Surprised to stumble on this; notes about disc three while in process of refining the track list.
Most of the notes in red that are obviously NOT Bowie-related are in regard to an upcoming Screaming Tribesmen tour, opening for UB40.
The hows & whys of the David Bowie Sound + Vision re-release campaign - 25 years later
Surprised to stumble on this; notes about disc three while in process of refining the track list.
Most of the notes in red that are obviously NOT Bowie-related are in regard to an upcoming Screaming Tribesmen tour, opening for UB40.
Sound + Vision Final Wrap Up
As I’ve mentioned before, the deal for the catalog was completed later than anticipated, but we still wanted to make a September 1989 release, so I was hustling to assemble the box. We had no preconception of the box from either a track list or packaging standpoint. The proposal sent to Bowie referred to it only as “…similar to Bob Dylan’s ‘Biograph.’”
In addition to conceptualizing the track list, we simultaneously started brainstorming the look of the box with Bowie’s designer, the wonderful Roger Gorman of Reiner Design. Gorman, a British ex-pat based in lower Manhattan, was a delight to work with. Always in a great mood, Roger was adept at tightwalking a line between his two clients, the label & artist.
Roger came out to the storage facility in Massachusetts with Alicia Miles from Isolar, and we went through the materials to pick out stuff for the packages.
When they wanted a bite to eat, I was mortified to discover the only option to host these sophisticated folks was a “99” restaurant, a low-grade local chain. Think “Chili’s” but not that good. They choked it down with good humor. Although it wasn’t my fault there weren’t better, restaurants nearby, I still feel bad for taking them there. The good news is they lived!
As a CD-centric company (format-wise, the music always came first!), Ryko was primarily focused on the CD set. Most importantly, we were committed to spending the money necessary to make the product worthy of the artist, visually unique and special to hold. We wanted it to be an object of desire.
Gorman conceived a 12x12 shadowbox package, similar to the final product, with the repeating image of David picking up through three “layers”; the lid, the format itself and the box bottom. The iridescent ink on the lid was there from the start, but Roger, perhaps expecting push back on the cost of executing his vision, had imagined the lid would be made out of a plastic similar to that of a men's shirt box – a relatively thin, flimsy plastic.
When he told me this, I think I surprised him by saying we needed something of higher-quality and more durable materials.
With a sturdier lid, the curb appeal wouldn’t improve, and although sales wouldn’t be positively affected, I didn’t want fans to lift up the set and think, “this is chintzy.”
We started looking for a manufacturer that could deliver a heavier lid. The tiny Ryko production department was getting shut down at every turn, and it looked like we might have to go with the shirt box after all. Undeterred, I opened the Minneapolis area phone book and starting dialing.
To everyone’s surprise (including my own), I found a company in the Minneapolis ’burbs that could make the lids out of a thick plexiglass. I drove out to see them and they explained how they could achieve our desired lid. They would screen print a large sheet of plexi with multiple lids, which would then be diecut into a flat shape (pic coming below).
The image was screened in reverse on the inside of the lid, to minimize scratching the ink and marring the print in assembly. That cut piece was heated up and folded over a platform that mimicked the box bottom in size and shape. No one could believe we’d found a vendor at the last minute after weeks of searching. Hired!
This was a totally new and complex design for a music package, which translated into a high cost per unit, but we felt the increased price would be justified by the quality of the goods.
When the box won a Grammy, Roger thanked us for indulging what was a very expensive package design.
As a CD based company, there wasn’t a ton of enthusiasm for cassettes and LPs, but when I explained we could package all formats utilizing the same outer box as the CD set, it made sense from a cost standpoint. For the cassette and LP versions, I devised the modifications that were ultimately produced – a unique tray insert for cassettes with re-use of the CD sized booklet and all the text (if not all the pictures in LP gatefolds).
We also color-coded the “obis” or “corner boxes” (how many of you kept these, I wonder?) for each format, which also displayed the UPCs – which we always tried to keep off of the permanent parts of the packaging. We barely notice a UPC now, but back then they seemed ugly and intrusive. We proceeded.
David hand-picked Kurt Loder to write the essay in the 72-page book. We reached out to Kurt, who accepted the assignment, despite a short deadline. He immediately recorded the innovative “CD Press Release” some of you may have in your collections. It consists of Kurt reading a press release about the box and series, and the Ziggy-era b-side “Round And Round”, a Chuck Berry cover.
We announced the series at the New Music Seminar in the summer of 1989, and our marketing staff slid the CDs under the doors of every room at the Times Square hotel where the NMS took place. Their backs were sore for days.
You’d think this would be greeted as innovative marketing by the all Bowie business partners, but EMI, who were about to launch Tin Machine, threw a hissy-fit, saying we’d hijacked their campaign, releasing a “new” David Bowie song when they were trying to launch Tin Machine.
Looking back at it now, I’d guess they were unenthusiastic about Tin Machine (a project they never seemed to understand) and were looking to displace blame for a failure they anticipated.
Kurt, besides being a fine writer and gentlemen, was also the face of music news at the time, manning MTV’s news desk. In this role, he had the misfortune to travel to Russia to cover the “Moscow Music Peace Festival” – essentially the last big hair metal party, disguised as a benefit for the Make A Difference Foundation, an anti-drugs organization. The gig was organized by legendary manager Doc McGhee, who’d been accused of trafficking.
Cinderella, Skid Row, Scorpions, Motley Crue , Ozzy and Bon Jovi all played. Apparently the accommodations were horrible and the bands were at each other’s throats. All parties questioned why they were there. It got so bad that both Bon Jovi and Motley Crue fired McGhee as a result, either in Russia or on the plane home.
I had no idea Kurt was suffering this indignity in Russia, I just knew his notes were late and he wasn’t answering his phone.
After days of frustrated calling, I devised a plan to get his attention. These were the late 80’s, pre-e-mail and at the height of fax madness. I wrote a letter, made four copies of it, taped them together end-to-end and fed one end into the fax feed, dialing Kurt’s fax # at the MTV offices. After the squeak and squeal signaled the machines had connected, the first sheet in the fax centipede fed into the machine and I taped the end that came out the other end to the one that had yet to enter, creating a giant loop. This was an infinite fax, one that would certainly use up all of MTV’s fax paper and hopefully create an event of enough significance that would Kurt would be motivated to take note and call back. I walked away from the machine and left it to do its work.
About 15 minutes later, the phone rang. It was someone at MTV begging me to stop the faxes - Kurt wasn’t there. After they explained Moscow, I relented, but not before they promised to let Kurt know we were looking for him as soon as they were in touch.
When poor Kurt got home he called to tell me the whole story, and it sounded awful. On top of the misery of the festival, his father had passed away during the trip, but poor Kurt couldn’t get home. Communications in Russia were lousy, so contact with his family was difficult. I felt pretty bad about the fax thing and some angry phone messages, but he didn’t tell me he was leaving the country, so how was I to know?
In any case he did deliver his wonderful piece - but late - and the package was slightly delayed as a result, to the end of September.
Because Bowie was a real artist, a limited “museum edition” of the box was suggested, but deciding what this should be was not easy. The “basic” version of the box was a pretty nice object already. After much debate, we settled on a birchwood version of the CD set with a signed certificate of authenticity.
Before I was full-time at Ryko, I worked for Ryko co-founder Rob Simonds’ East Side Digital distribution company. Rob’s operation was the first in the country to switch exclusively to CD and he hired me to open CD-only stores. There were ultimately four of them, St Paul (the first), Minneapolis, Boston and San Francisco.
As a trailblazer in the world of CD (he later led the coalition to get rid of the remarkably wasteful longbox packaging), Rob understood buyers wanted shelves designed specifically for their discs. He found a local woodworker named Duff, who built shelving units we sold via retail and wholesale.
Our man stuttered slightly and was affectionately referred to as “D-d-d-duff.” His shop was hired to make all the Bowie limited boxes – 350 of them, all told. These were sold out in advance of release. I’m not sure how we decided 350 was the right number – maybe it was the number of certificates we could get Bowie to sign! I can’t even remember how we let people know they were available.
The certificates arrived on my desk from Roger’s office, beautifully wrapped and boxed, individually hand-numbered from 1 to 350. It was pretty amazing to hold this stack, which I passed on to the factory where the sets were assembled. My birchwood set is still sealed in the box.
At some point, probably early September of ‘89, I hit the road with our sales and marketing guys, Jim Bradt and John Hammond, respectively. With the help of our then-distributors, we held events in LA and Seattle, and certainly some other cities, to explain our Bowie pitch to retailers, press, and anyone else who’d listen. The box was not out at this point and we had promos to dole out. This made us a lot of friends.
When “Sound + Vision” was first released, the bonus CD-V disc was a real novelty and a relatively new format, which played into the cutting-edge nature of our product. As time went on, the CD-V format went the way of the dinosaur and it made sense to switch out the CD-V with the more contemporaneous CD-ROM. This revised 4th disc made its first appearance in the last iteration of the 12x12 inch box, around the same time retailers started griping about cost and space issues associated with the large box.
Most CD boxes were being released in CD-sized slipcases, not in big square boxes or even 6x12inch boxes. More importantly, David agreed to let us reduce some of the list prices to “mid-line+ pricing (this is exactly what it sounds like, although back then a mid-price CD would have a higher list price than the new Adele album).
The S+V box was downscaled and reconfigured into a smaller, slipcased version, including the CD-ROM and the book, at a reduced price. Finally, it lost the 4th disc altogether, keeping the book. The slipcase was made just a little smaller, as was the price. This was the last Rykodisc version of the set, and a change few people noticed at the time.
The set was a huge success. Although EMI had finally closed their deal with David, they unwisely flat-out refused to release it in their territories (the world ex-North America). One factor was their more complex logistical lead-time, which proves a theory of mine – in the music business, trust yourself and make up your own rules. In other words, play by the seat of your pants & things will work out. When you try to constrain art with rules and systems, instead of following your gut, it will go wrong.
Anyway, EMI’s hamstrung rules meant a lot of demand in various territories would not by met by a locally-based label. Although Ryko couldn’t sell the box directly into those territories, there was no way to prevent our customers from selling it to anyone they wanted to. Thousands and thousands of copies were sold worldwide - all Ryko sales - a delightful, unexpected boon for the company. Oh, how we laughed.
Around the time the box came out, as we were working on the first set of album releases (Space Oddity, Man Who Sold The World, and Hunky Dory) we were invited to New York for a meeting with Isolar. This is when we learned about the an upcoming London press conference to announce the S+V Tour.
Our plan had been to release Changes at the end of the chronological release of the rest of the albums. But now, with a massive “Retiring The Hits” tour, refusing to release a “Best Of” tie-in would've been foolish, and we were told as much.
Updating “Changesone” seemed a wiser choice than creating a whole new comp. While the idea of releasing another collection so soon after the first one irked me, I couldn’t fault the wisdom.
I put the track list together (easiest thing I ever did) and David signed off immediately.
I went to London the weekend of January 20th for the conference. Weather-wise, London in January is a nice break from Minneapolis in January.
As I made my rounds of London record shops, I was stunned to see huge stacks of “Sound + Vision” boxes everywhere. There must’ve been 50 copies each at the Piccadilly Tower, Oxford Street Virgin and HMV stores, and on that Saturday I watched them briskly sell.
Alicia Miles & I connected (on Monday the 22nd, I think) and I got my pass for the conference. At Isolar’s request, we’d sent over copies of the box for the post-conference conference. The Rainbow Theater, a famous London Venue that had hosted rock royalty from the 60’s through 1981 (including the last Ziggy show) was specially hired out for the occasion. The marquee cryptically displayed the dates of the original gig and the day of the press conference.
When I got to the venue that day, I had no idea what to expect. It was wall to wall with seasoned rock journalists from all over the world, but when the lights went down, they hooted and hollered like teenage girls at a boy-band show.
David made his entrance from the left side of the stage, which was made up to look like the cover of Ziggy Stardust, “K West” sign, stairs, garbage bin and all. An apparently retrofitted conservative men’s clothing store store mannequin was kitted out as Ziggy (pretty terrible, honestly) by the entranceway. Although Bowie strolled out in an elegant black suit with an acoustic guitar, it was very clear when he put his leg up in the Ziggy cover pose, this was about the past (in his mind, I think, it was about burying it).
The tour announcement David made was brief, and many questions were asked, often repeatedly. Tin Machine was - also repeatedly - defended, and the concept of playing his best-known hits and retiring them from his live set forever was firmly stated (snicker). The Changesbowie track list was discussed (it had been finalized by December at least) and after an acoustic version of Space Oddity, it was all over.
Amazingly, you can the whole thing in a somewhat hazy 1990 audience video recording here in 4 parts; it was actually much longer than I recall (I can be heard jabbering to someone at the end):
“I have a lot of faith in Ryko. I think they’re an extremely good company. They really look after the work that they’re doing.”
When it was over, poor Alicia had to go deal with the press, answering further questions. She later told me she’d nearly been stampeded after announcing she had copies of the box to give away.
Luckily I avoided bodily harm, even though my bag was full of copies of the next three releases in the series, scheduled to be released the following week. More on those later.
Bowie cut a new worldwide deal for his catalog with EMI in 1997, driven by his revolutionary bond offering. Accordingly, the Ryko box was deleted and EMI made a bunch of bad (by their own admission) decisions with Bowie’s catalog, abandoning all the Ryko bonus tracks and re-starting with unadorned albums and poorly conceived compilations. Isolar called us well into the EMI deal to see if we had spare promos – David preferred giving the Ryko versions to friends.
In 1998, Chris Blackwell’s Palm Pictures bought Rykodisc, renaming it a few times before settling on Rykopalm. As Blackwell learned the hard way, Ryko had more marquee value than the then-unknown Palm Pictures. In 1999, I left the label.
When I returned to Ryko in 2003, our rights to Bowie’s material were six years expired. My then-boss, Joe Regis, asked me to put together a two CD Ryko 20th anniversary set. Because Bowie was so important to the label, and because the spoken intro to the demo version of “Space Oddity” is a perfect intro to any box of treasures, I spoke to Bowie’s management to ask if we could use it.
They agreed but we had to clear it with EMI. I called the producer to discuss and he explained they were about to release an updated S+V box (this was the first I’d heard of it).
They made some effort to retain elements of the original award-winning design, but the EMI version is a shadow of its former self. And postcards! Well, that’s value for money! Postcards!
Anyway, because they thought our use of this one track on a various artists package might negatively impact their sales, Mr. EMI refused to let Ryko use the demo “Space Oddity.” We used the studio version instead, and that 20th Anniversary package was the last Ryko release containing Bowie material.
Next time I’ll talk about the first releases in the ongoing album campaign. It’s not over, no matter how hard you wish it would be!
Finally, here’s the clarification / rationalization / justification / defense for why each track on the S+V box set was chosen. It's a long one.
First; sorry this is a day later than promised but, Paris. One of my favorite places on earth, with many friends living there. Paris is one of our greatest cities; I wish them peace & look forward to returning. Vive la France!
Second; following my rant about the inaccurate conclusions presented as fact on the Wikipedia page for the S+V box, there's been some discussion with some very helpful readers who've now edited the Wikipedia page to reference my site. A heartfelt thanks to them.
I’ve learned much of the disinformation came from the Allmusic page for the box, which is a review. This is contrary to how Wikipedia is supposed to work, which is factually, from credible sources. The AllMusic page is one man's opinion, not a researched article. I can understand how it could've been misinterpreted as such since the writer, Stephen Thomas Erlewine, editor at AllMusic, presents his opinion as fact. Erlewine's assumptions are based on information he could not possible have access to, with no sources. It's a review, an opinion, not a scholarly piece. Until now, only Bowie & I (and a handful of colleagues) knew the logic behind the box set programming. Erlewine's certainly entitled to his opinion, but let's not mistake it for anything else, especially as he's got it ALL WRONG.
Thanks to the changes, at this point, my only issue with the Wiki entry is a minor semantic quibble. I suppose the set could be considered a “teaser” (as currently stated on Wikipedia) since it was first in the series. But “teaser” implies it's purpose was as an advertisement, akin to a movie trailer or preview of the next episode of a TV show.
Considering the thought and effort that went in to presenting the artist's work in the best possible light, "teaser" could be misconstrued as an exercise in pure crass commerciality, which it most certainly was not.
Anyway, if we're going to use reviews as valid sources of factual information on Wikipedia, I prefer this one from the better-regarded Rolling Stone, written by the better-regarded Jimmy Guterman & published in the October 19, 1989 issue. Below are a few quotes I really like (for obvious reasons). Click on the cover for a link to the full review.
"David Bowie has always been one of pop's most frustrating performers, as capable of creating original, barrier-breaking work as he is of pushing lazy, unfocused material. Sound + Vision is the opening salvo in Rykodisc's Bowie reissue campaign, which over the next two years will restore all of the performer's RCA work to the marketplace. Concentrating on the high points, this striking retrospective (three CDs or cassettes, six LPs) gives shape to Bowie's career and makes sense out of an erratic output, much as Decade did for Neil Young. With few notable exceptions, all of Bowie's finest RCA-era work can be heard on Sound + Vision."
"This box isn't a greatest-hits collection (Bowie's biggest hits for RCA, "Fame" and "Golden Years," are both missed), nor is it a rarities collection. Only five of its forty-six tracks were previously unreleased, and none of those is revelatory. Instead, the idea behind Sound + Vision is to bring together familiar and half-forgotten tracks to build a sturdy, coherent set. And with the possible exception of Station to Station, his most consistent album, released in 1976, this is where Bowie's work becomes most lucid."
"With its chronological sequencing – from the demo of "Space Oddity" to its 1980 answer song, the assured "Ashes to Ashes" – Sound + Vision states the case for understanding Bowie's career as one of searching followed by growth. The moves from fey to glam, from soul to experimentation, make sense here as logical steps for a performer insistent on finding something new at every turn."
Finally, Before we start, I want to re-state a few things before we get into the meat of it;
1) This box was not designed as a “teaser” for the S+V campaign, it was designed as a career overview of the RCA period
2) The primary point of the career overview was to program a listenable program that flowed and made sense of a career that had considerable stylistic changes over a relatively short period of time, which had alienated some listeners, even though the music was brilliant
3) It was NOT designed as a greatest hits
4) The track list leans heavily on the “Serious Moonlight” set list as its backbone
5) It was assembled in 1989, after what is typically regarded as a low point in Bowie’s artistic career
6) We knew a lot of fans would buy it regardless of the content (sorry, but this is the sad truth, he said to buyers of 40th anniversary 7” pic discs they’ll most likely never play), so we felt it needed to look great, have rare stuff, and honor the artist & his material
I realize many readers knew some of this long before I launched this site and others are sick of me reiterating myself in previous chapters, but in the interest of clarity, for the benefit of new readers, etc, etc… I humbly thank you for your time & indulgence.
There was never any doubt in my kind that the box was going to be chronological. It needed to show the journey and make digestible sense of the progressions.
Disc 1 is obviously the line from folkie to glam alien to killing off Ziggy.
"Space Oddity" (demo version)
This had to be the first track. Bowie delivered it separately from the rest of the vault, although he left me to assembling the track list & sequence. He didn't specify it as the first track, but later confirmed he'd hoped we'd start with it. Considering we had the RCA stuff and nothing else, it made sense to start and end with Major Tom and the spoken intro only made it more delicious. Even though his intent at the time he recorded it was different, it's simple earnestness showed a side of Bowie most people never imagined. His words served as the perfect welcome to the box.
Come in & see if you like what you hear.
2. "Wild Eyed Boy from Freecloud" (single version)
B-side of “Space Oddity”
I wasn't crazy about using multiple versions of the same song on their parent albums and this song nicely showcases the hippy-dippy side of Bowie that "Man Of Words" represented, but with a foreshadowing of the large scale drama to come.
3. "The Prettiest Star" (Marc Bolan mono single version)
This recording with Bolan feels (to me, anyway) like a pivotal, transitional moment - when Bowie's glam switch flipped, even if it took a couple more years to flower. His relationship with Bolan is key to that. As a bonus track, it would’ve been (stylistically) an odd fit with the album it would be associated with chronologically.
4. "London Bye Ta Ta" (Mono)
Like “Prettiest Star”, this track felt like it would be stylistically out of place on "Space Oddity" or MWSTW. It's got an uncharacteristic (for this period of Bowie's career, anyway) mod feel. When EMI took over the catalog, they got their hands on a stereo version that was not in our tape inventory, which they replaced on the re-issue of the box. They were kind of dicks about it, too.
5. "Black Country Rock"
The Man Who Sold the World
Kurt Cobain rightly recognized this album as having a number of great songs, but at the time it was historically kind of a dud in the catalog, sales wise. This track feels like another step toward the stripped down, less prog/folk songwriting that would lead to Ziggy.
6. "The Man Who Sold the World"
The Man Who Sold the World
Just a great song. When Nirvana recorded it for "unplugged" sales of the album increased threefold.
7. "The Bewlay Brothers"
Because this is about David's relationship with his brother - a weighty subject, with long-vibrating repercussions in his work - I felt it should be included. There are so many great tracks on HD you can’t really go wrong, but that's why I picked this one.
Straight up regular version. I felt like the newbies needed familiarity after a lot of material the casual fan would only be peripherally familiar with, if at all. Plus, it's fucking “Changes”. One of his greatest in my book; in anyone’s book.
9. "Round and Round"
"Drive-In Saturday" B-side
This seems like a toss off to me - a loving tribute and a great version, but including it on Ziggy seemed wrong, it was too outside the whole thing. That said, if it had been part of the body of the original album, it could've made sense. Tagging it on at the end didn't seem right. I’ll discuss this in depth when I get to my proposal for a 25th Anniversary Ziggy Box Set.
10. "Moonage Daydream"
The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars
Pre-Guardians of the Galaxy, this was not a massive Bowie track. But it's undoubtedly a great, dramatic one. So here it is. And thank you, James Gunn!
11. "John, I'm Only Dancing" (Sax version)
I love this version & it's a beautiful bridge between “Ziggy” & “Aladdin”. I knew we were going to use one on “Ziggy” so I didn't want to have two versions as bonus tracks on consecutive releases. In hindsight, if I’d’ve known we were using all the (available) “Aladdin”-related rarities on the box, leaving us without anything for the “Aladdin” album, I might’ve had a re-think. C’est La Vie!
12. "Drive-In Saturday"
I know a lot of people love “Aladdin” (no pun intended) but I'm not a huge fan. As an album it feels a bit like an unfocused rush job follow-up, albeit with some really amazing songs. Considering how it was recorded that's no surprise. It was hard to pick an album track that was illuminating, and I knew I wanted to use the live version of “Cracked Actor” (I think it's got an edge the studio track does not). This one feels like it was left off “Ziggy”; it certainly speaks to Bowie’s futuristic / post-apocalyptic / sci-fi leanings.
13. "Panic in Detroit"
Great, and somewhat unsung, song (at the time). I felt it reflected DB’s exposure to and better understanding of the greater whole of America he'd seen touring, and speaks to his relationship with Iggy, too. It's feels like something of a protest song, which isn't typically in Bowie's oeuvre.
14. "Ziggy Stardust" (Live)
Ziggy Stardust: The Motion Picture
I had to include “Ziggy” as it was the final public Ziggy gig. Listening to it I’m still looking for clues; did DB know the destruction of the Spiders was minutes away, or did he made a snap decision in the moment?
15. "White Light/White Heat" (Live)
Ziggy Stardust: The Motion Picture
Nice way to reference Lou and the VU, obviously a huge influence, and this had been (deservedly) a single. I really wish the Spiders had cut an album of glammed up VU covers.
16. "Rock 'n' Roll Suicide" (Live)
Ziggy Stardust: The Motion Picture
Ziggy was over, thus endeth disc one and the journey from fey 60's folkie to fully formed glam alien is complete.
There was a lot of stress getting the “Ziggy: MoPi” tracks as they were still controlled by RCA (with only months left on the deal), so we had to license them in a very short period of time. RCA were obviously not excited about losing the catalog and took this moment to quote somewhat extortionary fees. Our crack business affairs team found a way to make it work – they pulled my ass out of the fire many times and were always a blast to work with.
Not that it’s relevant to the box, but as an aside, I believe if you’re a creative person in someone’s employ, you have to assimilate the legal side. It’s stunning to me how few of my colleagues (not at Ryko, but in the industry at large) were mind-bogglingly clueless about contracts, IP law and similar. You can do a better job and be far more productive if you grasp these concepts. I’m still not a lawyer (don’t have the discipline to pass the bar, I think) but was able to absorb a lot. As a result, I have an above average grasp of IP law and do a lot of work as an expert witness in regard to music business legal matters.
Disc 2 is the metamorphosis from popstar to something grander and more experimental. Yes, I’ve seen the cover of Pin-ups, but, to me anyway, it is not a Ziggy album – it’s a tentative first reach away from the thing that made him huge, a kiss goodbye to his old influences before next phase. I mean, he’s got the Ziggy mullet on the cover of Diamond Dogs, but you can’t consider that a Ziggy record, right?
The goal here was to navigate from shaking off the Ziggy character through the first major stylistic change in Bowie’s career since his breakout – the Philly Soul period, hopefully creating a logical thread that leads to the Berlin Years in the process.
1. "Anyway, Anyhow, Anywhere"
3. "Don't Bring Me Down"
The “Pin Ups” tracks are, to me, the kiss goodbye to Ziggy. That story is over, but here's a little look back at what inspired it. It's a fine, but minor record in the RCA canon, more a blowing off steam project than a real album. The Who cover that opens the disc feels like a declaration of intent, as if Bowie is anticipating and telegraphing the stylistic evolutions to come. It always surprised me that the track choices here stirred up so much discussion.
This one I may have hung onto for the regular disc of DD, but it was a hint at what was to come in terms of unreleased material and I loved that it spoke to the original 1984 concept, and to songs that did eventually make it in the album, albeit quite differently. Plus if I’d included it, it breaks my multiple versions rule (sort of).
6. "Big Brother"
A strong album track, it again wasn't widely known but illuminates DD and the vocal performance is killer, I think.
7. "Rebel Rebel" (U.S. single version)
I far prefer this version, but it's not the hit, which had to be on the album. Even though this was the single in the U.S., not many were exposed to it on mainstream radio, probably due to the Latin underpinnings. AOR was not nearly as cool as it thought it was in 1974. So great.
8. "Suffragette City"
9. "Watch That Man"
10. "Cracked Actor"
All classic Bowie tracks in my book, and these are cracking versions. This little section lays waste to the idea that David’s live albums, while not highlights in his catalog, are hardly total duds.
11. "Young Americans"
In 1989 “YA” was the best-selling non-compilation album in the RCA Bowie catalog, and this is an awesome track. But furthermore, coming out of post-apocalypse Bowie into soul-period Bowie is a jarring transition. An actual hit helps the listener flow right along with the switch up. Familiarity is your friend.
This is a slightly different version to the album track. There were lots of iterations of YA in the vaults (as we know, this record evolved through many stages with two tracks yanked & replaced at the last minute). Under the deadlines we were facing, we didn’t have time to ascertain the subtle differences. I don’t recall picking this version because it was different. It’s just a great YA track that hadn't been played to death, it speaks to David’s development as an artist lyrically, and in my view, it’s the most authentic Philly Soul track on the album.
13. "After Today"
I was very, very taken with this outtake. The rough mix Northeastern Digital knocked out was only intended as a listening reference, but we used it anyway. I liked the aggressive sax placement and the overall roughness, compared to the rest of “Young Americans”, which plays the Philly Soul thing largely on the smoother side. I don’t think the track was fully finished (there was no final mix, just the multi-tracks). Because of the aggression, it felt out of place as a bonus track. The guys at NDR were somewhat mortified that David & I wanted to use it as is. NDR asked us to give them a shot at remixing it to fit the overall sound of YA and we did. I felt the result took the edge off and Bowie did too. If there had been more to work with, the sweeter mix may have worked, but the tracks were just too raw. So we used this version, and the engineer asked his name be taken off the mixing credit, but I love it as is.
14. "It's Hard to Be a Saint in the City"
Previously unreleased, 1975
This just does not fit anywhere. As a Philly Soul version of a Springsteen song, it doesn’t quite fit on YA (and honestly, it feels a bit forced), but as a curiosity it’s stunning. DB sensed that Springsteen was a major new talent well ahead of the curve. I imagine David thought Bruce would become the new Lou Reed - not an unreasonable conclusion, based on the first couple of records. Obviously Bruce took a different turn.
15. "TVC 15"
Station to Station
Unsung classic from “STS”. God bless the 8 track. There's an app we need; one that inserts 8-track style breaks in our mp3s!
16. "Wild Is the Wind"
Station to Station
To be honest, I’ve never been a huge fan of this track but DB seems to like it and it made sense as a transition to the berlin stuff inasmuch as it shares some of that stark sense of foreboding.
This is really designed to show America where they got it wrong; to highlight the most appealing songs of one of his most innovative and creative periods, and to give (in the US at least) an opportunity for fans to either discover this wonderful music for the first time, or to re-evaluate it’s influence in the wake of history. So much of the contemporary musical landscape preceding the box was derived from the seeds planted here that I felt listeners who’d initially dismissed the records could be compelled to reconsider them. Conversely, new listeners would find material that felt like familiar friends, even as they were hearing them for the first time. With “Scary Monsters” there was less of a mission; in the US, it was the start of his climb to a new commercial height. And of course, it brings closure to the decade with the death of Major Tom.
1. "Sound and Vision"
Maybe his best song, it completely defies conventional song structure, but is incredibly satisfying. Because the Berlin records had been so poorly marketed / failed to go over with the U.S., there was a sense within the company that we had a mission to make sure people got it this time. We branded the series of releases and the box "Sound + Vision" - how could this track NOT be included?
2. "Be My Wife"
This felt shockingly contemporary and the structure is pretty traditional. It seemed like it would go down well with the newbies. Plus great guitar stuff.
3. "Speed of Life"
This is one of Bowie’s greatest instrumentals, all of which are vastly underappreciated, I think. He must’ve felt the same as we pressed up the original “All Saints” two CD Holiday promo set for him (reports of it’s edition size are widely reported inaccurately).
If this was really remixed, it was done by Bowie and delivered to us that way – although my recollection is that we sourced it from the “Rare” master. Included here because it’s great, and had yet to become the anthem it is today. German version as I was hoping to steer clear of multiple versions of the same song on the parent album (not always an attainable goal).
5. "Joe the Lion"
6. "Sons of the Silent Age"
Both of these “”Heroes”” tracks felt like digestible highlights for newbies, and are filled with album-worthy drama. Also, it probably goes without saying that flow from song to song was a consideration. But there, I said it anyway.
7. "Station to Station" (Live)
I would've included the studio version, but again, I think this smokes it, in terms of intensity.
8. "Warszawa" (Live)
I realize sterility may have been part of the plan in Berlin, but this has warmth and more humanity that's missing from the studio version, which I find is frequently the case with live instrumentals (yes, I know he sings, but the voice is used as another instrument here) – it’s practically heartbreaking in this incarnation. It spoke to Bowie's break from tradition, and to the quality of the source album. Also it’s kind of ballsy to include a nearly 7 minute live instrumental, right?
9. "Breaking Glass" (Live)
Again, what I consider a superior live interpretation, especially the second half.
10. "Red Sails"
“Lodger” was virtually an instant cut-out in the U.S. so I tried to pick tracks that, again, benefitted from traditional song structure. Only “Boys” & “DJ” had any exposure in the U.S. and even that was mostly in the form of late night video play. The mighty hook of this song was especially highlighted on the less-angular “Lets Dance / Serious Moonlight” tour version, and certainly weighed in my choice.
11. "Look Back in Anger"
Just an amazing track. One of his best vocal performances too.
12. "Boys Keep Swinging"
The song plays into so much Bowie mythology, I couldn’t leave it off.
13. "Up the Hill Backwards"
Scary Monsters (And Super Creeps)
Great track of course, but Scary Monsters is full of them. I liked how the lyrics explore looking at history and moving forward at the same time, yet in a comforting way. Plus Fripp.
14. "Kingdom Come"
Scary Monsters (And Super Creeps)
I like Tom Verlaine and Bowie acknowledging the Television frontman (and therefore early NYC punk) felt like an important connection to make.
15. "Ashes to Ashes"
Scary Monsters (And Super Creeps)
Because coming back to Major Tom is the perfect circle. I lobbied to license the original version of Cat People and Under Pressure because I love them both so much but it seemed unlikely given our deadlines. In retrospect I'm happier they landed on the Singles collection than here.
1. "John, I'm Only Dancing"
3. "The Supermen"
All three live at the Boston Music Hall, Boston, MA October 1972
These tracks ended up here because I wasn’t planning to use live tracks as bonuses on the albums AND we didn’t have the rest of the show to do a full album release. Again, maybe these would’ve been better on “Aladdin” as luck would have it, they nearly perfectly fit the audio-only time-limit of a CD-V, so maybe that was a sign.
4. "Ashes to Ashes"
We did our best to contextualize all aspects of Bowie’s career, both the audio and visual side (again, “Sound + Vision”). The box itself, the booklet design, and then, in a unique opportunity we had in that brief window when it looked like CD-V might be a thing, a music video. Bowie was of course lauded for his music videos. But, while the earlier videos were groundbreaking and he looks great, 1989 was the height of MTV and compared to the multi-million dollar productions by lesser talents ranging from Michael Jackson and Poison, they looked clunky. Hence, “Ashes” which was the most contemporary looking video in our vault. Since you needed a laserdisc to watch it, I doubt many did, anyway – but Ryko was always about early adoption of technology and we had no idea if the format was going to thrive or survive.
I recently posted my thoughts on the "Nothing Has Changed: The Best Of David Bowie" 3 disc set from last year. In a way that review is a precursor to this post; the motivation behind the choices for the box set track list.
This is an excerpt from the current (as of 5/17/15 - see, I am working on these far out of actually posting them!) Wikipedia entry regarding the content of the box:
“Sound + Vision contains few of Bowie's greatest hits in their original form, instead frequently opting for demos, live versions and even a German vocal version of “Heroes” ("Helden"). This box set was originally conceived in 1989 as less of a comprehensive career retrospective than as a "teaser" for the then-upcoming Rykodisc CD reissue campaign covering Bowie's output from 1969 to 1980. As a result of this commercial logic, none of the "rarities" originally included on the 1989 edition of Sound + Vision (the rare single versions of "Wild-Eyed Boy From Freecloud" and "Rebel Rebel," or the previously unreleased studio outtakes "London Bye Ta–Ta," "1984/Dodo," "After Today," or "It's Hard To Be A Saint in the City") were included as bonus tracks on the Rykodisc editions of Bowie's albums. Conversely, some rarities were reserved exclusively for the Rykodisc re-releases and do not appear in this release.”
Seriously, fuck whoever wrote that. It’s completely wrong about the logic behind the box set, and these types of ongoing misconceptions are exactly the reasons I started this site. The presumption to know motives without a shred of evidence to support their position rubs me very much the wrong way, in case you couldn’t tell.
Plus, I'm pretty sure it doesn't meet Wikipedia's standards for documentation as it's pure conjecture.
For what it’s worth, the latest page is full of errors, including crediting Roger Gorman as a photographer on the package when in fact he was a designer – but I digress.
Why do people automatically assume the box (or any box) should be a greatest hits set, or worse, that it was designed to appear deceptively as a greatest hits set? Because some versions of his hits are alternate versions? Many of the songs aren’t hits at all.
We never marketed it as a hits collection, we never implied that was our intention, and it certainly was not. Remember, we were compilation averse - fans had enough of cheap, cash-in RCA comps.
Making a greatest hits box would’ve been the easiest thing on earth – and in 1989, a David Bowie “greatest hits” would’ve been, well, the “ChangesBowie” collection we issued in 1990 or the two-CD “Singles” collection we did in 1993.
It would’ve sold great – probably better than “Sound + Vision” did. But a hits collection wouldn’t have done anything to shine new light on the depth and breadth of Bowie’s pre-“Let’s Dance” career.
My intention, and Bowie’s intention, was EXACTLY to create a career retrospective.
Is your favorite song on it?
Maybe it is, maybe it is not.
It was my responsibility to assemble a musical summary, packaged as a high-end, desirable object that would reflected not only how important Bowie was in the 70’s, but also how relevant he was to what was happening musically in 1989; when his influence was felt throughout the musical landscape, but when his own records had lost their edge and he risked becoming irrelevant. This would hopefully bring in new fans, who were, in many cases, in diapers when he was taking off.
I wanted them to digest and understand the myth of Bowie and his discography. “Biograph” had elevated and exposed Dylan to many new and/or young fans, as “Crossroads” had done for Clapton. Those guys are fine, but they’re not Bowie and they're hardly as visual, and that's a massive understatement.
I wanted “Sound + Vision” to make people excited about David Bowie, maybe for the first time.
CD was still relatively new at that point; besides the obvious, music fans bought CDs (including box sets) because the format re-energized the marketplace; so much great music was being reissued – every week, worthy recordings that had been out of print for a decade or more were flooding back into stores. It was an amazing era of rediscovery.
There was no deal in place for Bowie’s catalog outside of North America, so when I programmed the set, I took a purely US perspective. Considering the box wasn’t released outside the US until 2003 (and then it was the rejiggered version), this proved the right way to go.
Bowie had superstar status in Europe and much of the rest of the world. The Berlin records hadn’t alienated those markets the way they had the US. Stateside, until 1983, Bowie was a large-ish cult artist with a few hits.
Right or wrong, Milli Vanilli, Debbie Gibson, Bobby Brown, Paula Abdul and Phil Collins were FAR bigger acts in 1989. That’s the mindset I was trying to overcome.
For example, consider this; I was 26 years old in 1989. Well, who cares, you may ask?
Here’s why this matters; I was 9 when Ziggy Stardust came out. I was too young; I missed it. Lots of people missed it, only because of when they were born.
I was just getting into music when I was 12, the same time Bowie popped up on US Top 40 radio stations with “Golden Years” and “Fame”, integral tracks on the soundtracks of that summer. I bought “changesone” on vinyl and "Station To Station” on 8-track. Loved them.
Then, as suddenly as he had dominated it, as far as mainstream American radio (and much of the “progressive” radio, too) was concerned, he vanished with the advent of “Low”. I’m not saying it’s right, but it IS what happened.
It wasn’t until the latter part of the 70’s when “Lodger” and moreso “Scary Monsters” aligned with the burgeoning, Bowie-inspired New Wave (for lack of a better term - and let me point out that I do not consider Punk part of New Wave) and brought curious new, younger listeners.
The “Ashes To Ashes” and “Fashion” videos had a lot of play in the US, mostly on a hodgepodge USA programming block called “Night Flight”. Both songs got some mainstream airplay, but he was already done with RCA, and looking forward.
It felt like Bowie was ready to have his “moment” and resurface in a big way - which he did with his collaboration with Queen (pretty much their last gasp in the US) on “Under Pressure” brought him back to the US Top 40.
David drove it home with “Let’s Dance”, the right record at the right time –and the nascent MTV pumped it into homes all over the US and therefore onto US radio, a venue where, aside from a small clutch of hits, had not given Bowie much love in the prior 7-8 years.
He sold millions of records, but the MTV watchers who were loving Lets Dance, China Girl and Modern Love largely had no idea about his history. They were teens. Five years might as well be a million when you’re a teenager.
By the end of the 80’s when the RCA records had been unavailable for years and “Blue Jean” was five years gone, Bowie was regarded as a celebrity, a famous public figure, but musically in danger of becoming irrelevant to 20-25 year old music fans who MAYBE knew Let’s Dance – and that was wholly unacceptable.
I realize that may read as a harsh evaluation (and outside of the US, possibly an unimaginable one), but the always self-aware Bowie was (unbeknownst to us) reinventing himself as a member of a stripped-down rock band. Rumors said the EMI relationship that had started with so much promise was now soured. I wasn’t the only one sensing the mood.
Promoting the undeniable greatness of the RCA period was pure myth-building; it put the focus on the years of innovation just as he returned to a pure rock band format, recalling, at least in theory, the Ziggy years. It was the beginning of an ongoing project to manipulate how we remember history – and that’s not intended as an insult - Bowie deserves all his accolades. The guy is a genius, on many levels – including manipulation of his history.
Tin Machine was taking him back to his rock and roll roots; but EMI wanted Let’s Dance part 2, even though it clearly wasn’t of interest to Bowie. EMI seemed to be feigning their enthusiasm for Tin Machine, in my view, anyway. If we elevated the high points of Bowie’s career, maybe the rising tide would lift Tin Machine – and Tin Machine was referential to the lowdown rock stuff that had made Bowie great.
My goal was to curate an extremely listenable box that sampled roughly equally from each album, showing that there was more to Bowie than the better-known; that there was progression, innovation and delightful surprises to be had from any of his records – even the ones that had been ignored – even the live albums.
And we really wanted it to be cutting edge; worthy of Bowie - both in terms of presentation and content – hence the directive from President Don Rose to spare not expense. That’s how we got the custom plastic silkscreened lid, the comprehensive essay from Kurt Loder in a full-color squarebound booklet and the CDV with not only the cutting-edge “Ashes To Ashes” music video, but extra live tracks (still not re-released – why?).
All of these components not only made the box better, but they made it more difficult and costly to manufacture, which drove up the price. CDs at this point were retailing for about $15 each, so even with the extras, we were pushing the envelope by charging $60 for a 3 CD set. But pricing wasn’t our concern – making a beautiful object that represented its stunning subject was the whole point.
And it all started with the tracklist. When I listen to it today, I still think it holds up.
In the next post I’ll explain the rationale for every track choice on the S+V box, including the programming of individual discs.
We wanted the box to have a compelling track list, a beautiful presentation, and state of the art sound.
This post will deal with the audio component, which you’d think would be minimally subjective. Dream on – nothing with Bowie is ever as simple as it seems.
First, let me assure you I listened to ALL of the original un-eq’d two-track master tapes of the Bowie albums Ryko released. Without reservation I again assure you, with the technology available at the time, we got the most true reproductions of those tapes as we could.
This is especially true in the mid-90’s when we mastered them again using newly developed 20-bit technology for the gold AU20 issues. In other words, we tried very hard to give you the same listening experience Bowie, his producers and engineers had listening to playback in the studio.
I’m sure there are some readers who have convinced themselves the RCA CDs are the best sounding Bowie CDs. Whatever works for you, but remember this is pure opinion. Recently I was sent a link to a website purportedly featuring an interview with an engineer in Europe who acknowledges that RCA in the USA sent European mastering engineers Umatic Digital Cassette Masters as sources.
These are the tapes I mentioned seeing in the New Jersey vault, labeled as cassette masters, and referred to as CD sources in the catalog of materials I got from Isolar. These are the sources that both RCA and Isolar insisted were used as the CD masters.
The engineer goes on to say they sourced other tapes from the UK for their masters, and that these were better sources. But at the same time the engineer states that all of the Bowie materials had to be sourced from the US as Bowie was signed through the US office.
But, if so, wouldn’t RCA have all the masters in the US? And why request tapes from the US, but then reach out to the UK (possibly because RCA was a mess, as anyone who has heard the Record Cemetary of America joke, will attest)?
At least, the masters for albums recorded in the States wouldn’t have migrated to the UK if everything was supposed to be kept in the US, but even if some tapes had lingered at Olympic, etc, they wouldn’t have logically gotten Station To Station un-EQ’ed 2-track masters from the UK.
It’s quite likely this finally explains why there are different masters for the RCA CDs in different territories. It sounds these RCA engineers went off the reservation in an effort to do the best job they could.
That said, everything they would’ve had access to was almost 100% certainly collected in the New Jersey vault in 1989 – with the slight possibility a few things might have been moved to DB’s private vault, where he no doubt has recordings no one has seen or heard since.
There are sites where sound quality is debated incessantly and matters of opinion are stated as fact with frightening regularity (and a beyond-startling level of surety).
Here’s a post I wrote on one such audiophile site specifically about Hunky Dory, but it applies to all the Ryko titles:
“As I'm sure has been discussed on these forums ad nauseum, your preference for a remaster is probably decided by a few factors; I think the one that most people are in denial about is how you got used to hearing the source material prior to remastering - in other words, what version did you play to death?
Memory is so much more important than we give it credit for. That original sound can be influenced by factors like the format you heard it on first, what system you heard it through, which master it was sourced from originally (the RCA Bowie albums were re-re-re-mastered just on vinyl many times, never mind cassettes, CDs, 8-tracks, minidiscs, DATs, SACD, etc etc).
It certainly goes without saying (but I'll say it anyway), choices made by engineers in 1972 are going to be different than choices made in 1990, or even five/six years later.
When Toby Mountain at his Northeastern Digital lab remastered some of the Bowie titles using 20 bit for the AU20 Gold series in the mid-90's the technology and understanding of digital remastering had evolved, and Toby felt the sonic improvements were significant for most of those titles.
I can assure you the Ryko Bowie CDs were 99.9% remastered from the original un-eq'd two track analog tapes. I hesitate to say 100% because I think some later (previously unreleased) bonus tracks came to us on DAT, and the tracks on the S&V box from Ziggy: MoPi may have as well. When we released the whole album later, it was from analog unmastered 2 tracks.
That pure un-eq'd starting point alone will have a drastic affect on how you perceive the recording if you've been listening to EQ'd versions for years. The only way you'll ever know how true they are to the original mixing and studio engineering choices is if you get to hear the original two-tracks or even the multi-tracks. Good luck!
I heard the un-EQ'd Sgt Pepper master once and while wasted on me (I'm not the biggest Beatle-phile) it was still a revelation.
Be assured, I have no horse in the RCA vs Ryko Vs EMI "which sounds better" race, financial, egotistical or otherwise; whatever master you like best is purely down to your own personal preference. I love that people care so much about these records that they are still debating the merits of work we did 25+ years ago. That said, please don't let stressing about these tweaks get in the way of enjoying the music!
FWIW, when it comes to Hunky Dory, I think (and I know many people who worked at EMI/Virgin when they reissued the Bowies without bonus tracks in 1999 who agree) that the AU20 Gold remaster is the best sounding CD version. Of course, your mileage may vary, but I feel like we got all we could out of the master tapes and a LOT of effort was put into that job.
Some later pressings of the vanilla Hunky Rykodisc CD MAY utilize that master, but I'm not 100% sure. We absolutely switched out the 1990 Changes master to the AU20 version, partially to get "Fame '90" off and the hit version of "Fame" on. Not sure if anyone has ever tested them to see if later silver Ryko Hunky CDs utilize the AU20, but this post may start a new easter egg hunt.
Not that this should have any impact on your preference, but I know Bowie himself listened to and approved our original remasters - and he liked them a lot. So much so, that after the deal expired his office would call and ask if we had any copies left, as he preferred ours to the EMI issues. They sounded compressed and a bit screechy to me. It's a shame EMI has yet to revisit Hunky Dory as a deluxe edition as they have some of the other Bowie titles; I'd like to hear what they come up with as it's nearly 20 years of technological development since the AU20 master was done and the album is one of my favorites.”
(please note the above was written without having heard the Five Years box set version of “Hunky” – anyone have any thoughts on that master versus the AU20?).
No-one was expecting this, right? That's not exactly true; right when this came out two very nice catalog reissue websites each offered to post it when I finished it. Unfortunately, I was nearly done when I had to abandon the review.
Well, as the title says, it was 311 days ago when "Nothing Has Changed" was released. The sites passed when I finally finished it, and I can hardly blame them. I think the extra time helped the thoughts I was having then crystalized over time, so that's a bonus.
On the other hand, this may be the thing that stops readers from reading the site, so if I alienate any of you, my apologies in advance. I am nothing if not honest and opinionated.
There's something cosmic (or at least astrological) in publishing a review of a 3-disc Bowie comp that runs backwards chronologically almost a year late and exactly 26 years to the day Sound + Vision was originally released - a 3 disc set that is programmed forward.
Before I wade in, three things; 1) I have some Bowie fatigue (I know this seems impossible to many of you, but when it comes to RCA-era tracks I heard them SO many times working on the Rykodisc releases that I did burn out on them, if only temporarily) 2) after not spending much time with it, I eagerly looked forward to reassessing his post-“Let’s Dance” oeuvre in the context of this compilation, and finally 3) as you may know already if you read this site, I am aggravated when people gripe how “Sound + Vision” box (or at least the iteration I put together) is not the greatest hits they expected, or something entirely different than Bowie & I intended – and I’m more than happy to explain on this site - in potentially agonizing detail, I’m afraid – how we got to that track list and why.
But here’s a set that is clearly stated as “The Very Best Of David Bowie” yet is packed with odds & ends edits and mixes of songs we may know better in other versions. This seems like the very definition of a contradiction. A “Best Of” should glorify or at least illuminate its subject. Are we to believe the unedited and un-remixed versions of these tracks are LESS than the BEST? I am open to accepting tracks can be improved by post-origination tampering, but only a few here meet that criteria.
I suppose the alternate versions that are the majority rather than the minority here are great for Bowie trainspotters who’ve been asking for CD releases of these edits for years (HAVE THEY REALLY?!!?). Because of these “rarities” the set services the rabid fanbase, but not necessarily the songs; these versions do allow obsessive completists to check them off lists, and who else is left buying physical product these days anyway?
But this called “The Very Best Of David Bowie” so one assumes the compiler has grander goals than stacking a bunch of versions in one place. On the other hand, calling anything “The Very Best Of David Bowie” sets both a large expectation and an impossible goal. Bowie has meant so much to so many that any fixed “Best Of” track listing is a deliberate baiting of his fans at worst, or a flame-thread-starter at worst.
You’ll notice that none of the Ryko releases were titled “Best Of” – we did three comps, the “Sound + Vision” box, “Changesbowie” and “The Singles” – the last under pressure. We also rejected compilation ideas from Bowie’s camp; I’ll talk more about that later.
So what is the intent behind this set? Is it really a “Very Best”? I have a theory (and it is only a theory).
I’m reviewing the 3 disc version - it seemed best to go big when assessing a huge body of work. The two and one disc versions are far less interesting and all feature material culled from the 3 disc version, with no additional tracks. Surely distilling fifty years of music to a measly three CDs would yield nothing but classics? If only.
Like Prince, Bowie’s peaks were so fabulous and exciting (and OF THEIR MOMENTS) that he maintains a loyal fan base even after the new work has been spotty. Yet he’s so important and talented, we come back time and again, sifting through the latest work for the gems.
It doesn’t hurt that Bowie’s a fascinating, intelligent, constantly evolving (and now reclusive) artist who knows how to manipulate and excite the media and his fans. As the press for with “The Last Day” proved, critics are ready to rant and rave over any new work with even the slightest hint of the artist at his peak, colored as it may be by rose-colored hope when the dame grants us a new opportunity to consume his product.
One hopes that this was assembled with an eye to celebrate Bowie’s FIFTY years of recording, but, as frequently seems the case these days, it may be just another repackaging designed to feed the bond he famously floated, which may have taken a hit in recent years due to the faltering music business.
Yes, that sounds extremely cynical, but the proof is in the ones and zeroes. It’s difficult to argue that in the larger sense Bowie’s best songwriting days aren’t behind him. Furthermore, his voice (or is it his delivery?) has dropped to a reedy echo of it’s former self – an often basso mumble/whispers that rarely captures the spark of crackling energy that informed his limited, but expressive, range of old.
This is precisely why it’s admirably daring to release a compilation that works chronologically backward (the two disc version is chronological and the single ping-pongs all over the place). It’s as if Bowie is defying us to undermine his newer work by putting it right up front. I think this risks rattling newer fans, too – there are plenty of kids into Bowie, but few, if any, are rating “Hours” or “Heathen” as their favorite Bowie album, so to start with later tracks is ballsy as fuck.
With the art of the compilation almost completely undermined by the ease with which anyone can create their own playlist, I listen to “Nothing Has Changed” searching for the point it’s compiler intended to make, what they hoped to illuminate about the artist through this selection and sequence.
A wise man once noted that how you navigate through something is intrinsic to your understanding of it – for instance, if you watch the infamous 1991 video of the Rodney King beating backwards it looks like the cops are helping King onto his feet and sending him on his way. This kind of perverse time-bending seems like something Bowie would enjoy tinkering with.
The set leads off with “Sue (Or In A Season Of Crime)” a brand new track with Bowie working his Anthony Newley roots, melding jazzy 60’s brass flourishes to drum & bass rhythms. The 60’s retro noir vibe is driven home in the track’s video, and perhaps that’s the pojnt - opening the set with this track is an attempt to tie together the earliest material here with Bowie’s present.
As the only truly new music here, it’s a worm on the hook for fans who already have the rest of this stuff in myriad formats.
As a song, it’s dubious, more of the meandering chorusless stuff that I find too frequently infests Bowie’s recent work; safe from a critical standpoint in that it defies conventional assessment, but at 7 minutes, it’s long outworn its welcome in my house at the halfway mark (there is a shorter radio edit which will no doubt appear on a future compilation under the pretense of being a “rarity”).
By contrast “Where Are We Now” the lead track from 2013’s “The Next Day” plays to David’s strengths of the last 20 years. Haunting, simple, impeccably arranged and sung in a voice that perfectly suits the subject matter, it made me over-ly optimistic about the album it preceded.
“Love Is Lost”, which, in its original incarnation, sounds like a “Tonight” outtake, is represented here with the much-improved James Murphy / DFA remix, an excellent choice, although here we get the first of many self-references to earlier (arguably better) material, with a sample from “Ashes To Ashes”. This “early years” theme recurs in many of the later tracks, which again, raises questions about motive – is Bowie trying to re-frame his history again?
The last track from Next Day is the album’s “rocker” (if this is a rocker, “Blue Jean” is “Blitzkrieg Bop”), “The Stars (Are Out Tonight)” which, by contrast to an actual “rocking” Bowie track, serves to illustrate through it’s turgid “doo-doo-doo-do” backing vocal that restraint is a constant in any contemporary Bowie recording, not always to the benefit of the finished product.
“Reality”, despite the buzz around its release is just another too-uptight Bowie album and the tracks here don’t come to its defense, although these are all edits, so be thankful for merciful brevity. I would’ve included his cover of Sigue Sigue Sputnik’s “Love Missile F-1 11” from that period.
Interestingly a spirited re-recording of one of his early tracks “Let Me Sleep Beside You” shows signs of life but is let down by his vocal. “Shadow Man” another outtake from his early days, captured here in a re-record from 2000’s lost “Toy” album loses the energy of the original and falls apart in a halting version. Best left alone. On the plus side, “Your Turn To Drive” epitomizes the kind of material best-suited for Bowie these days. Its lackadaisical pacing and dreamy subtext works great with his voice and, despite meandering for so long it overstays its welcome, is the best of the “Toy” material.
Then Maurice De Vries shows up and all of a sudden, this listener perks up! His “Seven” remix is quite good, and leaves me wondering if the mixer excavated some of the magic from the track’s far superior demo version (from the “Hours” Collector’s Edition). In my view “Hours” was the last record that benefitted from Bowie’s full range of vocal quirks, and this track in particular, is better for it. “Survive” gains some much needed gravitas from the same mixer.
These are all co-writes with Tin Machine conspirator Reeves Gabrels, who I never felt added much of value to the Bowie Ouevre outside of “Earthling”, which seems to have had its own momentum and probably would’ve been as good without Mr Gabrels on board. I have never understood the appeal of the snoozy “Thursdays Child”, but it was a top 20 hit in the UK, so I suppose it earned a place here.
Considering that “Earthling” is widely acclaimed as Bowie’s best album of the 90’s, it’s a bit of a surprise that only the two most obvious tracks are found here, both edits. From the adventurous “Outside” (I have SOOOOO many stories about this record) we get the widely available PSB remix which features Neil Tennant singing lines from “Space Oddity” over the track, reinforcing the underlying theme of referencing earlier days. This is also the “easy to digest” track from the otherwise challenging album.
Disc Two is the mixed bag you’d expect it to be, covering the years 1993-1976 – in other words, nearly 15 years of output – and out of 20 tracks only 8 of them are post-1984, leaving12 from the “Station To Station” through “Tonight” period of 8 years.
Interestingly, no “Tin Machine” here – and a jolt of “Under The God” would be most appreciated as we wade into what I consider a very dull patch.
Plenty of non-lp tracks abound, but these can hardly be considered rarities (“Under Pressure”, “Dancing in The Streets”, “This Is Not America”, “Absolute Beginners”, etc.). I’ve never felt much love for “Black Tie, White Noise” or “Never Let Me Down”, both of which feel largely like failed attempts to keep the MTV-era “normal” Bowie train going. I’m clearly not alone in my dislike for these albums, each is represented by a sole track, alternate versions of singles.
Listenability is the buzzword for the next handful of unremarkable (for Bowie) but foot-tapping tracks taking us into the “Let’s Dance” explosion of hits and mega-mega stardom. I’d have liked to have the live version of “Modern Love”, which is hands-down my favorite song from what I consider to be a solid but overrated album.
The “Scary Monsters” stuff is beyond reproach, and after a gazillion listens, if “Under Pressure” doesn’t make the hairs on the back of your neck stand up and salute, you are officially deceased. It should be on every Bowie and Queen compilation and probably every compilation ever.
It’s hard to argue with “Golden Years” and “Sound + Vision” (for reasons similar to “Under Pressure”), but the other choices from the four albums Bowie made between 1976 and 1979 are fine but uninspired, especially “Wild Is The Wind”, a track that always felt out of place in the Bowie catalog, appearing here in a 2010 remix that, while fine, ads little to the original. Why not “Helden” or the full version of “Heroes” for instance? The Berlin records feel under-served.
Disc Three; mostly the classics, albeit in edited or “single version” form. although “Young Americans” and “Life On Mars?” are remixes from the last ten years or so. I have to ask, as in the case of “Young Americans”, how do you do a remix of a single edit, which was a cut version of a stereo mix anyway. Furthermore, is bringing the bongos (or maybe it’s the toms) up that high really necessary?
There’s just no arguing with these songs, and while it’s painfully obvious to say that, I sure wish some of the spontaneity of Bowie’s “bow-wow”-ing, “woof-woof”-ing and howling on “Diamond Dogs” would find its way into his current work, which feels overwrought and overthought by comparison. Making an album a year seems like a good idea (says the guy who can barely update his own website monthly).
But I digress.
Hurtling past obvious Ziggy-era material, 1969 and “Space Oddity”, there are five early tracks that serve as little more than historical oddities – from a period when a young, ambitious Bowie was flailing around chasing trends instead of creating them.
“In The Heat Of The Morning” speaks to “Sue”, in that it’s too long, somewhat aimless and tuneless and has a very annoying organ part that is a Neanderthal cousin to “Sue’s” horn parts. “Silly Boy Blue” is pseudo-psychedelia worthy of the Monkees lesser efforts. “Can’t Help Thinking About Me” is watered down Who, but as such, stands on it’s own two legs and is one of the more fully-formed songs here. “You’ve Got A Habit Of Leaving” and “Liza Jane” are both typical throwaway early Brit takes on American R&B forms, - much like the Stones early material, but without the raw edge and genius of Brian Jones and Mick Jagger.
This is pedestrian work from someone we expect so much from, but early work rarely is fully-formed. Every lesson learned by 60’s Bowie added up to 70’s Bowie and beyond. In that respect, even though Bowie certainly knows these are lesser works, it’s quite bold to include and illuminate them - songs which have never found their way on any Bowie-approved comp alongside his better-known material.
And this is quite possibly the point of the set in the first place; the life of an artist itself; artists start out on shaky legs, attempting to emulate their heroes and naively share their own early life experiences. But if they stick with it, they ultimately create unique, and, if they’re lucky, mind-bending work that overturns new soil and plants seeds that will echo for generations to come? And inevitably the true artist grows older, wearier, maybe less energetic but still seeking, thinking, exploring, and most importantly, creating.
Putting compilations together properly is all about having a viewpoint and making choices that illustrate your position.
Consider this choice; if you could own only one Bowie record (single or album, no cheating with compilations!), which would you choose?
I wouldn’t trade any post “Scary Monsters” Bowie album for the single of “Jean Genie” or a multitude of other classics that crackle with propulsive energy, spontaneously colliding ideas and just plain fun that is often missing in Bowie’s later work.
On the other hand, it speaks volumes that I’d have to think about “Where Are We Now” in exchange for any single song from 40 years ago. Older, sure. Wiser?, Better? Worse? – the answers to these questions are just opinions.
On one hand, almost all of these tracks were out in the world already, so what does it matter if they are collected here?
On the other, this is a lifetime of work, a sprawling, chaotic, hard to boil down puzzle, an uncontrollable collision of ideas, events, places and people; an encapsulation of work but also a representation of an artist’s life.
I am only theorizing about the point of this thing. I don’t buy it as the very best of David Bowie, and I doubt anyone does. Maybe it’s no more than a bond-server, or perhaps it’s got a grander scope, an epic concept in Bowie’s mind that no-one will grasp till years after he’s gone. Or maybe someone threw a tracklist in front of him and he rubber-stamped it.
Who knows? The mystery just makes it more fun to speculate.
26 years ago today, the original David Bowie Sound & Vision box was released.
A year ago, almost to the day of the 25th Anniversary, Rhino Records pooped out an even more squished down version of the expanded version EMI released in 2003 with little fanfare (a year later, Amazon doesn't even sell it themselves, preferring to let 3rd party suppliers handle it).
Around the same time in 2014, I intended to launch my website, but of course it took me over a month longer to launch the site, and I'm egregiously behind in updating it (more on this later).
Today Rhino is releasing another box set, a $100+ 12 disc set (but already quickly falling) of what they mistakenly call "all of the material officially released" in the the period between Space Oddity through Pin-Ups, the vast majority of which you already own, and only the first three albums and "Pin-Ups" are remastered - which are all available individually.
There are no bonus tracks appended to the albums, instead Five Years comes with Re:Call 1 an exclusive two disc compilation of non-album singles, single versions and B-sides. All of this stuff was on the Rykodisc remasters except Re:Call 1 does include a previously unreleased SINGLE EDIT of All The Madmen (ooooh missus!), and the original single version of Holy Holy, which we asked for, but Bowie didn't let us include. And of course they missed stuff, too.
In honor of all these "events" I will be updating the site with three (loooong - and long overdue) Bowie posts this weekend, starting tonight.
Thanks for your patience & welcome back. I will have another post within a week – promise!
Here I want to finish up the cataloging process and in the next post I’ll get into the track selection choices for the box, and what Bowie and Ryko determined the purpose of the box to be, not what a handful of maroons have decided it is.
It’s the spring of 1989 and I’ve been pouring through the Bowie vault, cataloging everything. It became clearly unrealistic to think EVERY single item in the vault could (or even SHOULD) be cataloged.
For instance, there were numerous envelopes filled with re-re-reprints of RCA Promo Photos. Once I’d catalogued one print of a particular photo, I would put all the other copies in a file and list it as just “photos” or “multiple prints of such & such photo”. This saved a ton of time and kept me (relatively) sane.
There were hundreds of tapes in what seemed like just as many formats. There were two track ¼” tapes, 2” 16 track session recordings, large digital tapes that looked like giant betamax cassettes, cassettes, and more. They were in 12” reels, 7” reels, 5” reels, and augmented with 16mm tapes, VHS tapes and giant reels of video.
After I had catalogued each item, it was sent out to Dr Toby Mountain at Northeast Digital, who (along with his staff, including assistant and future mastering lab owner, Jonathan Winer) would transfer EVERYTHING from analog to digital. In this case, DAT –a relatively new, and now completely irrelevant, format. Because there were often multiple copies of tapes of each album, Toby and his team were taking copious notes as they ran the flat transfers. When one tape of Space Oddity sounded particularly good (or bad), they’d note this for future reference. If they found something that was particularly interesting or mis-labeled, that was annotated as well.
With rare exception, the tapes were labeled, but we had no idea if anyone had actually made sure the tape inside the box matched the description on the outside. So while I was cataloging, I started to get DATs back of every single scrap of recordings. There were a few moments of false hope, like when we found an album master labeled “The Metrobolist” - which we hoped was a lost album, but instead it was “The Man Who Sold The World” before it had the name we know it by today.
Some tapes were in very rough shape. The 2 inch 16-track unmixed masters for the “1980 Floor Show” were falling apart in our hands. Recording tape in the 70’s was a thin piece of plastic coated in ferric oxide, which electronically transcribed recordings with a very high level of fidelity. But, if improperly stored, the fragile tapes start to break down. The oxide loses hold of the plastic and starts to “shred”. It was terrifying to open a box and see little bits of dark tape fall out.
There are sometimes ways to rescue these tapes. At the time, one of newest developments was baking the tapes. This is pretty much exactly what it sounds like. You have to very carefully put the failing tapes into an oven, and hope the shredding oxide cooks itself back onto the plastic. It sometimes works with great results. Other times, the materials are just too far gone and can’t be saved. Such was the case with “1980 Floor Show”.
We made every effort to breathe life back into the 16 track masters for those, but they were lost. I seem to recall hearing that NBC had held them for years and were only released back to Bowie in the 80’s. It’s quite possible there are decent two track masters for the recording somewhere, but I have to assume the final mixdowns were mono, as stereo TV was not a thing at that point.
Anyway, surprises and more surprises turned up as the DATs arrived from Northeastern Digital. Toby’s crew was working quickly, doing flat transfers onto DAT from all the two tracks. For the multitracks they did quick mixes on the fly, some of which ended up being used, even when there were second attempts to mix them with more care – the earlier roughs just sounded better. They would send me a blue folder with a DAT in one packet and bound in copies of the covers of each tape box. And then I’d listen, making notes and comparing them with Toby’s.
It’s important to recall that Bowie and Tony DeFries had yet to fully break at this point. They were still sharing ownership (or at least participation in the profits) of all the records from Space Oddity to Station To Station. This changed after Bowie did his bond deal in the 90’s, at which point Bowie used the funds to buy DeFries out and was finally extricated from Tony and MainMan.
In 1989, the relationship was still quite frosty and I’d bet neither had spoken to the other since the 70’s except through intermediaries. One thing no one in the public realized was that the vault we got was (essentially) Bowie & DeFries’ “joint vault” of all the records up to Station To Station but from that album on, all that was in the vault was the two-track masters of the material David had commercially released. There were no multi-tracks of Station To Station and beyond sessions, and virtually no extra tracks for any of those records. “David Live” was the last record in the vault that was represented with multi-tracks.
I believe Bowie was extricating himself from DeFries (for the first time) during the recording of Station To Station, so it’s likely any extra tracks (if they existed) were squirreled away from the Joint Vault, probably so DeFries wouldn’t place a claim on them. That may seem crazy, but there were good reasons for this, although I wouldn’t find out why until later. In the process of finding out, I probably cost David a bunch of money and nearly derailed the whole “bonus tracks” situation.
It’s also possible Bowie didn’t record a lot of extra material once he was in control of his own destiny. From what I’ve seen & read, Bowie’s initial success funded not only some very good artists but also a non-stop party, all under Tony’s Mainman banner.
Probably feeling his finances were being looked after, Bowie may have had a serious re-think about his spending once the expensive Diamond Dogs tour ended and the cracks in his relationship with DeFries started to show.
There were recordings missing from the early years, too, but in general I found much of what I was looking for in the vault. David gladly supplied some wonderful surprises, including the “Space Oddity” demo that starts off the box set – but he wouldn’t let us use any of the rest of that tape, which was similar in nature to the minimal take of Space Oddity, had nine (?) songs, and ran about an hour long. The tape has circulated as a bootleg called “The Beckenham Oddity” for many years (going back at least to 1987) although the quality wasn’t as good.
While I was worried about the missing later rarities, I couldn’t focus on that problem at that moment - I had a box to produce. Ryko wanted it out for the holiday season of 1989 to start recouping the advance, the biggest they’d ever paid. So I had to get a three CD track list together, come up with a stunning, revolutionary package, appease David Bowie and my bosses, but especially the fans – and I only had about a month to do it.
Thanks for your e-mails with kind words and questions. I try hard to respond to them personally as time allows.
Apologies for not updating the site more frequently (I know, every site says this). I promise updates will appear with more frequency (I know, every site says that, too).
Every time you repost from my Supermegabot facebook page or share a link to my site on your page or social media, it is much appreciated.
In the previous posts (I hope) I’ve adequately (over-)explained the chase for the catalog and thought process behind Bowie & Ryko’s plans for the (as yet to be named) Sound + Vision campaign. If there’s something you’re still curious about from that period that ISN’T answered yet, go ahead and e-mail me from the form found here.
On to the real work!
As soon as the deal was signed, we worked with Bowie’s management to formalize how to proceed.
1) We agreed to work with Bowie’s package designer, Roger Gorman at Reiner Design (he was a fantastic ally and did great work for us)
2) How to get our hands on all the raw vault materials (audio tapes, photos, videos, 16mm films)
3) As we put together our release and marketing proposals, we’d forward them to my primary contact in David’s Isolar office in NYC, Alicia Miles, who would then forward them to David for sign-off.
I flew from Minneapolis into Newark and met Alicia at the vault in New Jersey. When you think of a vault holding such precious materials (despite it being in New Jersey) what comes to mind is a high-tech, climate-controlled facility under very secure guard.
This was NOT the case. The “vault” was a storage facility – it did not specialize in temperature sensitive audio materials, but what appeared to be tons of pre-server legal paperwork, etc. Many New York based labels stored their master tapes there due to its proximity to the city and it’s many mastering houses and studios.
Visually, the business appeared to be a converted prison (if you've seen those episodes of “Walking Dead” you’re getting the idea).
As I remember it, there was a low wall around the entire complex. Inside were low single story (?), concrete, pre-cinder-block construction, sloppily whitewashed buildings, all of which had wide-open loading docks where workers scurried around hauling bankers boxes of who-knows-what on handcarts to waiting trucks.
To make our pitch more seductive to Bowie, we agreed to hire a bonded “white-glove” antiques moving company to transport the materials. These guys added a touch of class to the proceedings, but based on where the tapes had been all those years, I doubt Isolar’d have cared if we hired some homeless guys to load up a U-Haul, and they probably wouldn't have batted an eye if we'd driven away stinking drunk.
A surly worker led us to a cell in one of the buildings. I didn’t see a toilet or a bed, but otherwise it was what exactly you’d imagine a jail cell was – big metal bars with a swinging, locking metal door. It was late spring and the concrete walls were sweaty with cooling moisture. Audiotapes and abandoned boxes were all over the place.
The workers (I’m guessing union members?) had to load the materials and hand-truck them to our art guys at the loading dock – we couldn’t touch or open anything inside the building. I could’ve looked at anything once it reached the art truck. I was bursting with anticipation, but as time was tight and the guys loading weren’t exactly hustlers, I refrained, knowing I’d be handling everything the next day.
It was incredible to watch the prison staff kick or ram objects out of their way as they wheeled Bowie’s legacy through the halls. I distinctly recall the multitracks for Jethro Tull’s Aqualung being knocked across the floor about ten feet, spooling out along the way. No one did anything, so I ran over, spooled it back up and put it out of harm’s way. And I hate Jethro Tull (although I once had a very wonderful conversation with Ian Anderson, charming fellow).
e picked the vault clean and left behind nothing for Isolar except what you see on the following page:
Isolar wanted to make sure they at least had one copy of each of the Bowie albums. The digital tapes at the top of the page were the RCA CD masters. In the course of my research, I discovered these had been sourced from analog tapes previously EQ’d as cassette manufacturing masters. So much for the asinine theory that all early CDs were flat-transferred from the original unmastered stereo mixes.
We had copies of the analog tapes towards the bottom of the list, except for Rare. I sweet-talked Alicia into letting me those tapes as they were the only sources I could see for some of the stuff we needed.
In hindsight I’d guess RCA had been paying for this storage; with Ryko taking possession we were also picking up the tab for Bowie’s tape storage, a cost he’d otherwise have had to pay. Off his books and onto ours. Clever guy.
One of the other “classy” perks we’d promised Bowie was to put the materials in a state of the art facility. We chose a company called Safesite, who had a facility in Massachusetts near Ryko’s headquarters in Salem, MA. I will have to dig out the actual address but it was in an unassuming industrial park in a typical suburban town Northwest of Boston. Pretty sure it was somewhere in the rte. 93 / rte. 3 axis (Billerica? Tewksbury?), but it was in the middle of nowhere, that’s for sure.
After our bonded art guys loaded up the truck, we bid farewell and I flew to Boston. My family was still based in New England, so I probably got a rental car and drove to my Dad’s house on the South Shore.
The next day I set out early to Safesite to handle the ingestion of the materials. Isolar had a numbering system I quickly recognized as flawed (multiple uses of the same number for the different items, etc.). This is no dig at them; I’m sure many people had been part of the cataloging process and the more fingerprints on a database, the likelier there are to be errors.
Safesite also offered to do our cataloging, but they were a document storage company, and I wasn’t confident they had the familiarity with this type of material or the motivation to catalog with the level of detail I wanted even if they did.
So before I’d left for New Jersey, Ryko bought me the first laptop the company owned. Randy Hope, Ryko’s retail guy and computer expert, took me to an electronics store by Lake Calhoun where we blew $2500 on the blockiest laptop I’ve ever seen. The design was pretty thin, but it had a built in handle to be carried like a suitcase and was heavy enough to be swung as a deadly weapon. I once slipped on ice in back steps of my Minneapolis apartment, and it flew away, bouncing down the frozen stone stairs. Although its sturdy exterior had a small crack, the primitive beast functioned without skipping a beat.
I arrived at Safesite with the latest version of dbase and a mission: catalog every scrap in the vault.
Safesite, despite an unassuming office exterior, was everything RCA’s vault had not been. The helpful staff set me up at a large table in the middle of one of these rooms. It was dark and shelves of files surrounded me. It was cold, but sterile with smooth concrete floors. The ceiling was equipped with a Halon (or Bromotrifluoromethane) gas system that would act like a fire sprinkler system. If fire was detected in any area of the building, the doors would seal within seconds and the gas would be released, sucking all the oxygen out of the room and extinguishing the flame. As I understand it, if an event had occurred and I’d been unable to get to the door in time, I would suffocate when the gas was released.
In all the weeks I was cataloging, I rarely saw another person in the room. I couldn’t listen to music, my brick sized cell phone had no apps, and there was nowhere to go for temporary amusement / distraction (in the Minneapolis office, we had a KISS pinball machine around which we frequently commiserated, made important business decisions, and took necessary breaks to blow off steam). As soon as Safesite cataloged a Bowie item into their system, it was sent up to my desk, where I examined and catalogued it again, using our own system. At first this was exciting, but after cataloging the umpteenth cassette master of David Live for the Philippine market, it started to feel like the relentless, heads-down, grind it out work it was.
Not to say there weren’t exciting moments of discovery peppered throughout the tedium. Remember, I had a target list of unreleased material we were hoping to find. It was great to finally locate a tape with one of them, but even better when I stumbled across something that hadn’t reached the bootleggers or better yet, even been heard of by the fans.
Okay, I know I left off the last chapter as we were heading to the Vault, but before I get to that there’s more to clarify. Sorry if you were hoping for more vault detail, but it’s coming, I promise.
By the time David signed the Ryko deal, we’d chased him for the better part of a year; and what a year it was. Since late 1984 I’d been working for Rob Simonds, one of the Ryko partners. He’d gotten me out of the tedium of Hartford Connecticut and into Minneapolis where we opened a loose chain of CD-only stores; two in the Twin Cities, another in San Francisco and another in Boston (this one was co-owned by Ryko President Don Rose). I’d worked at Rob’s distribution company, EastSide once the stores got rolling, where I am proud to say that, thanks to my buying savvy, we were the only account in the entire United States to never return a copy of the Bruce Springsteen Live Box Set – although one copy sat in our warehouse for over a year (opened!) before some poor sap bought it. On the other hand, I drastically under-ordered U2’s Unforgettable Fire, so it wasn’t all home runs.
In 1987, Simonds decided to start another CD-only label (ESD) to release smaller titles and I ran that for a while. We put out a bunch of great stuff (Residents, They Might Be Giants, Bruce Cockburn, a lot of Bomp! Records titles) and the label was profitable. The same year, Ryko hired me as a consultant. Don and Rob had frequently asked my opinion on the potential titles Ryko was considdering (I sold them on a Mission of Burma CD, you’re welcome!) and they were kind enough to formalize the relationship by paying me for my opinion.
That summer, we got word the Bowie RCA catalog was available and the parties started to feel each other out. Could Ryko swing that kind of advance? Would Bowie buy into our vision of the re-releases? Did he even know who the hell we were? By fall there was some real hope we were in the running and in January of 1988, I started at Ryko full-time. My first assignment was to write a proposal for the Bowie catalog, which was completed and delivered in less than a month.
Amazingly, I still have a copy of the finished proposal, a surprisingly simple, unassuming document. Mine is marked up with additional notes, some of which I need to decipher.
A quick side-note: In the course of researching a Bowie-related lawsuit years ago, I came across a copy of the original contract in my archives, hand-signed by Bowie. Ryko sometimes copied relevant departments on contracts, mostly so the heads of those departments could refer to them for deal parameters without having to consult with the Business Affairs team. This was helpful in budgeting, licensing, permissions, etc. I vaguely recall getting it at the time. I’m sure someone meant to send a photocopy, but instead I had an original – and I’m glad I do.
The proposal (optimistically) shows a very different campaign than the one that actually ensued. We had the first release, “a 3 CD, 5 LP retrospective set comparable to Bob Dylan’s Biograph” pegged for September 1988, followed by a CDV/CD single of “Little Drummer Boy / Peace On Earth” in December for the holidays. In 1989, a new album with bonus tracks and an accompanying CD single and CDV for each album, all sold separately, and each with unique content.
This presented some issues; there wasn’t an obvious video component for each album and honestly, it seemed greedy to force fans to buy three products for each release if they wanted to get all the material. It ran contrary to the philosophy of not exploiting the fanbase with unnecessary product, a philosophy we’d sold to Bowie by eliminating the extraneous compilations. This was by far the biggest deal Ryko had ever contemplated entering into, so perhaps those extra items may have been a fiscal safety net in order to maximize the catalog (and recoup a historically large advance). No doubt some fans would’ve loved little CD replicas of their 7” Bowie singles. On the other hand, with the CDV format abandoned by the end of the decade, those little guys might’ve generated some ill will – although many of the CDVs that were released are now highly valued collectibles.
Keep in mind we had not seen the Bowie archives at this point. We had no idea if Bowie would approve the release of every track we hoped to utilize, and some of them were only rumored to exist. Other known recordings were owned by third parties – meaning we would have to license BBC sessions or TV appearances, for instance. This isn’t impossible, but is time-consuming and the terms back then were particularly onerous. It’s amazing that any BBC recordings were legitimately released before the year 2000 – and I doubt anyone (barring Queen or the Beatles) who did license from them made anything in the bargain.
Also, the proposed monthly release schedule wasn’t based on any logic other than the calendar; ultimately it made more sense to group the albums together stylistically, but still chronologically. This gave buyers breathing room between titles to allow anticipation to build, and prevented Bowie-fatigue.
The initial proposal unimaginatively combined Changes 1 & 2 into a 2 CD set with other tracks. I recall opposing this idea, and luckily fate intervened, although we eventually released a two CD Best Of. It also bagged the Christianne F. soundtrack completely, along with the previously discussed extraneous RCA comps (Fame & Fashion and Golden Years).
This timeline would’ve been tough to maintain even if Bowie had signed the contract the day he got the proposal. The deal wasn’t signed until Spring of 1989, over a year later.
To be clear, I was not the only architect of this proposal, nor was I involved (except peripherally) in this the legal and financial aspects. My responsibility was the creative side, including the release plan. I began researching the catalog, hunting down tapes, bootlegs, fan publications and any books I could get my hands on.
Pre-internet, research was grinding it out; digging and getting your hands dirty. As a record collector, I had friends at some of the best Record Stores in the States, including the legendary Main Street Records in Northampton, MA and Mod Lang in Berkeley, CA. They helped immeasurably, supplying import books and oddball records. The most helpful Bowie book at that point was Dave Thompson’s excellent 1987 “Moonage Daydream”, which I used until it fell apart. There’s my original dog-eared copy below.
If the subjects of his books are any indication, Mr. Thompson and I share similar musical tastes (glam, early punk, hard rock, flamboyant rock, etc). Because I’m an enthusiastic reader of music books, I own A LOT of his books. As such, it was surprising when Thompson came after me in a Goldmine piece in 1990, calling the Sound + Vision series “the most disappointing reissue campaign ever.”
Keep in mind this was 1990 – there had barely been ANY single artist catalog-wide reissue campaigns at this point, and only the Beach Boys had added tracks or expanded artwork. The Stones had re-released their entire catalog with fanfare when they signed with Columbia / Sony, but nothing special product-wise; other than putting previously released albums on CD, this was hardly an exhaustive campaign.
Thompson’s “Hallo Spaceboy” book seems to back off of and revise his 1990 misgivings, but at the time it was really insulting, and, although it’s likely he didn’t know it at the time, Dave was writing from a place of misinformation and speculation. He actually references my response to the article he wrote bitching about the campaign, but neatly sidesteps the fact that he wrote the offending piece in the first place.
Long before we got the Bowie catalog I’d collected some Bowie vinyl bootlegs, including a few I’d bought used, without cover art. In an effort to keep their origins anonymous, most bootlegs were sold in plain white sleeves with printed inserts trapped under the shrinkwrap. A lot of the info on inserts was dubious if not downright wrong (or even missing), with incorrect song titles, recording locations, etc. This is hardly surprising considering the method by which the material was sourced. Thus, three of my Bowie boots had hand-written track lists on plain white sleeves, all scrawled by the previous owner, and, I assume, copied from the original (now lost) inserts. One of the better ones was a fantastic odds & ends collection of studio and live tracks. This eventually led to a mistake on my part, which Thompson called me on, but I’ll get to that later.
Another bootleg was a cassette of rehearsals for the Serious Moonlight tour in Dallas with Stevie Ray Vaughan on guitar. Coming on the heels of arguably his biggest breakthrough in the US, Bowie was not going to squander the opportunity by going “difficult” as he had after his mid-70’s run of hits, and the Serious Moonlight tour was an opportunity to be the Bowie his new fans wanted and expected. He not only revisited his best-known material, but showed the newbies how many great songs they’d missed on the underpromoted “Berlin” records. To be fair, the live versions were a few years removed from the cold sterility of the German studio and the shadow of minimalist Kraftwerk in which they’d been birthed. They hummed with warmth and, slightly rearranged, came on as the “hits that never were.” The setlist was a well-crafted, highly listenable summation of the more commercial aspects of the previous decade.
Although Vaughan never played a single date, the subsequent tour stuck to that bootleg set list and was all the better for it. I saw the show in Hartford, CT and Bowie proved his point in a happy, upbeat performance, propelled largely by enthusiasm and rarely by gimmicks. The show and that rehearsal tape left lasting impressions.
Anyway, 1988-1989 negotiations went along with moments of high hopes, often quickly shattered. Don Rose & Arthur Mann (Ryko founder and the company’s lawyer) had met Bowie in Zurich for an initial get to know you lunch. I made a few trips to the Isolar offices in New York, where we met with various associates about our plans. Bowie was on board to add extra tracks, and he insisted the CDs be released at full price, not mid-price. This was not an issue for us - we had never imagined it any other way. Honestly, there were few, if any mid-price CDs in those days – at least in the US.
I’m not sure why the negotiations dragged on so long, but at least part of it was Tin Machine activity – although he had yet to inform any of us about the new band, or its forthcoming album. EMI must’ve been aware of Tin Machine at this point, as the album came out in May of 1989.
I assume it would’ve been easier for Bowie if one company handled his catalog worldwide. Most likely EMI would’ve fit the bill perfectly, but it was not to be. An illicitly-obtained EMI US projections list showed they VASTLY underestimated the catalog’s appeal – and had no plans beyond straight reissues. Also, it was rumored Bowie & EMI were on the outs after the post-Let’s Dance sales decline. EMI may have proposed cross-recouping Bowie’s catalog royalties against those from his new albums, which would’ve been a total non-starter for a guy with other options.
For whatever reason, EMI and Bowie could not see eye to eye and the deal successfully closed at Rykodisc. This was the second time EMI’s inability to grasp a catalog’s potential had served us well. In the earlier part of the decade, Zappa was distributed by EMI US. When we approached him about licensing his catalog for CD, he felt obligated to run it by his then-current label partner. They’d told Zappa no one would buy his catalog on CD and subsequently they had zero interest in releasing it. This put the Zappa catalog at Ryko, which led to Hendrix, which led to Bowie, etc, etc.
Rykodisc was a small label, but enough of a heavy hitter in North America to handle the Bowie catalog in that territory (and maybe even in parts of Asia), but while we had good partners in Europe, they were largely distributors, not marketers. They didn’t have the staff or expertise to mount a campaign of this magnitude, so we were not in a position to take on the catalog there. When the Bowie/Ryko contract was finally signed (in Spring of 1989, if I recall correctly), international rights were still up in the air and the first Tin Machine album was just about to drop.
We had to hurry if we were going to get anything out in 1989, which was the plan. Bowie’s people at Isolar had sketchy cataloging of the vault, so we not only had to get our hands on the vault materials asap to see what was in there, we had to catalog all of it in the process.
It’s ironic that I’m writing this on the eve of the release of another, newly programmed, 3CD (or 2, or 1, if you live in Japan) retrospective – especially so quickly on the heels of the re-released “Sound + Vision” box.
“Nothing Has Changed” shares about 20 tracks with “S+V”, but they are mostly different versions – I have to wonder if the Producer of this set was thinking of that when he or she programmed it. Interestingly, it goes in reverse chronologically, the exact opposite of S+V, and it encompasses music from all eras of Bowie’s career, which is a first.
I’ll post a full review (somewhere) when I get a chance to give it a solid listen, but between it and S+V they add up to a pretty comprehensive, and similarly logical, overview of a 40 year career.
Which brings me back to the story of how we conceived the “Sound + Vision” box set back in 1989.
The fans (the hardcore fans) didn’t want another compilation, and we pitched Bowie hard that we would keep comps to a minimum. He liked that idea, but at the same time, was smart enough to realize that many people – especially in the US – had no idea he’d been anyone or done anything before “Let’s Dance” – and everything before “Let’s Dance” was what we were dealing with.
I'd gotten interested in music in the mid-70’s, through pop radio, and then from hanging around record stores, where I got interested in punk and new wave, to the exclusion of almost everything else. Kids, you don’t know what you missed out on.
It was only years later, when I was older – much older – that I dug into the early 70’s and the 60’s. Yes, I’d had ubiquitous Beatles & Stones records and even Changesone and Station to Station (on 8-track!) prior to 1977. But to me, and probably anyone else my age, the rush of punk energy made earlier music seem prehistoric and uninteresting. I wouldn’t have considered exploring Led Zeppelin, Richard Thompson or the Kinks when there were Ramones & Elvis Costello albums coming out at an incredible rate.
So the thinking was that in 1989, there was potentially a whole new audience that wasn't aware of music pre-Guns N Roses who could be introduced to this amazing body of work – not only through a new, comprehensive career overview, but also through the new-ish CD format.
It’s hard to imagine now, when the CD is viewed as dinosaur and vinyl, of all things, gives music nerds a reason to buy the same old shit, yet again. But in those days, CDs (along with MTV, but in an entirely different way) had revitalized an industry.
Vinyl was done, the cassette, coughing up blood. CDs “resucitated the collateral” as a wise, sweaty, chicken-loving investment banker once told me, referring to a dormant label’s catalog. In other words, dead IP’s came back to life as fans re-bought the things they loved in a new format. It was, in a way, the birth of the catalog market.
Labels dug deep into their archives and re-released albums they never would’ve considered re-pressing on vinyl. Prior to this, the labels would let records fall out of print and that was usually the end of it unless a miracle happened. This is partly why the import market was so key to music fans in the 70’s – you could get New York Dolls & Velvet Underground albums from the UK, but not from their New York-based label in the USA. Soul & Jazz classics were deleted in the country where they were recorded, but in Europe and Japan, they’d never been out of print and they flourished.
But this – this was Bowie – his RCA catalog barely existed on CD, and the work deserved a first class presentation. We got Bowie’s catalog because we understood it’s potential – something none of the majors grasped.
After we got the catalog, I saw proposals Bowie’s people had reviewed from other labels. Shockingly low projections filled the pages, but the reissued Changesone (never an updated version) was always the title with the highest numbers. One label with a wildly fucked-up perspective put it’s first year sales at 25,000 copies. When Ryko released Changesbowie, it sold half a million (Gold) in the first year, and eventually went on to sell a million (Platinum).
If we were going to reintroduce his history to a new audience, a single disc was not going to do the job. To make sense of the decade of 1970 to 1980, where Bowie careened stylistically all over the game board, only a grander package and ensuing catalog campaign would do.
At this point, there were really only two benchmarks worth looking at. Polygram had recently issued an Eric Clapton box set. I don’t care for Clapton much, but the box made him seem bigger, more important than I regarded him– someone I, and other music fans, might’ve missed out on.
Although the music wasn’t any more appealing to me than it had ever been, the box was cleverly programmed, addressed the depth and breadth of his career and it sold really well. Clapton was benefitting from renewed interest. The package itself was ostentatious in size only. It was a 12” x 12” box with a corresponding booklet, but it was drab and gray. This rainy day, lazy packaging would not serve Bowie.
The other catalog that had gotten better than average treatment was the Beach Boys. Their Capitol records had been released as 2on1 CDs with extra tracks and great booklets, packed with lots of pictures and scholarly, interesting, liner notes.
My plan was to release the Bowie albums individually (by which, I mean not as 2on1s), with lots of extra tracks - some in two CD editions, which was unimaginable at that point. Bowie was going to be far more selective in his track choices than I hoped – I’d have dumped everything out there. I also wanted to include liner notes, Bowie did not. He wanted the booklets to have credits and pictures; nothing else. If we were going to put his career in context, it was going to be in a box set, not in the individual album releases.
With these restrictions, it was easy to decide what the box should be – an extremely listenable compilation of highlights of those years, with an emphasis on covering all the bases. It needed to show how interesting Bowie was, and how important, influential and GREAT his 70's music had been, while maintaining a flow in the track listing - not an easy task considering Bowie was a genre-hopping musical chameleon; elevating glam rock one minute and warping Philly soul the next.
But before I could propose a track listing to Bowie, I needed to get into his vault. I'd later find out it wasn't the vault I'd hoped it would be; and even worse - it was in New Jersey.
In my first post, I placed Bowie's 1989 status in context. He'd come into the decade blazing but was in danger of going out on a sour note. His catalog (which we'll call the RCA catalog, even though that's not 100% accurate) was back in his hands - encompassing everything from Space Oddity through Scary Monsters. The rights to Ziggy Stardust: The Motion Picture, were still RCA's as they released it in 1983 and that contract was still in effect, although due to expire shortly thereafter.
Which brings us to RCA. Bowie and RCA, especially in the US, had a famously contemptuous relationship. His career arc from Ziggy Stardust to Young Americans was just what they wanted, but when he delivered Low, they were dumbfounded. To RCA, Low might as well have been Lou Reed's Metal Machine Music (a record that they had also released, under duress).
To be fair, Bowie just had his biggest US hits in Fame, Golden Years and Young Americans, and they wanted more of the same. The most commercial song on Low was arguably Sound + Vision. A great song, undeniably, but a 3 minute track with no vocals until 40 seconds in and no lead vocal until nearly 1:30 seconds in, was not going to make American Radio stand up and salute. RCA tried, but it choked out at #69 and there were no other singles from the album.
So when "Heroes" was delivered, RCA gave up hope and seemingly wrote Bowie off, at least in the US, where he did not chart again until Fashion hit #70 in 1980. By then, Bowie was done with RCA and looking for a new home.
But RCA was not done with Bowie. In 1980 RCA had licensed a (very good) compilation to K-Tel, which was sold via TV and included some interesting edits in order to squeeze as many tracks as possible (16!) onto the vinyl record. In 1981, RCA wrung the last drop of blood from Scary Monsters with two more UK singles.
As soon as they'd moved on, Bowie (with Queen) had a legitimate worldwide hit; Under Pressure. This started an avalanche of RCA cash-in comps. Earlier in '81, the Christianne F soundtrack album appeared, an all-Bowie record that doubled as someone's idea of a Best Of the Berlin period with a few Station To Station tracks thrown in. It oddly went to #3 in Australia but was never issued in the US until 2001. This was quickly followed by the unnecessary Changestwobowie (RCA even issued a single, Wild Is The Wind, which stiffed), and the mop-up collection Bowie Rare (b-sides, ep tracks, etc), which never saw release in the US.
Then Let's Dance exploded. Driven by the enthusiasm and promotional firepower of a new label, the power of the barely two years old MTV network, and an easy-to-digest-in-the-US image (guy in yellow suit), Bowie became an indisputable worldwide superstar in a way few (including Bowie himself) had ever imagined possible. By September 1983, Modern Love had become the third hit from Let's Dance, an album with only 8 songs.
Decca regurgitated their old Bowie tracks in a variety of permutations, as they had for years. RCA quickly issued Fame And Fashion, an obvious cash-in, featuring a cover photo of David taken during the Serious Moonlight tour. They followed it up the next year with Golden Years, an equally nonsensical, exploitative set with another '83 cover photo.
In these pre-digital days, hardcore fans felt like they had to buy everything. They were (rightly) quite frustrated with the pointless, poorly assembled, cash-in compilations RCA was foisting on them.
Amidst all this, CDs came along. Introduced in 1982 in Japan, and then in 1983 to Europe and North America, the CD was not considered a serious format by most major labels, who assumed it was nothing more than a fad designed to appeal to a small group of audiophiles. As we now know, they were, very, very wrong.
Rykodisc, formed earlier in 1984, issued their first CD in late 1984.
In February 1985, still early days of the format, RCA issued almost the entire Bowie Catalog on CD (including the last two compilations) but skipping Rare, Ziggy Stardust: The Motion Picture and David Live entirely. Stage was only released in Europe. Still, David was considered the first major artist to have (almost) his whole catalog on CD.
This wasn't because RCA were bullish on the format, or even David Bowie, for that matter. The company knew their rights were expiring and wanted to milk the catalog for all it was worth. There was little or no care put into assembling the RCA Bowie CDs. Front and back covers of the original albums were included, but in most cases, other visuals were not. Covers were marred by an ugly RCA CD logo, and the interior of the four page booklets were typically listings of other RCA CD titles.
Mastering on most early CDs wasn't done with care either, and the Bowie CD masters were no exception, taken from masters RCA had EQ'd for cassette. These cassette masters were transferred from tape to digital and then to CD.
A lot of "audiophiles" assume that early CDs were mastered directly from un EQ'd stereo master tapes, but that's pure bullshit. "Experts" insist early CDs sound better than a properly mastered CD, when in fact the art of mastering CDs evolved along with the format - CD just took off too fast to keep pace.
Once the major labels realized they could make money releasing previously inert albums on the new format, releases clogged the pipeline, manufacturing became hard to find and as investors struggled to build plants to meet the demand, RCA's rights expired and Bowie's catalog, from Space Oddity to Scary Monsters, vanished, largely forgotten.
By the time David & Ryko came together, his best records were out of print, his fans were frustrated, and his career had made a wrong turn. It was time to remind the public why he was considered a legend.
One of the main reasons I decided to start this blog was to counter many erroneous assumptions that have accumulated about the Sound + Vision series over the years. There are many places online (Wikipedia, Amazon reviews, fan sites and even old press) where writers presume to have understood what exactly was inside Bowie's & my head when the series was put together, when in fact, they do not.
Much of the misinformation revolves around the "Sound + Vision" boxed set that launched the campaign in September 1989, nearly 25 years ago.
I'll recount the assembly of the box (and subsequent series) here in depth. But first, please consider 1989, and within that, the context of Bowie and his catalog.
Bowie himself had just been through some weird years that started with the end of the seventies; he killed off Major Tom and seemingly abandoned (at least for a while) his chameleonic quality; becoming "Regular Bowie" in the process. It speaks to Bowie's groundbreaking seventies output that becoming "Regular" was seen as an oddity.
Signing to a new, UK-based label that understood his worldwide commercial potential, he hit critical mass in the USA and became a megastar with "Let's Dance" and the Serious Moonlight Tour, but after 1985, things started to go off the rails a bit. He devoted more time to acting, and did some songs for films, but, for the first time, it seemed like culture might be leading Bowie, not the other way around.
At the point he & Rykodisc first connected, it felt like the decade was going out for him on a low note. Bowie was recovering from "Never Let Me Down," an album that everyone seemed to agree had perhaps started as a good idea, but ended up being an albatross. It hasn't had a real hit single in many markets and MTV hadn't embraced the videos the way they'd done on the first two EMI records. He'd also been engaged to one of the tour's backup dancers, and that had ended (by some accounts, badly).
At one of our first meetings, Bowie gleefully recalled the end of the Glass Spider tour, burning the titular prop in a field in Australia or New Zealand. To hear him tell it, burning that fucker was a symbolic, near-spiritual exorcism of everything that had gotten out of control - chasing hits, expensive, extravagant (and long!) tours that were over-propped and choreographed to the point that the music lost impact.
Bowie's reputation as a shrewd and self-aware artist is well-deserved. He was very excited by the (at this time, yet to be announced) back-to-basics Tin Machine record and stripped-down 4-piece rock band of which he was "just another member."
While clearly ready to put the recent past behind him, the era before loomed large in his vision. Bowie and his former manager, Tony DeFries, had just gotten back the rights to his RCA era records. Placing them at the right label would not only generate significant income for them, but give Bowie an opportunity to remind old fans of his brilliance and to be seen with fresh eyes by new ones.
(End Part One)