Paul Burke

David Bowie: the man who fooled the world

He excelled at appropriating others’ ideas

  • From Spectator Life
(Getty Images)

In 1973, everyone loved David Bowie. Album buyers had put Ziggy Stardust, Aladdin Sane and Hunky Dory high in the charts, while singles buyers had bought similar success for ‘Drive In Saturday’, ‘Life on Mars’ and ‘Sorrow’. Then right in the middle of this, he released ‘The Laughing Gnome’. In truth, he probably didn’t. It was a twee little novelty song recorded six years earlier, featuring Bowie duetting with the eponymous gnome.

Nobody could believe that Bowie had recorded it – less still that he’d written it – but the more you know about him, the less surprising it seems. In fact, ‘The Laughing Gnome’ says more about David Bowie than anything else he did.

It was early evidence that he would do anything to be famous. He was a true genius but less for his musical talent and more for his cold-eyed obsession with fame and for spotting the ‘influences’ he’d need to achieve it. On ‘The Laughing Gnome’, that influence was Anthony Newley and, had it brought Bowie the fame he craved, he’d probably have been happy for the rest of his days as a family entertainer, hosting game shows on ITV. But ‘The Laughing Gnome’ flopped so a couple of years later, he tried again with another novelty song. 

This one didn’t flop. ‘Space Oddity’ was a complex, multi-layered production with sonic intricacies that did much to conceal its childish narrative and puerile pun of a title. Bowie’s first hit – in its style, structure and use of minor chords – bore more than a passing resemblance to The Bee Gees’s first hit ‘New York Mining Disaster 1941’. Nonetheless, by invoking the moon landings and the success of 2001: A Space Odyssey, ‘Space Oddity’ reached number five in the charts. Yet its creator’s one-hit career seemed as doomed as Major Tom’s.

Further years of failure followed but with that extra ounce of ambition that wasn’t quite sane, David Bowie did not give up.

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