The Width of a Circle is the latest effort to fill in the blank spaces in David Bowie’s already voluminous discography. It’s a campaign that the late artist’s estate has undertaken with manic fervor. Since Bowie died in 2016, Parlophone has released seven boxed sets, nine live albums, and a smattering of other musical ephemera—all of it crammed to the gills with rarities and unreleased material. Casual fans need not apply.
Released as a companion to the recent reissue of The Man Who Sold the World, this two-disc set aims to flesh out the story between that album and Bowie’s 1969 self-titled LP. The bulk of the material on Width of a Circle comes from early 1970. At the time, Bowie and his team were somewhat desperate to capitalize on the chart success of “Space Oddity” the year before and to make him a star in America. Hence, a flurry of studio sessions to cut follow-up singles (none of which charted in the UK or US) and a pair of performances recorded for BBC’s Radio One.
The most alluring material on this set comes from those radio sessions. The first disc features Bowie’s performance for The Sunday Show, a concert series presented by legendary DJ John Peel. The setlist is a pure encapsulation of Bowie’s musical mindset at the time, a drippy folk aesthetic heard throughout 1969’s David Bowie that was slowly morphing into harder-edged rock. The construction of the set reflects that shift. It starts with a quartet of tracks played by Bowie on his own, using a 12-string acoustic guitar. But as the show rolls forward, more musicians enter the picture, fleshing out material like the rambling “An Occasional Dream” and “London Bye, Ta-Ta,” a lyrically detailed pop swinger.
The Sunday Show set takes flight with the addition of Mick Ronson. It’s a rough ascent as, according to Bowie’s between-song conversation with Peel, the guitarist joined the fold only two days before the February 5th recording date. That accounts for the occasionally awkward notes in “Width of a Circle” and “The Prettiest Star” and an overall wobbliness that befalls the band in the show’s second half. Adding to this gracelessness is the disc’s dodgy sound quality. The audio comes from a cassette recording of the radio broadcast from Bowie’s producer and bass player Tony Visconti’s archives, complete with wow, flutter, and a bit of frequency bleed. But when the band hits its stride, particularly on a dynamic run through “Cygnet Committee” and Ronson tears into a ferocious solo on “Janine,” it presages the acidic tone of Man Who Sold The World and the Ziggy Stardust-era.
Bowie’s future felt even more determined a month later when he and his band landed at London’s Playhouse Theatre to record four songs for DJ Andy Ferris’ Sounds of the ‘70s radio show. By that point, Ronson had more fully assimilated into the Bowie hive mind, and his playing soars even higher as a result. The band turns The Velvet Underground’s “Waiting For The Man” into a sultry strut, and an early take on Hunky Dory cut “The Supermen” feels urgent and tense. Ronson wiggles through it all with a demonic charge.
Another curiosity on Width is five tracks taken from a performance of Pierrot In Turquoise, a stage show conceived by Bowie mentor Linsday Kemp and film in early 1970 for Scottish television. Lest anyone forgets, there was a brief period when Bowie was obsessed with mime and dance, taking lessons from (and having an affair with) Kemp and incorporating it into his live show. One of his first collaborations with Kemp was Pierrot, a tale of tortured love that featured Bowie singing songs (mostly from his 1967 self-titled debut) and doing a bit of mime. The show toured through England in 1967 and then adapted for television a few years later.
The songs from the broadcast in this set are fairly interesting as rough drafts for future Bowie material. The jaunty “Threepenny Pierrot” was re-written as “London Bye, Ta-Ta”, and the guitar melody for the shimmering “Columbine” became the backbone for “Unwashed and Somewhat Slightly Dazed” from the 1969 album. Beyond that, they don’t serve much of a purpose separated from the visual elements of Pierrot, or as it was known for broadcast purposes, The Looking Glass Murders. Too, the music suffers from poor sound quality as these recordings came from an archival copy of the TV broadcast released on DVD in 2005.
All too often, Bowie would go through a musical metamorphosis and present it to the world fully-formed, forcing fans to rush to keep up. The Width of a Circle offers a rare peek at how his work was developing—an often ungainly evolution that listeners can now track chronologically. Whether they’d care to is the question.