Why do bands do cover songs? For the most part, Bowie has a tradition of having at least one cover song on his albums. It was a way for him to make a little tribute. I think a better question isn’t why, but how to make a good cover song? Despite the great song selection, I didn’t like Pin Ups. I don’t think that’s how you make a good cover. Bowie’s covers are a little contentious. They aren’t the high point of his albums, and in some cases they’re abysmal. But some are really great, and he makes them his own. On Bowie’s never released self-cover album, Toy, he doesn’t need to make them his own, because they’re already his songs. I love that he didn’t try to re-make the hits. Instead, he wanted to do songs of his that weren’t well-known, mostly songs from before he was David Bowie, back when he was still singing as Davy Jones.
Toy was never released. Instead, his label asked him to scrap it and make new songs for them, and I read a theory that Bowie was so hurt, having never had an album flat-out rejected, that he never released it. I also read that there were problems with the rights to the songs. This was in 2000. In the end, the demo version of the album somehow leaked in 2011, and it’s still contentious. I read some negative reviews of it, some thankful that it wasn’t released back then, and I agree with half of that. I think hearing it in 2011 was perfect. In fact, it may have been a catalyst for Bowie to start recording again, if it weren’t intentional. Honestly, Heathen was the best thing that could have followed ‘hours…’.
At the turn of the century, Bowie had turned his eye to the past. He released the good-intentions-but-bad-execution ‘hours…’, and he played Can’t Help Thinking About Me (his best early song as far as I’m concerned) again live, so recreating his past seemed so interesting at the time, and I think it reenergized him. He tried to write some new songs in the way he might have written them back then for this album as well, and two of those are some of his absolute best songs.
Mostly his covers are slowed down and sung gravely, almost emotionlessly. To be honest, I like a lot of these re-imaginings better than the originals, because Bowie sounded amazing at this period. I don’t know what happened to make him and his band sound so great here, because he wasn’t working with Tony Visconti yet. His singing is mostly a fantastic baritone, I mean, this is proto-Heathen singing, and it’s absolutely my thing. I know these are demos, but the production on them is perfect for the sound of the album. It’s very retro, totally unlike what ‘hours…’ sounded like. The guitars have a great tone, the drumming is simple but lovely, and it sounds so warm, like being beside a warm fire in winter. It just goes to show how great of a songwriter Bowie was back then. Listen to the originals, and they sound like standard ‘60s songs in the vein of The Beatles, The Who, The Monkees; but listen to the versions on Toy and it’s suddenly clear how good these were.
At Bowie’s age, these young man’s songs take on a whole new meaning. Baby Loves That Way is the sound of a man who’s resigned to being a hapless loser. It takes on a country tone with the violin and the guitar playing playing at a slower pace. Songs like I Dig Everything and The London Boys are about being young, and they’re so much better at capturing the air of reflection and nostalgia than anything on ‘hours…’ could. The former comes off as a little bit sarcastic, the way he bites off “everything is fine, I dig everything”. Then the latter is an absolutely perfect closer for this album, and another notch on the ’songs that have made me teary eyed so far’ list.
The gem of these old tracks is inarguably Conversation Piece though, having been released as a single with The Prettiest Star around the time of Space Oddity, but it didn’t do well, and it doesn’t make sense to exclude it from the album, because it would have been the best song on the album if it had been. It had a lovely country feel too it and the feel of an old man singing in the voice of a young man then. On the Toy version, Bowie is an old man and he sounds like he’s bearing the weight of the world on his back, far more world-weary than he did on the original. It’s honestly magical.
There are three new compositions among these re-makes. The title track is a lovely cascade of piano and stuttering guitar while Bowie sings incomprehensibly except for “yr turn to drive”, and it sounds like someone giving up in peace and contentment, especially as the song is carried to its end by a muted trumpet solo. It wasn’t re-recorded for Heathen like Afraid and Uncle Floyd were though, both of which kick the album off. Afraid sounds very much like a demo here, but it’s a killer song, so it rules in whatever form it’s in. It’s an urgent take on what ‘hours…’ tried to do, and it’s so much richer and more successful. Gail Ann Dorsey kills it on bass, too.
The opener, Uncle Floyd, is where the real magic begins. It is of course the original version of Slip Away from Heathen, and it thrives more in this form than on the version that was done on Heathen. It starts with a minute of a character on the Uncle Floyd show asking what everyone would be doing if there had been no show while people whoop and holler in the background. It’s an interesting way to start this album, as if Bowie were asking, what if there had been no David Bowie right before he plays all the songs from before he was. I think this is what makes Toy such a success. It’s not a nostalgia sell-out, and Uncle Floyd tells you that right off. Bowie sounds remorseful as everything slips away, and he holds out on the chorus for FOUR WHOLE MINUTES. When he finally drops it, it’s like a bomb, and it shatters everything.