What does it sound like?:
The seventies for David Bowie were triumphant from the artistic point of view but less than satisfactory business wise. Tony Defries had managed his rise to fame with great skill but at high cost. Defries earned more than Bowie himself. They parted in 1975 but Defries continued to have the rights over half the royalties for a further seven years. Bowie was also disgruntled with RCA for a perceived lack of promotion of his Berlin Trilogy. So, after 1980’s Scary Monsters, an album collecting together virtually every Bowie party trick, a real rummage in his bottom drawer of secrets, he occupied himself acting and indulging in the occasional collaboration, waiting patiently for both contracts to expire.
Bolstered by a $17.5million advance from EMI, Bowie set about creating hits. A fresh start meant new collaborators. In 1982, Nile Rodgers was a proven hit-maker, seduced by the prospect of being involved in a Scary Monsters part 2. Stevie Ray Vaughan’s blistering performance at The Montreux Jazz Festival secured him the axe man hot seat. Let’s Dance is no Scary Monsters but its Funk-Rock hybrid exceeded all expectations. The sound was big enough to fill stadiums all over the world and Bowie’s tan, bleach-blonde hair and gleaming teeth looked perfect on MTV. The videos for all three singles were on regular rotation. In 1983, according to George Tremlett, Let’s Dance and The Serious Moonlight Tour boosted Bowie’s personal bank account by over $50 million, whilst, as a citizen of Switzerland, he paid just $10,000 in tax.
There was a quick follow up with Tonight, then another break for more films and collaborations before the creation of an ambitious theatric experience in Glass Spider, soundtracked by a bespoke album, Never Let Me Down. Again, both the album and the tour were enormously successful, even though the plot was difficult to discern from the halfway line at Maine Road before dusk. In fact, The Glass Spider Tour was the highest grossing tour ever up to that point in time. By 1988, Bowie was an unimaginably wealthy man who never had to work in order to earn money again.
This box collects together, remastered, the three studio albums, a double CD document for each tour, all the singles, B sides and extended versions (one disc is dedicated entirely to ‘dance’ tracks), five songs from Labyrinth and three from Absolute Beginners, filling a total of eleven CDs. Mario McNulty gives Never Let Me Down a makeover using mainly Bowie’s last touring band to re-record most of the music. Bowie had been impressed with his work on Time Will Crawl in 2008 and had expressed a wish for the whole album to be remade in a similar fashion. The shortened vinyl versions of Never Let Me Down tracks are also included. There is no room for Too Dizzy, a track Bowie effectively deleted from his catalogue as soon as he could. A copy of Never Let Me Down with it on is a collector’s item. Also, Chilly Down from Labyrinth is absent, a Bowie song but sung by a different character in the film.
Let’s Dance sparkles in its remaster, even lesser known tracks such as Without You and Shake It. It is simple, direct and forceful, easily as much fun as Scary Monsters, Bowie’s vocals at their biggest and boldest and Stevie’s guitar at its bluest. The two ‘old’ songs fare contrasting outcomes, bearing in mind 90% of listeners were completely unaware of their previous incarnations. China Girl is refreshed, light, tender, whereas Cat People is constricted and tight. There is a tension across the whole album, between mainstream and left field, sunshine and darkness. Ricochet is the closest to tearing apart under the strain, Bowie’s arty pretensions refusing to comply with Rodger’s 4/4 beat. Let’s Dance is unique in Bowie’s canon and still very enjoyable today, even side two. It’s sequence is top heavy, easily solved by switching China Girl and Cat People.
For the Serious Moonlight tour, Carlos Alomar and Earl Slick returned. In the baking sun of Milton Keynes, front and centre of a simple stage set, Bowie couldn’t stop smiling. He was having a ball and it shows on the recording here. Carmine Rojas’s bass is thunderously beefy but the rhythm section lacks the intuitive dynamism of Davis/Murray. To be fair, Tony Thompson is a little low in the mix. Perhaps, Bowie’s major problem in the eighties was finding a truly great rhythm section. Nevertheless, there is no denying that Serious Moonlight is a hit-friendly set delivered by an excellent band, a concert that really takes off with a dramatic Life On Mars? Cat People is far more impassioned than the Let’s Dance version, Fame’s a real showstopper and Modern Love a storming encore.
Bowie only wrote two songs for Tonight, both successful singles. The rest are covers or co-writes with Iggy Pop. It’s an album dashed off rather too quickly without much thought, probably before Bowie had met with his accountant to discuss 1983’s earnings. Derek Bramble replaces both Nile Rodgers as producer and Stevie Ray Vaughan as lead guitarist, which says it all. It contains three of Bowie’s strangest tracks all on side one. Don’t Look Down features the most lifeless reggae beat put to tape, the cover of God Only Knows clinically removes all its tenderness and the title track is a duet with Tina Turner in which the well-known hollerer is reduced to providing hushed backing vocals only. The three singles are good but remastering most of the rest brings to mind the phrase ‘polishing a turd’.
The main draw for Loving The Alien is the rehabilitation of Never Let Me Down. It turns out it isn’t such a bad album after all. It’s weird, raucous and unashamedly commercial with some high quality songs, conceived to be performed on an elaborate stage. Bowie loaded up with loud guitarists (himself, Alomar, Peter Frampton and Sid McGinnis) but the synthesisers and Erdal Kızılçay’s gated snare swamp the Bob Clearmountain mix. It is an album very much for the eighties market, pitched at CD buyers and watchers of MTV. In fact, the tracks had to be trimmed down to fit onto vinyl. The remaster clears out a lot of fluff and actually makes the eighties production sound endearing, another unique sound for a Bowie album. Even so, Mickey Rouke’s rap remains a shock. The remake is interesting. It has three premises: to replace the machines with real drums, the synthesised strings for Philip Glass type strings and to rearrange the existing backing tracks. However, only Zeroes is as successful as Time Will Crawl’s 2008 remake. Mostly, it simply updates the sound to Bowie of the noughties.
The music for Glass Spider is somewhat safe. The focus was more on the visual spectacle in a large set expensively designed by Mark Ravitz, who was also responsible for Diamond Dogs. Toni Basil choreographed five dancers and there were spoken interludes to set the scene. Peter Frampton is excellent but it’s as though he’s playing at another concert, not quite gelling with Carlos Alomar. However, Bowie is in fine voice and older songs, such as Rebel Rebel, are really good. Glass Spider was ahead of its time, becoming the template for big acts wanting to put on an impressive show, from Madonna through to Beyoncé today.
The eighties are often considered to be Bowie’s nadir. Indeed, Bowie himself declared he’d had a miserable decade. He looked out at the large crowds he was singing to and wondered how many owned a Velvet Underground LP. He thought he’d become the kind of performer Phil Collins fans liked to watch. However, he set out to have hits and become extremely rich. Both tours were artistic and financial triumphs. His films, especially Labyrinth, exposed him to a legion of new fans. The albums were never outstanding compared to his seventies output but there are plenty of gems scattered across these discs, plus the live performances are often the equal of or even better than those on David Live or Stage. His singles were consistently top quality. Most people would happily endure a miserable decade like that.
What does it all *mean*?
There is a lot of material here, many tracks are duplicated or triplicated alternative versions but there is still plenty for even the ardent Bowie fan to get their teeth into. Collectors and completists will be delighted. It’s then a pleasant surprise to find that a lot of the material is of high quality and enjoyable to listen to in the 21st Century. These eleven discs are proof that, even when he simplified his work and followed trends, Bowie’s natural pop smarts and a way with a tune still shine through.
Goes well with…
Bowie – The Video Collection. The record sleeves for this period may have been the worst of his career but the videos were cutting edge, innovative and creative. Jazzin’ For Blue Jean, directed by Julien Temple, won a Grammy. Time Will Crawl, shot by Tim Pope, features the Toni Basil dancers and an impossibly cool David Bowie. Every single movement and gesture is precise, economical and telling. Jean-Baptiste Mondino’s film of a dance marathon compered by Joe Dallesandro perfectly captures the dreamy feel of Never Let Me Down, one of the few tracks of this period to have any subtlety.
Might suit people who like…
INXS, Spandau Ballet, Duran Duran, Madonna, Jim Henson, big glossy box sets costing nearly £100. The question for the potential consumer remains: is it worth that kind of money? A fondness for the album Never Let Me Down helps. There are three complete studio versions plus live and extended takes. It takes up 25% of the box.