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