In the studio

‘The Laughing Gnome’ was recorded between January and March 1967, at Decca Studios in north London.

I couldn’t get to grips with who was going to buy this album, who was going to listen to it. Then when he got into things like ‘The Laughing Gnome’ he said, ‘I’m making this for kids. I love children, they’ll love this.’ And he was right – they did. It was hilarious, but David had to live that down forever. We had more fun making ‘The Laughing Gnome’ than all the others put together – we had to speed stuff up, we had to slow it down. We had to double up stuff. Gus would say, ‘Here we go, this is what we’re going to do…’ Then a tape would fly off the reel.
Mike Vernon, producer
David Bowie: Ultimate Record Collection (Uncut)

The first session took place on Thursday 26 January, when the backing tracks for ‘The Laughing Gnome’ and the single’s b-side, ‘The Gospel According To Tony Day’, were recorded. The arrangement for ‘The Laughing Gnome’ was by bass guitarist Dek Fearnley.

Attending a David Bowie session for the first time was Kenneth Pitt, the singer’s new manager.

On January 26 we were at the Decca studios all day recording ‘The Laughing Gnome’ and ‘The Gospel according to Tony Day’. Bob Michaels, organist with Dave Antony’s Moods, was on the session. David had derived a lot of fun from collecting the ‘gnomes’ for the lyrics and the good humour continued in the studio, where people chipped in with more ideas for the ‘gnomenclature.’
Kenneth Pitt
The Pitt Report

Bowie recorded his vocals on 7 February at Decca. Studio engineer Gus Dudgeon – later to produce Bowie’s first major hit ‘Space Oddity’ – provided the voice of the second gnome.

We did this bloody silly song and he finished the vocal and decided that he wanted to do a speeded-up voice. I got the tape operator to run it at half-speed, and as we took the tape down in speed, our voices went up. I mean, it’s so corny, it’s pathetic. And somehow we got this idea that we would try and incorporate as many jokes about the word ‘gnome’ as we could think of. I mean, it was pathetic really. Well, in fact, it is pathetic. Somehow or other we got off on doing this. That’s the really scary part. Technically it worked, but it’s bloody embarrassing. We actually came up with those lines between us. I mean, what were we on?
Gus Dudgeon
Strange Fascination, David Buckley

The voice effects were achieved by slowing the tape machines, so on playback at normal speed the voices were higher and faster. It was a technique popularised on the 1950s children’s TV show Pinky & Perky.

More vocals were added on 10 February. The song was completed on 8 March; a note on the tape box from the session stated that this final version contained “less gnome voices”.

The various edits and mixes lasted between 2:30 and 3:30 – the final version is midway between the two. There was also reportedly a version featuring only gnome voices, which was credited on the tape to the Rolling Gnomes.

The release

‘The Laughing Gnome’ was released in the UK on 14 April 1967, as Deram 123. It failed to chart, despite a positive review in the NME which called it “a novelty number chock full of appeal”.

It was also released in Belgium, where it had the distinction of being the first David Bowie single with a picture sleeve. There, as in all other countries, it was not a hit.

The song was reissued by Decca in 1973 at the peak of Bowie’s popularity as Ziggy Stardust. It reached number six on the UK singles chart, and was certified silver with sales of over 250,000.

The 1973 reissue was almost identical to the 1967 original Deram release. The key difference is that on the original the matrix number (DR 39798) appeared upside down on the label, whereas it was rendered correctly on the reissue.

It was also released in 1973 in Angola, Denmark, France, Italy, the Netherlands, Portugal, and the USA. All but the US and UK versions had new picture sleeves.

In a 1997 interview, Bowie was asked what he thought would have resulted had one of his mid-Sixties singles been a huge hit.

Ha! I’d probably be in Les Miserables now. I would have been doing stage musicals. I could almost guarantee it. Oh, I’m sure I would have been a right little trouper on the West End stage. (Laughing) I’d have written ten Laughing Gnomes, not just one.
David Bowie
Q magazine, February 1997

In July 2009 ‘The Laughing Gnome’ was remixed in stereo at Abbey Road Studios by Peter Mew and Tris Penna, for the 2010 deluxe reissue of Bowie’s debut album which also included the original mono mix.

I really think I should have done more for gnomes. I always feel a bit guilty that I just put my feet into the water, and never sort of dived into the deep end. I really could have produced a new sensibility for the garden gnome in Britain. Gnomes should have been explored more deeply.

The hats. I should have worn the hat more. I tried the beard in the early ’90s, but because I’m blond it didn’t really take off. I talked to Goldie and A Guy Called Gerald about doing a drum’n’bass version of ‘The Laughing Gnome’, but it just didn’t fly. When drum’n’bass becomes fashionable again, that’s the time to leap onto that particular bandwagon – gnome and bass.

David Bowie
NME, 2 December 2000
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