❉ David Bowie had more than one ‘Laughing Gnome’ up his sleeve. Meet the relatives…
As We Are Cult has a remit to focus on the more wayward and quirky aspects of pop culture, we thought we’d make a contribution to what would have been David Bowie’s 70th birthday with two tracks you likely won’t read about in the other retrospectives you’ll come across this weekend.
Once upon a time, a young singer-songwriter, who’d freshly cast off the shackles of the declining ‘Mod’ scene made an unusual single. It failed to chart, and was swiftly forgotten until a few years later, when the young dude had gone on to bigger and better things, and his old record label reissued it as a cash-in to a mix of amusement and bemusement from the pretty things that followed him. In 1973, it romped to Number 6 in the UK charts. “’Rock N Roll Suicide’ bit the dust and the laughing gnomes took over!”, his rival Marc Bolan chortled in ‘Record Mirror’.
The Laughing Gnome, David Bowie’s eighth consecutive flop single when released in 1967, has been routinely bashed by critics as “dreadful”, “embarrassing” and “facetious” and frequently portrayed as the nadir of his then-manager Ken Pitt’s attempt to mould Bowie into an “all-round entertainer” in the mould of Anthony Newley or Tommy Steele – Strawberry Fair meets The Little White Bull with a big old dollop of ‘Hello Children Everywhere’ favourite The Laughing Policeman on top.
For Bowie, producer Mike Vernon and engineer Gus Dudgeon (who provided the little fella’s interjections) it was nothing more than a seasonal wheeze, concocted between the trio over Christmas 1967 and taken into the studio fifty years ago this month.
Anyone familiar with Bowie’s time on the Deram label will know that The Laughing Gnome wasn’t completely out of leftfield – although the novelty number didn’t appear on Bowie’s eponymous debut platter, it would not have been out of place alongside other slices of vaudevillian juvenalia found amongst its grooves, such as We Are Hungry Men with its Light Programme comedy voices straight out of The Goons or ‘Round The Horne’, Uncle Arthur or She’s Got Medals – although these songs and others on ‘David Bowie’ are deceptively subversive, flirting with themes such as cannibalism, child murder, transvestitism, and suspected paedophilia.
In 1997, Bowie admitted that, had the 1967 model Bowie made it big, “I’d have written ten ‘Laughing Gnomes’, not just one!”
Not half! The Laughing Gnome is far from the only skeleton in the Dame’s closet that owes more to ‘Round The Horne’ than The Velvet Underground (Although… Read on!). As We Are Cult has a remit to focus on the more wayward and quirky aspects of pop culture, we thought we’d make a contribution to what would have been David Bowie’s 70th birthday with two tracks you likely won’t read about in the other retrospectives you’ll come across this weekend.
At around the time of the Deram sessions in December 1966, Bowie cut a rough solo demo of a number entitled Over The Wall We Go, a cheery singalong with a chorus (“Over the wall we go! All coppers are ‘nanas!”) set to the melody of Pop Goes The Weasel.
Bowie’s demo version has been doing the rounds since it surfaced on a bootleg single in 1979 coupled with a 1966 interview for Radio London, later appearing on the official-looking bootleg CD ‘The Forgotten Songs of David Robert Jones’ which could briefly be found in the Oxford Street branch of HMV.
A version recorded by one Oscar Bueselnick was released in 1967 on Robert Stigwood’s Reaction label, gaining some airplay on pirate radio stations. ‘Oscar’ was a pre-fame pseudonym for actor and singer Paul Nicholas, whose career path of musicals, sitcoms and cheesy singles is pretty much suggestive of how Bowie’s own career could have played out if Bowie’s manager’s dreams of Bowie as all-round entertainer had paid off, had fate not had more otherworldly plans for the Brixton boy.
The Oscar single was reissued by RSO in 1977, this time credited to ‘Ivor Bird’ – groan – and later graced Bowie covers compilation ‘Oh! You Pretty Things’, nestled alongside such strange bedfellows as Billy Fury, Ronnie Hilton, Lulu and Dana Gillespie.
In its original demo incarnation, Over The Wall We Go is – loosely speaking – a Christmas record, a daft little ditty concerning a feckless gang of crims going AWOL from Her Majesty’s Pleasure in order to spend Christmas with their mothers.
The jailbreak theme was likely inspired by stories of high profile prison escapes that had been in the headlines: Most infamously, Ronnie Biggs who broke out of Wandsworth Prison in 1965 to join the Sex Pistols, and Soviet spy George Blake’s escape from Wormwood Scrubs in October 1966.
Bowie’s light entertainment streak and his lifelong gift for mimickry are showcased on the recording, with each verse sung ‘in character’ by a different jailbird – in one verse channelling Bernard Bresslaw of ‘The Army Game’ and numerous ‘Carry On’s as ‘fick ‘Enery’, and another delivered in an affectation of John Lennon’s Scouse drawl.
Bowie-spotters might like to note that DB makes a vocal cameo in the Paul Nicholas version, appearing in the middle of a roll-call of inmates, offering a camp “Hi…” as 33425.
Camp? “For most, the idea of camp means overtly effeminate behaviour; the ostentatious demonstration of homosexuality. By this standard, Bowie was not camp at this stage” , Bowie biographer David Buckley wrote of this period, in ‘Strange Fascination’, yet Over The Wall We Go is certifiably Bowie’s first flirtation with a camp sensibility, albeit closer to Julian & Sandy than Jean Genet.
Take a vada at the following verses from the ‘Oscar’ recording:
I know all the best ways to break out of here
I helped a young laddie called Ivan
I bundled him over the wall last night
Then he climbed back and he grabbed me tight
He uttered some words that I can’t say to you
‘Cause he remembered that he was a screw
My name is Henry though some say I’m thick
I’ve spent half me life in and out of the nick
My mum sends me presents to keep me in style
Soggy old cakes and hundreds of files
Now I sussed all them files I’m a clever young man
Now I look stupid with manicured hands
My name is Reggie the scandalous mind
I got seven years so I gossip my time
I gave all the tickbits and pieces of newt
I’m a privileged corpse and my uniform is blue
The new lads would ask me if I am a screw
I’ll tell them “Oh cheeky not even for you”
The Bowie demo jokes that the prison wardens are heartbroken once the prisoners have flown the coop ( “Nobody’s left and the screws are in tears”, the chorus tells us) while the ‘roll-call’ section ends with a bit of camp banter:
“Double 3, 429, Double 3, 429, where is he?”
“He went out for a cup of tea at the local football match, Sir.”
[sniffily] “Oh… well he might have invited me…”
Bowie would put a far more revolutionary spin on these gay games when he found stardom with his alter ego Ziggy Stardust, making such provocative utterances as: “Tell your readers that they can make up their minds about me when I begin getting adverse publicity: when I’m found in bed with Raquel Welch’s husband”. By contrast, the camp overtones of Over The Wall we Go are strictly within the parameters of the unthreatening (and by the same token, subversive) camp humour of the time – ‘Round The Horne’, Alan Bennett’s ‘The Dresser’ sketch – and part of a strand of British ‘saucy’ humour dating back to seaside postcards, Old Mother Riley and the Christmas pantomime. In terms of humour acknowledging homosexual activity, this was about as far as the general public could come to terms with, as the 1967 Sexual Offences Act legislating the Wolfenden Report’s recommendations that gay men be allowed to practise consensual sex “in private” was still just around the corner at the time of this demo.
So, Over The Wall We Go is at once a bit of a throwaway and a curious footnote in terms of Bowie’s adoption of camp, but also proof that the ‘novelty’ comedy approach of The Laughing Gnome was by no means a one-off slice of levity, for Bowie and the rock scene generally.
Point of fact, rock was going comedy-wild as England swung like a pendulum do. Tim Worthington recently explored the rich seam of the intersection between comedy and ‘60s rock:
Back when pretty much everything in the charts was still seen as ‘pop’, ‘pop’ itself was in turn still largely seen – at least in the UK – as essentially an offshoot of Light Entertainment. Many of the biggest pop acts – including, at least initially, The Beatles and The Rolling Stones – actually still played the variety circuit, and most fancied themselves as ‘all round’ entertainers who could raise a chortle as easily and efficiently as they could inspire a dance craze. Even beyond the more overtly comedic likes of Freddie And The Dreamers and The Temperance Seven, you will still find a far broader vein of humour running through the average sixties popular beat combo’s discography than you would do for any randomly selected act at pretty much any point since then.
So, the young David Bowie was far from alone in trading riffs for quips at this point in his career, but another unreleased Bowie ‘novelty’ recording of a similar vintage went a bit further in terms of risqué material, but still had one elegantly-shod foot placed firmly in the arena of that unique strain of very English whimsy with a dark undertone: The furrow of “Something nasty in the nursery” Victoriana that the Kinks and the Pink Floyd were ploughing.
Toy Soldier – commonly titled on bootlegs as ‘Little Toy Soldier’, and sometimes referred to as ‘Little Sadie’ – is on the one hand a darker excursion into the deceptively sinister whimsy of ‘David Bowie’s less rosy cuts, while also offering the first explicit acknowledgment of the influence of a band whose work would become, in time, one of Bowie’s most significant influences; The Velvet Underground.
In late 1966, Ken Pitt returned from a business trip to New York with an acetate of the Velvet Underground’s as-yet unreleased first album, ‘The Velvet Underground And Nico’, which he presented to his young protégé who became immediately enamoured with the album.
By early 1967, Bowie was gigging with London band The Riot Squad, fronting the line-up for about twenty gigs between March and May 1967. In their brief time together Bowie attempted to mould The Riot Squad into an approximation of some of his current faves: The Mothers of Invention, the Fugs, and the Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band, urging them to become more theatrical. This effectively places The Riot Squad as Bowie’s first stumblings towards what he would ultimately realise as Ziggy Stardust and The Spiders From Mars, forerunners to subsequent failed attempts The Hype and Arnold Corns.
Before their paths split, Bowie went into Decca Studios on 5 April 1967 with the band. As well as Silly Boy Blue and Silver Treetop School For Boys (“The great lost Bowie song of the 60s” according to Chris O’Leary’s excellent blog Pushing Ahead Of The Dame), Bowie and co. cut a stiff, plodding version of Waiting For The Man notable for Bowie’s asthmatic, wheezing sax – and the bouncy, cutesy jingle Toy Soldier, a deviant toe-tapper about a schoolgirl named Sadie who daily strips off and winds up her clockwork soldier so that it whips her repeatedly. Little Sadie can’t get enough and one day she winds up so hard that – Bowie announces in the same stentorian tones that graced his reading of children’s favourite ‘Peter and the Wolf’ 11 years later – “Suddenly! The little toy soldier’s spring went… [FX] … AND-IT-BEAT-HER-TO-DEATH!”
The track climaxes with hollers and a headlong dive into the toybox of Decca’s sound effects library: Explosions, breaking glass, sneezes, and the robotic tones of the speaking clock – again, the comedy sound effects call to mind Bowie’s forays into the realms of the BBC Light Programme on We Are Hungry Men and the anarchic breakdown of Mod piss-take Join The Gang, but the subject matter, writes Bowie chronicler Nicholas Pegg, “jettisons ‘David Bowie’s serio-comic vignettes in favour of full-blown fetishism…. Although the results are deliberately cartoonish the track is a turning-point of sorts, marking Bowie’s first delve into a kinky netherworld that had been opened up to him by his recent discovery of bands like the Velvets.”
And indeed, for the chorus of this tale of teatime brutality for tots, Bowie lifted the chorus of Venus In Furs wholesale (“Taste the whip and love not given lightly/Taste the whip and bleed for me”), complete with Lou Reed sneer.
The combination of transgressive material and Reed plagiarism goes some way towards explaining why this 1967 outtake has never troubled the countless repackages of Deram material over the years, but after decades of enjoying life on the bootleg circuit this remarkable rarity escaped from the toyroom, appearing on a Record Store Day EP ‘The Toy Soldier EP’, credited to The Riot Squad Featuring David Bowie, issued by Acid Jazz Records in 2013.
Viewed in conjunction, Over The Wall We Go and Toy Soldier not only betray the lie that The Laughing Gnome was some kind of cringe-worthy lapse of taste – as if he normally sang about more sensible things, like Martians, roller-skating mutants in fur coats, cars called Rupert, and computers going MENTAL – but also serve as reminders that, even before he truly found his voice, Bowie straddled the sublime and the ridiculous, took himself a lot less seriously than his most po-faced defenders would insist, and carried his tongue firmly placed within cheek for vast swathes of his career.
As we remember David Bowie’s brilliance on what would have been his 70th birthday, it’s worth keeping in mind that his vast body of work should be celebrated for the youthful follies and midlife crises – the Laughing Gnomes, Glass Spiders, Tin Machines and Goblin Kings – as much as the peerless peaks of [insert classic album here] if we’re to really get a measure of what the ‘Viz’-reading Bromley spaceboy was about. And while these two outtakes may ultimately be mere historical footnotes , the fact that even a couple of inconsequential leftovers can be pored over and dissected for hints of his future greatness is itself testament to the fact that we’re not going to run out of ways to enjoy and appreciate his back catalogue in our lifetime. Happy birthday, David, wherever you are!