Having been so productive in the year leading up to his death, it was only a matter of time before rare and unheard David Bowie tracks started emerging. Strangely though, rather than eked-out dispatches from some hidden vault full of unreleased songs marked ‘Break Seal In Case Of Mortality’, the first such track, ‘To Be Love’, is an insight into Bowie’s early mindset.
Amidst all this upheaval, word of Bowie’s ascending star had reached the US, pricking the ears of major labels. So that Autumn Bowie shipped out to LA, his first ever Stateside trip, to record demos intended to land him a lucrative American contract. An executive at United Artists contacted Tom Ayers (producer and Gene Vincent’s manager), Aynsley Dunbar (one-time Mothers Of Invention drummer) and engineer Ron de Strulle at Roxbury Road Studios with news of this “new talent from across the pond who was beginning to make a big stir” and requested that Bowie have first class treatment, complete privacy and 24-hour studio access.
Already well into the writing and demoing of ‘Hunky Dory’, Bowie arrived at Roxbury Road Studios intending to play as hard as he worked. The studio was a dream-like place; designed in the style of a Moorish castle by 1920s silent film star Lilian Gish, it contained flower gardens, an orchard and formal dining rooms, and de Strulle recalls Bowie being “blown away” by the place and eager to start work. They worked all night, Bowie experimenting with new techniques and instrumentation. “My first impression of David was that he was warm, open, friendly, and not looking for star treatment like most of the other artists who came to RR Studios,” de Strulle told The Huffington Post. “He was interested in the production process and excited about anything creative… very interested in how to get each sound… He couldn’t get over the way we could produce loop delays and reverberation plays. David could pick up an instrument and play anything. He would say ‘I never played this instrument before,’ and then he would cut loose and play. Pure genius.”
When they weren’t recording, Bowie insisted on taking de Strulle out on the town, in drag. De Strulle took him to mingle with fellow rising stars at Sunset Strip rock’n’roll hangouts Whiskey A Go Go and the Troubadour, and even to a Topanga Canyon biker bar, with Bowie insisting that de Strulle wear a dress for their outings. “David said he was uncomfortable going out with me in a suit,” said Ron, “‘I have a nice dress for you,’ he said.”
In the studio, the team recorded tunes that would eventually end up on ‘Hunky Dory’ and de Stulle remembers Bowie already working on his Ziggy Stardust project. “David was looking to develop characters,” he said. “He was working on Ziggy Stardust and songs to go with each of the personas. I was working to get his songs into the best shape possible for record companies. David liked alternate vocal effects with echoplexes… Most of the time we sat around looping from one machine to another playing with all these special effects.”
One of de Stulle’s own compositions caught Bowie’s ear too. ‘To Be Love’ was simple and classic, perfect for Bowie to try out a new style of drumming he was developing. Bowie insisted they record a new version of the song. “David loved that song and wanted to do harmony. He said its simple chords and simple melodies were ‘like bringing Billie Holiday into the 1970s.’”
The track itself is a spectral rock’n’roll chug redolent of the airier end of The Velvet Underground or early Floyd and far removed from the dark rock of ‘The Man Who Sold The World’ and crisp folk pop of ‘Hunky Dory’. It is, however, an oddity that give us further insight into Bowie’s psychedelic bent – as seen on the ‘Space Oddity’ album – with its crooked, amorphous piano and vocal, ghost train beat and guitar solo that sounds like acid-addled cattle.
Bowie emerged from the Roxbury Road sessions with six demos good enough to become part of fifteen tracks that he touted around to Capitol, RCA and United Artists, eventually signing with RCA as he considered United “a bunch of bullies”. But de Strulle feels Bowie came away from the sessions with another element of his core sound in place. “At RR Studios, he developed his signature heavy back beat and double bass,” he said. “Ten years later, everyone would refer to David’s rhythm as new disco.”