Only for Isa (He He He)
This blog focuses on what might possibly be the most controversial Bowie track, particularly when the subject at hand is covering songs. This is the often-hated, sometimes loved, but always ridiculous “The Laughing Gnome”.
Now, even in the context of Bowie’s vast back catalogue, with a multitude of different experimentations and different directions, The Laughing Gnome (TLG – I’m not going to write it out in full every time) sticks out like a very annoying sore thumb. Although other songs from that period of his career had the same vocal inspirations (with the most obvious and often used reference being to Anthony Newley) and although other songs from that era also contained aspects of “novelty writing”, none of them are quite as blatantly out there as TLG.
Whether you love it or hate it musically, you cannot argue about its significance and what it represents in Bowie’s development, and what it shows us about the rapidly changing music scene of the late 60s and of fame and how that worked. On its original release in 1967, it failed to chart. Bowie at that point was still desperate to do anything to “break”, and this particular attempt didn’t work. However, once he had made his breakthrough with the Rise and Fall…, TLG hit number 6 in the UK charts on re-release in 1973… go figure! It’s very possible many people buying it at that point hadn’t heard it before and in the context of what Bowie had produced since 1967 were probably a bit dazed by it… but I also imagine some die-hard fans loved it and stuck by it from the very start.
Ever since that point it seems Bowie never played it live in an official concert. From the research I have done (please do correct me if I’m wrong) there are no statistics for it even in pre-1970s gigs. Even if he did play it somewhere in a pub in those days, he’s never played it live since finding fame. It’s rumoured that he did consider it for a couple of tours later on and when he announced in 1990 that the setlist for the Sound & Vision Tour of greatest hits would be decided by telephone vote, the NME launched a campaign to make sure TLG got the votes….and the voting system was scrapped.
I can personally remember “Requiem for the Laughing Gnome” on TV for Comic Relief in 1999 – check it out here if you haven’t seen it 😊 David Bowie – Comic Relief Sketch – Requiem For The Laughing Gnome – 12 March 1999 – YouTube – a shining example of Bowie’s beautiful sense of humour.
His refusal to play it live has only added to the cult surrounding TLG and for those who argue its merits, make the calls for cover bands to play it live even more, how shall I put it, “urgent” or “desperate” 😂…the merits of TLG can be found in this great blog The Laughing Gnome | Pushing Ahead of the Dame
…and this brings me to Isa (he he he)….
We have the great pleasure to have been able to play the Bowie Convention in France in 2019 and to forge many friendships with people we have met through Bowie France including Isa, who founded it, and continues to run the Convention and organize many fabulous Bowie events. Sometimes people ask how we got to play the convention and the fact is, I simply contacted Isa and asked, as we have done with many other events. She saw something in the way we play and perform his songs she was interested in, and it went from there.
However, she did give me an ultimatum (no she really did ask nicely 😊), she asked “can you please play Laughing Gnome?” No-one had ever played it before at her events, not even when she had asked! How could I refuse? The idea did meet with some resistance, it really wasn’t on the list of songs that we would choose to learn and perform, but in the context of having someone who truly loves it for what it represents ask so nicely, and to be told that no-one had ever agreed before, I think it was the only right thing to do 😂.
So, we set about learning an albeit abridged version specially to perform at the Bowie France Convention. Now, it’s not particularly musically difficult but what does seem to be particularly challenging is remembering to deliver the joke lines (doesn’t it Phil! 😂) and of course the ridiculously high gnome voice, which really should be done with an effects pedal but which we can’t be bothered to complicate things with, so instead we just utilise Mel’s ability to sing really high for that bit 😂. Phil has a small cameo with a bass pedal (that he used as an excuse to buy loads more gear) right at the end, and using his Ibanez Paul Gilbert Airplane Flanger, he’s supposed to finish it off with a loud siren, which sounds great, although both times to date we have played it live he forgot!!!! Let’s see if he remembers next time. All in all, I would say though, it’s a surprisingly pleasing song to sing!
We’ve decided that the caveat for TLG is that we never play it when Isa isn’t there, so it’s her song from us. Funnily enough though we have played it on British soil once, when Isa came to visit for the Bowie fringe event in Derby in May 2019. We plan to do it again at the next Bowie France Convention and we might extend the version a bit too and of course incorporate the sax (which I’m sure Alex will be thrilled about!). So long story short, if you want to hear us do it, there will be a telephone vote on the next setlist… no I’m joking, if you want to hear us do it then you need to either 1. Come to the Bowie France Convention in January 2022 or 2. Kidnap Isa and bring her to a gig in the UK! If you want to see a silly little practice version of it, here’s a video: TLG Practice.
At rehearsal wearing our Bowie France badges!