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Bowie's Colorful Roots

David Bowie - Bowie at the Beeb
(The Best of the BBC Radio Sessions 68 - 72)
4 stars (out of 5 stars)
(Virgin Records)
Reviewed: Jan. 29, 2001

David Bowie

By Tony Bonyata

It really wasn't that long ago, when the best way for a young promising rock act to be heard was, not on MTV or VH1, but on the radio. And in the early '60s and '70s the radio program that could propel a band from rags to riches, at least in England, was the BBC show. It worked wonders for acts like the Rolling Stones, The Who and The Beatles long before they were household names on this side of the pond.
Years before any of his alter-egos - Thin White Duke, Halloween Jack or Ziggy Stardust - there was simply David Bowie, a, seemingly, uncomplicated rock musician who actually had more in common with folk music and show tunes than any of the rock genres that he later helped define.
Like so many of his contemporaries, Bowie's early career received an immense jump start by his sessions for the BBC. Now 32 years after his first recording for the program, Virgin Records has released a two-disc set spanning the 5 years that he recorded for the Beeb, entitled Bowie at the Beeb (The Best of the BBC Radio Sessions 68 - 72). Similar to both The Beatles and The Who's recently released BBC recordings, much of this material has been bootlegged in the past. But even for those who already own much of this material in its illegal state, it's a set that should not be overlooked, since the clarity of the sound is absolutely breathtaking. The packaging is also first rate - with never before seen photos of Bowie as well as in-depth recording and studio information.
On the first disc Bowie's early influences of English singer / actor Anthony Newley along with his penchant for grandiose pop are apparent on numbers such as "In the Heat of the Morning" and "Karma Man." His attraction to folk-rock is shown on songs like "Wild Eyed Boy From Freecloud" and "Janine," while a dark version of Jacques Brel's "Amsterdam" points to a more daring, new direction for the young lad from Bromley.
Mick Ronson, who would later become Bowie's lead guitarist and right-hand man for his backing band The Spiders From Mars, made his first public appearance with Bowie on the BBC in 1970. Although songs performed from that session, like "God Knows I'm Good" and "Memory of a Free Festival" wore the tattered denim from the hippie era, a new, more electrified sound erupted on the number "Width of a Circle." From that moment on, Bowie's sound would never be the same.
Disc two documents Bowie's meteoric rise just prior to the release of his pivotal 1972 album Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars. Although a brilliant album, the songs performed from it for these BBC sessions are often superior to the commercially released album. Bowie gives us an early glimpse into the sound of his androgynous alien character, Ziggy, on "Hang Onto Yourself," a song which blows away the album version with Ronson's jacked-up guitar-line and Bowie's urgent, amphetamine-driven vocals. Other versions from that same album such as "Suffragette City," "Moonage Daydream" and "Ziggy Stardust" all have a rawer, more exuberant feel to them, which leads one to believe that this could very well be Bowie's tightest and hardest rocking band.
Bowie and the Spiders tone things down a bit for the now classic rock numbers "Changes" and "Space Oddity," before adding the hysterically accurate impersonations of Pop artist Andy Warhol on the song of the same name. "Oh, that's nice. Did he really? Oh, that's nice. Well, I only look at the pictures myself," he feyly states as if auditioning 24 years early for his starring role of Warhol in the film Basquiat. For an elusive bloke who's had his hair dyed more hues than the rainbow, it's nice to find out the true color of his roots on this fascinating collection.

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