TEMPORARILY BULKED out with a third disc of the recent BBC Radio Theatre show that effectively reprised his headlining Glastonbury set, this 2-CD compilation collects Bowie's earliest sessions from various Top Gear, In Concert, Johnnie Walker and Sounds Of The Seventies shows recorded between May 1968 and May 1972, tracking his progress from Anthony Newley wannabe to the brink of Aladdin Sane, offering a handy aural frieze of his surprisingly arduous climb to superstardom, culminating aptly in the Ziggy-killing Rock 'N' Roll Suicide.
It's interesting to recall Bowie's callow beginnings. The poppy organ and ambitious arrangements of In The Heat Of The Morning and London Bye Ta-Ta are redolent of the Swinging '60s, as are lyrical references to "the ragged soldier catching butterflies". The prissy strings of Karma Man further expose the earnest nature of the hippy years, while solo acoustic versions of God Knows I'm Good and Jacques Brel's Port Of Amsterdam capture the future progenitor of glam in a rather ill-fitting Euro-Dylanesque mode.
Other Space Oddity material finds him in transition: the urgent vocal style and rough, spindly guitar work makes Unwashed And Somewhat Slightly Dazed sound like Dylan with a Diddley beat, which wins the praise of laid-back John Peel. He is rewarded with a balls-aching eight minutes of wordy Cygnet Committee, complete with flamenco flourishes and "I want to live" drama queen finale.
A 1970 Sunday Show performance of The Width Of A Circle captures a pivotal moment in Bowie's early career: the first public appearance of Mick Ronson. It's not an exceptional performance. But he gets into his stride on the disc two which, apart from pulsating covers of I'm Waiting For The Man and White Light/White Heat, focuses almost entirely on Bowie's last few rungs up the stardom ladder with Hunky Dory and Ziggy Stardust, including two virtually indistinguishable takes each of Hang On To Yourself and Ziggy itself. The quality of both performances and recordings is exceptional for the time, with elegant versions of Starman and Oh! You Pretty Things affirming the confident new direction of Bowie's pop sensibility, and muscular renditions of Suffragette City, Queen Bitch and Changes. It wouldn't all be downhill from here on, but Bowie had clearly reached a rarefied plateau from which further ascent would prove difficult.
DAVID BOWIE AT THE BEEB: The Best of the BBC Radio Sessions 69-72 (UK 2000. Rock.wv)