It’s little wonder that David Bowie’s first band The Konrads never got discovered, since it appears that their method of self-promotion was to record a demo for Decca, get rejected and then chuck it into a breadbin for 56 years. The demo of ‘I Never Dreamed’ – a frenzied beat-era song Bowie recorded with The Konrads at the age of 16, his first studio recording – might be set to fetch a fairly whopping £10,000 at auction but it holds few clues to the shape-shifting nature of Bowie’s earliest years. Even for rock’s most celebrated chameleon, he changed direction at an alarming rate pre-Ziggy; here are his key early shifts, buried in the breadbins of time.
The sound: Hamburg-washed blues rock’n’roll
The look: fairy-tale Danish woodcutter: brown leather waistcoat, suede trousers and helmet hair
The key recording: ‘Liza Jane’ – Davie Jones And The King Bees
Any good? Bowie’s first single, released on Decca imprint Vocalion Pop when he was just seventeen, was a rough but nifty twelve-bar squealer more than capable of holding its own against, say, the early Stones or Kinks singles. Unfortunately it sold badly and Bowie was dropped like a mopey gnome.
The sound: dusky orange crate blues
The look: snarly, Stonesy longhair
The key recording: ‘I Pity The Fool’, The Manish Boys
Any good? Pretty drab cover of a song by – the clues were all there – Bobby Bland. Bowie ditched the group forthwith.
The sound: breezy Who psych pop
The look: proto-Kraftwerk; neat shirt and tie, robotic stare
The key recording: ‘Can’t Help Thinking About Me’, David Bowie With The Lower Third
Any good? The first glimmers of Bowie’s vaudevillian dabblings appear during his Lower Third era, as does his trademark wuzza-wuzza warble and soaring soul voice. A bit twee, but fun.
The sound: Motown stomp
The look: ‘Young Americans’ in a 60s overcoat
The key recording: ‘Do Anything You Say’
Any good? You could argue that Bowie’s stint with a new backing band called The Buzz invented bands like Inspiral Carpets and The Charlatans twenty years early, but their indie-rough edges mean that, as hard as Bowie belts out songs like ‘Do Anything You Say’, his tone-deaf backing band drag him off the rails, like Ian Brown guesting at a Florence + The Machine gig.
The sound: macabre vaudeville
The look: psychedelic Tommy Steele
The key recording: ‘The Laughing Gnome’
Any good? Mixed, to be fair. Bowie’s self-titled debut album was a faintly cheesy Anthony Newley music hall affair with a dark psychedelic heart and some fairly dark character portraits floating about: the cuckolded brass band fan, the devoted stalker, the evil despot and the cemetery murderer. ‘The Laughing Gnome’, with all its Benny Hill-level gnome puns, defines this Age Of Dave though, and it’s undeniably bollocks.
The sound: Tyrannosaurus Rex in space
The look: pyjama alien
The key recording: ‘Space Oddity’
Any good? Well, the lead track from Bowie’s second eponymous album is still floating around in pop’s stratosphere, forlornly thumping at the escape pod launch button. The rest – inspired by Bowie’s experiments at the Beckenham Arts Lab, hippy festivals and his spot on a Tyrannosaurus Rex tour doing a mime act – was intriguing too, full of folk whimsy, Messianic prog, hard rock, theatrical showstoppers and the sort of lyrics that Coleridge might have splurged out on a three-day opium bender.
The sound: Spidery psych rock
The look: Byron meets Eddie Izzard
The key recording: ‘The Man Who Sold The World’
Any good? Yes actually – ‘The Man Who Sold The World’ stands up as Bowie’s first really coherent collection, helped in no short measure by the formative gathering of future Spiders From Mars in the studio line-up. Both glam and goth sprang from these grooves, they say.