I had all but seven (I think) of these tracks on Decca's World of David Bowie compilation, purchased for a quid from Dean Howe at school and which was therefore among the first albums I owned; but I'd always intended to buy this double so as to get the extra tracks, and now at last I have. Life is too short to be without a recording of The Laughing Gnome in some form.
So that's another one ticked off the list, but one which has brought a weird realisation: these silly novelty records may actually have constituted Bowie's greatest work, even if it's easily forgotten once you get to spinning later, less patently ludicrous offerings.
I never quite got the idea that Bowie was attempting to bring about a marriage of pop music and theatre because it sounded like one of those meaningless juxtapositions persons such as myself suggest without actually having thought about it - imagine Splodgenessabounds covering the Swans, and so on and so forth. Additionally, it has long been my contention that theatre is mostly wank, and mime in particular - so that's a side of Bowie to which I've never really paid much attention, which is probably why I never noticed despite it having been staring me in the face all along.
Most of these tracks are novelty records, which isn't in itself a bad thing, but which I've tended to regard as Dave desperately trying to squeeze out a crowd pleaser and secure fame and fortune prior to taking himself more seriously with Space Oddity and all which came after; but the form is no more opportunist than anything he did later, despite sounding like it wouldn't have been out of place on the Chitty Chitty Bang Bang soundtrack. That's the theatrical quality he was talking about, I guess - songs as short stories, but stories told by multiple characters in ludicrous situations as distinct from, She loves you yeah yeah yeah, or even the more prosaic storytelling of country music which tends towards the autobiographical or is at least less likely to wear an orange wig whilst pretending to be from outer space. I suppose you could argue that Sgt. Pepper's inhabits roughly the same territory, but this phase of Bowie's career owes more to variety, even sixties lounge music than to rock and roll, which is in turn reduced to just one of a number of costumes worn when the narrative requires; and yes, I have indeed heard of Anthony Newley, obviously.
That which distinguishes this music from pure novelty is the sheer range. Beyond the chocolate box psychedelia of Come and Buy My Toys or She's Got Medals - none of which are to be sniffed at, I might add - we have the likes of London Boys - which just plain tears your fucking heart out - We Are Hungry Men - which somehow tackles eugenics and population with such incongruous and chilling effect that I'm sort of surprised Von Thronstahl haven't covered it, and which presumably foreshadows The Supermen, Bewlay Brothers and others of its thematic type - the Pinteresque Tony Day, and of course The Laughing Gnome, which is just fucking brilliant and I don't care what anyone says. Yet everything here superficially sounds like something which should feature a bowler hatted sixties cat winking and grinning at the camera with that lush big band production, all sweeping strings and pizzicato for emphasis.
We forget this material was as good as it is because we often forget, in our rush to be all grown up, that great art can be cheery, populist and silly without subtracting from whatever the hell it's trying to say; and so these songs have spent most of their collective existence as the pissing about from before the good stuff with no-one quite sure whether it was an album or a stack of singles or a compilation or a greatest hits without any actual hits and a photo of some completely different glam rock bloke on the cover. This is a shame because, as I say, I've a feeling this may actually have been his greatest work. Listen to the opening bars of She's Got Medals and tell me different.