In 2012, David Bowie contributed to a BBC Radio show on My Way, that swaggering karaoke hit, a composite blend of Claude ‘CloClo’ François’ song Comme d’habitude (As Usual) and Paul Anka’s lyrics. The song would be covered by Elvis Presley, Dorothy Squires, Sid Viscious and most famously of all Frank Sinatra, who elevated it to an anthem.
David Bowie recorded a version of Comme D’Habitude – the song’s first English language version. He beat them all.
Bowie was working for Essex Music Ltd at Number 4 Denmark Street, London. This was the epicentre of the British music industry. The Rolling Stones’ manager Andrew Loog Oldham owned the Regent Sound Studio upstairs.
In February 1968, Bowie got a call. Mark Steyn writes:
Comme d’habitude” was a hit for François, and the song’s publisher started thinking there’d be a lot of money in an English lyric.
[* It was quite common in the 60s for European hits to be picked up by British or American publishers, who would in turn commission somebody to apply an English lyric to the tune. You Don’t Have to Say You Love Me by Dusty Springfield is a good example, it was originally an Italian hit.]
So he called up a friend in Denmark Street, London’s Tin Pan Alley, who farmed it out to a jobbing songwriter who was hanging round the office – a young chap called David Bowie. And so David Bowie wound up writing the first English lyric for “My Way”. Even weirder, he wrote it for an entertainer he greatly admired, one of Britain’s biggest stars of the time – Anthony Newley.
Newley was overly partial to a somewhat maudlin sub-Pagliacci tears-of-a-clown persona, so that’s what David Bowie wrote for:
There was a time
The laughing time
I took my heart
To ev’ry party
They’d point my way
‘How are you today?
Will you make us laugh?
Chase our blues away?’
Their funny man
Won’t let them down
No, he’d dance and prance
And be their clown
That laughing time
That Even A Fool Learns To Love…
Bowie coined the words that would give Anka his title: My Way.
Bowie wanted the song published. It never was. Well, it wasn’t one of his best. Bowie Songs notes:
Bowie’s translation, “Even a Fool Learns to Love,” is purple, self-pitying and, worse, full of sad clowns—it’s basically another version of “When I Live My Dream” combined with some Pierrot-isms. It’s pretty dreadful stuff, and unsurprisingly Bowie’s lyric got shot down (Geoffrey Heath, who worked at Essex Music, later said that the powers that be “wanted a star to record the song, not this yobbo from Bromley”).
Here is When I Live My Dream:
While Bowie’s version was dismissed, in 1969 Anka acquired the rights to CloClo’s hit.
On the audio hereunder, after a few words from Anka, we hear David Bowie explain that hearing My Way inspired him to write Life On Mars, the tale of his own life. Like Anka, Bowie wrote fast. Anka wrote My Way in four hours. Bowie recalled:
“This song was so easy. Being young was easy. A really beautiful day in the park, sitting on the steps of the bandstand. ‘Sailors bap-bap-bap-bap-baaa-bap.’ An anomic (not a ‘gnomic’) heroine. Middle-class ecstasy. I took a walk to Beckenham High Street to catch a bus to Lewisham to buy shoes and shirts but couldn’t get the riff out of my head. Jumped off two stops into the ride and more or less loped back to the house up on Southend Road.
“Workspace was a big empty room with a chaise lounge; a bargain-price art nouveau screen (‘William Morris,’ so I told anyone who asked); a huge overflowing freestanding ashtray and a grand piano. Little else. I started working it out on the piano and had the whole lyric and melody finished by late afternoon. Nice.” – David Bowie, 2008.
Two great songs for the price of one.