I. Art Decade
Keep Up with David's Changes, read an insert from the David Bowie Fan Club packaged in original pressings of the artist's 1977 album Low and painstakingly replicated on the edition included in the new 11-CD (or 13-LP) box set A New Career in a New Town 1977-1982. Indeed, it was no small feat to follow the restless artist's many transformations. 1975's Station to Station saw the formal introduction of The Thin White Duke, a nattily-dressed but rather unpleasant fellow; who would the chameleonic musician become next?
A New Career, Bowie's third chronological box set, follows him from the remarkable experimentation of the so-called "Berlin Trilogy" (Low, Heroes, and Lodger) to the return-to-commercial form of Scary Monsters (And Super Creeps) as well as a live album (Stages) and various one-offs, including diverse collaborations with Giorgio Moroder, Queen, and Bing Crosby. As with the past boxes in this series, the beautifully lavish A New Career includes new versions of classic albums (in this case, Lodger and the live Stage) along with a Re:Call volume of odds and ends. Yet this set isn't without controversy, with Parlophone addressing certain audio issues in an official statement and about to offer a replacement disc program. (See below for full details.)
Low (1977), Bowie's eleventh studio album, inaugurated what would come to be known as The Berlin Trilogy, but in fact, was primarily recorded in France at Château d'Hérouville, a.k.a. the Honky Château. (It was mixed at Hansa Studios in West Berlin.) In 1976, Bowie retreated to Europe to escape a debilitating drug addiction, living in Switzerland and then in West Berlin. While in the German city, Bowie became fascinated with the avant sounds of Kraftwerk and Neu!, as well as in the ambient music of Brian Eno. Soon, Eno would be enlisted as a collaborator on the album that became Low alongside Bowie and his friend and longtime producer Tony Visconti. Low would be the most experimental album of Bowie's career to that point, alienating not just some fans and critics, but also his record label, looking for another "Fame" or "Golden Years."
The songs on Side One of Low were of a fragmentary nature, not inaccessible in their overall sound (thanks to Bowie and his crack band including Carlos Alomar and Ricky Gardiner on guitar, Dennis Davis on percussion, Roy Young on piano, and George Murray on bass), but largely eschewing traditional song forms and featuring fragmentary lyrics. The second side was a mostly instrumental affair, inspired by the (ultimately unused) music Bowie had crafted for Nicolas Roeg's The Man Who Fell to Earth as well as by Brian Eno, co-writer of its sprawling centerpiece, "Warszawa." Minimalist, impressionistic, and cinematic, Side Two of Low was like nothing Bowie had previously recorded. Eno's introduction of electronics into Bowie's music added a rich new color to his palette. The distant jazz saxophone that slithered through the album's final track, "Subterraneans," couldn't help but be a faint echo of his earlier work, now consigned to the distant past.
Between July 11 and August 8, 1977, Bowie was back in West Berlin, recording Heroes at Hansa with Visconti, Eno, Alomar, Davis, Murray, guest guitarist Robert Fripp of King Crimson fame, and vocalist Antonia Maass. Though the album found him exploring electronic and ambient sonic textures as he had on Low, the songwriting was more focused (if still improvised) and the sound more rock-oriented. Fripp's spiky guitar added edge to the already fiery band and was perfectly attuned to Bowie's dark lyrics. The songs were a varied lot: "Beauty and the Beast" married tortured words of despair, violence, and self-reflection to a menacing yet catchy chorus; "Sons of the Silent Age" illustrated Bowie's gift for creating unforgettable images in song (and saw him singing in his Anthony Newley-styled cabaret voice once more). "Blackout" is pure panicked paranoia, and "Joe the Lion" wears its Krautrock influences on its sleeve. Of course, the album's anthemic, passionate title track, composed by Bowie and Eno with lyrics by Bowie, became one of the artist's most famed compositions. Side Two once again emphasized instrumentals such as the uptempo "V-2 Schneider" (with some distorted vocals) and the three connected tracks which follow: the eerie "Sense of Doubt," tranquil, Eastern-influenced "Moss Garden," and icy, atmospheric "Neuköln." With Heroes, Bowie had taken an(other) artistic leap forward. A happy bonus in the box is the CD premiere of the original Heroes EP on its own disc, with the song in French ("Héros") and German ("Helden") in both album and single versions for each.
II. Station to Station
In the midst of the Berlin Trilogy, in September 1978, came Stage, Bowie's second official live album. It chronicled Isolar II - The 1978 World Tour and was recorded in Philadelphia, Providence, and Boston in April and May of that year. Alomar, Davis, and Murray were all featured on the tour and album, joined by Adrian Belew, Sean Mayes, Hawkwind's Simon House, and Utopia's Roger Powell. Sides Three and Four of the original double-album set concentrated on the Berlin-era material, but the first two sides offered a look back to Ziggy Stardust, Young Americans, and Station to Station. Most impressive was the live band's ability to replicate the sound and feel of the studio creations from Low and Heroes without sacrificing what made the songs so original. Stage has been reissued on CD a number of times. RCA first brought it to the format in 1984, then Rykodisc expanded it with one track ("Alabama Song") in 1991. In 2005, EMI completely reinvented the album by sequencing it in the proper concert order, and added two more previously unheard performances, "Be My Wife" and "Stay." Stage is included twice in A New Career: once in its original 1978 iteration with 17 songs, and also in a new 2017 Edition with 22 songs including the newly-unearthed "The Jean Genie" and "Suffragette City" from the Philadelphia show. Both add an extra jolt of glam energy to the already electric album.
But Bowie wasn't done with his Berlin (or more accurately, European) period and took to Montreux, Switzerland to record his next album. 1979's Lodger once again found Bowie working with Visconti, Eno, and the band as heard on Stage, and by this point, the artist had found the sweet spot between experimentation and his commercial intuition. Crucially, Lodger contained no instrumentals, and the songs were mostly tighter and crunchier. While some at the time opined that the album was like a watered-down version of its two predecessors, Lodger feels comparatively underrated today. The experiments on Lodger were even more varied than on Low and Heroes, but when assembled together, the result was simply less cohesive. Bowie had arguably done as much as he could with this musical vernacular, and upon its completion, was ready to move onto another style, another persona.
With Eno as his primarily compositional foil, Bowie played with chord changes, turning the same set of changes into both the dramatic "Fantastic Voyage" and sexually-charged "Boys Keep Swinging." Band members even tried swapping instruments to maintain the loose vibe. World music influenced "African Night Flight" and "Yassassin," the latter of which melded a Turkish style with reggae. Eastern style met the Krautrock of Neu! to inspire "Red Sails." The chameleonic vocalist was also at his finest on Lodger. There's real urgency to "D.J." and "Look Back in Anger," and mannered, theatrical detachment in "Move On."
Key to A New Career in a New Town is Tony Visconti's new 2017 remix of Lodger. In his essay (just one of his fascinating notes accompanying this set), the producer explains the raison d'etre for the remix: "David and I weren't too pleased with the mixing...The subject of remixing Lodger came up many times over the past decades when to begin," he writes. During the stop-and-start recording of Blackstar, Bowie's final album, Visconti finally got to work. He poses the question, "You are probably asking yourself, 'This is all very good, but did David approve?' ABSOLUTELY YES, HE DID," writes his friend. Bowie's reaction to hearing the first side of the remix was "INSTANT JOY," per Visconti. He acknowledges that the remix is sure to cause controversy, and it has, particularly in Visconti's liberal bolstering of the bass. But this remix doesn't supplant the original; it merely offers a different view on familiar music. With more pronounced bass, altered instrumental and vocal placement among the two channels, and different usage of reverb and echo, Visconti has brought out different elements in the music, and the instrumental separation on the 2017 version is clear and crisp. It's hard to imagine a longtime fan not hearing new details in this version, even if the overall effect might be unsettling to one familiar with the original album. It's a fine inclusion to this set, however, as an alternate look at the black sheep of The Berlin Trilogy, and an album that deserves a second listen.
III. Boys Keep Swinging
Bowie welcomed the 1980s with Scary Monsters...and Super Creeps. Recorded in New York and London, and released in September 1980, the LP ended both his RCA tenure and his collaborative relationship with Tony Visconti, the latter not to be rekindled for another two decades. It also marked a return to commercial form; the album was his first U.K. Number One since Diamond Dogs in 1974, and highest charting album in America (No. 12) since Low nearly four years earlier. Yet this didn't reflect any artistic compromise on Bowie's part. Perhaps in the era of new wave, the rest of the world had finally caught up to David Bowie.
"Ashes to ashes, funk to funky/We know Major Tom's a junkie," asserted the singer on the album's most famous song. "Ashes to Ashes" (a U.K. chart-topper that only "bubbled under" stateside) invoked the famous character from Bowie's 1969 "Space Oddity," giving his plight a dark spin. That darkness pervaded Scary Monsters, from the opening track "It's No Game (Part 1)" with Bowie's bloodcurdling scream to "Up the Hill Backwards," a kind of anti-self-help musing seemingly set against the backdrop of a breakup, and the title track, a tale of a woman's descent into insanity. Paranoia, madness, and desperation never sounded so sleek and enticing. Bowie touched on glam and art rock with subtle use of then-current synth modes, crafting an album that sounded contemporary then and doesn't feel dated now.
Roy Bittan of The E Street Band played the famous introduction of "Ashes to Ashes" on a grand piano tweaked by Visconti with an Eventide Instant Flanger. Bittan was just one of the guest musicians. Pete Townshend, Robert Fripp, and Chuck Hammer all lent their guitar muscles to the core rhythm section consisting of Carlos Alomar, Dennis Davis, and George Murray. Andy Clark contributed synthesizer to "Ashes to Ashes" and three other tracks, as well. One of those, "Fashion," offered mordant, if elliptical, social commentary ("Turn to the left! Fashion! Turn to the right! Fashion! We are the goon squad and we're coming to town...") and like "Ashes to Ashes," was accompanied by a groundbreaking music video. Bowie, ever the complete artist, had quickly styled himself for the MTV generation. Sociopolitical commentary recurred on "Scream Like a Baby," too. Past and present collided on Scary Monsters. "Fashion" was musically influenced by "Golden Years," the template of "Teenage Wildlife" seemed to be "Heroes." With the album, Bowie had set the stage for a decade that would take him through success, failure, and noble experimentation alike.
A New Career in a New Town concludes with the third volume of Re:Call, rounding up released tracks from the era covered in the box set but not originally released on an album. Controversially, this series has overlooked the bonus tracks introduced on later reissues (such as from the Rykodisc label), instead limiting itself to material issued contemporaneously with the original albums. It's impossible to believe that the other bonus material won't reappear somewhere; in the meantime, Re:Call presents key tracks, many of which are otherwise unavailable or new to CD. Like its predecessors, Re:Call 3 primarily offers numerous, often rare single versions from various territories, including an Australia-only edit of "Breaking Glass," the 12-inch extended version of "Beauty and the Beast," the single edit of the Queen duet "Under Pressure," the hypnotic instrumental B-side "Crystal Japan," and two further non-LP sides, a cover of Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill's "Alabama Song" (a.k.a. "Whisky Bar") and a stripped-down 1979 remake of "Space Oddity." The happiest bonus is undoubtedly the full-length (complete with dialogue) version of Bowie and Bing Crosby's classic 1977 television performance of "The Little Drummer Boy," making a rare appearance on a Bowie CD release. The soundtrack version of "Cat People (Putting Out Fire)," produced and co-written by Giorgio Moroder for the 1982 film Cat People, is included, but not its single version.
This disc also boasts the complete CD premiere of Bowie's Bertolt Brecht's Baal EP. Bowie played the character of Baal in a 1982 television adaptation of Brecht's 1923 play, and had recorded his five songs in November of the previous year for EP release. The EP's tracks (including "The Drowned Girl," composed by Weill) were fully orchestrated by Dominic Muldowney, whereas the television performances were intimately performed to banjo accompaniment. The 5-song EP, produced by Tony Visconti, was released a little more than a week after the initial broadcast, but hasn't been available in full in a physical format since. (A download was released in 2007.) Its darkly dramatic, cabaret-style songs return Bowie to his theatrical roots in vivid fashion.
IV. Sound and Vision
Anyone familiar with the previous two volumes knows that these boxes are of a luxurious standard, and visually, this set is another stunning addition to the Bowie library. Within the sturdy slipcase, each disc is packaged in its own mini-LP jacket with the title printed on the spine. Enormous attention to detail has been paid to each of these sleeves, from the paper stock (which varies from title to title) to the accurately replicated inserts. A sticker announced the track listing on the back of the original Low album; hence, there's a sticker here. Protective inner sleeves are also included within each jacket. A squarebound, 100+-page hardcover book is loaded with photos, album and single artwork, period advertisements, and other memorabilia. In addition to period reviews and articles, Tony Visconti has contributed new liner notes about the recording process for each title.
With so much to recommend, why has A New Career in a New Town become the most controversial of the three Bowie box sets to date? The answer largely rests upon the audio, which has been primarily remastered at AIR Mastering by Ray Staff under the supervision of Tony Visconti. At approximately the 2:50 mark on the track "Heroes" on the album of the same name, the volume appears to become significantly lower. A number of complaints first led to a statement from the label, asserting that the "error" was, in fact, a deliberate attempt by the engineer to remediate a "loss of energy" on the original master tape. (Original masters were utilized for this project, as they have been for the previous boxes.) It was also noted that "As the co-producer of Heroes, Tony Visconti, was both fully involved and approved the remastering of this and all original albums within the set." Before long, Parlophone made a second statement, promising that replacement discs - presumably with a more elegant solution to the issue - would be delivered at a later date. Other complaints have arisen about overall (high) volume levels or boosted bass, factors which may not to be the taste of all listeners. For those readers seeking an exhaustive examination of the audio on this set, there are literally hundreds of pages at websites such as this delving into the sound quality at length.
Closing the book on David Bowie's RCA years, A New Career in a New Town is a sweeping, immaculately designed and annotated, and thoroughly immersive chronicle through music, images, and text of an international artist at the height of his powers of creative expression. His "art decade" had come to a close, and next, he would exhort listeners with a simple "Let's dance!" That story is likely to be continued...
A New Career in a New Town is available now: