Chameleon Comedian

David Bowie 1967-1970

by Iain Ellis

28 January 2010

As innovative and eclectic as his music has been, Bowie’s means and methods of articulation also reveal an artist finely attuned to the subversive potential of humor.

Has any artist in the history of rock elicited such sustained critical scrutiny for so long as David Bowie has? For over six decades and counting, critics have been magnetically drawn to him, consistently fascinated by his multiple manifestations, cerebral complexity, and subversive gestures. Yet despite the library of analysis dedicated to him and his body of work, few critics have noted the humor that resides at the core of Bowie’s creative expression and impact.

As innovative and eclectic as his music has been, Bowie’s means and methods of articulation also reveal an artist finely attuned to the subversive potential of humor. Within all facets of his musical artistry—lyrics, song-craft, instrumentation, image, and live performance—Bowie has variously drawn upon an array of comedic techniques: parody, satire, childlike whimsy, wordplay. Whether for novelty or for more consciously critical purposes, Bowie has recognized the potency of humor as a means of communication, understanding its ability to incite with insight and to empower by speaking to power. James E. Perone, like most other Bowie scholars, reveres him as the “most notorious changeling of the rock era”, but he has been a chameleon comedian, too, shifting between and perpetually tweaking humorous strategies to meet his current artistic intentions (Perone, James E. The Words and Music of David Bowie.  Westport, CT: Praeger Publishers, 2007. p.xi). 

Undoubtedly his is an iconic face of ‘70s rock (if not the iconic face), but critics and fans have often overlooked Bowie’s early work such that they have become regarded as his ‘forgotten years’.  His late ‘60s releases have invariably been dismissed as unfocused, underdeveloped, even immature. Yet this prelude period shows us much about what Bowie was and was to become, as well as exhibits in sketch-form his interests and concerns, as well as his methods and strategies, later developed to more popular and critical acclaim. Indeed, ‘70s Bowie is intimately tied to ‘60s Bowie, and the two amalgamate at the junctures where he reflects upon that earlier decade.

While communality and solidarity were the tenets of the late ‘60s counter-culture, Bowie was satirizing such ideals as constituting conformity and group-think; and as the songwriting leaders of the era—John Lennon, Neil Young, Joni Mitchell and others—sought introspection and new authentic selves when the ‘60s fragmented into the “Me” ‘70s, Bowie detached from any idea of self by creating multiple personas. In the process he exposed the romantic delusion of rock authenticity, demythologized the rock star concept, and revealed the commercial machinery that maintained it.

Whereas the Woodstock generation believed that the counter-culture would, as Hunter S. Thompson once envisioned, “prevail” with an “inevitable victory over the forces of Old and Evil” (Thompson, Hunter S. Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas: A Savage Journey Into the Heart of the American Dream. Vintage: New York, 1989. p.68.), Bowie saw resistance in terms of bohemian individualism rather than collective struggle. His dedication to the fate of outsiders in society—to portraying their alienation and escapist pursuits—certainly echoed the sentiments of his ‘60s-styled peers. However, his means of understanding and expressing this condition—as illustrated in his early songs and by his own independent identity—pointed beyond their solidarity solutions, placing the individual front-and-center.

In June 1967, The Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band album was released; so, too, was David Bowie’s eponymous debut album. While the former was (and has since) been hailed as the greatest album of its era (and perhaps of all time), Bowie’s release was largely ignored at the time and has been mostly castigated ever since. Yet the two albums have much in common. 

Like Sgt. Pepper, David Bowie draws inspiration from England’s music hall tradition, displaying its characteristic jaunty wit, vernacular vocal affectations, and working class identity. In similar fashion to The Beatles’ “When I’m Sixty-Four”, “Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite”, and “With a Little Help from My Friends”, Bowie’s “Uncle Arthur”, “Rubber Band”, and “Little Bombardier” transport listeners back in time, sentimentally evoking a seemingly gentler England, one absent of generational confrontations and cut-throat capitalism. 

This cultural nostalgia is further underscored by the music, with its waltz-like rhythms and brass band accompaniments. Lyrically, these songs consist of quirky character portraits; like many Kinks songs of the period (or more recently, those of Blur and Pulp), they appear to be offering comforting caricatures evoking days gone by. Yet Bowie’s cast of English portraits—like those of The Kinks, Blur, and Pulp—function as more than mere satiation for conservative yearnings. These fictional characters—like those created throughout his career—are essentially misfits and outsiders, either ill-fitted for, alienated from, or unwelcome within their communities.

“She’s Got Medals” is an illustrative song in this regard. One of his earliest gender-bending songs, here Bowie narrates the tale of Mary who, feeling imprisoned by her gender, changes her name to Tommy in order to join the army, and then changes it again to Eileen when she returns to London. Like another song on the album, “Little Bombardier” (about a suspected pedophile that is run out of town), Bowie playfully toys with issues of gender identity and sexuality while implicitly suggesting that one has to become an outsider if one has desires or orientations beyond society’s prescribed designations.

Escapism pervades Bowie’s early work and it is a theme he intimately ties to the concept of childhood. Like contemporaries John Lennon and Syd Barrett, Bowie circa 1967 embraced hippy whimsy as a means of evading adult society. Humor theorist John Morreall celebrates the “imagination, playfulness, and curiosity” at the heart of a child’s world of humor, but bemoans how those characteristics are systematically driven out by adults who consider fun, fancy, and frivolity to be unproductive and immature (Morreall, John. Taking Laughter Seriously. Albany: State University of New York Press. 1983. p.98). 

Lennon’s embrace of Lewis Carroll-like verbal play and illogic (in both his books and songs) demonstrated his unwillingness to give up his child-like state of humor; likewise, early Bowie songs such as “The Laughing Gnome”, “There is a Happy Land”, and “Come and Buy My Toys” are joyful, whimsical expressions of childhood play. Like the poems in William Blake’s Songs of Innocence, these songs reflect resistance to the order(s) and repressions of the adult world; eschewing experience, the children escape, simply stepping into fantasy worlds where language, behavior, and play are set blissfully free.

In “There is a Happy Land” the narrator rejoices in youth’s “secret place” away from “Mr. Grown Up”.  Such sentiments reflect the regressive escapism of the hippy subculture in general, but they also offer early indicators of Bowie’s recurring fear that individual autonomy is always under threat and that it can only be maintained through escape or the reinvention of the self. 

Such anxiety about conformity and constraint are also addressed through more directly satirical means on Bowie’s debut album. In “Join the Gang”, rather than rallying around his generation as The Who, the Small Faces, and other London peers were doing, Bowie is derisive, seeing only pawns and predators. “Johnny plays the sitar, he’s an existentialist / Once he had a name, now he plays our game”, he mocks, assuming the narrative role of a Manson-like manipulative guru. “London Boys”, the B-side of the “Rubber Band” single, finds the former David Jones, once the quintessential mod of Swinging London, turning on his former subculture, ridiculing its hedonistic followers for their drug-addled conformity. “You take the pills too much”, he scoffs dismissively. 

With its cynical rebellion against the counter-culture, coupled with songs and arrangements transported from the Edwardian era, it’s perhaps not surprising that Bowie did not thrust the aspiring artist into the upper echelons of the ‘60s rock pantheon. Such a situation, though, did not sit well with the ambitious Bowie; thus, for his next album he shed his music hall affect(at)ions and nudged closer to the musical modes and praxes of the prevailing rock counter-culture. Despite this apparent concession, however, the intra-generational lyrical satire he had exercised prior was also clearly far from exhausted.

Originally released as David Bowie in the UK and as Man of Words/Man of Music in the US, Bowie’s 1969 album was re-titled in 1972 and has since been known as Space Oddity.  Full of the kind of folk rock, acoustic-based songs that might have been found on a Bob Dylan or Donovan album, this record was notable for its absence of the kind of light-hearted humor that had characterized the whimsical narratives on Bowie’s debut.

Here, the wit was more edgy. If there had appeared to be a certain incongruity humor on David Bowie between its brass-colored, upbeat melodies and the tragi-comic narrative tales they supported, the juxtaposition between music and words on Space Oddity was even more striking and sly. While the music—with its acoustic strumming and meandering arrangements—plugged in comfortably with the dominant psych-prog-folk genres of the period, lyrically Bowie was clearly not ready to kow-tow to the accepted values and ideals of the counter-culture. 

Though less demonstrative musically, Bowie compensated by ratcheting up the volume on his biting wit, aiming it squarely at the very environment he sought to be embraced by. For Bowie, his bone of contention with the counter-culture remained the same: the revolution cannot be achieved by the masses marching in lockstep; it must come from the individual self being set free. 

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