Greetings Dear Readers! I hope everyone is staying healthy and safe during these troubling times. It is indeed a crazy world out there, but fret not, because today our Art Crime Investigations are going to be matching crazy for CRAZY! Strap in, put on your tin-foil helmets, and get ready to BLAST OFF in the first of our multi-part odyssey into the GLORIOUSLY UNBRANDED, PATENTLY INSANE world of MAJOR TOM RECORDS.
Oh, you mean Major Tom, the little astronaut from popular Bowie songs like “Space Oddity” and “Jump They Say”?
No, you fool! “Jump They Say” was never popular! And this Major Tom was no astronaut, but a genuine, bonafide ART CRIMINAL! This Major Tom was responsible for unleashing countless unofficial Bowie singles upon a helpless marketplace (and robbing poor David of all that money he could have been making)!
So the story goes…
Back in the early 1980s there was a small bootleg operation based out of New York that released a number of Bowie singles under the fake label “Major Tom Records”. These 7” singles contained a variety of unreleased/out-of-print studio takes, live audience recordings, and BBC radio sessions (some of which are still unavailable outside of bootlegs to this day), and were packaged in custom picture sleeves mimicking the look of Mercury and RCA Records, only with “Major Tom” slapped on instead.
Presumably to avoid getting caught by the authorities, the name “David Bowie” rarely appears on these records in full, with the performances instead being credited to some of his short-lived early bands (The Buzz, The Hype, The Lower Third, etc) or to winky monikers like “Davey Dream” (or in one particularly silly instance “Davy and the Dinosaur”). The “Major Tom” label itself would also go through changes in name (and sometimes country of origin), further obfuscating the trail of the rascally Art Criminal behind it.
The Major Tom bootlegs also share a somewhat dubious release history. Most accounts generally agree that they were first pressed in limited numbers between 1979 and 1983. However, exact dates and specific numbers are spurious (as is most other info about them), and for 40-year-old, limited-run Bowie records most of them can still be found floating around Collectors Market for a fair shake (around $15-$30 USD). I have my suspicions that some copies out there might even be sneaky represses and not the “vintage” items they claim.
After all, who expects a BOOTLEG to be honest in the first place??
Each chapter of this Bootleg Odyssey will explore the some of the myths and legends behind the Major’s various vinyl-pressed crimes, as we drive closer and closer towards discovering his DARK, TERRIBLE SECRET! In the process we’ll also get a unique glimpse inside the weird, wacky world of bootleg Bowie records, and what makes the recordings on them so special.
Our journey begins with a bootleg that appears to have little-to-nothing to do with Major Tom or the bootleg label bearing name. Yes, today our sonic time machine will be taking us back to (almost) the very beginning, to 1966 when a young, newly christened David Bowie was working as the house band at the Marquee Club and toying around with “novelty songs”.
Excerpts From The Bowie Showboat Interview Featuring Over The Wall We Go
Excerpts From The Bowie Showboat Interview Featuring Over Wall We Go is a bootleg 7” single, which, as it’s title suggests, consists of excerpts from a radio interview given by Bowie in 1966 while he was performing his ‘Bowie Showboat’ shows at the Marquee, featuring him singing a then-new song titled “Over The Wall We Go”:
The Showboat record was supposedly released back in 1979, issued in a plain white sleeve with a yellow Marquee Recordings label on the front (and another on the empty reverse side reading “DO NOT PLAY THIS SIDE”):
The record makes no proper mention of David Bowie outside of the “Bowie Showboat” in it’s title, and that’s hardly the only thing its playing fast and loose with. ‘Marquee Recordings’ is of course a fake label with no relation to the music venue, and as it turns out, the recording of Bowie singing “Over The Wall We Go” is a studio demo made several months after the Marquee interview.
Nicholas Pegg explains further:
The song was demoed in 1966, although confusion reigns over the exact date. It has been claimed that Bowie’s version was broadcast on Radio London in the summer of 1966 alongside an early interview conducted at one of the Marquee’s “Bowie Showboat” concerts, but this is almost certainly a misconception perpetrated by a ham-fisted bootleg which blatantly inserts Bowie’s 2’44” studio demo into the authentic interview. The evidence points strongly to the demo being recorded later in the year, probably in December at the time of the David Bowie sessions.The Complete David Bowie (Revised and Updated 2016 Edition)
So that all makes sense enough: some cheeky bootlegger threw an old, unreleased demo in with some rarely-heard interview snippets and tried to pass it off as something that never quite existed in the first place. Mystery solved.
OR IS IT?!?
Frankly, I think there’s still a few questions left unanswered (or even ASKED IN THE FIRST PLACE!) like where exactly did the bootlegger get Bowie’s “Over The Wall We Go” demo, unreleased as it was? From what little information I’ve been able to find, the Showboat single is the first time Bowie’s version of the song was ever made available, and while the track also appeared on a few 12″ bootleg compilations throughout the 80s, it was always the version with the interview, as sourced from the earlier Showboat. The jury is still out on this one…
Then there is the question of WHY the bootlegger chose to mash up this particular song with that particular interview? There are scores of unreleased Bowie songs that are far more palatable than “Over The Wall We Go”, and plenty of more substantial interviews, so the decision to throw them together into the blender is rather curious.
Thankfully, where the bootleg trail starts to run cold, some of Bowie’s actual inspiration for writing the piece come to the rescue and provide a little more context.
“Writing Comedy Prose For Radio Shows…”
As someone pointed out in the comment section on the Pushing Ahead Of The Dame article, for all its foppish trappings, “Over The Wall We Go” is in line with a well-established tradition of comedic novelty songs, the point of which wasn’t so much to make ‘cool’ pop songs as it was to paint unique sonic pictures that could transport the listener into fantastical worlds full of absurd characters, lightly sprinkled with a handful of catchy musical hooks.
In that respect I don’t think Bowie’s demo falls too short. If anything, the whole piece is too damn clever for its own good, with its insipidly childish sing-song chant, its lyrics brimming with so much double-and-triple entendres that the prisoners’ slang becomes complete nonsense and the distinction between prisoner and guard turns meaningless. Given all this calculated insanity, the prison they’re trying to tunnel out of might as well be the insane asylum from “All The Madmen”.
For more witty punning, I’d wager the titular “Wall” of the prison they’re trying to break out of could also be a cheeky reference to Phil Spector’s ‘Wall of Sound” recording methods, along with Beatles producer George Martin’s attempts to subvert that process (some of those doofy horns on Bowie’s piece sure sound reminiscent of the ones Martin uses in “Yellow Submarine”). Somehow its a song that manages to be as smart as it is stupid!
And as fraudulent as it might be, the presentation the song receives on Excerpts From The Bowie Showboat only adds to this sense of radio play lunacy. On top of all the nonsense within the song, you’ve got Bowie giving his evasive non-answers to the interviewer, all to set up a song we never get to hear in favor of another song still months away from being written. THEN there’s the gnomey-sounding children cheering from the audience, which I believe the bootleg has sampled from Marc Bolan’s 1977 TV show MARC, making the whole affair madly cobbled together from mismatched audio from across literal DECADES.
The Shape Of Things To Come, or “Excerpts from Excerpts from The Bowie Showboat Interview“
Excerpts From The Bowie Showboat isn’t the only bootleg single to feature Bowie’s little demonstration. “Over The Wall We Go” was also included on a more recent unofficial single from 2019, rather ominously titled The Shape Of Things To Come (along with the A-side “That’s A Promise”). Both tracks are available below.
The Shape Of Things To Come was released in several pressings throughout 2019 on red, yellow, and blue vinyls with several variant picture-sleeve covers, along with two different picture discs:
The main cover features a rather empty-eyed Davey staring out through a lightning bolt, as elements of the original Space Oddity cover seep through. The back of the cardboard sleeve features more manipulated Space Oddity artwork and plenty of info about the record label, release year, pressing #s, etc:
Although the music is technically louder on The Shape Of Things To Come, the audio quality itself is inferior to the Showboat bootleg, sounding muddy and tinny in comparison. It’s like no matter how much you turn up the volume, the audio never has enough space to properly fill.
Making matters worse, “Over The Wall We Go” is presented without any of the misplaced radio interview featured in Excepts From The Bowie Showboat bootleg. While some might call this an improvement, divorcing the song from the accompanying madness of David rambling about his “perfectly legit” musical, and cartoon children cheering in the background, the whole affair feels more like an empty flop instead of this absurd joke run amuck. Ultimately this 2019 pressing of the song just can’t make it over the wall like the Showboat can.
So what have we learned today?
Besides that Bowie did yet another wretched thing, and that Your’s Truly is enough of a sucker to buy it twice?
Well, for starters we’ve seen yet another example of VASTLY different content and quality between versions of the same recording. We’ve also seen how those differences when put together can uncover new layers of context and meaning in even the most disposable of Bowie’s songs. More unusual still is that this communication, these inside jokes and nods, are being made between bootlegs pressed 40 years apart from one another.
I think it’s also worth noting that “Over The Wall We Go” remains officially unreleased by the Bowie Estate to this day. Despite whatever objections Nicholas Pegg might have with it, without any authoritative standard to go by, who’s to say that Excerpts From The Bowie Showboat Interview ISN’T how the song was intended to be heard?
For all it’s inherent wonkiness and delinquent nature, The Showboat Interview actually did pave the way for a whole slew of unofficial Bowie singles – including the future Major Tom Records and many others I consider every bit as essential as any official record… But that, my friends, will be a story for another day. Until then,
Details for Excerpts From The Bowie Showboat Interview Featuring Over The Wall We Go:
- Label: Marquee Recordings
- Cat. #: 1966A
- Track List:
- A. Excerpts From The Bowie Showboat Featuring Over The Wall We Go
- Sticker Notes
- Side A: Not For Sale, 45 R.P.M., Mono
- Side B: DO NOT PLAY THIS SIDE
- Matrix #
- Side A: SPRO-M 1966A / (TR) SR980
- A white-label promo variant also exists (though I’ve never seen one outside of the Discogs listing)
Sources and Relevant Links:
- Discogs & 45cat pages for Excerpts From The Bowie Showboat.
- Discogs and 45cat pages for The Shape Of Things To Come (Yellow Version).
- The Complete David Bowie (Revised And Updated 2016 Edition) by Nicholas Pegg
- Over The Wall We Go article by Pushing Ahead Of The Dame
- Gnome More Heroes: David Bowie’s Slipped Discs article by We Are Cult (goes over the history of “Over The Wall We Go”)