Hear Demo Recordings of David Bowie’s “Ziggy Stardust,” “Space Oddity” & “Changes”

These days “demo tapes” are often radio-ready record­ings, and bands often record one before they’ve even played their first gig. It’s a recent devel­op­ment, a byprod­uct of the rev­o­lu­tion in afford­able home record­ing tech­nol­o­gy. For most of the his­to­ry of rock and pop music, demos were raw sketch­es, pre­serv­ing ideas, tem­pos, changes, moods, but not at all ready to air. Lis­ten­ing back to demo ver­sions of songs we already know well can be like exca­vat­ing stra­ta under­neath a site like Stone­henge. Some­times you find noth­ing but sed­i­ment. Some­times you find anoth­er Stone­henge. Take for exam­ple John Lennon’s hyp­not­ic demo record­ings of “Straw­ber­ry Fields For­ev­er,” the Bea­t­les’ acoustic White Album demos, or Roger Waters’ ear­ly demos of The Wall. Intrigu­ing­ly rough gems all.

Today we bring you demo record­ings of anoth­er artist whose work typ­i­cal­ly bespeaks pol­ish and stu­dio panache. As in the past, song­writ­ers today still push play on cheap voice recorders—or expen­sive iphones—and cap­ture new songs on the fly. But nobody today writes like Bowie did in his “Zig­gy Star­dust” phase. At the top of the post, hear Bowie’s solo acoustic demo record­ing of that song. You’ll find it on the sec­ond CD of the 30th Anniver­sary edi­tion of Zig­gy Star­dust and the Spi­ders from Mars, which also includes a demo ver­sion of “Lady Star­dust” and two ver­sions of “Moon­age Day­dream” and “Hang on to Your­self” by “Arnold Corns,” the orig­i­nal name of Zig­gy. I’ve heard more solo acoustic ver­sions of “Zig­gy” than I’d care to remem­ber, played by earnest cof­fee-shop croon­ers and gui­tar-bear­ing par­ty guests. But Bowie’s orig­i­nal demo I could lis­ten to again and again.

While the “Arnold Corns” incar­na­tions of Zig­gy Star­dust songs def­i­nite­ly fall into the cat­e­go­ry of not-Stone­henge, the 1969 demo record­ing of “Space Odd­i­ty” has a very mon­u­men­tal feel indeed—if that mon­u­ment were 2001’s enig­mat­ic Mono­lith. Set here to clips from that film, it seems like the per­fect accom­pa­ni­ment to the glossy fore­bod­ing of Kubrick’s space vision. This drum­less arrange­ment sounds some­how more con­tem­po­rary than the record­ing we’ve heard count­less times. It also sounds much clos­er to the psy­che­del­ic folk on the rest of the Space Odd­i­ty album, a col­lec­tion of songs many Bowie fans, myself includ­ed, great­ly admire, but which his first audi­ence didn’t take to so read­i­ly. “Space Odd­i­ty” went through at least one more iter­a­tion before land­ing on the album. Hear the slight­ly more funked-up ver­sion, and see its awk­ward video, below.

Per­haps no song oth­er than “Ash­es to Ash­es” so well artic­u­lates the cre­ative destruc­tion of Bowie’s many rock star personae—and the toll those meta­mor­phoses take—than 1971’s “Changes.” But it’s a song writ­ten and record­ed ear­ly in his career, before Zig­gy Star­dust, the char­ac­ter that first broke him into super­star­dom. The song appears on Hunky Dory in a record­ing with the Star­dust band—Mick Ron­son, Trevor Bold­er, and Mick Woodmansey—but it’s such a Bowie-cen­tric lyric that it out­last­ed hun­dreds of cos­tume changes and served as the obvi­ous choice of title for the 1990 com­pi­la­tion Changes­bowie.

Does the piano demo above reveal an alter­nate pre-his­to­ry? Not real­ly. The hand­claps and odd vocal­iza­tions are half-formed ideas at best, and the poor audio qual­i­ty is not a fea­ture. But what it does demon­strate, as do all of the rough record­ings above, is that Bowie is Bowie—a stel­lar song­writer and vocal performer—whether cap­tured on a cheap home tape machine or the best stu­dio equip­ment mon­ey can buy. Stu­dio wiz­ardry of the present can do things pro­duc­ers forty years ago could only dream about, but no amount of tech­nol­o­gy can sub­sti­tute for raw musi­cal tal­ent, nor for the long years of prac­tice Bowie endured.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

David Bowie Recalls the Strange Expe­ri­ence of Invent­ing the Char­ac­ter Zig­gy Star­dust (1977)

The Sto­ry of Zig­gy Star­dust: How David Bowie Cre­at­ed the Char­ac­ter that Made Him Famous

A 17-Year-Old David Bowie Defends “Long-Haired Men” in His First TV Inter­view (1964)

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness.

by | Permalink | Comments (1) |

Sup­port Open Cul­ture

We’re hop­ing to rely on our loy­al read­ers rather than errat­ic ads. To sup­port Open Cul­ture’s edu­ca­tion­al mis­sion, please con­sid­er mak­ing a dona­tion. We accept Pay­Pal, Ven­mo (@openculture), Patre­on and Cryp­to! Please find all options here. We thank you!

Leave a Reply

Open Culture was founded by Dan Colman.