Released: 1 June 1967
Gus Dudgeon: sound effects
‘Please Mr Gravedigger’, the final song on David Bowie’s debut album, is an effects-laden black comedy. Along with ‘We Are Hungry Men’, the track shows Bowie’s readiness for studio experimentation and exploration of the darker sides of humanity.
‘Please Mr Gravedigger’ is one of Bowie’s bleakest recordings, an eerie monologue by a child murderer who observes and plots to kill the titular groundskeeper as he toils.
Yes, Mr GD, you see me every day
Standing in the same spot by a certain grave
Mary Ann was only 10, full of life and oh so gay
And I was the wicked man who took her life away
Very selfish, oh God
No, Mr GD, you won’t tell
And just to make sure that you keep it to yourself
I’ve started digging holes my friend
And this one here’s for you
Although set in London’s Lambeth district, Bowie may have been inspired by the Moors Murderers of north-west England. Child killers Ian Brady and Myra Hindley were convicted in May 1966 in a case which gripped the nation. One of their victims, 10-year-old Lesley Ann Downey, was the same age as Bowie’s fictional Mary Ann.
Although ‘Please Mr Gravedigger’ did not lend itself easily to live performance, Bowie did perform a mime to recording on the German television show 4-3-2-1 Musik Für Junge Leute on 27 February 1968.
In the studio
The session lasted four and a half hours, and took place at RG Jones Studios at Morden Manor in south-west London. At this time ‘Please Mr Gravedigger’ was known as ‘The Gravedigger’.
Bowie’s manager Kenneth Pitt took the recordings to Hugh Mendl, who worked in A&R for the Decca label’s new pop and easy listening imprint, Deram. Mendl passed the song on to Decca producer Mike Vernon, who bought the rights to the three songs and agreed to record an album.
An acetate containing this first recording of ‘Please Mr Gravedigger’ was discovered by a Bowie collector in 2007. Running to just 1:54, it omits the various sound effects of the album version in favour of a sparse organ backing, and contains some lyrical differences.
The final version of ‘Please Mr Gravedigger’ was re-recorded at Decca’s north London studios on 13 December 1966. This was expected to be the final session for Bowie’s debut album, although more took place in the new year.
The album version contains no conventional instruments, but instead comprises Bowie’s vocals and a succession of sound effects. These were partly down to studio engineer Gus Dudgeon, whose initials were shared with the “Mr GD” of the lyrics.
I just love it. I just love Gravedigger! The bottom end on the thunder is fantastic. Decca had the most fabulous sound effects library. What I remember is Bowie standing there wearing a pair of cans [headphones] with his collar turned up as if he was in the rain, hunched over, shuffling about in a box of gravel. And you thought Brian Wilson had lost it! I asked him, ‘How long is this thing?’ And he said, ‘Well, five minutes should do it,’ so I went off to the sound effects library and found some thunder and some rain and I’ve managed to get it in extremely good stereo – the sound of the thunder is really hefty – plenty of low end!
So I put together five minutes of rain and thunder and I threw in a few birds as well, and that became the backing track. Now is that weird or is that weird? The sneeze is a good piece of acting, isn’t it? That’s clever; that’s when you see the actor in him. There’s another weird thing about that track which has always freaked me out. It’s about a bloody gravedigger and how [the narrator] is gonna chuck him in and dig his own grave for him, and he keeps on going on about ‘Mr GD’. They’re my initials, and it bugs me! Every time I hear it I think, ‘Oh no, don’t do that, that’s like sending me a chain letter, thanks very much. I had forgotten the horrible vibe I get every time I hear him singing, ‘Oh, Mr GD.’
Strange Fascination, David Buckley