Time May Change Me: David Bowie’s solo career, circa 1969-1971, in “The Calm Before The Storm”

By on January 8, 2018

The mercurial David Bowie took his first physical form on our blue planet exactly 71 years ago — he was born David Robert Hayword Jones on January 8, 1947, in London’s Brixton suburb — and so we thought today might be a good day to share this 2012 UK documentary, David Bowie: The Calm Before the Storm, now streaming on Night Flight Plus!


Clocking in at just over an hour, Calm Before the Storm chronicles the earliest part of Bowie’s solo career, circa 1969-1971, and focuses primarily on his first four albums, beginning with two self-titled albums.

The perfunctory mention of only a few of his earliest bands — including the Mannish Boys, and Davie Jones and the Lower Third — is mainly to quickly get to the recordings which truly deserve the lion’s share of our attention.


David Bowie, released by Deram on June 1, 1967, is rather quickly, and perhaps rightly, dismissed as inconsequential, leaning too much on its Anthony Newley-style music hall and cabaret influences. Its poor showing led to him being dropped by Deram in April 1968.

Unfortunately, we don’t hear anything about “The Laughing Gnome,” a novelty single — released on April 14, 1967 — which is certainly deserving of at least a few cheeky bon mots.


Two years would pass before the release of his second self-titled album, released by Mercury Records on November 4, 1969. It was later re-released as Space Oddity (partly to avoid confusion with his eponymous Deram release).

Bowie’s darker-themed third album, The Man Who Sold the World, was released exactly one year after the second album, on November 4, 1970, and was memorable for its original UK cover, were Bowie wears a “man-skirt”designed by Michael Fish.


This is followed by praise for his critically-acclaimed fourth album, Hunky Dory, his first for RCA, released on December 17, 1971. Bowie plays piano, sax and guitar, in addition to singing some of the best vocals of his career.

Only a modest success (it didn’t chart in the U.S. until April 1972), it nevertheless featured a few of his best songs — “Changes,” “Oh! You Pretty Things,” “Andy Warhol,” “Queen Bitch,” and “Life on Mars” — which explored sexual ambiguity, fame, new fatherhood and more.


“Changes” — its rousing chorus ending “Time may change me, but I can’t trace time” — was practically a career mission statement as well as being an acute lyrical assessment about life’s meaning and facing indecision.

Released on January 7, 1972, the day before his 25th birthday, “Changes” initially reached just #66 on the U.S. pop charts, although it would top the UK Singles charts three years later on the re-issued “Space Oddity” EP.

Read more about David Bowie’s early life and career below.


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The Calm Before the Storm doesn’t spend much time on Bowie’s early years, although we do learn how he ended up with a green eye, and a blue one.

In 1962, at age fifteen, Bowie’s friend and schoolmate, George Underwood, punched him in his left eye — leaving the pupil permanently dilated — because he’d stolen Underwood’s girlfriend.


We don’t hear much about Bowie dropping out of Bromley Technical High to study Tibetan Buddhism, or taking private saxophone lessons (in 2003, Bowie told NPR’s Terry Gross he’d wanted to play baritone sax in Little Richard’s band).

He also worked as a commercial artist and joined a free-thinking art collective, his work earning him a publishing contract.


Bowie also ended up on TV, appearing as the founder of an imaginary group whose purpose was to bring attention about the harassment visited on English youths with long hair.

He also trained as a mime, making his theatrical debut in “Pierrot in Turquoise” at the Oxford New Theatre on December 28, 1967.

By 1970, he was focusing on his recording career, at one point forming a glittery band called Hype — inspired by glam-rock contemporary Marc Bolan — with guitarist Mick Ronson and future producer Tony Visconti on bass.


This documentary features vintage photos and archival film footage (including great early performances on BBC TV), as well as interviews with musicians who either knew Bowie or played with him during those early formative days.

Included here are singer-songwriter Keith Christmas, who played acoustic guitar on Space Oddity; drummer John Cambridge, who played on many of his early recordings; American pianist Mike Garson; and Bob Solly, from the Mannish Boys.


We also hear from quite a few mostly-British music journalists and deejays, including Bowie biographer Paolo Hewitt; deejay Annie Nightingale; Australian-born, UK-based music journalist Andrew Mueller, and several others.


At one point, the legendary John Peel — whose 2004 interview here was conducted shortly before his death that same year — says:

“In my limited experience, people only tell you that they saw genius blossoming after the genius has blossomed, and with the gift of hindsight, so I would love to be able to say ‘Yes, as soon as he walked into the room I detected something magical about David Bowie and time has proven me right,’ but that would be complete bollocks, frankly, and anybody who tells you that is probably lying.”


Bowie — described as a “songwriter/singer/theatrician/magnificent outrage” in his April 1, 1971 article (“Pantomime Rock?”) for Rolling Stone — would “assert blithely” to rock scribe John Mendelssohn that he refused to be thought of as mediocre.

“If I am mediocre, I’ll get out of the business. There’s enough fog around. That’s why the idea of performance-as-spectacle is so important to me.”


Thankfully, Bowie avoided mediocrity for most of his career, giving us some of the best music of the 20th and 21st Centuries before his death on January 10, 2016, after suffering from liver cancer for the previous eighteen months.

His death occurred two days after the release of his terrific twenty-fifth studio album, Blackstar.

Watch David Bowie: The Calm Before the Storm, part of our Under Review music documentaries, on Night Flight Plus!


About Bryan Thomas

Bryan Thomas has been a freelancing writer/critic for All Music Guide, assistant editor for the When You Awake blog, and a contributor to Launch, Music Connection, Big Takeover and numerous other publications and entertainment websites, blogs and zines, most of them long gone. He's written more than sixty sets of liner notes. He’s also worked for over twenty years at mostly reissue record labels -- prior to that he worked in bookstores and record stores, going all the way back to the original vinyl daze. He lives in the Miracle Mile neighborhood of Los Angeles, CA.