First off, kudos to Parlophone for not snafuing the audio like they did with ANCIANT. I’m sure the cost of that particular error still stings and more hands were on the wheel this time. I refuse to engage on the quality of the mastering because I still believe this is a personal preference and there’s really no right or wrong. I will say that mastering-wise nothing here struck me as fantastically awful (or revelatory).
That said, Parlophone is not getting out of this unscathed.
I still don’t understand what the plot is for this series, and I don’t think they do either. It’s certainly baffling the fans, who are once again questioning why a particular version was or wasn’t included.
In the early days they seemed to use the boxes to re-release everything that was contemporaneously released in one definitive series of packages.
There was nothing really previously unreleased on “Five Years”, it was just all organized, seemingly with a logical strategy.
With WCIBN, they switched gears, excluding things (accidentally?) they previously seemed to love, like obscure single edits, meaning the sets had already changed course. But worse, they added material that hadn’t been technically “contemporaneously” released, and is, frankly, thinly disguised “bait” designed to get fans to plunk down their dollars again for a few bits they didn’t already have, while paying again for many things they already own. I’m looking at you, “Gouster.”
ANCIANT went right off the road with an apparently new rule; to use only the original, unmastered two-track source tapes – wha?? Obviously they hadn’t adhered to this on the first two boxes, because some of those tapes had issues, so backups were used. This new directive was only made public after consumers began complaining about an obvious dropout, in the middle of “Heroes” of all things, one of the most iconic songs on the box. This was such an issue that Amazon stopped selling it until a solution was proffered. Parlophone replaced the discs, and at great cost, but not until a sad attempt to position it as intentional fell on deaf ears. They got some things very right here, too, including stuff like “Baal” and the “Heroes” EP (although it seems odd to break “Heroes” out as an extra disc, rather than put the versions on “Re:Call”, but minor quibble).
I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again (and again, no doubt); if you’re going to release something by an artist of mythic stature, at this price point, with the pretense that it’s definitive, you’d better live up to that mission. Based on the limited conversations I’ve had with people at Parlophone, I don’t believe there’s an employee within Bowie’s Estate who’s a true expert / fan looking after this stuff, and that tracks with history. No doubt someone IS signing off on these things, but my guess is the track lists and packaging is conceptualized solely by Parlophone with little oversight.
Overall I’ve been unimpressed with the series packaging – specifically the number of pages in the books eaten up with cover art and common photos. The liner notes have hardly been a relevation. They look and feel nice enough, but it all rings like “we got you again, sucker” rather than “here’s a new take.”
But hey, the music has been phenomenal to date, and regardless of issues with consistency, if these are working for Bowie fans old & new, great! Anything that brings more attention to classic Bowie is a win, right?
Personally, I’m more excited for the live albums being dropped between boxes than the boxes themselves. Shouldn’t it be the other way around?
To frame my LTA review, I draw your attention to a recently unearthed TV news clip on the homepage, including a circa ‘79/’80 rehearsal session for “Ashes To Ashes.”
The reporter notes of Bowie “His image is that of a man striving for artistic, rather than commercial, success.”
From my experience with him, Bowie certainly was in no way averse to having hits, but I do believe throughout (most of) his career, he valued artistic achievement more than commercial results.
Until he didn’t for a bit.
I’ll also point out that whenever I speak about Bowie, at the point in the lecture where I each “Let’s Dance,” the slide reads “Unpopular Opinions” because, while it’s one of his better 80’s records, it’s also where it went wrong, IMO.
Hence: “Loving The Alien,” the latest in this apparently ongoing series of supposedly definitive boxes, covering the decidedly not classic years.
At Ryko, we didn’t have access to this material (we almost did at one point), but licensed some tracks for compilations, so I never had to seriously wrestle with the idea of how to release it outside of a hits compilation context (extremely easy!), so anthropologically, this is a first for anyone, really.
I firmly believe every record ever made is at least one person’s favorite record ever. Records with hits are more likely to be more people’s favorites. But hits don’t make great albums and the three LPs that form the backbone of this set are rough going, even though they surely have their champions.
If you think I’m being splenetic, don’t forget; the man himself referred to these records as his “Phil Collins years.” That’s shockingly self-aware for any artist, but an especially rare instance of Bowie not playing a history-altering shell-game. He rarely distanced himself from things he made or downplayed their stature – I’m not sure he ever disparaged “The Linguini Incident” publicly - but he wasn’t shy about broadly condemning much of his 80’s work.
Clearly, Bowie struggled in the 80’s. I suspect massive changes in his personal life were a factor. I’d never imply he was weak – he’d survived his 1970’s, which would’ve killed a lesser man.
But when truly massive success arrived, on one hand, that’s vindication. On the other, there’s new pressure. Bowie began to self-manage, for instance. His brother Terry – a figure who’s place in Bowie’s psyche cannot be overstated - committed suicide. Finally, his engagement to Melissa Hurley, who’d been by his side through the Glass Spider tour, ended badly sometime around the time of Tin Machine. I’m sure he enjoyed some of this period (that’s life, after all) but it’s also fair to say he was distracted, possibly resulting in less attention to the art.
When he and I talked about his 80’s it was mostly in generalities, except for “Never Let Me Down,” which he had considerable animus for. It’s worth noting he never upset the apple cart by dismissing “Let’s Dance” – possibly knowing it was a gateway for newly acquired fans who may’ve been put off by him dissing it - or maybe he really liked LD, who knows?
In 1983, he seemed genuinely shocked, pleased and energized by the next-level fame he’d achieved. This was exactly his goal, but the record hasn’t aged well. We know Bowie went to Nile because he “made hits.” But by choosing to pursue the charts, David alienated Tony Visconti, who’d already been told he’d been hired to produce. That damage wasn’t repaired for years, certainly to the detriment of both men. Who knows what “Let’s Dance” (or the rest of the 80’s) might’ve sounded like with Visconti involved?
Keep in mind he hadn’t made an album in three years after cranking out one (or more!) a year for years, so despite “Under Pressure” and some acting acclaim, it’s possible he was worried music buyers had forgotten him. Newly-freed of Tony DeFries, he finally had the rights to 100% of the spoils of his work, and he set out to have a hit.
No question, “Let’s Dance” has the most admirers of the three albums represented here. It remains one of Bowie’s best-selling albums and I enjoyed the hell out of it at the time, probably because I mostly played side one, where the hits roll out in succession. It’s as if side two was an afterthought.
Nile did what he was hired to do, but the album is a mere 8 tracks; at least half of them throwaways, two of them covers (three if you count his re-record of “Cat People”). One could argue, based on the paucity of songs that Bowie hadn’t put much effort into it; at minimum, he rushed to make it, knocking it out in a mere three weeks.
But who cares how calculated this was? Bowie was always calculating. And, as a one-off experiment, DB trying on the role of “hit-maker” would be in keeping with his to assume and discard personas as inspiration for various phases of his art.
It went horribly wrong when he chose to stagnate in that role for three albums, each more uninspired than the next, until he finally hit a crisis point.
Still, it’s not all bad - the Serious Moonlight tour was fun Showbiz Bowie, and the live show here is a worthy representation. It’s the first tour where songs from both “Lodger” and “Scary Monsters” were played, the setlist is brilliant, and the arrangements are solid. The band is pure genius - Alomar AND Slick PLUS Tony Thompson! – well-suited to present the breadth of material. Is it a bit too polished? Sure, but consider the record it’s designed to promote. Some live takes have energy missing from the originals, particularly the “Lodger” stuff and a muscular “Let’s Dance”, where crowd enthusiasm is clearly infectious, and the band responds in kind.
When the “Serious Moonlight” show ends is where I can happily leave the rest of the box. With the exception of a few winning singles - mixed into the now familiar trainspotters clutter of “Re: Call 4” - it’s all downhill from here.
“Tonight” is a record no one was waiting for; one that materialized out of nowhere, too soon after “Let’s Dance.” “Blue Jean” is a great single but, like it’s older brother, “Modern Love”, not a great David Bowie single.
The rest of the album is stale air. There’s a theory “Loving The Alien” is a good song that could’ve been saved by friendlier production (sound familiar?), but I think it needed longer to incubate in Bowie’s brain or perhaps more sympathetic collaborators to fully achieve its potential. The Iggy songs have some energy to them, but serve little purpose. There’s a much better version of “God Only Knows” in the vault, and Bowie trying reggae? Ouch. “Tonight” is a failure, but so slight it’s forgivable. After all, everyone goes off the tracks once, right?
Bowie’s own dismissal of / excuse for “Tonight” was this: “I wanted to keep my hand in.” The industry translation is “I wanted the advance”, which is crass, but not hard to believe in the moment – it’s most likely his royalty and advances were renegotiated to a higher rate in the wake of the success of “Let’s Dance.” By his own admission, he was disinterested he was in making the record. Iggy and others’ accounts of recording “Tonight” corroborate his statement.
If the accusation is the 80’s were Bowie’s essential Bowie-ness slipping away, “Never Let Me Down” would be exhibit A (at least as far as studio recordings go – the Glass Spider would be my closing argument), so it’s telling that the artist’s most personally derided record was chosen to be the centerpiece of this box.
The book includes a sprawling (and not hard to find elsewhere) contemporaneous interview with Bowie extolling the virtues of the NLMD in great detail. No doubt he was still under the spell of whatever enthusiasm drove him to make the record in the first place, but he subsequently denounced the thing, ignoring its songs in live performance. The inclusion of this piece seems quite defensive, and unlikely to influence anyone’s opinion of a really bad album.
Again, I’ll remind you Bowie himself was this record’s harshest critic. Our first face to face conversation was (unprompted) largely about his dissatisfaction with the album and subsequent tour. He was painfully aware this was his nadir, of the damage It’d done, yet genuinely interested in finding his footing and restoring his reputation. Tin Machine and the Sound & Vision campaign were both early steps in that process.
Re-listening to the original NLMD, I’m taken by how horny the record is, yet there’s nothing sexy or subtle about it. There’s an awkward “creepy uncle” vibe, maybe he felt the onset of middle age? Regardless, it’s unbecoming, beneath him and makes for uneasy listening. Luckily he recognized it as such.
The midlife crisis theory tracks with Bowie’s stated intention to make a stripped down, back to basics, hard-rocking concept album built around… Spiders. Sound familiar? Bringing in school chum Frampton adds even more credence to this theory, with Peter a living reminder of their shared, exciting, youthful school days. Grappling with age figures in the gestation of Tin Machine, too, a stripped down rock band designed to address the question of rock being a viable artistic outlet for middle-aged men. That factor in Tin Machine’s origins seems to have been scrubbed from history, gone the way of other, less-than-flattering, elements of DBs career.
To illustrate how far the artist had strayed from his initial intentions, NLMD was designed as concept album, but the song that gave the album its name was a last-minute recording, with a sweet but tossed off lyric about Bowie’s trusted PA, Coco Schwab. I’m 99.9% sure even Bowie wasn’t planning a concept album and tour about his PA, so this doesn’t speak well to the sturdiness of “the concept.”
“Too Dizzy” is still missing, apparently beyond redemption, but when one considers what else he could’ve excised, why are we still listening to shallow pap like “Beat On Your Drum”? Perhaps he realized this when he originally made the Phil Collins comparison, but these probably would be fine Huey Lewis or Phil Collins songs. But from Bowie, well, this is all just sad and beneath him. (as a meta-experiment, I’d be genuinely interested in a Phil Collins album of covers from these records - “My David Bowie Period” – run with it Phil!)
One of the interesting (and often forgotten) bits about this album is that the CD version used longer versions of the songs than the vinyl edition. The idea that length no longer mattered when recording albums was one of the worst side effects of the format’s dominance, but here an opportunity is lost by putting the edited versions on “Re: Call 4” rather than presented on either another disc in proper order, or even tacked onto the NLMD CD (full disclosure; I haven’t timed them, this may not be possible). No doubt there’s a Spotify playlist that does just this.
Undeniably, the record is wildly over-produced. Every track has way too much shit going on, feeling full, yet hollow. Plenty of artist made this mistake, trying to save limp material by adding more of everything, especially as technology allowed for more and more tracks. You can put lipstick on an empty piggy bank, etc…
And then there’s the tour. Goddamn, what a mess. Although Bowie’s theatrical aspirations of the 70’s were finally afforded the budget even DeFries couldn’t get him (thanks, Pepsi-Cola!), it’s a marked step down from the one that preceded it.
Any room for spontaneity is excised and Bowie is a man going through the motions EVERY NIGHT for 86 shows over 10 months, never mind rehearsals. For an artist easily distracted from the present by whatever was next, it must’ve been paralyzing to know almost exactly what “next” was for such a grueling, extended period.
The live recording here doesn’t do much to alter the perception of this as forced 80’s spectacle at its flimsiest – although it’s less harrowing than watching the video, in which a mulleted DB descends from the ceiling in a chair with a wireless headset in a red suit, joining a synchronized dance with his backup singers upon landing. It’s as bad as it sounds, although the audio here seems to been remixed to better effect than the previous issue.
No doubt there was a germ of an idea for this tour that once made sense, but just like the recording sessions before it, the damn thing got away from him and became a monster he grew to resent. Imagine his frustration, particularly the knowledge there was only one person to blame – himself.
The idea of rehabilitating NLMD didn’t coalesce until later, and didn’t come from Bowie himself. The sheer disbelief that Bowie could’ve been responsible for NLMD led vocal fans to shift blame from the artist to the production choices. This talk was in the air - and Bowie was very good at picking up what was in the air.
In interviews, he carefully workshopped the idea that NLMD was actually a swell collection of really good songs gone wrong due to unsympathetic production. I call this the “Goodbye Cruel World” defense. While there’s plenty wrong with the production, the songs themselves are undeniably sub-par, and no amount of tinkering would elevate them to the status of his 70’s work.
No doubt Bowie truly liked the M&M remix of “Time Will Crawl” on “iSelect,” but it was one of the better tracks on NLMD in the first place. When it comes to revamping the whole album, I’m skeptical he’d consider it a worthwhile venture, or at least one he’d‘ve actively pursued. I mean, he had nearly 30 years from its release to act on that impulse and eight after “iSelect” to enlist McNulty et al, for the task, so why didn’t he? According to rumor, Reeves Gabrels told Bowie to focus his efforts elsewhere, solid advice, because all this revamped version does is serve to remind us that it’s not very good.
I’ll only guess, but because the core material on the LTA box is so thin, it badly needed a selling point far more than its three predecessors. The mere suggestion that Bowie’s least-admired album might be saved – nay, restored! to his original vision of it, well, that’s quite appealing to hardcore fans who are likely hemming and hawing about buying ANOTHER $100+ box, particularly one populated by the artist’s slightest work.
So what to make of the “thing they want to make you think you need,” the remade NLMD? Well it’s got 100% less Mickey Rourke, so… good start. Seriously, although substantially rejiggered, bad songs remain the foundation. They are well below Bowie’s standards, particularly lyrically, where he seems to be grasping for “cool” pop culture references rather than creating his own.
To be fair, some bits sound better, some are worse, and others will sound just as dated twenty years from now as the originals do today. So the overall effect is “it’s new-ish sounding, big fucking deal.”
I believe this was a sincere effort on the part of the musicians involved, but it was always a fool’s errand. Frankly, after the box has faded away, I doubt this version (notably timestamped as the “2018” version; pleasedontdoitagain) will be regarded with the same ambivalence as the remixes of “Station To Station” or “Ziggy Stardust.” It’s certainly a more ambitious undertaking, but just as in those two examples, a new dusting off isn’t going to radically change the underlying work.
Then there’s “Dance,” a previously unreleased collection of extended versions that shows Bowie’s remixes weren’t worth a squirt until the mid-90’s. These versions tend to over-emphasize the most problematic, dated aspects of the underlying tracks. Depending on the age you were when Labyrinth and “Magic Dance” were released, you may find some charm here, but most of the tracks on “Dance” and “Re:Call 4” are blah extensions or edits of already sub-par tracks, with the exception of “Absolute Beginners” and “This Is Not America.” For the first time there are some really duff tracks here too - “Dancing In The Street” or “Volare,” anyone?
Cynics will correctly note many remixes are missing. Personally, I don’t need them, but by the same token, why not include them? – thoroughness was an implied rule of this series. And although I don’t need it either, mentioning the Japanese version of “Girls” twice in the liner notes – and not including it!- is cruelly rubbing the buyer’s face in its omission.
It’s ballsy of Parlophone to continue down this road, especially as the next box would logically cover the arguably more difficult to rehab (and sell) Tin Machine era. Again, that period has fans, but TM was primarily a roadmap away from the 80’s, not a renaissance.
Rumor is Reeves Gabrels is assembling just such a box. I wish him well, not because Tin Machine is lesser Bowie than we have here (it’s arguably an improvement), but because the public perception of the project is so negative. If the once a year schedule is maintained, the Tin Machine box will come out next year, the 20th anniversary of the band’s debut.
Most buyers will listen to NLMD 2018 and “Serious Moonlight” a few times, then put LTA in the empty space on the shelf they’ve had reserved for it since it was announced – patiently waiting for the next volume and the next to join their predecessors until there are no more.
It will rarely, if ever, be listened to again.
Buyer’s remorse seems likely and that’s sad, if only because the artist himself vocally and regularly told his fans the period covered here is work he was not particularly proud of.
Here’s Paul Sinclair’s review at Super Deluxe Edition
and Chris O’Leary’s at Pitchfork