❉ Oh, no, not him – Bowie’s first alter ego never lost control, writes Ken Shinn.
“The truth is, we’ve all been underestimating the Gnome for all of these years. He has nothing of the elegant air of foreboding of Aladdin Sane, and he’s got none of the extra-terrestrial cachet of the Starman…but, unlike those marvellous but pale pretenders, the Gnome has always been there.”
There’s a popular misconception, still bandied about to this day, that the pop music video was created by Queen with Bohemian Rhapsody. This is, of course, arrant nonsense.
As far back as the mid-1960s, the latest hopefuls for the hit parade were being accompanied by snazzy film clips on such proto-video juke boxes as the Scorpitone. The music journalist Alan Clayson recounts a lunchtime spent watching two off-duty busmen playing the video for Screaming Lord Sutch’s Jack The Ripper, with Sutch dragged up as the Victorian murderer pursuing various screaming quarries, again and again. There are many more clips of similar vintage, including a wonderful one for Jackie Lee’s version of Little Eva’s The Loco-motion which features a marvellously-choreographed group of jiving City gents in business suits and bowlers summing up the popular image of the Swinging Sixties for me better than any other single artefact that I know.
Which brings me to a living-room evening in 1973. Having one’s father be a manager in a household electricals shop has its perks – we have a colour television when a lot of folks are still stuck with monochrome. Among other things, this allows us to watch Top Of The Pops in all of its semi-psychedelic, Day-Glo Seventies splendour. And do you know something? While it doesn’t exactly bore me, it does tend to leave me largely unmoved. I love glam rock – The Sweet, Suzi Quatro, Wizzard, Gary Glitter back in those happier days when he seemed simply to be a glorious, camped-up parody of the typical rock ‘n’ roll macho man – but seeing their live performances is oddly largely unmoving to me (although I do feel an odd frisson of pre-pubescent arousal when Suzi rhythmically pounds her fist on her lead guitarist’s bare chest while hammering out Daytona Demon). I have the records. They sound great. But why aren’t they doing anything more interesting with the visuals?
And this is where David Bowie appears, to throw a glorious spanner into the works.
The music heralding the arrival is attention-grabbing in its very difference. Unlike the usual yell/stomp/crash of glam, it’s a jolly, jaunty thing, more like a comedy song or a nursery rhyme. And it accompanies a film of a strange, elegant young man strolling down a busy pavement, on a road that could very easily be Rye Lane, the major shopping thoroughfare of Peckham a short stroll from our house, but probably wasn’t. The young man, in voiceover, is singing a song of how he was just walking down the high street one day. Walking into a strange encounter that would change his life.
And this encounter is with a very odd, very small, little old man. Not even a man, but a supernatural being. A gnome.
In the video, this fellow is winningly portrayed by a typical garden gnome ornament. Red of cap, blue of jerkin, mustard of breeches, white of beard. Through the miracle of stop-motion, he goes on to pursue David Bowie – for it is he – in a pixelated rampage down the road, before heading back to David’s house for shenanigans on a model train set, and then introducing us to his brother Fred – a taller, more lugubrious-looking chap with a French beret and a black pencil moustache. Gags are cracked, schemes are hatched, and by the end of the ditty Bowie’s house is now home to an extended family of gnomes, a veritable tribe of them queuing up on the breakfast table to receive their servings of caviar and honey, thanks to the new riches that their mirthsome skills have brought into the household.
“As Mussorgsky’s music told us years ago, the Gnome can be a downright terrifying figure. Mis-shapen, sly, and scheming, he can squat and plot with ease in our nightmares, quietly sowing his seeds of discord and madness.”
The song, of course, is The Laughing Gnome. It’s my first real introduction to the man’s work. A track that, without a hint of irony, I will happily declare as my favourite Bowie song of them all. And yet, it’s been used as a stick to beat David with over a good many years. In 1990, preparing for the Sound + Vision tour, he announced that he would be setting up a telephone voting system for fans to call in their favourite of his tunes, and that he would make the winner a definite part of the set list. Those tiresomely ironic hipsters at the New Musical Express urged their readers to vote for the Gnome, and the ballot was duly stuffed with such votes – including a genuine one from me – to the extent that the whole idea ended up being scrapped. The tour went ahead with no trace of the Gnome, and the NME – admittedly making me smile – included Bowie as a winner in their end-of-year poll, awarding him a novelty Walkman shaped like a toadstool and a loop tape of ha-ha-ha-ing and tee-hee-hee-ing noises for not performing the song.
Almost a decade later in 1999, Bowie appeared on Comic Relief, performing a deliberately awful recorder composition entitled Requiem For The Laughing Gnome, the idea being that he’d continue to play it if more money wasn’t pledged. The joke was obvious – The Laughing Gnome is an abysmal song and we’re all embarrassed by it, the singer included. Isn’t it awful? Tee hee.
But is it? Bowie sighs, with what sounds like genuine affection, ‘It was so long ago…’ as the skit ends, as though honestly saying goodbye to an old friend. Years later, during a radio interview with Ken Bruce, Ken asks David if there are any of his earlier works that he still particularly likes. Unhesitatingly, and with the slightest trace of a fond chuckle in his voice, Bowie replies, ‘The Laughing Gnome’. And he’s being completely sincere.
The truth is, we’ve all been underestimating the Gnome for all of these years. He may not possess the erotic allure of Lady Grinning Soul, he lacks the exoticism of the China Girl, he has nothing of the elegant air of foreboding of Aladdin Sane, and he’s got none of the extra-terrestrial cachet of the Starman…but, unlike all of them, if you look just a little bit closer – if you root around in the dark undergrowth that bit more – then you’ll find that, unlike those marvellous but pale pretenders, the Gnome has always been there. And, just as any good figure of folklore should do, he can be both disturbing and mischievous, sinister and kindly – and that his laughter can span creepy sniggers and friendly chortles with effortless ease.
As Mussorgsky’s music told us years ago, the Gnome can be a downright terrifying figure. Mis-shapen, sly, and scheming, he can squat and plot with ease in our nightmares, quietly sowing his seeds of discord and madness.
After his debut single, the Gnome – along with his Brother Fred and the rest of their unearthly family – is never credited by name…but that unmistakeable voice crops up again and again, sometimes in haunting solo, sometimes in alarming chorus. Towards the end of Chant Of The Ever Circling Skeletal Family, our ears are assaulted by a squealing, high-pitched cacophony of voices – the massed and triumphant tribe of Gnome, moving remorselessly in to tear the flesh of the living. It’s a decidedly disturbing re-introduction to our diminutive erstwhile friends. Tiny dancers at the end of Time, trampling gleefully on human graves. And their hunger is not so easily sated.
In The Bewlay Brothers, the mood is no happier. Bowie tells another tale of the post-apocalypse – this one more beautiful, more elegiac, but still a story of how the World ends. It’s a haunting, beautiful epitaph for the epic. And then – in the death – the Gnomes re-appear. To deflate the high-flown, and destroy the respectful. No time for the end of Humankind, their minds are set on rather more base matters – and caviar and honey are no longer enough. ‘Lay me place and bake me pie, I’m starving for me gravy’, they chorus demandingly, to a tune which bears an uncanny resemblance to the disquieting theme of the renowned horror film, Blood On Satan’s Claw. Sod Gotterdammerung, what’s for dinner? And who knows what’s going into those pies? The Gnome has inherited the Earth. And this is the way the World ends. Not with a bang, nor even with a whimper – but with the mocking laughter of Gnomes. To make matters worse, they don’t even limit their depredations to the grandly Universal. Far less obviously but far more intimately, some whisper, the Gnome may also strike on a smaller but more personally terrifying level. On the level of individual Human madness.
Fame, Bowie tells us, makes a man think things over. A doorway to immense pleasure, and also to the most troubling of affairs. And briefly, in the prolonged closing moments, the Gnome is there once more to rub it in. He gleefully starts that long, descending ‘Fa-a-a-a-ame…’ with his customary high giggle, but then swoops deeper and deeper. To be perfectly crude, this Gnome’s balls have dropped. He has most definitely come into his estate. And he and his brethren have moved onto a more subtle, more disturbing level. To play unpleasant games with David’s very mind and soul.
1980. Bowie’s new album, its title declares with cheery honesty, will be all about Scary Monsters And Super Creeps. The sorts to keep us running, running scared. And such monsters and creeps can come in all shapes. And sizes. The track Scream Like A Baby makes that painfully apparent. A song of persecution and torture, it ranks amongst David’s more harrowing tales – and as it reaches its climax, Bowie himself seems to give in to despairing insanity…but is it purely his own, or is something else manipulating him to that dreadful point? Briefly, his vocals collapse into a chaotic, apparently vari-speeded mess. And, all too clearly in that mess, the choking, chortling voice of the Gnome can be heard again, possessing David, propelling him onwards towards the embrace of madness and darkness.
Over a decade previous, another musical icon had drolly declared that the Walrus was Paul. But that was nothing more than a sly, private joke. The Gnome, it could be claimed, increasingly was Bowie – a gleeful, malicious sprite sitting tight in the driving seat of his host’s brain, taking ever more control. And staying there, along with his brethren, to the very end.
‘Something happened on the day he died: Spirit rose a metre, and stepped aside. Somebody else bravely took his place and cried, I’m a Blackstar, I’m a Blackstar!’
There, at the last, stands the Gnome and his family. Shrieking proudly at their final ascendance. Gnome, the Blackstar.
But, in the end, that is only one point of view. That ascendance, viewed from a different angle, is a triumph not of darkness and despair, but of mirth and transcendent joy. Perhaps, at the very last, the Gnome has vindicated Bowie. Because, insidious and beguiling as the other theory is, I refuse to accept it.
When I first met the Gnome, all of those years ago, in all of his cheaply-animated garden ornament splendour, he struck me – and David – as a fascinating being, and as a good friend. The kind of person who dresses a little odd, looks a little strange – and is all of the more endearing because of it. And, like all of the best friends, capable of cracking the most resplendently awful jokes.
The Gnome, in the end, is a fascinating and endearing figure to me, not a cruel or vindictive one. He’s undeniably mischievous – puckish, even – fond of springing unexpected surprises on those kind enough to carry his bag and give him a fag. You can easily believe that you’d wake up the next day to find him cackling at the end of your bed, bringing his brother and their extended family – all of Rabbit’s friends and relations – along with him for a prolonged stay.
But, crucially, in the end he’s neither a sponge nor a freeloader. Let him into your home, into your life, and you’ll find that he’ll repay that debt tenfold, materially and spiritually. That, even as the moolah flows in from the comedy prose that they spin like Rumpelstiltskin span gold, your house shall ring with the merry laughter of a thousand other jests. I believe that that’s what David Bowie found. And that that’s what left him with such fondness for the little chap to the end of his days. And guess what? He did seriously consider bringing the tale of the Gnome into his touring sets, all of the way into the 21st Century. It was our loss that he never did, but hey, he and his Brother Fred aren’t as young as they were. Old Gnomes need a little rest. But they’re still hanging in there, and still a noble part of Bowie’s rich legacy.
Maybe, at long last, it’s time for us all to learn to stop worrying and love the Gnome. Because, when all’s been said and done, he’s happy, he’s helpful, and he provides an invaluable service to us all.
It’s the, er, it’s the Gnome Service, of course…
❉ This essay is an exclusive preview from the forthcoming anthology ‘Me And The Starman’, edited by James Gent and Jon Arnold, due Spring 2019.
❉ ‘The Laughing Gnome’/’The Gospel According To Tony Day’ was originally released as a 7″ single by Deram Records (DM 123), 14 April 1967. It peaked at #6 in the UK Singles Charts in 1973.
❉ ‘The Laughing Gnome’ can be found on numerous collections of David Bowie’s pre-1969 recordings, including the 1997 compilation ‘The Deram Anthology 1966 – 1968’ (Deram 844 784-2), the low-price compilation ‘London Boy’ (Spectrum 551 706-2), and the 2010 Deluxe Edition of his self-titled debut album (Universal 531-792-5) which features a previously unreleased new stereo mix.
❉ Ken Shinn is a lifelong fan of all things cult and is a regular contributor to We Are Cult. His 54 years have seen him contribute to works overseen by the likes of TV Cream and the British Horror Films Group, as well as a whole batch of short stories of the fantastic, with his first novel on the way. Whatever the field, he intends to enjoy Cult in all its forms for many years to come.