Question-time that says I brought dishonour My head's bowed in shame It seems that I've blackened the family name Mother says that she can't stand the neighbours' talking I've gotta pack my bags, leave this home, start walking, yeah I'm guilty I wish that I was sorry this time I wish that I could pay for my crime I can't help thinking about me Remember when we used to go to church on Sundays I lay awake at night, terrified of school on Mondays Oh, but it's too late now I wish I was a child again I wish I felt secure again I can't help thinking about me As I pass a recreation ground I remember my friends, always been found and I can't I can't help thinking about me Now I leave them all in the never-never land The station seems so cold, the ticket's in my hand My girl calls my name "Hi Dave Drop in, see you around, come back If you're this way again" Oh, I'm on my own I've got a long way to go I hope I make it on my own I can't help thinking about me
David’s fourth single, and The Lower Third’s second single (and last with Bowie), was released on 14 January 1966 – and ranks among the finest pieces created by the young artist in his pre-‘Space Oddity’ period. ‘Can’t Help Thinking About Me’ was also the first public release to feature David’s name change from Jones to Bowie.
How did ‘Can’t Help Thinking About Me’ came into existence? The single was the result of a development in late 1965 that turned out as crucial for David Bowie’s career as he was now represented by his first-ever manager Ralph Horton. After Bowie and The Lower Third failed the BBC audition to gain a spot on a pop programme on TV Horton introduced them to Tony Hatch, a songwriting producer at Pye Records, on 25 November 1965. It is known that the couple of demos discussed earlier on this blog were sent to Hatch beforehand. In 1993 Hatch admitted that he was quite impressed by them and hence he would be the producer Bowie’s next singles.
That same day on 25 November 1965, Bowie and The Lower Third recorded three songs for potential single release at Pye Studios in ATV House, 40 Bryanston Street, Marble Arch: a song called ‘Now You’ve Met The London Boys’ (which would later be reworked with his then-band The Buzz and would simply be titled ‘The London Boys’ to become the B-side of the ‘Rubber Band’ single released in December 1966), ‘Can’t Help Thinking About Me’ (which would become the A-side of the single) and ‘I Say To Myself’ (which would become the B-side).
The recording of the song featured Bowie providing the lead vocals and playing the tambourine (allegedly the same tambourine that was used by Petula Clark on her previous year’s monumental hit ‘Downtown’), producer Tony Hatch on piano, guitar by Denis Taylor, bass guitar by Graham Rivens, Phil Lancaster on drums and the entire band singing the backing vocals throughout the entire song. Tony Hatch is said to have remarked that the backing vocals by the The Lower Third sounded “like a Saturday night at the old Bull and Bush”.
The song offers a couple of themes that become typical for Bowie’s later songwriting. First of all, it is a storytelling song. Indeed, as is stated in the article above ‘Can’t Help Thinking About Me’ is a reference to a significant part of his life since he left his home at 16 years to start making it on his own as a singer. The theme of the lonely traveller leaving home is often repeated in Bowie’s work, for example in ‘Black Country Rock’, ‘Be My Wife’ and ‘Move On’.
The song portrays a young dude waiting at a train station for his girlfriend reflecting on his decision to leave home. It seems that he has committed some sort of a crime that “blackened the family name” and now he can’t go back home. What was the crime? Maybe it’s one of the following: his abandoning of his family name (and changing it to Bowie) or his flirt with sexual ambiguity. But we can only assume. The song also features what Bowie later described as some of the worst lyrics he has ever written (in particular this part: “My girl calls my name: ‘Hi Dave / Drop in, turn around, come back / If you’re this way again’ “).
Some biographers assume that since ‘Can’t Help Thinking About Me’ was the last single of Bowie fronting a band for a long time (since he would leave The Lower Third immediately after the release of the single) the song was meant as an alarm signal to his band colleagues. It would not be too far off to assume that as the song’s lyrics state: “I’ve got a long way to go / I hope I make it on my own”. And the song title is somewhat telling as well.
But the song tells more about Bowie: it is perhaps the first time he showed some sense of alienation, of being an outsider and outcast from conventional society. Bowie himself would later on in 1999 describe the song as a “beautiful piece of solipsism” (knowledge that anything outside one’s own mind is unsure) which in some way would support the alienation theory. In 1973 David Bowie, by then in the guise of his alter ego Ziggy Stardust, said the following:
“I’m not very sure of myself when it comes to thinking about me. I try and leave ‘me’ alone … It’s much more of a realism for me to think that this ( points around room ) is all me, that there’s nothing else in here. It’s all outside. I prefer that way of existence.”
Hence, the single also shows the first evidence of Bowie writing lyrics that are rather dark and cold, a style that he would repeat over and over throughout his career and particularly in the 1970s when he starts to sing about much more otherworldly themes, influences of drugs and his reflections on fame and society. However, it would be misleading to compare this song with his later work. It would rather make sense to place ‘Can’t Help Thinking About Me’ among Bowie’s growing interest in depicting his experiences of the teenage wildlife as a mod in London around that time. This makes more sense since he started to write a couple of remarkable songs around the same time that contained similar themes (among them most notably ‘The London Boys’). How would his first album have sounded if he had solely written about the mod teenage life in London during those years?
Bowie’s vocals in ‘Can’t Help Thinking About Me’ reveal a much more advanced way of singing. There is a pre-chorus section (“it’s too late now”) that certainly raises the excitement in this song, and David continues to perform some of his best early wailing. His soaring and emotional vocal performance of the line “I’m guilty” really reveals how much the guy in this song has come to terms with his decision to leave everyone at home in the “never-never-land” and how he starts to like his new phase in life.
Before the release of the single on 14 January 1966 David Bowie and The Lower Third had a promotional gig at The Gaiety Bar, the Victoria Tavern, on 6 January, financed by Bowie’s sponsor Raymond Cook, to launch ‘Can’t Help Thinking About Me’ and – as it seems – to especially promote David Bowie as a singer. David’s preferential treatment by Horton – in comparison to his band members – has led to a couple of disharmonies between the lead singer and the band that would result in the parting of the band later in January. David has been treated almost as a solo artist, and apparently that has led to some more or less famous guests showing up at the gig. One of them was Freddie Lennon, John Lennon’s father. In its review column the Record Retailer finds that the song is “an original song about teenage trouble. Words worth listening to but arrangement not all that original”.
The official reviews upon the single’s release are quite positive. NME: “Absorbing melody, weakish tune”. In an official press release Bowie emphasises his claims to make it as a solo artist: “If the record is a hit, that’s alright, but I really want to become established.” There’s no ‘we’ in that sentence which would have hinted that he cared enough for his band. Pye Records’ official press release states that Horton has already engaged Bowie to put his “hundreds of songs” on an album later that year.
The single did not sell well. It was another commercial flop. But Ralph Horton managed to place the single – illegitimately, but a common practice in the music industry around that time – in the Melody Maker charts so that ‘Can’t Help Thinking About Me’ entered the charts at #45 on 13 February and peaked at #34 about two weeks later. The Melody Maker charts were by no means representative and need not to be confused with the national charts. In reality, sales were meagre at best and the single flopped all the way.
The song was played over and over in January 1966 in order to promote the single and to boost sales. However, on 29 January The Lower Third and David Bowie part from each other and would never join forces again. As a resulting of the charting “success” Bowie had his first interview with Melody Maker on 26 February 1966 titled ‘A Message To London From Dave’.
WITHOUT doubt David Bowie has talent. And also without doubt it will be exploited. For, Mr. Bowie, a 19-year-old Bromley boy, not only writes and arranges his own numbers, but he is also helping Tony Hatch to write a musical score, and the numbers for a TV show. As if that wasn’t enough, David also designs shirts and suits for John Stephen, of the famed Carnaby Street clan.
And his ambition? “I want to act,” says Bowie modestly, “I’d like to do character parts. I think it takes a lot to become somebody else. It takes some doing.”
“Also I want to go to Tibet. It’s a fascinating place, y’know. I’d like to take a holiday and have a look inside the monasteries. The Tibetan monks, Lamas, bury themselves inside mountains for weeks and only eat every three days. They’re ridiculous – and it’s said they live for centuries.”
It should be stated that David is a well-read student of astrology and a believer in reincarnation….
“As far as I’m concerned the whole idea of Western life – that’s the life we live now – is wrong. These are hard convictions to put into songs, though. At the moment I write nearly all my songs round London. No. I should say the people who live in London – and the lack of real life they have. The majority just don’t know what life is.”
Every number in Dave’s stage act is an original that he has written. As he says. the themes is usually London kids and their lives. However, it leads to trouble.
“Several of the younger teenagers’ programmes wouldn’t play ‘Can’t Helping Thinking About Me’, because it is about leaving home. The number relates several incidents in every teenager’s life – and leaving home is something which always comes up.
“Tony Hatch and I rather wanted to do another number I had written. It goes down very well in the stage act, and lots of fans said I should have released it – but Tony and I thought the words were a bit strong.”
“In what way?” “Well, it tells the story of life as some teenagers saw it – but we didn’t think the lyrics were quite up many people’s street. I do it on stage though, and we’re probably keeping it for an EP or maybe an LP. Hope, hope! It’s called “Now You’ve Met The London Boys”, and mentions pills, and generally belittles the London night life scene.
“I’ve lived in London and been brought up here, and I find it’s a great subject to write songs about. And remember, with all original numbers the audiences are hearing numbers they’ve never heard before – so this makes for a varied stage act,” said David, “It’s risky, because the kids aren’t familiar with the tunes, but I’m sure it makes their musical life more interesting.”
He could be right.
David Bowie and his new band The Buzz performed ‘Can’t Help Thinking About Me’ on Rediffusion’s Ready, Steady, Go! (where Bowie had initially intended to wear a full white suit but which would have caused problems for the camera). Unfortunately, a recording of this show has not survived. Despite its commercial failure the single marked somewhat of a little milestone for the young aspiring David Bowie: the single would be David’s first to be released in the US, issued in the Warner Brothers label in May 1966, along with the following press release:
David Bowie must be one of the most talented stars on the pop scene today. It is not enough just to be able to sing nowadays, most of the top artistes compose and sometimes act as well and David is no exception.
Not only did his first record get to No. 34 in the hit parade but it was his own composition. ‘I compose all the time,’ he said. ‘Sometimes I sit down and think out a song and other times they just come to me.’
You might think that David, still only twenty, wouldn’t have time to do anything else but he is a disc jockey at the famous Marquee Club in Soho where he has his own show called the ‘Bowie Showboat’.
David Bowie is a solo artist but he is backed by his group The Buzz. Their record, ‘Can’t Help Thinking About Me’ was released in the US and was the ‘Cashbox’ best bet, so it may do as well there as it has done here. David said he would quite like to go to the States but his main ambition as far as travel is concerned is to go to Tibet. Why Tibet? ‘I don’t know, I’d just like all those mountains and the monasteries and priests, I know I’d find it fascinating.’ As an expert in astrology and a believer in reincarnation, his desire to visit Tibet is perhaps not so surprising.
Needless to add that the single also flopped in the US.
It would take another 3o-some years until David Bowie performed ‘Can’t Help Thinking About Me’. The first-ever revisit of this single was during his 1997 Outside Tour in San Francisco, but I have not found any video evidence of that yet. But only two years later the 1966 song became an almost regular part of his live-repertoire during his Hours… Tour in 1999. Below you can listen to (and watch) three of his performances of ‘Can’t Help Thinking About Me’ in chronological order. The first performance in New York was also his first concert of the tour (in 2009 released as the VH1 Storytellers CD & DVD). If you listen to the performances chronologically you can hear that during the later two performances his vocals sound worse.
Except for the VH1 Storytellers release it is not known to me that this new rock-heavier version is included on any other release (official or unofficial). Pegg suggests that ‘Can’t Help Thinking About Me’ led Bowie into the Toy recording sessions in 2000. But the studio recording of that song has not yet seen a release.
- Vinyl ‘Can’t Help Thinking About Me’ (A-Side) / ‘And I Say To Myself’ (B-Side) 1/1966
- CD Early On (1964-1966) 1991
- Vinyl I Dig Everything: The 1966 Pye Singles 1999
- CD/Digital VH1 Storytellers 2009
- David Bowie (vocals, guitar, saxophone)
- Dennis Taylor (guitar)
- Graham Rivens (bass)
- Phil Lancaster (drums)
- Produced by Tony Hatch