Fifty years ago, everything changed for David Bowie. He went from a singer on the fringes to finally finding success with Space Oddity. After the failure of his debut album two years earlier, just how did Bowie become the Starman? As three new vinyl boxsets explore his transformation, John Earls speaks to his bandmates and former girlfriend Hermione Farthingale.
David Bowie was 22 when Space Oddity was released as a single on 11 July, 1969. He was hardly a pensioner but, having started his first band The Konrads at school seven years earlier, there were already many unsuccessful singles, and the failed 1967 self-titled album on Deram behind him.
While Bowie would go on to be praised rightly for the chameleonic unpredictability of his albums, at the time his shifting styles made it seem as if he didn’t know how he should sound.
Lesser artists would have packed it in by then. What kept Bowie going wasn’t the desire to be famous so much as the need to keep being a singer. His girlfriend at the time, Hermione Farthingale knew what drove him. “The idea that David wanted to be famous is something that came a bit later,” says Farthingale. “When you’re being an artist, you’re just in that moment. Yes, David wanted to be known. He wanted to get work and be asked to come back and do more, but that’s so he could do the things he wanted.”
‘He worked every day. There was no downtime for David in being a singer-songwriter, he did it round the clock.’
Bowie didn’t write many songs in 1968, the year after the Deram album, but he was hardly idle. “When David’s LP flopped, there was a time when he didn’t know what he was,” explains Farthingale. Bowie’s manager Ken Pitt and the singer’s father, John Jones, were trying to figure out what was next. “They were very interested in David’s talent. It was, ‘What’s our boy going to be?’”
Over the next few months, various ideas were mooted: children’s TV presenter, actor (Bowie had a two-second appearance in comedy war film The Virgin Soldiers), cabaret performer… “David and Ken got a cabaret repertoire together,” Farthingale recalls. “A lot of time was wasted on all this.”
Bowie was a mime artist when he met Farthingale, a classically trained dancer. Aside from music, mime exerted the biggest pull. “David loved mime and couldn’t bear to let it go,” states Farthingale. “He’d had his first experience of what it’s like to be immersed in a character, in full costume and make-up. For somebody quite anxious and fragile – shy, if you like – a character allows you to be braver. That device was something David used for a long time, until he was brave enough to drop it and be himself.”
Bowie occasionally performed solo as a mime artist, with London shows at Wigmore Hall and counter-culture hangout Middle Earth. “It was just weird, frankly,” says Farthingale. “To be a solo mime, you had to be famous. Whereas David was just a lad doing mime to, usually, rock audiences who weren’t expecting it.” The nadir was opening for Tyrannosaurus Rex at London Royal Festival Hall, where Bowie performed a mime called Jetsun And The Eagle, about the Chinese invasion of Tibet. “Marc Bolan had told David: ‘You can open for us, providing you don’t sing,’” laughs Farthingale. “David was so sweet and so fearless to take on this gargantuan subject, but he went down like a lead balloon. His performance was political and not what people expected at all.”
Learning His Craft
As well as this cluster of non-musical activity, there were practical reasons why Bowie wasn’t writing many new songs. “His lifestyle had changed,” Farthingale explains. “He wasn’t at home in his old teenage bedroom, where he’d strum away until the early hours. Staying with Ken, he’d do much the same. Maybe his life was different because he was with me.” Bowie and Farthingale lived in the top floor of a shared house in Clareville Grove. That’s in the hugely affluent South Kensington, though Farthingale points out: “It didn’t cost the earth there then, which was good because we were so broke.”
While Farthingale appeared in films such as Oh! What A Lovely War and Goodbye Mr Chips, Bowie would have recording sessions with his new friend Tony Visconti, who was then the in-house producer for publishers Essex Music. “David was always playing songs, polishing them, making up snippets – they just weren’t complete songs,” says Farthingale. “He didn’t stop the songwriting process – he couldn’t. He worked every day. There was no downtime for David in being a singer-songwriter, he did it round the clock.”
Another important figure was Bowie’s lifelong friend George Underwood, who met the singer in the cub scouts in Bromley aged nine. He’d been Bowie’s guitarist in The Konrads and the similarly formative The Hooker Brothers, before playing rhythm guitar on Bowie’s 1964 debut single Liza Jane in Davie Jones With The King Bees. Underwood was briefly a singer himself, appearing on Thank Your Lucky Stars with his single Some Things You Never Get Used To under the alias Calvin James. Asked if his success spurred Bowie on, Underwood laughs: “It’d be nice to think so! He probably was gritting his teeth and thinking, ‘I’m going to show that bloody Underwood I can do better’. If he saw any music on TV, David was always, ‘Bloody hell, I can do better than that’.”
For Underwood, the leap in quality after the Deram album was explained simply. “David was learning his craft,” he reasons. “He was learning how to put a song together. He’d made a few crappy songs, and he probably knew they were rubbish. But David was someone who thought, ‘I’m going to get this right’. There were moments along the way where he’d go, ‘Ooh!’ and ‘Ah, right! If I do this, then that happens!’ He was putting in so much practice, his learning process suddenly took a big curve upwards.”
Struggling as he was, Bowie liked to work with friends who shared his artistic spirit. Underwood went on to be a successful artist, designing the sleeves for Hunky Dory and The Rise And Fall Of Ziggy Stardust And The Spiders From Mars. He got his first major break in 1968, when Bowie recommended Underwood to Marc Bolan to design the sleeve for Tyrannosaurus Rex’s debut album My People Were Fair And Had Sky In Their Hair…But Now They’re Content To Wear Stars On Their Brows. Underwood recalls: “David rang me and said, ‘I’ve got this mate who’s made a record. Come over and have a chat’. We sat down together and tried to figure out what Marc wanted. Trying to get into Marc’s psyche wasn’t easy. It wasn’t quite clear, so I just did my own thing and it seemed to work.”
Eventually, in September 1968, Bowie hit on an idea which tied together all his interests in the arts. He and Farthingale formed mixed media trio Feathers with guitarist John ‘Hutch’ Hutchinson. Originally from Scarborough, Hutch was the first significant Yorkshire musician in Bowie’s life, as a precursor to Hull’s own Spiders From Mars (Bowie’s father was also a Yorkshireman, from Doncaster). After solo success in Sweden as a folk singer, when Hutch moved back to England he joined David Bowie And The Buzz in 1966. “Some of my favourite memories of David were those Marquee gigs with The Buzz,” says Hutch. “I’d say David’s many different early phases were important.” Hutch was brought in to Feathers to boost their musicianship. “Hutch was pulled in because he was a strong musician,” Farthingale explains. “David knew that, at that time, he wasn’t a rock-solid virtuoso musician.”
There was much more to Feathers than music. “There were a lot of different strands going on and David’s extraordinary mind was working away,” says Farthingale. “So he said, ‘Let’s try this multimedia performance’. The work wasn’t coming to David, so he thought, ‘Let’s create the work’. Feathers was what you’d now call physical theatre. Nowadays, it’s two-a-penny at the Edinburgh Fringe, but it just wasn’t at all common then. There wasn’t even the phrase ‘physical theatre’ then. David could do mime, I was a classical dancer and between us, we told a story through movement. From his work with Lindsay Kemp, David had enough physical control and suppleness to move his body like a dancer. He was incredibly good at it, because he was a fearless performer who’d throw himself totally into something.”
‘David’s imagination went all over the place’
Feathers’ mix of music, dance, mime and poetry was helped by The Arts Lab, the Covent Garden performance space opened in 1967, where Bowie would regularly rehearse. “It was a place you could experiment,” recalls Farthingale. “David wanted to see what it was like to do a song, then go into a poem, then do a mime… all these different ways of acting out the same thing, seeing what happens to the energy in the audience. It wasn’t David Bowie and his backing band, as we hardly did his songs. The songs we did perform were just plucked from the air, the nearest things to hand that we liked.”
Their set featured covers of Jacques Brel’s Amsterdam and My Death, Djinn’s Life Is A Circus and Love Song by Bowie’s friend Lesley Duncan. “David would sing the Brel songs, with Hutch and I as the angel chorus,” Farthingale recalls. “Life Is A Circus was lovely; equal three-part singing where there wasn’t a lead singer.” Although a dancer, Farthingale took to being a musician. “David was very positive and encouraging,” she enthuses. “He was a person who brought you out, not locked you up, so I got braver about singing.”
One fan who saw Feathers was Old Grey Whistle Test host Bob Harris, who told the documentary David Bowie: The Man Who Changed The World: “The first time I saw David was with Feathers. He wasn’t doing much of the lead singing, he was much more the mime artist, expressing the music. I thought he was magnetic, I really did.”
An unexpected bonus came from The Times in December 1968, who praised Feathers’ “rather high-class brand of poetry and mime” alongside a huge photo of them.
But Feathers didn’t capitalise on such attention – not least because Bowie’s manager Ken Pitt was against the group from the outset. “Ken hated that David was working with Hutch and I,” says Farthingale. “His view was ‘What a waste of time’. We were a trio of fair and red-headed people doing folky things, and he wanted to get on with making his boy famous. Hutch and I were an irritant to Ken. Publicity like The Times’ piece was never going to be capitalised on, because it wasn’t something Ken wanted to promote.”
The trio perform in the film Love You Till Tuesday, made to promote the Deram album in Germany, where it enjoyed reasonable success. Pitt was against their appearance but, says Farthingale: “David was starting to fall out with Ken. He stood up to him for the first time and said, ‘I’m only doing this with Hutch and Hermione’.” They perform album tracks Sell Me A Coat and Love You Till Tuesday, plus Ching-A-Ling – one of the new songs Bowie did write in 1968.
“A terrible song,” laughs Farthingale. “I’ve been accused of sounding like I was too posh to sing because of Ching-A-Ling, but it’s hard to sing that one without sounding like Mary Poppins!” She also regrets their styled image
in the film, saying: “We look like children’s television presenters – colourful and squeaky clean, David in a silly blue suit. That wasn’t remotely how Feathers looked or how we presented ourselves.” Although in black-and-white, photos of concerts taken by Bowie’s friend Ray Stevenson show Feathers’ performance aspect more clearly. “We’re wearing costumes like you’d see in contemporary dance,” says Farthingale. “They’re not clothes as such, more like dark unitards where you can see the sculptural qualities of the body. That was deliberate, we were being bodies, like you’d see in dance.”
Song Of Norway
Stevenson had known Bowie since photographing his solo mime show at Middle Earth. He enjoyed chronicling him during the period, saying: “David was very co-operative when it came to being photographed. He’d make little quips about me between songs at shows. We did a session at Clareville Grove, which he wanted to look like the With The Beatles cover: black sweaters against a black background. They were sharp and he looks good, my favourite photos I took of David.”
Feathers had some recording sessions with Tony Visconti. Despite Farthingale’s reservations, Visconti viewed Ching-A-Ling as a potential single. “Visconti didn’t seem to want me there,” recalls Hutch. “I never knew why. I could play guitar, I could sing and I’d paid my dues – I’d had some success in Sweden. I believed in myself, so what was his problem? We can’t get along with everyone, can we?” Farthingale believes the tension was a clash of personalities. “It went slightly wrong, maybe as Hutch was the quiet Yorkshireman and Tony was Brooklyn American,” she ponders. “They didn’t click, but Tony adored me as I did him.”
Feathers ended in December 1968 when Farthingale was offered a part in Song Of Norway, a big-budget MGM musical which needed her to be away for seven months’ filming. Her relationship with Bowie was over, too. “It was awful, heartbreaking,” says Farthingale. “The biggest reason I took the job was because I hadn’t had my career. The rock music world was funny to me. If you’re a dancer, you work hard every day, doing classes, rehearsals and performances. I’d been freelance for a year to be with David, and not having had my career led to the unravelling of everything else. Even when I finished Song Of Norway, I wanted to go into a dance company and be away on tour, and I couldn’t see how this relationship was going to continue. When you’re 19, you do these things spontaneously, then you have a lot of years to work out why you did them.” The money from Song Of Norway was effectively three years’ wages.
After Farthingale left, Bowie and Hutch began a whirlwind of demos, captured on the new Spying Through A Keyhole, Clareville Grove and The ‘Mercury’ Demos boxsets. It’s the first time previously unheard Bowie songs have been officially available after years of bootlegs, giving fans chance to hear songs such as Lover To The Dawn, Goodbye 3d Joe and Angel Angel Grubby Face, which Bowie had been polishing up since writing them in the aftermath of the Deram album’s failure. “It’s fantastic to hear these old tracks again,” says Hutch. “It’s great Parlophone have put them out – it was a total surprise for me!” Recalling their working methods, Hutch adds: “After Hermione left for Norway, David and I set about recording these demos. I had a day job in North London, so we’d rehearse and record at Clareville Grove in the evenings. During breaks, we’d go to an Indian restaurant, come back and share a vegetable curry.”
The highlight of the boxsets is The ‘Mercury’ Demos, a 10-song demo for Mercury Records boss Bob Reno. The album keeps Bowie and Hutch’s between-songs chat. “David borrowed a Revox reel-to-reel tape recorder and one microphone,” says Hutch. “We put the Revox and the mic on the chest of drawers, sat on the bed and played the songs in one take.”
The boxsets also enable listeners to trace the progress of another song Bowie wrote in 1968: Space Oddity. Farthingale recalls how the song took shape when Marc Bolan gave Bowie a Stylophone. “When David started playing around with the Stylophone, it became ‘Ground Control to Major Tom’ because it sounded like a space journey,” says Farthingale, who still owns an acetate of the original recordings of The ‘Mercury’ Demos. “Most people who heard Space Oddity for the first time, including me, just went, ‘Wow!’ It was a spine-tingling moment.”
The demos show how Space Oddity was conceived as a duet, with Hutch singing the part of Ground Control. The guitarist is one of the few initially unsure of its merits. “I agreed with his title – it was an oddity,” Hutch admits. “But lots of David’s songs had been unusual in their form and content, so that was nothing new.”
By the time Mercury offered Bowie a one-album deal in June, Hutch was gone too, moving back to Scarborough with his wife and child. “There was nothing happening,” states Hutch, who went on to have a successful career in the oil industry. “Also, I never really got on with living in London.” Would he have liked to keep Space Oddity as a duet? “David made it as a solo, and the record company were happy with that. So nobody had to go looking for his Garfunkel lost in Yorkshire! It’s impossible to say, ‘What if’ if we’d signed a record deal together, so I don’t try.”
Dave, You’ve Got A Hit!
The album – called David Bowie like the Deram album two years earlier, because record collectors love such confusion – was produced by Visconti and Gus Dudgeon. George Underwood was a regular visitor to the studio. “It’s a lovely album,” states the artist. “When David finished singing Memory Of A Free Festival, he broke down and cried, as he’d put so much emotion into his vocals.”
In what became a trademark, Bowie worked as quickly as possible in the studio. Throughout his career, Bowie was famed for only doing two or three vocal takes of each song. “David’s imagination went all over the place,” says Underwood. “When we were kids, one minute David was into American football, the next comics. He wasn’t quite settled down, and he never, ever was. In the studio, if something started to drag, his attention would wane. If things were happening, he loved being in the studio. He’d be great, and he could create things on the spot. When he wrote lyrics, sometimes he wouldn’t know how a song would end up. He’d do something weird to it.”
Ray Stevenson was one of the first to hear the studio version of Space Oddity, on an acetate he listened to with Bowie and Visconti. “I’d never heard anything like it from David,” the photographer raves. “I said, ‘Dave, you’ve got a hit! This is fantastic!’ Tony was very stony-faced. I don’t know if it’s because he didn’t produce it, or because he disapproved of the song at the time because, as he’s since said, it was a one-off: there was nothing else like it on the album to follow it with.”
Letter To Hermione and An Occasional Dream were explicitly about Bowie’s break-up from Hermione Farthingale. “I’d spent a year away,” says Farthingale. “By then, David was involved with Angie. I heard the album in February and he married Angie on 20 March. It wasn’t as if Letter To Hermione was a real letter or a song that required an answer. It’s a heartbreaking song, beautifully constructed, although I slightly lose the intensity of it in the verse with ‘He treats you well’. That was fictitious, because David didn’t know what was going on in my life. His songwriter’s hat was so strong by then that he couldn’t help turning it into a country ballad of ‘You broke my heart, who’s this other man?’ I felt the artificial construct in that verse. But it was a completely heartbreaking song, which touches the essence of what it’s like to break up with someone you really love.”
An Occasional Dream was even more personal, as Farthingale says: “There’s not a word in that which I don’t understand. I’m not going to share them, but there are references there no-one else will quite get. What’s extraordinary about David is his lyrics – I’m not sure he’s been credited enough for the genius of his poetry: ‘In my madness, I see your face in mine.’ Well, I saw my face in his. We were very alike. As he said in an interview, we looked alike and we thought alike. It was a relationship which lacked polarity. We were the same thing.” Of the album in general, Farthingale says: “It’s a little looser than the Deram album. David had stopped being such
a storyteller. There are subjects, like Wild Eyed Boy From Freecloud, but it’s not tales from beginning to end, like Uncle Arthur.”
The album’s back cover is of an Underwood painting, ‘The Depth Of The Circle’, based on a drawing Bowie gave him featuring illustrations relating to each of its nine songs. “It was scribbles for me to enhance,” says Underwood. “Space Oddity is based on the statue of Americans holding the flag at Iwo Jima. David said, ‘Instead of Americans, let’s have two spacemen holding a rose’. There’s a white Pierrot clown who ended up in the Ashes To Ashes video as well.” What happened to Bowie’s original drawing? “I kept that piece of paper for years,” Underwood laughs.
“I thought about putting it on eBay, but David said, ‘Don’t you dare!’ so I gave it back to him.”
Space Oddity was released three weeks before the first moon landing. Its ability to cash in on Apollo 11 was squashed when the BBC refused to play it before Neil Armstrong walked on the moon, feeling it’d be in poor taste if the crew perished. Once mankind took its giant leap, Space Oddity reached No. 5. “There’d been no definite signs David was going to be extraordinary,” says Underwood. “But his determination was steadfast. He was determined, one way or another, to break through. And he certainly did, didn’t he?”
Spying Through A Keyhole and Clareville Grove Demos are available now. The ‘Mercury’ Demos boxset is out on 28 June. George Underwood’s exhibition Imaginary People is at Fosse Gallery, Stow-On-The-Wold and John ‘Hutch’ Hutchinson’s memoir Bowie And Hutch is out now.