Posts Tagged ‘Bowie’

Brixton and David Bowie’s early years

Thursday, August 14th, 2008

‘It’s time we were united and stood up for our curls.’

Opposite a graffitied skateboard park and just up the street from Brixton’s premier music venue – The Academy , is Stansfield Road where David Robert Jones was born in 1947. His family stayed in Brixton for just six years before they moved to the South London suburb of Bromley a few miles a way. Bowie went to Bromley Technical College and studied art and graphic design (incidentally he was taught by Peter Frampton’s father).
David Bowie’s first proper band, formed in November 1963, was called Davie Jones and the King Bees – and they released one single called ‘Liza Jane’ on the 5th June 1964. The band sold few records and soon split up due to their relative lack of success.
Davie Jones and the King Bees performing in 1964

Davie Jones and the King Bees performing in 1964

Later in the same year David appeared on the BBC’s Tonight programme, a current affairs show presented by Cliff Michelmore. He was asked to appear after starting the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to long-haired men.

The London Evening News reported on the society quoting Bowie;

“It’s really for the protection of pop musicians and those who wear their hair long,’ explained the founder and president, David Jones, of Plaistow Grove, Bromley. ‘Anyone who has the courage to wear their hair down to his shoulders has to go through hell. It’s time we were united and stood up for our curls.’ David is in the process of enrolling members. ‘Everybody makes jokes about you on a bus, and if you go past navvies digging in the road, it’s murder!’”

Bowie in 1965

Bowie in 1965

Bowie showing off his lovely long hair to Barry Langford 1965

Bowie showing off his lovely long hair to Barry Langford 1965

Bowie’s next band was Davy Jones and the Mannish Boys and after playing as the backing band for Gene Pitney on a Gerry and the Pacemakers’ tour they released a single in March 1965 – a cover of Bobby Bland’s I Pity The Fool. On the b-side, however, was Bowie’s first ever recorded composition called ‘Take My Tip’ (Jimmy Page was the young session guitarist).

The Mannish Boys’ manager Leslie Conn arranged for the band to appear on the BBC show Gadzooks! It’s All Happening but the producer Barry Langford insisted that Bowie cut his long hair. Bowie, of course, refused and Conn cleverly organised a protest outside the BBC with fans holding banners such as ‘Be Fair To Long Hair’.

The BBC eventually backed down on the condition that if there were viewer complaints the band’s fee would go to charity. No complaints were received and the band kept their fee. Over the next couple of years Bowie sang with a band called The Lower Third and subsequently a group called The Buzz. Success still eluded Bowie and both bands were short lived although making recordings for the labels Parlophone and Pye.

It was during this time that he changed his name to Bowie to avoid confusion with the singer in The Monkees and in 1967 he recorded an album as a solo project and called it simply ‘David Bowie’. Unfortunately the record again sold poorly and it would be two years before Bowie recorded again. During the sessions a novelty single recorded at the same time called ‘The Laughing Gnome’ which would became a number six hit when it was released in 1973.



In 1968 the choreographer and mime artist Lindsay Kemp let Bowie appear in his show Pierrot in Turquoise, it was said, in return for sex. Kemp was a fantastically camp character, very self-consciously avant-garde, and once described a performance of his at school (realistically setting the tone for the rest of his career!) -

“I first danced Salome in the dormitory of my boarding school, naked except for layers of toilet paper, heavily rouged with the red paint I’d rubbed off the wall. The boys in the top bunks played mouth organs, and I danced to entertain them. I was busted, of course, not for the decadence of my performance but for the wastage of school resources, namely the toilet paper.”

Bowie 'in mime' at the Middle Earth Club, 19th May 1968

Bowie 'in mime' at the Middle Earth Club, 19th May 1968

Kemp and Bowie had a very close working relationship and Kemp would become a huge influence on the future star especially in the creation of alter ego characters on stage . Thus Kemp, indirectly through Bowie, influenced an innumerable amount of performers and bands over the next twenty years or so.

After a few weeks of performing together in Pierrot in Turquoise Bowie disappeared one night with the artistic director of their show – a woman called Natasha Korlinov. Lindsay Kemp was devastated and tried to commit suicide by cutting his wrists, failing however in his attempt. Two months later Bowie returned back to Kemp, but unfortunately this time it was the turn of Natasha to try and kill herself, eventually surviving an overdose of sleeping pills.
In 1968 Bowie, as a solo mime artist, opened a show for Marc Bolan’s Tyrannosaurus Rex – the performance was apparently a version of the Chinese invasion to Tibet. Performing with Bolan meant that Bowie was introduced to Tony Visconti who was producing T-Rex at the time. Bolan and Bowie were at similar stages of their career – both incredibly ambitious but wavering between different musical styles and ideas – but desperately looking for an approach that would find them success. Visconti became the catalyst that realised this for both of them.
During the same year Bowie, with John Hutchinson and the ballet dancer Hermione Farthingale, formed a multi-media band, initially called Turquoise but subsequently known as Feathers.
David Bowie and Feathers at Trident Studios, London 1969

David Bowie and Feathers at Trident Studios, London 1969

Bowie and Farthingale were soon seeing each other and this may have been Bowie’s first serious relationship in his life. Unfortunately Hermione soon left Bowie, running off with a male fellow dancer – Bowie later wrote;
“I was totally head-over-heels in love with her, and it really sort of demolished set me off on the Space Oddity song”.
It took him along time to get over Hermione and his next album contained two songs about her – Letter to Hermione and Occasional Dream. The album also contained the song Space Oddity which was to become the reason for Bowie’s first brush with fame, something he had been seeking for years.
The song was written in 1968 but was planned to be recorded and released to coincide with the lunar landing the following year. A plan that worked and the BBC eventually used the track for their coverage of Apollo 11 and the first moon landing in 1969. Considering the importance of the event (men landing on the moon, not the BBC playing David Bowie) the BBC wiped the tapes of the moon-landing a few years later.
Space Oddity famously used the cheap, portable battery-operated Rolf Harris advertised stylophone – Marc Bolan later wrote;
“I remember David playing me ‘Space Oddity’ in his room and I loved it and he said he needed a sound like The Bee Gees, who were very big then. The stylophones he used on that, I gave him. Tony Visconti turned me on to stylophones. The record was a sleeper for months before it became a hit.”
Ironically Visconti saw the song as just a novelty and left the production to an assistant Gus Dudgeon who would soon become famous as Elton John’s main producer. The original video made for song actually features Hermione Farthingale.<span class=”lb-half”></span>
Bowie put the finishing touches to Space Oddity while living with Mary Finnigan (as a flat-mate and occasional lover) at Foxgrove Road in Beckenham, South London. Finnigan and Bowie ran a folk club on Sunday nights at The Three Tuns pub in Beckenham High Street but the night slowly turned into what became to be called the Beckenham Arts Lab. During the summer of 1969, The Arts Lab hosted a Free Festival at a local park. The festival was later immortalised by Bowie in his song Memory of a Free Festival.
An unshaven Bowie organising free festivals at Foxgrove Road, Beckenham 1968

An unshaven Bowie organising free festivals at Foxgrove Road, Beckenham 1968

In 1969 Bowie met the 18 year old Mary Angela Barnett (he later said that ‘they were fucking the same bloke’ – the record executive Calvin Mark Lee) and they were married in the Bromley Registry office on Beckenham Lane in 1970. He was by now well on his way to become the rock superstar he had spent years craving for.
David, mum and Angie at Beckenham Registry office

David, mum and Angie at Beckenham Registry office


Denmark Street, The Rolling Stones, Vince Taylor And Denis Nilsen

Sunday, November 18th, 2007

Denmark Street – The Kinks

Down the way from the Tottenham Court Road
Just round the corner from old Soho
There’s a place where the publishers go
If you dont know which way to go
Just open your ears and follow your nose
Cos the street is shakin from the tapping of toes
You can hear that music play anytime on any day
Every rhythm, every way
You got to a publisher and play him your song
He says i hate your music and you hair is too long
But I’ll sign you up because I’d hate to be wrong

Regent Sound Studios is a shop in Denmark Street just off the north end of Charing Cross Road and these days selling mostly Fender guitars but it has a lovely reconstructed sign above the window illustrating its former use as a tiny but famous recording studio. In November 1963 The Rolling Stones made some demo recordings there, mostly new songs they had recently been practising and playing during their nationwide tour. The band so loved the sound of the tiny, primitive and cramped studio, with actual egg-cartons as soundproofing and curtains on the wall to deaden the sound, that in a bid to get away from the major record company studios with their strait-laced tie-wearing producers, they became the first band to actually use the studio to record their actual master recordings. In January 1964 they started to record, on the two-track revox recorder, their first LP eventually to be called, simply, The Rolling Stones. The studio was so small that there was hardly any definition between the instruments and the band could hardly avoid putting down on tape an approximation of their live sound of the time.
Mick Jagger in the cramped recording studio December 1963

In February they started recording their future single ‘Not Fade Away’ a cover of Buddy Holly’s original. They were in the middle of a gruelling tour and the group were tired, fractious and hardly speaking to each other – they’d almost given up working out how to record the song. Their manager Andrew Oldham phoned his friend Gene Pitney – the American music star, who was currently in London, for inspiration. Gene Pitney had written He’s A Rebel for the Crystals, Rubber Ball for Bobby Vee and was currently having a huge hit in the UK and the US with 24 Hours From Tulsa. Gene Pitney in London February 1963

Gene Pitney and the producer Phil Spector suddenly turned up at the studio along with several bottles of inspiring brandy. Unsurprisingly the mood turned much for the better and the recording of Not Fade Away and its subsequent b side ‘Little By Little’ were at last recorded. Phil Spector is listed as playing the maracas on both the recordings but his instrument was actually an empty cognac bottle hit with a Half-Crown coin.
It’s worth noting that Phil Spector in early 1964 was at the absolute height of his fame and in the preceding year had produced ‘Da Doo Ron Ron’ and ‘Then He Kissed Me’ by The Crystals and ‘Be My Baby’ and Baby, I Love You by The Ronettes – undoubtedly some of the greatest pop records ever made. The self-confidence of twenty year old Andrew Oldham who had decided upon himself to produce the Rolling Stones’ first recordings must have been phenomenal. Oldham himself said of his early career as a producer – “I didn’t have to be technically proficient. I didn’t play an instrument, wasn’t an engineer or a technician, but I had a vision,”. Soon after Keith Richards and Mick Jagger returned Gene Pitney’s favour and wrote That Girl Belonged To Yesterday for him. It was their first song to become successful in America and it was Pitney’s endorsement that certainly didn’t hinder them finding favour there.
Andrew Loog Oldham in Denmark Street 1964
Denmark Street had, since the late 19th century been a musical street with music publishers finding a place next to London’s West End theatres. Both the UK’s famous music magazines, Melody Maker at number 19 and the New Music Express at number 5, started publishing in there. At number 20 Elton John, then in 1965 simply plain old Reg Dwight, worked as an office boy for one of the large music publishers Mills Music. He was paid just £5 per week and he wouldn’t have even vaguely dreamt that within just eight years during 1973 he would apparently be responsible for an incredible 2% of the World’s entire record sales. A few years before superstardom Elton also recorded at Regent

Sound studios when he made an unknown number of soundalike recordings for Woolworth’s own label Embassy Records. These included very reasonable covers of tracks such as Mungo Jerry’s In The Summertime and Stevie Wonder’s Signed, Sealed, Delivered, I’m Yours. In 1965, hopefully given a cup of coffee by the shy bespectacled office gopher, the American folk-singer Paul Simon walked into Mills Music one day proudly presenting two new songs he had recently written, The Sound of Silence and Homeward Bound. Unfortunately homeward bound was exactly where the man responsible for listening to new music sent him when he rejected the songs for being uncommercial and complicated. We can only hope that occasionally he and the man at Decca records who first auditioned The Beatles would meet up at their local pub, shake their heads sadly and wonder what might have been. Simon, after the rejection, decided to start his own publishing company called Charing Cross Music and has subsequently, and sensibly, kept the rights to all his music ever since.

At number 9 in the Street, and around the same time in the sixties, the Giaconda Cafe was a mod hang-out and this was where David Bowie met his first backing band – the Lower Third, and it was where he met Vince Taylor, the failed ‘leather rocker’. Vince’s real name was Brian Holden and he is known mostly these days for recording, as Vince Taylor and his Playboys, Brand New Cadillac, a song later of course covered by The Clash on London Calling. He had moved to France earlier in the decade and had become a leather-clad rocker and Elvis-like hero to French audiences. Taylor eventually became the inspiration for Bowie’s famous alter ego – “I met (Vince Taylor) a few times in the mid-Sixties and I went to a few parties with him. He was out of his gourd. Totally flipped. The guy was not playing with a full deck at all. He used to carry maps of Europe around with him, and I remember him opening a map outside Charing Cross tube station, putting it on the pavement and kneeling down with a magnifying glass. He pointed out all the sites where UFOs were going to land. He was the inspiration for Ziggy. Vince Taylor was a rock n roll star from the Sixties who was slowly going crazy. Finally, he fired his band and went on-stage one night in a white sheet. He told the audience to rejoice, that he was Jesus. They put him away.” By June 1972, the month that Bowie’s Ziggy Stardust album was released, Vince Taylor had managed to almost rebuild his career in France and brought out an album called “Vince is Alive, Well and Rocking in Paris” sadly not many people noticed he was still alive, let alone well and rocking, and after spending much of his life in prisons, psychiatric institutions and pretty much continually ‘out of his gourd’ he died in 1991 in Switzerland at the age of 52.
In the seventies the Giaconda snack bar had become a punk hang-out with groups such as The Clash and The Slits wasting their hours drinking tea. A few doors down from the cafe the Sex Pistols rehearsed and lived in a grotty flat above a shop at number 6 (they eventually left after struggling to find the measly £4 weekly rent). To this day Denmark Street is still obviously part of the music industry but is now almost completely dominated by musical instrument shops (an exception is the excellent but tiny 12 Bar Club music venue) and the Giaconda Cafe is now just an average Indian Restaurant called Spice Spice. Although possibly I’m wrong and it’s so good they named it twice.

I’m not sure if Denis Nilson, the infamous serial killer who murdered at least fifteen men in his flat in North London, had a musical note in his body but for some time in the late 1970s and early 80s he worked at the Job Centre at 1 Denmark Street. In 1980, which would have been right in the middle of his killing spree, he offered to help with the food for the office Christmas party and brought along a huge saucepan. Former colleagues only realised during the trial that this was the same saucepan that had been used to boil the heads of several of his victims.