❉ Ben Adams assesses the latest doorstop compendium of Bowie’s released work, including 1987’s much-maligned Never Let Me Down and two live albums.
“McNulty’s new arrangements are just window dressing. Bowie always altered his singing voice to work with an arrangement. That’s just not the case here. It’s a valiant attempt at changing public perception of an album – but it never clicks, and ultimately not necessary – just another remix album, really.”
For years now I’ve shared a correspondence with James Gent, creator of this website, about our shared love of David Bowie. We’d always return to the subject of Bowie’s much-maligned 1987 effort, Never Let Me Down. Bowie himself had disparaged the work, at times wishing it didn’t exist, and another time bluntly stating, “Oh, to redo the rest of that album.” That statement was on the occasion of NLMD’s best song, Time Will Crawl, being remixed by Mario McNulty in 2008 – stripped of its clattering ’80s techno sheen, the song became something far eerier and timeless. So James and I – and countless other Bowie fans – wondered what would happen if Bowie’s wish to remake the entire album in kind ever came true.
The chance to experience that wish come true – and reassess Bowie’s ’80s catalogue in toto – arrived recently with the release of the fourth and latest volume in Parlophone’s massive doorstop boxset summary of the man’s career, Loving The Alien [1983 – 1988]. Presentation of the set remains as handsome as previous volumes, although the box is now white instead of black – causing much consternation among anal collectors as to how it can possibly remain pristine on their shelves. Sonically, there’s no revisionism or gaffes on the three main studio albums included, unlike the previous box which focused on the Berlin-era albums.
Mastering is a bit more upfront and compressed than the original 1980’s albums, in keeping with modern engineering – but not in any way that harms the albums’ textures, and indeed is much better than the 1999 remasters. Let’s Dance remains a pop bombshell with a slightly weaker side two; Tonight remains a respectable mainstream album with only one complete misfire in Bowie’s lamentable cover of The Beach Boys’ God Only Knows and Never Let Me Down is still … Never Let Me Down. But we’ll get back to that soon.
“Sonically, there’s no revisionism or gaffes on the three main studio albums included, unlike the previous box which focused on the Berlin-era albums. Mastering is a bit more upfront and compressed than the original 1980’s albums, in keeping with modern engineering – but not in any way that harms the albums’ textures, and indeed is much better than the 1999 remasters.”
The set also includes two live albums, bringing us ever closer to the elusive prize of official documentation of every one of Bowie’s tours. Serious Moonlight [Live ’83] provides us the majority of a set from Vancouver in September ’83, with the addition of a version of Modern Love from Montreal in July ’83 (previously available as a B-side).
Some hardcore Bowie fans are miffed at the exclusion of several tunes from the Vancouver show that are available on bootlegs, but overall this is a nice set with a good, logical flow, making its first official appearance. Glass Spider [Live Montreal ’87] returns us to Canada for a widely-syndicated stereo broadcast of the infamous Glass Spider Tour. Shorn of the somewhat embarrassing over-the-top visual spectacle, this live album acquits itself better than I’d expected, even with some dubious choices in updating the arrangements of older songs.
The scrapped 1985 remix album Dance appears in altered form, changed from its initial concept of largely new-commissioned remixes, and instead serves as a compendium of what the box set compilers felt were the best of Bowie’s ’80s remixes. This is the box set series’ biggest stumble as a comprehensive compendium of the man’s released work, as there were far more remixes than provided here. Granted, most of them aren’t very good, as Bowie’s songs didn’t lend themselves well to this very ’80s practice. Additionally, including all the remixes would have turned this into a 13 or 14 CD set, and a 17-18 LP set costing far more than the average fan would be willing to pay for this era’s Bowie tunes. But still, at the least, a download card for the remixes not included here would have been very much appreciated.
The now-standard odds-and-sods collection Re:Call 4 also stumbles slightly by missing out the Japanese version of the B-side Girls, and including the rather pointless exclusive vinyl LP edits from the original pressing of Never Let Me Down – which is absolutely nonsensical given that the track Too Dizzy from the original album still remains excised from Bowie’s catalogue. Yes, the man hated it. But it’s nowhere near as bad as he thought – sorry, David, but I’ve had decades to mull this over – and if the LP edits of other tracks were to be included, then Too Dizzy should have had a place here on Re:Call 4. These quibbles are offset by the handy collection of Bowie’s outstanding soundtrack work of the period, for the filmsThe Falcon And The Snowman, When The Wind Blows, and Labyrinth.
So this brings us back to the wish so many of us had – to hear Never Let Me Down shorn of its clattering ’80s overproduction. Mario McNulty returned to this project, having already had discussions with Bowie regarding the album, and having proven himself with the 2008 MM Mix of Time Will Crawl. McNulty assembled a crew of former Bowie band musicians, including guitarists Reeves Gabrels and David Torn; bassist Tim LeFebvre; and drummer Sterling Campbell. Additionally, composer Nico Muhly was brought on boiard to add minimalist string arrangements to several songs. The results are … varied. To my ears, the only song to become vastly superior to its original arrangement is the tone poem Glass Spider, which has become a grandly atmospheric nightmare of moody darkness reminiscent of Bowie’s 1995 classic,1. Outside.
Zeroes also fares very well, becoming simpler and more affecting. But otherwise McNulty’s new arrangements are just window dressing. There’s nothing that can be done to change Bowie’s original vocals, which on many songs are histrionic and fighting against (or with) the cluttered ’80s production. The new arrangements are fine, but they largely are fighting against the vocals. Bowie always altered his singing voice, capable of changing from a powerhouse to a sultry croon, to work with an arrangement. Never too much or too little for a song – always just right. That’s just not the case here. It’s a valiant attempt at changing public perception of an album – but it never clicks, and ultimately not necessary – just another remix album, really.
And the original Never Let Me Down? It’s never been as bad as we were led to believe for years. Remember, on its initial release, it was literally the first Bowie album to receive the praise of being his “best since Scary Monsters.” SPIN Magazine in the USA gave it a full page review and Album of the Month status, while no finer organ than Smash Hits nominated Time Will Crawl its Single Of The Fortnight!. It may be clattering, it may be overproduced, it may be histrionic – but it’s Bowie. There’s nothing else like it, and that’s why Loving The Alien [1982 – 1988] is recommended.
❉ David Bowie ‘Loving The Alien (1983 – 1988)’, 11 CD, Digital And Audiophile 15 Piece Vinyl Box Sets , was released by Parlophone as 11 CD, Digital And Audiophile 15 Piece Vinyl Box Sets on 12 October 2018.