Who Can I Be Now? asks the title of Parlophone’s second in a series of elegant, chronologically-assembled box sets dedicated to the late David Bowie’s oeuvre. Indeed, Bowie might have made that query as he reinvented himself in fashion and music from album to album. The twelve discs comprising Who Can I Be Now? span the brief period of 1974-1976 during which time Bowie was riding high on both sides of the Atlantic with his genre- and gender-bending brand of theatrical rock. This set, every bit as lavishly packaged as its predecessor Five Years 1969-1973, paints a gripping portrait of an artist in the throes of perpetual transition – from glam to “plastic soul” to cool art-rock. As Bowie was keenly attuned to both the times and his own artistic development, this box makes for an organic and compelling journey from Ziggy Stardust to The Thin White Duke.
Five albums are at the heart of this 12-disc collection: Diamond Dogs (1974), David Live (1974), Young Americans (1975) and Station to Station (1976) as well as Live Nassau Coliseum 1976 (2010). Four additional albums offer alternate points of view on that familiar quartet of releases. Most surprising about Who Can I Be Now? is the inclusion of The Gouster, a work-in-progress version of Young Americans that deviates from the pattern established on Five Years of presenting only material contemporaneous to the original album releases (and dropping numerous bonus tracks excavated on past reissues), plus subsequent remixes.
Though Ziggy dramatically retired onstage in July 1973, months before work began on Diamond Dogs, the alien’s spirit was alive and well on the album. Bowie’s farewell to glam, it opens Who Can I Be Now? in a strikingly crisp remaster of Bowie and Tony Visconti’s original LP mix. Diamond Dogs famously was inspired by Bowie’s attempt to musicalize George Orwell’s 1984 for the stage. Though it wasn’t until 2015 that the artist made his theatre debut as a composer-lyricist with Lazarus, Diamond Dogs showcased some of his strongest writing to date, drawing on – but not beholden to – the novel’s dark, futuristic sci-fi themes. (The opening cut, the brief recitation “Future Legend,” is spoken over an electric guitar wailing Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart’s “Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered” – a tip of the hat to past musical theatre writers, a subtle lyrical comment, or something else entirely?) From the anthemic “Rock and Roll with Me” to the expansive, stage-worthy “Big Brother,” Diamond Dogs showed Bowie working on a widescreen canvas. The gleefully trashy hit single “Rebel, Rebel” didn’t have too much to do with Orwell, but reaffirmed his supremacy at pop songwriting even when pushing the envelope.
David Live arrived in stores roughly five months after Diamond Dogs, culled from five July 1974 gigs at Philadelphia’s Tower Theatre. (The City of Brotherly Love would, of course, figure prominently into Bowie’s next studio release.) The live album is presented in two distinctive versions on the new box: the original 17-track ’74 version as newly remastered; and the 21-track 2005 remix, also newly remastered. Alas, the live album couldn’t capture the thrilling visuals and lighting created by Broadway’s Jules Fisher (Jesus Christ Superstar, Pippin), but it did provide an exciting mini-overview of Bowie’s career to date featuring a number of songs off Diamond Dogs (“1984,” “Rebel Rebel,” “Sweet Thing/Candidate,” “Big Brother,” “Diamond Dogs”) plus tracks from all of his previous original studio albums as far back as 1969. The 2005 mix is much clearer and more present, not to mention more complete, but the compilers are be commended for including the original, as well.
In any standard Bowie chronology, Young Americans would come next. But Who Can I Be Now? instead premieres The Gouster, an early, seven-song version of the album primarily recorded at Philadelphia’s Sigma Sound Studios by Bowie and Tony Visconti. Plans originally called for the sessions to feature MFSB, Philadelphia International’s famed rhythm section. The fact that Bobby Eli, Norman Harris, Ronnie Baker, Vince Montana and co. didn’t get the chance to play with Bowie remains a true missed opportunity; only MFSB percussionist/conga player Larry Washington participated. So Bowie’s hired guns, including Carlos Alomar and Earl Slick on guitar, Emir Ksasan and Willie Weeks on bass, Mike Garson on keyboard, David Sanborn on sax, Dennis Davis and Andy Newmark on drums, soaked up the good vibes at Sigma Sound to create the artist’s “plastic soul” sound. Ava Cherry, Robin Clark and Luther Vandross were among the soulful background vocalists.
The Gouster was so named for a term understood by Bowie as referring to a type of dress worn by hip, young African-Americans in 1960s Chicago. It begins with “John, I’m Only Dancing (Again),” the lithe, soul-and-saxophone-infused remake of Bowie’s 1972 single “John, I’m Only Dancing.” (The version on The Gouster was first issued in 1979 as a 12-inch single.) The reflective “Who Can I Be Now?” and the moody, epic “It’s Gonna Be Me” (featuring Mike Garson’s evocative piano but not Tony Visconti’s subsequently-overdubbed strings) first surfaced in 1991 on Rykodisc’s expanded reissue of Young Americans. The latter sounds a bit like something Bowie would have written for Billy Paul at his most passionately tortured, and even the song’s dynamics show the Philly soul influence. “Somebody Up There Likes Me,” “Right,” “Can You Hear Me” and “Young Americans” all eventually ended up on the completed Young Americans. “Right” and “Can You Hear Me” are among Bowie’s most subtly in-the-pocket, tightly-arranged soul grooves, while the funky, irresistibly infectious eventual title track proves that so-called plastic soul can be as powerful as the real thing.
The Gouster doesn’t pack quite the same punch as the finished Young Americans which includes the New York recordings “Fascination” and “Win” as well as “Fame” and a cover of The Beatles’ “Across the Universe,” the latter two recorded in the Big Apple with John Lennon. But it’s a moodier, more contemplative R&B record. Without the New York tracks, it’s also closer to its initial inspirations and perhaps a bit more “authentic” for it. While it won’t supplant Young Americans, The Gouster is a curio that certainly warrants repeated listening. For its part, Young Americans (which yielded Bowie’s first No. 1 single on the Billboard Hot 100 with the Lennon co-write “Fame”) has been freshly remastered for the box set, adding to its vibrancy and sonic polish.
1976’s Station to Station found Bowie adopting a persona that would become as iconic as Ziggy Stardust. The Thin White Duke, sleekly and stylishly attired in a white shirt, black pants and a waistcoat, was introduced on the opening title song: “The return of the Thin White Duke/throwing darts in lovers’ eyes,” Bowie croons ominously. The 10 minute-plus composition finds Bowie in frank mode: “It’s not the side effects of the cocaine/I’m thinking that it must be love.” Musically, he was in a new place, as well. Recording at Hollywood’s Cherokee Studios, the soulful vocalist of Young Americans was present, but the music itself had taken on a metallic sheen inspired by the electronic sounds coming out of Europe. Even the disco-tinged “Golden Years” (the obvious single, probably to the relief of RCA executives) had a dark edge. After all, the Thin White Duke was, to repeat an oft-quoted remark of Bowie’s, “a nasty character, indeed.”
A more sensitive side came out on “Word on a Wing,” featuring one of the singer’s most accomplished vocals as he tackled the big questions of life and religion. Roy Bittan of The E Street Band turned in deft keyboard work on this gospel-influenced track. The slick, crunchy rocker “Stay” most overtly plays off Bowie’s past work, with grungy, glam guitars. The band was one of Bowie’s tightest ensembles, anchored by guitarists Carlos Alomar and Earl Slick, and also consisting of bassist George Murray, drummer Dennis Davis and Bittan on keyboards.
With just six tracks, it’s no surprise that each one on Staton to Station is a winner. “TVC 15” is one of Bowie’s most comical songs, marrying a science-fiction lyric reportedly based on an Iggy Pop story related to Bowie about a girlfriend being eaten by her television set. The rollicking backing track boasts a killer piano part and remained a staple of the artist’s live set for years to come. Bowie defied expectation with the album’s final track, a cover of the Dimitri Tiomkin/Ned Washington ballad “Wild is the Wind,” a staple of Johnny Mathis’ catalogue. Legend has it that Frank Sinatra poked his head into the Los Angeles studio to join Bowie for a playback of this track while Sinatra was recording next door. The Chairman is said to have approved.
Station to Station is presented twice on Who Can I Be Now? – once in a beautiful 2016 remastered version of Bowie and Harry Maslin’s original album mix, and once in Maslin’s 2010 remix and master. The 2010 version was remixed for 5.1 as presented on EMI’s colossal Station box set, and folded down to stereo by Maslin. It adds presence and clarity to Bowie’s lead vocals, making for a different but equally valid aural experience. Complementing Station here is the 2-CD Live Nassau Coliseum 1976 in its 2010 master also initially released in that EMI box. There’s tremendous frisson from Bowie in this performance, clearly relishing his reinvention as The Thin White Duke, and backed by a top-notch band including Alomar, Davis and Murray, plus guitarist Stacey Heydon and keyboardist Tony Kaye. Four of the six Station tracks are reprised on these live discs, plus songs from Diamond Dogs, Young Americans, and more.
The final disc of Who Can I Be Now? is the second volume of Re:Call. Its thirteen cuts are all single versions from around the world originally released in conjunction with Diamond Dogs, David Live, Young Americans and Station to Station. As Bowie’s singles of the era had major variations in length and mixes, Re:Call 2 is an essential component of the box, and some are new to CD including the original U.S. single mix of “Rebel Rebel” (radically different from its opening moments onward), the Australian single edit of “Diamond Dogs” and the single edit of the live “Rock ‘n’ Roll with Me.” There’s been a great deal of understandable frustration that this series of boxes has largely overlooked the past bonus tracks associated with albums such as Diamond Dogs and Young Americans; as these sets have clearly been crafted with great know-how and intention by the late artist and his team, one hopes that they will recur on a future volume or companion disc.
Like its predecessor Five Years, Who Can I Be Now? is an immaculately designed and packaged collection. Each disc is housed in a mini-LP replica jacket (some are gatefolds) with spines, each containing plastic and paper inner sleeves. Additionally, there are other “treats” in the sleeves such as a David Bowie fan club application in the ’05 David Live or a period advertisement and lyric sheet in Young Americans. The original albums are all outfitted with period orange RCA-style replica labels. The high level of attention to detail here is evident throughout the enclosed 128-page hardcover book.
The lavishly illustrated and annotated book will enrich one’s enjoyment of the box set, presenting copious information on each of the albums. It’s a coffee table book in miniature. In lieu of conventional liner notes, each “chapter” features various articles, interviews and essays – both new and period – detailing an aspect of the album. Highlights include a 1974 interview between Bowie and author William Burroughs, original concert reviews from Melody Maker and The Philadelphia Inquirer, a Rolling Stone piece about Bowie’s “Philly Stopover,” numerous reproductions of handwritten lyrics, and technical notes from Tony Visconti and Harry Maslin.
Who Can I Be Now? 1974-1976 is a rewarding and richly fascinating tribute to an uncompromising artist, chronicling one of his most creatively fertile periods in superior sound and presentation. Casting some of David Bowie’s greatest works in full context, it sheds light on the “golden years” of an eternal rebel and makes a stunning addition to any music lover’s shelf. Hot tramp, you’ll love it so!
In addition to the CD box set, Who Can I Be Now? 1974-1976 is available in a 180-gram vinyl box set and in various digital iterations. There are two hi-res editions: 192kHz/24 bit and 96kHz/24 bit. Neither of these editions contain the alternate mix versions of David Live or Station to Station, or the Nassau concert or Re:Call album. The regular digital download edition contains all of the audio content and is also available in a Mastered for iTunes edition (although the Nassau concert and Re:Call album will contain the same mastering in both versions).