Bowie Sound + Vision

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

25 Years Ago-Ish Part 5

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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)