When David Bowie passed away, at the age of 69, the man’s place in the pantheon of great artists had already been well and truly established many years before. That Bowie was a true innovator goes without saying, whose ability to challenge and enlighten the listener was unique even at a time when inspired artists were hardly the rarest of species.
Bowie at the Beeb captures rock’s favourite chameleon riding the crest of a creative wave that would last long after these sessions were made. Recorded between 1968 and 1972, this two disc collection represents (purportedly) the very best of what was preserved by the BBC. Bowie obsessives will no doubt own various bootlegs that offer a far more complete picture of these years, but for most of us, this is likely all that one will ever need in one’s own lifetime.
The first side starts off with a relatively unknown Bowie finding his artistic way. Opener “In the Heat of the Morning” and “London Bye Ta Ta” are both tentative excursions by a musician still yet to fully perfect his craft, borrowing from here, stealing from there. It’s not until we get to “Let Me Sleep Beside You”, “Janine” and “Amsterdam” that a more confident Bowie emerges, like a scientist on the verge of cracking the code in terms of how to write the perfect rock song.
From 1970 we have “The Width of a Circle”, which is the first ever live recording of Mick Ronson and Bowie performing together. Although David’s musical DNA was fast falling into place, it wasn’t really until Ronson came on board that Bowie truly managed to complete his magic formula. An acoustic solo rendition of “Kooks” followed by a full band version of “It Ain’t Easy”, from June 1971, are both strong indicators of where Bowie was headed over the next few years.
The second disc, naturally, is even better, and the one most fans will be interested in. At this point Bowie had reinvented himself as intergalactic crooner, with Mick Ronson by his side, fleshing out meaty riffs on his Gibson, adding no shortage of colour to David’s often extraordinary vocals. 1971’s Hunky Dory had established Bowie as a serious player in the glam-rock stakes, and is represented here by captivating performances of “Oh! You Pretty Things”, “Queen Bitch”, and “Eight Line Poem”.
In June 1972, on BBC1, Bowie previewed The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars, which as we know was Bowie’s blend of rock star persona and heroin addicted alien, from which several choice recordings are included (there are two versions of “Ziggy Stardust” alone), not to mention engaging readings of “Space Oddity” and “Changes”, taken from the same sessions, on which Bowie’s voice takes full flight, as if finally announcing himself to the world.
Lou Reed’s “Waiting for the Man” and “White Light/White Heat” both receive a subtle and respectable Bowie makeover, before we conclude, appropriately enough, with “Teenage Suicide”, which would prove to be the last BBC recording David would make for nearly twenty years.
By 1972, all the elements of Bowie’s universe were finally in position. Soon he would go on to conquer America, Canada, and more countries than the NATO alliance combined.
The BBC probably has the richest and largest archive of any broadcaster on the planet, so it is reassuring to know that much of that precious stockpile is thankfully being preserved and presented to the public, to be enjoyed by either those who listened to the original broadcasts all those years ago, or devotees that are yet to be born. Bowie at the Beeb documents David’s proclivity for reinvention like no other album can, and for that reason alone, makes it indispensable.