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.