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2023 Albums Thing #051 - David Bowie “Toy”

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And here endeth our journey with the music of David Bowie (well for a while anyways, I do have a few holes to fill in the collection which I will return to). After 48 days we reach what is regarded as the last official Bowie release. Available as a bootleg for many years, “Toy” was finally given an official release as a standalone album last year. It’s made up of 11 re-recordings of old songs and a new song “Toy (Your Turn To Drive)” all recorded in 2000. Bowie said in a chat on his website in 2001 that ”Toy” was finished and ready to go but scheduling at his then record company was delaying its release. He added in the same chat that he had already started writing and recording for a new album (what would become “Heathen” presumably) and that obviously overtook the need to release a record of old songs.

So what we have here are a collection of songs from, in the main, the mid to late 60’s re-recorded with the musicians he was working with at the turn of the 21st century including Mark Plati, Earl Slick, Gail Ann Dorsey, Mike Garson, Sterling Campbell (pretty much the band from Glastonbury Festival), Gerry Leonard and strings by Tony Visconti. The oldest song included is “You’ve Got A Habit Of Leaving” a single by Davy Jones from 1965, the latest (apart from the new one) is “Shadow Man” an outtake from the early “…Ziggy Stardust…” sessions in 1971. During the mixing of the album Bowie said

It really has surpassed my expectations already. The songs are so alive and full of colour, they jump out of the speakers. It’s really hard to believe that they were written so long ago.

To my ears the two songs that really come to life in these re-recorded incarnations (although all of them have their merits) are “I Can’t Help Thinking About Me” and “Conversation Piece”. Both are firm favourites of mine from the original recordings. 

“Can’t Help Thinking About Me” was a single in 1966 and the first record to bear the name David Bowie (with the Lower Third) it’s a great finger-snapping Mod pop tune. On “Toy” it becomes a Wah-Wah driven rocker sung in Bowie’s Cockney kid voice. He had been including the song in his live sets during 1999 and recorded a fantastic live version during a BBC session for Mark’s Radcliffe and Riley using this arrangement in October 1999. It does feature what Bowie once described as the worst lyric he ever wrote “My girl calls my name, “Hi Dave”…”.

“Conversation Piece” was the B-side of 1970 single “The Prettiest Star” (later re-recorded itself for “Aladdin Sane”) and was initially set in a Country Rock style. It’s been a personal favourite since I first heard it on a bootleg in the 80’s (the original single sells for around £300-500 these days and even back then I was never gonna see a real one). It’s the story of a troubled man who needs someone to talk to but has “no-one to talk to anyway”. The pivotal line is “I can’t see the water for the tears in my eyes”, is he about to commit suicide ? It’s one of Bowie’s great hidden songs and I love both versions which is why I’ve linked to them both below.

Bowie was apparently hurt at EMI/Virgin’s refusal to release “Toy” but half of the 14 tracks filtered out over the next few years as Bonus tracks and B-sides. In 2011 a 14 track collection of songs from the session leaked on to the internet and, as there had been nothing new from Bowie for 8 years, caused quite the stir. This version was initially released as part of the “Brilliant Adventure (1992-2001]” box set in 2021 and as this standalone version in 2022.

At times (apart from some of the obviously 60’s lyrics) it really is hard to believe these songs are so old. For Bowie nerds like me Toy is a fantastic insight into these songs.

Conversation Piece (1970) - https://youtu.be/StylpEnayAQ

Conversation Piece (Toy) - https://youtu.be/6xsSnT9xjQk

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