Chameleon Comedian

David Bowie 1967-1970

by Iain Ellis

28 January 2010


The Playing Fields of Parody and Caricature

The Playing Fields of Parody and Caricature

By the time of his Ziggy Stardust invention two years later, the caricatures would have a whole wardrobe, image, and personality to complement the lyrical points-of-view.

As with the earlier “Join the Gang”, “Cygnet Committee” offered another example of Bowie assuming the role of a sinister character and using it to parody a social reality. Here, a new fascism is envisioned, emanating from within the counter-culture itself. Through the voice of a self-designated dictator, the narrator ridicules the easy slogans of the era, uncovering sinister undercurrents within them: “Stoned the poor on slogans such as ‘Wish You Could Hear’, ‘Love is all We Need’, ‘Kick Out the Jams’, ‘Kick Out Your Mother’, ‘Cut Up Your Friend’, ‘Screw Up Your Brother or He’ll Get You in the End’”.  The voice here is dystopian, out-of-step with the dominant peace-and-love proclamations of the day.  “And we can force you to be free / And we can force you to believe”, the speaker adds, mocking the coercive power sources that lay behind the era’s idealism, as well as the willing disciples who unquestioningly followed them.

Such in-house parody echoed the methods and sentiments of California’s Frank Zappa, who, throughout the late ‘60s, had been similarly mocking his state’s “flower power” kids’ inert and apathetic impulses with his own “freak power” indictments. A decade later, the Dead Kennedys would resurrect the same theme, scrutinizing the fascist and cult undertones of the sixties counter-culture in “California Über Alles”. Similar to Bowie, the DK’s Jello Biafra—in mock-psychotic character as a dictatorial Governor Jerry Brown—outlines a hippy totalitarian regime run by “zen fascists”.

These early ventures into the world of parody, into adopting and exaggerating character types, offer forerunning examples of the more fleshed-out roles that Bowie would soon construct and inhabit. By the time of his Ziggy Stardust invention two years later, the caricatures would have a whole wardrobe, image, and personality to complement the lyrical points-of-view. Indeed, by then his other selves were being developed so thoroughly that they would manifest as full-blown alter-egos, as disengaged others presented by a disinterested observer in the third person. 

If “Cygnet Committee” offered a prototype peak of ‘70s David Bowie, other songs on Space Oddity indicated that he was also self-consciously attempting to connect himself to—and be in touch with—the styles of the times. “God Knows I’m Good” offers the kind of earnest social satire that Pete Seeger, Phil Ochs, and Bob Dylan had been serving up during the folk revival of the early ‘60s. As with many of their songs from that period, Bowie’s anti-materialist message in “God Knows I’m Good” is less-than-subtle, revolving around a title/chorus line somewhat heavy-handed in its irony. 

“Unwashed and Slightly Dazed” bears a title that sounds like it might have emerged from a pot smoking “rap” session, while its whimsical lyrics reflect a similarly drug-addled personality. “I got eyes in my backside that see electric tomatoes on credit rye bread”, drawls Bowie in stoner folk mode, offering little sense though perhaps some inspiration to like-minded successors like Robyn Hitchcock, the Flaming Lips, and Beck. This song, despite its obtuseness, also contains the line “I’m a phallus in pigtails”, which by some interpretations might provide us with a comically concise condensation of the kind of gender-bending personas Bowie would soon be crafting and writing about.

“Space Oddity”, while retrospectively recognized largely for being Bowie’s breakthrough song and for its early ruminations on the space age/alienation theme, also hints at the kind of camp wit central to his next comedic phase. A close listen to the way Bowie sings the line “I’m floating in a most peculiar way”, coupled with the potential meanings of that line, thrust us into the world of camp, where double entendres, sexual innuendo, and a self-consciously effeminate vocal delivery are all key aesthetic ingredients.

The master of such suggestively coded expression in rock history to that point had been Little Richard, Bowie’s first rock hero and the quintessential camp trickster of ‘50s rock. Such an influence is increasingly apparent on Bowie’s burgeoning persona at the close of the ‘60s, as are others in the theatrical camp tradition.  Critic Ken Tucker may well have had Bowie’s vocal style on “Space Oddity” in mind when he postulated, “Try to imagine Oscar Wilde as a rock star and you’ve got David Bowie’s voice floating through your skull” (Ed Ward et al, eds. Rock of Ages: The Rolling Stone History of Rock & Roll, Simon & Schuster, 1986. p.489).

The release of The Man Who Sold the World (1970) saw Bowie undergo another series of reinventions, the most striking of which were musical. Shedding the low-key folk styles that had dominated Space Oddity, Bowie returned a year later with a blast of proto-metal more aligned to the sounds of Black Sabbath, Deep Purple, and the Velvet Underground than to those of Dylan and Donovan. 

Equally shocking was Bowie’s new sense of humor, which, while still developing the camp affectations and satirical intents of his previous work, bore a heightened acidic tone and acerbic nature. References to “drag” and sex in “The Width of a Circle” indicated movement towards more provocative lyrical territory, while the innuendo of “She Took Me Cold” was as brutally raunchy as the sonic assault of the song. “She sucked my dormant will / Mother, she blew my brain”, cries Bowie in one outburst, inadvertently offering prototypical ideas to the future creators of Spinal Tap. 

“Running Gun Blues” is equally blunt and bludgeoning, its harsh language and dark caricature humor reminiscent of the kind of songs The Fugs had released a few years earlier. Sung via the character of a Vietnam veteran suffering (one assumes) from post-traumatic stress disorder, Bowie portrays a figure unable to adjust to civilian life. “I’ll slash them cold, I’ll kill them dead / I’ll break them gooks, I’ll crack their heads / I’ll slice them till they’re running red”, he wails, still re-living his battlefield memories. “I’ll plug a few civilians”, he adds, inferring that the killer, once created, cannot so easily be re-oriented to function in civil society. At its core, “Running Gun Blues” addresses a central theme of Bowie’s oeuvre—alienation—but never before had such a hard-hitting tone of music and humor been harnessed for its representation.

Also shocking, though in a markedly different fashion, was the album sleeve for The Man Who Sold the World. Sporting a long, flowing gown (a “man’s dress”, he called it), Bowie is shown on the cover in repose, stretched out and relaxed on a day bed, his limp-wristed hand clutching a playing card as he gazes disinterestedly into the camera. In contrast to the strutting metallic sounds within, there is clearly much incongruity humor in having such an outrageously camp image adorning the outer sleeve; but even more hilarious is Bowie’s blasé expression, as though such attire and pose were merely everyday common conduct. Contained in this image are the ingredients of what would soon constitute Bowie’s most provocative artistic period, its self-conscious camp both (re)-defining and defiant, the incendiary suggestiveness ambiguously playing with both gender and sexual identity.

Though heralded more as his comedic years than his golden ones, Bowie’s works in the late ‘60s reveal an intriguing portrait of the artist as a young man. They show him as a work in progress, playing with many of the themes and methods he would later more fully realize.Then, as later, music styles, lyrical approaches, and visual imagery are in constant flux, each filtered through an expressive humor rarely devoid of a subversive edge and intent. 

Over the next few years, Bowie would consolidate the gains of his early adventurism while venturing wholeheartedly into the playing fields of parody and caricature, constructing in Ziggy Stardust a myth-busting icon that would shake the foundations of rock ideology, deconstructing society’s concepts, presumptions, and understandings of gender and sexuality in the process.

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