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.
The Playing Fields of Parody and Caricature
The Playing Fields of Parody and Caricature
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.