David Bowie’s ‘The Width of a Circle’ Is a Flawed, Fascinating Snapshot of a Superstar-to-Be: Album Review

·4-min read

It is no small understatement to say that David Bowie was at a creative crossroads in 1970 — one that was baffling, possibly even to himself.

He began the year essentially as a folksinger coming off of his elaborate first hit, “Space Oddity,” releasing a fey love song to his wife-to-be, Angela (“The Prettiest Star”) before making a drastic pivot into the cerebral proto-heavy metal of “The Man Who Sold the World” album; then closed it out with an odd, hippie-inflected single called “Holy Holy.” It’s no surprise that he parted ways with his management and record label in short order.

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But Bowie emerged from that year with the blueprint and crucial support team who would help loft him to greatness and superstardom over the following two years via the brilliant “Hunky Dory” and “Ziggy Stardust” albums, and the almost unparalleled run of classics that would follow in the decade.

As part of the Bowie estate’s ongoing, beautifully curated reissue series, “The Man Who Sold the World” received a thoughtful 50th anniversary remix/remaster treatment last year, but missing was a detailed and lavishly illustrated booklet, like the one that accompanied the preceding “Space Oddity” boxed set a year earlier. We get it in this 2-CD compilation, a companion release to “TMWSTW” that collects virtually all of the other material he recorded that year.

Over the course of its 21 songs, we hear Bowie’s strange evolution across 1970 take place before our ears in a lengthy BBC radio concert; a four-song BBC studio session; several tracks he recorded for a television play; and tidied-up mixes of his singles from the year. Much of the music here is transitional and uneven, but “The Width of a Circle” is by far the most complete collection to date of a haphazardly documented era in Bowie’s career.

The 14-song concert, recorded in February 1970, includes tracks from the then-new “Space Oddity” album as well as covers of two songs by American singer Biff Rose (“Buzz the Fuzz” and “Fill Your Heart”) and Jacques Brel’s “Amsterdam.” Bowie starts off solo in full folksinger mode before being joined by bassist Tony Visconti (his co-producer for much of his career) and drummer John Cambridge, and later by guitarist Mick Ronson, who would play a pivotal role in the singer’s rise to stardom. This oft-bootlegged performance was hastily arranged and sounds it — taking place just a couple of days after Bowie and Ronson first met — but it does provide a work-in-progress look at the artist moving from the earnest tones of his earlier material to the darker sound that he would quickly adopt.

How quickly? The BBC studio session, recorded barely six weeks later, finds the band in full metal mode, complete with ear-splitting guitar solos from the Cream-obsessed Ronson and a Sabbath-esque coda on their thudding cover of the Velvet Underground’s “Waiting for the Man.” The band also stomps through still-developing versions of a pair of “TMWSTW” songs as well as an out-of-context acoustic take on the folky “Wild-Eyed Boy From Freecloud.”

Highlights of the remaining tracks include the electric version of “Memory of a Free Festival” (the prototype for the tight rock sound Bowie & Co. would purvey on “Ziggy Stardust,” as the excellent liner notes say); arguably the best version of his mid-‘60s song “When I Live My Dream”; and the abandoned track “London Bye, Ta-Ta,” a not-great song that Bowie and Visconti kept returning to during these years, even recasting it with different lyrics as “Columbine” in the TV play included here. Incidentally, the studio version of “Ta-Ta” was recorded at the same January 1970 session as “The Prettiest Star,” and both songs feature charmingly amateurish lead guitar from none other than Bowie’s longtime friend Marc Bolan, whom Visconti would also accompany to superstardom (as his producer) over the next few years.

This album functions more as a historical document than something most listeners might play end-to-end, and Bowie would create far more legendary music on “Hunky Dory” just a few months after the last track here was recorded (he would also record much more fully realized versions of “The Prettiest Star” and “Holy Holy” in the next couple of years). But for fans, “The Width of a Circle” presents a fascinating listen, and look, at how he got there.

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