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Reviews

David Bowie’s The Width of a Circle reviewed by SDE

New two-CD set casts a light on Bowie between albums

Not holding the ace just yet. David Bowie as depicted on the front of ‘The Width of a Circle’

After Metrobolist, last year’s Tony Visconti stereo remix of The Man Who Sold The World, Parlophone offer David Bowie fans a companion release in The Width of a Circle, a two-CD set that very much rounds up odds and sods from the first half of 1970. By the end of that particular year The Man Who Sold The World was completed and was released (in America, at least – the UK had to wait until April 1971).

The first CD in The Width of a Circle is devoted entirely to The Sunday Show, what was then a new BBC Radio One 60-minute ‘in concert’ series. As the excellent 48-page book makes clear, this was recorded on 4 Feb 1970, which was less than two months after the release of the David Bowie/Space Oddity album, so it’s no surprise to hear plenty of songs from that record – in fact David plays everything off it, bar his one bona fide hit at the time, ‘Space Oddity’, and ‘Letter to Hermione’.

But ever one to look forward, Bowie had by this time already recorded a new song, ‘The Prettiest Star’ and so he also plays that track for this live session. The 1970 studio recording of ‘The Prettiest Star’ is famous for featuring Marc Bolan, but this live version is also notable for employing the services of a certain Mick Ronson, someone David had apparently only been introduced to a couple of days earlier! So this recording has enormous historical significance, being Ronson’s first performance with Bowie.

Mick only features on just over half of The Sunday Show songs, since Bowie was quite clever about how he presented his music for this audience, starting alone on acoustic guitar for four tracks, then playing with just Tony Visconti (bass) and John Cambridge (drums) for a couple of further tracks, before Mick joins in for full ‘rock band’ line-up. As well as the songs from the David Bowie/Space Oddity album, there’s a some oddities peppered in the setlist. David performs ‘Karma Man’, an at-the-time unreleased track that would be included on The World of David Bowie compilation when it was issued the following month and Jacques Brel’s ‘Amsterdam’ (which was on Scott Walker’s 1967 debut album). Bowie also covers ‘Buzz The Fuzz’, a relatively anonymous 1968 Biff Rose song. Just when you think his interest in this artist might be misplaced, he later tackles another Rose song (on the same album as ‘Buzz The Fuzz’) called ‘Fill Your Heart’. The penny drops. It’s the same song David would record for Hunky Dory the following year. He knew what he was doing…

The Width of a Circle is a two-CD book set with the discs held in a plastic insert at the rear

‘The Width of a Circle’, the track that gives this new deluxe set its name, is the only number from The Man Who Sold The World performed and it’s certainly an interesting listen, primarily because it’s so obviously still a work-in-progress. Don’t forget, at the time this was broadcast that album was still 14 months away from release in the UK. Given the prevalence of material from the David Bowie/Space Oddity album there is a argument that says all this material is more of a ‘companion’ to that 1969 record, rather than The Man Who Sold The World, but although the Keith McMillan outtake cover and the title signals the latter, The Width of a Circle is ultimately a standalone product, so this is rather a moot point. 

John Peel introduces every song performed on The Sunday Show and if his droll patter seems at first charming and evocative of the era, it soon gets rather tiresome; his dry humour on occasions missing the mark somewhat. More than once I found myself thinking “get on with it!” as he rambled on, delaying the actual music.

It’s a miracle that we have access to this audio at all, since, in their wisdom, the BBC didn’t keep the tapes. However Tony Visconti had the foresight to record this, off air, from his own radio at the time it was broadcast (8 February 1970). Of course, it’s not the same as a pristine master tape transfer, but it’s not bad at all, so well done that man! 

The second disc of The Width of a Circle starts with five tracks that make up The Looking Glass Murders aka Pierrot in Turquoise. This incorporates fairly sparse versions of Deram-era songs as sung by Bowie in a Lindsey Kemp ‘pantomime’ (called Pierrot in Turquoise). David also performed in the show, when it played in small theatres in late 1967 and he took part again for a one-off performance when it was filmed in early February 1970 for Scottish TV (four days before The Sunday Show). ‘When I LIve My Dream’ has always been a lovely song and sounds great set to a lonely organ. ‘Harlequinn’ and ‘Columbine’ are acoustic guitar driven curiosities, while ‘Threepenny Pierrot’ – narrative lyrics set to the tune of ‘London Bye Ta-Ta’ – probably sounded fairly dodgy from the stalls in 1967. It hasn’t improved in the intervening 54 years.

The next part of the second CD is subtitled ‘The Singles’. It starts with the excellent 45 version of ‘The Prettiest Star’ (the one with Marc Bolan on guitar). First issued on CD in 1989 as part of Rykodisc’s Sound + Vision box set, this song has aged well, although with this ‘Alternative Mix’ you’ll be hard pushed to spot any differences from the master version. The 1970 re-recording of ’London Bye Ta-Ta’ is the single that never was. Again, it was first issued on the Sound + Vision box. At the time, I thought this lost Bowie track was great. But this once rare number seems to crop up everywhere these days (although not – ludicrously – on Re:Call 1 from Five Years) and the novelty has rather worn off. While it features a great array of musicians (including Marc Bolan once more and Rick Wakeman on piano), two versions in a row (mono and stereo versions) rather spoils the ‘playability’ of this disc. Both mixes have been released before; the 2003 reboot of the Sound + Vision box featured the stereo version and the same mix also popped up on the 2009 reissue of David Bowie/Space Oddity.

Like ‘London Bye Ta-Ta’, the A and B-side versions of David Bowie/Space Oddity album closer ’Memory of a Free Festival’ single are also not rare any more, but I’d forgotten quite how different these re-recordings are when compared to the minimalistic album cut. Apart from John Cambridge being on drums (instead of Woody Woodmansey), this is the full The Man Who Sold The World band (with Mick Ronson), playing on a David Bowie/Space Oddity track. It’s fantastic but it doesn’t sound like a hit to me – and it wasn’t. This was primarily re-recorded for single release at the behest of Mercury in America but it was still issued in the UK which has always felt weird considering it followed ‘The Prettiest Star’, a brand new non-album track.

‘Holy Holy’ completes ‘The Singles’ and this version is actually quite rare. There were no commercial 45s from The Man Who Sold The World, but this track was released in the UK in January 1971 a few months before the album came out (the B-side was ‘Black Country Rock’). The reason it’s rare is because while the Rykodisc version of The Man Who Sold The World claims to host the original 1970 recording, it actually features the re-recording from later the same year (1971) which was intended as an album track on The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars (this obviously never happened, although it ended up as the B-side to ‘Diamond Dogs’!). So when the actual 1970 recording appeared on Re:Call 1 in the 2015 Five Years box set, that was the first official release on CD. The Width of a Circle becomes  the second, and the first time it is available without buying an expensive box. 

Next up is The Sounds of The 70s: Andy Ferris. Although this may sound like another live performance these are ‘in session’ studio recordings and this 25 March session features the same four musicians from that early February Sunday Show – namely David Bowie, Mick Ronson, Tony Visconti and John Cambridge. Three of these four tracks have never been issued on CD (‘The Wild Eyed Boy From Freecloud’ being the exception) and I have to say that the version of The Velvet Underground’s ‘Waiting For The Man’, with its hard rock minimalism, is a real highlight of The Width of a Circle. In fact, all the Andy Ferris stuff is brilliant. ‘The Width of a Circle’ has developed since February but David still hasn’t written the “He swallowed his pride and puckered his lips…” section. It’s good to hear another track from The Man Who Sold The World in ‘The Supermen’. Like the VU cover this is very heavy with bottom end and sounds superb.

Tony Visconti’s 2020 stereo remix of ‘Holy Holy’ is featured on The Width of a Circle

This new compilation ends with some new 2020 stereo mixes by Tony Visconti. It makes sense to do this, given that The Man Who Sold The World was remixed almost in its entirety for The Metrobolist. ‘The Prettiest Star’ sounds wonderfully lush and is probably the pick of the bunch, while ‘London Bye Ta-Ta’ still sounds like a right old racket! ‘Holy Holy’ is great but remains a strange little song. 

If The Width of a Circle seems a little bit all over the place, then that’s purely because it’s a reflection of where Bowie was at this time. He was over five years into his professional career in early 1970 and while he had one hit to his name, the 23-year-old was not resting on his laurels and didn’t want to be defined by it (possibly why he didn’t play it on The Sunday Show). He would take any opportunity that fell into his lap, whether that be travelling across Scotland for £60 to perform in that Lindsey Kemp ‘pantomime’, developing and recording new songs, doing radio sessions or even helping Decca to put together a new compilation of old material (The World of David Bowie). He was throwing everything at the wall and waiting to see what would stick (if anything would stick). It’s interesting to note that for both the David Bowie/Space Oddity and The Man Who Sold The World albums David recorded and released new songs almost as soon as they were out (‘The Prettiest Star’ and ‘Holy Holy’, respectively). He was not short of material, ideas or energy and certainly didn’t lack confidence (on The Sunday Show recording he has a mild disagreement with Peel on the concept of ‘Art Labs’ which was a typically esoteric point of discussion).

For anyone not there at the time, it’s impossible to look back at this era 50 years on and get a truly clear picture of what was going on, since the image is clouded with the knowledge that David Bowie went on to become one of the world’s most creative, inventive (and successful) musicians and songwriters. We can’t help but see these recordings and this activity as stones, carefully laid, in a path to success. We know that path led to Hunky Dory, The Spiders from Mars, the alter-ego of Ziggy Stardust and ‘Starman’ – but David didn’t know where it would lead. ‘Nowhere’ was a distinct possibility. But in these early years, Bowie’s perseverance, his confidence in his own talents, and the perspiration that went with the inspiration is not something that is discussed too often. 

Packaged in a smart linen-style book, The Width of a Circle feels like some kind of lost journal. The sort of item detectives in films find in the floorboards that prove a protagonist’s innocence. It fills in the gaps between album two and album three and makes some sense of the confusing single release schedule. Most importantly, it confirms that David Bowie was master of his own destiny and determined to succeed by unrelenting dedication to his art. While the rewards were not immediate, the sustained commercial success that finally came a couple of years later was well earned.

The Width of a Circle is released this Friday, 28 May 2021, along with a vinyl picture disc of The Man Who Sold The World.

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David Bowie

The Width of a Circle - 2CD set

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The Man Who Sold The World - vinyl picture disc

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Tracklisting

David Bowie / The Width of a Circle 2CD set

The Width of a Circle David Bowie / 2CD

    • CD 1: The Sunday Show introduced by John Peel (5 Feb 1970)
      1. Amsterdam *
      2. God Knows I’m Good *
      3. Buzz The Fuzz
      4. Karma Man
      5. London Bye, Ta-Ta
      6. An Occasional Dream
      7. The Width Of A Circle*
      8. Janine
      9. Wild Eyed Boy From Freecloud
      10. Unwashed And Somewhat Slightly Dazed*
      11. Fill Your Heart
      12. The Prettiest Star
      13. Cygnet Committee*
      14. Memory Of A Free Festival*
    • CD 2: Various live and studio cuts
      1. When I Live My Dream (from ‘The Looking Glass Murders aka Pierrot in Turquoise’)
      2. Columbine (from ‘The Looking Glass Murders aka Pierrot in Turquoise’)
      3. The Mirror (from ‘The Looking Glass Murders aka Pierrot in Turquoise’)
      4. Threepenny Pierrot (from ‘The Looking Glass Murders aka Pierrot in Turquoise’)
      5. When I Live My Dream (Reprise) (from ‘The Looking Glass Murders aka Pierrot in Turquoise’)
      6. The Prettiest Star (alternative single mix)
      7. London Bye, Ta-Ta (mono)*
      8. London Bye, Ta-Ta (1970 Stereo Mix)*
      9. Memory Of A Free Festival (Single Version Part 1)*
      10. Memory Of A Free Festival (Single Version Part 2)*
      11. Holy Holy*
      12. Waiting For The Man (Sounds of the 70s: Andy Ferris Show)
      13. The Width Of A Circle (Sounds of the 70s: Andy Ferris Show)
      14. The Wild Eyed Boy From Freecloud* (Sounds of the 70s: Andy Ferris Show)
      15. The Supermen (Bowie At The Beeb vinyl only)* (Sounds of the 70s: Andy Ferris Show)
      16. The Prettiest Star (2020 Mix)
      17. London Bye, Ta-Ta (2020 Mix)
      18. Memory Of A Free Festival (Single Version – 2020 Mix)
      19. All The Madmen (Single Edit 2020 Mix)
      20. Holy Holy (2020 Mix)
      *denotes previously released

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