In 1999 David Bowie recorded an episode for VH1 Storytellers series in which he offered the stories behind his music in addition to playing it with his band. As well as playing some of his well-known hits and deep songs for the occasion, the late British rock icon also unearthed the very obscure “Can’t Help Thinking About Me”, a song he recorded in 1965. at the age of 18 with the band The Lower Third — several years before he became the iconic rock messiah Ziggy Stardust.
“David wanted to play a song from that mid-’60s era so he could talk about it,” says guitarist Mark Plati, who played in Bowie’s band at the time and was on the Storytellers registration. “And so he needed a song to play and that’s the one they found: ‘Can’t Help Thinking About Me’. He sings from hell and the group kicks behind him. He had so much fun doing it that we continued to play it on the tour that followed. I always thought it would be some kind of unique, fun little thing. But he just had such a good time, he persevered.
the Storytellers The performance of “Can’t Help Thinking About Me” prompted Bowie to revisit his old songs recorded and released before his groundbreaking 1969 hit “Space Oddity”. After his concert at Glastonbury in 2000, he and his lead band (which included Plati, bassist Gail Ann Dorsey, guitarist Earl Slick, drummer Sterling Campbell and pianist Mike Garson) recorded new versions of this earlier material for a album titled Toy. Unfortunately, the album was later shelved due to the record label’s circumstances and Bowie continued to make the LP. Pagan, released in 2002.
More than 20 years since its initial registration, Toy finally released in Bowie’s box set Brilliant adventure; next month, the album will be released as a standalone 3-CD collection. The recordings may date back to 2000, but they still sound vibrant today. “Knowing him, I thought that at some point he would see the light of day,” said Plati, who co-produced Toy with Bowie, about his late release. “I knew he was pretty proud of it. You just had to have the moment.
The basic tracks for Toy were recorded at Sear Sound in New York, and the sessions, according to Plati, were relatively quick. “[It] was big enough to fit all of us and had a window, ”he recalls of the recording space,“ so we had some light and we had a great sound engineer named Pete Keppler. Considering the nature of the recording, which was basically a live recording in the studio, we were only maybe two and a half weeks at most. It was really, really fast.
Among the material for Toy Bowie and the band worked on included “I Dig Everything”, “Let Me Sleep Beside You”, “Karma Man”, “You’ve Got a Habit of Leaving” and “Can’t Help Thinking About Me”. “It was kinda, I guess, in the vein of the other rhythmic songs where the band kind of jumped on it and followed it up,” Plati said of the recording of “Can’t Help” in studio. “I will say that we knew maybe a little better since we had played it before the live. We were happy that it fit in with the others, or that the others fit in with this one. We went into this record with this kind of being part of the model.
Toy reveals the spontaneous and astute performances of Bowie and the band – a carry over from Bowie’s previous albums from the mid to late 1990s Out, Earthling and Hours. “We grew up with the music of David,” Plati says of himself and his Bowie classmates. “For us it pretty much started with ‘Space Oddity’, as it would for a lot of people. We therefore had no prior link with these [older] songs, which I think was a good thing because there was never this idea of trying to reproduce these songs. The idea was that we played them our way. So they felt brand new to us too.
The only new song in the sessions was “Toy (Your Turn to Drive)”, which developed from a jam during the recording of “I Dig Everything”. Says Plati: “What happened at the end of a lot of songs after we finished doing the actual song, someone would start playing again, and we would all join them. Most of the time it was Mike Garson who kind of started this process, and we all had little jams at the end of songs sometimes. There’s a little one at the end of “You’ve Got a Habit of Leaving” where we kind of go back and play this little coda. But at the end of “I Dig Everything”, we really got into it. It went on for a few minutes and we’re sort of groping into the same kind of groove but doing something a little different. It’s a kind of scrambling. After the fact David heard that and he said, “Wow, we can do another song. And that’s exactly what we did.
Although Bowie apparently wants to let his fans know quickly, Toy sitting on the shelf. At the time, the concept of releasing the album in a rush and the means to do so were in their infancy. “Well, they never even got the record,” recalls Bowie’s record label Plati at the time. “I don’t remember them ever coming to listen to him. The thing with this record is that we did it so fast. That was the idea: to capture that urgency and that feeling [and] moment, so he wanted to turn it off pretty quickly. He had done it several times already. We did that in 1996 with the song “Telling Lies”, which was the first kind of single release on the internet.
“Record companies just weren’t designed for that back then – too many moving parts and everything. We were still sort of mixing Toy when we started making new songs he had already started moving elsewhere which was very typical of him. He has already started a few new songs that he wrote at the time. So he had already moved on, which was sort of the beginning of Pagan at this moment. The priorities have pretty much changed.
The next Toy the set includes a second disc of alternate mixes of songs from the album with “Liza Jane (Bowie’s very first single from 1964 under his real name David Jones) and “In the Heat of the Morning”. A third disc with subtitles Unplugged and slightly electric offers new blends of Toy tracks rendered in a stripped-down manner.
“Earl Slick came up with this idea,” says Plati. “After we finished our basic recording, he was like, ‘You and I are going to play acoustic guitar with this. He said it was like kind of a Keith Richards thing: it’s going to add some texture. I said, ‘Okay, that’s fine with me.’ So we would go in there, we would try it out [with the acoustic guitar overdubs]. I always had them in raw mixes of songs.
“But then when we were mixing, at one point I just had these acoustic guitars with David’s vocals. And as it happens so often, he would kind of jump up and say, “Hey, what is this? I said, ‘I have your voice with these guitars.’ And he said, ‘Let’s do mixes like that, very basic and clean acoustic versions. “So I said, ‘Of course’. The only thing was that we were already halfway through finishing it. So I never did all of them and had to finish them this year.
Plati’s association with Bowie dates back to the ’90s when he had his own production room in the studio complex of legendary composer Philip Glass in New York City. “One day David came with Reeves Gabrels. They were looking for another place to work to gain a new perspective. They came there because Philip had made his adaptation of Moo [Bowie’s 1977 album]. I was only going to work with them for a week. I was sort of the rock and roll or programming specialist. I guess I was a natural fit to work with them. We all had to work for a week, and it turned into seven years.
While working with Bowie, Plati says he learned a lot from the rock legend. “He validated everything I had thought of being an artist in that he was so willing to take risks and try things. The industry would not let people go out of their way sometimes. It wouldn’t let me get away with it. I was sort of labeled as a certain type of creative person. I didn’t like it, and I didn’t want to work with this genre and everything. David was, of course, the epitome to turn the tide in this matter. And I ended up doing the same. I did so many different roles with him that it broke me a bit to be seen as one thing. It was a real gift for me.
“Just being with him, I mean, he was funny,” Plati continues. “He had a great British sense of humor. It was always funny. There would also be great conversations. I remember him and Reeves having great conversations about art and stuff, and you sort of just sat in the room and felt yourself getting smarter. (Laughs) It was a really big added benefit to be in that orbit. You learn so many different things because he was eternally curious about everything.
Given the freshness and dynamism Toy sounds today, it’s baffling that it has never been released until now (a few of those songs ended up on Bowie’s 2014 Nothing has changed compilation). For Plati, revisit Toy two decades later bring him back to a singular and particular moment. “It’s funny because it was hard for me to get away from it somehow. When you make a record and you’re sort of in the process, you have different types of attachments to songs and a different feeling about them. But when you step away from them for a while, you can find a different kind of objectivity again, like being a listener of sorts. Yes, it is really interesting. It just sounds like a cool record.