Thursday 10 November 2011

David Bowie: 'The London Boys'

Before he was the Dame; before he made 'the Berlin album' an obligatory career milestone; before he was chameleon, comedian, Corinthian and caricature; before all this, he was David Jones, ultimate suburbanite.

The Bromley boy's horizons were narrow enough as a teenager that he would describe something he found cheap and nasty, the height of uncool,  as "so fucking Croydon" - a diss of Bromley's ever-so-slightly more down at heel neighbouring borough.

He longed to escape to the smoke, just 25 minutes away from Bromley South and Beckenham Junction. David Jones, a sharp dresser but not yet remotely close to a space oddity or a thin white duke,  had the notion to take himself somewhere and catalogued his move from the suburbs to the city in a trio of songs - Can't Help Thinking About Me, I Dig Everything, and ultimately The London Boys. None were exactly England Swings: the first finds him on a cold station platform and hints at a "dishonour" that he has brought on his home town ("mother says she can't stand the neighbours talking"); the second places Bowie's rather sarcastic idiot joy at finally being a Londoner ("I've got more friends than I've had hot dinners") over a chirpy organ hook later sampled by Fatboy Slim. "His material was good" said producer Tony Hatch, "although I thought he wrote too much about London dustbins."

This concentrated dissection of the grittier side of sixties London teendom isn't something to be so lightly dismissed. It was unique. While the Kinks may have fired an equivalent number of  shots at Swinging London's ship - notably the double-sided single Dead End Street/Big Black Smoke in late '66 - they were born Londoners (Muswell Hill having been built as an Edwardian suburb, but very much a part of London's 'northern heights' by the sixties) and, besides, these songs were part of a much larger and varied catalogue than Bowie's handful of mid-sixties singles. Other mod acts like the Who (The Kids Are Alright) and the Small Faces (Sorry She's Mine) would occasionally write about the buttoned-up caste system of Mod, but even then it was in a conventional boy-girl scenario. Bowie's attempt at something similar was the self-flagellating Baby Loves That Way in which, not wanting to appear boorish or uncool, desperately wanting to fit in with the scene, he allows his girl to "fool around with other boys, she treats me like an unwanted toy."

The London Boys - released on the B-side of Rubber Band, Bowie's first single for Deram at the very end of 1966 - was his most theatrical performance to date and none the worse for it; it was also his most substantial. The single emerged on the cusp of a new era. The boy taken in by "bright lights, Soho, Wardour Street" was late to the mod ball and playing catch-up; most of the real action would now have been at UFO or the Roundhouse, the venues that fed the sound of '67.

It starts with muted brass, a funereal sound rising up from the basement of the 100 Club, and the mood is monochrome.  "Bow bell strikes, another night, your eyes are heavy and your limbs all ache." Tony Hatch's pea-souper arrangement includes oboes, which he had used to great effect earlier in the year on the Crossroads theme.

Bowie's vocal is his most individual to date, both in its odd phrases ("you feel a little queasy, decidedly ill" reminds me of Hunky Dory's Kooks) and its stagey delivery - he almost gags on the line "you're gonna be sick". If there's a touch of Anthony Newley about this (on this occasion, it really is just a touch), he sounds more like 1974 David Essex by the time he reaches the desperate, climactic "it's too late now..."And it is too late. The only comparable song is Donovan's Young Girl Blues, released a few weeks later and a distaff companion piece: the girl in Donovan's song is home alone on a Saturday night while "all the losers are grooving". Among this number, we suspect, is Bowie's subject who "takes the pills too much". Two kids in London with milky skin and not even enough money to feed the meter. You will them both to head back to the suburbs for six months and then, maybe, try London again; maybe second time around they'd even meet, and swap war stories. If the London Boy sticks around his fate will be found in Brian Protheroe's sequel of sorts, the bedsit drear of 1974's beer-soaked, tear-soaked single Pinball.

The London Boys isn't finger wagging. Instead Bowie is crumpled and sour voiced: "You've got what you wanted but you're on your own... now you've met the London boys". With a few flop singles and a string of abandoned backing groups already behind him, it is surely autobigraphical - something Bowie rarely was once he got the keys to the pop kingdom. 

Bowie's pre-fame melancholia affected the mood of a few of his best early songs: 1970's The Prettiest Star c/w Conversation Piece was a beautiful single, with an A-side in tribute to his contemporary, rival and friend Marc Bolan (who plays the gorgeous guitar hook with the same economy and feeling as he does the solo on Hot Love) and a flip of an almost embarrassingly personal nature.

Conversation Piece is comparable to The London Boys and Be My Wife in its desolation, only this time Bowie is a failed artist living in a flat above a grocery. It is a solitary existence save for his conversations in faltering English with the Austrian grocer.  "I'm a thinker not a talker" concludes Bowie. "I've no one to talk to, anyway". By the end of the song it's all spilling out, and the song tips into the self-pity and comical angst of a Max Beerbohm character ("My words stick inside my throat... no one will recall me"). The baroque, Anglo-country rock (with the return of The London Boys' oboes) production more than keeps it afloat, though, and Bowie's most affecting lines about lack of direction ("I can't see the bridge for the rain in my eyes") keep you on the sorry artist's side. The song was presumably written after his split with Hermione Farthingale, the actress who broke Bowie's heart when she left him in 1969. By the time The Prettiest Star and Conversation Piece were recorded at Trident studios in January 1970, though, Bowie had a new belle in Angie Barnett, and apparently played the A-side down the phone as he proposed to her. I prefer to think of it as his ambiguous tribute to the almost-famous Bolan (the no.2 hit Ride A White Swan was recorded two months after The Prettiest Star had been released, selling an estimated 800 copies). But there you go. I like myths and legends.

Bolan - who seemed to slip in and out of Bowie's shadow, as nemesis and friendly rival, both stylistically and on the level of fame, for a full decade - also wrote a song called The London Boys, a middling stomp which reached no.40 at the start of 1976. Closer to the spirit of Bowie's London Boys, though, was Over the Flats, written in 1972 about Bolan's forced teenage relocation from Hackney to Tooting. "The chicks I used to know would never see me grow, would never grip my hand" he complains and, worse yet for an East London face and an ego the size of Marc's, "here no one knows my name, people all look the same, I walk on lonely steps, they don't know my rep." The song was only ever recorded as an acoustic demo, for possible inclusion on The Slider, and is strong enough - and knowingly funny enough - for you to wish that Bolan had dug into his scufflin' days for inspiration more often.

Bolan's career arc was perfectly symmetrical, with Jeepster at the peak, and The Wizard and Celebrate Summer as flops at either extreme. With Bowie there was no such arc, just constant shape-shifting, and many of his most interesting records slip into the cracks between his major releases. Aside from The London Boys and Conversation Piece, there is an astonishing run of 45s between 70s farewell Scary Monsters and 80s hullo Let's Dance (Wild Is The Wind, Under Pressure, Baal's Hymn, Cat People, Peace On Earth/Little Drummer Boy) which I like to think of as his Wilderness Years. Certainly there was no real clue that the calculated and largely unadventurous Let's Dance would follow collaborations and expeditions with Kurt Weill, Freddie Mercury, Bing Crosby and Paul Schrader. Or maybe he knew that in 1983 it was time to cash in the Bowie bonds. The suburban outcast, the lonely pill-popping London Boy, the frustrated artist of Conversation Piece had by now achieved everything he ever set out to do.

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