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.