From Labyrinth to SpongeBob, a surprisingly big part of David Bowie's creative output catered to children
“Children’s entertainer” may not be the first persona that springs to mind when talking about Bowie, but it serves as an interesting index to his career. It is hard to think of another major pop artist who has done so much work aimed at kids.
“The Laughing Gnome” (1967)
Young children and babies are attracted to high-pitched voices which they find comforting. Here, Bowie converses with a squeaky-voiced tiny person (also played by himself), peppering the listener with verbal puns on the word “gnome.”
Although it failed to chart in 1967, “The Laughing Gnome” was re-released in 1973. The ditty must have seemed peculiar coming hot on the heels of the decadent hi-glam of Aladdin Sane, but Bowie-mania swept the single to number six, selling 250,000 copies.
Adverts for the Stylophone and Luv ice lolly (1969)
A silver space-suited Bowie looks up at us from his Stylophone, a pocket electronic organ used on “Space Oddity”. “The greatest craze since the yo-yo,” claims the advert. Here’s a musical instrument well within the grasp of even the youngest child: “Even a baby could learn to play it in 15 minutes.” Kids across the nation are urged to rush out and buy one because “the craze has begun.”
In the same year, Bowie appeared in a fabulously groovy TV advert for a new ice lolly. The Lyons Maid Luv lolly was similar to the better-known Fab lolly which you can still enjoy today. The Luv lolly was marketed to ten to 15-year-old girls with collectible pop star pictures inside the wrapping. “Luv. Everybody needs it. Luv with pop cards,” insists Bowie. The advert’s director was no less than Ridley Scott, better-known for Blade Runner and Alien.
“Space Oddity” (1969)
As decade-spanning franchises like Star Wars and Dr Who prove, there is nothing quite like space travel to fire a kid’s imagination. For his first major success, Bowie chose a subject children love.
Thanks to Gus Dudgeon’s remarkable production work, listening to “Space Oddity” is an immersive experience, full of cinematic sounds that put us directly in the tin can with Major Tom.
A suspicion remained that Bowie was making novelty records, even among those close to him. Tony Visconti rejected the invitation to produce “Space Oddity” as he thought it was merely a cash-in on the Apollo moon landings.
Peter and the Wolf Soundtrack (1978)
The high-quality entertainment and education of children was never far from Bowie's mind even when his output appeared superhuman.
In addition to touring the Low album, writing and producing “Lust For Life” with Iggy Pop and then “Heroes”, Bowie still found the time to narrate the classical music album of Prokofiev's Peter and the Wolf, a record designed to introduce children to the workings of a professional orchestra.
A familiar sight in family record collections, the Prokofiev LP was the acceptable face of the emaciated bisexual for haughty middle-class mums with philharmonic ambitions for their offspring. Bowie himself said it was a Christmas present to his six-year-old son, Zowie.
The Snowman (1982)
When this writer and his six-year-old son sat down to watch the DVD of the classic animated film The Snowman, it was a surprise to see David Bowie climbing into a dusty attic to introduce the film.
“This attic's full of memories for me,” he says. Then, pulling a scarf from a drawer, he looks us straight in the eyes and takes us deep into the realm of children’s dreams: "One winter I met a really big snowman. He got this scarf for me. You see, he was a real snowman."
A glorious coming-of-age fantasy film, Labyrinth represents the peak of Bowie’s achievements as a children’s entertainer. Written and directed by Jim Henson, the creator of The Muppets, with George Lucas on board as executive producer, the film features extraordinary sets and puppets.
The mixed emotions that the lead character, 15-year-old Sarah, feels for Jareth the Goblin King (played by Bowie), have made the film a firm favourite with generations of pre-pubescent girls. Drawing on classic fairy tales, A Midsummer Night’s Dream and The Wizard of Oz, the film’s depth and sheer inventiveness explain its enduring appeal.
“SpongeBob's Atlantis SquarePantis” (2007)
With another high-pitched vocal performance, our tour comes full-circle, harking back to the squeaky gnome Bowie created 40 years previously.
As the voice of the “Lord Royal Highness” character in a special edition of the Spongebob cartoon series, Bowie is equally unrecognisable, although this time there is no studio trickery involved. He made the appearance because his daughter Lexi was a fan.
Bowie’s output as a children’s entertainer reminds us that, among his many personas, he was a father too. We find yet another side to the panache, playfulness and acute sense of drama that were all his own.
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