Bowie Sound + Vision

The hows & whys of the David Bowie Sound + Vision re-release campaign - 25 years later

Sound + Vision Box: Final Words


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!

The LP set!

The LP set!

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.

"You know - Cyber Stuff!  For kids!"

"You know - Cyber Stuff!  For kids!"

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.

People used to kill for these.

People used to kill for these.

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.

The horror!  The HORROR!

The horror!  The HORROR!

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.

Fax Hell!

Fax Hell!


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.

This was an ESD logo I designed using clip art.  The "ESD Guy", as he came to be known, was modified based on need.

This was an ESD logo I designed using clip art.  The "ESD Guy", as he came to be known, was modified based on need.

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.

What a waste!

What a waste!

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.

Look at those hinges!  Damn!

Look at those hinges!  Damn!

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.

People have argued this version doesn't exist.  It does.

People have argued this version doesn't exist.  It does.

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.

People forget what a great label Rykodisc was - the titles and artists shown in the cover to our 20th Anniversary set serve as a nice reminder.

People forget what a great label Rykodisc was - the titles and artists shown in the cover to our 20th Anniversary set serve as a nice reminder.

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!

It Was 26+ Years Ago Today Part 3 & Maybe 4 & 5, too

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.

Duckface pioneer.

Duckface pioneer.

"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

Disc 1 is obviously the line from folkie to glam alien to killing off Ziggy.

"Space Oddity" (demo version)

Previously unreleased

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)

Non-album single

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)

Previously unreleased

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"

Hunky Dory

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.


8. "Changes"

Hunky Dory

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)

Non-album single

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"

Aladdin Sane

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"

Aladdin Sane

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

Of course.

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

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.

Not your daddy's Ziggy Stardust..

Not your daddy's Ziggy Stardust..

1. "Anyway, Anyhow, Anywhere"

2. "Sorrow"

3. "Don't Bring Me Down"

Pin Ups

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.


5. "1984/Dodo"

Previously unreleased

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"

Diamond Dogs

A strong album track, it again wasn't widely known but illuminates DD and the vocal performance is killer, I think.

Timeline inaccurate, but I'll have 10 anyway.

Timeline inaccurate, but I'll have 10 anyway.

7. "Rebel Rebel" (U.S. single version)

Diamond Dogs

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"

David Live

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"

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.


12. "Fascination"

Young Americans

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"

Young Americans

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.


Disc 3

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).


4. ""Helden""


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"

2. "Changes"

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"

(Video/single edit)

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.

1989 - It Was 25 Years Ago Today (almost)! Part Two

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.

An amazing record / CD, but where it all broke down for David Bowie & RCA.

An amazing record / CD, but where it all broke down for David Bowie & RCA.

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.

One of the greatest Bowie singles in unique Holland sleeve.

One of the greatest Bowie singles in unique Holland sleeve.

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.

No one asked for this.  Except RCA accountants.

No one asked for this.  Except RCA accountants.

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.

Typical RCA interior booklet pages.  If you like Kenny Rogers, you're sure to dig this Klaus Nomi CD!

Typical RCA interior booklet pages.  If you like Kenny Rogers, you're sure to dig this Klaus Nomi CD!

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.

1989 - It Was (almost!) 25 Years Ago Today! Part One

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.

First iteration of the S+V box.  Three CDs, a CDV (what?) and a 64 page booklet, written by Kurt Loder.  He delivered the copy VERY late and nearly blew the street date.

First iteration of the S+V box.  Three CDs, a CDV (what?) and a 64 page booklet, written by Kurt Loder.  He delivered the copy VERY late and nearly blew the street date.

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.

DIALING IT IN:  Even one of the coolest men who ever walked the earth sometimes looks a bit of a douche.  Mullet hidden out of respect for the lost.

DIALING IT IN:  Even one of the coolest men who ever walked the earth sometimes looks a bit of a douche.  Mullet hidden out of respect for the lost.

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)