Thursday, 11 September 2014

Bowie - The Comeback King

When I published my first “Classic Albums” blog back in the summer of 2012, for “Ziggy”, everyone had assumed by this point that Bowie had retired - be it through ill health, an attempt to preserve his image, or simply to try and live a normal life. Little did anyone know that he was actually in the middle of making a new record.

The news, on his birthday in January 2013, that a new Bowie album called “The Next Day” was ready for release was a piece of marketing genius. It came so out of the blue, it was astonishing. I think I told somebody at work it was the single most important thing that had happened since the invention of the telephone. Only Bowie could have pulled a rabbit out of the hat like this. New (download only, admittedly) single online straight away, complete with video, followed by the preview of the album cover art, in which he simply recycled the cover of “Heroes” by sticking a great big white square over the was almost too clever for words. In this day and age where everybody is Instagramming everything they do, and telling you on Twitter they have just started a demo for the new album, which will be ready in 2 years time...well, for Bowie to return like this, it just showed you why he was always ahead of the game - and still was. Beyonce got a similar level of acclaim from the mainstream press when she did a similar thing at the end of the same year, but as ever, Bowie had really done it first. And to come from somebody who some people thought was on his deathbed - as I say, absolute indescribable genius.

Everything about this new record was executed brilliantly. A complete lack of interviews, no tour, new images slowly drip fed to the media at his own discretion, here was a man who did not need to be on Facebook every day posting pictures of his breakfast. And the fact that he was then rewarded with a number 1 album, after abandoning all the usual routes of promotion that are supposed to go into big releases like this, was so intelligent it hurts. Proof that selling your soul to radio playlist committees and TV interviewers can be avoided if you have the guts and bravado to do so. Christ, even the new Led Zeppelin reissues are being plugged months before they are due to come out - and they are not even properly new records! Furthermore, the LP itself was a great effort, not quite up to the standard of those 1970s ones obviously, but easily a match for it’s predecessor, 2003’s “Reality”, with several moments of unquestionable brilliance. Not only was the greatest musical artist of all time back, but he had not put a foot wrong at all as he executed his gloriously unconventional return.

Alongside the slow slew of EMI related cash in singles that have been trickling out since Spring 2012, Bowie’s return has resulted in new product both from his new album, and also from other sources - making the last couple of years something of a veritable Bowie feast. So I thought it would be worth just having a quick look at these releases, just to try and bring the story up to date from my last “normal” Bowie blog back in 2011, especially as there is a new 10" single ("Sue") out later this year to coincide with a new Bowie best of ("Nothing Has Changed") that, in it's 3-CD variant, will cover his career from 1964 to the present day.

The Next Day

Issued on the usual formats in March 2013, “The Next Day” was also available in 2 different CD editions - the increasingly common approach of releasing a “normal” version (Iso 88765 461862) and a “slightly posher, nearly deluxe” edition (Iso 88765 461922). The latter featured three extra tracks, taking the total on the album to 17 songs and a running time of just over an hour. A second “download only” single, “The Stars Are Out Tonight”, was released just before the LP release, before getting a Record Store Day release as a white vinyl 7” in April 2013 (Iso 88883 705557), backed with “Where Are We Now”, which had been the first download single. Extra copies were pressed for distribution around the EU, identifiable by an alternate catalogue number and, if you break the shrinkwrap, a different label design on the b-side.

The “white square” imagery was extended, in one form or another, to the subsequent releases. The title track was issued as a square shaped picture disc (Iso 88883 741287), although the “picture” was simply a white square with Bowie’s name and the song title on the front. Both sides played the album mix of the song. Follow up 45 “Valentine’s Day” (Iso 88883 756667) came in a sleeve which had, as it’s front cover, the lyrics printed on a white square - the single itself was a 7” picture disc, with closeup images from the original “Heroes” album cover adorning each side of the record. The b-side was one of the tunes from the “deluxe” version of the LP, “Plan”.

In November, the album was reissued in expanded boxset form as “The Next Day Extra” (Iso 88883 787812). The front cover was now a complete white square with name and title, the remnants of the “Heroes” cover from the original pressing no longer in situ on the front image. The new version of this album was a triple disc affair - the original 14 track album, a bonus album called “Extra” and a DVD with clips for all of the singles released so far, dubbed “Light“. Each disc came in it’s own sleeve, and there were several booklets as well, including one with nothing but blank white pages.

The bonus tracks from the original “deluxe” version were moved onto disc 2, where they were joined by 5 new songs and remixes of “Love Is Lost” and “I’d Rather Be High”. “Love Is Lost” was planned as the next single, and a video was made, meaning that the “Light” disc thus only featured some, and not all, of the promo clips for the record.

“Love Is Lost” appeared on 12” only (Iso 88843 016561), pressed on white vinyl, with the remix version serving as the A-side and the remix of “I’d Rather Be High” on the flipside. Again, the “white square” imagery was used as part of the artwork. The single included an exclusive track (for now), as a heavily edited mix of the remix of “Love Is Lost” finished the single.


The video and lyrics of “Where Are We Now” referenced Bowie’s time in Berlin in the late 70s, alongside - of course - the decision to recycle the artwork of “Heroes” that dated from the same period. This seemed to spur EMI into jumping on the bandwagon, and so in May 2013, they issued the 5xCD set “Zeit! 77-79” (EMI DBZEIT7779).

This box basically covered the “Berlin” years, featuring reissues of the three so-called ‘Eno Trilogy’ albums, “Low”, “Heroes” and “Lodger”, alongside the live album that appeared slap bang in the middle, 1978’s “Stage”. The catalogue number references the time frame in which the albums were released, although Low had been recorded during 1976.

As regards the three studio albums, these were repressings of the “bonus track-less” editions of the albums that EMI had reissued in 1999, and were still the current editions if you were to buy them individually in the shops. But “Stage” had been revamped in 2005, and the box included this edition - the original album remixed, extra tracks added, and the running order changed. For those of us old enough to have bought “Stage” years ago, who were then too lazy/skint to buy it again in 2005, well, appearing in a boxset which cost no more than “The Next Day” had done was too good to miss. Yes, this release screams “cash in” from start to finish - the packaging is relatively simple, just the CD’s shoved into an upturned slipcase which can make them difficult to ’extract’ - but it looks lovely, and does also show how, in such a short space of time, Bowie was virtually untouchable by this part of the decade - “Sound And Vision”, “Boys Keep Swinging”, “Blackout”, etc, etc, etc...solid gold from start to finish.

The 40th Anniversary Reissues

I do get confused nowadays as to which label owns which label, given that EMI and RCA - once rival record companies - all now seem to be part of the bigger Sony/Columbia Records conglomerate. But EMI still seems to exist in one form of another, albeit as part of the Parlophone imprint, which goes someway to explaining how alongside Bowie’s return, a series of seemingly unconnected releases have appeared from his (sort of) former record label.

Since 2012, each of Bowie’s UK single releases from the glam years have reappeared as 40th anniversary repressings. Some have been released as Record Store Day releases, thus doubling in price by the end of the day as they hit eBay, whilst others have seemingly been pressed in larger numbers, thus keeping the value down to a reasonable level - or maybe, it’s just that the RSD ones have had their values artificially affected upwards by the scalpers.

Either way, it’s difficult to ignore these releases, and whilst few are offering anything “new”, they are quite interesting and even I have found it difficult not to buy one when my local HMV decides to stock copies. Each of the reissues are 7” picture discs, with the original b-side altered for something else related to the period, and come in sticker sealed clear see through sleeves. Releases up to “Life On Mars” are on the EMI label, with all others appearing on Parlophone instead - but the basic concept remains.

I have already mentioned the 2012 reissue of “Starman” (EMI DBSTAR 40), which included on the flip the audio from the famous TOTP performance of the same song. This was a RSD release, so copies have now hit triple figures, ridiculous when you consider the original pressing is worth next to nothing in comparison. The reissue of “John I’m Only Dancing” (EMI DBJOHN 40) turned up later the same year, which did the clever - but pointless - thing of having the normal single mix on side A, and the “sax” mix on side B. Again, an original copy can probably be picked up in a charity shop for loose change, but the 2012 edition is hovering around the £35-50 mark.

The reissue of “The Jean Genie” (EMI DBJEAN 40) coincided with the US “Black Friday” event, but copies of the single were issued in both the US and the UK - again, UK copies are selling for similar amounts to “John”. The b-side is another one of those “live vocal” performances from “Top Of The Pops”, and in keeping with the two preceding releases, is thus an alternate version of the a-side. It is worth pointing out that whilst these TOTP mixes are the first time they have ever been released officially, it’s difficult to ignore the fact that these performances have been shown on TV in recent years, and going onto Youtube will give you both the sound - and vision.

The b-side of the first 2013 reissue, “Drive In Saturday” (EMI DBDRIVE 40), was another previously unreleased audio mix of something that exists online, a performance of the track on the Russell Harty show in 1973. But the first real rarity seemed to occur with “Life On Mars” (EMI DBMARS 40), which included on the a-side, a Ken Scott remix of the track, done back in 2003 for a seemingly abandoned reissue of “Hunky Dory”. The flipside is a live recording that had previously surfaced on the expanded 2003 reissue of “Aladdin Sane”, but this is all a bit academic, as there remains material on that record that has not resurfaced since. So not a real box ticker there - but worth getting for that A-side mix, even if it does sound fairly similar to the album version. Again, some editions of the new best of are planned to include this rarity.

“Sorrow” (Parlophone DBSOZ 4030) is a bit of a looker, although the photoshoot from which the image is taken was also the original home for the picture that adorned the - cheaper - black vinyl picture sleeved reissue from 1983. The a-side is the standard album mix off “Pin Ups”, albeit with a 2013 copyright date because of it being a digital remaster. The flipside is a live version taped in 1983, hence the “4030” catalogue number, lifted from the “Serious Moonlight” VHS.

“Rebel Rebel” (Parlophone DBREBEL 40) follows the same path as “John”, with the UK single mix on the A-side, but the freaked out US 7” mix on the flip. 2014’s RSD release was “Rock N Roll Suicide” (Parlophone DBROCK 40), which saw the price tag - on day one - hitched up to more than the releases that preceded, and indeed, followed it. Blatant profiteering and further proof that this event all seems like one big con which isn’t saving independent stores, but is adding to the major label‘s coffers. Anyway, I digress. Nice Ziggy image on the front, with the Hammersmith Odeon performance of the same song from the final Ziggy show (and album) on the other side.

The iconic “Dave plus Dog“ image was enough to entice me to shell out for “Diamond Dogs” (Parlophone DBDOGS 40) earlier this year, although again, there’s nothing here that we don’t already know about. The 7” edit on the A-side, and the version off “David Live” on the back. Sign of the times, is that the latter is the (apparently) slightly remixed 2005 remix, done for when the record was reissued, which is “making it’s debut on vinyl” this time around. Remember when the rage was for a vinyl recording being made available on CD for the first time? How times have changed.

Whilst these releases have generally been ("Jean Genie" aside) pitched at the UK market, there is another US one worth mentioning. In America, the “Diamond Dogs” long player was promoted at the time by the “1984” single, and the 2014 Record Store Day event over there saw a picture disc reissue of said 45. Suffice to say, it will cost you an arm and a leg to track this one down, and you will have more chance getting the original pressing (or the 1984 release issued to help promote the “Fame And Fashion” best of).

The next picture disc release in the UK is shaping up to be quite interesting. On the face of it, nobody really needs a reissue of “Knock On Wood” (Parlophone DBKOW 40). But 1974’s “David Live” was promoted by different singles on different sides of the Atlantic. So whilst the UK got this much maligned cover, the US got a live version of “Rock N Roll With Me”, and the forthcoming 7” release features KOW on side 1, and RNRWM on side 2 - with the single being marketed, of sorts, as a double A side release. This means that “Rock N Roll” is technically being released as a UK single for the first time ever. Both tracks again appear in their “tarted up” 2005 remix form.

Other Stuff

In my “Bowie On Vocalion” blog, I made reference to Bowie’s early period singles on the Parlophone label in 1965, one with The Manish Boys and one as “Davy Jones”. Both were later coupled together on an EMI 7” EP in the late 70s, and again in the 80s by See For Miles on a 10” and then a 12“, before resurfacing as a CD single in 1990.

Well, whilst Bowie’s current label were putting out their 2013 RSD release, EMI/Parlophone decided to get in on the act by releasing “Bowie 1965!” (Parlophone GEP 8968), a 7” that once again cobbled the four tracks from these two 45’s onto a single EP. Nice sleeve, and a nice idea to get all this stuff into one place again for those of us who simply cannot afford the original pressings, but the RSD connection has seen the price rise after day 1, and it hasn’t really dipped. Copies never seem to go below the £20 mark for it, whereas the earlier reissues, including the CD edition, are pitched somewhere nearer the £10-15 mark.

Not something I was ever aware of until recently, was the fact that in those pre-Space Oddity years, Bowie briefly joined a mod group called The Riot Squad, who existed for two or three years in the mid 60s, and went through an alarming number of lineup changes. They never managed a full album, but did issue several singles. By early 1967, Bowie had joined and became their latest singer. A number of songs were taped in the studio with him on vocals, but he left relatively quickly to resume his solo career and the release of his debut LP. These songs were unearthed in 2012 and made available to download, before all four songs turned up on the 2013 7” EP “The Toy Soldier” (Acid Jazz AJX 329S).

1 comment:

  1. A little bit of clarity about the "live" recordings on the 40th anniversary picture discs. Whilst all of the versions were being issued in "audio" form for the first time on these releases, several of the recordings had appeared officially in video form beforehand, on the "Best Of Bowie" DVD (namely "Starman" and "Drive In Saturday"). A Bowie on Video blog is in very early rough sketch form as I type this.