Today, the world lost a legend. More truthfully, we lost a number of legends: Ziggy Stardust, the Thin White Duke, Jareth, and on through space and time. Though it’s impossible to take full measure of this man, those who want to survey his pantheon shouldn’t forget an early classic.
Before Bowie became any of his more famous incarnations–indeed, not long after he started being Bowie–he spent a few happy days as The Laughing Gnome.
To briefly set the scene: it was 1967. Bowie knew he was going to be a star, but he didn’t know exactly how yet. At the age of 20, he had already joined and left five different rock bands, and had recently decided to try flying solo, holing up in Decca Studios in London to record what would become his eponymous debut album.
These sessions were marked by the sort of audacity that came naturally to Bowie–over the few months he spent recording, the young musician taught himself music theory out of a book so he could write bassoon parts for the London Philharmonic, “shuffled about in a box of gravel” to get good ambience for a dirge called ”Please, Mr. Gravedigger,” and generously spiced many tracks with samples from Decca’s sound effects library.
On one particular day, this heavy lean into his own instincts took the form of “The Laughing Gnome.” Heavily inspired by Anthony Newley (one of Bowie’s early heroes, and famous for, among other things, “The Oompa-Loompa Song”), the song recreates a very specific supernatural encounter. “I was walking down the high street / when I heard footsteps behind me,” Bowie sings in his ever-distinct storyteller’s voice. ”There was a little old man in scarlet and gray, chuckling away.”
Enter the gnome–also played by Bowie, his voice dialed up to a manic, Chipmunks-style pitch. Bowie-as-man and Bowie-as-gnome head home, watch television, eat roasted toadstools, and engage in some shameless punning (Bowie, the man: “Don’t you have a home to go to?” Bowie, the gnome: “No, we are gnomads!”) Later they are joined by the gnome’s brother Fred, played by studio engineer Gus Dudgeon, and things get even more unhinged.
Deram Records released the song in April 1967 to grease the public’s wheels for the rest of the album. Although Bowie had hoped to break into the music charts for the first time, the gnome, as DavidBowie.com wrote a few years ago, ”did very little to excite the record-buying public anywhere in the world in 1967.” Bowie had to wait two more years for his first hit, which came in the form of “Space Oddity.”
But in hindsight, the “little old man in scarlet and gray” is a venerable ancestor to the personae Bowie later wowed the world with. As biographer David Buckley wrote in Strange Fascination: David Bowie, “These were Bowie’s first faltering steps in the direction of theatrical pop. He knew that to project a sense of character it was necessary to embrace studio technology and utilize each new innovation as it came along.” This particular trick, vocal tweaking, was vital to later, less gnome-y tracks, like “Fame.”
When the early song was re-released in 1973, it shot up the UK charts to #6. In 1990, NME tried to hijack a setlist poll so that Bowie would have to play it on tour, and although they failed, Bowie did practice it during at least one soundcheck.
Listening to the Bowie-on-Bowie duet today, the most notable aspect is the oft-repeated and very genuine laughter shared by man, gnome and listener. It may have taken a while for the world to embrace Bowie’s characters, but the man himself was all in from the beginning.
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