Another year, another new David Bowie box set with, among other things, a new take on an established classic.
Oh wait, this is Never Let Me Down we’re talking about here, right?
Bowie’s 1987 album, his seventeenth, is usually regarded as his absolute worst, his great misfortune, as bad as or even worse than its similarly lambasted predecessor, 1984’s Tonight. Thirty- one years later, it’s getting a belated makeover, or a dressing down at the very least. Each of the box sets in Parlophone’s Bowie retrospective programme has featured an alternate version of a particular studio album. The first two sets – Five Years and Who Can I Be Now? – featured down-mixed-from-5.1 versions of Ziggy Stardust and Station to Station respectively, but last year’s A New Career in a New Town went one step further and explicitly set out to improve what was considered by creators, critics and fans as a compromised album, 1979’s Lodger.
Lodger had been long criticised for it’s ‘muddy’ sound and was regarded as the runt of the Berlin Trilogy, so news of a buffed-up remix, addressing what producer Tony Visconti and Bowie had considered to be flaws in the production, was eagerly anticipated. Having initially struggled with the original album myself when I first heard it nearly twenty years ago, I soon came to adore Lodger, warts and all, and loved the messy, queasy, claustrophobic sound of it. I wasn’t sure it needed any further work, but I had to admit that the thought of it getting a makeover to approximate Bowie and Visconti’s original vision did intrigue me.
In the end Lodger ’17 was a bit of a disappointment – it sounded bigger for sure, but its cavernous drum sound sounded at odds with the original era, its revisionist mixing occasionally crass and clumsy. On the other end of the spectrum, the stuff originally on Lodger that was intentionally clumsy, most notably the famously twisted, atonal guitar solo at the end of ‘Boys Keep Swinging’, was removed, a decision I don’t think I’ve heard a positive word about. Lodger wasn’t perfect, but that kind of made it perfect in a weird way. After all, one of the album’s original titles was Planned Accidents, and this new mix made me realise that, yes, the album that we got in 1979 might not have been the one its makers had dreamed of, but it still turned out great. They should have left it alone. But then box sets aren’t sold with that kind of philosophy. They need tantalising hooks to draw us in. And that brings us to Never Let Me Down 2018, aka, Okay, We Admit It, We Let You Down.
Bowie’s 1980’s has been a problematic phase of the man’s career for many fans. If we put aside the valedictory, phenomenal achievement of 1980’s Scary Monsters (and Super Creeps) and the odd single like ‘Under Pressure’, nearly everything Bowie released in that decade was tarred with the ‘too commercial’ stick. Much of this music shifted units, but it didn’t rank as highly as Bowie’s 70’s, which, lest we forget, is home to one of the finest runs of recorded music ever released. Case in point: when EMI re-released the Bowie albums on CD in 1999, I remember reading a review in Q Magazine where the writer reckoned that Let’s Dance, despite selling more copies than any Bowie album, was in fact no one’s favourite Bowie album. That review was a long time ago, though, and I think things have changed and that quite a few people would indeed hold that album very dear to their hearts. Indeed recently, the band Let’s Eat Grandma, whose members weren’t even born when that Q review that came out, included Let’s Dance in their list of their thirteen favourite albums. So I guess anything can eventually rise to the top, and stuff that’s not initially considered ‘classic’ era material can mean just as much to a listener as say, Hunky Dory or Low. Yep. Anything.
Except Never Let Me Down.
I can say with complete confidence that it is definitely no one’s favourite David Bowie album, and I doubt it ever will be. It was intended by Bowie at the time as a return to rock roots and artistic form following his misplacement of the muse on 1984’s Tonight, an album not as quite horrible as you’ve heard, but nevertheless a somewhat thin stew of odds and sods, covers and tepid production. Still, it had ‘Blue Jean’ and ‘Loving the Alien’, not to mention the ambitiously bonkers ‘Dancing with the Big Boys’, so it had some merit. But at the time it was seen as a let-down. Three years later, during which time he’d worked in film, soundtrack work and of course, gave us ‘Dancing in the Street’, work on Bowie’s next album began. Peter Frampton was the new lead guitarist. Apart from the by-now-requisite Iggy Pop cover version, there was more original material on Never Let Me Down than there had been on a Bowie album since Scary Monsters. Also, Bowie was playing instruments again, even taking lead guitar on a few songs, the first time since…. is it Diamond Dogs?
Nevertheless, the released album did suffer from a lack of truly strong material, not to mention some questionably OTT production, and despite selling well initially (there were some good reviews too), it quickly came to encapsulate all that was wrong with 80’s Bowie in the eyes and ears of long-term fans and critics, not to mention Bowie himself. One fair criticism was that it could have been recorded by absolutely anyone, that it was pop/rock in the broadest and blandest sense (at least by Bowie’s standards). Bowie may have gone ultra-pop and sold millions with Let’s Dance, but he did so in a way that was supremely distinctive, mixing Nile Rodgers’ trademark funk with Stevie Ray Vaughan’s guitar howls. Never Let Me Down on the other hand, was seen as the dismal culmination of ‘what’s been referred to as The Phil Collins Years’. Bowie, it was said, had never been so irrelevant. When I first heard it, its reputation as a stinker was already set in stone (oh, let’s say one of those stepping stones from The Bog of Eternal Stench), and I didn’t think much of it either, bar the undeniable loveliness of the title track (more of which here). But time will crawl, and so eventually I returned to the album with even fewer expectations, and in that respect, it didn’t let me down. In fact, I found it quite entertaining, quite catchy, and, thanks to its glossy sheen, quite appealing. No, it’s not one of Bowie’s best albums, but there’s still plenty to enjoy, and I continue to appreciate it more and more.
I mean, this is the album that boasts the sparkling loveliness of the title track, the whirlwind rush of ‘New York’s in Love’, ‘the ugly/pretty’ bounce-funk of ‘Shining Star’ (yep, even the Mickey Rourke rap), the serious/goofy strut of ‘Beat of Your Drum’, the overblown but spectacular ‘Zeroes’…., and that’s not even mentioning the song that everybody’s legally allowed to like from the album, ‘Time Will Crawl’. Okay, not all the songs land, but I can’t help but warm to it. Bowie is on many levels is utterly untouchable and I find it quite endearing that he lost the plot a bit around this time, be it him rollerskating in the video to ‘Day-In Day-Out’, the This Morning/Pebble Mill-style daytime sax that introduces ‘Too Dizzy’, the WTF, out-of-nowhere concept that is ‘Glass Spider’ and its accompanying tour….ultimately I think its bad reputation is more to do with what is and what’s not deemed cool. It definitely doesn’t deserve one star out of five, which is what that Q review from decades ago gave it. Saying that, it is at most a fifth (arguably a twentieth) as good as Low, so maybe one star is appropriate, after all. And that’s why I hate star ratings. Look, if you like 80’s pop, you’ll probably enjoy it. Hey, if you like David Bowie, you’ll probably enjoy it. It isn’t ‘Starman’, but I don’t care. It is what it is. Take it or leave it.
Or….take it and remix it!
Well, not quite remix, because the novelty of the new Never Let Me Down is that, unlike Lodger ’17, where certain existing instrumentation was brought to the fore and others pushed to the background, here we have totally new sounds played by current musicians, including long-time Bowie collaborator Reeves Gabrels on guitar. In other words, it’s a case of ‘look, we couldn’t salvage this knackered old banger, so let’s just replace the parts’. Not all the parts, mind, but a fair few. The most obvious holdover from the original is obviously Bowie himself, who’s not around to redo his vocals. The fact that he’s not here anymore has led to some fans regarding this project as a desecration of his legacy, something made against his wishes and without his involvement. Yet it must be noted that Bowie had long expressed his satisfaction with Never Let Me Down , and had made a point of wanting to try re-do the album, and given that these box sets were most likely planned well in advance whilst Bowie was still alive, I can see this project being very much in line with his intentions. After all, the seeds for this project were sown around a decade ago, when a stripped down, reworked version of ‘Time Will Crawl’, mixed by Bowie collaborator Mario J. McNulty, was released as part of the iSelect compilation in 2008. It was drastically altered, with the bombast removed and its protest message more explicitly transparent. Since then though, there had been no further work done on the rest of the album’s songs.
So let’s track-by-track this thing. There are no tracklisting changes or shifting here, unless you count the continued absence of ‘Too Dizzy’, that notorious blast of throwaway sexism that Bowie deemed so objectionable he removed it from all pressings of the album from 1995 onwards. It’s kinda fun, moronically catchy even, but those lyrics about a jealous lover, including the infamous ‘who’s this guy I’m gonna blow away?/What kind of love is he giving you?’ couplet, was enough for Bowie to retrospectively scrap it. I can see why fans might be upset at its disappearance, and to be honest, if that’s where Bowie’s head was at the time of making it, then the album in all its pressings should continue to reflect that state of mind. Oh well, let’s start at the start, shall we?
The stomping ‘Day-In Day-Out’ was originally the lead single for the album, complete with mildly controversial video, a more socially-conscious Bowie lyric (which didn’t convince some) and a massive sound that seemed tailor-made for the stadiums (indeed, it was). As much as I like the song, it was probably the most anonymous Bowie single to date. It sounded like a million other songs from that time. It was good, but was that good enough? The new version does a fine job in easing you into this project gently – it’s different for sure, but compared to some of the later reworkings on this album, not so much so. The essence of the original is very much still there, and aside from those very cool Reeves Gabrels guitars which can’t help but make me think of later-period Bowie, it could pass quite easily as an genuine alternative take from 1987. I do miss the guitar that was in the background during the verses of the original, but overall this is a really good paring down of a song that admittedly suffered from an everything-but-the-kitchen-sink production. You know, synthetic, clipped brass. Drum machines. The works. It all became fatiguing after five minutes. On an aside, the vinyl version of Never Let Me Down featured shorter edits, and is slightly preferable to the CD release. The positives of the stripped new version is best showcased on the middle-eight, where the ‘la-la-la-la’s of the original, which used to be submerged, are now brought to the forefront and sound all the better for it. Overall, it’s like a layer of fat has been taken off the surface. Sometimes though, the stripped down approach leaves the song sounding incomplete – take that missing guitar in the verses that I mentioned earlier. It makes the song sound like a demo during these stages. However, at other times, when Gabrels’ new guitars take over (replacing the original, nondescript solo) near the end, the results are brilliant and stop the song from sinking into monotony like before.
The reworked ‘Time Will Crawl’ is already familiar to fans – I’ve got to be honest, and I never thought I’d say this about a track off this particular album, but this song has almost become overrated, in that it’s the only bloody song on the album that ever seems to get a good review at the expense of everything else, and yet I can sometimes take or leave it. It hits all the right notes and was the sort of thing that sounded good on the radio, but like ‘Day-In, Day-Out’ hardly outstanding. The 2008 MM mix got a lot of praise at the time for scaling back the original’s excesses, but I still think, even in this later version, that it’s merely a decent song, nothing special. Yet it is pretty well loved, even by Bowie himself. The newer version makes things a bit more palatable for the anti-80’s crowd – stronger acoustic guitars, less reverb, real drums, etc. but it also suffers from excessively dry vocal production, just like on the verses of the new ‘Day-In Day-Out’, and stuff like this makes the song occasionally sound like a demo or radio session. For all the flaws of the 1987 Never Let Me Down, at least it sounded like a proper, finished album! This is the problem with making songs ‘nude’, they sound incomplete as a result. On this basis I prefer the original ‘Time Will Crawl’. It sounds fuller.
Now, this is going to seem perverse, but seriously, I prefer ‘Beat of Your Drum’ to the two songs that precede it. In fact, I fucking love this song! On the original it was a very enjoyable mix of cavernous, exciting verses and a rambunctious, supremely dumb chorus that recalled Lou Reed’s similarly silly ‘Banging on Your Drum’. On the new version, the fun element has arguably been removed and in its place a more sober mood – this works well on the verses, where sharp strings replace the synths of before and prove almost as effective, but the once goofy, throwaway, carefree ebullience of the chorus now sounds older, more respectable – it’s still base-level (you can’t get away from that horny, salacious lyric), but more sophisticated, formal and mature, and I don’t know, maybe that makes the words even more decadent and wrong-sounding as a result? Like the Bowie on this version should really know better? Isn’t this song about shagging groupies, and young ones at that? It’s still a great new version though, and the first thing on ’18 that sounds like a genuine, startling alternative, not just a case of a bit of trimming here and there.
The title track was notably recorded after the bulk of the sessions for the main album, and ended up being the best thing on it. I wrote about this excellent song in further detail before, but just to recap, the 80’s bounce, the great use of slap bass (yes, you read that right), the lovely harmonica, the spot-on homage of Lennon with the vocals helped make it an utter delight of a song, and I think of all the tunes on the album, this is the one that didn’t need altering at all. Of course, that’s exactly what’s happened here. It’s a decent alternative – no slap bass, unsurprisingly – but it does sound a bit more lumpen compared to the original. The new bass feels too loud and overbearing too. To be honest, the original could never be bested in my ears, so that’s a point to the ’87 version.
‘Zeroes’ was confidently selected as the lead single for NLMD ’18 (it really should have been a single back in ’87), and it was a wise choice – not only is it the album’s most anthemic and joyous song regardless of whether your listening to it in ’87 or ’18, but the new version is a great example of the kind of changes this project has brought about. Originally it was a great, upbeat and admittedly overcooked explosion of a tune, but the new one strips it down and makes it more intimate and yet still huge. Both versions are excellent, and Peter Frampton’s sitar is wisely maintained on the new one, but it still has that ‘dry’ sound on the vocals that occasionally make it sound like a soundcheck.
Still, as much as ‘Zeroes’ has been given a new lease of life, none of the songs have been so drastically altered as the album’s erstwhile laughing stock – ‘Glass Spider’. Since Bowie’s vocals remain unchanged, his opening narration, which details the tiny glass arachnids mourning the disappearance of their formidable mother, is as crazy as ever. Close your eyes and you can almost glimpse a miniature model of Stonehenge being lowered onto the stage. In fact, the original ‘Glass Spider’ may very well be the most preposterous song in the entire Bowie canon. Once the music in the original kicked in, its theatrical, high-concept approach was at odds with the less fantastical tone of the rest of the album. Now however, the up-tempo music has been entirely altered to the extent that it sounds like something from 1.Outside, which is as about as far removed an album from Never Let Me Down as Young Americans is from Earthling. It’s doomy, dystopian and just like before, doesn’t really fit in with the rest of the album at all! I’m not sure if this is what Bowie had always preferred the song to sound like, but it sounds pretty damn good anyway!
‘Shining Star (Making My Love)’, despite lyrics alluding to Sinn Fein, bodies covered in scabs and whatnot, was musically the bounciest and most upbeat track on the album. Seriously, you could imagine the Gummi Bears doing their opening titles thing to this song. Maybe Bowie and his band originally recorded it on a trampoline, I don’t know, I haven’t checked. I wouldn’t be surprised though. Some find it unbearably silly, others (like me) think it’s immensely entertaining, especially Bowie’s almost wide-eyed vocal. This is also the song with Mickey Rourke providing a rap, a bizarre turn of events to say the least. The new version remains bouncy, but in a manner closer to 90’s trip-hop than the bubblegum pop of before. A little bit Black Tie, White Noise in fact. I’m surprised they didn’t get Al. Be Sure! to guest rap, but instead it’s Laurie Anderson who replaces Rourke, which is a bit of a cruel move, especially since her delivery is almost identical to Rourke’s anyway, but I guess the cool kids will find it easier to digest the hipper Anderson on record than the guy who ended up playing one of the title roles in Harley Davidson and the Marlboro Man. I hope this new version finds them well.
‘New York’s in Love’ is still a rush, but with an emphasis more on the stomp than the glide, with the drumming recalling the insistent beat of Reality‘s ‘Looking for Water’. On an unpopular album, ‘New York’s in Love’ is exceptionally unpopular, but I really like the original, especially the way it takes flight during the chorus. Like ‘Beat of Your Drum’, it rides along on sheer spirit and bounce. It’s very dumb, it’s not clever, but fuck it, I love it. Funny thing is, near the end of the song, I used to think Bowie sang ‘I can smell a B-side’, as though he knew this wasn’t one of his best songs and he was prepared to relegate it, but on the new version it’s more obvious that he sings ‘Ugly (or ‘ug-er-lee’) on each side’, which may also have been a critique of the original vinyl, I’m not sure. One thing’s for sure, Bowie’s love for the album dwindled sharply after its release. Very sharply. This new version is less excitable, and as such, less exhilarating, but it’s still a lot of fun. I like Gabrels’ guitars, occasionally sounding like vapour trails throughout and blending nicely with Frampton’s original leads. I miss the silly organ from the original though.
‘ ’87 and Cry’, whilst being reasonably catchy, is a pretty nondescript bit of filler on a notably nondescript Bowie LP. Musically, it’s the slackest, most throwaway thing on the album as it presently exists, and to be honest, by this stage, the dependence on straight-up rockers would start to get a bit wearying and conceptually depressing, even if it and the deleted ‘Too Dizzy’ fun bits of filler in themselves. The new version does a fair job in giving it some alternate oomph, I suppose. There’s not much I can say about this song. Skipping over the now deleted ‘Too Dizzy’, we come to closer ‘Bang Bang’, originally an Iggy Pop song from his Party LP, and a song that I had difficulty with on the old album – the production seemed especially dated, particularly during the chorus (the way everything came to a standstill just before Bowie sings ‘I got mine!’ seemed so silly), but I’ve come to like the song quite a bit, it gives the album a little extra push before calling time on Bowie’s commercial phase. One thing’s for sure, the original music better suited the original vocal, which was Bowie at his most flippant and cavalier. Replacing the ultra-glossy pop of ’87 with the moody ’18 music sounds bloody weird, to say the least. Bowie’s tongue-in-cheek voice mixed with an atonal string section makes for an unusual blend, and I’m left thinking – like ‘Glass Spider’, is this really what Bowie wanted ‘Bang Bang’ to sound like all along? Never mind, the awkward tension between old vocal and new music does give the song a new edge.
It sounds like I’ve been a bit dismissive of the new Never Let Me Down here. On the plus side, the changes are mostly impressive, and there’s nothing here as anachronistic as the weird percussive updates on last year’s Lodger. It’s very rewarding to hear the substantial alterations made to ‘Beat of Your Drum’, ‘Glass Spider’ and ‘Bang Bang’, and when the changes are more subtle, like on ‘New York’s in Love’ or ‘Day-In Day-Out’, the effect is quite pleasing. Nevertheless, I must admit that, having now listened to it, there’s something about this endeavour that I’m not sure about. I truly believe its intentions are noble and passionate, but I also feel at times like it’s trying too hard to court the cool crowd, the kind of listener who’s far too hip or even grouchy to admit liking the original version, as though its brash pop-rock hybrid was something dirty, something to be ashamed of. However, in draining the album of its excesses, some of the original spirit has been taken away too. The new version sounds more tentative, as though the music’s lost its nerve a little, opting to keep a cautious step back while Bowie’s original vocals remain set to full-throttle. Some songs, like ‘Time Will Crawl’ or ‘Never Let Me Down’ don’t match or provide a truly satisfactory alternative to the originals. Still, the whole enterprise works very nicely as an experiment, an interesting ‘what if?’ and I like to think that Bowie would have been very happy with it. I think a lot of listeners will prefer it to the original too. On one level it’s definitely ‘better’, in that all those embarrassing 80’s quirks that many would now consider dated have now been ditched, but you know, I like those quirks! Like it or not, the album is a part of Bowie’s canon, influenced by what came before and an influence on what came after. The album was a response to Tonight and in turn it paved the way for Tin Machine, and I’m glad Parlophone or whoever’s responsible have respected the original’s place in history by making sure it will still be the most commonly available edition (it’s guaranteed to get an individual reissue next year, while this new version will only be available as part of the box set), unlike the recent tinkering of some of Felt’s albums, where the first versions tragically look set to be consigned to obscurity.
So there you go, that’s the new Never Let Me Down. It’s definitely the best of the alternate versions of Bowie albums that these box sets have offered, and I’d like to think that it will also urge listeners to re-evaluate the original. Incidentally, I think this Loving the Alien box set marks the very first time that Bowie’s ‘Phil Collins Years’ have been focused on exclusively, with no overwhelming shadow from either the earlier, classic period or the later comeback material cast over it. On previous compilations and box sets, the likes of ‘Blue Jean’ and ‘Underground’ were always going to seem lightweight after “Heroes” and ‘Starman’ and ‘Golden Years’ and all that, but with strict emphasis on this period and with no distractions on either side, this era’s pleasures become all the greater – Let’s Dance sounds like a total classic for probably the first time since 1983, all those odds and ends on soundtracks shine even brighter (‘This is Not America’, ‘Absolute Beginners’ and ‘When the Wind Blows’ are absolutely ace, and in its own soppy way, ‘As the World Falls Down’ is really quite beautiful) and you realise that Tonight could have been much better if some of those alternate mixes found on the accompanying Dance compilation had been used instead.
The 80’s Bowie comeback starts here!