And if you say run, I'll run with you...
"I want you to make a hit." In one of the essays accompanying the beautiful new 11-CD or 15-LP box set Loving the Alien [1983-1988], the fourth such collection of David Bowie's chronological discography, Nile Rodgers recalls his surprise at the artist's instruction. "A hit? You just did Scary Monsters, bro," the CHIC leader replied. But Bowie was adamant; he wanted Rodgers, enlisted as his producer, to make a hit. The year was 1983 and the album was Let's Dance, his first LP in almost three years. Rodgers didn't deliver a hit - he delivered three hits: "Modern Love" (No. 14 U.S./No. 2 U.K.), "China Girl" (No. 10 U.S./No. 2 U.K.), and "Let's Dance" (No. 1 U.S./No. 1 U.K.). Let's Dance made it to No. 4 in the U.S., but topped the chart in ten other countries, and inaugurated one of the most commercially successful yet artistically controversial eras of David Bowie's career. Loving the Alien puts that period in sharp focus via three studio albums, two live sets, two bonus collections, and one radically reinvented record.
With Stevie Ray Vaughan serving as lead guitarist, Nile Rodgers bringing a cool sheen of rock, funk, soul, and dance rhythms, and Bowie penning some of his most accessible and infectious songs decorated by punchy horns, Let's Dance reestablished Bowie as a major chart presence in America. It sounded like nothing Bowie had released before, with Omar Hakim and Tony Thompson's big, thunderous drums, and Vaughan's searing guitar licks. While 1970's The Man Who Sold the World was Bowie's last album in the U.K. to fail to reach the top five, 1977's Heroes couldn't get any higher than No. 35 in the U.S.; Lodger reached No. 20 and Scary Monsters (And Super Creeps) got to No. 12. The EMI America release of Let's Dance, which also marked Bowie's first effort after concluding his longtime contract with RCA Records, shed the solemn, "artsy" nature of the 1977-1979 Berlin trilogy. If Scary Monsters edged in the direction of commerciality, Let's Dance embraced it - from the sleek strains of "Modern Love" to the imploring title track and closing proclamation to "Shake It." None of the musicians on Let's Dance had previously worked with Bowie; the sound was all-new, and moreover, all now. It was an exciting and auspicious start for a revitalized artist.
Everything will be alright tonight?
Bowie embarked upon the Serious Moonlight tour in May 1983, visiting 15 countries through December of that year. Sessions commenced just months later for a follow-up to Let's Dance, without Nile Rodgers but with some of the same musicians including Carmine Rojas on bass, Omar Hakim and CHIC's Tony Thompson on drums, Sammy Figueroa on percussion, and saxophonist Steve Elson (all of whom, other than Hakim and Figueroa, accompanied Bowie on the tour). Bowie enlisted producer Derek Bramble of Heatwave and engineer Hugh Padgham, though Padgham (hot off success producing The Police) ascended to the producer's seat when Bramble departed following creative differences with the artist. The resulting LP, Tonight, was much more relaxed and less rhythmic than Let's Dance but still in a mainstream pop vein.
Tonight has been vilified over the years as one of Bowie's weakest long-players. Loving the Alien, of course, allows for it to be reevaluated. With the passage of time, it's clear that while Tonight may have broken no new ground and suffers for a lack of original songs, it's not without its share of artistry. The track which lends this box its title, a stirring rumination on truth and history and faith, is almost derailed by its smooth '80s style but remains the LP's most significant offering. Despite a strong string arrangement by none other than Arif Mardin, the production very nearly obscures the meaning of one of Bowie's strongest songs of the era (or any other). It's one of only two solo compositions he wrote for Tonight, along with the catchy ode to a girl named "Blue Jean."
Bowie's lack of songwriting inspiration (a likely result of his busy schedule as an actor and a touring headliner) was evident in the number of covers and collaborations on the album. Iggy Pop co-wrote a full five tracks. Iggy introduced his and James Williamson's "Don't Look Down" on his 1979 album New Values; here it's distinguished by a Steely Dan-goes-reggae feel. "Tonight," co-written by Pop and Bowie, gains Tina Turner as a duet partner plus steel drums and a loping Jamaican groove. Both it and the rocking "Neighborhood Threat" originated on Iggy's 1977 Lust for Life. Iggy and Bowie finished off a twisted tropical travelogue, "Tumble and Twirl," and shared the microphone for the raucous, seemingly tossed-off finale "Dancing with the Big Boys." Bowie reached back even further than the Iggy covers for an icy-cool interpretation of The Beach Boys' "God Only Knows" as well as an odd revival of Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller's "I Keep Forgettin'," introduced by R&B great Chuck Jackson in 1962. A measure of Bowie's popularity and visibility, the altogether inconsistent Tonight was another U.K. chart-topper and a No. 11 success in the United States.
In a New York Times article reprinted within the accompanying book for Loving the Alien, Jon Pareles quotes Bowie as calling Tonight "a desperate mistake." Clearly, he did some soul-searching after Tonight, for he didn't return to the studio for another proper album until mid-1986 when he began sessions for Never Let Me Down (1987), a top ten hit in the U.K. but a less successful top 40 chart entry stateside. Alas, Bowie would come to regard it, too, with derision.
When I needed soul revival...
Never Let Me Down downplayed the dance and pop elements and returned the artist to the realm of rock but with the same high-gloss production applied, this time by co-producers Bowie and David Richards. Lyrically, Bowie was in a very different, and much darker, place, though the melodies by and large stayed uptempo. Guitarists Carlos Alomar, Peter Frampton, and Sid McGuinness, bassist Carmine Rojas, and The Borneo Horns all joined the sessions. The lead single and opening track, "Day-In Day-Out" is a bleak portrait of a desperate woman; "Time Will Crawl" is yet bleaker with its apocalyptic imagery. (Chernobyl even gets a reference in "Shinin' Star (Makin' My Love)," juxtaposing nightmarish lyrics with a sleek soul rhythm and an inexplicable rap by Mickey Rourke.) "The Beat of Your Drum" is a gritty address to a model; "New York's in Love" also casts its eye on the urban landscape of fame and fashion.
Bowie took on Thatcher-era England on the impressionistic "'87 and Cry" and reflected on the era's hedonism on the Iggy Pop cover "Bang Bang." The title track found the singer crooning sweetly, perhaps a respite from the gloom around him, with the presence of a harmonica providing a respite from the thick layer of electronics. But darkness was never far from the surface on Never Let Me Down. The sound of Japanese fighter planes soars over the object of the narrator's affections in "Zeroes," accompanied by a wall of sound including Frampton's sitar. The most outré track is most certainly the spoken/sung "Glass Spider," a frenetic fairy tale about baby spiders facing peril away from the nest. (The song inspired Bowie's tour, which launched a little over a month after the album's April 1987 debut.) The LP had one additional song not heard here, "Too Dizzy." Bowie requested that the lightweight track be removed from Never Let Me Down after its initial pressings. His wishes are, of course, honored here.
Bowie made no secret of his dissatisfaction with the finished Never Let Me Down, feeling that the uber-1980s production had let his songs down. In 2008, he collaborated with producer Mario J. McNulty on a new version of "Time Will Crawl" that went drastically beyond the typical remix. Bowie and McNulty stripped all elements of the song other than his vocal and re-produced it from the ground up, resulting in a new vision of the song freed of its eighties roots. In the adventurous spirit of "Time Will Crawl" and honoring his friend's wishes, McNulty revisited the rest of Never Let Me Down for Loving the Alien. The result is akin to an entirely new record crafted by many of Bowie's closest musical associates, among them guitarists Reeves Gabrels and David Torn, drummer Sterling Campbell, and bassist Tim Lefebvre. Some instrumentation from the original album remains, such as the excavated work of the Borneo Horns on "Day-In Day-Out," the sitar on "Zeroes," or Bowie's harmonica on "Never Let Me Down," but the new band has successfully integrated them into their refreshed, new interpretations.
Never Let Me Down 2018 has an earthy feel, and a cleaner one, too, that allows the melodies room to breathe. Bowie's vocals are now front-and-center, with the dense and murky production replaced by crispness. The radically-reworked tracks have been approached as new songs. They have more gravitas, and are far moodier, than the '87 versions. Composer Nico Mulhy has added rich strings to three tracks, complementing the rhythm section and adding a layer of drama. (Mulhy's work is most pronounced on an utterly reworked "Bang Bang.") McNulty's collaborator and Bowie's friend Laurie Anderson has contributed a new spoken-word section to "Shining Star," replacing Rourke's very period rap. "New York's in Love" gains an anthemic quality, and "Glass Spider" takes on widescreen proportions. "'87 and Cry," one of the less prominent tracks on the '87 LP, boasts a more aggressive spirit befitting the lyrics. McNulty's varied productions make Never Let Me Down of a piece with Bowie's final recordings, and one suspects these more organic band performances will age well.
What kind of magic spell to use?
These core studio albums set the stage for the copious additional material featured on Loving the Alien. Twelve period remixes first issued on 12-inch singles are collected on the disc entitled Dance. That's the same title as a mooted 1985 compilation that never came to fruition, but the presentation here happily uses the cover artwork approved by Bowie for that would-be EMI America release. The dozen floor-fillers on Dance were remixed by some of the biggest names on the club scene including John "Jellybean" Benitez and Arthur Baker. This disc does not have the entirety of Bowie's dance mixes, but is a well-curated selection of the most interesting and radically reworked tracks from the period.
Two very different concert recordings are part of Loving the Alien. Serious Moonlight (Live '83), recorded in British Columbia on September 12, 1983 in the wake of the enormous success of Let's Dance, features three of that album's eight songs. The concert was first issued on home video in 1984 and again on DVD in 2006; a digital audio EP of four songs appeared in 2006, but this is the full show's audio debut. The 2-CD presentation here adds a fourth tune from Let's Dance, "Modern Love," as recorded in Montreal in July 1983 and originally issued as a B-side that same year. Bowie was joined by stalwart musicians Carlos Alomar (guitar) and Earl Slick (lead guitar), Carmine Rojas, and Tony Thompson.
The controversial Glass Spider world tour is also documented on Glass Spider (Live in Montreal '87). The tour, to promote Never Let Me Down, was first issued on CD as part of a 2007 DVD package. It captures Bowie and his band (Peter Frampton and Carlos Alomar on guitar, Carmine Rojas on bass, Alan Childs on drums, Erdal Kızılçay on keyboards/trumpet/congas/violin, and Richard Cottle on keyboards/saxophone) on August 30, 1987 at Montreal's Olympic Stadium. The DVD might better capture what made Glass Spider so special; it was a complete theatrical extravaganza. Some critics at the time derided it for its gargantuan proportions and seeming pretensions, but today it's rightfully recognized as an early example of the heavily-designed and -choreographed arena tours that proliferate today from pop artists of all stripes. The set list as heard in Montreal was heavy on then-recent material with only a few detours to Bowie's past such as "Rebel Rebel," "Young Americans," "The Jean Genie," and "Fame." Love it or hate it, Glass Spider was thrillingly bold. The CD presentation cannot capture its visual grandeur as relayed by The Montreal Gazette ("Bowie front[s] five dancers, five musicians, two giant video screens, a frenzy of choreography, 600,000 watts of power and enough props to satisfy a Cecil B. DeMille Roman epic. Make that a DeMille/Fellini collaboration.") but it does prove that, no matter how large the theatrical concept, Bowie was still giving his all as a musician and trying his best to sell his most recent songs to an audience that would have been happy to hear him trot out "Ziggy Stardust" and "Changes."
The final component of Loving the Alien is the fourth volume of the ongoing odds-and-ends series, Re:Call. This time, it offers a whopping 30 tracks - the most comprehensive volume yet, and the first since Re:Call 1 to take up two discs. This panoply of bonus tracks encompasses core single versions (both remixes and edits) alongside numerous one-offs and film songs. Bowie's campy, smash hit duet of "Dancing in the Street" with Mick Jagger (released to benefit Live Aid) is here, though its instrumental B-side has been omitted. His sizzling duets with Tina Turner on "Tonight" and "Let's Dance" from her Live in Europe album have also made the cut.
"This Is Not America," Bowie's collaboration with The Pat Metheny Group from the movie The Falcon and The Snowman, leads off a number of his soundtrack performances of the era. (Again, its instrumental flip is missing.) The icy-cool anthem with its "Sha-la-las" lifted from The Shirelles was a top ten hit in numerous countries, making No. 32 in the U.S. and No. 14 in the U.K. charts. Director Jimmy Murakami's animated film When the Wind Blows inspired a title song from Bowie. All three of the artist's contributions to the soundtrack of Absolute Beginners, in which he starred, are present in their full-length soundtrack versions (the title song was also issued as a single edit and dub mix). "Absolute Beginners," a lovely and affecting midtempo ballad which reached No. 2 in the U.K., has Bowie supported by The Attractions' Steve Nieve on keyboards and Yes' Rick Wakeman on piano. Nieve also played on the dramatic, brassy "That's Motivation" (complete with a theatrical chorus!) and Erdal Kızılçay accompanied Bowie on a gentle, tropically-tinted revival of Italian pop hit "Volare."
And then there's Jareth, the Goblin King. Bowie's most beloved film role of the era from the Jim Henson fantasy Labyrinth yielded a popular soundtrack LP. Trevor Jones composed the score, and Bowie penned the music and lyrics. All five of his cuts, co-produced by Arif Mardin, are here. "Chilly Down," which Bowie wrote but didn't perform in the film, has not been included. The related single edits, instrumentals, and extended and dance remixes are absent. (It's not too early to start thinking about an Expanded 35th Anniversary Edition for 2021!) "Magic Dance" remains irresistibly loopy while "As the World Falls Down" is a sad, surprisingly mature ballad with production on the shimmering end of the '80s spectrum. "Within You" is a dramatic soliloquy for Jareth; the pulsating pop-gospel fusion "Underground" is heard both as part of the Main Title and in its end title version. Note the A-list assemblage of background vocalists on the end title version including Luther Vandross, Cissy Houston, Chaka Khan, and Fonzi Thornton!
Re:Call 4 also has the edited versions of six tracks from Never Let Me Down which were originally presented on the vinyl release (the CD had the full-length tracks). The extended edit of "Girls" is here, as well as the non-LP B-side "Julie," but the Japanese language recording of "Girls" as issued in that country is missing.
Believing the strangest things...
Like its predecessors, Loving the Alien is an exquisitely-designed collection. The slipcased set contains a hardcover 128-page booklet (84 in the LP iteration) printed on glossy paper, containing full credits and discographical annotation as well as new and period essays from key collaborators and observers alike. It's lavishly illustrated with ads, artwork, memorabilia and photos, with the famously striking superstar looking sharp in each snapshot. Remastering is mainly by Ray Staff, and each album has been housed in a deluxe mini-LP replica jacket with protective inner sleeves and inserts. The discs themselves are adorned with custom labels in the EMI America style and are pressed in gold rather than silver.
Loving the Alien [1983-1988] proves that while David Bowie may have been following the trends rather than setting them for much of the 1980s, he was hardly resting on his laurels. This box makes the case that the whole is indeed greater than the sum of its parts; the addition of the live sets and particularly the Re:Call material paints a far more interesting picture of the era than the three core records. Bowie may not have come to terms during the decade with the superstardom that Let's Dance afforded him; he would fully retreat from it with the Tin Machine records that will likely be a part of 2019's box set. But he was far from artistically spent. It's unlikely that his artistic journey during this time will be better anthologized.
Loving the Alien [1983-1988] is available now at the following links:
11CD: Amazon U.S. / Amazon U.K. / Amazon Canada
15LP: Amazon U.S. / Amazon U.K. / Amazon Canada
Shawn Channell says
Billy Dojcak says
You make me wanna buy this one. Hope there aren't any (many) errors on these discs.
Phil O. says
Great review! I agree with all of it, and on the whole, I think the compilers did a good job with a difficult era.
BTW, the Glass Spider show was previously released in 2007, as you mention, but they use a slightly superior source this time around. A nice bonus. (Just wished they'd included more of the encores on the Serious Moonlight disc!)
Unfortunately, if we talk about sound quality (and we should do that from time to time, shouldn't we? since it's music we're talking about after all, beside packaging) the studio albums included in this box set are the most compressed version ever released.
You don't have to take my word, plenty of people have posted waveform and comparisons with previous releases to prove this.
What my ears do tell me, is that "Let's dance" and "Tonight", the two LPs I've listened to so far, are very low on dynamics.
Positively NOT an audiophile remastering.
Another Great Review. Thank you so much for this wonderful site.
Joe Marchese says
Thank you for the kind words! They're very much appreciated!
I scored a brand new copy of this on Amazon! I was skeptical as it has been out-of-print for several years, but it was "sold and shipped by Amazon". I am guessing that it must have been a warehouse find. I was glad to pay the full retail price of $160, as it was the only one of the boxed sets I had missed out on. It was delivered in perfect condition, and is the real deal, as the discs have a gold tint.