Monday, 1 November 2010

Bowie In The Eighties

It’s a strange fact of life, that simply selling a lot of records does not a great artist make. This is the entire principle upon which the likes of the X Factor is based, and yet David Bowie is a perfect example of how wrong this can be. The 1980's was the decade which saw David Bowie go from being popular to being incredibly popular, and yet it coincided with him making the worst albums of his career. Suffice to say, this being David Bowie, there were moments of genius throughout this period in his career, but every so often, Dave would misfire badly.

It was also the decade which saw multiple remixing, and multi formatting, of singles. Bowie generally reserved his greatest moments for his singles, making this aspect of his career quite fascinating. And at the same time, his former label were getting in on the act by reissuing his RCA era albums, over 20 singles, as well as issuing a series of “new” albums to try and compete with the EMI material. In this blog, we look at the good and the bad, and detail the essential items from this strange period of his career.

The EMI America LP’s

Bowie signed to EMI America in 1983. His signing was big news, as he was already quite a star by this point in his career - a press conference was held to publicise the signing, and his first album for the label followed soon after. “Let’s Dance” was Bowie’s attempt at making a 1980’s style pop record - he had always been seen as being ahead of the crowd in terms of the sound of his records, but actually drew inspiration from other acts when making these records, and “Let’s Dance” was no different. It was, on first listen, a far more ’straight-ahead’ record when compared to it’s predecessor, “Scary Monsters”, but the fact that it sounded different, was proof enough that Bowie was continuing to move forward. Just as the likes of Duran Duran went from “Planet Earth” to “The Reflex”, Bowie was moving from “Ashes To Ashes” to “Modern Love”, and this new sound was very much of it’s time. To be honest, “Let’s Dance”, was a bit more left field than it sounded - the title track was a good eight minutes long, and therefore, a slightly odd choice as lead single, whilst the likes of “Ricochet” had an energy and awkwardness about it which didn’t exactly make it easy listening. There were only eight songs on the record, with many of them a good five minutes in length. There was no feeling, when making the record, that Bowie believed it would be the album that would send his career into the stratosphere.

“Let’s Dance” got some good reviews upon release, although not necessarily great ones, and the title track became a big hit. The album sold heavily, and for a record that didn’t top any of the ones he’d made in the 70’s in terms of quality, perversely ended up becoming the biggest album of his career. Bowie’s sudden increase in popularity was not quite expected - the accompanying tour, dubbed the “Serious Moonlight” tour, had to be extended, and as well as playing the arenas to which Bowie had now become accustomed, he found himself playing stadiums as well for the first time in his career.

Some critics began to notice that something wasn’t quite right - a Channel 4 documentary covered the show at the Milton Keynes Bowl that summer, concluding that Bowie in a nice smart suit ,with his neat haircut, singing some pleasant songs to a crowd of 60000 people, didn’t seem right. This was a man who had always been on the fringes, who had never really been part of the mainstream, and yet here he was, playing the biggest show of his life but was not necessarily at the peak of his powers. It would prove to be an accurate sign of what was to happen next.

After the tour finished, Bowie took stock of what had happened. The album and the tour had generated more income than he’d ever experienced in his lifetime, and he secretly quite liked the idea of suddenly being rich and famous. Bowie had once claimed the only reason he belatedly toured the “Heroes” album in 1978 was because he needed the money, so to now be financially secure was quite something. And thus, this was the point at which Bowie panicked - he didn’t want to lose the new expanded fan base he had acquired, and therefore decided, for the first time in his career, to deliberately make an album that would attempt to emulate the success of it’s predecessor. And so, in 1984, Bowie issued “Tonight”, an unashamedly commercial sounding record co-produced with Hugh Padgham, a man whose reputation has often being queried by many music fans, as he seemed to be quite good at “blanding out” previously left-field acts - see Genesis for further evidence. “Tonight” was slated by the critics, the first Bowie album to get a real slagging in the press, but the fact was this - it achieved what it set out to do, as it went to number 1.

There seemed to be an element of laziness to “Tonight” - many of the songs dated from the late 70s, when Bowie co-wrote a number of songs with Iggy Pop for his “The Idiot” and “Lust For Life” records, and although Bowie has claimed he opted to record these songs so Iggy would gain much needed financial help from the royalties, critics of the record stated it gave the album a sense of being a “rush job”. The record was utterly schizophrenic - the title track was a mis-judged reggae duet with Tina Turner, and Bowie decided also to cover the un-coverable “God Only Knows” - and yet on the other side of the coin, the opener “Loving The Alien” was a majestic, epic work of beauty, better than anything on “Let’s Dance”, whilst the closer, “Dancing With The Big Boys”, had a ramshackle, couldn’t-care-less energy to it lacking from much of the remainder of the album. Furthermore, the lead single, “Blue Jean”, was accompanied by a 22-minute long promo video, a sign that Bowie was still prepared to veer off the mainstream path at times. It was, obviously, too long to be shown on TV, and ended up being released commercially as a one-track Video Single, titled “Jazzin’ For Blue Jean”.

The strange thing about Bowie in the 80s, was that he seemed to be reserving his best material for one-off singles. Midway through the “Tonight” promo campaign, he released a single with The Pat Metheny Group, “This Is Not America”, a stunningly beautiful piece of work, featuring one of Bowie’s best vocal performances, that outshone virtually everything on “Tonight”. But later in 1985, he blotted his copybook a bit with the Live Aid affiliated cover of “Dancing In The Street”, a slightly pointless remake with Mick Jagger. It did at least come with the campest video ever made in rock history though.

In 1986, Bowie contributed new material to not one, but THREE soundtracks. He recorded three new songs for the “Absolute Beginners” soundtrack - the single LP featured two of the recordings, the double LP had all three. Bowie, who also starred in the film, contributed the title track - a sumptuous, monumentally epic piece of genius, which remains to this day, one of the five best singles Bowie has ever released. Later the same year, he appeared in the “Labyrinth” movie and contributed several songs to the soundtrack. In recent years, “Labyrinth” has been described as an actual Bowie LP, the follow-up to “Tonight”, on the basis that half the songs on the record featured Bowie vocals, and many of the songs are not available on any other Bowie LP. “Underground” was issued as a single, which to these ears, sounded like a backwards step from “Absolute Beginners”, and seemed to be too in thrall to that over-produced mid 80's sound. “Magic Dance” was issued as a single in the US, but would not appear as an a-side in the UK until 2003, when it appeared as a limited, and remixed, 12”. Another song from the LP, “As The World Falls Down”, was planned to be issued as a 45 as well - a promo video was filmed, but the release was scrapped.

The third soundtrack appearance was “When The Wind Blows”, from the LP of the same name. The song was issued as a single by Virgin, but failed to generate much interest. Thereafter, Bowie returned to the studio to begin work on what would be his last solo LP for EMI America, “Never Let Me Down”. The album, ironically, let a lot of people down when it was released - it was an ever poorer effort than “Tonight” and was slated left, right, and centre. Bowie himself has all but disowned the record - he had reportedly lost interest in music during it’s creation, and seemingly went into the studio to tape his vocals, then went out to go out partying all night, leaving the producer and assorted session musicians to piece together the rest of the songs. Bowie would then apparently listen to a playback of the most recently recorded song, and as long as it had a start, middle and end, would give it the green light to appear on the album.

The three singles from the album tended to be the highlights, although the final track, another Pop/Bowie composition, “Bang Bang”, had a reckless abandon which saw it stand head and shoulders above the rest of the record. Once the album had been completed, Bowie began to wake up. Upon listening to a playback of the LP, he was unhappy with the song “Too Dizzy”, and wanted it taken off of the LP. But it was too late - the masters had already gone away, and the album was being pressed. Bowie therefore struck a deal - all future pressings of the record would not include the offending song - and despite the fact that the LP has been re-released several times since, and on different labels, it’s a promise that has been kept, making “Too Dizzy” one of the rarer items in the Bowie catalogue.

“Never Let Me Down” was unique amongst Bowie albums, but not other albums of the period, in that longer mixes of certain tracks were used on the Cassette and CD pressings. The lead single, “Day In Day Out”, was one such song - but the “short” mix on the LP was still actually longer than the edited version which appeared on the 7”. An accompanying tour, the “Glass Spider” tour, was an attempt to regain lost ground - Bowie made it a far more theatrical piece than previous tours, and also opted to include some obscure gems in the set list, such as “Sons Of The Silent Age”, off 1977’s “Heroes”. But it was all in vain - Bowie was struggling to come to terms with why he was playing to the biggest crowds of his career, whilst promoting his worst album, and didn’t really enjoy the tour; he also cringed at footage of an early show, where he deemed the giant spider that was straddling the stage to not look much like a spider at all. Bowie could not wait for the tour to come to an end, which it did, in New Zealand in November 87, and Bowie reportedly helped destroy the stage set after the final show.

The EMI America Reissues

In 1995, Virgin acquired the rights to re-release the three EMI America albums, each with extra tracks. However, the choice of bonus material was less than inspiring. “Let’s Dance” was reissued with the ’short’ version of “Under Pressure” as the sole extra track, but this very same song had appeared on 1993’s “The Singles Collection”, so it was a fairly pointless re-release. “Tonight”, on the face of it, looked more interesting - but it wasn’t. The three bonus tracks all stemmed from the soundtrack contributions Bowie had made in 85/86, but the choice of tracks didn’t really tick any collectors boxes. “This Is Not America” had also appeared on “The Singles Collection”, whilst the version of “Absolute Beginners” was the original album version - but given that Bowie’s other contributions to said soundtrack were unavailable on any other release, this meant you still had to buy the soundtrack LP anyway. Ditto “As The World Falls Down” - this was one of numerous songs from the “Labyrinth” LP that Bowie had recorded, and it’s inclusion here didn’t mean you didn’t have to buy the soundtrack, so it was all a bit academic. An unreleased edited mix of the track exists, but it’s the album version which appears here.

Strangely, it was “Never Let Me Down” that was the pick of the bunch. The reissue used the original “extended” mixes from the original CD, and added three interesting bonus tracks. In addition to the album mix of “When The Wind Blows”, two B-sides from the period were also included - “Julie” and the ‘extended edit’ mix of “Girls”. None of these tracks had been included on any previous Bowie record up to this point.

In 1999, all of Bowie’s albums from 1969 to 1989 were reissued by EMI, but without bonus tracks. Sadly, these are the editions still available in the shops, and it seems unlikely the EMI America albums will be reissued in an expanded form again, such is their poor reputation.

Essential Purchases - EMI America

Below I have listed what I consider to be the most important releases, album wise, from the EMI America period. Of course, your opinion may differ - but at least buying the releases below will provide you with everything you need from this part of Bowie’s career.

Let’s Dance (1983, LP, EMI America AML 3029)
Let’s Dance (1983, Picture Disc LP in clear sleeve, EMI America AMLP 3029)
Let’s Dance (1983, Cassette in slightly different p/s, EMI America TC-AML 3029)
Tonight (1984, LP, EMI America DB 1)
Absolute Beginners (1986, 2xLP, Virgin VD 2514, includes “Absolute Beginners”, “Volare” and “That’s Motivation”)
Labyrinth (1986, 1995 CD, EMI CDFA-3322, includes six Bowie songs, including unique version of “Underground“, this edition currently referred to by EMI as being a “David Bowie” release, rather than a soundtrack)
Never Let Me Down (1987, LP, EMI America AMLS 3117, 11 track edition first pressing includes “Too Dizzy”)
Never Let Me Down (1987, 1995 CD, Virgin CDVUS 98, includes extended versions of seven of the ten original tracks, plus 3 bonus tracks including “When The Wind Blows“ and extended version of “Girls“)

The EMI America 45's

Thankfully, Bowie’s best moments from this decade were his singles, so you can happily buy them without feeling too guilty - although I will admit, I hated “Modern Love“ for years. Even “Dancing In The Street” isn’t that bad. The Eighties were also the decade of excess, so all of Bowie’s singles were issued on several formats. At the time, any potential buyer would have found themselves having to buy several singles more than once, as there were different mixes on different formats, but there have been several reissues and compilations since which have negated the need to buy some of these versions. However, what should be noted is on the singles where there were more remixes than you could shake a stick at, many of these mixes have NEVER reappeared on a Bowie collection.

Unlike the seventies Bowie, where virtually every A side, B side, and “Edit” later made it onto a best-of collection, the eighties Bowie produced too many “singles rarities” for them to all get a second lease of life on CD. In a future blog, we shall detail which mixes appeared again on the multitude of compilations released after 1992, but for now, on a year by year basis, this is what happened:

“Let’s Dance” was issued on both 7” and 12”, with the re-recorded “Cat People”, later to be in included on the LP, on the B-side. The 7” featured an edited mix of the A-side, later available on the aforementioned “The Singles Collection”.
The 12 of “China Girl” included a new remix of album track “Shake It”. A 7” picture disc was also issued, with the album mix of “Shake It” on the b-side, and an edited mix of the A-side - this mix, again, is also available on “The Singles Collection”.
“Modern Love” was also issued on 7” and 12”, with a live version on the B-side of each. The 7” featured an edited mix, also made available a decade later on “The Singles Collection”.

Both “Blue Jean” and “Tonight” were released on 7”, but featured album mixes of album tracks. The 12” editions featured multiple remixes, making them the essential format.

“This Is Not America” appeared on both 7” and 12”, the latter housed in the same picture sleeve but with a thick white border. The b-side, being Bowie-less, was simply credited to “The Pat Metheny Group”.
“Loving The Alien” was issued on 7” and 12”, with different mixes on each - both format was available on black vinyl or as a picture disc.
“Dancing In The Street” was also issued on 7” and 12”, and again, both featured exclusive mixes.

“Absolute Beginners” was issued on numerous formats, including two CD single versions (3” and 5”) - the “extended play” formats used the album mix on the A-side, the 7” used an edited mix, which was later used on “The Singles Collection”. A “Dub” mix appeared on the B-side of all formats.
The black vinyl 7” of “Underground” featured an edited mix on the A-side, and a unique edited instrumental mix on the flip, the 12” featured three different remixes.
“When The Wind Blows”, Bowie’s last stand-alone 45 of the decade, was issued on both 7” and 12”. When originally released, the a-side of each featured a mix that would not be available on a Bowie collection for some years, but the album mix of the track which graced the 7” was then made available on the “expanded” edition of “Never Let Me Down” in 1995, as mentioned earlier.

“Day In Day Out” was originally made available on 7” and two 12” singles, with the 7” featuring an at-the-time exclusive edited mix - this is now also available on “The Singles Collection”.
“Time Will Crawl” was issued on multiple formats - of the four that were issued, only the standard 7” is a pointless release, the second 7” housed in a fold out sleeve for some reason featured a shortened version of the A-side. A 12” also exists, but contains material that has since been made on other essential Bowie releases.
“Never Let Me Down” was also issued on multiple formats, but only the 12” and Cassette formats feature exclusive mixes, although vinyl lovers may wish to indulge in the 7” picture disc that was also available.

Listed below are what I would consider to be the “essential” releases. Where a single is listed on more than one format, this indicates that neither format includes exclusive material, or that each format listed DOES include exclusive material. Picture discs are also listed in addition to the standard black vinyl releases. Any other formats which exist but no longer contain exclusive mixes are not listed for clarity.

Let’s Dance (Edit)/Cat People (Putting Out Fire) (7”, EMI America EA152)
Let’s Dance/Cat People (Putting Out Fire) (12”, EMI America 12 EA 152)
China Girl/Shake It (Re-Mix) (12”, EMI America 12 EA 157)
China Girl (Edit)/Shake It (7” Picture Disc in clear sleeve, EMI America EAP 157)
Modern Love (Edit)/(Live Version) (7”, EMI America EA 158)
Modern Love (LP Mix)/(Live Version) (12”, EMI America 12 EA 158)
Blue Jean (Extended Dance Mix)/Dancing With The Big Boys (Extended Dance Mix)/(Extended Dub Mix) (12”, EMI America 12 EA 181)
Tonight (Vocal Dance Mix)/Tumble And Twirl (Extended Dance Mix)/Tonight (Dub Mix) (12”, EMI America 12 EA 187)
This Is Not America +1 (7”, EMI America EA 190)
This Is Not America +1 (12” in different p/s with poster, EMI America 12 EA 190)
Loving The Alien (Re-Mixed Version)/Don’t Look Down (Re-Mixed Version) (7”, EMI America EA 195)
Loving The Alien (Re-Mixed Version)/Don’t Look Down (Re-Mixed Version) (7” Shaped Picture Disc in clear sleeve, EMI America EAP 195)
Loving The Alien (Extended Dance Mix)/Don’t Look Down (Extended Dance Mix)/Loving The Alien (Extended Dub Mix) (12”, EMI America 12 EA 195)
Loving The Alien (Extended Dance Mix)/Don’t Look Down (Extended Dance Mix)/Loving The Alien (Extended Dub Mix) (12” Picture Disc in clear sleeve, EMI America 12 EAP 195)
Dancing In The Street (Clearmountain Mix)/(Instrumental) (7”, EMI America EA 204)
Dancing In The Street (Steve Thompson Mix)/(Dub Version)/(Edit) (12”, EMI America 12 EA 204)
Absolute Beginners (Edit)/(Dub Version) (7”, Virgin VS 838)
Absolute Beginners (LP Version)/(Dub Version) (12”, Virgin VSG838-12)
Absolute Beginners (LP Version)/(Dub Version) (3” CD, Virgin CDT 20)
Absolute Beginners (LP Version)/(Dub Version) (5” CD, Virgin CDF 20)
Absolute Beginners (Edit)/(Dub Version) (Square Shaped Picture Disc in clear sleeve, Virgin VSS 838)
Underground (Edit)/(Edited Instrumental) (7”, EMI America EA 216)
Underground (Edit)/(Instrumental) (Shaped Picture Disc in clear sleeve, EMI America EA 216)
Underground (Extended Dance Version)/(Dub Mix)/(Instrumental) (12”, EMI America 12 EA 216)
When The Wind Blows (LP Version)/(Instrumental) (Shaped Picture Disc in clear sleeve, Virgin VSS 906)
When The Wind Blows (Extended Mix)/(Instrumental) (12”, Virgin VS 906-12)
Day In Day Out (Extended Dance Mix)/(Extended Dub Mix)/Julie (12”, EMI America 12 EA 230)
Day In Day Out (Remix)/(Extended Dub Mix)/Julie (Remix 12” in stickered die cut sleeve, EMI America 12 EAX 230)
Time Will Crawl (Edit)/Girls (7”, EMI America EA 237 - all editions in poster bag sleeve believed to play edited mix, but some/all editions in standard sleeve believed to play album version)
Time Will Crawl (Dance Crew Mix)/(Dub)/Girls (Japanese Version) (Remix 12” in unique p/s, EMI America 12 EAX 237)
Never Let Me Down/87 And Cry (7” Picture Disc in clear sleeve, EMI America EAP 239)
Never Let Me Down (Extended Dance Mix)/87 And Cry/Never Let Me Down (Dub)/(Acappella) (12”, EMI America 12 EA 239)
Never Let Me Down/Day In Day Out (Groucho Mix)/Time Will Crawl (Extended Dance Mix)/87 And Cry (Cassette, EMI America TCEA 239)

Note: a live version of "Tonight", recorded with Tina Turner and issued on her label, was also issued as a single during this decade.

RCA, and the “Cash In” Collections

Whilst EMI America were unwittingly releasing the weakest records of Bowie’s career, RCA decided to get in on the act by issuing a series of albums consisting of material taped during his time on the label the previous decade. They secretly must have felt quite proud that they had the rights to the really good stuff.

In 1982, they started the ball rolling with “Rare”, an LP cobbling together a series of stray A and B-sides, and several recordings never before released in the UK - namely the Italian version of “Space Oddity”, the German version of “Heroes”, and the heavily edited US single mix of “Young Americans”. The album has never been reissued on CD, on the basis that most of the tracks are available on other Bowie collections or repressings, but not necessarily in the form that they appear here - the 7” edit of “John I’m Only Dancing (Again)” which appears on “Rare” has never been issued on an subsequent Bowie release.

In 1983, RCA released arguably the best Bowie record of the decade, in the form of “Ziggy Stardust The Motion Picture”. The album was effectively a soundtrack from a recently released Betamax & VHS documenting Bowie’s final show of the 1973 Ziggy Stardust tour, at London’s Hammersmith Odeon on July 3rd. The fact that the show had been filmed was a bit of a fluke - Bowie was supposed to be heading off on a US tour soon after, and the show was simply being filmed as it was the last UK gig. However, in the weeks leading up to the show, Bowie decided he had to kill the Ziggy character off, and announced to a handful of people close to him that the July 3rd show would be the end. Some members of his band only found out when he famously announced on stage, “not only is it the last show of the tour, but it’s the last show we’ll ever do”.

The LP came in a slightly different sleeve to the video release (although the actual photo was the same), and whilst the video featured most of the gig intercut with backstage footage, the album obviously just concentrated on the music side of things, although some songs were cut or edited, and the running order on the record differed from the running order of the show itself.

In 1983, RCA issued the slightly bizarre “Golden Years” - complete with a “Let’s Dance” era cover shot, it threw in several hit singles, plus some more random album tracks. Exactly who RCA were aiming this at, other than the completists, is unsure. As mentioned last month, “Fashion” was reissued as a German only 12” to coincide.

In 1984, RCA issued “Fame And Fashion” - it was billed as ‘Bowie’s All Time Greatest Hits’, and although it did consist entirely of singles, not everything on it had actually been released as a single in the UK. RCA were coming in for a bit of a slating from various people, including Bowie himself, for recycling these songs again and again, but RCA defended this particular album on the basis that it was the first Bowie “hits” set to be issued on the new-fangled Compact Disc format.

In 1986, a year after reissuing the original RCA albums on CD (including the two “ChangesBowie“ collections), Bowie got the entire set withdrawn from sale and there would be no more material from RCA. Future re-releases of this material would appear on EMI, authorised by Bowie second time around.

Listed below are the “new” RCA releases from this period. I have not detailed the reissues of the studio/live albums and singles from the 60s and 70s that re-appeared during this period, as this was covered in last month’s blog.

Rare (1982, LP, RCA PL 45406)
Ziggy Stardust - The Motion Picture (1983, 2xLP, RCA PL 84862)
White Light White Heat (Live)/Cracked Actor (Live) (1983, 7”, RCA 372)
Golden Years (1983, LP, RCA PL 14792)
Fame And Fashion (1984, LP, RCA PL 84919)

It’s worth noting that the “Ziggy” LP got a reissue in 2003, with remixed sound, and unedited versions of “Cracked Actor” and “The Width Of A Circle”. I shall cover this in more detail in a future blog.


Midway through the “Glass Spider” tour, Bowie was introduced to fellow musician Reeves Gabrels. Gabrels agreed with Bowie that the music he was making was “below par” and after the tour was completed, the pair headed off to the studio, determined to make music together. It wasn’t sure if Bowie would make another solo album, with Gabrels as his right hand man, and after a new version of “Look Back In Anger” was taped, but not released, the relationship morphed into the formation of Tin Machine. We shall look at this band in next months blog.

Further reading:
Bowie Wonderworld:

1 comment:

  1. Hi Jason,
    This was a very interesting article,which brought back a lot of memories of watching on dismayed as the great David Bowie slid deeper and deeper into mediocrity and irrelevance as the horrible '80's progressed.
    You might like to read my blog:
    which I set up to publicise my very '80's Bowie-centric fiction novel "Catch a Falling Star".

    Peter Haywood