Review - David Bowie - Loving The Alien (1983-1988) (Parlophone UK)
LP / CD / DL
The fourth in the series of box sets celebrating the career of David Bowie, 'Loving The Alien (1983 - 1988)' covers the often maligned "stadium years". Simon Tucker looks back and wonders if it really was as bad as people make out.
Let's be honest about this. Out of all the recent box-sets that have been reissued covering the career of David Bowie this is the one most would not be so keen to purchase. To many diehards, Eighties Bowie was the 'sell-out' commercial boredom years lacking the innovation and vision of his previous output. Is this a fair assessment or are people being unfairly unkind? Yes, the suits and hair smacked of yuppie. The music was covered in a gloss not heard on his albums before and he was unashamedly aiming for the charts but does that mean Bowie's muse had left him completely? Had he sold his soul for a slice of the Wembley pie? Bowie himself would be dismissive of much of this era but what this box-set shows that whilst there are certainly a few misses and low points there were also some extreme highs. So let's go down to the underground and get stuck in.
Opening the collection is the remastered Let's Dance album. The record that did exactly what its author intended and got him into the charts, onto MTV and selling out bigger and bigger venues. Teaming up with Niles Rodgers was another Bowie collaboration masterstroke and hearing the album now you get a real sense of the strength of song writing that is on the collection. Modern Love, China Girl (Bowie's smoothed out version of his and Iggy's track from the latter's The Idiot), Let's Dance all nail the dancefloor but it is the deeper cuts that carry the intrigue. Ricochet is a weird blend of art-pop and reggae whilst Shake It basically has Bowie and his team reimagining Let's Dance itself and adding some odd kinks and twists. People often use the tired line of "...is his best since Scary Monsters" but the truth of it is that even though Let's Dance has a more palatable sonic palette it is still a kooky and odd pop record and one that has stood up rather well.
The famed Serious Moonlight tour is what falls next and boy what a recording this is. Recorded in 1983 and previously unreleased, Serious Moonlight shows us that in regards to UK pop megastars, Bowie was in a field of one. Think about his peers at the time (McCartney, Queen, Rolling Stones) and what they were producing at this time. Not one of them was making music that was so subversive and avant-garde and filling out stadiums. The band are tight as hell, Bowie's vocals are powerful and the whole show rocks to the most creative art-rock to ever fill a football stadium. Who else could place a huge hit like Let's Dance right next to the cocaine-induced satanic musings of Breaking Glass? The marching majesty of Station to Station to the sleaze of Cracked Actor and have an entire stadium singing along.
"suck baby suck / give me your head"
Serious Moonlight is the grown up and flexed version of the Diamond Dogs tour and whilst he may not have been quite clean and sober you certainly are not worried about his health as you were on that now notorious tour.
So far so good then but then up comes the album Tonight and it is safe to say that this is where the criticisms of Bowie's 80s output are fully justified. No amount of remastering can save this dogs dinner of an album. Recorded in the knowledge that he was to be spending the next year or so on the road, Tonight is an abject display of laziness and rushed project. There are some moments on here which hold up such as the opener Loving The Alien, Bowie's musings on religion and Blue Jean which just stays the right side of interesting to warrant its place on one of the many Greatest Hits compilations that have been made but the dross outweighs the good in a major way. We get Bowie turning his and Iggy's Tonight (from Ig's Lust For Life album) from its original crooning glory into a cod-reggae insipid dirge, the shocking Charleston pastiche I Keep Forgettin' and the frankly appalling cover version of The Beach Boys God Only Knows which is so bad John Lewis would refuse to use it for their Christmas ads. If there is one part of this box set that is unessential then this is it.
Never Let Me Down follows and this is the point where Loving The Alien gets really interesting as we are not given one but TWO version of the album with the first being the original album remastered and the second a completely reworked version. The original is still us unremarkable as on its initial release but the second version....
According the press release, the seeds for the new production of Never Let Me Down were sown back in 2008 when Bowie asked Mario McNulty to remix the track Time Will Crawl whilst also recording new drums with Sterling Cambell and some added strings. The new version received a lot of praise and Bowie commented "Oh, to redo the rest of that album"
Now in 2018, McNulty entered the studio with Cambell, Tim Lefebvre on bass (from the Blackstar band), David Torn and the ever reliable Reeves Gabrels on guitars. The result is nothing short of a revelation. Shorn of its 80s sheen and riff wankery, Never Let Me Down (2018) reveals the true heart of the songs and brings Bowie's songwriting prowess to the forefront. Where once it was buried, it is now out in the open and what happens is you get an album that is as dark as the snarky and slashing Scary Monsters. Bowie's lyrics are wonderfully abstract and poetically on-point with his ever reliable vocal delivery standing tall and proud. Gabrels and Torn discover and create guitar lines that are more succinct and powerful than the originals overbearing nature. Zeroes has an acoustic treatment that taps into the sound of The Man Who Sold The World whilst Glass Spider becomes a forerunner for his swerve back to the Eno collaboration 1. Outside.
Everyone involved in bringing this album back to its purest form deserve to be applauded and you get a sense that its author would be extremely proud of the finished result. A perfect tribute and due to an absence of unreleased material this is the closest we will get to discovering a "lost" Bowie album.
Another live album follows and this time is the much maligned Glass Spider tour. The tour where Bowie went full Spinal Tap and OTT with huge production values and excessive stage props.
Recorded in Montreal in 1987, Glass Spider does much of what Serious Moonlight does in showing us what a vast array of sonic weaponry Bowie and his band had in their armour at this point. The only difference being that this concert is there is a definite smoothness to the sound now that takes away some of the bit that existed on the Serious Moonlight tour. For all the slickness that Glass Spider displays there is still moments that surprise like the inclusion of All The Madmen from 1970's The Man Who Sold The World but whereas the original was a tasty slice of proto-metal the new version suffers slightly due to its high production and the wonderful Sons Of A Silent Age from the seminal 'Heroes' album.
Glass Spiders is an interesting artefact and worthy of your time even though it does slightly suffer in comparison to the also-included Serious Moonlight recording.
The penultimate LP included is Dance which is a collection of extended versions of remixes that quite frankly is, like Tonight, easily avoided and one of the least essential components of this box-set as none of the tracks here really add anything to the originals and will only appeal to real Bowie completists.
Finally then we arrive at RE:CALL 4 which is a new compilation featuring newly remastered contemporary single version, non-album singles, album edits, b-sides and songs featured on various soundtracks such as Labyrinth, Absolute Beginners and When The Wind Blows and is, for this writer, one of the most essential parts of this project. Putting aside the single versions of Let's Dance, China Girl, and Modern Love it is the soundtrack choices that really excite because it is these songs that were my first tasters of Bowie the performer. Yes the 'rents were always playing the Ziggy Glam period but it was Labyrinth where my own personal obsession about all things Bowie began.
Watching the film repeatedly with my siblings is one of my fondest memories and the songs from the film included here truly do stand up as some of Bowie's finest 80s moments. Magic Dance is obviously cemented deep in the period it was created in with its drum machines and synth keys playing oh-so-80s melodies but by god is it infectious in its joy and unrepentant pop glee. Novelty pop done to perfection. If you're 'too hip' or so tied to what your idea of what Bowie should sound like or what music you think he should have been making then I am afraid it is you who is missing out as on the Labyrinth soundtrack there lies some of Bowie's strongest pop songs including the Gothic and insidious of Within You and the Gospel infused Underground.
The real crown of the RE:CALL 4 collection is Absolute Beginners. Maybe due to its association to the dreadful film from which it was taken, Absolute Beginners doesn't seem to get the love it deserves from outside of the core Bowie fan base and this is criminal as this is a song that rivals "Heroes" as possibly his greatest expression of love. Lyrically, the song is devastatingly beautiful:
"As you're still smiling
There's nothing more I need
I absolutely love you
But we're absolute beginners
But if my love is your love
We're certain to succeed"
Everything about this song is perfection and if anyone ever tries telling you 80s Bowie was rubbish just play them this song and wait for an apology.
Loving The Alien (1983 - 1988) does an excellent job of putting into sharp focus the work of an artist who was walking the line between artistic freedom and mainstream acceptance. It shows an artist filling stadiums with songs about fascism, the occult, mental health issues and dancing. This was when Bowie was indeed conflicted about where he was heading but stripping away the preconceived ideas of this being his "bad" period you find that whilst there were indeed moments where the work turned stale and product-filler, there were plenty of other moments where the creative fire was still burning strong in the belly of one of our all time greatest.