David Bowie, the unreleased songs from the “Rock 'n' Roll Star!” box  (part 1)

David Bowie, the unreleased songs from the “Rock 'n' Roll Star!” box (part 1)

The “Rock'n'roll star!” box set was released today, June 14th, which collects 5 CDs and 1 Blu-Ray containing, among other things, numerous unreleased tracks which include early demos, outtakes, alternative versions and live recordings , all dating back to the period before, during and after the release of the album “The rise and fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars”. At this link you can find the complete and detailed list of all the tracks on the discs in the box set.

Below, however, you will find the first part (two more will follow in the next few days) of the analysis and review of the unreleased tracks contained in the box. The author is Paolo Madeddu, undoubtedly among the greatest Italian connoisseurs of Bowie's work, as is amply demonstrated by his two books of “stories behind the songs” published by Giunti, respectively entitled “Changes (1964-1976)”, released in 2020, and “Blackstar (1977-2016),” released in 2022.

CD 1

So Long 60es

Surprise start. It is “Moonage Daydream” in embryonic form, and at the same time it is not. Even though it's just a shaky little hotel room demo for acoustic guitar alone, less than two minutes long, it's a key moment. It's worth dwelling on a bit.
Bowie had loved the music of the '60s, but had hated its youthful tendencies – and was reciprocated: in his seven-year career, only “Space Oddity” had given him a glimpse of small fame.

His first trip to the United States with the complicated aim of promoting “The Man Who Sold The World” via radio and newspapers (at the time, published only in the USA) revealed to him what the dissolved Beatles, the Stones, Led Zeppelin and the Who they had discovered a few years earlier: far from London there was a huge and complicated world. New York, Chicago, Philadelphia, Detroit, Milwaukee, Houston, Los Angeles, San Francisco: for him it was a month of every kind of inspiration. He was 24 years old and had always fantasized about America. Now he was living it. “She was incredibly free and intoxicating and dangerous. It was on that trip that the idea for Ziggy Stardust began to take shape. I realized I had to abandon the British sensibility, and that's what I did with Ziggy.” According to Rodney Bingenheimer, DJ and his guide in California, in those days he began to dream of an alter ego to write songs for. .
But on February 13, 1971, in his hotel room in San Francisco, the young Jones was still thinking bitterly about the thankless '60s in which he had never found himself, from the swingin' era of “The London Boys” to the hippie phase of “Cygnet Committee”. And he sensed that not having made it in that decade offered him an opportunity, that of leading the new generation, “All The Young Dudes” who like him wanted to bury the previous decade and their older brothers, going beyond the Beatles and Bob Dylan and even Jimi Hendrix, who died five months earlier: “So long Jimi”, the lyrics explicitly say. But first he says: “Keep your mouth shut, listen to the world outside”. He says it to himself, he says it to an audience that he doesn't yet have, because he is only now emerging. He still hasn't found a way to communicate with them, as the failure of “Hunky Dory” will demonstrate. But this very song will take him and them into a Moonage – when instead of expressions like “Let the vision flow inside” he will use space invader language with 'lectric eyes and rayguns, and replaces the long 60s hair with a flaming crest, the first of many who will rise in the 70s. “So long, decline”, he says at the end. Even to himself.

Hang On To Yourself (early demo)

It should be a recording from February 13, 1971 like the previous one – but a few miles away from San Francisco: in Los Angeles, at the home of producer Tom Ayres. While he was at it, he suggested he leave Mercury and try RCA, looking for a new star since the days of Elvis. The chorus and the riff, indebted to the Velvet Underground but also Eddie Cochran, are already well underway. The lyrics, on the other hand, are very generic, almost like an old '50s song, devoid of the rock'n'roll animal horniness that the final version will attribute to Spiders From Mars and their sequel. The pace is also equally moderate, far from the proto-punk assault that will be poured into the definitive version. Moreover, here the only Spider is Bowie, who accompanies his guitar by overdubbing a basic and at times involuntarily comical bass part, like a guitarist struggling with the large strings of the heavy contraption.

Star (aka Stars)

A somewhat overlooked song among those of “The Rise And Fall…”

By the public (it is the least listened to of the album on Spotify) but also by Bowie, who cut her off from live performances until 1978.

It was conceived in the spring, after the very first chapters of Ziggy and almost all of “Hunky Dory”. It was part of the “plan B” that our man had prepared, waiting (or lacking) for success as a rock'n'roll star: to act as an author for others. So, what we listen to in the box is the demo sent to Les Payne of Chameleon, an English group tending towards “prog”, eager to emerge from anonymity with a song with some radio “hook”. And Bowie squeezes in as many as he can, overdubbing handclaps, Beatles-esque harmonies (inspired by “Lovely Rita,” he later explained) and “la-la-la”s on a piano bouncing between different rhythms. There is also an attempt at slide guitar which would have greatly amused his future guitarists. This demo, however, illustrates very well how Bowie, despite having always relied on the contribution and ideas of fabulous musicians, composed already structured songs and not simply half-ideas to be completed. Another discussion must be made for the text, still devoid of period social references such as the incipit in which “Tony goes to fight in Belfast and Rudi stays at home starving”. .
For a few months he forgot about the song, which came back to him during a concert at the end of September 1971. In November he reworked it and took it to the studio. Also because, after recording their version (in the month of May) the poor Chameleon, who did NOT become rock'n'roll stars, had given up on releasing it because their label, Chrysalis, had opposed their kind request to release it produce by Bowie. That at that moment, among London insiders, he had a certain reputation as a loser who hadn't made it. Who knows if the ending of the final version, “Just watch me now”, comes a bit from that too.

Soul Love (demo and DB spoken notes)

One of the last compositions for the album, written in a hurry to complete it in the autumn of '71.

But it is already in a version to be presented to the band, with the addition of final instructions for the arrangement: “I would like to sweeten it but not with violins: with two tenor saxes and two baritones” (and in the background, for very fine ears or very powerful speakers, you can hear the saxes of an old swing big band, one of the many that Bowie confessed to loving at the time of “Let's Dance”, but we don't have the ears or speakers to tell you which one). The text is already the one known to us except for one detail (“Love is selfish”, which will later become “Love is careless”) but the rhythm is more monotonous – in this case the subsequent work of Spiders From Mars is more evident, from the soaring from Ronson on Trevor Bolder's bass (a sort of cross between a habanera and Ben E. King's “Stand By Me”) up to Woodmansey's drums, which will give it a beat not far from that of “Five Years” (which precedes in the album but will be recorded three days later). Instead, the introduction in which Bowie moans a melodic motif perhaps intended for his baritone sax will be made to disappear. .

Starman (demo 1 excerpt)

We are in the early days of February 1972, the album has been recorded and submitted to the bigwigs of the new record company, RCA. “All good, but there's no hit here.” Bowie, with the confidence of someone who has only had one top 10 single in eight years, replies that there is no problem, in 48 hours he will fix it, writing the song that would finally launch his career. This is a minute of those 48 hours, from which it is clear that the 25-second introduction with the meditative chords à la Nick Drake (destined to be inevitably sawed by the radios) are already the indispensable first step of the ladder that leads up there, to chorus inspired by “Over The Rainbow” by Judy Garland. With a slightly croaky voice, Bowie seems to mimic Marc Bolan even in the lyrics: he alludes to some “Get it on rock'n'roll” that is heard over the air, and invites listeners to “feel the cosmic people” . Then he stops, like someone who has realized he is on the right path and looks around smiling.

Starman (demo 2)

Spiders From Mars have listened to Bowie's demo, and it's time to arrange the piece written at the last minute. Mick Ronson tries to understand which direction to go, and follows Bowie with a voice and a guitar that seems influenced by George Harrison, author of one of the mammoths of 1971, “All Things Must Pass”. The song is already very close to the final version even if in this tea for two some of the decisive touches are inevitably missing, from the telegraph guitar taken from “You Keep Me Hangin' On” by the Supremes to the coda with the “la la la ”.

Looking For A Friend (The Arnold Corns version – rough mix)

Raw version, guitar-bass-drums, of one of the songs designed for the failed alter ego, Arnold Corns alias the handsome Freddie Burretti, who does not appear in any capacity: the other voice we hear is that of guitarist Mark Pritchett. It is very reminiscent of the version performed on the BBC on 3 June 1971 and which appeared on “Live At The Beeb”, but according to several Bowie historians it was rehearsed two weeks later, on 17 June at Trident Studios during a break in the recordings of “Hunky Dory”. with Ronson and the others. With them, a few days later he would start working on “Queen Bitch”, and it is no coincidence at all: the two songs are related by their Velvet Underground sound and lyrics with “camp” connotations.

Haddon Hall Rehearsals follows: Ziggy Stardust / Holy Holy / Soul Love

Triptych of very small homemade fragments: about fifty seconds for each of these three pieces rehearsed by the band in the singer's home, united in a sort of fake medley.

Duration and audio are well below average: we are faced with a bone thrown to the most voracious among completionists. The point of interest, if we try hard, is being able to listen to “Holy Holy” between two pieces from the album from which it was discarded. It had been his last single for Philips and yet another failure, but Bowie had wondered if his homage to the Satanist Alesteir Crowley didn't deserve a small chance with the Spiders too, in a drier version. Apparently the Forces of Good opposed it, at least until it was fished out and stuck on the back of the 45 rpm record of “Diamond Dogs”. With which, from the point of view of sound and vocal timbre, he had very little in common.

Star (aka Stars) (Haddon Hall rehearsal)

Unlike the little mess of the previous track, there is something interesting here: a more sparse (without piano) but consistent version of the song, also complete with a final coda. Woodmansey and Bolder don't seem to have any problems with a piece that can hide some pitfalls for a distracted rhythm section. The execution is convincing. Nonetheless, Bowie, who had regained possession of “Star” in the autumn after having sold it to Chameleon in the spring, abandoned it again when it was time to take Ziggy on tour.

Sweet Head (Haddon Hall rehearsal)

It is an embryonic version, longer and less impactful than the one known to Bowieans, i.e. the one that appeared in 1990 on the CD of “The Rise and Fall…”. And which Bowie, Rykodisc revealed, tried to prevent the publication. In these five minutes the band seems to be trying to focus on the song that could really transform the album into a concept album (it's the only one in which Ziggy Stardust is mentioned, in addition to the eponymous song). But despite bombastic phrases like “Before there was rock, all you had was God,” none of the musicians currently sound remotely like spiders from Mars.

(the second part will be published on Monday 17 June)