I Was Lord Kitchener’s Gravedigger

Crash Course for the Ravers
Album: David Bowie, 1967
Prior Level of Acquaintance: Almost nil
Three-Word Review: Tuneful, eclectic, narrative


On June 1, 1967, an album came out in England describing a vintage brass band that plays nostalgic dance tunes. It included a slightly out-of-tune instrumental break “by” said band. Coincidentally, on that same day* the Beatles released Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.

What was in the water that sparked both the immortal Sgt Pepper and David Bowie’s mostly forgotten ‘Rubber Band’?

For one thing, a backward-glancing acknowledgment of the end of Great Britain’s overseas empire. For generations red-coated soldiers had lorded it over the locals of Malaya, India, Kenya. Now those red coats were a fashion hit for the hippies who patronized I Was Lord Kitchener’s Valet in Portobello Road. As Paul Du Noyer puts it in his must-read book In the City,

In the build-up to psychedelia and 1967’s ‘Summer of Love’, when hippy ideals of peace and flower-power met the world of commerce….New shops were appearing…including Hung On You and Granny Takes A Trip. Here the trend was florid Victoriana, or mock-Edwardian militaria. Those dandified old soldiers, the Chelsea Pensioners, offered a perfect picture amid moustachioed boys with sideburns, tight trousers and scarlet tunics.

Uniforms are the costumes men (mostly) wear to kill each other. Or else they’re just costumes, as even the 20-year-old Bowie was well aware. The song ‘She’s Got Medals’ describes a person whose gender and level of aggression vary with her/his clothes and identification as a soldier. It’s only his first album, and already everything’s performative.

David Bowie isn’t anything like as good as Sgt Pepper’s, obviously. Yet it reads like a slim volume of short stories complete with some lovely melodies and a radio drama’s worth of sound effects – sneezing, chewing, assorted weather. And when they’re not creepy (‘We Are Hungry Men’) they’re funny (also ‘We Are Hungry Men,’ with its notion of rationed air).

The album’s deluxe edition includes various singles versions, alternate mixes, and Bowie’s other 1967 songs. I expected it to be a slog, but the beautiful ‘Sell Me a Coat’ and even the lightweight ‘Love You Til Tuesday’ grew on me considerably. Here’s a posthumous and positive reassessment of the album courtesy of Mashable.

The deluxe edition’s highlight is a bit of a downer, but Du Noyer rightly names ‘The London Boys’ “[Bowie’s] first unarguably great song.” The emptiness alongside the sense of belonging among the Mod community is perfectly captured.

Wonderfully, there’s a recording of Bowie performing this song live in 1999/2000.


I can’t leave David Bowie without a mention of the infamous ‘The Laughing Gnome‘, which left me in a helpless fit of the giggles on public transportation. I hope that batch of weed was as good as it sounds. Is the pun truly the lowest form of humor? And does everybody else agree that this is a poke at Mick Jagger?

“Didn’t they teach you to get your hair cut at school? You look like a Rolling Gnome.”
“Nah, not at the London School of Ecognomics!”

Next: On to the Perm Album!

*Bowie’s ‘Rubber Band’ was actually released as a widely ignored single in December 1966. And Sgt. Pepper’s appeared in shops at the end of May ’67, five days ahead of schedule. Close enough.

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