Each week, Frequency Rotation spotlights a different song with a science fiction or fantasy theme. Genre, musical quality, and overall seriousness may vary.
Fairies, elves, dwarves, halflings, hobbits, goblins, gargoyles, ogres, orcs, hell, even trolls: All seem to have a better public image than the lowly gnome. For every noble portrayal of the mythic race in fantasy literature (e.g. Tolkien), there are negative or ambivalent ones (e.g. Rowling). Not to sound racist or anything, but gnomes just ain’t sexy.
So why did one of the sexiest rock stars of all time—David Bowie—write a trippy, goofy, far from flattering novelty song called “The Laughing Gnome”? Explanation #1: He was 19 years old at the time, not yet famous, and desperate to do anything that might grab some attention. Explanation #2: It was the ’60s.
Released in 1967, “The Laughing Gnome” is Bowie’s fourth single (or his eighth, if you count those released under the names Davie Jones with the King Bees, The Manish Boys, Davy Jones & the Lower Third, and David Bowie with the Lower Third). The ambitious young songwriter had been bashing his head against the pop charts for three years prior to “Gnome,” and he hadn’t made a dent. Not that “Gnome” changed anything. A total flop—that is, until its re-release in 1972 after Bowie had finally become a star—the song is a strange, whimsical tidbit of nonsense not even cool enough to be called psychedelic.
In a nutshell: The song’s titular gnome shows up on Bowie’s street, comes over to watch some TV, laughs, burps, bums cigarettes, becomes a nuisance, laughs some more, and is shipped off in a train, only to be replaced by his equally annoying brother Fred. We’re even treated to some particularly hideous puns (Metrognome? That’s Piers Anthony-bad) and Bowie’s own sped-up, Chipmunk-like gnome-vocals.
But Bowie wasn’t the only up-and-coming rock legend dallying with gnomes in 1967. A mere four months after he released “The Laughing Gnome,” a strange new gang of freakish young men called Pink Floyd put out their own paean to that subterranean race: “The Gnome,” an equally unhinged (and blatantly Tolkien-influenced) song written by the band’s leader, Syd Barrett, a man who would eventually go underground in his own tragic way.
As for Bowie himself: He may have switched to science fiction with his 1969 breakthrough hit, “Space Oddity,” but he never forgot his fantasy roots. In 1986 he famously played Jareth the Goblin King in Jim Henson’s Labyrinth. Granted, his sinister and sensuous portrayal of Jareth is a far cry from “The Laughing Gnome.” But the memory of the song surely must have crossed his mind once or twice during the making of the film.
In any case, we have documented proof that Bowie, at least as recently as 1999, had a soft spot for “The Gnome”—the odd little ditty that was once nominated for a BBC award celebrating “The Worst Song by an Otherwise Reputable Artist.” In a segment for the charity telethon Comedy Relief, Bowie pokes fun at himself by improvising a song (on recorder!) titled “Requiem for a Laughing Gnome.” As he winks and whistles shrilly, the show’s producers implore the audience to donate money to make him stop. What does Bowie do? What any good gnome would: He laughs, of course.
Jason Heller writes for The A.V. Club, plays guitar in some bands, and fondly remembers the first concert he ever saw: David Bowie on the Glass Spider Tour at Mile High Stadium in 1987. Sadly, “The Laughing Gnome” did not make an appearance.