The Infinite Jukebox: David Bowie’s ‘Space Oddity’

Though in 1969 I was beginning to hear some pop music, here and there, I doubt I heard David Bowie’s ‘Space Oddity’, a number 5 hit in October, Bowie’s first hit, and his last until 1972. Of course I heard it as a Golden Oldie in the Seventies, and as a number 1 on reissue in 1975. A brilliant song, an absorbing, strange, affecting song, and a classic.
But it was more than thirty years later, in the 2000s and on Sounds of the Sixties, that I found out that the record I’d heard so many times was NOT the hit single of 1969.
Brian Matthew was running a weekly feature on One Hit Wonders of the Sixties (later changed to a much more unwieldy title to take account of some of these Wonders having had additional hits in the Fifties or the Seventies, to whit, David Bowie). When he got to ‘Space Oddity’, he played the original.
I had never heard it before in my life and I could not believe what I was hearing.
The difference between the two is extraordinary. It’s the same song, with the same structure and virtually all the same words, although the familiar version is nearly ninety seconds longer. But the original is crude and rough and weak: play the two together to someone unfamiliar with the song’s history and they would immediately identify the original as a bad cover version. In every respect, and not merely the familiarity of nearly fifty years, the re-recorded version is a massive improvement.
Bowie’s singing in 1969 is subdued and undistinguished. He’s mostly singing in a monotone, still transitioning from his Anthony Newley-influenced early style (think ‘Laughing Gnome’ if you can bear it), and making no attempt to dramatise the song in any way.
And what a song! It was a total departure from Bowie’s career to date, a space fantasy inspired by a combination of the Moon Landings and Kubrick’s 2001 – a Space Odyssey. The original version starts with bongos, the familiar fades in on a lightly strummed acoustic guitar offering no particular rhythm.
The song is a story, a story in multiple parts, told in isolated lines. The build-up to lift-off, introduced by the iconic line, ‘Ground Control to Major Tom’, the deep bass organ note as the Bird lifts off, the sudden euphoria of the world’s absorption of the man in space, far above the world.
And Major Tom responds to Ground Control, stepping through the door into an experience no-one else has ever had. he’s floating in a most peculiar way, and the stars look very different to him from here, free of the atmosphere of Earth.
Different, and helpless. Major Tom is more than one hundred thousand miles, the furthest man from his kind, in an atmosphere in which he could survive for only seconds. The experience is more mystic than frightening, he’s feeling very still, he has put his full trust in his spaceship, which knows where to go, but his voice drops to a calm and level tone as he almost pleads for someone to tell his wife he loves her very much. And responds to himself resoundingly, ‘She knows!’
There’s a sudden urgency from Ground Control, signalling Major Tom, his circuit’s dead, there’s something wrong. Can you hear me Major Tom, they plead desperately, over and again, their anxious words seguing into Major Tom’s placid tones. He’s extra-vehicular, floating round his tin can, far above the moon.
The first man in space is in nothing but space. Planet Earth is blue and there’s nothing he can do… He will become his own satellite, he will never return to Earth.
The original version has virtually none of this emotionalism attaching to any of the song’s phases, and it blurs off at this point into a rapid fade over the acoustic guitar and some bongos. The familiar version bleeds off over vigorously strummed guitar, and organ and studio effects miming radio signals, the incomprehensible audible debris of empty space, as Major Tom drifts further and further away from everything we and he recognise of Earth…
An extraordinary record. I don’t know when Bowie produced the version we all know now, just that this was the only version I knew from long before its 1975 reissue. It took almost three years from ‘Space Oddity’ to ‘Starman’ to the true beginning of Bowie’s career as a master of music and an explorer of where we were going to be. I sometimes think that if he’d been capable of producing the familiar recording in 1969, that gap would have been greatly diminished.

The Infinite Jukebox: The Rascals’ ‘Groovin”

Back in the really good old days of Sounds of the Sixties, when production of the show and the choice of music was firmly in the hands of Roger ‘The Vocalist’ Bowman (which tells you how far back I’m going), there was a regular feature that came along about four times a year, when SOTS would clear its middle hour, from 8.30 to 9.30, to play a full Sixties American Top Twenty, for the week of the show.
This was usually absolutely fascinating, as long as we weren’t going too far back into the decade. It was a complete guessing game as to what the chart may contain, with the date of no help whatsoever, except as to what ‘British Invasion’ songs we might get. Lots of American records that went big in Britain didn’t even get released over here until a couple of months after they were hits at home, several only scored on reissue, years later (Louis Armstrong’s classic ‘What a Wonderful World’ was a UK no. 1 in 1968, but it was an American hit in 1964).
And of course there was the unfailing fascination of the songs that went big in America yet meant nothing over here. Listening to the full Top Twenty gave such records an immediate context: what they were up against in their homeland, with the British tracks a marker for what time of our chart history this was.
Sometimes, it was obvious why a record wouldn’t have appealed over here. And naturally it’s impossible to know what may or may not have been released in Britain, and what did or didn’t get airplay. But the most interesting of all are those records that were absolutely massive in America but which were completely ignored over here, but should have been equally celebrated and loved by us.
The Association, for me, are an obvious example: ‘Cherish’, ‘Windy’, ‘Never my Love’: why on Earth did none of these singles even reach the UK Top Fifty? It wasn’t even as if British bands were doing the old trick of recording their own versions and pushing them out, trying too snatch hits before the record label could do a deal to licence the original. That’s what Amen Corner did, inaugurating their brief commercial phase with a cover of The American Breed’s ‘Bend Me, Shape Me’ (though I happen to prefer the rawer, more energetic version by Andy Fairweather-Low and co).
The Young Rascals were one of those bands that never really crossed the Atlantic. They started out as raw, energetic blues-blasters, blue-eyed soul with a distinct New Jersey/Italian twang that linked them spiritually with The Four Seasons, but in 1967 they were among those who reacted to changing times by going psychedelic: not the full-out Pink Floyd psychedelia but a broader, hippyish approach, incorporating softer soul and jazz sounds, that brought a sense of space into their recordings, as well as a lyrical shift towards peace and freedom themes.
‘Groovin” was the only Young Rascals song to make it in Britain. Though it was recorded as The Young Rascals (the name chosen when a band called Harmonica Rascals objected to them being simply called The Rascals) and was the title track of an album under that name, by the time it came out over here the band had shortened their name to The Rascals and it was released under that title. It reached no. 8, a single week in the Top 10, in the first Summer of Love.
‘Groovin” is pretty much the perfect summer song. It’s slow and lazy, lit-up with a quavering harmonica that repeats three wistful notes, it’s the sound of picnics and cool drinks, and boats on park lakes, the sound of the sun beating down on an endless day.
It’s a song in which Felix Cavaliere’s piano carries the rhythm and Dino Danelli soft-handedly pats out the conga drum, Eddie Brigati and Gene Cornish sing sweet and yearning ah-hah-hahs over, clear, bell-like notes. Felix sings soulfully of groovin’ on a Sunday afternoon and you slip down Alice’s rabbit-hole into a golden trip with someone who means all there is to mean, in a time and a place that is neither time or place because there’s nothing to do and forever in which to do it and the only thing that is to be done is to let the day go around you. Sometime it will end, but whilst the song plays that sometime is never and there’s no better time than this.
All in less that two minutes and thirty seconds.
This isn’t a song, it’s a transport. It’s a summer and a memory of a summer and every summer there has ever been in which a clock or a calendar has ceased to matter
We gave a track like this a single week in our Top 10, at no. 8. One Saturday morning, on SOTS, I listened all the way to the end of an American top Twenty and when we got to the Number 1, it was ‘Groovin”, and not for its first week.
Sometime I am deeply ashamed of the musical preferences of this country.

Is That What It’s Really About? Bernard Cribbins’ ‘Hole in the Ground’

Now that Sounds of the Sixties no longer exists (except in some illusory form, at a godawful hour of Saturday morning run by Tony Blackburn, being run down for cancellation, which I refuse to admit exists), I have to look elsewhere for the kind of prompt to reconsider the hidden implications of a seemingly innocent Sixties song.
Bernard Cribbins has been around as a comedian for over fifty years. My first exposure to him was via a couple of comedy songs that used to appear on the Light Programme (the BBC’s pre-numbered stations’ Music channel) and which both reached the top 10 in the year of 1962. The more famous one has always been ‘Right Said Fred’, which was actually the lesser success, but before that, Cribbins cracked the charts with ‘Hole in the Ground’.
Musically, it’s slight and innocuous, but then it wasn’t recorded for the tune, and Cribbins is no great shakes as a singer. No, this is a comedy record with no other pretensions, and it has to be praised for not having become irritating, tedious or grating in over half a century of exposure.
And what about these comedy words? Cribbins keeps it simple, doesn’t go for actual jokes, just paints a picture. Our Bernard is, by implication, a Council workman who is currently engaged in the manual labour of digging a hole, presumably but not necessarily in the road. Cribbins is keeping it casual, all, ‘there was I’ and ”so big and sort of round it was’. It’s all very low-key and next to pleasant, until we get to ‘Him’.
‘Him’ doesn’t waste time in turning up. ‘Him’ is a superior sort of person, or at least so he thinks. We are once more on that familiar ground for British comedy, the Class War. It’s even being demonstrated visually because the worker Cribbins is stood in the hole, and ‘Him’ is standing up there, upper both class-wise and status-wise.
‘Him’, who is naturally wearing a bowler hat to signify that he is a white-collar worker who does not dirty his hands, physically at any rate, is studying the hole. There’s no suggestion that he has any authority in matters hole-wise, or that he’s a Council official acting like a little jumped-up Hitler, just a better-educated nobody with nothing better to do than to tell a slovenly lower-class labourer what he’s doing wrong.
I mean, he’s polite enough to couch them in the form of a suggestion, but we all know (and boy, did we, in the Sixties) that he thinks he can order this layabout around. ‘Don’t dig it there’, he says, ‘dig it elsewhere’, not to mention that ‘you’re digging it round and it ought to be square’. In short, ‘you’re digging it wrong (and) it’s much too long’. That aside, plus it being in the wrong place, there’s not much else amiss.
Now Cribbins looks on this with the traditional contempt of the British labourer for those who do not get their hands dirty, not to mention the nosey parker who thinks he knows better than the working man just because he’s a bit further up the scale, so to speak. Indeed Cribbins, after a bit more digging, just to make the point that he’s working whilst the bowler-hatted man might be ‘all grand and official with his nose in the air’ but he’s the one not getting on with his job, slows down a bit, scratches his head, lights a fag (and if you don’t remember the Sixties you’ll never understand just how that could be turned into a gesture of political contempt) and replies, in the same rhythm, that the hole’s being dug there and it’s being dug round, because that’s what our worker is doing, and he makes it into a personal preference: he’s doing that because that’s what he wants to do, and that’s the end of the argument, both in fact and metaphor.
So am I suggesting that this seemingly innocuous and lightweight comedy record is in truth an example of the Class war at its height? Of Socialism versus Capitalism? Labour versus the Boss Class? Is it an unsuspected paean to Communism, smuggled by stealth into the British Top 10? Well, yes, I suppose on one level it is, and personally I could do with more of that sort of thing.
But what makes it a question of Is That What It’s Really About? is the song’s coda. There isn’t a hole in the ground any longer. It’s been filled in. The ground is once again flat, the legendary level playing field.
And underneath it is the man in the bowler hat.
Did he jump? Was he pushed? Was he, perish the thought, buried alive and left to suffocate by degrees, his ever-fainter cries unheard by anyone passing? Have we really be amusing ourselves for 1 minute and 52 seconds (including roadwork sound effects) over a murder?
Yes, my friends, we have. Think on that.

The Infinite Jukebox: Shotgun Express’s ‘I Could Feel The Whole World Turn Round’

Until you get to the back end of the Sixties, and that vogue for lushly orchestrated pop that was ushered in by The Love Affair’s ‘Everlasting Love’, there wasn’t much need for strings on pop. They were usually too sweet, too soft. Dusty Springfield’s orchestrations stood out, as they had to do with a voice like hers to contend with, The Walker Brothers used them sagaciously, but you have to get to the middle Sixties before you start to see the use of strings as an instrument of power: strong, severe, demanding.
The obvious one is always Chris Farlowe’s classic blues shout over the strings that saw away from the start of ‘Out of Time’, or Motown’s use of them on ‘Reach out, I’ll Be There’, The Four Tops’ biggest hit over here. Both songs were number 1s and overwhelmingly deserving. This one wasn’t, but when you listen to it below, you’re going to wonder why the hell not? With an intro like that, with a returning theme, with a chorus that soars like that, any fair-minded person is going to boggle that this didn’t take off, isn’t every bit a Sixties landmark as Farlowe or the Tops.
And before you ask, yes, that is the voice of a young Rod Stewart in there, sharing some boisterous yet yearning vocals with that overlooked Scouse songstress, Beryl Marsden.
Shotgun Express were a blues band, with people like Peter Green and Mick Fleetwood in their ranks, so in that sense ‘I can feel the whole world turn round’ is an anomaly, with the string riffs adding a pop sensibility that would normally have been outside the band’s self-set remit. But listen carefully, and in between those bursts of that yearning, all-encompassing sweet severity, the verses showcase the band to its roots, a hustling rhythm, the organ bursting with energy, and then the strings sweep back in as the melody sweeps back, just one single breath of sound.
The strings underpin the lead-in to that chorus and the grand melody of it, high, sweet but steel-like in their majesty, a distant background as firm as the beat, underscoring the gorgeous ache of the words.
And I can feel the whole world turn round underneath me, exactly mirroring the aching, arching melody. I can feel the whole world turn round when you’re near me. Stewart and Marsden’s voices mesh as they rise through this and I can forgive Stewart a very large part of his career post-the bass line in ‘D’Ya Think I’m Sexy?’ just because I can listen to this.
Who do I complain to that I have only known this song for a few years and had to learn about it from Sounds of The Sixties and much-missed Brian Matthew? Who do I complain to that this was not the massive success it should have been, and influenced the people who should have heard it? Who do I complain to that this didn’t change the course of Rod Stewart’s career and maybe saved us from everything since 1980?
And can I listen to this again, please, because it captures that feeling of rapture that only comes from being with the one person. And the whole world does indeed turn around underneath you.

That’s your lot for this week…

The news of Brian Matthew’s passing comes as little surprise but with great sorrow. Those of us who followed Sounds of the Sixties on Saturday mornings for years and even decades have known for a long time that this day was drawing ever nearer, and it makes the loss of the programme, little more than a month ago, even more poignant. If only he could have been allowed to stay until the end.

Farewell, old mate. That’s our lot.

Saturday without SOTS

Old habits break hard, especially when they’re habits you would rather have kept. Excluding those days when I worked Saturday shifts (in which case I would use the i-Player of an evening), I’ve had Sounds of the Sixties on Saturday mornings. Even despite it’s new, kill-the-show slot of 6.00am, I could have set the i-Player running pretty much at the usual time.

Instead, I put on a Sixties CD, The Zombies, Singles A’s and B’s, and listened to that instead. Ironically, according to the track listing for Tony Blackburn’s first outing, I could still have heard ‘She’s not there’.

But all the features are gone: no Loose Connections, Three in a Row and not even the traditional instrumental up to the end of the first hour. Even ‘Foot-tapper’ has been taken out. It’s just two bland hours with nothing but hits, standard Sixties stuff, one track a side excepted. Apart from the neat little twist of Blackburn’s first show kicking off with, naturally, ‘Flowers in the Rain’, it’s all I needed to know that it’s not merely my prejudice talking.

It’s dead.

The Last SOTS

Last week’s suspicion proved to be sadly warranted. Anneka Rice gave it away in the closing moments of her early Saturday show: that our old mate Brian Matthews was back on Sounds of the Sixties but for his final programme. As I write, I’m listening to The Beatles’ ‘If I needed someone’, representing that long and glorious A to Z of The Beatles.

But it’s a kind of Greatest Hits show, as a farewell. Matthews’ voice is still recognisable, but it’s recognisably weak, and it’s clear that this is the end of the line.

It’s been a pleasure, these last fifteen or sixteen years, however long it’s been since that early Saturday morning drive to Barrow for a football match, the rain and the rainbow, the two of us finding the programme by accident on the drive, and making it the way to wake-up on Saturday mornings for all the years after.

But the time has come to say goodbye, and thanks for all the memories.

Nothing’s been said as to whether the show will survive if it is to lose Brian Matthews finally, and if it isn’t there next Saturday morning, then I for one will not campaign for it to be restored. If it is to continue, the choice of a new presenter is crucial (and a change of Producer and track-selector might very well help smooth over that transition, hint, hint).

But all these years have shown me how to make my own Sixties, and I have a plethora of home-made CDs doing that for me.

There is a half hour remaining. You’ll permit me, if I slip off to listen.

SOTS: Just in time

I’m still a little bit suspicious about what’s happening to my only weekly radio programme Sounds of the Sixties. Tim Rice has thanked us all for our forebearance… no, actually kindness, in listening to him this last three months when he’s been sitting in for Brian Matthews, but it’s all over and our old chum will be back next Saturday.

Or will he? Next Saturday is going to be a compilation programme, made up of Brian’s favourite moments from his twenty-seven years on the show, so not actually a new episode, so we’re going to have to wait until at least a fortnight from now to see if things are going back to that Edenic state of yore.

I don’t know what the last three months have done to the show’s audience figures but, from the point of view of a sixteen year veteran, it’s come close to rocking my loyalty to SOTS. It’s not only been Rice’s jerky presentation, with the gaps between sentences coming every half dozen words or so, instead of only when the full stop appears on his script. A lot of it has been his insistence on describing everything as fantastic, brilliant, wonderful, indiscriminately and with no audible conviction to suggest that he actually believes what he’s saying.

There was a perfect example in the first half of the show, in the ‘Loose Connections’ feature, with Dusty Springfield, Gene Pitney and Petula Clark. All three were obscure songs, of which I’d only previously heard the Dusty track, and the connection was the clever and subtle one that each song was a commercial flop in the middle of a run of big hits. Such things always fascinate me: one of my ways of educating myself about Sixties music in the early Seventies were Simon Frith’s Rock Files books, listing chart successes act by act. These gave the impression of bands having unbroken success, but of course they presented a distorted picture by excluding the ones that didn’t chart at all.

But because these songs were, by definition, flops, Rice had to assure his listeners that they were great songs, absolutely wonderful, these artists never cut a track that wasn’t aural perfection, as if he was afraid that someone might get offended by the playing of a track that hadn’t been a hit. I mean, dammit, there’s only Pet still around to listen: Dusty and Gene won’t care.

So here’s hoping for a return to better things, but I remain unconvinced. Whilst I’ll relax and enjoy two hours of Brian’s warm tones, even that won’t set off the fact that this was yet another Sounds of that bit of the Early Sixties that Phil Swern is obsessed with only he denies it, ha ha. Even the newest feature drags the programme even further back: Fifties in the Sixties, covers of prominent Fifties tracks.

Still, no more Tim Rice. Saturdays will automatically improve. I hope.

Another Saturday and Sweet SOTS

I’m three-quarters of the way through another Sounds of the Sixties, being presented by Tim Rice in the ongoing absence of Brian Matthews, and it’s time to admit that I’m not enjoying it.

It’s nothing to do with my frequent complaint about Producer Phil Swern’s predeliction for pre-Beatles music, in fact I’m hardly registering the music at all, and that’s the problem. Tim Rice is irritating the hell out of me.

Now Brian Matthews could sometimes talk at length, especially when giving details about obscure bands and singers, but his was a comfortable voice. You automatically listened, and it never felt as if time was a factor. Tim Rice can’t do that. he’s talky, disjointed, his sentences are badly constructed and his tone is full of unnatural and irregular emphases. Where Brian Matthews’ voice directed you to what he was saying, Tim Rice directs you to how he’s saying it. It sounds like he’s going on and on, that he’s overwhelming the air-time, inverting the balance of importance between voice and music.

And he’s so clumsy, especially when it comes to the transition from one record to another, always marked by a pause that inserts itself into the air: dead air that grates far more than it should.

I’m not enjoying Sounds of the Sixties and it disturbs me that Rice is no longer sitting in. He’s just not a natural broadcaster, and we’ve been spoiled by our old mate. I’ve been listening to Sounds of the Sixties for over a decade and a half, and I’m starting to imagine a Saturday without it.