What does it sound like?:
This is something of an odd product, described as a companion to last year’s Metrobolist. It consists of two CDs, housed in a DVD shaped book, with 104 pages of text, collecting all the material David Bowie recorded in 1970 other than The Man Who Sold The World album. The only other available physical product is a vinyl EP of four 2020 remixes of the singles.
Bowie began the year brimming with confidence. He’d just enjoyed the triumph of a number one single and had snared an Ivor Novello for Space Oddity. You can hear that self-assurance in disc one, a live recording from early February for The Sunday Show Introduced By John Peel, the first time he was treated as a star at the top of the bill for the BBC. Peel’s dulcet tones introduce each song in turn, engage in some exchanges with Bowie and throw in the occasional obtuse anecdote, anchoring the recording in time and place. You can smell the joss sticks and feel the Persian rug with your toes. Bowie plays twelve string (remember those?) and is accompanied by The Hype, a band with Mick Ronson on guitar, Tony Visconti bass and John Cambridge drums. The set is organised and well rehearsed, remarkable considering that Ronson had only come down from Hull a few days earlier. The original BBC tape is forever lost but a fan’s cassette was discovered in the eighties. Overall, however, the sound quality is surprisingly good.
Bowie is solo with his guitar for the first four tracks: Amsterdam, God Knows I’m Good, Buzz The Fuzz and Karma Man. His singing is relaxed and happy, free and uninhibited. Amsterdam by Jacques Brel is a bold choice for the BBC, especially on a Sunday, bristling with existential angst and bawdy imagery. Here is a song that Bowie wanted to emulate. God Knows I’m Good proves the point, sharing a similar structure and a cautionary tale narrative. Buzz The Fuzz is the first of two Biff Rose songs, a bad drug joke that wasn’t funny even then. Bass and guitar join for a couple of songs, then Ronson makes his entrance, tipping the quality of the recording into distortion. An early version of The Width Of A Circle is absent its coda. The strange freakshow voice is already in place for Fill Your Heart but Ronson hasn’t yet had time to work on the arrangement. The rest of the material in this showcase is mainly from the album, Space Oddity, being careful to avoid the single itself but adding the more commercial The Prettiest Star and London Bye Ta-Ta. The simplified sound-bed and the disciplined rhythm section help shift the songs from a meandering Folk to a snappier Pop. Renditions of Wide Eyed Boy From Freecloud, Unwashed And Somewhat Slightly Dazed and Cygnette Committee, among others, could be regarded as superior to the LP. Even Peel is moved to remark, “That was a real treat, actually.”
Disc two is something of an odds and sods. Mime was incredibly important to David Bowie. Lyndsay Kemp taught him a stagecraft that most other Pop stars lacked, a sophisticated, economical way of deporting himself whenever eyes were on him. These skills became an integral part of the Ziggy persona, essential to achieving that character’s iconic status. In 1967, he wrote the music for a Kemp play, The Looking Glass Murders aka Pierrot In Turquoise, in which he played the narrator, Cloud. The play itself and, therefore, the acoustic songs are heavily influenced by Bertolt Brecht, to such a degree they are effectively tributes. Three of the four are brief descriptions of the action, Threepenny Pierrot being notable as a precursor to London Bye Ta-Ta. When I Dream is the only one fully formed and is suitably overwrought and melodramatic. The show went on tour in 1967 and was marked by Kemp slashing his wrists, distraught when Bowie struck up an affair with the costume designer. Still, they remained friends. These recordings are from a Scottish TV screening on the 8th July 1970.
All year, Bowie struggled to find a hit single. In January, he made his first attempt to follow up to his number one. Marc Bolan played guitar on the session. His manager, Ken Pitt, favoured a 1968 song, London Bye Ta-Ta from Bowie’s Deram days, a previously rejected B side. It has a fetching melody and a young, fresh feel, presented here in both mono and stereo versions. However, Bowie was besotted with Angie. He’d written The Prettiest Star as a wedding proposal in the style of a Greek hasapiko dance in tribute to her Cypriot ethnic origin. The version here is a mix for promotion in the US, the UK edition being available on Re:call 1 in the first Five Years box. In June, Memory Of A Free Festival was re-recorded for a part one and part two single for the US market. It’s Woody Woodmansey’s and Ronson’s studio debut with Bowie. Leap forward to November, after MWSTW, and the fruitless search for a single continued. Holy Holy is heavily influenced by Tyrannosaurus Rex, a point emphasised by choosing the Bolan pastiche, Black Country Rock, as a B side. None of The Hype are present. All these singles failed to even scratch the backside of the charts.
The tracks for Sounds Of The Seventies show, presented by Andy Ferris and broadcast on 6th April, are much heavier, displaying a nicely settled in Hype moving towards the sound of the Man Who Sold The World LP itself. There’s a strait-laced, very English cover of Waiting For The Man, a song Bowie would return to repeatedly throughout his career. The Width Of A Circle is now almost complete, a sky blackens around Wild Eyed Boy From Freecloud and The Supermen is thunderous.
Finally, Tony Visconti is let loose to apply a 2020 remix to the singles. He allows his sentimentality to run away with him for The Prettiest Star, over-sweetening a delicate amuse bouche. London Bye Ta-Ta is much catchier and more brisk, proving, at last, that it could have been a contender. He transforms Memory Of A Free Festival into a very legitimate single, bringing out lots of creative details and allowing the coda to stretch the song out to double its length, without it overstaying its welcome. The single edit of All The Madmen is magnificent, brooding with malice, its intensity magnified by its brevity. Then, of course, who else can bring out the best of Holy Holy other than Marc Bolan’s own producer?
The Width Of A Circle documents a difficult year for David Bowie. He began 1970 as a top-of-the-bill star with a working band ready to conquer the world. He was even in a position to employ Marc Bolan as a session guitarist. However, distracted by his new wife and a determination to change manager, everything he released flopped. He ended the year without a hit, without a producer, without a band, hopelessly chasing Bolan’s coat-tails. Nevertheless, he had a germ of an idea, formed during The Hype’s accomplished performance for Sounds On Sunday. Amazingly, he never lost belief.
What does it all *mean*?
The Width Of A Circle is an interesting development in David Bowie’s back catalogue reissue programme. The Five Year boxes gather together all the official releases, some additional live shows and, maybe, a Tony Visconti remix. The extras on the Rykodisc releases are absent. But, here they are, fleshed out with more unreleased material from 1970 across two discs while the remix The Man Who Sold The World album is sold as a separate entity, both at reasonable prices. It’s also a vindication for the compact disc physical format. The whole thing would be unwieldy on anything else. David Bowie fans must be apoplectic with joy at the implications for their bank balance. It feels more like a completist dream than a business enterprise. The casual observer can just buy Metrobolist and the obsessive will fork out for both without a moment’s hesitation. There are still at least three more Five Year boxes to come. If there are issues like this every year as well, we are set well for the rest of our lives, but, please! I beg you to officially release Toy before I die.
I’m already looking forward to the equivalent for 1971.
Goes well with…
For disc one, it’s best to replicate the experience of listening to the wireless in 1970 by using a single speaker. All bets are off for disc two.
28th May 2021
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