David Bowie: The Gouster (1974)

Bowie’s ‘lost’ album – aka Young Americans: The First Attempt. It’s brilliant.

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The second in a series of box sets covering the career of David Bowie has just been released, and this time the focus is on ‘The American Years’ – that’s Diamond Dogs, David Live, Young Americans and Station to Station, a formidable selection of albums I’m sure you’ll agree. Well, maybe not David Live – appreciation for that album is mixed to say the least. We also get the Station-era Nassau ‘76 gig that was doing the bootleg rounds for years and which finally got an official release when Station was re-re-re-released in 2010. The 2005 remix and re-edit of David Live accompanies the original version, and there’s also a new fold-down of the 5.1 remix of Station by original producer Harry Maslin, which, on first listen, is not something I’m keen on at all (turn those drums down!)

The main selling point of the box set however, has been the inclusion of The Gouster, an embryonic version of Young Americans that was well on the way to being the follow-up to Diamond Dogs before Bowie scrapped it. One of the reasons for it being dropped was that it was ‘too personal’, but the arrival of John Lennon on the scene also sealed The Gouster’s fate when the immortal ‘Fame’ and not-so immortal (but still pretty damned good) cover of ‘Across the Universe’ (g)ousted the likes of ‘It’s Gonna Be Me’ and ‘Who Can I Be Now?’, as well as a radical re-working of ‘John, I’m Only Dancing’, off the playlist. In addition to some of the remaining tracks being jiggled around and re-recorded/remixed, we got the mighty likes of ‘Win’ and ‘Fascination’, and the result was Young Americans.

A long time ago, I was somewhat ambivalent towards Young Americans – along with Lodger, I severely underrated these two albums. No more. It’s a beautiful, funky, dazzling work, and a seriously exciting one when you consider the kind of musical swerve Bowie was making at the time- true, there were hints of the soul and funk direction to come on Diamond Dogs songs like ‘Rock and Roll with Me’ and ‘1984’, as well as the covers of ‘Knock on Wood’ and ‘Here Today, Gone Tomorrow’ on David Live, but this is as far from glam and Ziggy as imaginable. It’s also one of the most amazing Bowie albums in regards to vocals – his singing here is outstanding, and difficult to try and resist belting along with.

So what of The Gouster? Well, when its release was announced, and was somewhat misleadingly reported as a ‘lost’ album, it wasn’t long before fans made the quite understandable point that none of The Gouster was unheard as such – ‘It’s Gonna Be Me’ and ‘Who Can I Be Now?’ had already been released as bonus tracks on Rykodisc’s 1991 CD edition of Young Americans, while ‘John, I’m Only Dancing (Again)’ had been available since 1979. It was noted that you could quite easily compile your own Gouster if you already had the extra songs, which were still available digitally as part of the 2007 edition of Young Americans. However, it soon became apparent that said suggested compilations wouldn’t be quite the same as the version of The Gouster that was due to come out. ‘It’s Gonna Be Me’ would be the version without added strings, only available on the long-deleted Ryko CD. ‘Somebody Up There Likes Me’, ‘Right’ and ‘Can You Hear Me’ would be earlier versions, previously only available in sub-par quality bootleg form. Therefore it was too soon to start banging on about how this so-called lost album wasn’t really that elusive after all. In fact, the only identical link between The Gouster and the original Young Americans was the title song itself.

Still with me? Oh yes, let’s not forget the complaints from fans that not everything recorded around that time was going to be included, such as ‘After Today’ (which was released on 1990’s Sound and Vision box set) ‘Shilling the Rubes’, ‘I am a Lazer’ (which would be recycled for ‘Scream Like a Baby’ on Scary Monsters) and ‘The Gouster’ itself. It’s possible these songs were never seriously considered for inclusion on The Gouster (title tracks don’t necessarily ensure a place on an album, as Led Zeppelin fans will know). The previous Bowie box set, Five Years, had made a point of only including stuff officially released at the time, which meant no stuff like ‘Bombers’ or ‘Sweet Head’, so we all expected the absence of ‘Rubes’, ‘Lazer’, ‘The Gouster’ and the like on Box Set #2 too. Therefore it came as a surprise that The Gouster was going to be included, considering it was never released at the time.

Yet here it is, and although lots of us over the last few months could already imagine how The Gouster would sound like because we knew the tracks in some form or another, it was with excitement that I sat down to listen to it properly. How would it compare to the LP that replaced it, how would it flow, and what would it feel like hearing ‘Young Americans’ right near the end of the album instead of at the beginning?

Well, kicking off with the disco-funk re-recording of ‘John, I’m Only Dancing’ couldn’t be a more obvious heralding of a new direction – admittedly the idea of taking an older hit single and re-doing it to fit in with the new sounds of the time could seem a bit desperate, a bit lacking in ideas, maybe? Remember when The Beach Boys took a great little bit of R&B from their Wild Honey album called ‘Here Comes the Night’ and turned it into a ten-minute disco monster ten years later? No? Remember when Neil Young turned ‘Mr. Soul’ into a gloopy synth remake? Or what about when you get a greatest hits album and there’s the artist’s biggest hit has been given a new remix or -shudder- a re-recording? Kate Bush’s The Whole Story would have been a lot better if she’d just stuck with the original ‘Wuthering Heights’. Same goes for The Police’s ‘Don’t Stand So Close to Me ‘86’ from their Every Breath You Take compilation. What were they thinking?

However, as a reworking and an opening statement of intent, ‘John, I’m Only Dancing (Again) is mightily impressive– Bowie has well and truly become someone new, everything is in its right place, it all clicks and struts and funks immaculately. It’s not just a straight-up funk cover though – aside from the chorus, the words are all new, and the it’s about three times as long as the original. It’s not as good as either of the original ‘Johns’ though, but what can you do? It totally succeeds as an example of the Gouster sound. Bowie is saying, that was then, this is now. Hearing it in the context of an album also does it many favours – before I’d just regarded it as a bit of a throwaway, something Bowie himself wasn’t bothered about, given that it wasn’t officially released until 1979, by which time he had well and truly moved on musically. Here it sounds far more substantial.

The epic ‘Somebody Up There Likes Me’ follows, and this is what I had always hoped it sound like ever since I’d heard The Gouster would feature a different version – I’d heard this take as a bootleg, and it is so, so, so much better than the already excellent Young Americans version. Why? It’s that guitar. That gorgeous, simple, languid and smoky guitar hook that you could almost make out underneath the layer of electronic keyboards on the album mix is now upfront and it’s a thing to savour. ‘It’s Gonna Be Me’ is gorgeous, one of Bowie’s loveliest ballads, wonderfully sung – it’s quite an intimate experience and one of the most naked, least adorned songs from this era. The version with the strings as a bonus track on the 2007 edition of Young Americans is more epic and sweeping (and is in more in keeping with the more embellished, commercial feel of the released LP), but this earlier mix remains one of Bowie’s most convincing and heartfelt soul songs. There’s a bit near the end where the music pares down and it’s just Bowie’s voice, and it’s one of the most heart-stopping, beautiful moments in any song of his, ever.

The glorious ‘Who Can I Be Now?’, which gave the new box set its name, is a stirring, powerful ballad – that a song this good was held back beggars belief. The chorus in particular is brilliant – real goosebumps stuff. I can only imagine how delirious with happiness Bowie fans were when this and ‘It’s Gonna Be Me’ were first made available in 1991. Like ‘Sweet Head’ on the Ziggy reissue of that time, the realisation that these brilliant songs had been MIA for so long was revelatory. A different take of ‘Can You Hear Me’ follows next, less bombastic. Is it better than the YA version? I can’t decide. I like the gentler, more intimate delivery of this version, but it’s difficult not to surrender to the oomph of the more familiar take, especially when it kicks in the way it does at the start, and I’ve always loved the a cappella ending, which isn’t present on The Gouster. The always-welcome ‘Young Americans’, a remarkable, powerhouse song full of pleasures, treasures and killer hooks, is the same version as the one we all know and love, although there have been reports of different track lengths between the Gouster and YA versions on the new box set. From the streamed version I heard online, I can’t tell any difference between this and the one I’ve been listening to for years. What I do know for sure is that’s it’s strange to hear it this late into the album – to be fair, it would have made a better closer but I suppose we needed a bit of oomph to pick the LP up after a run of ballads. I do think though that the alternate ‘Right’, which closes this album, would have been a better penultimate track. The song, which fitted perfectly at the end of YA’s side one, feels ever-so slightly anti-climactic as The Gouster’s finale, and it doesn’t help that this version isn’t as quite good as the Young Americans take – it just isn’t as refined or tight, and the whole thing sounds a bit muddier (especially when it comes to Bowie’s vocals), but it’s a fine alternative. The ‘wishing’ vocal breakdown a third of the way in doesn’t have as cool a guitar accompaniment, and overall it feels more obviously demo-ish than the other two early versions featured here, but it’s still a delectable performance, and I love it.

Is The Gouster better than Young Americans? No. Is it worse? No. These are equal works- sibling albums, recognisably related, both excellent, though I think Bowie made the right choice in released the album we did end up with. It feels more substantial. Okay, having the fine but inferior ‘Across the Universe’ at the expense of ‘It’s Gonna Be Me’ and ‘Who Can I Be Now?’ remains a baffling error of judgement, and adding those keyboards to ‘Somebody Up There Likes Me’ was a mistake, but we did end up with the utterly spine-tingling ‘Win’, the super-funky ‘Fascination’ and the immortal ‘Fame’, which are full-on Bowie classics all the way. I also think that Young Americans is a better structured album than The Gouster, but the latter is nevertheless a pleasure all the way, and I’ve been listening the hell out of it this weekend. It’s a very welcome addition to the Bowie canon. Additionally, not including ‘Rubes’, ‘Lazer’ and the like doesn’t bother me in this specific case as this The Gouster represents the tracklisting of an actual proposed album and is not a compilation of odds and ends from the era. True, it would be nice if these Bowie box sets had a disc of unreleased tracks to gather up all the lost stuff, but that’s another argument…

Of course, you could compile the ultimate combination mixtape from the two albums, a Young Gouster from America album if you so wished…

NOT THE FACE!!! Five Face-Changers That Scarred or Disturbed Me as a Child

There’s nothing scarier than the familiar made unfamiliar, and here are five instances of faces made to look distinctly horrifying, be it by super-computer, vampiric influence, a heavy current of electricity, demonic possession or God laying down the law. Enjoy!

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1. Vera Webster (Annie Ross) in Superman III

Definitely a universal nightmare inducer for anyone the right age back in the eighties, this totally out-of-left-field but unforgettably freaky moment during the climax of Superman’s third (and second worst) Reeve-era outing burned into my psyche like few other scary moments in family films have.

So get this; Lex Luthor is (wisely) doing his own thing, so B-list villain Ross Webster (an enjoyably smug Robert Vaughn) is holed up in his mountain lair with his sister Vera, helium-voiced femme fatale Lorelei (Pamela Stephenson) and ‘comedy’ henchman Gus (Richard Pryor), not to mention a super computer that can do all manner of supery and computery things. Superman, fresh from having killed himself in a scrapyard fight (definitely the best scene in the film), shows up to take out the trash but the super computer becomes most averse to being shut down, so it starts getting tetchy. The bad guys start to flee the computer’s cavernous innards, but poor Vera is too late to escape, being dragged in by its force-field and cocooned in its claustrophobic catacombs, where her body is turned robotic in a series of absolutely horrific shots where bits of metal are magically plastered onto her face and hands as she screams helplessly. There’s a particularly disturbing bit where her screams are suddenly silenced and she closes her eyes, and that’s when we know she’s no longer home. Just in case you weren’t sure though, we get an extreme close-up of her eyes, and they’re just lifeless silver balls – no irises, no pupils, just nothing. Her brother and Lorelei look on flabbergasted as Vera’s hair has suddenly puffed up and gothed-out to the extent that she now looks like Robert Smith from The Cure, with a scarily expressionless face and awkward walk – to be honest, most of us were so frightened already that it didn’t matter that Vera from The Cure didn’t do much else after this except shoot out a few lasers and continue to look scary, but that didn’t matter. The damage had been done.

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2. David (Kiefer Sutherland) in The Lost Boys

As anyone who’s listened to our audio commentary for this film will already know, the sequence two thirds into Joel Schumacher’s super-80’s vampire horror-comedy is definitely the one single scene that has scared me more than anything else.

Vampires had always frightened me deeply as a child – I think it’s because they look so close to human, whereas other monsters were fantastical-looking enough to remain immediately untrustworthy. Vampires however, looked and sounded just like us, and even when the fangs came out, they still looked like us. I was fully aware of The Lost Boys being a vampire film, yet the film’s poster artwork showed Kiefer Sutherland’s teenage bloodsucker in his regular, non-ghoulish look. The UK poster (still my all-time favourite film artwork) showed a frightfully stark, pale white David staring right at us, his demeanour cool, almost melancholic but still threatening. I wondered what that face would look like when the fangs came out. I hoped I would never find out. Fat chance.

I first watched The Lost Boys on its BBC1 New Year’s Day premiere in 1991, and despite being a certfied wimp when it came to horror, I braved it because I was watching it with my mum and my sister and it was ‘only’ a ’15’ and therefore was assured it wouldn’t be that bad. How wrong I was. One of the best things about the film is its reluctance to show the vampires in their form until we’re already well into it – by doing this, I remained gripped to my seat, scared to keep watching, too proud to give up, reassuring myself that at least there hasn’t been any scary faces. Yet. I knew it was coming.

The film, set in the fictional Californian coastal town of Santa Carla, follows brothers Michael (Jason Patric) and Sam (Corey Haim) as they settle into their new life by the sea only for the former to fall in with the wrong crowd and the latter discovering that said crowd are really vampires! Michael is taunted and teased all the way to a make-or-break sequence on a beach when he finally witnesses his new friends in blood-drinking action. David wickedly throws down the gauntlet with ‘Initiation’s over Michael…it’s time to join the club!’ and comes out of the dark in ghoulish, sickly yellow lit, fanged and wild-eyed horror, it still shocked the hell out of me, so much that I rapidly left the room, too scared to watch anymore. Good thing I did, considering what followed was a mini-orgy of neck-breaking, scalp-ripping, head-biting, body-burning horror. The other three Lost Boys’ vampire visages ranged from goofy to quite freaky, but David’s face was the one. The image of that face would haunt me in the dark, and was iconic enough to be used on the reverse of the UK VHS, so any trips to video shops or HMV would always be spoiled by the knowledge that the film’s video spine was there amongst the shelves, mocking me, beckoning me to be brave enough to pull out the case and gaze once more upon that back cover. I even remember being in Covent Garden market and seeing a photo still of that face amongst lots of other glossies, and feeling that chill all over again. Of course, I would brave the film once more a few years down the line, and since then it is the film I have watched more than any other.

PS: Oddly enough, it’s big change is pulled off using the oldest of cinematic tricks – normal face is obscured in the dark, evil face emerges into the light. You don’t need millions of dollars wasted on morphing technology!

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3. Peter Venkman (voiced by Lorenzo Music) in Episode 3 of The Real Ghostbusters, ‘Mrs. Rogers’ Neighborhood’

Kids cartoons. Sometimes they could sneak in the scariest imagery, all undercover of a family-friendly afternoon slot. The Real Ghostbusters, obviously supernatural in essence, enjoyed scaring young viewers on a far more regular basis than anything else of its time, and none more so than the frankly terrifying finale of what starts out as just another haunted house investigation. By the end, one of our most beloved characters, the always jovial and delightful Peter, has been possessed by a heavy-duty demon named What (or Watt?). What tricks Peter into heading down into the basement, the site of the Ecto-Containment Unit (where all the old ghosts are incarcerated), which he can shut down in order to release all the bad ‘uns. In a similar way to my above reasoning as to why vampires scared me so much (their closer resemblance to humans than any other monster of its kind), the possession factor is so scary because it takes a person we’ve come to know and trust and love and demonises them. Sometimes this is done by turning them into a vampire, as I discovered to my shock in the brilliant Attack of the Killer Tomatoes episode ‘Spatula, Prinze of Dorkness’ when lovely, sweet Tara is vampirised (an episode that utterly, utterly terrified me as a child). Still, multiply that terror a thousand fold for Peter’s own possession, which wasn’t simply scary – it was disturbing. Peter’s possessed face looks sickly, diseased even – the poisoned icing on this distinctly unpleasant cake is the close-up bit when Peter screams in a desperate attempt to win back control of his body, only for What to come back with a truly evil, demonic cackle. For a moment, Watt even looks set to have won, but in a remarkably rapid turnaround of events, good prevails about thirty seconds later. Yay!

See also: In another instance of  good guys taken over by bad things, think of poor Mags (Jessica Martin) at the end of Episode 4 of McCoy-era Doctor Who episode ‘The Greatest Show in the Galaxy’, where a fake full-moon proves enough to change her into a very scary werewolf. And it was shown before the watershed.

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4. The angel from the Ark in Raiders of the Lost Ark

The odd, unconventional ending to Spielberg’s amazing blockbuster chooses to feature its big, balls-to-the-wall action sequence before the finale – I mean, most people would save that truck chase for the final act, but instead that’s all over and one with before the real conclusion, an unexpected and totally terrifying sequence where the legendary Ark of the Covenant is unwisely opened up, unleashing the wrath of God onto any one not smart enough to have closed their peepers at the time. First of all the contents appear to be deliriously ethereal, with lots of dreamy swirly mist and a beautiful angel emerging from the mist to approach Paul Freeman’s deliciously mercenary and urbane villain Belloq, as well as super-creep Toht and deputy scumbag Deitrich. Thinking that the opening and exposure of the Ark will lead to guaranteed invincibility, Belloq can’t take all of this wonderment anymore – ‘IT’S BEAUTIFUL!!!’ he exclaims, and John Williams’ score seems to agree, but then all of a sudden the angel’s face becomes a horrifying skull that appears to sprout misty fangs! The music pulls of a tremendous switch, going all Psycho on us, and who can blame Toht for screaming like a little girl at that sight? What follows is a massacre from The Man Upstairs that is so horrific that it regularly tops polls for Most Horrifying Sequence in a PG film Ever. Yeah, you couldn’t ask for a more deserving bunch of victims, but it’s still terrifying. Much is mentioned of Temple of Doom’s darkness and unsuitability for younger viewers, but I only ever grew up with the heavily cut UK version of that film, so for me it was Raiders that was the really scary installment, and the only one that gave me sleepless nights. Whenever the film was on TV, I would cover my eyes during this ending. I could still hear it though. Shudder.

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5. Max Schreck (Christopher Walken) in Batman Returns

The greatest comic book movie of them all (shut up, it’s true) reaches a remarkable, deeply haunting and unforgettable finale where Batman (Michael Keaton) removes his mask in front of Catwoman (Michelle Pfieffer) to try and win her back from the dark side, but the truly evil tycoon/murdering bastard Max Schreck shoots the Caped Crusader and then puts bullet after bullet into his former employee as she approaches him in a state of near dazed delirium. He keeps shooting, but she keeps approaching him, right up until she has him cornered up against some seriously heavy duty electricals. There’s a touch of the supernatural about this sequel – I say that because how else do you explain Catwoman’s ability to withstand so many perilous drops from tall buildings, and in this case, point blank gunshot wounds? You could say that her psychosis has led her to truly believe in her ‘nine lives’ advantage and that it’s all a case of mind over matter, but either way, she’s willing to use another life up as she takes an exposed electrical cable and goes in for a very deadly kiss with Max, frying the both of them on the spot. Moments later, Batman searches through the resulting wreckage in an attempt to find Catwoman but she’s gone. All that’s left is a dead Max, now looking exceptionally freaky after his shocking demise. He no longer resembles himself at all – there’s just a morbidly ghoulish, charred visage that’s pure Tim Burton in its sideshow freakiness. His mouth seems to have elongated downwards to a staggering degree, as though he was truly left jaw-dropped by his encounter. His hair was always a shocking white, but here it looks more like a symptom of what’s just happened. We only see this face for a second or two, but when I saw it at the cinema back in 1992, it really stayed with me, and was just one of many examples of a superb, dark (as well as sad) conclusion to a summer blockbuster masterpiece, the best Batman film of the lot.