Bowie’s Space Oddity to Hunky Dory
Bowie met dancer Lindsay Kemp in 1967 and enrolled in his dance class at the London Dance Centre. He commented in 1972 that meeting Kemp was when his interest in image “really blossomed”. “He lived on his emotions, he was a wonderful influence. His day-to-day life was the most theatrical thing I had ever seen, ever. It was everything I thought Bohemia probably was. I joined the circus.” Studying the dramatic arts under Kemp, from avant-garde theatre and mime to commedia dell’arte, Bowie became immersed in the creation of personae to present to the world. Satirising life in a British prison, meanwhile, the Bowie-penned “Over the Wall We Go” became a 1967 single for Oscar; another Bowie composition, “Silly Boy Blue”, was released by Billy Fury the following year. In January 1968 Kemp choreographed a dance scene for a BBC play The Pistol Shot in the Theatre 625 series, and used Bowie with a dancer, Hermione Farthingale; the pair began dating, and moved into a London flat together. Playing acoustic guitar, Farthingale formed a group with Bowie and bassist John Hutchinson; between September 1968 and early 1969 the trio gave a small number of concerts combining folk, Merseybeat, poetry and mime.Bowie and Farthingale broke up in early 1969 when she went to Norway to take part in a film, Song of Norway; this had an impact on him, and several songs, such as “Letter to Hermione” and “Life on Mars?” reference her, and for the video accompanying “Where Are We Now?” he wore a T-shirt with the words “Song for Norway”. They were last together in January 1969 for the filming of Love You till Tuesday, a 30-minute film, not released until 1984, intended as a vehicle to promote him, featuring performances from Bowie’s repertoire, including an as yet unreleased “Space Oddity”.
After the breakup with Farthingale, Bowie moved in with Mary Finnigan as her lodger. During this period he appeared in a Lyons Maid ice cream commercial, but was rejected for another by Kit Kat. On 11 July 1969, “Space Oddity” was released five days ahead of the Apollo 11 launch, to become a UK top five hit. Continuing the divergence from rock and roll and blues begun by his work with Farthingale, Bowie joined forces with Finnigan, Christina Ostrom and Barrie Jackson to run a folk club on Sunday nights at the Three Tuns pub in Beckenham High Street. Influenced by the Arts Lab Movement, this developed into the Beckenham Arts Lab, and became extremely popular. The Arts Lab hosted a free festival in a local park, the subject of his song “Memory of a Free Festival”. Bowie’s second album followed in November; originally issued in the UK as David Bowie, it caused some confusion with its predecessor of the same name, and the early US release was instead titled Man of Words/Man of Music; it was re-released internationally in 1972 by RCA as Space Oddity. Featuring philosophical post-hippie lyrics on peace, love and morality, its acoustic folk rock occasionally fortified by harder rock, the album was not a commercial success at the time of its release.
Bowie met Angela Barnett in April 1969. They married within a year. Her impact on him was immediate, and her involvement in his career far-reaching, leaving manager Ken Pitt with limited influence which he found frustrating. Having established himself as a solo artist with “Space Oddity”, Bowie began to sense a lacking: “a full-time band for gigs and recording—people he could relate to personally”. The shortcoming was underlined by his artistic rivalry with Marc Bolan, who was at the time acting as his session guitarist. A band was duly assembled. John Cambridge, a drummer Bowie met at the Arts Lab, was joined by Tony Visconti on bass and Mick Ronson on electric guitar. Known as the Hype, the bandmates created characters for themselves and wore elaborate costumes that prefigured the glam style of the Spiders From Mars. After a disastrous opening gig at the London Roundhouse, they reverted to a configuration presenting Bowie as a solo artist. Their initial studio work was marred by a heated disagreement between Bowie and Cambridge over the latter’s drumming style; matters came to a head when Bowie, enraged, accused, “You’re fucking up my album.” Cambridge summarily quit and was replaced by Mick Woodmansey. Not long after, in a move that resulted in years of litigation, at the conclusion of which Bowie was forced to pay Pitt compensation, the singer fired his manager, replacing him with Tony Defries.
The studio sessions continued and resulted in Bowie’s third album, The Man Who Sold the World (1970), which contained references to schizophrenia, paranoia, and delusion. Characterised by the heavy rock sound of his new backing band, it was a marked departure from the acoustic guitar and folk rock style established by Space Oddity. To promote it in the US, Mercury Records financed a coast-to-coast publicity tour in which Bowie, between January and February 1971, was interviewed by radio stations and the media. Exploiting his androgynous appearance, the original cover of the UK version unveiled two months later depicted the singer wearing a dress: taking the garment with him, he wore it during interviews—to the approval of critics, including Rolling Stone ’s John Mendelsohn who described him as “ravishing, almost disconcertingly reminiscent of Lauren Bacall”—and in the street, to mixed reaction including laughter and, in the case of one male pedestrian, producing a gun and telling Bowie to “kiss my ass”. During the tour Bowie’s observation of two seminal American proto-punk artists led him to develop a concept that eventually found form in the Ziggy Stardust character: a melding of the persona of Iggy Pop with the music of Lou Reed, producing “the ultimate pop idol”. A girlfriend recalled his “scrawling notes on a cocktail napkin about a crazy rock star named Iggy or Ziggy”, and on his return to England he declared his intention to create a character “who looks like he’s landed from Mars”.
Hunky Dory (1971) found Visconti, Bowie’s producer and bassist, supplanted in both roles by Ken Scott and Trevor Bolder respectively. The album saw the partial return of the fey pop singer of “Space Oddity”, with light fare such as “Kooks”, a song written for his son, Duncan Zowie Haywood Jones, born on 30 May. (His parents chose “his kooky name”—he was known as Zowie for the next 12 years—after the Greek word zoe, life.) Elsewhere, the album explored more serious themes, and found Bowie paying unusually direct homage to his influences with “Song for Bob Dylan”, “Andy Warhol”, and “Queen Bitch”, a Velvet Underground pastiche. It was not a significant commercial success at the time but was ranked number 58 by voters on the All Time Top 1000 Albums list.