David Bowie: “The Laughing Gnome” (1967)

Bowie’s failed novelty single became a surprise Top 10 hit six years later, proving that you can go gnome again.

Kronomyth 0.8: Bowie’s most ignominious single?

Headlong in my early infatuation with David Bowie (Heroes, Low, Stage, Lodger), I stumbled upon this song as part of an early Bowie compilation called Starting Point. I was immediately reminded of the precious, precocious music of Genesis in their youth. I might have also made the connection to early Tyrannosaurus Rex if I had been more familiar with it. It’s a quaint little tune, unquestionably clever, but a novelty song through and through, the novelty of which didn’t strike listeners until the song was re-released in 1973 and became a top 10 UK hit.

Before you read any further, I should remind you that all things Bowie begin and end at Pushing Ahead of the Dame. Mr. O’Leary’s short essay on The Laughing Gnome is far better than anything you’ll get from me today. Anyway, back to our humble little island. “The Laughing Gnome” is notable for its gnomerous puns, some of which are quite good, and the sped-up vocals a la Alvin and the Chipmunks. Yet behind the novelty is a solid beat that both reminds me of “Gimme Some Lovin’” and, when slowed down, sort of foreshadows “All The Madmen” (although maybe I’m seeing things in the shadows that don’t exist).

The flip side is arguably the stranger track, The Gospel According to Tony Day. Bowie seems absolutely bored singing it, presumably by design, as he dryly catalogs people and their personal preambles. The man who wrote the spritely gnome had to be aware that this song drags like heavy chains; its dark mood is almost Brechtian. When Bowie says “your mind, blow it” right before a bassoon solo, it’s either the strangest or the funniest thing he’s ever done.

“The Laughing Gnome” was widely panned on its initial release, but Bowie got the last laugh when the single was re-released in 1973 and became an international Top 10 hit. (Okay, it only reached the top 10 in the UK and Denmark, but still.) It’s still not one of my favorites by a long shot, but time has at least rescued it from the talons of ignominy.

Original 7-inch single version

A1. The Laughing Gnome (David Bowie) (3:00)
B1. The Gospel According to Tony Day (David Bowie) (2:48)

German 7-inch single reissue
A1. The Laughing Gnome (David Bowie) (3:03)
B1. Silly Boy Blue (David Bowie)  (3:51)

The Players

David Bowie (vocals, guitar), Derek Boyes (organ), John Eager (drums), Dek Fearnley (bass), Peter Hampshire (guitar) with Gus Dudgeon (gnome vocal). Produced by Mike Vernon.

The Product

Released on 7-inch single on April 14, 1967 in the UK (Deram, DM 123) and Ireland (Deram, DM(1) 123).

  1. Re-issued on 7-inch single on September 28, 1973 in the UK (Deram, DM 123) and in 1973 in the US (London, 45-20079), Australia (Deram, DMA-10351), France (Deram, 85.003), the Netherlands (Deram, 6101 019), New Zealand (Deram, DM.123) and Portugal (Deram, SDM 131 D) with regional picture sleeve; reached #6 on the UK charts (charted on September 15, 1973 for 12 weeks).
  2. Re-released with “Silly Boy Blue” on 7-inch single as part of the In The Beginning series in 1973 in Germany (Decca, DL 25 600) with picture sleeve.
  3. Re-issued on 7-inch single in 1982 in the UK (Decca, F 13924).

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