Editor’s note: in the final hour of the final day of Bowie Memorial weekend, here at last is the first half of the review of The Width of a Circle. At some point well into the weeds editing the second part (coming next weekend), it slowly dawned on me that this was going to be very, very long as a comprehensive review and that I needed the Buzzsaw of Aggressive Editing to get it down to a manageable size.
I failed to do this, so instead I present the edited version of the review covering the first disc of the box set. This one’s for you, diehard Bowiephiles.
If there’s one thing we’ve learned about Bowie in his early career as a songwriter/performer, it is that he was very heavily influenced at different parts of his first two decades on the scene by either other performers that he liked (particularly for his pre-first album singles), and by musical people — sometimes musicians, but also producers — that offered him new directions and inspirations. This 2CD book set, a great companion to Bowie’s second self-titled album and a fascinating look at things to come, is a little miracle that documents the in-between period that would profoundly change his musical direction and life — primarily thanks to Tony Visconti and Michael “Mick” Ronson.
Although it will likely never be in my top 10 Bowie “albums,” the purpose of The Width of a Circle is to document much of what Bowie was up to in the first half of 1970, starting with an appearance on a now-lost BBC radio “in concert” type programme called “The Sunday Show” hosted by the legendary BBC Radio One DJ, John Peel. The fact that we can hear this at all is a gift from the aforementioned Mr. Visconti, who taped the show because of his appearance playing bass for David. The original cassette has been cleaned up as much as possible, but it is still a radio broadcast originally preserved on home taping equipment, and there’s not much getting around that.
The show was actually recorded on the 5th of February, and was a rather long day — rehearsal started at 3:30 in the afternoon and the show was recorded at 7:30, with the band finally leaving at midnight. What makes this particular radio appearance so uniquely important to Bowiephiles — and make no mistake, this set is aimed squarely at that market and is likely to be of lesser appeal to the casual fan — is that this marks Mick Ronson’s debut as Bowie’s new guitarist. As evidenced by the very marked change of direction taken for his next album, The Man Who Sold the World (aka Metrobolist) Ronson went from having only been introduced to Bowie two days before this radio performance to effectively becoming Bowie’s musical director in very short order.
Although he was now a public name for the Top 5 single “Space Oddity” from his second self-titled album (something Peel seized on with his typical droll humour), the album had not actually done especially well. Thus, the second reason why this set is important to fans: it is a truly illuminating document of an artist in transition, not sure of where he’s going (yet), but perceptive enough to know that things had to change.
Funnily enough, Bowie got this BBC Radio gig because the “Sunday Show” producer, Jeff Griffin, had attended one of Bowie’s “An Evening With” cabaret-type shows in London. At this point Bowie was already crafty enough to mix some selections from his first, more pop/Anthony Newly-style album and his markedly more “hippie” stylings to make for a decent show, but for the radio gig he chose to mix it up even further — throwing in some covers alongside mostly songs from his second album (pointedly omitting the hit single), with only brief nod to his past (the unused song “Karma Man,” from his flirtation with Decca, which now fit in better with his current hippier material).
Those in attendance for the recording heard largely different versions of Bowie’s selections, including the very beginnings of the more electric-led sound Ronson would bring to the table, plus a bit of Jacques Brel and a sampling of Biff Rose, and even the not-yet-finished “Width of a Circle” for which this collection is named, along with a preview of his new “next single,” which turned out to be “The Prettiest Star,” the official single release of which featured Marc Bolan, rather than Ronson, on lead guitar. The only song in the “Sunday Show” set that really sounded like the recorded version was “An Occasional Dream.”
As if to highlight that he was aware of the ch-ch-ch-changes he was going through (sorry), the show opened with Bowie alone on 12-string for the first four songs, then joined by Visconti and Cambridge to put some meat on those acoustic bones for a couple of numbers before finally adding Ronson, who started off subtle and gradually took the musical spotlight off Bowie, allowing him to sing harder and louder as the set got progressively more rock-orientated.
Ronson later said that he had had to learn the songs reasonably quickly, and mostly by just watching Bowie play and improvising complementary sounds. That he could do this as well as he managed (though the whole band still sounded a bit rough on most numbers) speaks to Ronson’s remarkable ear for music and foreshadows the huge contribution he was yet to make to Bowie’s songs, style, and arrangements. The gig must have greatly impressed Bowie, who asked Ronson — during an interview portion between songs — if he would join the band for the upcoming tour.
Bowie cheekily opened his set with a cover of “Port of Amsterdam,” which today is recognised as one of Brel’s classics but at the time wasn’t as widely known. This and the other solo numbers were the sort of stuff David was doing in the “Evening With” show, and showed off his strength as a player and singer. The second number was particularly well-suited to the format, “God Knows I’m Good” from the second album. It’s a classic Dylanesque story-song format that Bowie would revisit periodically, particularly in “Life on Mars,” but in both this busking version and the album version, the song remains a poignant portrait of the difficulties of working-class like in the UK at the time, as well as a sly comment on religious quandaries.
Bowie then briefly explains to Peel and the audience who the heck Biff Rose is, and embarks on one of Rose’s more eccentric tunes, “Buzz the Fuzz.” It feels out of place with the rest of the show but I’m sure Bowie found it funny, and his performance is enthusiastic. This is followed by “Karma Man” which wouldn’t have been out of place on either the second album or Hunky Dory. The studio song got a proper release (of sorts) on Decca’s too-soon compilation The World of David Bowie later in the year, and was finally properly appended to the Space Oddity album (as we often call it to avoid naming confusion with the first album) for its 2010 reissue.
Cambridge and Visconti then come on stage to accompany Bowie on “London Bye Ta-Ta,” which still feels like a holdover from his first album in its mix of whimsicality and sixties-style Kinks-ian melody. The addition of bass and drums really add to the sound after 15 minutes of only guitar. Next up was the most “rehearsed”-sounding number, because this was the band that recorded it for the album — “An Occasional Dream,” with a nearly-identical performance. Not the only ode to his failed relationship with Hermione Farthingale we’ll be hearing in this box set!
Ronson then joins the band to take lead on “The Width of a Circle” — an incomplete calling-card for the direction of the next album, which turns Bowie’s folkie and spiritual tendencies into a dark and foreboding inward journey, as much inspired by his brother Terry’s seizures as it was by Bowie reading too much Nitzsche. While far shorter and far less hard-rock in this performance than it would become on MWSTW/Metrobolist, it was still a hell of a gear shift on this performance, dealing as it does with hell, Buddhism, a battle with one’s subconscious “monsters,” homosexual encounters with a demon, and other dark themes.
The song, interestingly enough, is named after the title of a painting Bowie’s childhood friend and former band mate George Underwood did based on his impression of a rough mix of Bowie’s second album (it appeared as the rear illustration on the finished release). Bowie for years referred to it as one of his most personal songs, “really reaching into myself” to document a period covering his late teen years, his dabbling in Buddhism, and his fears stemming from the mental illness tendencies within his family.
Sneak preview over, the band play some rough-ish takes on a few songs from the Space Oddity album, starting with “Janine,” a song of some disapproval towards Underwood’s then-girlfriend. Although far lighter with its Elvis Presley type style, there’s still some dark undercurrents cutting through it — after all, who writes a song attempting to convince a pal that his girlfriend isn’t who she seems?
Then came a pair of disturbingly violent Bowie anthems, “The Wild-Eyed Boy From Freecloud” and “Unwashed and Somewhat Slightly Dazed,” the former of which is a sort of Buddhist-based fable dealing with the quest for the true self — with a dose of saviour complex to be explored more fully later — while the latter more explicitly deals with the singer’s battle with his inner anger and his bitterness over the Beckenham Arts Lab. This was a theme which would also resurface in future albums, and which definitely found an outlet in Ronson as the pair’s relationship progressed.
Wisely changing tack, it was time for another Biff Rose cover, “Fill Your Heart,” which was an upbeat number with no unsettling portents whatsoever (and thus had to wait until Hunky Dory before finally getting on a Bowie album), and it paired perfectly with the next song, the world debut of “The Prettiest Star” — primarily because several ideas were lifted from Rose’s “Angel Tension,” from the same album Bowie had covered “Buzz the Fuzz” and “Fill Your Heart” — clearly The Thorn in Mrs. Rose’s Side made a huge impression on young Davy Jones, and went on to deeply influence Hunky Dory.
“The Prettiest Star” is an unabashed love song of the calibre not seen since he was swooning over Hermione Farthingale in Feathers or writing about their subsequent breakup — only this time his inspiration was his new love, Angela Barrett (whom he would marry the following month) and the use of a catchier style. The concert finished up with a full performance of “Cygnet Committee” and a rather loose (and truncated for time, but still enjoyable) version of “Memory of a Free Festival,” both of which fall firmly into Bowie’s growing stable of “bitter songs with lovely tunes and singing.”
The performance taken in full really shows off Bowie’s talent in singing and songwriting, albeit it also inadvertently showcases his unsettled and somewhat bipolar mental state (he was 23 at the time of this recording). Some of the more charming moments come during some of the repartee between him and Peel as the latter tried to kid around with David regarding album names and song titles. Once the full band were onstage, Peel asked Bowie if he would tour with this group, and the reply was a dry impersonation of Peel’s voice and humour with a witty “looking at this lot, no” — which he quickly dropped and answered “yes,” then proceeding to invite Ronson officially onboard. To all and sundry’s good fortune, Ronson said yes to Bowie’s proposal — and a real match made in rock-n-roll heaven was born.
We’ll take a look at the second disc and the accompanying “book” next time — which is more of a mixed bag compared to this one — but if you consider yourself a Bowie fan, particularly of his pre-Ziggy albums, then you want this. This first disc is “just” a live radio concert with a small audience, but the start of many great things. For fans and collectors, the alternative versions from the Space Oddity (aka David Bowie/Man of Words, Man of Music) album — as well as the other material, and the band that did them — makes this an important document of an important year in Bowie’s life.