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!

25 Years Ago-Ish Part 5

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). 

Cozy, right?

Cozy, right?

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. 

For all I know this is a photo of the actual place, but even if not, you get the idea.

For all I know this is a photo of the actual place, but even if not, you get the idea.

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).

What's he hiding in that coat, master tapes, my friend?

What's he hiding in that coat, master tapes, my friend?

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.

I asume all the source tapes for the songs on this comp are still in an RCA vault in the country that assembled the master.  They weren't in the Jersey vault.

I asume all the source tapes for the songs on this comp are still in an RCA vault in the country that assembled the master.  They weren't in the Jersey vault.

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.

An example of Isolar's cataloging system in 1988.

An example of Isolar's cataloging system in 1988.

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.

 

Not sure this is the same model I used, but I'm reasonably confident mine was a Compaq.

Not sure this is the same model I used, but I'm reasonably confident mine was a Compaq.

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.

Typical music biz danger would be getting a drink spilled on you at a bar or having a heart attack from too much coke.  Here I would've died if someone lit a match.

Typical music biz danger would be getting a drink spilled on you at a bar or having a heart attack from too much coke.  Here I would've died if someone lit a match.

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.

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)