering Woodstock rhetoric. But as the first album on which he embraced his future as a rock’n’roll singer, it’s nonetheless a fascinating exercise in spotting the hints of future Bowies bobbing to the surface, buoyed by Tony Visconti’s production. The glam swing of ‘Starman’ emerging from the ore of ‘Not Fade Away’ on the Dylan-esque country blues ‘Unwashed And Somewhat Slightly Dazed’, for example, or the proto-Ziggy cult leader who narrates the sprawling nine-minute folk sermon ‘Cygnet Committee’, which Bowie would claim was a satire on late – ‘60s counterculture spiritual leaders and the goons that blindly followed them.

It also marked a brief cameo in his early canon of the Real David Bowie. After the theatrical sketches of ‘David Bowie’ and before his disappearance behind the first of copious ‘70s masks on ‘The Man Who Sold The World’, ‘Space Oddity’ was a rare exercise in personal exposure. Between the narrative stories – ‘God Knows I’m Good’ tells of a desperate, guilty shoplifter and the Buddhism-tinged ‘Wild Eyed Boy From Freecloud’ is an operatic Coleridgean ballad about a man awaiting his hanging only to be saved by, um, a vengeful mountain – there were two love songs to his actress ex-girlfriend Hermione Farthingale, ‘Letter To Hermione’ and the flute-swathed ‘An Occasional Dream’, a virtual tribute to ‘Norwegian Wood’. And the Hair-esque chant-along closing ‘Memory Of A Free Festival’ concerned the Beckenham Arts Lab festival, Bowie recalling hippyishly “We scanned the skies with rainbow eyes and saw machines of every shape and size/We talked with tall Venusians… someone passed some bliss among the crowd… I kissed a lot of people that day”. It was a happy-clappy ‘Hey Jude’ of an ending to an album that was an enjoyable slice of psychedelic folk hokum, and NME was swept away. “The soft-voiced folk singer-actor David Bowie adds to his recent ‘Space Oddity’ another eight unusual Bowie compositions,” wrote Allen Evans, “from ‘Cygnet Committee’, a long dissertation which pleads “we want to live” to ‘Memory Of A Free Festival’ with its powerful chanted ending “The sun machine is coming down and we’re gonna have a party”. A bit Dylan-ish is Britain’s David Bowie and his voice, a little more tuneful than Bob’s, has a haunting appeal.” Yet the album failed to chart until its 1972 re-release, leaving 1969 Bowie adrift and confused once more. Swept up in his whirlwind marriage to Angie, obsessed by a rivalry with his session guitarist Marc Bolan and stunned by the death of his father Haywood, at the dawn of the ‘70s he felt the need to lose himself. First in his new band The Hype (“now no-one can say they’re being conned,” he told NME in 1970) with Visconti and a guitarist called Mick Ronson, playing gigs dressed as superheroes. And then as the first gender-bending pop icon, the man who pole-axed the world…

“KISS MY ASS!” yelled the passing pedestrian, pulling a gun from his belt and waving it at the Satan-felching cocksucker hippy daring to offend his precious God-fearing eyes with the foul and depraved sight of – Lord a-mercy! – a man in a dress.

This was the most extreme reaction David Bowie got when he hit the road in America in a flowing velvet frock, prompting pointing, laughter and, in the case of Rolling Stone writer John Mendelsohn, a faint pant-twitch – “ravishing, almost disconcertingly reminiscent of Lauren Bacall”.
“It’s a pretty dress,” he told NME’s Chris Welch in April 1971. “I had to go to Texas so I thought I’d test the reaction. One guy pulled out a gun and called me a fag. But I thought the dress was beautiful.” He was clearly revelling in the subversion of the act, giggling at the knowledge that he’d written a song for Herman’s Hermits called ‘Oh! You Pretty Things’ which was “all about the Homo Superior”.

Bowie wore a similar man-frock on the cover of his third album, 1970’s ‘The Man Who Sold The World’, his first foray into identity-morphing. This music within, however, was far less frivolous than was suggested by the sleeve shot of a curly-haired Bowie lounging on a blue velvet chaise lounge in a patterned pink dress surrounded by scattered cards – a bit like Louis XIV waking up to find he’d lost his penis in a poker game. Taking on a harsh metallic hue akin to Led Zeppelin and Black Sabbath, Bowie flung all manner of real and imaginary demons at the wall, rapt with the philosophies of Crowley, Nietzsche and Kafka. Nightmarish, hallucinatory opener ‘The Width Of A Circle’ had him coming across a lounging monster with his own face before riding a screaming Ronson funk-metal riff into Hades to fuck a demon.

‘After All’ is all evil children’s choirs and haunted cemetery spookiness. The twisted rock pastoral ‘All The Madmen’, complete with voices-in-head interlude, was an insight into the mind of Bowie’s schizophrenic half-brother Terry during his time in Cane Hill mental asylum, Surrey, depicted on the original US cartoon album cover: “Day after day, they take some brain away… here I stand, foot in hand, talking to my wall/ I’m not quite right at all… give me some good lobotomy”.

‘Running Gun Blues’ was the maniacal squeals and squeaks of a deranged Vietnam vet on a homeland murder spree, ‘Saviour Machine’ a parable narrated by a machine invented to end war and famine but which came to hate the humankind it was built to save and begged to be destroyed before it did something a touch extinction-y.

But amongst all of this devilry and desolation, climaxing with portentous tales of pre-history world rulers ‘The Man Who Sold The World’ and ‘The Supermen’, Bowie and Ronson were blowing on the spark of glam rock. It’s there in the glittery hand-claps of ‘All The Madmen’, the T Rex chug of ‘Black Country Rock’ and ‘Running Gun Blues’, the infectious riffs and space-age jangle of the intoxicating title track. ‘Saviour Machine’ even hinted at a very early kraut-synth influence. The bedrock of Bowie’s brilliance was firmly laid, the expansive glam theatricality on which the world would soon be sold.

He already had most of his fourth album in the bag, but on the tour for ‘The Man…’ Bowie started sketching out ideas for anew character he had in his head. Part Iggy Pop, part Lou Reed, a rock star who “looks like he’s landed from Mars”.

No more ‘David Bowie’s. It was time for all the David Bowies.

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