David Bowie – Deram debut album cover, 1967Recorded: 14 November 1966 – 25 February 67
Producer: Mike Vernon

Released: 1 June 1967

David Bowie: vocals, handclaps
John Renbourn: guitar
Big Jim Sullivan: guitar, sitar
Derek Boyes: piano, organ
Derek ‘Dek’ Fearnley: bass guitar, vocals
John Eager: drums, vocals
Marion Constable: vocals
Gus Dudgeon: spoken word, sound effects
Mike Vernon: spoken word
London Philharmonic Orchestra

Tracklisting:

David Bowie’s self-titled debut album was famously released on the same day the BeatlesSgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. Unlike the Beatles’ opus, however, it found little critical or commercial success at the time.

The fourteen songs on Bowie’s first long-player are firmly embedded in the mid-Sixties fashion for jaunty, often childlike melodies and quirky makebelieve storytelling, and openly wear the influence of Anthony Newley, the Kinks’ Ray Davies, and Pink Floyd’s Syd Barrett.

It’s kinda fun now, actually – I see sites on the Internet where they study those areas very intimately. You can see them picking through the peppercorns of my manure pile. Looking for something that might indicate I had a future. They’re few and far between, but they have come up with some nuggets.

So yes, the whole of my learning period is all out there, all released. It took me an awful long time to work out what it was that I did. I guess what made it so difficult was that I was never in love with one kind of music and one kind of music only. At that point, particularly, it wasn’t ‘right’ to have an interest in all areas. It was make-your-mind-up time… I felt: well, I don’t wanna be like this. I wanna keep my options open; there’s lots of things I like. So it was: ‘How can I do this so I can try everything? How can I be really greedy?’

David Bowie
Uncut, October 1999

The album gives little indication of Bowie’s musical potential, nor of the stylistic directions he would soon take. There are elements of folk rock in songs such as ‘There Is A Happy Land’ and ‘When I Live My Dream’, which pave the way for 1969’s ‘Space Oddity’ and its accompanying album, but the lush piano arrangements of Hunky Dory or the glam rock breakthroughs of Ziggy Stardust were still a world away.

As such, it would most likely be forgotten, or regarded as a quaint obscurity of the hippie era, but for Bowie’s later achievements. Bowie himself later largely disowned the album, and it was rarely included among his many reissues.

Aarrghh, that Anthony Newley stuff, how cringey. No, I haven’t much to say about that in its favour. Lyrically I guess it was striving to be something, the short story teller. Musically it’s quite bizarre. I don’t know where I was at. It seemed to have its roots all over the place, in rock and vaudeville and music hall and I don’t know what. I didn’t know if I was Max Miller or Elvis Presley.
David Bowie
Q magazine, April 1990

Yet there was undeniable ambition, not least in the approach to the music. Bowie worked on several of the songs with bassist Dek Fearnley. Ahead of entering the studio, they remarkably taught themselves some rudimentary music theory from the Observer Book of Music, in order to discuss ideas with session musicians from the London Philharmonic Orchestra.

It was so enjoyable because the music was very filmic, all very visual and all quite honest and unaffected and therefore unique.
Gus Dudgeon
Strange Fascination, David Buckley

Lyrically, too, there was complexity and darkness beyond the lightness of the musical moods. ‘Join The Gang’ took as its subject drug abuse and peer pressure, and ‘She’s Got Medals’ drew upon themes of cross-dressing and androgyny.

‘We Are Hungry Men’, meanwhile, was perhaps the album’s most lyrically mature song, and contained themes including cannibalism, genocide, mass abortion and infanticide. Its messianic protagonist, meanwhile, would reappear in several of Bowie’s early Seventies songs, and was a precursor of the dystopia explored more fully on ‘Five Years’ and Diamond Dogs.

Occasionally he got into things where I thought, ‘What the bloody hell’s this? I don’t understand this! ‘Gravedigger’ was something I didn’t understand at the time. I had no concept of what the hell it was!
Mike Vernon
Strange Fascination, David Buckley