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David Bowie - Spying Through a Keyhole Music Album Reviews

This assemblage of strange outtakes and demos—including what may be the first demo of "Space Oddity"—find Bowie in his tentative folkie phase, about to blast off.

Until the heat death of the planet, some of us will never stop seeking out David Bowie rarities, because nothing feels quite as good as communing with him. And if any artist can escape the sad trap of diminished-return posthumous releases—the same gluttonous estate mindset that insists any time Jimi Hendrix sneezed, it deserves a pressing—it’s the Starman, whose innovations and recalibrations were so often two steps ahead of the rest. In the three years since he died, Bowie’s catalog has been expanded modestly in comparison with other departed rock greats—a handful of live sets, unreleased experiments, and collected eccentricities; this has yielded shocking, empathetic peeks into his most troubled era (Cracked Actor (Live Los Angeles ’74)’s live pyrotechnics), victory laps in front of enormous crowds (Glastonbury 2000), and a bittersweet coda to Blackstar (No Plan).

The latest offering is an assemblage of strange outtakes and demos. Spying Through a Keyhole collects nine late-1960s tracks, smattering them across four 7” singles for no terribly clear purpose. (A boomer collector enticement, perhaps, since Parlophone released them digitally last winter?) Written circa “Space Oddity,” which will turn 50 this June, the tracks nestle in the long-haired, bucolic folkie vibe Bowie batted around in his early career, the era when he still went by Davie Jones and, shortly after, warbled about “The Laughing Gnome” to a wholly disinterested populace. Even for demos, they’re surprisingly rough, in a way that only sometimes breeds intimacy; most often, he bashes around on an acoustic guitar, both his verve and falsetto well into the red.

Though Bowie’s folk period is ignored today by all but his diehards, it does offer some insight into the man’s mind, and Keyhole adds several moments to that discussion. “Mother Grey,” a cheery dash of singsong twee, nods towards the pleasantly shambolic harmonies of the Beatles’ “Two of Us,” interspersed with the requisitive agrarian imagery: leafy surroundings, cozy kitchens cluttered with pots and pans. Young Bowie bids farewell to this hearth, twitching out of the beat a few times on his guitar before a brash, boxcar harmonica solo. Its b-side is even more evocative: “In the Heat of the Morning” is an extremely rough draft of a song that will be more familiar to fans, as Bowie and Tony Visconti eventually smoothed it out enough that Bowie performed it on the BBC in 1967. Remarkably, this one has a pristine, prophetic fingerprint: Bowie fiddles around with the same vertiginous vocal jumps that will reprise in “Ziggy Stardust” in 1972. But here, he’s still far from that psychedelic bombast; in the demo, he strums his guitar with the blithe zeal of Meg White at a drum kit, nudging it out of tune as he yelps, in flashes of that rebellious wit to come, “Señorita sway, dance with me before their frozen eyes.”

The best song of Keyhole is, itself, workshopped in rapid succession: “Angel Angel Grubby Face,” a rarity that, according to Thin White Duke fan lore, once almost saw release when Bowie was on Deram Records. Here it appears twice, in two demos. The first take is the keeper: a kooky little sojourn with slightly marble-mouthed delivery, strummed primly to suggest austere society and frilly collars. But no polite trappings can disguise how plainly strange the song is: No matter however gently he coos it, “Angel angel grubby face/I love you” is not high on the seduction scale. The second, later demo of “Angel” is more polished, with stronger, murmured vocals and defter fingerpicking, but it’s the earlier version that feels more attuned to Bowie’s spirit—the winking subversion, the wisp of true human connection hiding inside the arch refrain.

Keyhole also boasts two demos of “Space Oddity”—one just a snippet, though, according to its accompanying press, quite possibly the first one ever recorded. Though plenty of demos have surfaced over the decades, this one could very possibly stand up to its promise; its vocals are timorous enough that Bowie seems to be asking, to himself and to the microphone, “What are we about to do here?” The string section and the folk warble will vanish by the time Major Tom officially lifts off, but here’s they’re a fascinatingly clear bridge between an artist’s polite past and his boundless future.

Elements of the final “Space Oddity” single sneak into the second demo, the first with Bowie’s longtime guitarist John ‘Hutch’ Hutchinson: There’s a gothic chill to the instrumentation, and a deadpan in Bowie’s tone. (Mission control’s dispassionate countdown first appears here, too.) There are cracks in Bowie’s voice, the kind he’d intentionally wield to great effect later, and strange, leaking synth tones; he sings fatalist lines that “I think my time on earth is nearly through” that will soon be scrapped, before a much more calamitous acoustic guitar climax. And is that Morse code at the end? There was so much pouring out of this man’s mind—but as Keyhole proves, quite well, he wasn’t born a revolutionary. Bowie put in his miles.

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