The BBC once rejected David Bowie because he had ‘no personality’
This letter may well be the single most important and profound piece of self-help ever written regarding dealing with criticism and rejection, whether that be artistically or just in life in general.
Words such as spaceman, alien, androgynous, hero, legend, demigod, herculean lord of art and culture, are all synonymous — bar the last few where I got carried away — with David Bowie, and the singular thread that links them is a notion that the Starman was cut from a different cloth. The fact of the matter is that he was indeed a freak. A freak in the most laudatory way, a creative freak, an aesthetic freak, a talent freak and in general just an otherworldly life-giving freakazoid.
Whilst his early work — chocked with strange near-novelty songs like ‘The laughing Gnome’ and ‘Come And Buy My Toys’ — indicates that the pinnacle of freakdom was a platform that had to be worked towards, there’s still something so singular and original present that hints at his intergalactic potential. Nevertheless, it took Bowie a good while to arrive at Major Tom which goes to show that, behind even the most organic seeming revolutionaries, is a terrific amount of graft and refining.
However, it is abundantly clear even from the earliest demos that the raw material to work from was always in place. It is truly mind-blowingly incredulous, therefore, that a BBC Talent Scout back in 1965 could host an audition for a little-known local London act called David Bowie and the Lower Third and remark, “the singer is devoid of any personality.”
There is a slew of other observations on the audition report that calls for a frontal lobotomy on the mind of the reviewer that wrote it. Whilst there is no doubt that refinement and depth were probably required, David being only 18 at the time, the reviewer took this into account and still wasn’t even willing to afford them the liberty of time, stating “I don’t think the group will get better with more rehearsal.”
Of course, none of us could have been a fly on the wall back when the show went down and perhaps the critic did indeed catch Bowie and the band on an off day, but it’s direct contradictions like “Routine beat group – strange choice of material” that raises alarm bells regarding the mindset of whoever it was that denounced them as “unrecommendable”.
Sadly, it is often easy to see how talent can slip under the radar, how certain acts can be too meek to rise to the top, others drowned out in sound, and some that encounter extraneous hurdles that prove insurmountable. Whether it be Rodriguez or even Van Gogh, there’s plenty of examples where life almost let talent get away from the world. But how a young, chiselled cheek-boned, golden-haired, cheeky-chappy with different coloured eyes and an androgynous demeanour arrived at an audition singing ‘Chim Chim Cher-ee’ in the style of ‘50s TV star Tony Newley to beat group stylings, and somehow failed to make an impression, is beyond comprehension. Reading the letter retrospectively causes bits of brain to run out of even the most reticent of nostrils. Condemnations like “no entertainment in anything they do, an inoffensive pleasant nothing,” are frankly maddening.
The letter is essentially the damning post-mortem of perhaps the most creative and influential force of the 20thCentury. Fortunately, David Bowie survived that early BBC lambasting and as we all know became one of the world’s biggest artists, which just goes to show ‘some people just won’t get what you’re going for!’ The Starman shone-on and four years later released Space Oddity, which might not have been an instant smash hit but it announced the birth of a star that would change the cultural solar system.
The legacy of this letter is not only to exist as an artefact proving the author Kurt Vonnegut’s quote, “It is too easy to make perfectly horrible mistakes”, but also to show the worth of criticism and rejection. No matter what it is that you’re pursuing some people will just fail to see it, but if you persevere with sincerity then your Ziggy may well arrive.