Personalities | David Bowie | Highs & Lows in the Seventies

Bowie’s eponymous debut album appeared in June 1967. David Bowie was the work of a man who didn’t yet know quite what to do with his talent.

However from 1971 to 1973 Bowie would, with the aid of a newly assembled band, produce a trio of albums that for many are both his finest moments and high watermarks in recorded music per se. The mid-Seventies saw Bowie struggle with his fame, however he ended the decade on a high with his Berlin Trilogy.

Bowie’s First Albums

There was baroque pop, northern brass band music and music hall numbers – all with melodies that were pretty enough but somehow just this side of memorable. The instrumentation was the sort of stuff fashionable in a year where the young took delight in co-opting the traditional for their own ends (e.g. hip kids dressing in old military uniforms) but there’s only so many parping horns and pom-pom-pom drums that one can take, and they form part of an overarching, self-conscious whimsy that is a little suffocating. The lyrics inevitably drip with Bowie’s intelligence and inquisitive eye but the character studies on offer aren’t exactly ‘Eleanor Rigby’. However, although there are no Bowie classics present, there are a clutch of songs that point to the fact that this is a man with a future if he can only harness his inchoate abilities.

The Arts Lab

While resident in the South London suburb of Beckenham in 1969, Bowie, along with three friends, set up a folk club at the pub The Three Tuns. This developed into the Beckenham Arts Laboratory. Although many eventually famous rockers played there – including Peter Frampton, Steve Harley, The Strawbs, Rick Wakeman and Mick Ronson – the ‘Arts Lab’ was also a reflection of how multi-faceted Bowie’s interests were: there was painting, poetry readings, light shows, street theatre, dance and puppetry in this crucible of nascent talent. Some of Bowie’s ex-associates – ones admittedly likely to be disdainful of pop music – will tell you that it’s the best thing with which he’s ever been involved. He was certainly far more interested in the Arts Lab than making a second album for quite a while.

The Difficult Second Album

Bowie’s second album was a bit better than the first but mainly lifted beyond the status of ‘Mediocre Follow-up to Mediocre Debut’ by one of its tracks being released beforehand as a single and becoming a smash hit and thence a staple of oldies radio.

Confusingly, the second album (1969) had the same eponymous title as the first LP (in the States it was called Man Of Words/Man Of Music) but it was later re-titled on some editions Space Oddity. It would have made far more sense to give it that title from the get-go. Not that anything on the album bears any resemblance to that famous, intriguing and successful single.

A Hit Single

‘Space Oddity’ was typical of Bowie in the...

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