David Bowie: Bowie At The Beeb

Sixteen years after being released on CD, Bowie at the Beeb finally gets the vinyl box set treatment, with some scanty bonus bits: a fantastic 1971 rendition of “Oh! You Pretty Things” where Bowie and Mick Ronson perform as a duo, from the Japanese CD, and a previously unheard version of “The Supermen,” from March 1970, where he’s backed by the Hype. It’s tempting to assume the collection of his early BBC sessions is a posthumous cash-in, except that it was announced in December, three weeks before Bowie’s death, thus making it a viable part of his beautifully choreographed stage exit. While the rush to winkle out clues from Blackstar in the wake of his passing felt a bit like pointing out how a magician does his tricks, it’s worth asking why he pushed us toward these formative live sessions as he knew his life was coming to its end.

Simply put, perhaps it’s nothing more than a show of gratitude toward an organization whose early belief in him never wavered (and whose publicly funded existence is always under threat from Britain’s Conservative government). Bowie recalled failing a 1965 audition to work with the BBC, who stated, in their classic patrician tone, “‘This vocalist is devoid of personality and sings all the wrong notes.'” And yet they gave him another shot, as Bowie pointed out: “So in your inimitable manner and with tremendous enthusiasm you got me back on for another audition, which I passed the second time around, which gave me freewheeling access to a lifetime of singing all the wrong notes.”

This four-LP collection spans Bowie’s second-ever BBC session, in 1968, through to May 1972, after which he wouldn’t record another until 1991. Rather than a sign of rupture, that 19-year gap is possibly an indirect result of the BBC’s support: After Bowie performed “Starman” on the network’s “Top of the Pops” in July 1972, his fame rose enormously, leading him to America, tax exile in Switzerland and Germany, and into periods of immense productivity (and, of course, druggy preoccupations). Manager Tony DeFries may not have seen the point in having him do more sessions.

Yet in the early days, back when Bowie was still an earnest Anthony Newley wannabe whose career could never get seem to get off the ground, Auntie’s arms were always there to scoop him up and give him another shot. His first chances came from John Peel, and from there he trickled down through Radio 1’s primetime slots; by 1970, he was being given hour-long live appearances on the station. It’s an appealingly linear type of progress, and a literal one, too; unlike Five Years and other more carefully curated Bowie box sets, Bowie at the Beeb is an anatomy of how he became a rock star. 

The first session here (and second, historically) was recorded for Peel in May 1968, and finds Bowie in romantic mode, though bigger ideas are taking shape: the swoony “London Bye, Ta-Ta” characterizes the influx of immigrant communities to London as two lovers who don’t make it. “Karma Man” and “Silly Boy Blue” both deal with Buddhism, but the latter gives the very timely fixation a Bowie spin, as he empathizes with a monk who doesn’t fit in with his community. By October 1969, there’s been a perceptible shift in attitudes: “Let Me Sleep Beside You” and “Janine” are tougher in sound and spirit.

Bowie’s February 1970 session with the Tony Visconti Trio—aka the Hype—starts inauspiciously. He covers Jacques Brel’s “Amsterdam” competently, and the acoustic “God Knows I’m Good” is a tedious ditty about a woman being caught shoplifting. But then comes “The Width of a Circle,” and Mick Ronson’s first-ever performance with Bowie. Maybe the subtlety of their work together here is a sign of a tentative new relationship: Ronson’s riff is much more muted and ingrained in the mix than it would be on record, but still gorgeous. Their dynamic picks up steam on “Unwashed and Somewhat Slightly Dazed,” as Bowie’s frustrations at the loss of his father preempt a brilliantly wiggy Ronson solo.

As David Cavanagh’s excellent book on John Peel’s sessions points out, Bowie was hardly gigging even by 1971, when he had had a bona fide hit with “Space Oddity”: “He doesn’t have a regular band, his albums don’t sell, and he’s prone to being in a state of artistic flux.” So the hour-long, June 1971 Radio 1 performance by David Bowie and Friends at London’s Paris Theater was a huge showcase, preempting the release of Hunky Dory that December. Never mind the size of his ensemble, however; the highlight is a box-fresh, solo rendition of “Kooks,” played acoustically just four days after it was written to herald the birth of his son, Zowie.

Bowie always called himself a “tasteful thief,” and the permeability of his brain becomes clear on the third LP of the set, which deals with late 1971 and early 1972. Bowie had just returned from New York, where he met Andy Warhol, Lou Reed, and Iggy Pop. In early 1972, his covers of “Waiting for the Man” and “White Light/White Heat” are a little unconvincing, but no matter; the transformative experience has brought out a new ability in Bowie to really sell his own songs live as he never had before, ramping up his infectious, virile energy. You can hear the Spiders From Mars hitting their stride, and a lizardy streetwise quality appearing in Bowie’s voice.

Of course, all this nascent rockstardom comes to a head in The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars, which Bowie previewed live on Radio 1 a month prior to release in June ’72, across two separate sessions. By this point, “Starman” had been DJ Johnnie Walker’s single of the week, which earned it daily plays, and allowed Bowie to delve a little further back into his catalog for hidden greatest hits: “Space Oddity,” and “Changes,” where Ronson transforms the original’s hammered piano riff. But in the here and now, Bowie’s ravishing yowl makes an early appearance on “Moonage Daydream,” and you hear him start to reach outward, beyond the intimacy of radio into the visceral performer he would become. His May 22, 1972 session ends with—what else—”Rock’n’Roll Suicide,” the last song he would play live on the BBC for 19 years.

As ever, nothing was accidental. Beyond the vinyl reissue of Bowie at the Beeb, Bowie reached out to the BBC one last time before he died. His last round of Twitter follows included BBC 6Music and some of the station’s flagship DJs (along with a cheeky parody account: God). The new music industry ecosystems mean that bands are no longer built up by single organizations in the same way that Bowie was by the BBC at the turn of the 1970s, which made the day of his death all the more remarkable. Like thousands of other Brits, I found out by listening to BBC 6Music DJs Shaun Keaveny and Matt Everitt announce the news at 7:08 a.m. Although they were clearly grasping for words, Keaveny landed on the perfect summation of what happens when the value of patronage is recognized and repaid: “David Bowie’s music is an absolutely central tenet of what we do here at 6Music.” Bowie at the Beeb doesn’t always make for essential listening, but it represents a foundational part of British culture, and upholds the importance of public broadcasting as a mutually beneficial relationship.

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