❉ Martin Ruddock on the ‘lost’ Bowie single, recorded 50 years ago today on the singer’s 23rd birthday.
“London Bye Ta-Ta is a driving piece of late-period psychedelic Mod pop… Bowie’s vocal cheekily mixes patois, playful identity-bending, nursery-rhyme, and a strident “I LOVED her!” over a rocking boogie riff that anticipates Ziggy both in Bowie’s wail and the riffola of the Spiders.”
During his Deram years, Bowie had a fair few earworms, songs that stuck in his psyche and revisited again and again as he continued to feel his way toward success, (notably When I Live My Dream, which he seems to have been trying to coax through various versions into becoming a standard). One of the most notable of these is London Bye Ta-Ta, one of the few songs of this era to survive the transition from Deram to Mercury, but more of that later.
The earliest known version is a scratchy home demo that debuted on the Spying Through A Keyhole demo set (Parlophone 9029549508, 2019) dating from (most likely) December ‘67. Recorded several times in studio (and once for a BBC session) as first a proposed B-side then a single, it was left unreleased each time. Its rejection is somewhat mystifying given that it’s one of Bowie’s catchier and more commercial songs from this period, but it’s possible that Deram were just fed up of Bowie by this point, which was ironic considering his considerably tougher-sounding and more commercial recent recordings with Visconti, that decisively jettisoned the ghost of Anthony Newley.
Purportedly inspired by an overheard conversation between a Jamaican family at Victoria Station, London Bye Ta-Ta is a driving piece of late-period psychedelic Mod pop. Centred around the seemingly-endless jangling cyclical riffs to be derived from the Mod guitarist’s best friend D Major sus4 (see also The Bells Of Rhymney by The Byrds, All Or Nothing by The Small Faces, the capo’d up-the-neck variation in If I Needed Someone by The Beatles, and the line-end flourishes of The Move’s Fire Brigade), London Bye Ta-Ta motors along nicely. Bowie’s vocal cheekily mixes patois (his pronunciation of the title), playful identity-bending (“Don’t like your new face”), nursery-rhyme (“Red-light, green-light, make up your mind”), Ray Davies-like bitchiness (“She loves to love all beauty, and she says the norm is funny, but she whimpers in the morning when she finds she has no money”), and a strident “I LOVED her!” over a rocking boogie riff that anticipates Ziggy both in Bowie’s wail and the riffola of the Spiders. Visconti’s inventive arrangement on the original features nose-diving strings, horse-clop percussion, the jangling guitar of future sideman Mick Wayne, and unusually a second bass overdubbed on the “Red-light, green-light” sections.
Falling by the wayside after the rejection of In The Heat Of The Morning, the master tape of London Bye Ta-Ta also managed to go missing, meaning this version frustratingly only survives on a wonky bootleg. A BBC session recorded in May 1968 (‘Bowie At The Beeb’; CD: EMI 7243 5 28629 2 4, 2000; LP: Parlophone DBBBCLP6872, 2016) is very similar to the lost original in both arrangement and vocal effects, while the studio version that would eventually surface decades later on the special edition CD of David Bowie (CD: Deram/Universal UMC 531 792-5, 2010) is a different take with a single-tracked vocal and different lyrics in places.
London Bye Ta-Ta would continue to linger on the periphery for Bowie, who elected to revive it in the wake of his first chart success. This may have been partly prompted by the unusual fixation of many of his more recent songs around the key of D (Wild-Eyed Boy From Freecloud, Letter To Hermione, An Occasional Dream), but the decisive moment came in early 1970 when Bowie learned that the original version had gone astray as Decca and Ken Pitt prepared the track list for the cash-in compilation The World Of David Bowie. Bowie promptly reclaimed the song for himself, cutting a new, more driving version with Visconti (who doubles up on bass, and likely also the unison 12-string guitar overdub on the bridge) and what’s almost definitely Marc Bolan on lead guitar, as a proposed follow-up to Space Oddity.
This new version, unusually for Bowie, featured massed female backing vocals from the duo Sue and Sunny and old flame Lesley Duncan (Visconti had recently worked with Hair star Marsha Hunt, which may have been an inspiration on the hollering backing singing). This version lacks the ‘60s swing of the original, but is a more kicking, intense version with lava-lamp guitar bubbles from (probably) Bolan.
However, it was not meant to be. Despite Bowie performing London Bye Ta-Ta on Grampian Television’s Cairngorm Ski Night show at the end of January 1970, and taping a retitled version entitled Threepenny Pierrot in studio a couple of days later for Lindsay Kemp’s TV version of Pierrot in Turquoise, The Looking Glass Murders – this version of London Bye Ta-Ta was shelved, in favour of The Prettiest Star, much to the irritation of Ken Pitt.
London Bye Ta-Ta has no ‘definitive’ version, it seems to remain a work in progress despite no less than five versions or variants of it doing the rounds. It remains elusive, a song that proved a stepping stone twice, returning to its author in circles like the cyclical D Major riff that spawned it.
❉ The ‘Home Demo’ recording, original Deram studio recording and 13 May 1968 BBC Radio One ‘Top Gear’ recording with the Tony Visconti Orchestra of ‘London Bye Ta-Ta’ can all be presently found on ‘David Bowie: Conversation Piece’ (5CD: Parlophone DBCP 6869, 2019). The 1970 Philips/Mercury recording (mono) with Marc Bolan on guitar can be found on ‘Sound + Vision’ box set (Rykodisc RCD 90120/21/22, 1989; EMI 5945112, 2003; Parlophone DBSAVX 1, 2014).
❉ Martin Ruddock has written for ‘Doctor Who Magazine’, ‘Shindig! Magazine’, the ‘You And Who’ series, and is a regular contributor to We Are Cult.