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BOWIE ‘ 69

Fifty years ago, everything changed for David Bowie. He went from a singer on the fringes to finally finding success with Space Oddity. After the failure of his debut album two years earlier, just how did Bowie become the Starman? As three new vinyl boxsets explore his transformation, John Earls speaks to his bandmates and former girlfriend Hermione Farthingale
Ray Stevenson/REX/Shutterstock

David Bowie was 22 when Space Oddity was released as a single on 11 July, 1969. He was hardly a pensioner but, having started his first band Th e Konrads at school seven years earlier, there were already many unsuccessful singles, and the failed 1967 self-titled album on Deram behind him. While Bowie would go on to be praised rightly for the chameleonic unpredictability of his albums, at the time his shift ing styles made it seem as if he didn’t know how he should sound.

Lesser artists would have packed it in by then. What kept Bowie going wasn’t the desire to be famous so much as the need to keep being a singer. His girlfriend at the time, Hermione Farthingale knew what drove him. “Th e idea that David wanted to be famous is something that came a bit later,” says Farthingale. “When you’re being an artist, you’re just in that moment. Yes, David wanted to be known. He wanted to get work and be asked to come back and do more, but that’s so he could do the things he wanted.”

Bowie didn’t write many songs in 1968, the year aft er the Deram album, but he was hardly idle. “When David’s LP flopped, there was a time when he didn’t know what he was,” explains Farthingale. Bowie’s manager Ken Pitt and the singer’s father, John Jones, were trying to figure out what was next. “Th ey were very interested in David’s talent. It was, ‘What’s our boy going to be?’” Over the next few months, various ideas were mooted: children’s TV presenter, actor (Bowie had a two-second appearance in comedy war film Th e Virgin Soldiers), cabaret performer… “David and Ken got a cabaret repertoire together,” Farthingale recalls. “A lot of time was wasted on all this.”

Bowie was a mime artist when he met Farthingale, a classically trained dancer. Aside from music, mime exerted the biggest pull. “David loved mime and couldn’t bear to let it go,” states Farthingale. “He’d had his first experience of what it’s like to be immersed in a character, in full costume and make-up.

Bowie once opened for T. Rex performing his one-man mime routine depicting China’s invasion of Tibet
Ray Stevenson/REX/Shutterstock

For somebody quite anxious and fragile – shy, if you like – a character allows you to be braver. That device was something David used for a long time, until he was brave enough to drop it and be himself.” Bowie occasionally performed solo as a mime artist, with London shows at Wigmore Hall and counter-culture hangout Middle Earth. “It was just weird, frankly,” says Farthingale. “To be a solo mime, you had to be famous. Whereas David was just a lad doing mime to, usually, rock audiences who weren’t expecting it.” The nadir was opening for Tyrannosaurus Rex at London Royal Festival Hall, where Bowie performed a mime called Jetsun And The Eagle, about the Chinese invasion of Tibet. “Marc Bolan had told David: ‘You can open for us, providing you don’t sing,’” laughs Farthingale. “David was so sweet and so fearless to take on this gargantuan subject, but he went down like a lead balloon. His performance was political and not what people expected at all.”

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About Long Live Vinyl

1969 was the year that changed everything for David Bowie, and in our exclusive cover feature we speak to his former girlfriend Hermione Farthingale, plus bandmates John 'Hutch' Hutchinson and George Underwood to get the inside story. With three new Bowie boxsets out this year, you won't want to miss these rare interviews with the people who knew Bowie best – and our stunning collector's cover. Elsewhere this issue, we meet the ever-engaging Richard Hawley for a pint and a chat about his new album, Further, while Calexico and Iron & Wine tell us about their collaboration LP, Years To Burn. On the 40th anniversary of Joy Division's stellar debut Unknown Pleasures, Peter Hook takes us inside the making of the album, and we look back at another classic, Talk Talk's The Colour Of Spring. We also pay tribute to US indie label Merge on their 30th birthday and hear from James Lavelle about working with DJ Shadow, Thom Yorke, Richard Ashcroft and Danny Boyle. If all that's not enough, we bring you 40 essential vinyl samplers and meet Super Furry Animals artwork designer Pete Fowler. Plus you'll find the widest range of new album, reissue and hi-fi gear reviews anywhere on the newsstand. Long Live Vinyl is THE magazine for vinyl lovers. Pick up your copy today…